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What does Google Search’s helpful ‘content system’ mean for your website?

Published Jul 26, 2023 – By Lulu Trask

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The recent update from Google Search is hard to miss. Whether you’re doing research on SEO strategy or prioritising people-first content, checking in on your weekly/daily Google Analytics, brainstorming quality content or analysing the user experience, it’s all connected to this update. The term ‘Google Search’s helpful content system’ is rather longwinded, but is referred to in a number ways, including ‘Google’s helpful search’ or the ‘Google helpful content update’– and it’s changing things behind the scenes. Here, we break down what you need to know.

What is Google Search’s helpful content system?

The content system, rolled out in August 2022, generates a signal for Google’s automated ranking systems that means people are more likely to see original, helpful content written by people, for people, in their search results. (You can read Google’s summary of its helpful content system here.)

The aim of the algorithm update is to better reward content that has provided individuals with a satisfying user experience. This is great news if you’re a content creator or in content marketing, because it means quality content is being identified and prioritised in search results.

What does this mean in practice?

The ‘Google helpful content update’ means that we’re seeing a shift from search engine-first content to people-first content. Search words still matter (notice how many times we’ve referenced ‘helpful content’!) but in the recent past the main goal of businesses and websites was to tick technical SEO boxes to improve their Google ranking. This approach, having resulted in a sea of low-quality content and, therefore, low search engine rankings, will no longer work. However, for those businesses and websites that have always put the user experience first, it’s time to shine.

What is ‘unhelpful content’ and how will it impact my website?

You won’t find any information about the latest update without reading the term ‘unhelpful content’. This is any content that the algorithm identifies as not satisfying the user experience – in other words, low-quality content.

It could be that the content doesn’t actually answer the user’s question, or doesn’t provide them with enough information, leaving them clicking from page to page (something you wouldn’t do if you were immersed in an insightful, helpful piece of content).

Google periodically refines how it detects ‘unhelpful content’, and any noteworthy changes to the algorithm are shared as a ‘helpful content update’ on the Google Search ranking updates page.

The new ‘helpful content system’ takes into account the volume of ‘unhelpful content’ across an entire website – not just an individual page. So, if a website is deemed to have a relatively high volume of unhelpful content overall – even if some of the content on your site is helpful – your website is less likely to perform well in a Google search. This is also weighted, so the more unhelpful content you have, the worse your website will perform. Simple.

But, before the content marketing team rushes to remove this content from your website, remember that some ‘people first content', might still rank well if the algorithm identifies other signals that deem it helpful (even if the content isn’t relevant or helpful). This is where a deeper content audit comes into play (more on this below).

Is SEO still important?

Luckily (because many content marketing teams have put a lot of effort into their technical SEO), the use of SEO remains important. But rather than create content – which could at times be classified as unhelpful – to satisfy SEO needs, SEO should support the creation of people-first, high-quality website content. Google describes SEO as “a helpful activity when it is applied to people-first content”. Google actually advises that you “avoid creating search engine-first content” to be successful with Google Search. A hard balance to strike.

What impact will artificial intelligence (AI) have?

Artificial intelligence can support with elements of technical SE0, but where we’ve all seen AI show weakness is in its utter inability to be ‘human’. So, a move to human-first content signifies exactly that – human content first, AI content second.

In fact, Google even points to “using extensive automation to produce content on many topics” as one of the identifiers of search engine-first content – which it is actively telling you avoid. It even mentions the use of artificial intelligence to produce content for the primary purpose of manipulating search rankings as “a violation of our spam policies”. So, in our opinion, tread lightly on the side of AI when it comes to optimising your search ranking – if you are experimenting with the technology.

How do I know if the content on my website is helpful or unhelpful?

A content marketing team focused on creating high-quality content should be able to identify its quality by simply reading it. But Google Analytics will play a valuable tool too. The helpful content system was rolled out in August 2022, so by viewing analytics prior to and post the rollout, you should be able to identify what the algorithm update has identified as ‘helpful content’.

Then, dive deeper into those pages and look at what they contain that has led to these results. For example:

  • Is the content original?
  • Is the content comprehensive?
  • Is the content insightful?
  • Does the content provide significant value when compared to its competitors in the search results?
  • Does the content appear sloppy or hastily produced?

Google provides a full list of questions to help you identify the quality of your content.

Why are you creating content?

This, according to Google, is what it all comes down to. If you’re creating content to offer helpful insight and information to your audience, and your content does this, then the algorithm will favour your website. If your content creation is founded on attracting search engine visits, Google will identify your website as a home of unhelpful content, and this will be reflected in your site’s search rankings.

Do I need to change my content strategy?

It really depends on the ‘why’ of your content strategy. At the end of the day, you don’t want any low-quality content on your website – that simply isn’t good business. Yes, it means your website will rank less well on a Google search, but really you should only be wanting to provide your audience with helpful, high-quality, valuable content in the first place.

We’d recommend starting with a content audit (read more in our guide on how to get started with a content audit) and a deep dive into Google Analytics for a period before and after the ‘helpful search system’ rollout.

Where you’ve identified unhelpful content, you don’t necessarily need to remove it. If you simply haven’t provided enough insight for your audience, you can expand the content on the page – what can be described as optimisation. An SEO platform could be helpful here in identifying user intent, allowing you to update the content on that page to meet that user intent.

If you identify that you could be producing more people-first content, it’s not just about doing this moving forward. Unhelpful content anywhere on your website will impact your search ranking, so, if you can’t improve or expand on what is there at the moment, removing the unhelpful content is likely to be the best way to improve the ranking of content across your site.

Google Search Helpful Content System: a summary

In short, the Google ‘helpful content update’ will now favour useful content, rather than content that has been manipulated for SEO. So, the challenge is for content marketing strategies and teams to create people-first, rich and in-depth high-quality content. You can use SEO to boost this, but your content must be helpful. If you’ve been prioritising SEO over quality, it’s time to rethink your content strategy.

To learn more about how Wardour can help with your next campaign, pop us an email at hello@wardour.co.uk – we’d love to have a chat with you.

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