Websites that rank well are built with strategic SEO initiatives and content tailored to the needs of its target audience
The appetite for content online has not died down over the years. To the contrary, it seems no matter how strong the firehose of articles, videos, podcasts, and all other types of shareable online media gets, audiences only want more. Smart brands have been quick to realize that they can play an influential role by generating and distributing content tied to their area of expertise — and in doing so, also expand the reach of their offering and the recognition of their identity.
It’s a win-win situation because content helps brands grow while providing a valuable and useful resource to consumers. However, that virtuous cycle hinges on just how useful and desirable the content truly is. And who exactly is able to objectively judge what separates helpful from unhelpful content?
Well, in its latest search engine algorithm update, Google has announced it is going to be taking on that responsibility with new intensity. In August of 2022, Google notified content creators and SEO strategists that a big change was coming to how search results will be scored. A major component of Google’s latest SERPs algorithm update is centered around so-called ‘helpful content.’ The update is being rolled out over a period of weeks but should be fully implemented by the end of September.
Content helps brands grow while providing a valuable and useful resource to consumers.
Like accessibility and UX, helpful content is a sitewide signal, meaning Google interprets it as representative of the total quality of the site when making ranking judgements. As with all specifics underlying its search algorithm, Google avoids providing too many details about how exactly its evaluative process works. The company rightly fears others attempting to reverse engineer its algorithm to game the system. But, ironically, that’s just the kind of behavior it’s hoping to police with this update.
Who Are You Creating For?
The helpful content update, first and foremost, is designed to penalize websites that are producing content exclusively to improve their rank on search engines. Google recommended that web developers ask themselves these questions in particular when evaluating their content practices:
- Does your content clearly demonstrate first-hand expertise and a depth of knowledge?
- 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?
Google wants to elevate content that appears to actually be helping users and downgrade content that was written just to get noticed by web crawlers, the bots that search engines use to index the web. That second type of media is often called ‘search engine first content,’ and while it proved an effective short-term strategy for some, it’s a surefire way to ensure a brand will see declining relevance.
That’s because every user that is tricked into clicking onto a piece of content (because it showed up on the first page of Google search results and had a misleading headline) only to discover there was nothing there of any use to them, is a user that won’t likely be coming back or sharing that content with anyone else. Even if Google wasn’t taking steps to punish sites that use deceptive practices like that, no experienced brand manager, content creator, or SEO specialist would recommend that tactic. It’s not a sustainable path to growth and destroys the trust necessary for nurturing lasting relationships.
Tips for Developing Helpful Content
Google may be coy about the mechanics of its update, but it has been very forthcoming with general guidelines for creating content that will rank highly after the update is fully deployed. Here is a summary of their topline suggestions:
- Produce content for people, not search engines
- Focus on a few key topics per website; don’t attempt a shotgun approach of spraying keywords and tiny bits of information about the widest possible subject area
- Use content creation automation only as a starting point; keep a human in the loop with final editing privileges
- Don’t duplicate content (either from yourself or others), bring a fresh take, insightful analysis, and an authentic perspective to whatever you choose to cover
- Create for your specific audience, not the totality of all content consumers
- Avoid covering a subject that isn’t in your wheelhouse just because it’s trending broadly
- Meet expectations by solving problems to the fullest extent possible; don’t promise solutions and answers that you can’t deliver on
- Match content length to the depth of the subject, don’t aim for arbitrary word counts or video lengths
- Don’t claim authority on a niche topic that you don’t have experience in
From a business standpoint, all these suggestions harmonize quite well with much of the advice that marketing professionals have long promoted. Just like Google doesn’t want content that is produced without an audience in mind that will benefit from it, marketing leaders are constantly pushing their clients to stay narrowly focused on their optimal target markets and segments.
The helpful content update penalizes websites that are producing content exclusively to improve their rank on search engines.
Likewise, it’s always been a best practice to actually deliver on your brand promise. Anyone can claim thought leadership, authentic values, or the superior value of their brand and offering, but the companies that thrive year after year invest the time and resources to make good on their claims.
The first reaction to this update for most websites should be a thorough content audit to flag and take down any content that could potentially run afoul of the helpful content guidelines. It’s not necessary to completely delete any worrisome content, simply unpublishing it is sufficient.
It’s important to note that while Google is constantly re-examining websites to track their progress at pruning outdated and unhelpful content, it may be some time before a positive impact is seen on SERPs. Google is quick to drop a website off the first page and slow to let it back on.
This change is one more in a long line of Google updates, and certainly won’t be the last. Effective brand managers, marketing experts, and content creators have to stay in alignment with Google’s priorities. In this case, that’s an entirely good thing because the helpful content update ensures that SEO strategies are employed to elevate the best content and generate a meaningful benefit for users.
Looking for more guidance about your SEO and content strategies? Talk to Hanlon.