September 2022 was a wild ride for Google updates!
Google essentially rolled out THREE updates in short succession.
For today’s podcast episode, I’m focusing in on the first update that Google rolled out – the Helpful Content Update.
We’ll walk through the information that Google released about this update, including a list of questions to ask yourself to help determine whether or not the content on your website is actually helpful and worthy of a top spot in Google.
Then I will add my own unique commentary as well on top of Google’s information to help you understand what action steps to take to make sure you’re publishing high-quality, helpful content on your site.
Hope you enjoy!
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Well well well – September 2022 was a wild ride for Google updates!
Google essentially rolled out THREE updates in short succession –
The first was called the “Helpful Content Update”, which started rolling out on August 25th and completed on September 9th…
… followed by the September 2022 core update, which began on September 12th and completed on September 26th …
… and finally, the September 2022 product reviews update, which began on September 20th and also completed on September 26th!
Whew! That’s A LOT of changes in one short month.
And depending on the type of content you publish, you may have been significantly impacted by one or all of these updates.
Check your Google Analytics and Google Search Console dashboards to see if you had any significant ranking changes in September and whether they correspond with any of these dates (bearing in mind that there is some overlap between updates here, which makes it harder to suss-out what’s going on.)
However, if you dig into the data, you can look to see whether you’ve had a site-wide loss (or boost) in rankings or if just a certain type of content was impacted, which should help you figure out how to troubleshoot and work on recovering.
I may record a future podcast episode about analyzing a traffic drop from an algorithm update, but for today’s podcast episode, I really want to focus in on the first update that Google rolled out in September – the Helpful Content Update.
And I want to talk about that update today because it felt different than a lot of Google’s regular updates.
For this update, Google released a lot of information about what this update was designed to do and how to make sure you’re publishing content that is in alignment with what Google wants to rank.
Since I know not everyone listening to this podcast is an SEO fanatic who keeps up on the latest Google news every day (lol), I thought for this podcast episode we could walk through the information that Google released about this update, including a list of questions to ask yourself to help determine whether or not the content on your website is actually helpful and worthy of a top spot in Google.
Then I will add my own unique commentary as well on top of Google’s information to help you understand what action steps to take to make sure you’re publishing high quality, helpful content on your site.
So let’s get into it!
On August 18th, 2022 Google published a post on their Google Search Central blog announcing that they would soon be rolling out an update called The Helpful Content Update.
They said in their blog post that they are trying to serve up the most helpful content possible in the search results and reduce the number of times people click on content on the 1st page of the search results only to feel disappointed in what they find…
They talked about the experience of clicking on a search result and feeling like the content wasn’t really written to actually help people or that it may not have even been written by a person at all (ahem – this may be a thinly veiled jab as the surge of AI created content that is being published right now).
They specify that they want to rank content that is actually HELPFUL to readers, not content that appears to have been designed just to rank and get clicks.
(Because yes, there are people out there who publish an incredible volume of low-quality content, hoping that some of it ranks so they can get lots of traffic and monetize their site with display ads or affiliate links.)
These types of sites are sometimes called rank and bank – aka they’re trying to rank as quickly as possible to make as much money as possible in the short-term, knowing that they probably aren’t really building an actual brand with legs that can withstand the test of time. They want to create quick cash and just plan to rinse and repeat if and when their site eventually gets knocked down by Google.
As we know, SEO is sort of a cat and mouse game, with people trying to figure out how Google ranks content so they can attempt to game the system, and Google constantly tweaking their algorithm to prevent spammy content that is gaming the system from ranking.
So this isn’t really out of the norm in the SEO world, it’s just that Google appears to be intentionally setting their sights on low-quality, over-optimized content that may not actually be serving anyone.
As I mentioned, Google released a set of questions that you can ask yourself to determine whether your content is actually helping people. Obviously, in a perfect world, you want your content to be BOTH helpful to the reader and optimized to rank in Google.
It’s just that sometimes people lose sight of the reader, resulting in content that may not flow well or contain information that people are actually looking for.
So let’s go through the questions one at a time and discuss. Some of the questions are a little repetitive, so if I feel like they’re getting at the same main point, I’m going to group them together.
Questions 1& 2:
#1) 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?
#2) Does your site have a primary purpose or focus?
So the main takeaway question here…. does your site actually serve a useful purpose??? Is it built to actually help someone? Or did you just target a bunch of easy keywords, leading to a hodgepodge of content that doesn’t really make a lot of sense?
This is actually an issue I see quite often for new bloggers. (And this issue actually manifests itself beyond just blogging – it’s a common troublespot for new entrepreneurs in general, and something I myself struggled with for a long time in the beginning as well.)
So what happens is that people start their blog or business without really having a clear niche. They’re not quite sure who they want to help or what problems they’re actually solving for people with their content…
And when you are missing this north star in your business, the guiding compass that can help you come up with a cohesive content plan, then you often end up lost in the weeds of content creation and keyword research.
For example, if you listened to episode 86 of this podcast, where I audited a dietitian’s website, you may remember that we talked about this. If someone goes to your website and can’t immediately tell what you are an expert in, or what your site is about, or what benefits they can get from you, your content, and your brand, then you have some work to do.
And I get it. Sometimes we’re just too close to the work we’re doing to even notice things like this. It’s easy to get sucked into writing blog posts every week and forget about the bigger picture.
Perhaps you don’t even remember what you wrote on your home page or your about page a year ago when you first built your site. But that stuff DOES matter if what you’re publishing lacks cohesion and a clear purpose.
So your action step for this question is to take a real hard objective look at your site. Is it immediately clear on the homepage what your site is about and how you help people?
And do you have cohesion with your brand message across your homepage, about page, services page, your blog categories, and your actual content?
If not, it’s definitely time to make some changes.
(I’m also happy to report that Angela, the dietitian whose website I audited in episode 86 of this podcast, got to work and started implementing some of the recommendations I suggested to her and she got a HUGE boost during the September core update – so her work was well-timed and definitely paid off! I’m very excited for her.)
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)?
So essentially, they don’t want people creating fluff content on topics they don’t have actual expertise or experience in. Cause 9 times out of 10, that content isn’t actually helpful.
Some examples where this especially applies would be things like product reviews or travel blogs.
There has been a lot of chatter over the last few years about the low quality of the product reviews being shown on page 1 of Google.
What happened was that large media companies, like Forbes, for example, started to understand that they could make money by posting product reviews on their website and including affiliate links in those posts.
And because websites like Forbes are such big names and they have such high domain authorities (Forbes has a DA of 95, for example, which is just insane), they historically were able to rank at the top of page 1 for various lucrative product review keywords, even if it didn’t really have much to do with their niche.
And just to flesh this out, I went into Semrush to find a real example.
So Forbes describes themselves as “a global media company, focusing on business, investing, technology, entrepreneurship, leadership, and lifestyle.”
They tend to post a lot of business-related content, and that’s probably what most people think of when they hear that brand name.
However, forbes.com, the website, actually ranks for a lot of high-value affiliate keywords that don’t necessarily fall clearly within that niche.
For example, forbes currently ranks #1 for the keyword “VPN”, with an article listing the top 10 vpn services, with affiliate links within it.
(If you’re not familiar with VPNs, it stands for virtual private network, and it’s what people use to create a secure private internet connection from anywhere in the world.)
VPNs require payment to use them, so if people read the Forbes article, click on the affiliate links to the products within the article, and then make a purchase, Forbes will earn a commission.
And the keyword VPN is searched 450,000 times per MONTH. It has a keyword difficulty score of 100 in semrush, so it is a super super high value keyword that people want to rank #1 for.
Just some rough math, let’s pretend that 50% of the searchers actually click through to the Forbes site for that search every month. That’s 225,000 monthly visitors from that ONE blog post.
And just as an example, the VPN plan that they promote as #1 on their site pays out $36 in commission for every sale of an annual plan.
Let’s pretend that just 0.5% of visitors end up buying (which is a pretty conservative estimate).
0.5% is 11,250 purchases per MONTH from that one post. And if each purchase earns $36, that’s $405,000 PER MONTH in affiliate revenue from just ONE blog post. Absolutely insane, right??
Soooo large websites started to understand that there was big money to be made in the affiliate space and started to use their high domain authority to publish mass amounts of review posts and rank on page 1 just due to their high authority, even if the review was not the highest quality or not the most helpful for the reader.
And I bettttt if you’re listening right now you know exactly what I’m talking about.
I know you’ve probably seen list posts like 10 best XYZ products, where you have pretty low confidence that the writer actually tried any of them.
Their descriptions might be super generic, they’re not including any helpful small details that only someone who actually used the products would know, etc.
It just seems like a bland list post, more than anything.
THAT is the type of content that Google is trying to keep OFF of page 1 these days. They want to promote product review posts from people who have actually physically used the products and have actual valuable analysis and comparisons to offer.
Another example would be trying to write a travel post, like best boat tours in Venice, without having ever actually been to Venice or tried any of the services.
You get the idea.
So the main point is… don’t try to fake the funk. Either you genuinely know what you’re talking about or you don’t. Don’t try to create content just for the sake of ranking if you are not actually qualified to cover it.
And of course, this applies to health topics too. If you don’t have education and experience in a certain niche, then don’t try to pretend you do.
Questions #4 & #5:
#4: After reading your content, will someone leave feeling they’ve learned enough about a topic to help achieve their goal?
#5: Will someone reading your content leave feeling like they’ve had a satisfying experience?
Again, this is just reiterating the importance of actually creating HELPFUL content.
This all circles back around to understanding search intent.
What is someone looking for when they search for a certain keyword? And are you giving them exactly what they want?
For example, if someone is searching for “what does acai taste like?” (to use an example from one of my blogs), this is NOT the time to dive into a lengthy diatribe on the history of acai before actually answering the question.
If someone is searching for “what does acai taste like”, the focus of the article needs to be on what it actually tastes like!
Answer the person’s question clearly and directly, in the early portion of your post. Then provide supporting information if applicable.
And on the flip side, if someone is searching for something more complex, like “how to start a nutrition private practice”, then by all means, create an extensive post that actually lays out all the steps.
The point here is you need to understand what Google thinks someone wants when they search for a specific topic (hint: you can tell what Google thinks people want based on what they are currently ranking and displaying on page one), and then make sure the content YOU are creating is in alignment with that.
And DON’T just rehash what other people have already written on page one… That is not good enough and not showing your unique perspective, experience, and expertise.
What are you adding to the conversation to really wow the reader and make them want to come back to YOUR content above all the others? How are you demonstrating that you have first hand knowledge and experience about the topic that people can trust?
THAT’S what you need to focus on when creating your content.
To round out this section of Google’s post about the helpful content update, they link to their past guidance on best practices for recovering from core updates and creating high quality product reviews.
Next, they specifically say “avoid creating content for search engines first”.
And if you’re super focused on SEO, that might initially freak you out. Cause that’s kind of the whole point of SEO, right? To create content that ranks?
But really what they are saying here is not to go SO hard on creating SEO-optimized content that you lose sight of the bigger picture.
Make sure that your site actually adds something valuable to the internet and that it’s built to serve an actual purpose.
Of course you can apply SEO optimization tactics on top of that, but if you lack the foundational understanding of why your site exists in the first place, then you might find yourself in trouble.
Then Google lists out another set of questions to ask yourself to make sure you’re NOT prioritizing SEO at the expense of the actual user experience.
So for this set of questions, answering “yes” is a bad thing. This is a list of things you should AVOID doing if you want to rank well in Google.
So let’s go through the questions one by one and discuss:
#1: Is the content primarily to attract people from search engines, rather than made for humans?
Aka… are you thinking about the reader at all in your content creation process?
Or are you just trying to do whatever you need to do to rank?
If you don’t have a clear person you’re speaking to on your site, that’s a problem.
#2: Are you producing lots of content on different topics in hopes that some of it might perform well in search results?
Again, this is SUCH a huge one for so many new bloggers.
Because they lack clarity on their niche, they end up just creating posts on any keyword they can find that they think they might rank for, and end up with a giant mess of unrelated content on their site that doesn’t position them as an authority on any given topic and that is very unlikely to actually help someone who visits their site.
If this is you, I recommend listening to episode 86 of this podcast where I audit a dietitian’s website cause I go over a lot of helpful suggestions for tackling this issue if you feel like you’re making this mistake on your site right now.
Bottom line: You need a clear structure for your site with categories of content that both readers and googlebots can easily understand.
#3: Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?
Many people in the SEO world think that Google is attempting to crack down on AI-generated content.
Cause with the rise of AI tools, some website owners have been churning out automated content around lots and lots of topics, hoping that at least some of them will be good enough to rank.
And if enough people do this, it creates A LOT of unhelpful content that Google has to waste time crawling (and it costs money and resources to crawl the entire internet, so Google doesn’t want a huge influx of crappy content that isn’t actually going to end up ranking for anything. That’s just a waste on all fronts.)
So that is really what they are getting at here…
Don’t just press “compose” on an AI tool and think that you’re going to end up with something worthy of being indexed by Google. Chances are, you won’t.
AI tools like Jasper can be a good place to START writing a blog post, but 99% of the time you will have to do some manual editing, adding to articles and fact-checking what the tool has put out.
So I don’t take this point as a caution against AI entirely, just a reminder to use AI smartly, if you currently use it as part of your content production workflow.
#4: Are you mainly summarizing what others have to say without adding much value?
Ahh I love this one. I HATE when I click on the page 1 search results and they are all just repeating what the number 1 ranked page has to say.
And I understand why this happens… I do.
People look at the content ranking #1 and think they must need the exact same stuff to compete.
Or they think they can come off as knowing what they’re talking about by just repeating what someone else said instead of researching the topic themselves or relying on their own expertise and experience.
Google knows that people don’t just want regurgitated responses filling the whole top 10 results, so they are trying to dissuade people from creating that type of content.
I’m not sure, exactly, how they will adjust the algorithms to prevent this, or if that is even possible, but the point is, don’t be a copycat.
SHOW that you have something valuable to add to the conversation, above and beyond what everyone else is doing.
And I think as dietitians and healthcare professionals, we really have a leg up here. Don’t shy away from your hands-on, real world knowledge, experience, and stories. People WANT to hear that stuff!
This is actually one of the reasons people add “reddit” to their search terms so often – cause they want to read the opinions of real life people!
And that is one way to elevate yourself above joe-schmo freelance writer who has no formal healthcare education or experience. You will simply know things that they cannot know without having lived it first hand. Lean into that!! Show that you have something to add to the conversation that really truly matters!
#5: Are you writing about things simply because they seem trending and not because you’d write about them otherwise for your existing audience?
Again, another cautionary tale to not get too caught up in the allure of keyword research.
ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS ask yourself whether a piece of content actually fits with your content plan before creating it.
If you are a low-fodmap dietitian, then no, you don’t need to be publishing about the best VPNs, no matter how appealing it may sound haha.
Always put your audience first.
#6: Does your content leave readers feeling like they need to search again to get better information from other sources?
I love this one. It’s such a good gut-check on the actual quality of your content.
If someone feels like they need to read more posts after reading yours, then you haven’t done a good enough job with the content.
What are you missing that maybe other people are covering?
Are you glossing over the details in a way that makes it seem like you might not REALLY know what you’re talking about?
And sometimes this even comes down to something simple.
Cause maybe you do have good content, but if the reader isn’t sure that you are really a trustworthy source, they may go on to read other pieces of content just to confirm that what you’re saying is true.
So yes, the content matters, but highlighting your expertise, authority, and trustworthiness matter too, so don’t skip over those pieces of the puzzle.
SHOW that you’ve used a product, for example, with real pictures or video. Add in personal anecdotes. Flesh out the pros and cons. TALK about your real life experience with a topic. Include links to any scientific references you’re citing.
And again, always circle back to the search intent and make sure you’ve nailed it! For example, if you’re writing about the best vegan omega-3 supplement, did you remember to include a link for people to buy it?
Cause in that case, some of the searchers might have BUYER intent, meaning they want to make a purchase. But if you don’t understand that and don’t help point them in the right direction to purchase, then they may look elsewhere for that information instead of being able to FULLY satisfy their query 100% through your post.
#7: 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).
This one is pretty straightforward.
The idea that longer content ranks better is pure baloney.
Your content needs to be as long as is required to adequately address the search intent, and that’s it.
Some people like to look at the word count of all the posts on page 1 and take the average, just to get a ballpark estimate of where you might need to be to be competitive, but I don’t even do that.
I think that is way too simplistic and missing the point.
It’s not about the number of words, it’s about the topics that are being covered in order to satisfy the searcher.
My recommendation is to actually Google the kw you’re thinking about writing about and click into each and every organic listing on page one.
What are they talking about? How are they structuring their posts? What are some common threads you can see? What are some people doing that really stands out? Is there anything missing that you could add to the conversation?
Then go out there and create the best piece of content you can on that topic.
#8: Did you decide to enter some niche topic area without any real expertise, but instead mainly because you thought you’d get search traffic?
This one again circles back to the importance of understanding your niche, but also the importance of selecting a niche that you actually have expertise and authority in.
And of course, this especially applies to anything health-related.
So if you are a dietitian, you shouldn’t go and create a blog about dentistry just because you see an opportunity in the space. Because you’re not actually a dentist and lack the formal expertise to write about that topic.
Of course, you could team up with a dentist or hire a dentist to review your content if you really wanted to, but you, alone, as a solopreneur, writing about a health topic that you have no formal education in would not work.
#9: 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?
This one probably doesn’t really apply to most food and wellness related topics, but the point is not to create click-bait style articles that act like they have the answer to something, only to discover it was all a ruse and the post doesn’t really help you at all.
I can think of a real-life example where this has happened to me in the past and it was super annoying!
It actually has happened to me a lot when I search for how to watch XYZ movie or tv show.
I’ll Google something like is _____ on netflix?
And in reality, the answer is no, but the search result titles are misleading in order to get a click. For example, it might say, “Watch ____ on Netflix in 2022”, so you click the post, and then in the content it says, XYZ show is not streaming on netflix, but you can buy it here (for example).
That’s annoying! And that’s probably the type of thing Google is trying to crack down on.
Then finally, Google wraps up this post by explaining how the helpful content update will roll out.
It sort of works in two ways, first, their systems will automatically identify content that seems to have little value, low-added value or is otherwise not particularly helpful to those doing searches.
Then, and this is the most significant part that really freaked people out, they say that if a site has a large portion of unhelpful content, ALL of the content on that site, not just the “unhelpful content”, may get demoted in the search results.
They even straight up say “removing unhelpful content could help the rankings of your other content.”
The skeptic in me thinks that maybe they’re just saying (or threatening) this as a way to get people to voluntarily remove low-quality content from their sites so that they don’t have to crawl as much content on the internet… but we’ll see..
Google says that essentially they will use automated machine learning to classify a site as helpful or not, and that it may take many months to have this classification removed if you remedy your site and unpublish the unhelpful content. You have to basically prove that the content is gone for the long-term and you didn’t just delete it for a day to try and recover your rankings.
They make sure to emphasize that this is all automated, and is not a manual action taken against a site. It is just a new signal that they can use, among the many other signals they have, to figure out how to rank content.
At the end of the post they highlight that this is not the only or even the most important ranking signal out there, and that helpful content can still rank, even if it’s on a site that has a lot of unhelpful content, if the other signals are strong enough.
They also say that the signal is weighted… so the more unhelpful content you have, perhaps the stronger you will feel the effects of this update.
So to me, that sort of implies that you have to be doing a lot of things wrong to really feel the wrath of this update. Like if you have low quality content, no EAT, and no backlinks, and no clear niche, then you might be in trouble. But if you have some low-quality content amongst a site with clear authority on a topic, then maybe the impact will be smaller.
Again, this is just my conjecture. No one knows for sure. Only time will truly tell!
So far, the impact from this update hasn’t been as dramatic as people were initially expecting from this announcement.
Although Google did say in the announcement that they would continue to refine the signal and come up with more ways to reward people-first content, so perhaps the strength of the signal will change in the future.
It’s also important to note that this update is not the same as a core update. It is an ongoing new signal that is being added to the algorithm. So it can change and be modified at any time, outside of traditional core updates.
So unlike other updates, where if you were negatively impacted you may have to wait till the next update to recover, this is a more fluid factor that will evolve over time.
So what have we learned from this update, roughly 1 month after it wrapped up?
Keep in mind that it’s tough to make any firm conclusions here since this update was closely followed by a core update and then the product review update, but I’ll just summarize some of the chatter that’s been happening in the SEO world since its release.
Based on how the announcement was worded, some people were expecting huge fluctuations in the search results when this update began. However, that did not turn out to be the case.
Basically, it seems like the update didn’t hit a large number of sites, but the sites that it did hit got hit dramatically.
So for most people who were trying their best to actually create value in the world, they probably weren’t impacted much.
But the people who were trying to game the system with large volumes of content designed to rank without much thought to the user, if the algo was able to suss them out, then the penalty was likely severe.
There were a few examples that people were citing on Twitter about some sites in the lyrics space or math/conversion that just publish content in an automated fashion and that had a really poor user experience with tons of ads throughout.
There were not many examples of sites in the health niche that were impacted, but SEO expert Glenn Gabe did find one example of a site that was focused on reviews of health/medical products that saw a drop.
So essentially, with this update, it seems like mostly the sites with the most offensive examples of “unhelpful” content were affected, so the overall impact may have felt small.
But people in the SEO world still think it is significant because it’s emblematic of where Google is trying to go with search results in the long run.
So overall the takeaways from this episode are to make sure that your site and your content are actually doing something out there in the world.
Get crystal clear on who you are serving with your content and make sure that you’re not getting distracted by every keyword under the sun and accidentally diluting your topical authority.
Do your best to create original authoritative content that is not just a rehash of content already out there on the internet.
What do YOU have to add to the conversation? What are you doing to demonstrate that your content has value and deserves to be ranked?
And always always keep the reader in mind. Make sure you have a good understanding of search intent and know how to deliver up exactly what people are looking for.
Pair these main ideas with solid on-page, off-page, and technical SEO tactics and you should be setting yourself up for long-term success if this is the direction that Google is leaning into moving forward.
And as always, if this type of stuff is interesting and exciting to you, I welcome you with open arms to join my course, SEO Made Simple.
In that course I teach my 4-step framework for getting traffic from Google so that you can learn how to get your content in front of tens of thousands of people every single month, without spending all day on social media or paying any money for ads.
SEO is really incredible when done right, and I just get so excited every time a new wellness professional signs up cause I know that’s one more well qualified person who is learning how to reach the masses and make an impact on the world.
If you want to learn more, head to seowaitlist.com and add your name to the list to get an exclusive invite to join the course. Joining my email list is currently the only way to enroll, so definitely add your name if you want to learn more!
Hope you have a great rest of your day.
Erica Julson is a registered dietitian turned digital marketing pro. She has over 12 years of experience blogging and building online businesses and has taught over 900 wellness professionals inside her signature program, SEO Made Simple.