Newest information: The December 2022 Helpful Content Update.

I think the helpful content update is going to cause so much confusion and panic amongst SEOs and site owners.

Google’s helpful content update may drastically shake the SEO world. So far it's been rather quiet, with just a small handful of sites reporting being hit.

With this update, Google’s goal is to promote content that focuses on truly helping people rather than existing primarily for search engines. Their announcement on the update says they want to reward content created primarily to help people and hints that content that is created with search engines in mind first may take a significant hit.

I was honoured to be invited to discuss this update with Google’s Danny Sullivan a few days before the announcement went live. Google wanted to help the SEO community understand that this update was not designed to be an attack on SEO. In fact they say in their announcement, “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.” 

The update has the potential to be devastating for sites creating content primarily for search engine traffic while rewarding content geared towards truly helping people.

I anticipate the types of sites affected by this update will include:

  • AI generated content
  • “Niche sites” unless they truly do a good job of demonstrating expertise and fully satisfying the searcher’s needs
  • Sites that do little more than aggregate information from other sites
  • Affiliate heavy sites (although many of these were already strongly impacted by the July 2022 product reviews update.)

At this point, we can only speculate on what this update will look like. I really do feel it will be a big one, but perhaps it will only affect the spammiest of sites that are still finding ways to rank on Google.

The latest news on the helpful content update

We'll keep our newsletter readers up to date with everything that we learn that could help us understand this update. For now, here is some of the most interesting info we have found so far:

Noindexing content is likely just as good as removing. But John cautions that sites with problems likely don't just have a few pages to noindex. There needs to be evidence of good, helpful pages on the site (my thought - probably the majority of the site) as well.

Cleaning up your content is good - but it won't help you do better in the initial rollout. The helpful content update has a classifier that needs to gather information and make decisions. John says the data the classifier has collected for the initial rollout is likely already compiled.

Discover traffic is not impacted (at least with the initial rollout)

However, when John Mueller was asked this, he responded by saying, "Bigger updates tend to affect most parts of search." It makes sense to us that sites affected by this update in organic search will also see declines in Discover as organic search ranking is likely taken into account in Discover algorithms.

All content on your pages is evaluated - including user generated/submitted content

This isn't the end. Looks like we're in for a wild ride.

Google's blog post mentions the update will have impact for sites related to online education, arts and entertainment, shopping and tech related content. But Danny Sullivan said it's not targeting any particular category. It's just that their pre-launch tests have shown that much of the content that will be affected by the update come from these categories.

The classifier that determines if a site has a lot of unhelpful content has already been at work understanding content.

It has started off slow, but may pick up speed

It is not a core update

When Google makes changes to the classifier they may or may not tell us

There's a feedback form you can use to submit your site if you think you've been unfairly hit

Danny Sullivan says the update has been impactful for sites affected

We may see more of an impact when Google runs another significant update like a core update or product reviews

Is the helpful content update a penalty for SEO heavy sites?

Google’s wording is interesting. Rather than calling this a penalty, they’ve asked us to think of this change as a “signal” that is applied to the entire site. This reminds me of the early versions of Google’s Penguin algorithm. Sites identified with a Penguin/Panda filter were not technically “penalized” by Google, but suffered immensely in their ability to rank until the issues were cleaned up and Google reran the algorithm that caused the suppression. It sounds like this new signal will act in a similar manner. However, in this case we will not see regularly updates or refreshes of the algorithm. It runs continuously and sites that improve their content can have the sitewide signal reduced or lifted within a few months of Google detecting improvement.

What you need to know about this signal

  • It is applied sitewide - if Google applies this signal to your site, the entire site is likely going to suffer when it comes to ranking.
  • The effect is weighted, so some sites will feel it more than others.
  • It is applied to sites that have “relatively high amounts of unhelpful content” (see below).
  • The model that applies this signal to sites is running continuously “allowing it to monitor newly-launched sites and existing ones.”
  • The process is automated so it’s not a manual action. It is automated using a machine learning model which means it is continually learning and changing.
  • Sites can recover after being hit. Removing “unhelpful content” is key. Once the signal has been applied to your site, if you make changes it will take a few months for recovery to be felt.
  • It affects English searches only for now (globally). 

What is “unhelpful content”? Why were you hit?

Google says that unhelpful content is content that was designed more for search engines than for people. Below is a list of the criteria Google lists as things we should be worried about. 

Sites that produce large amounts of content based on what is likely to rank (as opposed to based on the legitimate interest of their users) should be concerned. 

  • 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?

Search Engine Land  asked me to write my thoughts on this update. I have expounded more on my thoughts on these questions in this article (to be published soon).

What actually is considered helpful content?

Helpful content is content that was created with people in mind rather than search engines. One tip I use to decide whether content is truly “people-first” rather than created for search engines is to ask my client whether this content would exist if search engines did not exist. Would you still be creating this resource to help your clients or audience were it not for Google?

Here is what Google says:

  • 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?


How to recover from a helpful content update hit

It will likely take a few months before we start seeing sites recover from this update. As mentioned above, if the signal is applied to your site, it will stay there for a few months. When we help sites try and recover from this update, here is what we likely will be focusing on. 

  • Identifying which content is created primarily to try and rank and coming up with a strategy for noindexing, removing, or improving this content.
  • Ensuring that first hand expertise on your topic is demonstrated on your site, and find ways to get others in your industry to recognize you as having expertise and knowledge on your topics.
  • Revamping content and improving E-A-T based on the questions Google says to ask in their blog post on what site owners should know about core updates, their guide to writing product reviews, and also their guide to affiliate content. This may include:
    • better demonstrating first hand expertise
    • doing more to become known as an expert by others (i.e. good content marketing and PR)
    • finding ways to make content as valuable as possible to searchers
    • focusing on understanding what the searcher intends to do and find and delivering content that meets that need
  • Clarifying what the purpose or focus of each page is (and ensuring that this focus is first and foremost meant to help people.)
  • Comparing what type of content Google is ranking from competitors for inspiration.

We will adapt our advice as we learn more about what types of sites are affected and study recovery cases as they arise. I expect it will take drastic changes for most sites that are negatively affected to be able to recover. In some cases recovery of rankings may not be possible.

If you have theories on what Google is doing with this update or questions that I can answer, I'd love for you to leave a comment below. This will be an interesting one to watch!