While I normally would not write a blog post before an update is finished, with the level of panic I’m seeing on Twitter, I wanted to get something out to help you understand what likely is happening to your site.
Bottom line: If your site experienced declines after the September 2023 Helpful Content Update, it’s likely because your success has been largely reliant on SEO tactics. I’m still analyzing the data, but there’s strong reason to believe that this update demotes content lacking in real-world experience, or not recognized as a go-to source on its topic. While Google has not confirmed whether this update also promoted content, it’s evident that platforms featuring user generated content – real people sharing authentic experiences – have fared well.
Submit your site to help my analysis. (You’ll get a summarized copy of my notes and thoughts about the update once complete.)
As I write this, the September helpful content update is still rolling out. This update improves Google’s classifier that determines whether content is likely to be helpful. While the rollout started on September 14, around September 19, it came down in full force on many blogs, niche sites and recipe sites as well.
In my previous blog post I shared in great detail on what changed with the September 14 helpful content update. Google mentioned that unhelpful content on subdomains can impact your entire site. Although, Gary Illyes said at Pubcon that this has not yet gone live. (I’ll have a blog post out soon with more on what Gary said at Pubcon.) There were also some wording changes worth noting such as “written for people” changed to “created for people” which opens the door for more AI-assisted content.
From what we’ve seen so far, I think the most important change that happened with this helpful content update is that Google’s model of helpfulness changed to better reward first hand experience.
The September Helpful Content update feels similar to the early days of Penguin in regards to its impact.
Early Insights and Reports From Across the SEO Industry
There are many reports on Twitter of sites with dramatic losses in Google traffic.
Shared by Ken (@Nicherealchemist)
Shared by Jason (@nichebrew).
Recipe sites impacted
- Bloggers with health claims in recipes without proper support saw decline.
- Sites with excessive, unnecessary content also dropped (long background sections).
- Some had allowed ad companies to take over their Jump buttons so that jump to recipe was actually jump to ad.
- Gluten free and dietary specific sites saw Google change the top results to move a People-Also-Ask result higher in the search results, then show the corporate sites, then gluten-specific niche sites.
Lily Ray has been looking at affected sites. Here is a summary of her thoughts based on the sites she has seen so far.
- Homepages have no context about the brand but just articles and links to affiliate sites.
- Trying to rank for lots of topics without depth or value.
- Creating product reviews based on what others have said online.
- Website really only exists to make money .
- Poor UX.
Why sites are seeing traffic declines
The helpful content system is an AI system that can classify your site as unhelpful.
The system generates a signal Google uses in making ranking decisions. If your traffic from Google has declined dramatically in conjunction with this rollout (September 14 – ongoing at the time of writing this), it likely means that the helpful content system has classified your site as “having little value, low-added value or is otherwise, not particularly helpful to people.”
This classification is site-wide.
I think of it like your site having a flag on it that tells Google that in general, your content is not the one that searchers are likely to find the most helpful.
How does Google determine helpfulness?
This system is a machine learning system. It uses examples labelled as helpful and unhelpful to create a model of the type of content searchers tend to find helpful. Those examples are provided by Google’s quality raters.
If you want to understand this further, I wrote an article you can read here about how Google’s Helpful Content and other AI systems might be impacting your visibility.
Really though, we don’t need to know the mathematics and complexities behind how Google creates this model. We already know what it is built to reward. The more we align with Google’s helpful content questions, the more likely we are to be seen as helpful in Google’s complex mixture of algorithms and systems.
If you were impacted by the September helpful content update, it’s likely related to experience
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.”
If you were affected by this update, it’s likely because Google’s model that predicts whether content is likely to help users has now been trained on examples demonstrating real world 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.
I’ll be soon doing some free Webinars and discussions to try and understand more about what and who is impacted. Trying this out for the first time in my new community. Stay tuned for more info on these.
Can you recover?
I believe some of you can recover. I’ll share more shortly on why. I believe that many of the sites that suffered declines will not see recovery.
The classification will remain on your site for a few months. Google’s documentation says the “classifier runs continuously, allowing it to monitor newly-launched sites and existing ones. As it determines that the unhelpful content hasn’t returned in the long-term, the classification will no longer apply.”
The documentation says we should self assess our content across their guidance. They previously only spoke of removing unhelpful content. I was pleased to see that the new version of this document says, “you should self-assess your content and fix or remove any that seems unhelpful.”
You may be able to “fix” your unhelpful content.
How do you know which content is unhelpful?
I have a whole book to help you decide what Google may or may not be considering unhelpful. In many cases, you will have difficult decisions to make because Google doesn’t tell us exactly what caused us to not align with their model of helpfulness. The exercises in the workbook are designed to help you think like a quality rater is trained to do – to understand the intent of your searchers and provide them with content that truly is helpful.
The most obvious type of unhelpful content that I have seen while analyzing sites impacted by previous helpful content updates is content that essentially summarizes what others are saying.
The very first helpful content question is, “Does the content provide original information, reporting, research, or analysis.”
It is not enough to just be original in terms of words. If you haven’t yet read it, read this Google patent on Information gain. There’s no need for Google to show the searcher multiple copies of essentially the same information. This is even more important as we see more searches done with Bard or SGE.
The way I see it, as we move more towards Google being an AI answer engine, the websites that will still be sought out by searchers will include:
- Sites known as one of the go-to sources of information for your topic.
- Sites with truly helpful content that you’d want to see beyond a basic informational answer. The kind of site you’d want to bookmark or send to a friend…which, again, is part of the helpful content criteria.
- Content that offers information gain, or in other words, information that the searcher would likely want to see alongside what’s already been shown. This is generally borne from first hand experience.
There’s little we know about how to recover from a helpful content suppression. Google’s documentation tells us to remove unhelpful content, but they don’t tell us specifically what that is. Likely, just removing content is not enough. You will need to become helpful enough for Google to consistently want to chose your site to help searchers.
The model is always changing as it learns what is and isn’t likely to be helpful. While I have seen some cases I would call a recovery from previous helpful content updates, it’s impossible to say whether they recovered because of their efforts in improving, or whether the model just shifted. For example, one site I have worked with in the past was seeing incredible gains. Yet, they haven’t implemented any of my advice yet. They are real life practitioners, with real life stores, customers and experience.
I don’t think anyone knows exactly what it takes to recover from being negatively impacted by the helpful content system. I believe that many sites that were impacted will not recover.
With that said, I do think that this will be a wake up call that sparks a whole new exciting time for some bloggers.
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. This weekend, I walked through my garden and used Google Lens and Bard to ask questions like, “What are these holes on my grape leaves”, or “How do I prune this plant?” Bard 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!
If you are heavily impacted by this update here are my recommendations:
This is unlikely to roll back
John Mueller confirmed this. These changes are likely going to stay. Some sites may fluctuate in rankings as Google’s model continues to learn what is and isn’t helpful. But, if you were strongly impacted, you will likely need to make significant changes in order to recover. If you are lacking real world experience it will be very difficult.
As mentioned above, I think we’re in for a new era in the types of sites Google is rewarding. If you want to experiment, here is what I’d recommend at this point:
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.
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 Bard answers as these are a great way to showcase experience.
Summing it all up
The September 2023 helpful content update is having a significant negative impact on many sites. In many cases it is affecting content that lacks real world experience. Another culprit is a lack of originally helpful information. If impacted, it means that Google has placed a classifier on your site indicating 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 what remains. After a few months, you may find the unhelpful classification lifts.
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.
Want to work on improving content?
This workbook has loads of exercises to help you think like a quality rater, and understand what it is that Google’s algorithms are built to reward.
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.