Unpacking Google’s ‘Helpful Content Update’
Google recently announced its latest algorithm update, the “Helpful Content Update,” and it’s something all online creators should watch. Rolling out to results pages in English during late August and early September, this update was received by some with open arms but has also been the target of a fair amount of criticism. Let’s look at what this Helpful Content Update is and how it has impacted small businesses worldwide.
What is the Helpful Content Update?
Google’s Helpful Content Update (HCU) is the latest algorithm update released by the search engine giant. The goal of this update (according to Google’s PR team) is to prioritize “people-first” content within its search rankings. This means that content deemed helpful by Google’s algorithms will be placed higher in the rankings, while content deemed not helpful will be pushed lower.
To achieve its goals, Google attempts to identify factors such as intended audience, thoroughness, and proof of first-hand expertise. Helpful content, in terms of this Google update, must have a primary focus and leave the reader with a “satisfying experience,” while unhelpful content seems geared to attract search engines rather than people and leaves readers feeling like they need to search again to find answers.
Another determination made by HCU relates to whether or not the content seems generated by AI or written by a real human. If an article or page has odd word substitutions or unnatural phrasing, Google might flag the content as computer-generated and penalize its rankings.
In the HCU announcement, Google alludes to quality markers such as expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. But as in the past, this process makes many ask if Google’s algorithm can correctly assess these metrics without penalizing some authoritative sites and rewarding some suspicious ones by mistake. We know firsthand the negative impact of Google’s mistakes, with some of our customers’ websites incorrectly flagged as deceptive by Chrome in the past.
There was also criticism from the SEO community that suggested that the rollout of the Helpful Content Update was not just a routine technical update but also a PR campaign. As reported by Torque Magazine, unlike previous Panda and Penguin updates, Google announced the HCU update beforehand and explicitly got in touch with SEO influencers to help share the details. That, combined with a negligible observable effect, led some to believe that this was more about improving Google’s relationship with content creators than improving its tech.
Understanding Google’s ranking signals
To understand how the Helpful Content Update works, it’s important to understand how Google ranks content in general. Google uses dozens of signals to determine the relevance of content to a particular search query. These signals include keyword frequency, freshness, domain authority, backlinks, and more. All of these signals combined help Google determine which content is the most relevant to a particular query.
For the most part, Google is really good at this. That’s why it’s the number one search engine in the world. But with an arguable monopoly on search traffic, not everyone can be a winner. And sometimes, even solid and valuable players get cut from the page-one lineup.
Will the HCU bring users back to Google Search?
If Google wants to stay at the top, it must change public opinion about the growing number of no-click organic searches. As mentioned, some marketing influencers have dismissed HCU as a public relations campaign to bring ex-pat content creators back to Google. But while some analysts forecast a losing season in the near future, it’s difficult to say if Google has reached its peak market share as it varies across locations.
According to StatCounter, as of December 2022, Google’s global search engine market share was 91.88%. However, in some countries and regions, Google’s market share fluctuates between 86%-96%. And YouTube competitors like Rumble and TikTok are gaining popularity, too.
As we’ve explored in the past, it’s difficult to predict the ever-evolving online habits of human beings. Still, Google’s Helpful Content Update is another step further away from the HTML-hacking SEO practices of the past. History has shown that technology companies often copycat each other. Therefore this could be the start of a significant trend toward more people-first technology.