Google’s Helpful Content Update: How to Win in Search in 2024
At the end of 2023, Google released a new algorithm update known as the Helpful Content Update (HCU). There are still a lot of unknowns about exactly what was changed in this algorithm update since we're still in the early days of analyzing all of the shifts in search results and web traffic data. But there are some key takeaways that you can apply to your 2024 digital strategies to better future-proof your website from this and other algorithm shifts.
To understand the potential impact, you need to understand why Google is changing their algorithm. For that you need context.
With the explosive growth of generative AI like ChatGPT over the last year, it became clear that AI content was taking over the internet. The barrier to entry for those creating content online significantly decreased. Where teams previously struggled to generate content on a consistent basis, organizations can now leverage generative AI tools to publish hundreds of pages of content a day.
This increase in content production meant that websites were able to pump out keyword rich and SEO focused content at scale with little to no cost. At first Google said that it would penalize AI content; however, as these models advanced it was clear that there was not a reliable way to detect AI content. Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI has repeatedly said that AI detection software is unreliable. It’s clear that Google wasn't able to accurately penalize websites for using AI as it couldn’t reliably distinguish the difference between AI content and content writer content.
Google’s stance on AI content officially changed within a short time frame. Instead, the focus became on evaluating if the content on a website — regardless of whether it was created with AI — was considered “helpful.” This showed that Google no longer cared if content was AI generated or not. Instead it was focused on the quality of the content and if it fulfilled the search intent properly.
What Google Claims They're Trying to Change with This Update
Google claims that it will "better reward content where visitors feel they've had a satisfying experience, while content that doesn't meet a visitor's expectations won't perform as well."
According to Google’s documentation, “Sites identified by this system may find the signal applied to them over a period of months. Our classifier runs continuously, allowing it to monitor newly-launched sites and existing ones. As it determines that the unhelpful content hasn't returned in the long-term, the classification will no longer apply.”
In our opinion, Google is trying to mitigate the rise of AI content by putting an emphasis on “helpful” or quality content over mass AI content websites. This is a feeble attempt to combat the quality vs. quantity conundrum. The real question is, "Is reality reflecting what their algorithm is attempting to do?"
What We're Seeing
Simply put, there isn't enough data to truly determine if Google’s algorithm update is a success or not. Early results, however, are showing some odd trends with this new algorithm update. An example is user generated content websites like forums (Reddit, Quora) are seeing increased visibility in search results.
Reddit's first page keywords have increased by 77% since November 2023 and their estimated organic traffic has increased by 76% since Nov 2023. It's clear that Reddit which is all user-generated content has seen early success after the Helpful Content Update.
Quora another website that is almost all user generated content, is seeing similar growth. Quora has had a 70% increase of first page, 44% estimated traffic. This makes Quora another website that is seeing early success post Helpful Content Update.
There are no clear winners and losers yet in this algorithm and it is too early to tell what the long-term impact is on the search efforts of other organizations, but these forums seem to be early winners according to our research.
Beyond this anecdotal data there aren’t many other insights into the success or failure of this helpful content update.
Now the question people are asking themselves is if they have, been affected — positively or negatively — by this update.
How to Tell if Your Website Was Affected by the Helpful Content Update
To determine if your website has been impacted by Google's Helpful Content Update, you can follow these steps:
Monitor Your Traffic
- Use Analytics Tools: Utilize tools like Google Analytics to track your website's traffic. Pay close attention to organic search traffic, as this is most likely to be impacted by search engine updates.
- Analyze Traffic Trends: Look for significant changes in your traffic patterns, especially decreases. Compare the traffic before and after the date when the update was implemented. Sudden drops around this time can be indicative of the update's impact.
- Segment Traffic Data: Break down the traffic data by various segments such as location, device type, and channels. This can help you pinpoint specific areas or audiences that are most affected.
- Page-Level Analysis: Analyze the traffic on a page-by-page basis. Pages that have lost a significant amount of traffic post-update could be the ones that don’t align well with the update's criteria.
Monitor Your Rankings
- Keyword Tracking Tools: Use SEO tools like SEMrush, Ahrefs, or Moz to track your website's rankings for various keywords. These tools can provide historical data to compare rankings before and after the update.
- Identify Ranking Changes: Look for declines in keyword rankings, especially for those keywords that previously performed well. A drop in rankings can signal that your content might not be meeting the new criteria set by Google.
- Competitor Comparison: Compare your keyword rankings with your competitors. If they are ranking better after the update, analyze what they might be doing differently in terms of content quality and relevance.
- Long-tail Keyword Performance: Pay attention to the performance of long-tail keywords. These are often more specific and can give insights into how well your content matches user intent.
- SERP Feature Changes: Check if there's been a loss of special Search Engine Results Page (SERP) features like featured snippets, which you previously owned. Losing these can be a sign of decreased content authority or relevance.
By closely monitoring both traffic and rankings, you can get valuable insights into how Google's Helpful Content Update affects your website. This will enable you to make informed decisions about how to adjust your SEO and content strategy accordingly.
What to Do – Reliable SEO Content Strategies for 2024 (How to Make Your Content “Helpful”)
While things are still unknown as to the long-term effects and impact of Google’s algorithm update, it is never too early to start evaluating your content. No one has ever been accused of having content that's too helpful, right?
Below are some core content assessment areas and tips that will help you determine if your content is not only search-worthy, but also valuable to your end user.
Self-Assess Your Content
- Evaluate your content against specific questions to gauge its helpfulness and reliability.
- Consider feedback from unaffiliated, trustworthy individuals.
- Analyze which pages dropped in search rankings and why.
Create Quality Content
- Ensure content provides original information, reporting, research, or analysis.
- Provide comprehensive and insightful descriptions.
- Avoid merely copying other sources; add value and originality.
- Main headings or titles should be descriptive and not sensational.
- Aim for content that users would bookmark, share, or reference.
Showcase Your Expertise
- Content should appear trustworthy, with clear sourcing and author expertise.
- The site should seem authoritative on its topic.
- Content should be free of factual errors and written/reviewed by knowledgeable individuals.
Serve Up a Great Page Experience
- Focus on delivering a good overall user experience on every page.
Craft People-First Content
- Content should be created primarily for people, showcasing first-hand expertise and knowledge.
- It should serve the site's primary purpose and leave readers satisfied and informed.
Avoid Search Engine-First Content
- Avoid creating content mainly for search engine rankings.
- Avoid content automation, excessive topic coverage, and following trending topics without expertise.
- Content shouldn't require further searches for better information.
- Don't focus on word count or freshness for search ranking manipulation.
- SEO should support people-first content, not dominate it.
- Focus on Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and
- Trust is crucial, especially for content impacting health, finance, safety, or societal welfare.
- Google uses E-E-A-T to rank content, especially for critical "Your Money or Your Life" topics.
- Google's search raters use E-E-A-T to evaluate content, but they don't directly influence rankings.
Satisfy the Who, How, and Why of Content
- Who: Clearly indicate the authorship and their background.
- How: Explain the content creation process, including any AI or automation used.
- Why: Content should be created to help people, not just to attract search engine visits.
Content has always been king, but in 2024 it's important to truly focus on the utility of content you generate. Your focus should be on creating high-quality, original, and trustworthy content that prioritizes your audiences' needs and interests, which is imperative for search success. While search engine rankings are important, theyre becoming a byproduct of a well-rounded content strategy that is built on a strong SEO strategy.