In 2011, Google’s Panda update was launched as part of an effort to control Black Hat SEO techniques and webspam. According to Google, Panda was necessary because the amount of low-quality content was getting out of hand. Panda was Google’s first attempt at assigning a quality classification to pages that eventually became a ranking factor.
Subsequent updates – not all of them, but enough of them – have built on that effort, and Google’s latest update is no exception. Fast forward to 2022. The recently released Helpful Content Update is the latest update to reward websites that produce content designed to help or inform readers rather than those that produce content written to rank well.
According to Google Search Liaison Danny Sullivan:
We know people don’t find content helpful if it seems like it was designed to attract clicks rather than inform readers. So starting next week for English users globally, we’re rolling out a series of improvements to Search to make it easier for people to find helpful content made by, and for, people.
Google’s John Mueller says that the changes are expected to roll out over the next two weeks. Websites that aggregate content from third party sources rather than original content (think: arts and entertainment and news aggregators) are likely to feel the most impact first.
It’s important to note that the impact will be sitewide. If the algorithm determines that your website offers a high proportion of unhelpful content, all content on the site will be impacted. There’s some question as to whether or not this will apply to subdomains. According to Danny Sullivan in a tweet to Eric Enge at Stone Temple Consulting, “…while Google tends to see subdomains apart from the root domains, there may situations where that isn’t the case.” Danny later followed that tweet up with another that clarified his position:
If your takeaway from this response was to revisit the subdomain / subfolder debate, you’re likely missing the more important point of doing things for people rather than search engines. Use what you think makes sense for them and you’re doing what Google’s systems seek to reward.
Barry Schwartz from Rusty Brick Consulting reached out to Google for comment, and this is part of what he wrote:
Google said the helpful content update system is automated, regularly evaluating content. So the algorithm is constantly looking at your content and assigning scores to it. But that does not mean, that if you fix your content today, your site will recover tomorrow. Google told me there is this validation period, a waiting period, for Google to trust that you really are committed to updating your content and not just updating it today, Google then ranks you better and then you put your content back to the way it was. Google needs you to prove, over several months – yes – several months – that your content is actually helpful in the long run.
Google wrote it will “continue refining how the classifier detects unhelpful content and launch further efforts to better reward people-first content.” “A natural question some will have is how long will it take for a site to do better if it removes unhelpful content? 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,” Google added
The bottom line is that if your website gets hit by this update, it can take months and months to recover. And that’s if you do the work. Which will be a fun project, since Google isn’t sharing which URL(s) are causing the problem. But, they are giving some clues.
Google said “How do you avoid taking a search engine-first approach? Answering yes to some or all of the questions is a warning sign that you should reevaluate how you’re creating content across your site:”
- Is the content primarily to attract people from search engines, rather than made for humans?
- Are you producing lots of content on different topics in hopes that some of it might perform well in search results?
- Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?
- Are you mainly summarizing what others have to say without adding much value?
- Are you writing about things simply because they seem trending and not because you’d write about them otherwise for your existing audience?
- Does your content leave readers feeling like they need to search again to get better information from other sources?
- Are you writing to a particular word count because you’ve heard or read that Google has a preferred word count? (Hint: They don’t).
- Did you decide to enter some niche topic area without any real expertise, but instead mainly because you thought you’d get search traffic?
- Does your content promise to answer a question that actually has no answer, such as suggesting there’s a release date for a product, movie, or TV show when one isn’t confirmed?
So what about niche topics? On that point, here is John Mueller’s clarification on that question:
Google also said “How can you ensure you’re creating content that will be successful with our new update? By following our long-standing advice to create content for people, not for search engines. People-first content creators focus first on creating satisfying content, while also utilizing SEO best practices to bring searchers additional value. Answering yes to the questions below means you’re probably on the right track with a people-first approach:”
- 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?
- Does your content clearly demonstrate first-hand expertise and a depth of knowledge (for example, expertise that comes from having actually used a product or service, or visiting a place)?
- Does your site have a primary purpose or focus?
- After reading your content, will someone leave feeling they’ve learned enough about a topic to help achieve their goal?
- Will someone reading your content leave feeling like they’ve had a satisfying experience?
- Are you keeping in mind our guidance for core updates and for product reviews?
For now, this update only targets English language websites, but Google’s long-range plan is for this to roll out worldwide in other languages.