What it (likely) takes to recover following a September 2023 helpful content update drop


There’s still hope for September HCU impacted sites

Google’s Danny Sullivan and John Mueller both made comments on social media that give me hope that sites impacted by the September Helpful Content update may still have a chance of seeing some form of recovery with Google’s next core update. Travel blogger Katie Caf Travel has been working hard on improving her site, and […]

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Help Marie study the March 2024 Core Update

I’ll be spending the next few weeks looking at content that has been impacted by the March 2024 core update to try and understand more about this change in Google’s ranking systems that they call an evolution in how they assess the helpfulness of content. As part of my course and workbooks I am filming […]

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Updated June 10 with more info to give us hope for recovery!

Once you’ve read this article, jump on over to this one, published in June in which we see that we may need to see another core update in order to see recovery following a helpful content suppression.

The September 2023 Helpful Content has a catastrophic impact on many sites. It had an immediate impact for those given an unhelpful content classification. Most sites impacted have a large decline that starts some time between September 14, 2023 and September 18.  For most sites impacted, the declines continue. At the time of this update, written in March 2024 I have not seen any meaningful recoveries following a significant helpful content update drop. I do believe recovery is possible for some sites impacted, but it will be difficult!

We need to completely change our understanding of what helpful content is.

impacted by HCU

Since the launch of the helpful content system in August of 2022, I have seen a few sites that have declined in conjunction with a helpful content update improve and go on to do well. However, none of those sites have had a devastating and catastrophic drop like pictured above.

I have yet to see a recovery following a significant September helpful content update hit. Many that were impacted have been further decimated by the March core and spam updates.

Let me start by sharing why I think some of you who are reading this will recover. Recover is not the right word. I think some who have historically made money from creating content will soon find new ways to blog creatively. And as we see Google reward more helpful content, in search and also in SGE-like helpful content carousels, we should see new opportunities opening up as we learn what it is that truly is helpful. (Hint – it’s not related to SEO. It’s about truly understanding your audience.)

I’m not seeing anyone yet who truly is creating the type of content that users would find helpful beyond the other websites they could visit.

The reason is because what I am suggesting would require extensive effort and would be quite a different business model from what you run today.

Here’s an example of a decent site that was impacted by HCU.

We talked about this site and why it was impacted by HCU in newsletter recently. It is a site that has good, well written guides on playing a game.

The thing is, there are a lot of well written guides about this game. And while people did find the guides helpful, what I believe this catastrophic drop means is that Google’s systems have decided that this site is not usually likely to be among the ones that a user engages with and that ends up satisfying a user’s search. People tend to read the guides from more authoritative places. And while these guides are good, they’re not substantially and consistently the ones people choose to learn from.

How could Google know which sites users like?

It’s a long story. So long, in fact, that it has taken me over a year to be able to understand and explain. I’ll soon be releasing a book called SEO in the Gemini Era: The Story of How AI changed Google Search. In it, I’ll share what I’ve learned from many hours of studying, including the DOJ vs Google trial documents,especially the Pandu Nayak testimony where he explains many aspects of Google’s AI brain for ranking, RankBrain, and learning more about how machine learning works.

Rankbrain reranks the top 20-30 documents

Really it comes down to this:

  • Each search provides Google with signals they can use to indicate whether the search has been satisfying. For example, did they scroll and read, and click to read something else on your site? Or perhaps did they click back to the search results and end up getting their search satisfied on another site? It’s likely far more complicated than these simple signals. There are many signals Google can use to help them understand which content is likely to be high quality. Google has been learning for many years how to use these signals to help them learn when the systems did a good job at satisfying a search.
  • Multiple machine learning systems and algorithms work together with one goal: Improve how well the system does at producing satisfying searches.
  • Each update helps Google get better at satisfying searches.
  • The helpful content update in September placed a classifier on sites that were predicted to rarely be the result that users found the most helpful.

There’s clearly more to ranking than just user preference. Google works hard to identify when queries should be met by authoritative sites. There are many things they do to help improve the quality of the results.

Still, being a result that users like, and find useful and helpful is important and really does play a significant role in rankings.

As I typed this, Google Search Liaison Danny Sullivan just tweeted this,

The way you show Google’s ranking systems that you should do well is to show your visitors a great, satisfying experience.

An exercise to help you determine how to create helpful content

I think that the reason why we have not seen any helpful content update recoveries is because it’s really hard for us to understand what helpful content is.

Try this.

First, think of a keyword that you really should be ranking for.

Now, really put yourself in the shoes of a searcher. Where are they? Perhaps they are on the couch skimming through sites? Are they at the store quickly trying to decide which product to buy? Or maybe they are doing intensive research to help them solve a problem. In many cases your reader’s intent is likely not to read an article – unless it’s you looking for a solution to your helpful content suppression. 🙂  It’s often to get an answer or maybe not even to get an answer, but rather, to get more information to help them in making a purchasing decision. They might not want a full review, but rather, find it helpful to see what the folks on Reddit are complaining about in regards to a product.

Next, do the search on your phone. Click on each result as if you were a searcher. This includes looking at what’s available on SERP features like People Also Ask results. Take mental note of each thing this searcher is likely to learn that is likely to be considered helpful for meeting this searcher’s needs.

Perhaps the first post is from an authoritative site in your niche. It defines the problem well and shows the common solutions. Maybe the next is a forum or Reddit post where real people are discussing the issue.

Go right down the list of the first page of sites presented to the searcher.

Next, read your site from the perspective of a searcher who has already read the results available on the first page.

Provide information gain

Really put yourselves in their shoes. Is it really clear that your site is substantially more helpful than all the others? They’re not going to appreciate that you have a few unique images, or interesting research perhaps if you make them scroll through pages of stuff they’ve already read elsewhere. If they’ve already read what the reviewers on Forbes or Wired or some authoritative site have read on your product, is your post really enticing enough for them to want to read it as well?

I know it does not seem right that the giant authority sites get preference. People do tend to click more on brands they recognize, so you have an uphill climb. I do believe this will change as Google gets better and better at learning which content users are likely to find helpful. Especially now that, as we will soon see, helpfulness can be understood at the page level.

As you put yourself in the shoes of this searcher think about what types of things this searcher would find helpful that you could produce that don’t currently exist online. If you are not the go-to source of information for this topic, the only way to rank will be to produce something that provides the user with “information gain.”

For example, for the gaming site above, instead of producing a guide on the game, I might produce a body of work with things like this:

  • Quick video tips of me answering common questions out of my experience.
  • Original research on the game, winning strategies, trends in how people tend to play, etc. I might create my own studies or poll my audience who plays the game.
  • Blog posts on things that happened to me while I played the game – how me or my friends handled certain challenges that came up, etc.
  • Theories on how to truly gain an advantage. I wouldn’t bury these in the middle of a blog post. I’d have a whole section for interesting theories on winning. And then I’d find ways to get my audience to contribute and share their theories as well.
  • A tool that helps me as I play the game.

It’s not just enough to create the above content. It really needs to be so good that people truly want to read it and find it helpful.

Google doesn’t need more informational guides. They need fresh, new, original and insightful content.

To recover from a significant helpful content update drop, you need to truly have a site that is helpful.

You likely should noindex or remove from your site everything that was created for search engines only.

The frustrating thing though, is that for many of you, although you content is decent and well written and indeed helpful, it really was written more because of the opportunity to rank and get search traffic than out of a need to share something you know your audience is hungry for.

With the March core update, the helpful content system is now a part of the core systems

This means that we will no longer see helpful content updates. It also sounds like Google’s helpful content classifier has changed.

With the March core update, helpful content is now assessed on the page level

With the launch of the March core update which integrated the helpful content system into the core ranking systems, Google produced this documentation that told us their ranking systems understand helpfulness on the page level. I believe this is new. This is exciting, because it does seem to open the door for more truly helpful content to rank on the merit of its helpfulness rather than on the strength of brand signals.

Again, I do believe sites can recover. But I think that there are not many sites who have been strongly impacted that truly have made substantial enough change so that searchers would consistently consider their content the most helpful.

For many keywords that declined with the September helpful content update and March 2024 core, it’s quite possibly related to experience (or lack thereof)

In December of 2022, Google changed the rater guidelines to add more emphasis on experience, saying, “E-A-T gets an extra E for Experience.” This update rewarded sites demonstrating real world experience. 

The rater guidelines help the raters understand the ideals Google wants their algorithms to reward. In this most recent update, they added a new line under section 2.2: Understanding the Purpose of a Webpage:

“To share a personal experience, perspective, or feelings on a topic.”

In my analysis of keywords of sites impacted by the recent updates, it was quite common to see that Google had elevated pages that demonstrated real world experience.

It makes sense that after instructing the raters to consider experience in their evaluation of helpfulness, the algorithms would shift to better prefer pages from sites with experience.

What is real world experience?

Here are some examples based on the types of sites I’ve seen Google start to elevate following helpful content updates. And also, what the QRG says.

You have customers in the offline world

Check to see if your rankings are now showing real world businesses. If so, this will be hard to beat. 

You are known as a topic expert

The QRG shows example after example of pages that are to be considered high quality because the site is a popular resource for its topic. For example, The Knot is a popular wedding site. The Onion is listed as being known for its humor. I’ve seen a couple of niche recipe sites impacted that had decent content and good recipes, but weren’t known for any particular thing about their recipes. You might have a great recipe for lamb, but unless there’s evidence that people tend to seek you out for your recipes, especially your lamb ones, Google is likely going to show searchers other sites.

I believe some of you who were impacted will be able to recover by learning how to produce content that’s so good you become known for your topic.

You have used a product or service

The QRG says,

For some topics, Experience is the most important dimension of Trust. For other topics, assessing Expertise through the posts may be important.”

If you are an expert in your topic, I believe you can possibly convince Google’s systems you have real world experience by incorporating more user generated content. This may be in the form of helpful comments and discussion or perhaps a well maintained forum. 

Your goal should be to get real conversations going around your topics. 

What we have seen so far is that some sites known for public discussion like Reddit and Quora are seeing significant increases in rankings and traffic. Some have criticized these as lacking E-E-A-T, but really, these are conversations between people sharing their experiences!

Let’s look back again to the quality rater guidelines. The previous version read, 

The new version tells us so much more. Most importantly, “For some topics, experience is the most important dimension of Trust.”

Regarding experience, the guidelines say, “Consider the extent to which the content creator has the necessary first-hand or life experience for the topic. Many types of pages are trustworthy and achieve their purpose well when created by people with a wealth of personal experience.”

Forums are people sharing their experiences with other people.

Is there hope for bloggers impacted?

If you do have real world experience in your niche, then I would encourage you to start brainstorming about how you can demonstrate that in a way no one else can. Make it your goal to become known for your topic…not because of marketing…but because you are passionate about it and share things that others find valuable. 

I believe that we are headed to the age where Google is an AI answer engine. Actually we are here. I can walk through my garden and use Google Lens and Gemini or ChatGPT to ask questions like, “What are these holes on my grape leaves”, or “How do I prune this plant?” Gemini answered many of my questions. Lens sent me to many websites, some blogs, some well known authorities, and quite often a forum such as Reddit with real people discussing their issues to help me answer my questions. 

As we see more users turn to AI, in many cases they will still want websites, but they will want those that truly teach them something they don’t know. If you can create that, there is likely opportunity for you to recover. People want to visit your website to read about your experience, not to be taught what the textbooks or general wisdom of the world knows. 

I believe that not many know how to create this type of content – because it’s a foreign concept for us. As marketers, we often try to emulate big brands, or do what other marketers are doing. 

Which makes it hard to be considered original!

My recommendations

If you are heavily impacted by this update here are my recommendations:

Become known for your topic

The rater guidelines speak extensively on being known for your topics. Google wants to recommend content from people who are known. While it’s ok to use marketing, the people whom Google’s systems want to reward are those who are known because they’re passionate about what they do in a way that is engaging and helpful. 

Make your content so helpful people bookmark and share it

There’s a reason why this is listed in the helpful content criteria. 

Should you add a forum?

A thriving forum filled with experts and enthusiasts truly talking about your topic might create content others would find useful! A forum just for the sake of having ugc is not. 

Should you add a shop?

I mean yes, but only if you have an active customer base that buys from it. I do believe that when real people spend real money with your website or engaging with your services, it can send signals to indicate to Google that people find your site helpful. But I would not add a store just because that’s what Google likes.

Pay attention to YouTube

I expect we will see more and more integration of YouTube shorts into Google’s search results and alongside SGE or Gemini answers as these are a great way to showcase experience.

Summing it all up

The September 2023 helpful content update had a significant negative impact on many sites. And many impacted worsened during the March 2024 core update. In many cases it is affecting content that lacks real world experience. A huge culprit is a lack of originally helpful information. If impacted, it means that Google’s systems have decided your content is not likely the most helpful result to show searchers.

It is possible to get the classification removed. You will need to “improve and fix” the issues, which likely means removing content that adds little value to the web, and vastly improving the helpfulness what remains.

This is devastating news for many who have been able to make an income from blogging online. I do not think it is the end for all of you though! Those who can determine how to truly help your audience and become known as a passionate enthusiast for your topic, are likely to succeed.

There’s hope yet!

Once you’ve read this article, jump on over to this one, published in June in which we see that we may need to see another core update in order to see recovery following a helpful content suppression.

Want to read more? I’d recommend this content I’ve created:

Google’s Helpful Content & Other AI Systems May Be Impacting Your Site’s Visibility This is a long article I wrote to try and explain how Google’s AI systems like the helpful content and reviews systems are radically changing search.

What changed with the September 14, 2023 helpful content system update

Everything We Know About Google’s Quality Raters: Who They Are, What They Do, and What It Means for Your Site If They Visit