Google's December Helpful Content Update, which began rolling out on December 5, 2022 and finished its rollout on January 12, 2023, is a major update to the company's Helpful Content System. This system is designed to promote content that is helpful and not written solely for SEO purposes. The update improves the system's classifier and expands language support for the update. As a result websites may see changes in their traffic and rankings based on the quality and helpfulness of their content. It is important for website owners to understand the update and its impact on their sites, as well as strategies for recovering from any negative effects.

In this article:


Impact of the update on websites

The December Helpful Content Update appears to be having a significant impact on websites. Many sites have experienced increases or decreases in traffic that seem to coincide with the rollout of the update. My analysis so far shows that many websites that believed they were affected by this update were actually not.

Analysis will be difficult.

Marie's thoughts on the December Helpful Content Update

It does appear this update is impactful. Here is a thread started on the day following the end of the rollout with people showing how they were affected.

I have analyzed several sites so far, and for most sites it is very difficult to determine whether they were impacted because of seasonality. If your traffic appears to be down starting December 5, check your year over year traffic. It may be quite normal for you to have a decline starting the first week of December.

The problem is, it's very difficult to determine the cause of a traffic drop right now. As I discussed in my most recent podcast episode, losses seen right now could be due to:

  • The December HCU (December 5-January 12)
  • The December Link Spam Update (LSU) (December 14-January 12)
  • Continuous scroll on desktop - Now, for English searches in the US there are no more pages on a Google search. (December 5)
  • Google Explore features appearing in the search results off and on
  • OpenAI's ChatGPT blew up in popularity this week as well. Personally, I have used this tool to answer many questions I previously would have done Google searches for. Discussed more in Episode 264 of my newsletter
  • Holiday shopping (Rankings and traffic will always shift in December)

I expect this update will take a while to analyze.

 

What changed with the December Helpful Content Update?

There are a number of factors that may have contributed to the losses seen by sites affected by the Helpful Content Update. The helpful content system is designed to promote content that is helpful and not content that was written only for SEO purposes. It remains to see which factors are important in the December rollout. I will know more once I have finished my analysis.

I'm currently studying sites sent to me so that I can share my thoughts on what Google has changed with this update.

The December Helpful Content Update (HCU) is likely to bring Google closer to accurately identifying and promoting content that is genuinely helpful and valuable to users. It is interesting to note that Google's Panda algorithm, which was introduced in 2011, was originally designed to discourage the creation of low-quality or spammy content that was created solely for the purpose of ranking well in search results. However, it took over a decade for Google to develop the AI-powered helpful content system, which is specifically designed to elevate content written by people for people. In this way, the HCU builds on the goals of Panda by using machine learning and artificial intelligence to identify and promote content that is truly helpful and valuable to users. By doing so, Google aims to provide more useful and relevant search results, and to discourage the creation of content that is solely focused on improving search rankings.

Here's what's new with this rollout:

  • Now affects all languages globally (previously was just English)
  • The system is updated with "additional signals to help Google identify more content created primarily for search engines versus people."
  • With this update Google has improved the classifier they use to identify whether content is helpful.

Was AI generated content targeted?

In the first helpful content update, most of the sites impacted appeared to be using automation.

For example, one site that was affected was an aggregator of information around the web. They had thousands of pages filled with statistics and descriptions generated by AI. On the surface, one might think this content was helpful, but in reality, very few people would actually read it. The main reason for using AI to generate this content was to include keywords on the pages to make the content appear more relevant to search engines.

Google told us that the HCU is a machine learning model that is continually learning and improving. We can expect to see MUCH more from the HCU in months to come. It remains to be seen what the December 5 HCU will change, but most likely with each update Google will get a little better at ranking content that truly is created to help people.

Added Jan 13: Not all AI written content is low quality content. The well known site, BankRate caused quite a stir by openly stating their content was written by AI, and edited by humans.

This content does not appear to be affected by the helpful content update. This makes sense to me. Google is not against AI written content. They're against low quality content. It just happens that a lot of AI written content is low quality.

Impact of the update on websites

Very early polls are showing that there is some impact. It is interesting to see that many are saying their traffic is up with this HCU. Previously, we saw sites hit and very few sites with obvious gains.

Within 24 hours of the announcement of this update I already have several requests for help in my inbox. It does appear that this update will be significant. So far, as of December 29, the Semrush sensor has shown increased SERP turbulence on several days. I anticipate the end of this update -- when it finally happens -- will cause wild changes.

With the first HCU, most if not all of the sites I saw hit had been extensively using automation in order to produce words on pages that very few humans actually read.

Let's say you have a site that reviews automobiles. For each car, you've presented searchers with the important information they want to know, aggregated from sources around the internet. But, this is the same content that everyone else has. So, to make it appear relevant to search engines, you add some text..."BMW's 2023 8 series lineup offers some new features...", or "Here are some statistics on this model's sales around the US" perhaps.

While your content on this page may be unique, it is unlikely to be uniquely valuable to a searcher when compared with the information that could be found on BMW's own website.

I will update this post once I have thoroughly analysed sites impacted. It usually takes a few weeks following an update for me to feel confident in my assessment.

Tips for creating helpful content

Here are some questions to ask yourself about your content:

If you took out all of the content on your page that is simply regurgitating what others are saying, what is left? 

Would a searcher find it helpful to read both your page and the pages that it summarizes?

In the past, a good SEO could craft content and build links to show Google's algorithms that content was more relevant and helpful than the original source. As Google's AI capabilities improve, so does their ability to recognize when content that is present on a page exists simply for search engines, or when content is there to educate a brand's existing audience.

Importance of first hand expertise and experience

It is no coincidence that Google added an extra E to E-A-T to now include evaluating experience as a sign of quality. Creating helpful content requires showcasing your unique experience.

Several of Google's helpful content questions are about first hand expertise or experience:

first hand expertise

For an increasing number of queries, Google is now ranking content that comes from some type of place of first hand expertise. Does this mean that a chef writing an article reviewing blenders needs to personally use every single blender they review? No! What matters is that that chef is known as a chef -- as someone people recognize as being known for understanding what the characteristics of a good blender are.

Google's algorithms aim to prioritize content that is written from firsthand experience and expertise when answering a query. Their machine-learning algorithms can give more weight to this type of content as it is identified as helpful.

How can Google determine first hand experience or expertise? There are many signals Google could consider: (Note: I hope to have an article soon on how you can best demonstrate experience as described in the QRG.)

  • Knowledge graph connections. If the KG shows that your authors or your brand have many connections to the topics you write on, this can demonstrate topical expertise.
  • Topical expertise in your content. If you have a body of content that is helpful on a topic, this likely helps Google trust your expertise on a topic.
  • How content is written. I can put content into an AI tool and ask the tool whether it is professionally written. It is usually correct. I'm sure Google can use AI to determine whether content is written with a firsthand perspective.
  • What helpful resources you use including images, video and others. It's not going to hurt a page to use stock imagery, but I believe Google will soon reward pages that have unique imagery that demonstrates their expertise. If you are writing about rock tumbling...get some videos on your site of you demonstrating how you use rock tumblers.
  • What others say. Google's Quality Raters' Guidelines  repeatedly mention that what matters is what other experts on a topic have to say about you. How reputation is determined varies greatly for different topics. For a medical site, being recognized by other medical experts speaks to E-E-A-T. For a recipe site, popularity and being known for having good recipes may be more important.

It's worth noting that Google's algorithms are weighted, which means that authoritative sources like news articles may still be able to rank competitively against content written from firsthand experience.

Advice for demonstrating first-hand expertise and experience

First, have first hand expertise and experience!

If your goal is to determine how to demonstrate first hand expertise when none is actually present, you will have difficulty!

Will it help to add an expert author or expert reviewer? Perhaps. Adding quotes from experts can help. Not just any quote. Try to get quotes that truly make your content more helpful.

However, if Google's algorithms are heavily weighting expertise for your queries you may find that it is difficult to rank unless you can truly be known as THE place to go for information on a topic.

To demonstrate first hand expertise, you can get clues from Google's documentation on creating helpful content:

  • Provide original reporting, research or analysis that a user would find helpful.
  • Provide insight that is based on your experience.
  • Brainstorm on how to make your content substantially more valuable by drawing on your expertise and data.
  • Demonstrate your expertise using images and video.

How the HCU works

The helpful content system uses a machine learned algorithm that is constantly improving in order to help Google identify content that is helpful. The December 5 update represents an improvement to how Google detects unhelpful content.

If a website was negatively impacted by the December Helpful Content Update (HCU), it may be necessary to take steps to address any issues with the content on the site. This could involve removing unhelpful or low-quality content, as well as improving the way that helpful content is presented and organized on the site. Once these changes have been made, it may be necessary to wait for the helpful content classifier to recognize that the content on the site is now more helpful and valuable to users. This process could take some time, and it may be necessary to be patient while the classifier adjusts to the changes made to the site's content.

Google's documentation on how the hcu classifier works

Recovery from a December HCU hit - how long will it take?

To recover you will need to identify why you were hit and then remove or greatly improve the offending content from your site. If you've been using AI to generate text to populate keywords on the page in an attempt to make them more relevant it may be worth considering removing some of this text. Better yet, add more text that is uniquely relevant and truly helpful when it comes to answering the searcher's fundamental need.

Once the "unhelpful" classification is placed on your site, Google's algorithms want to see not only that the unhelpful content has been removed, but that it has remained that way for several months.

HCU documentation on recovery

The helpful content system is continually running. If you were impacted by the December HCU I'd recommend thoroughly reading all of the following:

Danny Sullivan from Google clarified that if you were hit by the first HCU and have improved your site, you may see recovery with this update.

 

HCU recovery stories (coming soon)

I will report back as I hear of cases where sites have recovered from an Aug 25, 2022 helpful content update hit.

 

Professional help and assessment

Because the helpful content system is new, there are no SEO professionals who thoroughly understand how it works and how to recover. But there are many who stay abreast of what Google's algorithms are doing. I would be happy to recommend someone you can consult with.

My recommendations if you want to learn more

I am currently on a sabbatical from client work as I am working on my new book. However, I am analyzing sites hit by the December HCU so that I can better understand what Google is doing. While I can't promise you an answer, the more who submit information to help me the better I can advise people on recovery.

Update: I am creating a tool that will allow you to easily assess which update has hit you. I'll be testing it out on submitted sites (and I'll send you the results as well - no charge.)

Submit your site to help with Marie's research

You can use this form to submit your site and be notified once my tool is ready.

or

Use this form to sign up for my waiting list once I resume personally doing site reviews.

Newsletter signup

Every week I write a LOT to help website owners understand Google's rapidly changing algorithms. The basics of what you need to know are in the free version.

Or, for $18 you can sign up for the paid version where I share as much as I can to help us improve in the eyes of Google's algorithms.

Google update newsletter

Want an update when Google makes a big algorithm change or other announcement? Sign up here!

This is a weekly newsletter. We will never send spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit