Don’t let the cheery name fool you - The Google Helpful Content Update is a recent algorithm change which, when first announced back in August, had many creators and SEOs running for cover, panicking over existing content and generally quaking in their boots. But what is this latest big bad algorithm wolf and should you be worried?

Let’s take a ride.

Google has always focused primarily on user experience. You only need to take a look at the algorithm updates over the past ten years to see the weight of importance placed on aspects such as search intent, site authority and on page experience. The Helpful Content Update is simply the next step in providing the best possible user experience online. This latest update was first announced in a Google blogpost on 18th August while many of us were still in our flip flops and sunglasses, relaxing in the summer sun. Not the ideal time for a major update, I’m sure you’ll agree, especially after tackling the Product Review Update released earlier in July. Now, it’s fair to say we’re all used to Google rolling out new algorithm updates, but this one felt different. Not least because Google was giving us just one week’s notice before they started the big roll out. With previous updates, the notice period had been a lot more generous (such as Core Web Vital or MUM where we had months to prepare), giving us time to digest the information and implement any changes Google signified we should make…but not this time (cheers, Google).

What is the Google Helpful Content Update?

The reassuring news is that this latest update isn’t rocket science. Quite simply, Google wants to:

  • Promote content that is helpful
  • Deprioritise content that is unhelpful

“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, 18th August 2022

Let’s deconstruct these aims.

What is Helpful Content?

First, we need to identify what is meant by helpful content. These are sites that Google identifies as being written by someone with depth of knowledge/real expertise of the subject they’re promoting. So if you’re a site selling vintage teapots for instance, you should be someone with an authoritative understanding of vintage teapots. If you’re writing about historical sites to visit in Bournemouth, you should know about historical sites in Bournemouth and, well, you get the general idea.

Google also wants content to be original and unique. Tricky if your competitors are all selling/promoting the same stuff as you, but by having fresh, high quality content on your site that stands out from the competition, you’re signifying to Google that your site is going to be of higher value to users and will reward you (in theory) with a higher ranking.

All sounds fairly straightforward so far.

If you’re confident your website ticks those boxes, then you can rest easy that Google isn’t coming after you. Some creators even used the update to their advantage, seizing the opportunity to highlight the merits of their own sites on Twitter and LinkedIn during the initial roll out. This includes bloggers such as @gurlwhoblogs, who demonstrated how focussing on creating valuable content has led to a steady increase in traffic to her site:

Gurl who blogs image

What is Unhelpful Content?

This is what Google deems to be low quality, spammy content written first and foremost for search engines, e.g. keyword-stuffed pages created by AI or sites that summarise what dozens of others are saying without offering a unique angle or original content. Duplication of any kind is a massive no-no, as is clickbait content which promises to answer a question that in fact can’t be answered, or takes you to a different topic altogether. And if you’re spreading yourself too thinly, i.e. deviating from your niche and drifting into other topics, Google will NOT be impressed.

This isn’t to suggest creators are all unscrupulous characters with dishonourable intentions - far from it. We can all quite easily fall into the trap of producing formulaic content and in many instances content will end up being uncomfortably close to that of a competing site (especially if the subject is particularly niche), hence why keeping a close eye on existing competitor content will be more important than ever following the Google update.

Who’s been affected by the Google Helpful Content Algorithm Update so far?

Almost two months into the update, it seems the main victims have predominantly been commodity content sites, i.e. multiple sites featuring duplicated information, according to a research conducted by Kevin Indig. These include lyrics sites, online dictionaries and manuals. Lyrics sites in particular saw a nose-dive in September; having a particularly eye-watering fall from grace after a very successful few months shooting up the rankings, as highlighted by @lilyraynyc:

Lily Ray Tweet image

Other sites have faced a similar downturn. The ones that have avoided Google’s red pen are sites which feature accompanying content alongside the lyrics. Take, for instance (not to be confused with If you search for some song lyrics (let’s take REM’s ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It’ as an example), you are not only greeted with the song lyrics, you also get a nice little ‘About’ section on the same page including info about the song and the band. It’s relevant content and adds more value to the page than one solely featuring the lyrics.

REM Lyrics image

The important thing to remember is that Google is not trying to catch you out - it wants to help sites with high quality, unique content rank in order to provide the best possible user experience - which is no bad thing.

The August blog post from Google featured a checklist of do’s and don't’s which clearly map out what the search engine wants to see. Granted, giving creators just one week to implement changes before the roll out started was a tad unsporting, but ultimately, this is not a full throttle website cull, more a signal of what Google expects going forward, and we’d be wise to heed that signal (more on that shortly).

What Does the Helpful Update mean for your website?

If you’re worried about your own website, here are some steps you can take to ensure you stay in Google’s good books.

Firstly, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I writing content that my audience will find interesting and useful?
  • Is what I’m posting relevant to what I am selling/promoting?
  • Am I giving appropriate answers to the questions posed?
  • Am I posting content that differs from that of my competitors?
  • Would people within my target audience find this content useful?
  • Will my target audience feel my content has given them the information they need?

If you answered yes to all of these questions, then give yourself a pat on the back - you’re doing just fine (and clearly been paying close attention to Google’s EAT guidelines along the way). But don’t rest on your laurels - make sure you keep your audience engaged with fresh, relevant content that meets the user’s search intent. Use tools such as Google Search Console, Google Analytics and Semrush on a regular basis to monitor your search position and traffic, especially over the next few months as the Helpful Content Update continues to evolve.

If you answered no to some of them, or are unsure, then you might need to perform a site audit. This may seem like a laborious task but if you prioritise pages which are most likely to be problematic (such as money pages, product listing pages, articles or your news section) then it should be a relatively straight-forward task.

Be ruthless - ditch any content that isn’t 100% relevant to your business. With the remaining content, look at low performing pages, i.e. ones with low traffic and minimal content, and explore ways to improve these pages, such as boosting word count by including on-trend perspectives, comments, etc. Content should be kept fresh and topical. Stay up to date with keyword research and explore ways to weave it into your work naturally - don’t litter your text with keywords at every opportunity as Google will spot it a mile off.

Avoid cramming multiple topics into one page or site. This makes it difficult for both users and Google to identify your purpose and intent. Focus on one subject area and build your page or site around that.

If your site doesn’t already have an FAQ section, you should certainly consider adding one. Not only are FAQs a great way to drive traffic to your site, they also help the user get to know your product/brand. Just make sure you take the time to understand the types of FAQs that will be of most value to the user (tools such as AlsoAsked and AnswerthePublic are great for this, along with Google’s own People Also Ask snippet). Once you have your questions, ensure your answers are clear, concise and to the point. (Oh, and be sure to use FAQ schema to enhance your chances of appearing on Google’s much-coveted Featured snippet!)

There are some handy tools out there to check whether your site could potentially be deemed spammy or low quality. This smart little detector from Huggingface helps to spot AI content. Just paste in a piece of content and it’ll give you an immediate prediction as to whether it’s real or fake. While the results should be taken with a pinch of salt, it is an interesting insight into the quality of your output.

It’s also vital you keep an eye on your competitors’ sites. As with any business strategy, staying one step ahead of the competition is key, and this applies to your website too. You need to make sure you create content that stands out. Look at sites currently ranking above you and take the time to understand why they’re there and you’re not. Once you have the answer, you can explore opportunities to make your content stronger and leapfrog them up the rankings.

Final thoughts

Two months on from the roll out, the jury is still out as to how effective the update has been and will continue to be. What was thought to be a grand shake up has merely created some minor ripples so far. Some cynics have suggested this is all a Google PR stunt (does Google really need the PR??), while others have pointed out that this will just prompt the development of increasingly sophisticated AI content tools.

The general consensus though is that the helpful update is exactly that - helpful. And while some commodity content sites have taken a swift hit alongside some low quality, AI-heavy pages, that shouldn’t lull us into a false sense of security that our own sites might not be affected at some point in the future, as Google warns us:

“Over the coming months, we will also continue refining how the classifier detects unhelpful content and launch further efforts to better reward people-first content.”

So it looks like this is just the beginning for the Helpful Content Update which will be a cause for concern for many, not least because Google also rolled out the September Core Update a few days later, meaning a double whammy of algorithm changes to contend with. But - and I can’t labour this point enough - by ensuring your content is unique, high quality and created for people, not search engines, you will weather the storm and find yourself scaling those rankings.

What to do if you have been affected by this update?

If your site has been affected by the Helpful Content Update and you need a content audit to determine where the issues lie, the Adido team is here to help. We will work with you to ensure you’re producing quality, people-first content for your website. Drop us a line today!

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Meet the author ...

Anna Heathcote

Content Manager

Based way up on the Northumbrian coast, Anna uses her creative copywriting expertise and SEO experience to ensure clients have fresh, relevant and optimised content on their ...