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Google’s Helpful Content Update Introduces A New Site-wide Ranking Signal Targeting “Search engine-first Content” (and it’s always running).


I was able to speak with Google about the Helpful Content Update, which introduces a new site-wide ranking signal that’s targeting “unhelpful content” (which is content primarily created to rank in search engines versus help users). Keep your arms and legs in the vehicle at all times, the next few weeks in Google Land are going to be interesting.

Updated August 25, 2022
The rollout has begun! Google posted in its ranking updates documentation that the Helpful Content Update started rolling out on 8/25/22.

Updated August 24, 2022
Included information about how the Helpful Content Update will impact multilingual sites.

Updated: August 22, 2022
I included new information about noindexing content and how subdomains could be treated when the Helpful Content Update rolls out.

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Big news in the SEO world. Google is releasing a new, site-wide ranking signal that targets “unhelpful content”. I was able to speak with Google’s Danny Sullivan about the ranking signal and will provide that information, including my thoughts about the update, below. Note, Google also announced that a new Product Reviews Update will be rolling out in the coming weeks. I’ll cover more about that separately (soon).

Here’s a quick table of contents if you want to jump around to different sections:

The Helpful Content Update (HCU) – An Introduction
First, the name of the update is the “Helpful Content Update”, which I’ll refer to as the HCU for short, and it will start rolling out next week. It will initially focus on English content globally (like the Product Reviews Update). Like broad core updates and the Product Reviews Update, the Helpful Content Update can take up two weeks to fully roll out. Naming-wise, I was personally hoping for a black and white animal like Orca, Zebra, or Dalmatian, to follow in Panda and Penguin’s footsteps, but that’s clearly not the direction Google wanted to go. Also, Google told Search Engine Land that the update will only impact Search for now (and not Discover or other surfaces).

Update: The Helpful Content Update started rolling out on August 25, 2022. Google posted in its ranking updates documentation explaining the HCU started rolling out on 8/25/22 and that it can take up to two weeks to fully roll out. If it’s like broad core updates and the Product Reviews Update, we should start seeing impact within a few days (like within the first 48 hours).

The new, site-wide ranking signal targets content that’s created for search engines first and not users. Google is looking to tackle what it considers “unhelpful content” versus content that’s created to truly help users. Their post talks about “search engine-first” content creation versus “people-first”. For example, pages that simply aggregate content from other sources without providing some unique value or insights.

Google said it wants to “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”. In one of its two posts about the update, Google provided an example of someone searching for movie information and finding a page ranking well that just aggregated reviews from other sites without providing unique perspectives. With the new site-wide signal at play, you should find more content with unique information.

Google explained that this new signal is joining the Product Reviews Update in a broader effort to reduce low quality content from the search results. And if this reminds you of medieval Panda after reading about the new signal, you’re definitely not alone. It’s one of the first things I thought of after hearing about it. But it’s different… read on.

A site-wide ranking signal that’s always running:
Yes, you heard that correctly. It’s a site-wide signal. Over the years, I have heavily covered that Google has site-level quality algorithms that can impact an entire site (versus the notion that every url fends for itself rankings-wise). Panda and Penguin of the past were site-level algorithms. And there are other site-level algorithms currently at play with broad core updates.

Here are just a few tweets of mine with links to videos from Google’s John Mueller about this (there were many tweets to choose from):

During our call, Google’s Danny Sullivan explained to me that the new ranking signal is a classifier. If your site is deemed to have a lot of what Google considers “unhelpful content”, then the site will be classified that way (and that can negatively impact your rankings at a site-level).

In Google’s post about the signal it explains, “Our systems automatically identify content that seems to have little value, low-added value or is otherwise not particularly helpful to those doing searches.”

Also, and this is super important to understand, Google explains that “ANY CONTENT – not just unhelpful content – on sites determined to have relatively high amounts of search engine-first content is less likely to perform well in Search (assuming there is other content on the web that’s better to display)”. So this site-wide ranking signal can impact rankings across your entire site, including higher quality content. That’s why  Google recommends removing unhelpful content in order to get your site reclassified (which can lead to recovery).

Update: Information about subdomains:
Google’s Danny Sullivan was asked about how subdomains would be treated and he explained that Google “tends to see subdomains apart from root domains, but it can also depend on many factors.” In other words, they tend to see subdomains as separate. It’s important to know that Google has algorithms that work on the hostname-level and the Helpful Content Update could be doing the same. For example, medieval Panda worked on a hostname-level. Google’s Gary Illyes explained that in the past. We’ll know much more once the update rolls out, but this is good to know.

Here is Danny’s tweet about subdomains:

The Signal Is Weighted: Impact Could Vary
I asked if the new site-wide ranking signal was binary (yes/no) or if there were grades of scoring. Google explained that the signal is weighted (and they explained that in their blog post as well). They explained that “sites with a lot of unhelpful content will find the signal stronger for them”. So, if you have a lot of unhelpful content on the site, like content created for search engines over humans, then you could see a stronger effect from the Helpful Content Update (HCU).

Recovery from the Helpful Content Update. How long does it take?
If your site is impacted by the new ranking signal, then you will need to work hard to improve your content over time. Google explained you cannot recover quickly. Instead, it can take months for the classification to change (as Google sees less “unhelpful content” on your site).

Google explained, “Sites identified by this update may find the signal applied to them over a period of months. Our classifier for this update runs continuously, allowing it to monitor newly-launched sites and existing ones. As it determines that the unhelpful content has not returned in the long-term, the classification will no longer apply.”

So, like I explain to clients about broad core updates, do not push short-term changes, only to revert back to old ways. Keep the right changes in place over the long-term. Don’t cherry pick changes… tackle “unhelpful content” aggressively. That’s how you can see recovery from the Helpful Content Update.

Update: Noindexing versus 404ing content:
Google’s John Mueller was asked on Twitter if noindexing “unhelpful content” is ok or if the urls need to be truly removed (404 or 410). John explained that noindexing content is fine (since the urls are removed from the index). But, and I agree, users can still find that content… and if the content is lower quality and “unhelpful”, then why even keep it? So you can noindex, but in my opinion, 404ing it is a better approach. You can also boost that content and improve it. But that could be a lot of work if there are many “search engine-first” pages on the site.

Here is John’s tweet about noindexing content:

Also, the site-wide ranking signal will be continuously running (similar to how the Page Experience Signal works). It will not require a periodic refresh. Instead, your site’s classification can change over time as Google detects more, or less, “unhelpful content” on your site (which again, is content created for search engines over people). It’s important to understand that sites won’t recover overnight, or even in a few weeks, but you can see recovery after several months (if you have removed enough unhelpful content).

Also, we have no idea how powerful the signal is. I asked Danny Sullivan about this during our call and he said if a site is impacted by the Helpful Content Update, then that impact should be visible (meaning the site should see an impact to rankings). Personally, I get the feeling the signal will be much more powerful than the Page Experience Signal (which is a lightweight ranking factor at best). I’ll be covering the impact heavily once the rollout is complete.

MY OPINION: Is this a foreshadowing of how more site-level signals will be handled in the future?
OK, so we know that Google could always decouple algorithms from broad core updates and run them separately. I have covered that in several posts about broad core updates. Well, this is just my opinion, but imagine if Google started decoupling algorithms from broad core updates and running them continually like this new signal.

That could be a big shift in how those algorithms impact sites (and throughout the year versus just during broad core updates). To clarify, Google did not say anything about this when I spoke with them (so it’s totally my point of view), but hearing about this new ranking signal targeting low quality content, and how it works, had me thinking about broad core updates and how they work. I guess time will tell if that starts happening.

More bullets points for site owners, More guidance from Google:
From medieval Panda to broad core updates to the Product Reviews Update, Google has provided a number of bullets to help site owners evaluate their own content (and sites overall). And in my opinion, those bullets are extremely important for site owners and SEOs to objectively review. Heck, I’ve even explained how to use those bullets to craft user studies through the lens of broad core updates.

Well, we now have a new set of bullets based on the new site-wide ranking signal. And, Google said the bullets shouldn’t surprise anyone.  

First, Google explained that if you answer “yes” to the following questions, then you’re probably on the right track with using a people-first approach to content creation:

  • 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? 
  • 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)?
  • Does your site have a primary purpose or focus?
  • After reading your content, will someone leave feeling they’ve learned enough about a topic to help achieve their goal?
  • Will someone reading your content leave feeling like they’ve had a satisfying experience?
  • Are you keeping in mind our guidance for core updates and for product reviews?

And when addressing avoiding creating unhelpful content, Google provided additional bullets and explained that answering “yes” to some, or all, of the questions is a warning sign that you should reevaluate how you are creating content:

  • Is the content primarily to attract people from search engines, rather than made for humans? 
  • Are you producing lots of content on different topics in hopes that some of it might perform well in search results?
  • Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?
  • Are you mainly summarizing what others have to say without adding much value? 
  • Are you writing about things simply because they seem trendy and not because you’d write about them otherwise for your existing audience?
  • Does your content leave readers feeling like they need to search again to get better information from other sources?
  • 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).
  • Did you decide to enter some niche topic area without any real expertise, but instead mainly because you thought you’d get search traffic?
  • Does your content promise to answer a question that actually has no answer, such as suggesting there’s a release **** for a product, movie, or TV show when one isn’t confirmed?

My take on the new bullets:
Google is clearly explaining that they want to reward content creators that focus heavily on a subject matter, have deep expertise in an area, and that can demonstrate first-hand expertise and a depth of knowledge. I have covered “staying in your lane” many times when discussing broad core updates, and I would reiterate that based on the bullets above. Don’t try to cover too many different topics if you can’t provide insightful information for each of them. In other words, stay in your lane.

I recommend focusing on what you truly have expertise in. Don’t follow search volume alone, provide top-notch, high quality content that can really help users. Don’t use automation to pump out a lot of lower quality content just to target queries with search volume. Don’t just summarize what others are saying. Provide unique insights. Don’t artificially increase word count thinking Google looks to reward that. They don’t and it can frustrate users. Don’t overpromise and underdeliver. As Google put it, don’t promise an answer to a question that has no answer… It’s worth noting that Google has a News and Discover policy that literally says the same thing. Just an interesting side note. See below.

Machine Learning and MUM: Is the new signal using MUM?
I asked Danny if machine learning, and more specifically if MUM (Multitask Unified Model), was being used for the new ranking signal. Danny explained that the classifier is entirely automated using a machine learning approach, but MUM is not being used.

So like I thought would be the case, Google is using machine learning to understand when a site has a lot of unhelpful content. We know that the Product Reviews Update also uses a machine learning model (and I believe Google’s broad core updates are using machine learning as well). So this wasn’t shocking, but it’s good to get confirmation.

AI-generated content:
I asked Google is the new ranking signal would be targeting content created via AI ****** like GPT-3 and others, or if the signal would just be targeting more egregious examples of content produced for search engines versus users. For example, there are definitely sites pumping out a lot of AI-driven content (and some of it isn’t great… to say the least). Some of that is ranking well right now.

Google explained, “we are looking to surface content that will be viewed as helping and adding value to the topics searched. Creators who are specifically creating content for search engines first, which include AI-based content, may be impacted.”

So if you are heavily using AI to create content, you should be aware that it can be targeted by the new ranking signal (if it’s deemed to be created for search engines first versus truly helping users). There’s clearly nuance there, so it should be interesting to see what gets impacted by the HCU.

Dueling Algorithms Can Still Be At Play:
With this latest release, broad core updates, Product Reviews Updates, and the new site-wide ranking signal will be at play now. Broad core updates and the Product Reviews Update require a periodic refresh, while the new ranking signal will be continually running.

I have covered what I call “dueling machine learning systems” in my posts about broad core updates and the Product Reviews Update. That’s when a site might surge with one update and drop with another (which can be awkward and confusing for site owners). In other words, is the site high quality, or not?

Here’s an example from my post about the March Product Reviews Update where a site is surging with one type of update and dropping with another:

I asked Danny if that could potentially happen with the new ranking signal, or if it would be closely aligned with what happens with broad core updates and the PRU. He explained that they are all separate systems, so it’s possible, but it should be rare since the algorithms are all trying to reward high quality content or reduce low quality content.

I’ll be tracking this closely as the new ranking signal rolls out. I hope it aligns well with broad core updates and the PRU. Again, it’s a confusing and awkward situation when you see dueling algorithms like that.

Types of content targeted and niche areas that will see more impact.
With the new site-wide ranking signal, Google explained that there are certain types of content that seem to be impacted more than others based on their testing (at least for now). That includes online educational materials, arts and entertainment, shopping, and tech-related content. I asked more about that, and Danny explained this is what Google saw after testing the signal versus what they targeted specifically. In other words, there just might be more low-quality “unhelpful content” that’s being impacted in those niche areas than other areas. It’s not that Google targeted those niche areas… it’s just those areas are seeing more impact.

It’s also important to reiterate that Google will be continually improving and refining that signal over time. So things can absolutely change on that front. And remember, the site-wide signal is always running. So there won’t be periodic refreshes like we see with broad core updates or Product Reviews Updates.

How will the Helpful Content Update impact multilingual sites?
There was a great question form Juan González Villa on Twitter about how the Helpful Content Update would impact sites with multilingual content. For example, we know the update only impacts English content globally, so what about sites that contain content in multiple languages? If the new classifier detects a site has a lot of “search engine-first” content, will the update impact the rankings of content in other languages?

We haven’t heard from Google yet about this, but I believe the answer lies right in their blog post about the update. Specifically, Google explains that English searches globally will be impacted. I bolded “searches” since it seems like Google will use the classifier for English queries (and not queries in other languages yet). That would make a lot of sense and it was one of the theories I explained on Twitter when I responded to Juan. Here is that part from the post:

So if you have content in other languages on a site that also has English content, then you have a head start for making sure those pages in other languages are truly high quality and insightful. For now, it sounds like the Helpful Content Update will only target English queries (and your site will not be impacted by the ranking signal when Google detects queries in other languages). But like the Product Reviews Update, Google wants to expand to other languages. Again, you have a head start.

Summary: A new site-wide ranking signal is rolling out targeting low quality, “search engine-first” content.
I hope this post shed some light on Google’s new Helpful Content Update, powered by a site-wide ranking signal targeting “search engine-first” content. The new signal is a classifier that’s always running, and it aims to reduce the amount of low-quality content in the SERPs. If you are impacted by the new site-wide signal, then work to remove unhelpful content from your site. Then focus on using a “people-first” approach to content creation (by providing helpful and insightful content for users). Over time (which Google explained can be months), your site’s classification can change, and you can recover. But you will not recover in days, or even weeks.

I’ll be tracking the rollout of the new ranking signal closely, so definitely follow me on Twitter for the latest updates. Like I explained earlier, it’s going to be an interesting next few weeks in Google Land. Good luck.

GG

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