Google’s Helpful Content Update: What it means for your website

Back in mid-August 2022, Google announced that were starting to roll out a new major sitewide algorithm update, called the ‘Helpful Content Update’.

Since then, there have been several more updates to this specific area of the algorithm. The most recent of which was at the end of 2023, and more information has been released about how websites can try to recover if their organic visibility has taken a hit.

In this article, we look specifically at sites that may have been affected by the helpful content update and what to do about it.

What’s the ‘helpful content update’ all about?

Essentially, Essentially, these updates are designed to reward websites that deliver unique and ‘helpful content’ that has been written for humans first, rather than for search engines primarily. Google strongly hinted that these websites should start to rank better than those with less useful content and Google has confirmed that this is a sitewide thing; if you have some content that is ‘helpful’ and some that is not, the unhelpful content on some pages could potentially be affecting the rankings of your great content on other pages too.

Google has long been telling us that this is the approach that they want websites to take, so the difference now seems to be that their latest algorithm update has the capability to better determine what ‘helpful content’ is and isn’t. What does this mean for SEO services and content marketing?

Google warns content creators against doing several things when writing for their website, including:

  • Creating content specifically to try and gain search traffic above all else. Including writing on trends that aren’t really relevant for your audience and writing to a specific word count thought to be preferable to search engines
  • Regurgitating the same content as other websites produce, without adding anything unique of real value for readers
  • Writing superficial or generic content that will mean readers will need to find other sources to get more detailed or useful information
  • Writing on niche topics when you don’t have the expertise to back it up
  • Writing content that doesn’t fulfil its promises e.g. looks like it will answer a specific question but there isn’t really an actual answer to this question contained within the piece.

Google has also suggested that sites should potentially look at removing existing unhelpful content already on their websites to help benefit the wider site and the potential future search rankings for other pages which contain more useful content.

Helpful Content Update and AI-generated content

In the most recent Helpful Content Update changes, Google has adjusted their stance on AI-generated content somewhat. They used to state that content authored by real people was more favourable to them, but that specific criteria is no longer part of their guidance to those running websites.

Their guidelines now talk about rewarding high-quality content, regardless of how it is produced.

Other recent changes to the Helpful Content Update

‘Page experience’ is something that Google seems to be focusing on more with the more recent changes in relation to content. This means that the overall page experience is important for a site’s rankings, which is a combination of lots of factors and how easy a page is to use and navigate. Some of the things that Google states it looks at include:

  • Whether the page has ‘intrusive interstitials’ – which are basically ads or popups that stop users from viewing the page content properly
  • Whether the content shows equally well to mobile and desktop users
  • Whether the page is secure.

The latest updates also include a bit of a crackdown on websites using third-party hosted content. This is essentially tenuously related content that was created by someone else (not directly associated with the website hosting the content), which could include guest blogging or content syndication. If it looks to the algorithm that this third-party content has been included for SEO purposes, and without the involvement directly of whoever first wrote/published it, it can be a negative signal for the whole website and not just the specific pages affected.

It’s long been a controversial topic in SEO as to whether freshening up older content is a valid organic search tactic. The latest Helpful Content Updates indicate that the line in the sand has been drawn by Google. They now have a system for determining if a specific search query is something that benefits from fresh content or not, called “Query Deserves Freshness” (QDF). It means, amongst other things, that making small changes to a page and them editing the publish dates to make it look like a new piece, is not something that they will reward.

What is considered ‘helpful content’?

Google say that their people-first approach looks for content that:

  • Is created for a specific audience that is relevant to the site in question and provides something they will find useful
  • Displays genuine expertise and depth of knowledge on the topic covered
  • Provides the reader with enough information to satisfy them on the topic
  • Follows their previous guidance on content such as product reviews and the E-E-A-T principles (known as E-A-T before December 2022)
  • Follows search engine optimisation best practice, but isn’t targeted at or created for search engines over real people.

What actions should a website take in relation to the helpful content update?

Whether any action is needed in relation to your existing website content will depend on the content that you currently have and how/why it was created. You can also look for performance drops that correlate with the updates made by Google.

With several different iterations of the Helpful Content Update rolled out by Google at various points of time between mid-2022 and the end of 2023, along with a high number of other algorithm updates, it can be tough to pin down if your site has been affected specifically by this.

However, working from the most recent update, which concluded during September 2023, you can take steps such as:

  • Reviewing the pages that have lost the most organic traffic since the last update so see if they demonstrate Google’s E-E-A-T characteristics, are original and offer a good user experience.
  • Check whether the content is tailored to your specific audience, reflects subject expertise and is a good match to the intent of your users.
  • Rerwite or remove any of your content that is found to fall short of the mark.

I can also recommend that you take a look at this case study by Cyrus Shepherd from February 2024, which looks at 2023’s Google updates (including Core, Spam and Review updates, as well as Helpful Content Updates), and the common on-page factors that correlate with websites that are organic traffic winners and losers since those updates.

Recovering organic traffic lost after Helpful Content Updates is likely to take some time, possibly months. However, it’s absolutely worth it to make the changes and offer your audience a much more valuable experience on your website.

Google isn’t saying that content cannot be optimised for search at all. Rather that the knowledgeable human-focused quality content comes first, with search engine friendliness (according to their best practice guidelines) being part of the process too, but not the focus.

The same principle goes for all existing content. If its primary aim is to meet the identified needs and questions of your audience, and you are offering information that is genuinely unique and useful, you’re already doing the right things. However, if content was originally developed with search engines as the audience first and foremost, and you have noticed a dip in organic performance, you might need to take action on this content to avoid a long-term negative impact on wider site rankings. Large websites with a lot of legacy content may be most affected by this update, especially if past SEO activity isn’t fully known by the current team.

If you haven’t done one recently, then now might be a good time to run a full content audit on your existing website, to make sure that you have an up to date understanding of what content you have and then you can run it through a manual quality check (using the criteria already mentioned) to ensure that there isn’t an obvious danger to rankings due to the helpful content update.

No Brainer’s helpful content creation checklist

When it comes to creating new content, whether it’s blog pieces, product copy or educational/informational content, we’ve always been ‘people-first’ when it comes to content strategy, which fits perfectly with Google’s helpful content update. You can find out more about our approach in our introduction to content design.

We have also created a quick checklist below that you can use when planning content to ensure that it meets the criteria for ‘helpful content’ that has users at the centre, whilst also ensuring that organic search visitors can find what you’re offering and therefore giving them what they need on your website.

Ask yourself these questions for each potential new content idea:

  • Does the content meet a specific need/solve a problem for your target audience or answer a relevant question that’s important to them?
  • Do you (or someone else within the business who can help you) have enough expertise on the subject to provide unique, credible, trustworthy and useful information that they can’t get from elsewhere online?
  • Will the content provide the user with enough useful information to achieve their goal or at least move them on in their journey?
  • Does the content deliver on what the title/heading promises the audience?
  • Is this the kind of content that someone might share, recommend or bookmark to refer to again in the future?
  • Are there any search terms or phrases that match the user’s intent when looking for answers or information on this topic that you can use to help follow optimisation best practices with the content?

By running through this checklist for any new content plans, you can help ensure an audience-first approach to your content strategy that aligns not only with Google’s latest update, but also means you’re providing your target market with all the information that they need to become a customer or client of your business.

Google helpful content update checklist

If you want help with your SEO or content strategy, our team would love to chat and find out more about your business what you want to achieve. Get in touch for more information using the form below.

Picture of Laura Rudd

Laura Rudd

I’ve worked in digital and content marketing for over 20 years, specialising in SEO since its inception. My career has spanned both agency-side and in-house roles, working alongside brands like HomeServe, Taking Care, Checkatrade, and My expertise centres on SEO and content marketing, where I’m passionate about audience-first strategies that drive long-term organic performance.

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