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Google’s new helpful content update targets sites creating content for search engines first

Google has announced a new large search algorithm update the search company named the helpful content update that targets websites that has a relatively high amount of unsatisfying or unhelpful content, where the content is written for search engines first. This update will be rolling out soon and will have a meaningful impact on the search results, Google told us.

Helpful content targets search engine first content. Google explained this new helpful content update specifically targets “content that seems to have been primarily created for ranking well in search engines rather than to help or inform people.” This update aims at helping searchers find “high-quality content,” the search company told us. Google wants to reward better and more useful content that was written for humans and to help users.

Content written for the purpose of ranking in search engines, maybe called search engine first content, has been a topic coming up more and more across social media and other areas. In short, searchers are getting frustrated with landing on web pages that do not help them but rank well in search because they were designed to rank well. This algorithm aims to downgrade those types of websites while promoting more helpful websites, designed for humans, above search engines.

Google said this is an “ongoing effort to reduce low-quality content and make it easier to find content that feels authentic and useful in Search.” This targets content written for search engines over human-first content.

Timeline. The update will roll out next week and will take up to two weeks to fully roll out, the search company said. Google will post on its updates page when it launches and when it is done rolling out, we will also post a new story when it begins rolling out and when it is completed here on Search Engine Land.

Most impacted areas. While Google explained these algorithms do not specifically target any specific niche, online educational materials, as well as arts & entertainment, shopping, and tech-related content may be impacted the most. This is because content written in those areas has historically been written more for search engines than humans, and thus based on Google’s analysis, those areas may be more impacted by this Google helpful content update than other areas.

US English. Google said this update right now launches for English searches language globally and Google said it plans to expand to other languages in the future.

Examples. Google provided an example saying, “if you search for information about a new movie, you might have previously encountered articles that aggregated reviews from other sites without adding perspectives beyond what’s available elsewhere on the web. This isn’t very helpful if you’re expecting to read something new. With this update, you’ll see more results with unique information, so you’re more likely to read something you haven’t seen before.”

Sitewide target. Unlike many Google algorithms that get applied on a page-by-page basis, this new helpful content update will be sitewide. That means that if Google determines your site is producing a relatively high amount of unhelpful content, primarily written for ranking in search, then your whole site will be impacted. This will not just impact individual pages or sections of your site, but rather, it will impact the whole site.

Google won’t say exactly what percentage of the pages on your site need to be helpful versus unhelpful to trigger this classifier but they did say it is sitewide and will impact the whole site, even if you have many pages that are helpful. Again, if you have helpful pages but a relatively high amount of your content is unhelpful, even your helpful content or sections of your site will be hit by this update.

Google said “removing unhelpful content could help the rankings of your other content.”

Search-only right now. Google told us this update targets only Google Search right now but Google may look to cover additional products in the coming months, such as Google Discover and other Google surfaces.

Recovery times. Google explained that this algorithm will run automatically and the scores or classifiers will continue to update all the time. But if a site gets hit by this helpful content update, it can take several months for the site to recover. A site needs to prove itself over time that it no longer publishes content with the sole reason to rank in search engines, a search engine first content experience, and that takes time.

So there does seem to be some waiting period, maybe a validation period, that sites need to go through, to show Google’s algorithms that the site is providing helpful content to humans first.

This validation period is automated and while Google updates the scores for its classifiers on your site on an ongoing basis, making a change today, likely won’t be reflected in Google’s rankings for several months, Danny Sullivan of Google told Search Engine Land.

Google said in its Search Central blog post “sites identified by this update may find the signal applied to them over a period of months. Our classifier for this update runs continuously, allowing it to monitor newly-launched sites and existing ones. As it determines that the unhelpful content has not returned in the long-term, the classification will no longer apply.”

Machine learning. Google told us this is using machine learning to evaluate content that is unhelpful. In fact, this is a new machine learning algorithm that is able to identify such content. The algorithms should get better over time between the automated machine learning improvements and Google engineers tweaking and improving the overall algorithms on a regular basis.

Google said this helpful content update looks at a variety of signals about the page and site to determine the ranking of a page. Google was not specific with us on exactly which signals are used, as you would imagine.

Quality raters validated. Google said the search company validated these new results with its quality raters and confirmed that using this system improves Google’s search quality. This is done for most, if not all, ranking and user experience improvements Google makes to search.

Again, the quality raters do not directly influence the rankings but rather help confirm to Google’s search engineers if the algorithms are making improvements to the overall search quality.

Panda ring a bell. For many SEOs who lived through the Google Panda update of February 2012, it forever changed how SEOs recommended you write content going forward. This update sounds a lot like the past Panda update. Now Panda is built into the core update, so it is still being used today.

I suspect, like with Panda, SEOs will look back at this helpful content update and say this Google update caused a fundamental shift in SEO content strategy. Of course, time will tell, and we will see how large of an update this is over the course of the next few weeks.

Google advice. Google, like with previous updates, like the Panda update, core updates, and product reviews update, has provided a list of questions you can ask yourself about your content, in order to build content that is rewarded by the helpful content update.

Google shared these questions around did you build human-first content:

  • Do you have an existing or intended audience for your business or site that would find the content useful if they came directly to you? 
  • Does your content clearly demonstrate first-hand expertise and a depth of knowledge (for example, expertise that comes from having actually used a product or service, or visiting a place)?
  • Does your site have a primary purpose or focus?
  • After reading your content, will someone leave feeling they’ve learned enough about a topic to help achieve their goal?
  • Will someone reading your content leave feeling like they’ve had a satisfying experience?
  • Are you keeping in mind our guidance for core updates and for product reviews?

And when it comes to avoiding search-engine first content, Google laid out these questions:

  • 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, we don’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?

Why we care. This helpful content update will likely be a significant update that SEOs will look back at as the catalyst of change in terms of the advice SEOs gives clients when building out content. It is too soon to tell how big of an update this will be, and how much it may impact you or your client’s sites. But you should stay on top of this update, and if necessary, reevaluate your content strategy around the advice Google has provided above.

We hope you all benefited from this update and if not, we hope you recover quickly.

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About The Author

Barry Schwartz a Contributing Editor to Search Engine Land and a member of the programming team for SMX events. He owns RustyBrick, a NY based web consulting firm. He also runs Search Engine Roundtable, a popular search blog on very advanced SEM topics. Barry can be followed on Twitter here.