In August 2022, Google released an update called Helpful Content Update, or HCU. But, fast forwarding a year, what impact has it actually had?
In this article we take a quick look at:
- What is Google’s Helpful Content Update?
- Why was HCU introduced?
- What has been the impact so far of HCU?
- How does HCU respond to AI-generated content?
- How can you make the most of Google’s Helpful Content Update?
What is Google’s Helpful Content Update?
Google’s Helpful Content Update is designed to reward websites that produce high-quality original content that is written for people rather than primarily to gain search traffic. Websites with content that focuses on providing useful information that readers are actually looking for, and answers to the questions they are asking, are likely to be rewarded under the Helpful Content Update.
Google has shared a set of questions to help you to evaluate your content and ensure that it fits with HCU guidelines. A summary of these questions is below, and full details are available on Google Search Central:
- Would an existing or intended audience find the content useful?
- Does the content clearly demonstrate expertise and knowledge?
- Does your site have a primary purpose or focus?
- Will your content impart enough information about a topic to help someone achieve their goal?
- Will someone reading your content feel as if they’ve had a satisfying experience?
- Are you ever mindful of Google guidance for core updates and product reviews?
Why was HCU introduced?
In Google’s own words, HCU “is part of a broad effort to show more unique, authentic info in results”. Unfortunately, many companies have developed content that focuses overly on keywords, in an attempt to achieve high SERPs rankings. Not only does keyword stuffing make content difficult to read, it can also be frustrating for searchers when a search result is returned because it features the keyword, but does not actually provide the information they were looking for.
While this can be great for website traffic, are they really driving traffic from people who have intent to buy? Content written strictly with SEO and keywords in mind often lacks a human touch. It’s more focused on how many times a word that someone is searching for will be used in their piece than the value it offers their readers.
What has been the impact so far of HCU?
The first version of HCU was released in August 2022, and caused concern in many SEO agencies. However, only 20% of users noticed changes in site rankings after the update.
Amongst the sectors experiencing the most impact were Arts & Entertainment, Travel, Business & Finance, Education & Careers, News & Weather. This is likely to be the case because of the potential for duplicated information between them.
Since then, there has been a global HCU update in December 2022 which means that HCU will now impact all languages and not just the English language. And in May 2023, Google announced that the HCU algorithm will be further updated in the coming months.
The 2023 HCU update will enable Google Search to show more “hidden gems” within search results. The new update will have a greater focus on content with unique expertise and experience, and will have a deeper understanding of content created from a personal or expert point of view.
If you are unfortunate enough to be judged as having violated the HCU guidelines, Google will send a sitewide ranking signal which means that the whole of your site will be impacted, not just the article(s) or page(s) in question.
Note that Google is describing the sanction as a signal rather than a penalty, and it won’t appear in your Google Search Console. But you will begin to see a reduction in organic visibility and traffic.
Whilst it could take several months for your site to recover, the good news is that the signal could be removed much more quickly if the content on your site is judged to have shifted towards being more helpful to searchers. HCU algorithms run continuously, which means that the strength of the signal can be reduced or lifted as soon as your site is in a fit state for that to happen.
So if you think you have been affected by HCU, it is essential that you do an extensive audit of your entire site, and gradually update or delete all content that may not be in line with the guidelines.
By far the better option is to ensure that your content is inline with HCU in the first place. This applies to content generated by AI as well as by human writers. Let’s take a look ….
How does HCU handle AI-generated content?
In 2023 there have been major advances in the way AI is used to generate content. In February, Google addressed this issue by saying that “Our focus on the quality of content, rather than how content is produced, is a useful guide that has helped us deliver reliable, high quality results to users for years.”
In other words, even if you are using AI tools to help research or generate content, it is still essential that you focus on how the finished content will be helpful to the people that you want to attract and retain as customers.
So let’s take a quick look at how you can create content that will fit the bill.
How can you make the most of HCU?
Put simply, to achieve high SERP rankings with HCU, you need to focus on creating helpful content. We saw earlier the list of questions that Google encourages us to use to measure the quality of content. Let’s expand slightly on three aspects covered in the questions that you can focus on to get your content back on track as needed:
Know your intended audience
Make full use of data to gain as much insight as possible into your intended audience. The more you can understand about their demographics and behaviour, the better. So, first off you need to identify demographic patterns such as age, location, and language. Then analyse behaviour and trends such as the proportion of new vs returning visitors, devices used, and a typical customer’s digital journey.
Give the audience what they are looking for
Once you understand the main touch points where a customer interacts with your organisation, you will be better placed to prioritise the information needs of your audience over any kind of sales or promotional message. You may sometimes need to offer answers, information, guidance or entertainment without any particular Call To Action. You need your readers to feel that spending time reading your content has been worthwhile
Make your content authentic and authoritative
Creating authentic content is about much more than avoiding keyword stuffing. It needs to be original and have a ring of truth about it. Whilst it is fine to share factual information that you have researched elsewhere, and may be from those more expert in the subject than you are, this also needs to be topped and tailed with your own experiences and opinions. If you are simply rewriting someone else’s article, you may as well just include a link to that article and save the time and effort of creating your own.
We hope that this article has provided some useful information about how to make Google’s Helpful Content update work for you rather than against you, and use helpful content to keep your rankings as high as they can be.