It’s that time of the decade again — Google’s shaking up search engine results pages (SERPs) and search engine results (SEO) companies everywhere are starting to have panic attacks. Well, at least the SEO’s who figured out how to game the system and built a business around being crafty in the moment.
So, hold on to your butts fellow marketeers, here comes big G’s “Helpful Content Update”!
Or as I like to call it, the “son of panda” update.
Google’s Summary of the Update
To quickly align us to the same page — because this may be new news to you — here’s what Google’s officially saying about the Helpful Content Update update.
Google Search is always working to better connect people to helpful information. To this end, we’re launching what we’re calling the “helpful content update” that’s part of a broader effort to ensure people see more original, helpful content written by people, for people, in search results.Google
Remembering Panda, Google’s Last Big Update
We all remember Google’s infamous “Panda” update of 2011. Well, 2011 to 2015-ish because cleaning up the mean streets of SERPs isn’t a one hit wonder. It’s more like a living discography of Google’s best hits.
Panda shook things up. All over the world, marketers and SEOs both fell victim and ascended to greatness in the blink of an eye. Google is the stage and we are merely the actors (and the acted upon).
Panda’s goal was to reward high-quality-websites in search results. It meant helping the cream rise to the top by reducing the overwhelming presence of low-quality-websites Google returned after you searched.
On the surface, that sounds good. And in reality, it was good. Panda helped Google retain its seat on the throne of online search and continue its reign as the king of content.
Slightly beyond the surface, Panda turned many companies digital marketing plans on their heads. Just when people seemed to figure out sure-fire ways to get their websites to show up higher and more frequently in SERPs the SERPs company shifted the goal posts and switched up the rules of the game. Digital marketers and search engine optimization professionals had to adjust and pivot — “good websites” that ranked well were going to quickly become “bad websites” that wouldn’t rank at all.
I want to lament this was a good move by Google in the grand scheme of things.
Quit Playing Games with My Search
Gaming the system using questionable search optimizing tactics is bad. Now, we call it “black hat” marketing, but keyword stuffing, duplicating content, playing low-quality number games with backlinks and content farming, pro blogging networks… all bad practice.
And, I’ll admit figuring out some of those techniques was crafty. It was crafty in a sort of “good for you for figuring something like that out” kind of way. However, it was generally bad for Google’s platform from the “people need to want to use our service” perspective.
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly for Business
“…but, wait…” you say, “Isn’t it good for businesses to rank higher in search results? Didn’t the Panda update hurt a lot of businesses?”
Yes, it is helpful for a business to rank better in search results. Ranking websites higher in results pages and doing it with consistency means those sites are able to garner more web traffic, position themselves in front of more visitors, have more swings at bat to convert visitors into customers, and ultimately end up doing more business. Hooray, more business! Right?
Eh, well… doing more business by manipulating search rankings in a way that makes people resent your business in the long-term is short-sighted (and you’re short-siting yourself… get it? siting…web “site”… I’ve got jokes, but I digress…).
That’s a Technical Foul
If you were ranking well before Panda and suffered a great dismay after Panda then you were probably operating on the wrong side of history, friend. Tough noogies — there’s no cutting corners when it comes to the high-stakes game of search engine results pages. At least, there shouldn’t be.
Anyway, Panda was a game changer — a real disruptor in digital marketing and search engine land. Quite possibly, the largest shift in search engine results and search engine marketing up to this point in the 21st century. Moz — one of the web’s most trusted SEO companies — went in to detail about it.
In case you need a refresher here are some of the highlights from the 2011-ish update:
- Thinning out thin content.
- Penalizing duplicate content.
- Minimizing low-quality content.
- Squashing results with lack of authority and trustworthiness.
- Laying the smack down to content farming.
- Stifling low-quality user-generated content.
- Frowning upon high ad-to-content ratio websites.
- Snubbing sub par affiliate-link-centric content.
- Sinking websites blocked by good citizens of the internet.
- Bait and switch mismatched search query content.
Oh, snap. Search engine users everywhere were suddenly getting a better experience.
And that leads us to present day — 2022 and Google’s back at it, causing waves and shaking up the the landscape once again with the fresh-off-the-press “Helpful Content Update” update.
In between Panda and the new Helpful Content Update, there has been a few other notable mentions of Google updates impacting search results and rankings. Namely, mobile-first indexing and core web vitals updates.
Mobile-First Indexing (UI)
Mobile-first indexing was a huge surge in website development. You may recall major companies shelling out for “mobile versions” of their websites — and visiting them at “m.domain.com” or “mobile.domain.com” domains. Once we realized maintaining separate versions of the same content was a pain in the rear — and teetered on the tightrope of “duplicate content” *gasp* — the web shifted towards the rise of “responsive website design” which is commonplace today.
Google’s announcement of “mobile first indexing” forced websites desiring to rank high in search engine results pages to make an effort at being better websites.
If you lagged behind you were left behind.
Mobile browsing was ascending as the most popular form of content consumption and Google took the wheel when it came to driving it’s own content towards making the leap to appease the crowds.
Core Web Vitals (UX)
Likewise, the core web vitals updates continued the trend of catering towards mobile viewership. Google had brought everyone along to the party, but now they needed everyone to have a good time.
Websites need to load fast on all devices — even the ones with lesser processing power. Websites need to be less deceptive — no more jumpy moving layouts meant to trick visitors into unwittingly clicking ads (which also helps Google’s ad platform not pay publishers for unearned clicks). And website’s code just needs to be organized better to help with the overall user experience.
Creating More Better
The first shift towards mobile-first indexing was about user-interfaces (UI). The ladder was about user-experiences (UX). Together, UI/UX shapes the foundation for the customer journey and sets the stage for a better, more enjoyable, more accessible, more consumable internet.
Everyone knows this stuff intuitively. And everyone benefits from it. But, change is often slow when it isn’t required action and Google’s regularly stepped in as the kick-in-the-pants a lot of websites need in order to get there.
Google’s Helpful Content Update
Allow me a brief clearing of the throat — I can’t help but feel like I’m keyword stuffing the word “update” every time I mention the “helpful content update” update. Why do they need to put the word “update” in the name like that? Does anyone else feel low-key meta-trolled by the original G(oogle)?
Okay, back to breaking news…
I Like Helpful Content
First thing’s first. I want to acknowledge that I’m 100% on board with this Helpful Content Update update.
Google’s Helpful Content Update update is what I’ve been observing (or complaining about) since my first foray into blogging because a lot of the topics I personally focus on could be short, sweet, and to the point — but I’m highly sensitive to the fact that the only way to be found online organically through SERPs is using the same words on your website that search engine users are typing into the search box on Google.
Part of being a good-website that ranks well has historically involved pseudo “known” algorithm metrics. Metrics like keyword density, related keyword density, long tail keywords and phrases, word count, and other algorithm metrics that can technically speaking never be either confirmed or denied by the search engine companies. But anyone doing SEO has tested and teased the waters enough to pseudo “know” some of these as more fact than fiction — even if Google says they aren’t.
Are you writing to a particular word count because you’ve heard or read that Google has a preferred word count? (No, we don’t).Google
“Preferred” maybe not, but Google’s also repeatedly taken stabs at “thin content”, so there’s definitely some sort of arbitrarily calculated length being taken in to consideration somewhere along the line.
I hope the Helpful Content Update cleans up a lot of blogs. Especially, blogs related to educational research, tutorials, and learning things — it’s nice to learn things faster and simpler like reading cliff notes to get the substance of a novel instead of diving into a textbook-sized bite for the same result.
Google Hinted Towards Agreeing
According to a tweet by Google’s Search Liaison, Danny Sullivan, I might fish my wish with this update.
Impacted Content Types
According to an article from Search Engine Land — another immaculate source for search engine related news and updates — there are no specific targets or categories of websites that will be affected by the update.
However, it seems Google’s mentioned there are a few types of content that will see the highest amounts of impact post-update, including:
- educational content
- arts and entertainment content
- shopping content
- tech-related content
My interpretation is that’s quite a broad stroke of verticals and Google’s casting a wide net.
The gist of it seems to be targeting regurgitated content and articles. Search Engine Land’s update shares an example from a correspondence with someone at Google making mention of aggregated review sites, as an example of the types of results they’re trying to prune.
Site Wide Implications
The biggest “oh crap” takeaway from the impending Helpful Content Update is that it’s going to have site-wide implications.
Unlike Panda — which targeted individual web pages — the Helpful Content Update update is going to penalize entire websites deemed to be slinging “unhelpful content”.
To be crystal clear, Google has stated:
Any content — not just unhelpful content — on sites determined to have relatively high amounts of unhelpful content overall is less likely to perform well in Search […]Google Search Central’s developer blog
I’m absolutely giddy imagining all the digital marketing agencies in the world pulling their hair out and trying to prepare new pitches encouraging clients to weed through all of their existing content. Especially those who have encouraged their clients explicitly down the “more is better” path.
To be fair, often more is better — but more “better” is more better is what Google’s implying. That old business slogan to be first or be the best seems like it needs to drop the first part if you’re moving forward down the path of SEO.
The next quote I’d like to mic-drop is:
For this reason, removing unhelpful content could help the rankings of your other content.Google
It’s time to weed your gardens, folks.
Speaking from experience, it’s tough to maintain a regular schedule of high-quality content output. Sometimes, you’re just out there pushing blog articles to keep the website fresh and provide a dopamine hit in the form of new content to your regular visitors.
People frequent websites that frequently update. In other words, if you’re not updating then why should people frequent it? That one’s a little scary to think about, but I imagine it’s going to add weight to a lot of people’s mailing list subscription efforts.
As in, if no one has a reason to check back with your website because you’re not updating the content as frequently as you used to then you’re going to need a means of providing that reason to them when the time comes for them to return.
Maybe Google’s secretly supporting the triumphant resurgence of snail mail marketing and the United States Postal Service… that would be the day, but also the ultimate manifestation of Google’s original mission statement “do no evil”, right? But again, I digress.
How to Know if You’re Impacted
How will you know if your website is impacted by Google’s Helpful Content Update?
That is both a good question and an easy answer.
You will know if your website has been impacted by the Helpful Content Update update if you look at your Google Analytics data and confirm your website’s traffic has experienced a considerable drop in organic traffic correlating with Google’s rollout of the update — which is schedule to begin next week, in the days around and following August 22, 2022.
How Quick Can You Right the Ship?
How quickly can you resolve traffic and ranking issues arising as a result of the Helpful Content Update update? That’s another good question with a hopeful outlook, but a slightly tougher answer.
As with most things Google search algorithm related, the Helpful Content Update identification of “helpful” vs “unhelpful” content is an automated process driven by artificial intelligence (AI).
The downside of that is you’re dealing with non-bias robotic classification of your website. But as awful as that sounds it’s not like there was ever a human being ranking search engine results, so it’s essentially business as usual for Google.
The hopeful outlook is that Google’s classification process runs continuously. Meaning, when you make an effort to improve your impacted website(s) Google will notice and your ship will start righting itself.
Just like how the “unhelpful content” signal is applied will it also be removed — however Google deems it. I know, that’s not very helpful content (haha), but that’s what Google said.
Sites identified by this update may find the signal applied to them over a period of months. … As [the classifier] determines that the unhelpful content has not returned in the long-term, the classification will no longer apply.Google
All said and done, when you’re playing on Google’s playground it’s good advice to play by their guidelines. Here’s a short list of helpful available resources from Google to help you on your journey to continue building high-quality websites and performing your best in search results pages.
- Guidance on building high-quality sites
- Webmaster guidelines
- Site Owner’s Guide to Core Updates
- Google’s Guide to Product Reviews
- SEO Best Practices
Look, being a “good” website isn’t rocket science. Set a course to do the right things because they’re the right things to do and you’ll fare well in the end. Exploiting loop holes and racing towards quick wins may work for short-term gains, but Google has more data than you and they’re unwavering about wanting to provide the “best” search results for their customers — the people searching on their search engine — and what that means to them.
The Helpful Content Update is Google’s next layer of security in ensuring people think “Google” first when they think of searching online.