The Google Helpful Content Algorithm Update Is Here

The Helpful Content algorithm rolled out on August 25th and completed on September 9th. Google confirmed it’s completion on 9/9, which was focused on being a site-wide signal that identifies content that seems to have little value, low added value, or is otherwise not particularly helpful to those doing searches. In short, Google’s new algorithm update is intended to automatically identify content deemed unhelpful on sites with high amounts of unhelpful content overall. If your site has a considerable amount of unhelpful user-generated content, or if there are other signals (such as Quality concerns) that negatively impact the user experience, then your website pages might be affected by this change. Google’s main intent is to provide high-quality helpful content to its users, versus content written for search engines first. Meaning, if you wrote an article to rank on Google versus writing an article to actually help users, there is a potential risk of this content being flagged as “unhelpful”.

The Helpful Content update aims to better reward content where visitors feel they’ve had a satisfying experience, while sites with poor quality or unhelpful content won’t perform as well. This update impacts English searches globally to start, and then it will expand to other languages in the future. Over time, Google will continue refining how its classifier detects unhelpful content.

One point made is that if you have some useful content that’s on your site, the pages with helpful content may rank well even if they are on a site with predominantly poor content. This should be motivation enough to revisit your content and content strategy to ensure future-focused articles, service pages, and other site content is well thought out for the purpose of helping to educate and inform the user.

If you think your site was negatively impacted by this update, Google has provided a list of questions to consider with this helpful content, which we have included below as well.

Google’s Recommendations On How To Build Human-First Content

As with all the core updates, Google has provided a list of questions to ask yourself and your team as it relates to your content and determining if your content is likely to be rewarded by the helpful content update. Some of the previous core updates that provided these same types of questions are the Panda updatecore updates, and product reviews update. Here are some of the questions Google has provided us to consider:

  • 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?

Avoid Creating Content For Search Engines First

Our advice about having a people-first approach does not invalidate following SEO best practices, such as those covered in Google’s own SEO guide. SEO is a helpful activity when it’s applied to people-first content. However, content created primarily for search engine traffic is strongly correlated with content that searchers find unsatisfying.

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? (No, we 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?

Google’s Helpful Content Update Is A Site-Wide Algorithm, Not Page-By-Page:

When Google’s algorithm is determining whether your content is helpful or unhelpful, it will not be looking at penalizing the content page-by-page. Instead, if it finds any content on the site that is unhelpful, instead of impacting just that individual page or sections of your site like with some updates, it will instead impact the whole site. A few things to note:

  • Google hasn’t identified the specific percentage of content or pages on your site that need to be helpful versus unhelpful to avoid a negative trigger or having your site classified as “unhelpful”.
  • Google did confirm that if your site is deemed to be unhelpful, it would negatively impact the entire site, even if there are many pages with helpful content on them.
  • This means that even if you have many pages of helpful content, even these pages will be deemed “unhelpful” if enough of the site has “unhelpful” content that flags your entire site to be unhelpful.
  • For this reason, Google has stated that “removing unhelpful content could help the rankings of your other content”, which is the approach we are taking with any of our sites.

How To Recover If Impacted:

If you feel your site has been impacted by this update, there are a few things you can do to take action towards recovering. Below are some of the initial recommendations:

  • First, the site will need to prove over time that it is no longer publishing “unhelpful content”.
    • Our recommendation is to go through each of the above questions provided by Google and determine whether the content you currently have on your site appears to be mostly focused on search engines first versus human-first content.
    • One thing to note is that if your site is impacted, since Google is looking for consistent proof that the site is no longer publishing unhelpful content, it could take several months to recover from having the “unhelpful content” flag on your site. 
  • After reviewing the content, update any content you think might be deemed as search engine first to be focused on human-first content. If the article, page, or content is too focused on search engine ranking first, then consider removing the content altogether to avoid site penalties.
    • Again, we’d recommend doing this sooner rather than later since there appears to be a waiting period or some form of validation period, for a site to show Google’s algorithm that it is now providing helpful content to humans first.
    • Unfortunately, this validation period is not defined and is automatically implemented by the new algorithm update, so as it is updating the scores based on the site’s various content classifiers, any changes made to the site today won’t be reflected in Google’s rankings for a number of months based on Sullivan, one of Google’s algorithm leads. Google also stated that:
      • “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.”

This Update Uses Machine Learning To Identify Helpful Content

In order to make this update the most effective, Google is using newer machine learning in its algorithm update, in order to determine whether the content of the site is helpful. The algorithm’s machine learning is advanced and will continue to improve over time through technological improvements to the machine learning as well as manual updates from Google engineers, helping to enhance the accuracy and legitimacy of the “unhelpful content” flagging.

Google mentioned that the helpful content update will have machine learning that will look at a diverse number of signals on the page and the site as a whole to determine how the page should rank based on its helpfulness. Unfortunately, Google has not provided details around the specific signals used, so it is up to each site lead to determine whether the majority of the site’s content is helpful or not, based on the questions provided above by Google.

Google also confirmed that they validated the results of the new algorithm using its quality raters. In doing so, Google was able to confirm that this new algorithm and this signal reading improves the overall search quality for users on Google. With Google’s top priority being focused on the user experience and quality search results, it makes sense that Google will continue to lean into these types of enhancements to continue to improve results overall. That said, while these quality raters help Google’s search engineers confirm whether the algorithms are improving the overall search quality, they do not directly influence Google rankings.

These updates are only made for English-language searches only as of now, but it will be rolled out to other global languages over time.

These changes also only impact Google search as of now, though it might start to impact Google Discover products in the future.