Insights / SEO

PUBLISHED: Aug 18, 2022 8 min read

Google’s ‘Helpful Content Update’ to Devalue ‘Search-Engine First’ Content and Elevate Authentic, Expert Voices in Search

Lily Ray

Lily Ray

Vice President, SEO Strategy & Research

Jump to: What is the Helpful Content Update | Avoiding Search Engine-First Content | Expanding Google’s New Quality Guidelines Beyond Product Reviews | Another Product Review Update | The Importance of Expertise and Authenticity | How to Adapt Your SEO Strategy

What is the ‘Helpful Content Update’ and How Does it Work?

On August 18, 2022, Google announced a significant update to its algorithms, named the “helpful content update.” This update will allow Google to distinguish content primarily written for search engines from content that is actually helpful and authentic for users. Alongside this update, they released an announcement, “More content by people, for people in Search.” It corresponds with an article titled “What creators should know about Google’s helpful content update,” which lays out the quality criteria Google is evaluating as part of this update.

The update will begin rolling out on the week of August 22, 2022 for English searches globally and later in other languages.

One important and interesting aspect of this update is that it is site-wide; meaning that if Google determines that a significant portion of your website’s content is considered ‘search engine-first,’ it can lower the rankings of all the content on your site, including high-quality pages. Of course, the helpful content update will serve as one of many factors in Google’s ranking algorithms, so it may be difficult to discern if any ranking changes are directly due to this update.

Google also notes that any site that is negatively impacted by the helpful content update may have the signal applied to their sites for “over a period of months.” If a long-term pattern is established of the ‘search engine-first’ content being removed or improved, the site may begin to see a recovery.

Google has also indicated that subdomains may be treated differently during this update:

How Do You Avoid a Search Engine-First Approach to Writing Content?

According to Google, answering ‘yes’ to the below questions may indicate that your content is primarily written for search engines, not humans:

  • 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, Google doesn’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?

How did we get here? For years, the SEO industry has influenced the type of content we see on the internet, and while many SEO agencies (like ours!) work to improve content quality and eliminate low-quality SEO content, other SEO strategies have unfortunately led to vast amounts of low-quality information on the internet. In the past, this content may have ranked well when search engine algorithms were not as sophisticated, but that has changed in recent years as Google has made significant advancements in natural language processing.

What does SEO-first content look like? Most of us have experienced it. Perhaps you’re looking for a recipe or a specific store location, and you are bombarded with a bunch of irrelevant information, or “fluff content,” containing all the possible keywords and modifiers the page aspires to rank for.

White background with text: Vegan Berlin Guide 2022 - Best Vegan Restaurants in Berlin, Published: February 28, 2022, Vegan Berlin? Yes, that's a pretty accurate description of the city. There are so many options it's hard to know what the best vegan restaurants in Berlin are. Well... I'm here to help!
An example of SEO-first content

While these tactics did work to achieve SEO success for many years, they are becoming outdated as Google makes significant advancements in its ability to process natural language. With new language models like MUM, Google’s technological improvements in its ability to understand language will continue to make these outdated, spammy SEO tactics a thing of the past.

However, the damage has already been done with regard to Google’s reputation for ranking content filled with SEO-first content. In the past several years, Google has begun to face increasing criticism for this issue, especially among internet forums like Reddit:

This criticism especially appears to be true for affiliate content, where the author has a financial incentive to entice users to click on the links on the page. In a scathing article in The Atlantic called The Open Secret of Google Search, author Charlie Warzel cited an engineer Dmitri Brereton, whose article about the downfall of Google recently went viral. According to Brereton:

“Most of the web has become too inauthentic to trust,” Brereton argued, therefore, “we resort to using Google, and appending the word ‘reddit’ to the end of our queries.” Brereton cited Google Trends data which shows that people are searching the word reddit on Google more than ever before.

Likely as a response to these concerns, and in an overall effort to improve the quality of search results, Google launched a series of updates called the Product Reviews Updates. These updates were intended for Google’s algorithms to identify which authors were true experts and enthusiasts who legitimately spent time reviewing the products they wrote about, as opposed to affiliate marketers looking to exploit SEO tactics to make affiliate commissions without actually testing the products.

Expanding Google’s New Quality Guidelines Beyond Product Reviews

With Google’s new update, it appears they are expanding the approaches used in the Product Review Updates to elevate “human-first’” content and expanding that to all areas of search. According to Google, this will especially impact “online educational materials, arts and entertainment, shopping, and tech-related content.”

Google will now look to increase the rankings of content that includes perspectives beyond what’s available elsewhere on the web. This is in an effort to increase authenticity and avoid a set of search results that all say the same thing, which creates a poor searcher experience.

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Another Product Review Update

Despite the fact that Google just launched the 4th rendition of the Product Reviews Update last month, Google announced yet another refinement to this update, which will make it “even easier to find high-quality, original reviews.”

You can see some of the outcomes of these updates working as intended simply by searching for “best tweezers.” The number 1 ranking result shows ample evidence that the authors and collaborators did the necessary research to earn this top result:

White background with text: Reviews, Product Reviews, We tested 18 Tweezers -- These 5 Were the Best at Removing Brow Hair and further description text

The Importance of Expertise and Authenticity

This update did not come as a surprise to our SEO team, who has been laser-focused on the role of E-A-T in SEO for the past several years, especially with regard to incorporating real expertise into our content strategies.

This year, I spoke at various SEO conferences about the role of expertise in SEO, and how I think Google is getting better at algorithmically determining what is authentic, expert content as opposed to information they’ve already found elsewhere that doesn’t offer anything new.

For more information about the importance of expertise in SEO, you can read our article, “Why Expertise is the Most Important Ranking Factor of Them All.”

How to Adapt Your SEO Strategy to Elevate Authentic Voices

If your SEO strategy has been focused on providing high-quality, valuable, helpful content, it’s quite likely this update won’t have a negative impact on your site. If not, there are steps you can take to adapt to this update and position yourself better for Google’s new system of evaluating content:

  1. Conduct an objective analysis of your content to evaluate its quality and the extent to which it meets users’ expectations
  2. This may require bringing in objective 3rd parties to conduct user testing as a means of evaluating content quality
  3. Eliminate or significantly update content you believe might be considered “SEO-first” and is not valuable for users
  4. If there is a significant amount of this content on your site and it delivers no value (traffic, conversions, any other focus KPI), consider deleting, noindexing, or consolidating into another relevant location on your site
  5. Bring real experts into your content strategy – whether through direct contributions to the article, interviews, or receiving quotes from experts, this can help demonstrate authenticity
  6. Don’t rely on keyword research tools and reverse-engineering what everyone else has already written as your content strategy. Google is getting better at identifying when articles all say the same thing. Google wants unique perspectives, which can only come from actual humans with expertise

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Want to know more now? Read Why Expertise is the Most Important Ranking Factor of Them All