Google’s September 2022 helpful content update made significant waves in the SEO marketing landscape. In line with other updates in that month, this update specifically focused on the quality of content and the value it provides to users - something that marketers should always be thinking about, but is too often pushed to the side in favour of optimising for search engines.
With this update, Google continues to crack down on unhelpful, shallow content that simply serves to boost SEO scores without considering the user experience.
So, what exactly is ‘helpful content’?
It may seem like a no-brainer, but the fluctuations in rankings that happened following Google’s September 2022 updates, particularly the helpful content update, showed that too much content out there is written with Google’s bots in mind rather than its intended audience. This is what’s known as engine-first content - content that prioritises obtaining a high page ranking, rather than providing information, entertainment, or any kind of value to its audience. In the olden days of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), this was achieved through techniques like keyword stuffing and link farming - and while Google may have gotten wise to these practices, bad content is still out there, often ranking highly in search results and frustrating users.
More importantly, Google is not just looking at individual pages, but the website as a whole - meaning that if too many pages on your site are deemed to be engine-first, it could negatively affect the overall ranking of your domain.
While of course it’s important to keep SEO in mind when writing content, there is a danger of worrying too much about the algorithm while completely forgetting the human element - and it’s exactly this bad habit that Google wants to clamp down on.
What can you do about it?
If your website traffic or rank has taken a hit due to this update, it’s extremely likely that your content is not meeting Google’s requirements for high-quality content. If that’s the case, it’s worth re-examining the existing content on your site, and your content strategy as a whole.
When asked about the ‘helpful content’ criteria, Google directs webmasters to a list of questions it’s used since 2011 to determine whether content can be deemed high quality. These questions are still incredibly relevant in determining when content is of value to users. While the full list of questions is very extensive, these are the ones we found most helpful:
Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
Is the article short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
Would users complain when they see pages from this site?
These may seem like very simple questions, but it’s important to take a step back and really consider whether you’re providing value to your audience through content - and what you need to change if you’re not achieving this. Below we’ve outlined some strategies and considerations that can help your content be truly valuable to your audience.
Answer questions with long-tail keywords
One of the best ways to write user-first content is to directly answer questions being asked around your topic. Long-tail keywords can be really valuable here - while they tend to have lower monthly search volumes than short-tail keywords, they do a better job of clearly stating user intent, and will therefore be more helpful to users with a specific query.
‘Question and answer’ format articles perform really well on search engine result pages (SERP) for a reason - it’s a format that allows users to easily find the answer to their question, while also providing in-depth information about the article’s overarching topic. Instead of just optimising for keywords, these kinds of articles use long-tailed, highly specific keywords with the end goal of providing relevant information to readers.
Make use of pillar pages
Pillar pages and topic clusters are not a new concept; in fact, they have long been touted as a content strategy that is both user-friendly and engine-friendly. Pillar pages are high-level, broad pieces of content that link out to much more in-depth, specific content. For example, your pillar page about SEO could link out to articles about backlink strategies, conducting keyword research, using video for SEO, and more. This collection of pillar pages and niche articles is known as a topic cluster.
The pillar page strategy is not only a great way to generate new content ideas, but it also encourages creating detailed, substantial content about niche topics. While your high-level pillar page will still be a broad overview of its main topic, by linking out to highly specific and in-depth articles you are providing users with relevant information, and therefore value. And the better your internal linking is, the easier it will be for users to find that relevant information - a win for your content, your readers, and your website’s search engine rankings.
Google introduced E-A-T in its September 2019 update, and it has since become an essential part of Google’s Search Quality Guidelines. While E-A-T is not a ranking factor in and of itself, it is a factor in how Google determines the quality - and therefore the helpfulness and value - of a piece of content.
Google’s E-A-T considerations are:
The expertise of the creator of the content piece.
The authoritativeness of the creator, the website, and the content piece itself.
The trustworthiness of the creator, the website, and the content piece itself.
When it comes to providing value to users through content, proving the above is important; not only does it reassure the user that the information they’re reading comes from a trusted, expert source, but it also assures Google that you, as the content creator, are truly providing value to your audience (and this goes doubly for content about sensitive topics like finance and health).
Demonstrating E-A-T can go a long way in boosting not just the quality score of specific content pieces, but of your website as whole.
Keeping up with all the latest Google algorithm changes can seem like an impossible task, but it becomes much more doable if you focus on the user experience rather than just ‘gaming the system’ to get a better search ranking. A large number of page views means nothing if users find your content unhelpful and frustrating, and groan every time they see your website appear in search results. It’s easy to get too focussed on creating engine-friendly content, but Google’s updates remind us that humans should be the focus of your marketing efforts - just like with every other area of marketing.
If this algorithm shake-up has caused you to reconsider your website and content strategy, why not get in touch with us and see how we can help?