What have we learned from Google’s Helpful Content Update?
Just over a month ago, Google announced its “Helpful Content” update was going live, with an overarching focus on improving the content that its searchers were landing on as they sought an answer to their query, and ensuring that brands were publishing content that was genuinely adding value to the user experience.
As is often the case with Google search updates, there was speculation around how this might affect the search results and who or what may fall on the wrong side of Google’s new quality standards, but just what – if anything – have we actually seen since the initial announcement back in late August?
Let’s re-cap what Google said, and what it means?
We already knew that Google values original, informative content written by humans, for humans. That’s no secret. However, with this latest update, we see the cementing of some best practices – namely a shift away from being rigidly governed by keyword data, and the importance of sending a site-wide signal that goes far beyond single, key pages.
The specifics of this update were fairly sparse when Google announced the change, but what was clear was that the search engine expects publishers to focus on their specialism, to produce content for things that they have a right to produce content on, and to ensure a high editorial standard across the whole site. If a site is 80% brilliant and helpful content, but 20% is keyword-stuffed or irrelevant, that 20% is likely to act as a deadweight on your organic search performance.
So, have we seen an impact?
Search marketers with some years of experience under their belt will remember the time where a Google Search update would cause shockwaves through the industry with clear winners and losers. These days, updates tend to cause little more than a slight tremor and in the case of Helpful Content, there really isn’t an awful lot to report.
Whilst the Helpful Content update has drawn parallels with the Google Panda update of 2011, the impact is much less muted. Google’s Search Liaison Danny Sullivan has tried to distance this update from comparisons with Panda, but has insisted that this is a notable update that will make an impact on the search results.
His impression, from my read, is that we’d see some giant huge Panda-like shake-up. I did a number of these interviews and never characterized that the update would be like that. Typically, I think I said we though it would be noticeable and guidance should be considered…
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) September 6, 2022
It is big, Glenn, in that it’s an important guidance people should pay attention to. That’s why we made such a big effort to talk about it. But that’s not the same as everyone claiming it would be a huge shake-up that we did not say to expect….
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) September 6, 2022
The message from Google, in short, is that if SEO’s aren’t seeing any major changes in their rankings, then either the update hasn’t caught up with them yet (it’s still to complete its roll-out), or you don’t have any unhelpful content.
Our search analysis of the market seems to back up what much of the industry is seeing. Here at Reprise, we have used our in-house ranking software to monitor both clients and competitors, with very little movement aside from a handful of niches where we know there is a lot of content providing questionable value – niches such as ringtones, coding and song lyrics, for example.
In many respects, that’s what we would expect. The principles of the Helpful Content update is far from an about-turn from Google – this update has reflected the direction of travel for the best part of a decade and if you were ranking well before this update, it stands to reason that you had an SEO strategy that was based on, amongst many other things, producing helpful, audience-centric content.
So what now? How to ensure you thrive from Google Helpful Content
The message from Google is that if you were doing well before, it’s highly likely that you will do well after this latest update. That doesn’t mean that brands can get complacent, nor does it mean that you wouldn’t benefit from a content audit and a bit of housekeeping, but it does mean that this isn’t something to be overly concerned about if you’re doing the right things and following the guidance. Indeed, there are a number of things to consider that, by and large, will ensure that you maintain the right editorial standard.
Don’t just jump on search trends
The temptation to cover a topic simply because we see it blowing up on Google Trends is understandable. But the helpful content update tells us that targeting these search volume spikes doesn’t necessarily translate to more visibility.
As with any topic, you need to ensure it’s relevant to your brand before you touch it. Keep your audience in mind and be consistent with your content plan. Don’t deviate from a well-thought-out strategy simply to hop on a passing bandwagon. Of course, if a trend is pertinent to you then by all means cover it. But don’t write about something you wouldn’t have otherwise just to chase clicks that will never come to you.
Utilise expertise and experience
Anyone can curate content by copying and pasting information from other sources. However, true quality comes from providing fresh insights.
Call on your brand’s depth of knowledge and first-hand experience to bring fresh perspectives, original research, or insightful case studies to your content. This expert input is the foundation on which valuable content is built.
Be in-depth and thorough
The crux of the helpful content update is to serve the needs of your visitors. Don’t leave them wanting more and having to look elsewhere for it.
Aim to anticipate any subsequent queries or related topics they’ll want to explore on the back of their initial search. Expand your content to include these related queries – or guide them to other pages on your site that cover the logical next steps in their journey. Give them a reason to stay on your site and keep learning. It’s all about providing the right content for each stage of that user journey – all the way through to conversion.
Find a word count that works for you
There are no set rules when it comes to word counts – bigger isn’t necessarily better. So, avoid fencing yourself in by rigidly focusing on a specific number. Instead, write however much you need to comprehensively cover the topic.
As a rule of thumb, informative, in-depth guides tend to be longer, while shareable content for social media or news and update pieces can be shorter. That said, there’s no magic number to aim for. Let the subject matter dictate how long your content needs to be – and be sure to include clear headers and jump-links to make lengthier pages more digestible.
Focus on readability
Make no mistake, the helpful content update definitely doesn’t do away with tried-and-trusted SEO best practice. Instead, it reminds us that this should be used to form the structure around which our user-focused content is crafted. One example of this is headers. These can be invaluable in ensuring a clean, logical structure to our content – creating an intuitive and smooth experience for the user.
Readability is also key to delivering a satisfying user experience – one where readers can easily find the information they’re looking for. The helpful content update underlines the importance of providing accessible content that makes the complex simple.
Consider the overall site experience
One best-in-class page will no longer have the strength to stand alone in a sea of sub-par content. Google now expects to see consistent high quality across a site – and if it’s lacking, every page could be dragged down to the depths of the SERPs.
For this reason, honest site-wide audits are crucial to root out content that needs updating and improving – or even content that needs to be removed to allow other pages to perform to their potential. UX teams are also likely to play an even more important role in ensuring individual pieces of content – along with the overall site – are structured in a way that works best for the user, delivering maximum accessibility, clarity, and usefulness.