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Google’s Helpful Content Update

Google’s Helpful Content Update

Google has been evolving its search engine algorithms to prioritize content that has been seen as most helpful to people. The HCU, aka Helpful Content Update, was the most important one of them, first coming in August 2022. 

They implemented what is called a new site-wide signal to determine which content is unhelpful or unsatisfying to searchers and lower web holders.

After its first beta release, the HCU has been renewed a few times, the latest in March 2024 when Google said they are using the HCU signal as a feature of their center positioning frameworks. 

All of those updates have done a number on the search landscape for publishers, particularly in verticals like travel, gaming, and affiliate marketing.

With the Helpful Content Update, this article will take a deep dive into what it is, who was impacted, and most importantly, what can you do to make sure your content is in harmony with Google’s newfound helpfulness. 

Read on for practical insights, whether you’re a publisher who has taken a hit or want to safeguard your content strategy going forward.

What is the Helpful Content Update?

helpful content update

The Helpful Content Upgrade (HCU) is a major update to the Google search ranking algorithms that was initially announced in August 2022. 

Ultimately, the mission of the HCU is to help the Search team identify more of the really good stuff and prioritize content that provides genuine value and helpfulness to searchers while deprioritizing content that seems to have been created primarily to game search engine rankings.

A new site-wide signal is at the heart of the HCU, which helps Google’s systems to automatically identify content that is of little value or that is not useful. This is a spectrum signal, sites with quality issues are influenced to a greater extent than sites with extremely poor-quality content.

A significant change with the HCU is the change from content evaluations on a page-by-page basis to a more holistic assessment of the quality and utility of the content on a website.

 If many of your pages are ranking for terms, and Google determines that most of your site contains too many low-quality or unhelpful pages, this can affect your overall search performance regardless of the quality of even just a few helpful pages, due to how negatively valued all of the other pages are.

Google has provided specific guidance on the characteristics of content the HCU aims to deprioritize:

  1. Search Engine-First Content: Content that seems to have been primarily created to attract clicks from search engines, rather than to genuinely help or inform people. This could include content that is stuffed with keywords or that targets trending queries without providing real value.
  2. Automatically-Generated Content: Websites that use extensive automation or AI to mass-produce content on many topics without adequate human oversight and quality control.
  3. Lack of Original Value: Content that merely summarizes what others have to say without adding much original value or perspective. Simply aggregating information from other sources is no longer enough.
  4. Expertise-Lacking Content: Content that covers trending or high-value topics but is written without real expertise or first-hand knowledge. Google wants to prioritize content written by genuine experts.
  5. Shallow or Unhelpful Content: Thin content that doesn’t fully answer a searcher’s query, requiring them to search again to find complete information. This could include content that’s too short, lacks depth, or fails to deliver on its title’s promise.

Along with such hints, Google has also put a greater emphasis on the best-performing content to be the content that is most original, and in-depth, and also shows the highest levels of expertise, experience, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-E-A-T).

The HCU has now been updated numerous times since its initial introduction. Major iteration in September 2023 that caused lots of sitewide ranking drops in a number of sectors – travel, gaming, health, and further expansions; led to Google disclosing they were simply making the HCU signals a component of their primary ranking algorithms in March 2024.

The new Helpful Content Update marks a pretty substantial change in the way that Google is understanding and judging the quality and helpfulness of the content it either ranks or declines to rank on it’s result pages. 

This is a clear sign that Google is further reinforcing its search engine by promoting truly helpful human-oriented content and discouraging content that is designed to mostly trick search engines to give preference. 

The more focus on creating quality content by talented people for the users by the creators and websites, the better.

Who Has Been Impacted By the Helpful Content Update?

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While the Helpful Content Update has had a broad impact across the web, certain verticals and types of sites have been especially hard hit. By analyzing search visibility data and the characteristics of impacted sites, we can identify some clear patterns in who has been most affected.

Travel Industry Takes a Hit

One of the most dramatically impacted verticals has been travel. Many major travel brands and publishers saw their search traffic cut in half or more by the HCU. For example, sites like The Culture Trip, Thrillist, and TripSavvy all lost over 50% of their search visibility.

Even successful independent travel bloggers weren’t spared. Many saw significant declines, even when they felt their content was high-quality and provided real value to readers.

Some common issues among impacted travel sites included:

  • Excessive Advertising: Many travel sites were heavy with ads, including intrusive interstitials, auto-play videos, and ad density that pushed the main content below the fold. This likely hurt their perception of providing a good user experience.
  • AI-Generated Content: Analysis of many impacted travel sites found high levels of AI-generated content, often lacking the nuance and insight of human-written, expert content.
  • Lack of Demonstrated Expertise: For many sites, there was little evidence that the content was written by people with real first-hand expertise. No author bios, no original photos, no insider tips that would indicate the writer had actually been to the destination.
  • Thin Affiliate Content: Many travel sites impacted had thin content that seemed to exist primarily to funnel readers to affiliate bookings, rather than to provide genuinely helpful travel guides and information.

Gaming Sites Gutted

Another vertical that saw outsized impact from the HCU was gaming. Many gaming websites saw massive ranking declines, with some even seeing manual actions that resulted in complete removal from Google’s index.

Common issues among impacted gaming sites included:

  • Low-Quality, Autogenerated Content: Many gaming sites were found to have high levels of AI-generated content, often in the form of “SEO-friendly” question and answer formats that provided little value.
  • Venturing into YMYL Topics: Some gaming sites ventured into writing about sensitive “Your Money or Your Life” topics like mental health or addiction, but without demonstrating the necessary expertise to credibly cover these topics.
  • Aggressive Ads: Gaming sites often featured aggressive advertising, including interstitials, auto-play video, and ad density that severely impacted user experience.

Affiliate Blogs Afflicted

affiliate marketing

Niche blogs that monetize primarily through affiliate marketing have also been among the hardest hit by the Helpful Content Update. Many saw traffic declines of 50% or more.

Characteristics of impacted affiliate sites often included:

  • Excess Ads and Affiliate Links: Many sites had an overwhelming amount of ads and affiliate links, often seeming to prioritize monetization over user experience and content quality.
  • Lack of Original Insight: For sites doing product reviews, there was often little evidence that the reviewer had actually used the product. No original photos, no unique insights, just summarizing features and specs that could be found elsewhere.
  • AI-Generated Reviews: Analysis found many affiliate sites had high levels of autogenerated review content, lacking the authenticity and detail of genuine reviews.
  • Covering Unrelated Topics: Some affiliate sites seemed to cover a wide range of unrelated topics, likely chasing keyword trends, without demonstrating real expertise in these varied areas.

Lyrics and MP3 Download Sites Lose Their Voice

Lyrics sites and MP3 download portals have also been among the biggest losers from the Helpful Content Update. Many saw huge drops in visibility, with some basically disappearing from search entirely.

Issues identified on many of these sites included:

  • Autogenerated Content: Many lyrics and music download sites were found to have a high proportion of automatically generated content, adding little value over official lyrics sources.
  • Poor User Experience: Impacted sites often had outdated designs, poor navigation, and user-hostile experiences like misleading download buttons and invasive ads.
  • Lack of Added Value: Many of these sites offered little value beyond what a user could get from official sources or music services, lacking unique content or features.
  • Copyright Issues: Some sites even had specific pages removed from search due to copyright infringement complaints under the DMCA.

These patterns point to some clear content quality issues that the Helpful Content Update seems to be targeting. However, even some sites that wouldn’t seem to fit these low-quality patterns have seen ranking declines. 

The scale and complexity of the HCU rollout means that even sites with largely helpful content aren’t immune if they have some unhelpful pages dragging down their overall quality assessment.

The broad impact across publishers, even those who have invested in quality content, underscores the significance of the HCU and the importance for all sites to critically assess their content through the lens of helpfulness and value to users.

How to Align Your Content with the Helpful Content Update

helpful content update

If you’re a publisher looking to recover from HCU-related traffic declines or to ensure your content strategy is aligned with Google’s increased emphasis on helpfulness, here are some key best practices to follow:

Demonstrate E-E-A-T

Google wants to reward content that demonstrates high levels of experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-E-A-T). Ensure your content is written by recognized experts and that their expertise is clearly communicated through author bios, credentials, and original insights that go beyond the superficial.

Focus On Serving People, Not Search Engines

Every content you create should be made with your human audience in mind, not just to rank in search results. Ask yourself if people would find your content genuinely helpful and satisfying if they came directly to your site, not just from a search.

Have a Clear Purpose

Your website and content should have a clear purpose, whether that’s to entertain, inform, or serve a specific audience. Avoid chasing trends and keywords that are not relevant to your core purpose and expertise.

Provide Original Value

With so much content on the web, it’s not enough to just summarize what others have said. Your content needs to provide original value, whether that’s a unique perspective, proprietary data and insights, or first-hand expertise.

Invest in Quality Over Quantity

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Successful content is no longer about churning out as many keyword-optimized pages as possible. It’s far better to invest in fewer pieces of high-quality, in-depth content written by experts than to have a large quantity of shallow, unhelpful content.

Avoid Gimmicks & Shortcuts

Tactics like AI-generated content, excessive ads and affiliate links, keyword stuffing, and shallow question-answering content may have worked in the past but are big red flags now. Focus on quality content that puts people first.

Prune Unhelpful Content

If you have low-quality or unhelpful pages on your site, pruning or improving them may help your high-quality content perform better, given the site-wide nature of the HCU signal. Identify your lowest-quality and least visible pages and either improve them or remove them.

By keeping these best practices in mind and always putting your audience first, you can create the kind of helpful, people-first content that Google aims to prioritize. 

While the Helpful Content Update and other similar initiatives from Google may pose challenges, they also present opportunities for publishers who are committed to quality, expertise-driven content to stand out and be rewarded.

The Future of Search & Helpful Content

search

Google’s Helpful Content Update represents a significant shift in how the search engine evaluates and prioritizes content. It’s part of Google’s broader efforts to surface original, high-quality, people-first content and to reduce low-value, SEO-first content in search results.

For publishers, this means a renewed focus on quality over quantity, on genuine expertise over content-mill production, and on providing original value over chasing trends. It means a more holistic look at entire websites to evaluate helpfulness and a bigger reward for the kind of detailed, insightful content that truly helps searchers and leaves them satisfied.

While the HCU has undoubtedly caused disruption and presented challenges, especially for publishers who relied on now-discouraged tactics, it also presents opportunities. For those willing to invest in high-quality, genuinely helpful content, the HCU and similar initiatives represent a chance to differentiate and be rewarded in search results.

As Google continues to refine its algorithms and human raters keep providing input on search result quality, we can expect to see further emphasis on helpfulness as a key signal. The bar for what it takes to succeed in search is getting higher – but for publishers committed to quality and to serving their audiences, that’s ultimately a good thing.

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