What is the Helpful Content Update, and What Do You Need to Know About it?

The latest Google update has many website owners worried. Here’s why.

Video transcript:

David: Okay. So, you were asking about the… I forget what they’re calling it. The update…

Dave: The Helpful Content Update. Yeah. Is it coming up, or as you said, it’s already been implemented, or they’re starting it or what?

David: Yeah, they announced it, and they said they’d start it soon. So, soon is now.

Dave: Okay.

David: Well, so what usually happens when Google does an update like this, a significant update, is they roll it out gradually. So, some websites might be seeing it now. But by a certain amount of time, everyone’s going to be under it. And there are all kinds of technical reasons why you’d roll it out like that in case something goes wrong with it. They can identify the problem. But yeah, the Helpful Content Update. What have you heard about the Helpful Content Update date?

Dave: So, I heard about it today because we use Rank Math Pro, and they sent an email out. And it linked to this page with some information, and they have a video talking about it. I just haven’t had a chance to watch it. I thought, oh, I’m going to be on with David and Youssef. Let me ask them.

David: Yeah. Yeah. So, I think I’ve heard, like you, that this is Google’s attempt at getting at AI-generated content. I think there’s some truth to that, but a few weeks ago, maybe a month ago, John Mueller from Google explicitly came out to say that Google does not like AI-generated content. So, it was already on the official record as this is something Google doesn’t want. So, that could have been the warning. And now this is the shots fired. Right? So, if that’s what it’s targeting, AI-generated content, which a lot of people are using, we’ll see how good it is to determine that. Ultimately, I think what this is trying to address is not just AI-generated content. But SEO tacticians, and I will put myself among them, will often generate new content on a regular basis for the purpose of adding new content. So, there’s always been a balance in the SEO world between quantity and quality. Now, good SEOs always err on the side of quality rather than quantity. But quantity works. And if you did nothing but add content to your website on a regular basis, you’re going to see more search traffic. And by the law of large numbers, that search traffic is going to convert. So, there have been some who have SEO strategies that just err on the side of I don’t care what’s on the site, just keep publishing. Now to do that, some people have resorted to AI to generate that kind of content. And this might be an update to get at the AI, but I think it’s an update to get at that strategy of just keep pushing content, regardless of whether or not you’re answering something new or different than anybody else has ever said. Because the word from Google about this update is that the content should be, I wish I could quote it, but the idea is it should be providing new and correct information, not just answering the same questions that a bunch of other websites have already answered.

Dave: Can I ask a question about that, though?

David: Of course, of course.

Dave: When you talk about useful to me, it seems like it’s going to be helpful, even though… I mean, unless it’s something that’s happening in the news today, like the latest on monkeypox or an FBI raid or something like that, it’s not going to be really very new content. It’s hard to get it to be brand new. Right? In other words, you could update things like how to grow a green lawn. Right? How are you going to get something really new?

David: Exactly.

Dave: It’s very, very, very difficult. So, I had always thought that you put your take on it, but it’s important to have that content on your website to be helpful to your clients or somebody coming to your website for something that might be new. Then it’s kind of like, oh, that becomes more of the go-to place for them to get all the content that they need to know about a subject, even if it’s similar to somebody else’s.

David: So, that’s a really interesting thought. And a lot of people have a strategy for their website, whether they think in SEO or not, to do that. But I think that betrays an assumption about how people use websites. I think people use a website because they’re trying to find a solution or information. So, if they find the solution, they’re probably not spending time going through the blog. Maybe they’re using the blog to verify the credibility of a business to see if they’re accurate or something. But people don’t use the RSS feed. Right. Remember the RSS feed and Google reader? And the idea was you should subscribe to your favorite websites, right? And so, you’d read your favorite websites. Well, there are solutions like Feedly, which, frankly, I use every day. That is still out there, and that is stuck with me. A lot of people don’t consume content. They rely on their social media feed as their feed reader and stuff like that. But people don’t typically go, oh, I wonder what Reliable Acorn says today. Right? They don’t go to my website and say, well, what are the latest posts there? They probably are going to the Reliable Acorn site because they’re like, oh, I need an SEO solution. And they find this SEO page. Hopefully, they land on it from a Google search. And then they’re going to click around the site to look at who is this person? What are their credentials? They might look at the blog as another way of evaluating the credentials before they contact. So, having your site be a repository that answers everything on that topic is probably from an era where there was a different approach to websites.

Dave: What you’re basically saying is it’s kind of out of date? And if you’re going to do new content, you should really look at the questions that people are asking, right? Your keyword research. And then when you’re doing your keyword research, obviously you’re going to see what other people’s content is and see what you can add and make helpful or expand or something like that.

 David: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s probably right. But I’ll admit that my guilt sometimes is that I want to write some topics for my client’s sites, and I will just say I just want it unique. And I’m not really necessarily trying to add to the conversation. I just want more content on my clients’ sites. And I think this algorithm is about things like that. Right? So, I have seen some clients who really buy into the idea that we have to publish three times a week, at least. Well, if you’re under that kind of pressure to produce that much content. How much new can you say? If you’re going to stay on topic?

Dave: Oh, yeah. And so, then the other problem that I have with that is from an SEO approach. If we’re doing SEO for a client, how do we get to something that can round out knowledge when we’re writing articles for somebody, but we can’t be the expert? Do you know what I mean? So, I mean, we can be the expert in our own field, but unless we find a content writer who is an actual expert on something… I am thinking about somebody who’s an expert in an area. They’re building themselves as an expert. They’ve got unique content. They’re doing research. I mean, how do you get content writers that good on things?

David: So, for me, because even though I’ll admit that I tend to produce more content as an SEO solution, I do want to focus on quality content.

Dave: Well, I’m not saying it’s not quality.

David: Right. Well, here’s why I compensate for that. Number one, I have my clients, who are the experts in their field, approve the content before it gets published. They’re reviewing it. They can check nuances that… I got some great writers. But they don’t have an engineering degree. They don’t have a law degree. They’re not a doctor. So, we need an expert like that to review it. And the accountability we have is that we’re ghostwriting. So, it’s going in the name of an engineer. That engineer has credentials. They have reviewed the content. It gets published under their name. So therefore, there is some credibility with it. And frankly, that engineer wants to make sure if it’s being published in their name, they’re not saying something that’s wrong. That does create a separate problem, which is even worse with lawyers. Lawyers will never approve anything because their job is to say no. And so, we have to have strategies to adjust to that. But that’s one way I try to make sure that the content we’re publishing for our clients is always the highest quality because we’re never publishing under an anonymous name. We’re publishing under the name of someone at that organization. And we want their approval of the content before it goes live. They will make sure it’s accurate.

Dave: We’re doing the same thing. I think that then what I need to do is make sure that I remind my client to make sure that they review this for accuracy. Please add a little bit here and there. Maybe put a slightly different take on it, word it a little bit differently, and use the appropriate terms or better terms. Because you guys are the experts. So, in other words, I guess maybe the approach is, hey, we’re going to do 95% of the content writing.

David: So, I would say it this way. I would say, “Hey, client, we’re going to publish this under your name as the expert. We want it to reflect you in the best possible light.” I don’t know how valuable it would be to ask them to add stuff because then you get into, well, I’m not going to be able to publish it because I’m waiting on the client, and they don’t really know what to add. But instead, they can catch things. Like one time, I wrote an article for a client, and we mentioned the Red Sox, and they’re like, how dare you? I’m a Yankees fan. Okay. That’s one of those little details that the client’s colleagues might notice if we got wrong. So, we did correct it, and we changed it to Yankees. So, if anybody read it under the client’s name, they would know that. But I hesitate to ask clients to add stuff. Because there is a balance, right? We want quality, but we do need some sense of quantity, as well. We could wait forever to publish the perfect post, but at a certain point, we get diminishing returns if we only publish once a quarter because we have to wait that long to get it perfect.

Dave: Yeah, I hear you. Yeah. Okay.

David: So, that’s one of the things that this is updating, more than AI, but like accuracy. We’ve known lately that Google, from the Mum update algorithm to a degree, is able to judge the veracity of a post. In other words, Google is deciding whether what you’re saying is true or not. It’s not just looking for words to serve up on the page. It’s evaluating the accuracy. So, this becomes very interesting in a world where opinions and politics get conflated at times. And it becomes a real challenge because how does the algorithm decide the accuracy, especially on controversial things? But it just reminds us that Google is not just looking at keyword density on a page to decide to serve something. It’s actually looking at content and saying, what’s this about? That’s called the entity. And it’s going to compare that entity with other articles that it knows are coming from credible websites. Credible based on authority, credible based on integrity, the Harvard of that industry. If you are inconsistent, it’s going to judge you as being false. It might not rank you because the Harvard of your industry says that’s not true, even if the Harvard of your industry is a little blind or whatever. It’s interesting. But this is also consistent with Google’s move. For years, they’ve been talking about EAT. Are you familiar with the acronym? So, Google releases something called the manual search guidelines every now and then. And this is what manual reviewers are going through the search results and confirming. Did the search algorithm get it right? And so, there are people going and looking at the search results and saying, are these the ten best websites for sure? It releases these guidelines every now and then. And one of the guidelines talks about EAT – the expertise, authority, and trustworthiness of every page. So, reviewers are expected to evaluate whether the article or page they’re reading is written by an expert who has authority and is trustworthy. If that’s what the manual reviewers are looking for, that tells us where Google intends the algorithm to be. Right? So, they also identified certain aspects of content with a label as your money or your life, which are things that matter, as it affects individuals. Life. Finances. Expenses. Medical issues. Big implication stuff. So, any medical content is under incredible scrutiny. Legal content, credible scrutiny, and investment content are under very high scrutiny from the Google algorithm. You compensate for your money or life content by showing your expertise, authority, and trustworthiness. So, when Google started rolling this out, we saw a lot of medical websites decrease in traffic because they didn’t show that a doctor had actually written or at least approved that content. So, the way to compensate for that is to assign a doctor’s name to that. And therefore, their professional reputation is connected to that article. But you can see where this is going today with the Helpful Content Update. Google has been shifting to try to make the search results more accurate for years. And in this sense, this is kind of the next iteration of this. Maybe it’s focusing on AI content, but I think it’s just baking in higher expectations for the quality of the content, that it is not just the same answers that everyone else gives to the question. That you’re contributing something new, and it’s being done by a true expert. That’s the way I understand this is going, but again, when we see more data, we’re going to be able to narrow it down and say, what is it that Google’s looking for?

Dave: Okay.

David: The other aspect I’ll add to this is there are a whole lot of SEO tactics out there that are content-related, and this may be addressing that, as well. For instance, now, when it comes to link building, a tried-and-true tactic is guest blogging. You write an article for another website, and hopefully, they link back to your website, right? That’s the game. That’s guest blogging. Well, sometimes, that content is not that great because of various factors. Well, it’s in Google’s interest to not count those links if it can devalue that content because it helps catch the guest bloggers who are not taking as much time, or some people do guest blogging in a poor way. They take the same article and what we call spin it, which is kind of rearrange it in a way. It makes some small changes but republishes basically the same article over the web. Anyone will take it. And get links. Hundreds of links from the same content that’s just been repurposed. This would address that, too. Theoretically. There’s a whole strategy where it’s like content syndication where you take one article, and a bunch of different websites publish the same article. Well, okay, maybe if you’re the Associated Press, that makes sense. Right? But Google doesn’t want to serve the same article on 17,000 websites to users asking a question about the topic. So, this may be a way of kind of addressing these kinds of things too. But it’s just really consistent with where Google has been going. They really, really want to fight disinformation. They really want accuracy. They want people to have confidence that the search results are helpful and not just content for SEO’s sake. So, this should be a pause for everybody producing content on the web to say, are we doing a good job producing and contributing to the conversation rather than checking a box to get another thing on the blog this week?

Dave: Does it imply that if you do this, say it’s not helpful content, does it imply that they would penalize you elsewhere?

 David: So, that’s an interesting question that brings up the question of what’s the difference between a penalty and an algorithmic ranking thing? There’s probably a better term than algorithmic ranking thing. But sometimes Google will penalize a website, right?

Dave: Yeah.

David: You are in violation. Therefore, you are getting what’s called a manual action. And you will always find out about this in your Search Console account under the manual action tab. In other words, Google’s identified that you are trying to cheat the system, and we’re going to tell you about it, and we’re going to give you the chance to fix it. And then, you have to resubmit your website to Google, saying we fixed it. We’re sorry, and we won’t do it again. That’s the manual action. That is a penalty. When Google changes the algorithm to rate and incorporate different factors, it might appear to be a penalty, but no, it’s really just a change in the algorithm. This, from my understanding, is an algorithm shift, not a penalty.

Dave: Well, but if you aren’t doing it the way their new algorithm likes, then the result ends up being kind of the same.

David: But there’s a difference in the sense that if it’s a penalty if Google starts putting notifications in Search Console, you are in violation of the Helpful Content algorithm. Then you have to submit to Google a mea culpa the fix. If it’s an algorithmic change, the solution is to remove the bad content and update the content to make it more accurate, and now algorithmically, you will recover without having to go to Google and say, I’m sorry, I did it wrong.

Dave: Okay. Yeah.

David: That’s the difference.

Dave: Yeah. Yeah. Good point.

David: Now, that’s a challenge because you’re relying on Google to reindex the content, and we don’t know how long it’s going to take. Which is frustrating. But if it’s a manual submission, then that’s actually pretty bad. And that could take a long time before Google gets to you. Google has been moving in the direction of algorithmic changes lately, not manual actions. I haven’t heard of a manual action in a while, actually. I feel like Google has baked everything into the algorithm these days that they want to use. So, whereas in the past, you might get a notification if you’re doing bad link building, I think nowadays, Google, and they would say it too, that they’ve baked in bad link building to the algorithm, and they just ignore bad links.

Dave: Okay.

David: I say that to say I’m really careful about telling clients their website’s been penalized. That sounds terrible. And it’s scary. But I would tell a client, “Hey, Google changed the algorithm, and we need to adapt. Remember when we used to publish three articles a week, and we kind of didn’t care what they said, as long as we hit three articles.? Yeah, that doesn’t work anymore. We can’t do that.”

Dave: Okay. So, going back to what you were talking about with one of the guest posting strategies that you would use to get links, where you would just kind of spin the same article, it’s almost like your strategy needs to be more sophisticated in that.

David: Well, yeah. Yeah, in my experience, it’s really hard to get a good guest blog post, one where you’re a true expert, and this website is a real expert too. Because they do have a really high standard for the quality of the content, but that’s good, right? That’s good on lots of levels. But at the same time, it’s hard to get those. Those are not very common. So, the temptation is to cut corners a little bit. And then, we get into this issue of how close we are to evaluate getting in trouble with Google. By breaking the rules, if we’re going to anyway, it’s a tough balance. It’s a little bit of a dance. But, you know, the godfather of link building, Eric Ward, used to say, “If Google went away, would you still want that link?” In other words, build links. Good. But build links that would benefit you whether or not Google was using link-building as a factor for ranking.

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