Just over a month ago, on August 18, 2022, Google announced an update to their algorithm that got people both fearful and excited. The update itself started rolling out a week later on August 25, and Google confirmed it was going to take a couple of weeks before people saw an impact.
This change to the algorithm was named the Helpful Content Update (HCU). And, for the first time in a while, SEOs around the world thought they were going to see some seismic activity in the search engine results pages (SERPs), rather than small blips.
Then, right after the rollout for the HCU had finished, they dropped another update on us. This update was the September 2022 Core Algorithm Update.
So what actually happened? Where are we a few weeks down the line? Did people see their sites plummeting into obscurity, or suddenly rising to rank first for a valuable term? Does it affect local SEO, and is there anything you need to be doing right this second?
We’re going to answer all your questions about the Helpful Content Update.
What is Google’s Helpful Content Update?
The HCU update is designed, in Google’s own words, to offer “better ranking of original, quality content”. That probably sounds familiar; they’ve said similar things before. What’s different this time around is who and what this update targets.
The HCU is designed to stop searchers from being served content that’s purely been created to rank rather than providing the searcher with the answer they actually need. An example provided by Google can be seen below:
“For example, if you search for information about a new movie, you might have previously seen articles that aggregated reviews from other sites without adding perspectives beyond what’s available elsewhere. This isn’t very helpful if you’re expecting to read something new. With this update, you’ll see more results with unique, authentic information, so you’re more likely to read something you haven’t seen before.”
-Danny Sullivan, Google Public Liaison for Search, August 18, 2022
Google, in other words, is sick of being gamed. Still. And they want to show the best content possible in their search results.
Industry experts have speculated on the types of content Google was going to class as ‘unhelpful’, such as:
- 2,000-word explainer articles that don’t really answer the question.
- Articles that try to answer questions that may not have an answer yet, like “When will the second season of Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power be released?”.
- Blog posts that have several hundred words saying not a lot, before a small section that answers one specific question.
- Plagiarized content.
- “SEO content”. You know the type, just content for content’s sake.
- Spun content and other content not created by humans.
Others thought that we might see the end of random websites ranking for terms they have no authority on, simply because they’ve created a keyword-stuffed article.
At the time of writing, only some of this has come to pass, but many experts expect it to impact rankings in the long term. Essentially, if it hasn’t hit you now, it will only hit your rankings if you start making content Google doesn’t see as helpful.
That being said, Google rolling out September’s Core Algorithm Update right after this one has probably made it quite hard for some people to work out which of the updates may have affected their rankings.
Why does the Helpful Content Update matter?
Google announced that this would be a sitewide algorithm update. This means that if your site is assessed as having unhelpful content, even just in one section, your whole site will be affected. This alone makes the update kind of a big deal.
What it should mean, in the long run, is that websites that create content for the sake of rankings alone will struggle to get that content ranking.
This means that businesses of all sizes should focus on creating content that truly matches what a potential reader or customer needs.
But, it should also mean that relevant websites and businesses now have a better chance of ranking for terms that they are an authority on. That probably sounds familiar and may have you thinking about Google’s EAT scores.
What about EAT and Panda? Hasn’t Google already tackled unhelpful content?
This all probably sounds quite familiar now we’ve gone into more detail. On paper, it’s not actually that different from what Google’s historic updates targeted. Sure, those updates specifically targeted quality and aimed to rank higher quality content from sites that offer Expertise, Authority, and Trust, but this is an update in addition to those.
Essentially, Google is doubling down on making sure the websites it ranks are really helping the user. They know that since those updates, new tactics have emerged and now they want to tackle those, too.
So, what actually happened? Was there some kind of content apocalypse? And how did it affect local search?
So now it comes to the crux of the issue: we’re a few weeks down the road from the Helpful Content Update’s launch on August 25—what impact was seen? The truth is, there hasn’t been the upheaval people were expecting.
If you look at the results of a poll we ran of local search marketers who use BrightLocal:
We polled our users between September 9th and 20th, to see whether they had seen any significant changes. While most (33%) had seen no change whatsoever, a few had seen a slight increase (22%) or slight drop (21%). Slight increases and drops are the sort you likely couldn’t rule out from regular ranking fluctuations and changes.
A very small number saw significant increases (7%), while a bigger number did say they saw a significant drop (17%). This lines up with a lot of experts expecting to see more sites punished for unhelpful content, than rewarded for doing what they should have been doing in the first place, in Google’s eyes.
Note: We checked the results both before and after the September 12 core algorithm update, to see if that new update had changed the average response. We found that there wasn’t a significant change in the responses after that started rolling out.
This update didn’t directly target the local pack, although a service area listings bug around the time of the update did leave many alarmed, as some saw rankings suddenly plummet. Content is still an important local ranking factor, though, so it’s always best to ensure you’re creating quality helpful content.
From the Experts
While it doesn’t look like the seismic shift some were expecting, some sites have obviously been affected.
A number of experts in search have been posting when they’ve seen a site they think may have been affected, whether that’s positively or negatively. Currently, it looks like the initial update has targeted the spammiest sites that were obviously duplicating content or keyword stuffing, as we’ll see below.
Aleyda Solis ran a poll on Twitter, and found that only 20% of respondents had been affected at all.
Have any of your Websites experienced any impact from the Google Helpful Content Update so far?
— Aleyda Solis 🇺🇦 (@aleyda) September 2, 2022
Lily Ray has been monitoring a number of different sites, and has spotted a few different trends across lyric sites, gaming websites, and sites using duplicate, or near duplicate, content alongside aggressive affiliate links.
Here are 5 sites that appear to be affected by the Helpful Content Update
IDK what makes the lyrics/grammar sites that much less helpful than their top-ranking counterparts; the content is virtually the same.
Perhaps more aggressive ads/more affiliate links/worse UX?
— Lily Ray 😏 (@lilyraynyc) September 7, 2022
This one is interesting: this site seems helpful at first glance, but if you scroll down to the bottom of each page, you can see the following message:
Perhaps one outcome of the update is Google getting better at identifying duplicate content across domains pic.twitter.com/4P87ur7qby
— Lily Ray 😏 (@lilyraynyc) September 7, 2022
Another site seeing a big drop after rapid gains in the last 2 years.
These introductory paragraphs are making me laugh. pic.twitter.com/au3lhBYgxU
— Lily Ray 😏 (@lilyraynyc) September 7, 2022
Dr. Marie Haynes has spotted a particular trend in ‘review’ sites that go hand in hand with the recent product review update (another of which has just been announced at the time of writing—c’mon, Google, give us a minute here).
OK this is weird.
Turns out there are a number of sites we monitor that saw changes in GA coincidental with the helpful content update.
Most of them also saw significant changes with the product review update.
Example 1: a medical product review site. pic.twitter.com/O2Q2xs4kYe
— Dr. Marie Haynes🐼 (@Marie_Haynes) September 7, 2022
How has the Helpful Content Update affected BrightLocal?
The update is done and, as of the time of writing, we’re happy to report that we’ve come out a little stronger for it. We’d certainly be the first to say our content, such as our Learning Hubs and BrightLocal Academy, is helpful—and we hope you agree!
What happens next? Does it tie together with the new September Core Algorithm Update?
It’s been confirmed that the update isn’t done and this is just the beginning, so keep an eye out for what happens next.
Update isn’t done. It’s also part of a continuing effort, as we’ve explained. We’ll keep refining how it works. Directionally, the guidance we’ve given is what SEOs and creators should be considering.
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) August 31, 2022
I see this more as a long-term direction, there's a lot of ground to cover.
— John Mueller is mostly not here 🐀 (@JohnMu) September 7, 2022
It looks like this will be a continued effort, rather than a one-and-done, like some of the bigger updates to the core algorithm.
Some experts initially speculated that the next Core Algorithm Update to impact the HCU further. Well, that update came around pretty sharply afterward, and while Danny Sullivan has stated that the HCU and September Core Update aren’t related, it’s probably no coincidence they happened so close together.
Is there anything you need to do right now?
If you’re worried that your own site could be hit, then there are a few things you may want to consider, including:
- Focus on the sector you’re an expert in – there’s a lot of speculation that one of the main targets is sites that try to be an expert on a lot of subjects, just to improve their rankings. Stick to what you know, and offer a first-hand experience where you can.
- Avoid plagiarizing or duplicating content – this was already against Google’s guidelines, but a number of the sites that have been hit early are ones that were scraping, plagiarizing, or using near-duplicate content to more authoritative sites.
- Avoid keyword stuffing – this is another tactic you should already have banished, but if you were doing it, the HCU may be coming for your rankings.
- Review your content for ‘quality’ – that’s a bit of a catch-all, as it encompasses all the points above. The main thing you need to do is make sure your content really answers a searcher’s problem. Make sure it doesn’t waffle on for longer than needed, just to get some keywords in, or because you aren’t really an expert. If you’re opting for question-based content then:
- Answer questions that can be answered
- Make sure answers are sufficient and actually help the user
- Follow Google’s own advice on what makes good content and check their SEO Guidelines
Those should be things you’re already doing. If you weren’t, and you’ve just been looking to game the system, then it was likely Google may have found you out sooner rather than later anyway.
Has the Helpful Content Update affected you?
We’d love to hear from you, whether that’s in the comments below, on Twitter, or via Linkedin. Have you been affected by the Helpful Content Update, or do you have any predictions for what comes next?
As with any algorithm update, we’d recommend keeping an eye on the local SERPs and tracking your local rankings so you can spot any problems and work out what you need to do quickly.