Helpful Content Update: 6 questions publishers should be asking

Google's Helpful Content Update

On August 25th, 2022, Google rolled out an algorithm update that aimed to reduce the number of “unhelpful” articles circulating the Web.

It was aptly named the “Helpful Content Update.”

Google confirmed that the rollout officially concluded two weeks later on September 9th. Danny Sullivan, Public Liaison for Search, stated under Google’s Product Updates that “this ranking update will help make sure that unoriginal, low-quality content doesn’t rank highly in Search.”

While it’s typical for Google to release monthly updates, this particular one can have an immense impact on the publishing community. Specifically, publishers relying on organic search to acquire new traffic.

If you’ve noticed a drop in search volume or visibility since September 9th, chances are that you were affected by this update. Assuming that’s the case, Google’s advice is to remove unhelpful content from your website.

But what exactly does unhelpful content look like?

What’s considered unhelpful content?

Search engine optimization (SEO) marketers have spent years perfecting methods to ensure their content ranks highly on search engines. Some tried-and-true techniques include:

  • Keyword optimization, which sometimes looks like keyword stuffing.
  • Optimizing image ALT and anchor tags for better internal linking.
  • Updating your robots.txt file to tell search engines what to crawl and what to ignore.
  • Improving Core Web Vitals.
  • Writing content to specifically trigger a SERP feature.

However, none of these techniques focus on driving value for the end user, thereby rendering it unhelpful. In order to rectify that, Google suggests focusing on people-first content and avoiding content created for search engines.

Sounds simple enough, but how does one actually accomplish that? Here are 6 questions to ask yourself when creating future content to ensure that it’s helpful for your users.

Helpful Content Update – 6 questions to improve your content

1. Is your content aligned with your site’s core purpose?

After setting up your site, you begin to write content that attracts users who are interested in what you have to offer. Once you hit a certain number of monthly visitors, you may start to look for new ways to increase traffic to your website for better monetization opportunities.

In order to maximize your reach, it may be tempting to step out of your comfort zone and write about new topics to increase your organic traffic. However, this content may not be relevant to your original readers or align with your website’s original focus area.

Let’s say you run a successful home renovation website geared toward providing your readers with sound DIY advice. Then, you start to notice that the keyword volume for content about personal health during the pandemic has started to take off.

While it may be attractive to take advantage of this opportunity to acquire new traffic, your existing audience might find this information unhelpful.

In order to ensure that your content aligns with your website’s core purpose, ask yourself the following questions prompted by Google:

  • Does your site have a primary purpose or focus?
  • 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?
  • Are you producing lots of content on different topics in hopes that some of it might perform well in search results?

2. Do you have first-hand experience with your topic?

Avoid writing about topics that you either haven’t personally experienced or have limited knowledge about. This type of content usually looks like an uninformed review of a product, a service, or a location.

If someone is looking for content that compares the latest Samsung phone models, they may want to see more than just the technical specifications which can be found on the manufacturer’s website.

Reading someone’s actual account of using said products (like comparing camera quality) offers contextual information that wouldn’t be found on the manufacturer’s website.

This can be valuable to someone who cares more about the photo quality experience between two phones over its megapixel rating or μm pixel width.

3. Is it relevant, or is it trending?

At the time of writing, Google Trends reports that search queries related to the US Consumer Price Index have skyrocketed in the past week.

Google Trends analysis on Consumer Price Index (CPI)

While this topic may be relevant at the moment, it’s not of interest or applicable to every industry. Generating content for timeliness only makes sense if your readers expect and value that information from you.

If you wouldn’t otherwise write about something that happens to be trending for your existing audience, you’re better off finding something else to report on.

4. Are you automating your content?

GPT-3 and natural language processing technologies help fuel AI-driven content creation. More specifically, it helps to generate credible human-like content within seconds. This includes:

  • Social media posts.
  • Blog articles.
  • Lead magnets like eBooks.
  • Product descriptions.
  • Ad copy, and more.

The allure of automated content is that it saves time and resources that would otherwise be spent on researching and writing a blog post or article. Freeing up this time can help you focus on other aspects of your business.

Now, while AI-assisted content looks like it’s written at such an advanced level that is almost identical to human-written work, it’s not perfect. AI writing is not focused on the story or its value to readers, but rather on the words itself.

AI-written content may rank well depending on your website’s overall domain authority, but it doesn’t mean that the content will be of any use to your user. This isn’t to say that you should immediately stop using AI tools. They can still be helpful to develop an article’s structure or help with idea generation.

However, they should be supplemented with expert insights or actionable takeaways that your users can utilize after reading your piece.

5. Are you writing for search engine optimization?

Earlier, we outlined a few strategies that seasoned SEO marketers use to ensure that their content ranks well on search engines for better visibility.

Similar to automated content, these strategies aren’t inherently a bad idea, but content writers should go beyond these steps. A simple way to do this is to leverage Google’s autocomplete and “People also ask” feature.

For example, many ad tech publications have recently started to focus on first-party data and data clean rooms. AdExchanger has written at least 9 pieces on clean rooms this year alone.

Using Google’s autocomplete and People also ask feature can offer insights into what real users are inquiring about.

Screenshot of Google's Autocomplete functionality
Screenshot of Google's People also ask functionality

Incorporating this into your existing SEO techniques can ensure that users are deriving value from your content.

With that being said, there are a few outdated SEO practices that Google may purposely devalue or even penalize as it creates a negative user experience.

Stop keyword stuffing

Keyword stuffing was a very popular technique during the dawn of SEO. This was when Google used keywords as a ranking signal. However, writers began to overuse keywords in their content and add them wherever they could, even if it didn’t make any contextual sense.

In response, Google launched its Panda update in 2011 to tackle low-quality sites with no added value. Search Engine Journal reported that this “invariably led to keyword stuffed pages getting demoted in search results.”

Rethink your word count

Another old SEO practice that you should rethink is the concept of writing with a word count in mind. It’s a common belief that longer-form content would outrank shorter content as it’s more thorough and all-encompassing.

However, in a Google Search Central SEO Office Hours session, Webmaster Trends Analyst, John Mueller, confirmed that “the number of words on a page is not a quality factor, not a ranking factor.” Even in a recent blog post announcing the Helpful Content Update, Google confirmed that it doesn’t have a preferred word count.

That doesn’t mean to say that you should exclusively write thinner or shorter articles, but if you are going to write a blog post with over 2000 words, your users should be able to glean useful insights from it.

All-in-all, avoid overoptimizing your content with SEO practices to the point where the content no longer serves any use for your users.

6. Did you answer the users’ question?

At the end of the day, the aforementioned points really lead up to just this: did you answer your user’s question? If your content leaves users feeling like they need to perform another search or go to a different resource, you didn’t fully answer their question.

Aside from your own research, consider enlisting your own team and their insights to formulate your editorial strategy. In particular, your internal subject matter experts or those who regularly speak with your customers and prospects can offer ideas that are relevant to your users.

As a result, your readers may find the content derived from these insights to be helpful.

Why does the Helpful Content Update matter to publishers?

The Helpful Content Update uses a sitewide algorithm. In other words, your entire website can be impacted, not just a few pages. If one of your main traffic acquisition channels is organic search, this update may impact your search rankings.

A drop in visibility can translate to a drop in new users locating your website, and consequently, fewer monetization opportunities.

Writing your content while keeping these 6 questions in mind can help mitigate this.

In summary

Previously, publishers may have focused on creating content that included keywords with decent search volumes. However, with the new Google update, publishers should also ensure that their content is helpful for their users.

To do so, simply ask yourself the following 6 questions the next time you or your content team writes a new piece:

  1. Is your content aligned with your site’s core purpose?
  2. Do you have first-hand experience with your topic?
  3. Is it relevant, or is it trending?
  4. Are you automating your content?
  5. Are you writing for search engine optimization?
  6. Did you answer the users’ question?

By doing this, not only will you provide a better user experience for your readers, but comply with Google’s update and lower the risk of ranking poorly on search. Ultimately, this will help you maintain your ability to monetize new users without worrying about a drop in traffic.

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