Google Helpful Content Update – What You Need To Know

Woman writing content on computer

Google is rolling out a sitewide algorithm update, called the helpful content update, which devalues content written for search engines. This update is the biggest update since Panda, back in 2011. Google is going to crack down on publishers creating ‘unsatisfying content’ aimed purely at ranking on search. Basically, Google’s algorithms will try to find low-quality sites and will demote the entire site. Below is more about the update and things content creators should consider when producing content for their sites.

It is no secret that the search results for many topics on Google don’t give you the best results. Many topics are highjacked by high-paying ad buyers and companies with big budgets to write over-optimized SEO content at the expense of readability and user experience. The result is a frustration for the searcher. Google is aware of this and is trying to diversify the search results with this new update.

SEO companies and marketing agencies have pumped out over-optimized SEO content for years, spamming the search results with average to bad stuff, describing the same stuff over and over to please the search engine — not searchers.

Google Search is always working to better connect people to helpful information. To this end, they are launching what they are 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. Unlike the recent product review update, which targets specific kinds of pages, the helpful content update is sitewide. That means it has the potential to impact all pages.

In short, Google said the types of content it is planning to deprioritise include articles “mainly summarising what others have to say without adding much value”. Additionally, the Helpful Content Update will also penalize stories that, it said, “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 was careful to note in their blog post that this update does not invalidate following SEO best practices. They say, “SEO is a helpful activity when it’s applied to people-first content” and link to their SEO starter guide. Google is not against search engine optimization.

This update is geared toward sites that have gamed the system, creating content that isn’t super helpful to people but still ranking well because of SEO rather than on the merit of the content on the site. Google also warned content creators must evaluate whether they are “producing lots of content on different topics in hopes that some of it might perform well in search results” or “writing about things simply because they seem trending and not because you’d write about them otherwise for your existing audience”.

Focus on people-first content

The helpful content update aims to better reward content where visitors feel they’ve had a satisfying experience, while content that doesn’t meet a visitor’s expectations won’t perform as well.

How can you ensure you’re creating content that will be successful with our new update? By following our long-standing advice and guidelines 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?

Avoid creating content for search engines first

Google’s 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?

Recovering From Helpful Content Update

Here is what Sirf Marketing will be recommending to sites that come to us for help after being affected by this update although we’ll adapt our advice as more information becomes available:

  • Identify which content on the site could be construed as being created for search engines rather than humans.
  • If the helpful content update hits you, Google advises removing unhelpful content from your website.
  • Determine whether that content can be improved upon to Google’s satisfaction, or whether it should be noindexed/removed from the site.
  • Find ways to produce content that goes above and beyond when it comes to being helpful to searchers. This may include adding more user-generated content, first-hand photos or videos, etc.
  • Compare competitor pages that continue to rank well to see if we can understand what content Google is rewarding as inspiration on how to improve our content. 
  • Work on improving E-A-T for the site to help make it more obvious to Google’s algorithms that the site has and also is known for having expertise on the topics it covers.
  • Clarify what the purpose or focus of each page is (and ensure that this purpose is first and foremost meant to help people).
  • In some cases, know when to cut losses and move on. I believe that some sites that are hit by this update may not be able to recover without extensive and possibly unattainable changes.

Other Important Information

Lastly, here are some final notes about the helpful content update:

  • The update is not a manual action. The process is automated using a machine-learning model.
  • People-first content can still rank even if it’s published on sites with large amounts of unhelpful content.
  • The signal is weighted, meaning some sites get hit harder than others.
  • Only English searches will be impacted, to begin with.


Photo by Judit Peter: