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Google Helpful Content Update: A Complete Guide for Content Creators

Search engines will undergo updates periodically with the goal of improving the user's experience. They ebb and flow according to the demands of the content consumers, and it is our job as content creators to produce content that both search engines and audiences will get value from.

There's been a lot of talk in the SEO community regarding AI content, and it almost seemed as if Google was anti-AI, which we can say is not necessarily the case. Google's Helpful Content Update isn't so much anti-AI, as it is anti-low-quality content.

Helpful content written by AI or a human who can demonstrate first-hand expertise is always better than unhelpful content, clickbait or plain fluff.

What is Google Helpful Content Update?

After reading the release note shared by Google, it seems that it wants content creators to move away from simply writing articles they believe will perform well in search results, and lean into creating content their intended audience will love and learn from.

"The helpful content update aims to better reward content where visitors feel they've had a satisfying experience, while content that doesn't meet a visitor's expectations won't perform as well."

The word that stands out to me is "expectations." I think this comes down to an unspoken "content promise" that any creator creates with the content consumer. It's genuine. It's anti-clickbait. It's not "search engine first" but human-first content.

Transparency is the word that comes to mind. Sites determined to be violating this trust may see changes from Google's Helpful Content Update.

"People-first content creators focus first on creating satisfying content, while also utilizing SEO best practices to bring searchers additional value."

The goal is to boost search engine traffic, yes, but not by writing low-value, unhelpful content. The use of the word "satisfying" also jumps out at me.

From what I understand, Google's Helpful Content Update is asking content creators to focus on quality and user experience.

When someone starts a Google search, they have a goal in mind. An itch to scratch. They need something, right? They're not concerned about word count or SEO strategies, they want their questions answered. They want to feel satisfied.

How does it work?

It's an automated process built into the machine learning algorithms that Google already uses. The rollout will take at least two weeks and any unhelpful content will send a negative signal to the search engine algorithm... Google explicitly mentioned that the process is fully automated, not manual. 

How does Google Helpful Content Update Affect Creators?

More than anything this Google update seems to be further emphasize that the typical "search engine first" approach is not the ideal way to rank when you're keeping reader's needs in mind. Whether we like it or not, or even if we agree, Google is a space for online education and there's no room for unhelpful content.

Google announced that the release date is scheduled for the week of August 22nd 2022. SEO agencies are buzzing right now and content creators are scrambling.

Don't. Here's why.

3 Ways Content Creators can Prepare for the Google Update:

  1. Focus on "content transparency" Avoid clickbait at all costs. If you promise your readers 10 recipes for vegan cookies, don't try and slip in irrelevant content, stuffed keywords or anything that will leave them feeling unsatisfied as Google stated.
  2. Understand your audience. What does this mean? Most writers already know what this means, but it comes down to meeting your audience where they are on their journey and providing as much value as possible. If you're trying to sell an SEO course you've designed, but your audience is simply looking for and answer to the question "What is SEO?" maybe they're not at the stage of investing in a course. Know what they need and give it to them.
    "Do you have an existing or intended audience for your business or site that would find the content useful if they came directly to you?"
    It seems Google wants older sites and newly launched sites alike to have a deep understanding of their target audience, not just a focus on ranking web pages.
  3. Less emphasis on a particular word count and more focus on producing content of value. This is your chance to flex and show real expertise. Yes, how long the article is matters, but guess what? If people enjoy what they're reading or are learning from the article, it's all okay. You want to write content that leaves readers feeling satisfied.

These three things are all steps that experienced content writers already take, so there's no reason to feel nervous or stressed about the update to search engines coming our way. Your search traffic, if you're already producing amazing content, should increase not decrease post-update.

What you may want to do is avoid producing lots of content with the primary purpose of showing up in the number one spot by sacrificing quality, readability and substance in the process. Nurture your existing audience and invite new eyes to come (and continue coming back) with articles that rank!

What does Google Consider High-Quality Content?

If you want to continue appearing in relevant search results, it's helpful to understand what Google considers "high-quality" content, not just unhelpful content.

These are some "self-reflective" questions taken directly from Google's blog:

  • Would you trust the information presented in this article?
  • Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
  • Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
  • Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
  • Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
  • Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
  • Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
  • Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
  • How much quality control is done on content?
  • Does the article describe both sides of a story?
  • Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?
  • Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don't get as much attention or care?
  • Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
  • For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?
  • Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?
  • Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
  • Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
  • Is this the sort of page you'd want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
  • Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
  • Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
  • Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
  • Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
  • Would users complain when they see pages from this site?

What fellow thought leaders say:

I reached out to Growth Advisor, Kevin Indig, for his thoughts on the Google Helpful Content Update.

“As always with Google updates, we can’t know for sure what’s really happening until we have data (and enough time to detect a significant impact.My gut tells me that this update could be big, simply based on the depth of guidelines google gives. However, I mostly expect over-optimized and deceiving sites to get hit. I don’t think that content will be punished just because it’s built with AI, and I don’t think we or Google can always tell whether content was created by humans or AI. Personally, I think quality should be all that matters.We should also not forget that there is more than one kind of AI content than text. There are also images and videos. Time will tell how will we decide how to handle that in the future.”

Surfer + Google's Content Update: Final Thoughts

According to Google,

"This update impacts English searches globally to begin with and we plan to expand to other languages in the future."

If you're a Surfer user based in a region that doesn't rely on English, you can breathe easy for a bit.

Since Surfer analyzes the SERPs as they are, you can rest assured that the recommendations made by Surfer are current, relevant and helpful! We'll still provide the preferred word count based on competitor analysis, and advise you on tasks to perform well in search results.  Surfer’s mission is to help you write great content. Our recommendations are meant to be inspiring and useful. We want to give you tools that improve the quality of the work you do. No matter if that’s keyword research, or writing. Surfer reverse engineers Google’s algorithm to provide up-to-date information just for you! 

With the use of NLP, you can also trust that the keyword suggestions you receive are as natural as possible.

Writing content, at least with Surfer, will not become more complicated or more stressful because of the Google Update. SEO industry, your favorite tool is adaptable!


Will Google punish AI-written content?

The helpful Content Update does not mention taking any direct action against AI-written content, but does mention unhelpful content.

However, they do specify content written by people, for people will have the most success.

"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."

Matt Diggity, seasoned SEO, says this "line from the note is a dead on giveaway" as to Google's stance on AI content: "Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?"

But, he also goes on to pose the point: "I just don't see how they're going to detect AI content. Certain AI content is easy to detect. Especially content that's trying to reference facts, which AI often trips up on."

Diggity goes on to say that if people are using AI the way he hopes they are, it shouldn't pose a huge problem as human eyes are there to detect any inconsistencies.

What does "people-first content" mean?

From my understanding, it simply refers to content that puts the reader's needs and experience over out-dated habits like keyword stuffing and other black hat ranking tactics.

"People-first content creators focus first on creating satisfying content, while also utilizing SEO best practices to bring searchers additional value."

When will the update be released?

Note: this is from a release written on August 18th

"The update will start rolling out next week. We will post on our Google ranking updates page when it begins and when it is fully rolled out, which could take up to two weeks."

Update: It started rolling out on the 25th of August.

What should web page owners do to prepare in the meantime?

Remove any unhelpful content.

How long will it take to see results if you remove unhelpful content?

Months... it will also affect new sites as well as existing ones.

"Sites identified by this update may find the signal applied to them over a period of months. Our classifier for this update runs continuously, allowing it to monitor newly-launched sites and existing ones. As it determines that the unhelpful content has not returned in the long-term, the classification will no longer apply."

Will Google punish you if it finds content to be unhelpful?

Not directly! It's more like a signal! And we all know there are tons of those that Google pays attention to! Careful though, as signals can add up quickly!

"This classifier process is entirely automated, using a machine-learning model. It is not a manual action nor a spam action. Instead, it's just a new signal and one of many signals Google evaluates to rank content."

Where can I discuss this update with other Content Creators?

Check out this thread from SEO Matt Diggity here!

Hope this helps! Happy Surfing!

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Screenshot of Surfer SEO Content Editor interface, displaying the 'Essential Content Marketing Metrics' article with a content score of 82/100. The editor highlights sections like 'Key Takeaways' and offers SEO suggestions for terms such as 'content marketing metrics