In September 2023, Google released a new helpful content update — the latest to its helpful content system, which, as Google explains, aims to “better ensure people see original, helpful content created for people in search results.”
I find these updates interesting because they seem so obvious. Since the beginning of time — or at least the beginning of publishing — writers, reporters, journalists, editors and authors have always wanted to produce content that people actually read.
The problem is everyone thinks they’re producing helpful content. As of October 2023, there were nearly 4.5 billion indexed web pages on the internet. Google and other search engines develop and constantly refine algorithms to help sort through these billions of pages and serve up, in a fraction of a second, what they deem to be the most helpful, relevant content.
As Google refines its algorithms, content creators figure out ways to game them by writing content aimed at the search engine bots — not readers.
Easy peasy, right? Publish helpful content written for people, not search bots, and reap the reward by ranking high in Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs), so searchers see your content ahead of your competitors’. Winning that coveted No. 1 spot (or heck, even No. 10) in organic search results — is challenging.
With a solid content marketing strategy and an investment in well-written content that shows your expertise and authority on a given topic, you can send Google strong signals that you know what you’re talking about and deserve to rank high in organic search results.
I’ll outline actionable steps you can take to boost your ability to rank organically for keywords that are important to your business.
The Role of SEO in Content Marketing
For broader context and maybe a refresher, search engine optimization is only one of many tactics that should be part of your comprehensive content marketing strategy. Think of SEO as a distribution channel for your content. Other channels include:
- Paid search, such as pay-per-click advertising
- Social media like LinkedIn, TikTok or whichever platforms your buyer personas are engaged in
- Content syndication, such as paying to have your content published in a third-party publication
- Earned media, such as having your subject matter experts featured in interviews with third-party publications or podcasts
- Speaking engagements, such as trade shows or educational conferences
- Email nurtures, such as marketing automated campaigns with audience-specific emails that include links to your content
- One-to-one outbound marketing, such as your salespeople sending LinkedIn messages (with links to your content) directly to their contacts
A benefit to SEO over these other channels is that SEO when done well, gives your content a longer shelf life and can be the gift that keeps on giving. If you published a particularly helpful piece of content in 2017 and continue to refresh it with additional information that readers find helpful, Google should continue to reward it with high rankings.
These other channels can give your content a quick boost in terms of impressions, but SEO success builds on itself. As Google sees signals from your site that you do indeed have helpful content, you build domain authority over time. This is why I strongly recommend investing in developing helpful content and distributing it via the SEO channel.
How Does Google Define Helpful Content?
In June 2022, Google received a patent for its “information gain score,” an algorithmic way of scoring content based on its uniqueness compared to all the other content out there. With this scoring mechanism, Google can determine how original or similar your content is to other content and can promote or demote content based on the score.
We think this is a good thing, as it’s forcing content creators to be more innovative, original and helpful in the information they’re sharing.
Helpful content, according to Google, is reliable and written to benefit people — not to earn rankings in SERPs. How can you tell if your content is helpful? Google offers a few questions for content creators to ask themselves to self-assess their content, such as:
- Does your content include original information, reporting, research or analysis?
- Does your content synthesize information from other sources, or does it only include copied-and-pasted information from those sources?
- Does the content seem hastily produced?
(I’m having flashbacks to my days in journalism school in the 1990s. No student would have passed News Reporting & Writing 101 if our content failed to meet any of these standards.)
Answer Google’s content-assessment questions as a start, keeping in mind that it’s hard to take an honest, objective look at your own work. Everyone thinks their own baby is beautiful. Consider working with a content marketing agency to conduct a more thorough, data-driven content audit.
We approach our content audits by starting not with content but with people — your buyers (or buyer personas). The better you understand your buyers and their pain points, the more you can tailor helpful content specific to their needs.
Content audits go much deeper, of course, but as Google’s helpful content update is designed to deliver “content created for people,” I wanted to call out the fact that your content audit should start with the people you’re trying to reach.
How Does Google Prioritize Helpful Content?
Google ranks content on many factors. Content should:
- Match the meaning behind a person’s search intent
- Be relevant to the search terms people are using
- Be high quality
- Be useable
- Consider the searcher’s context and setting
For the purposes of this blog post, we’ll focus on what “high quality” means in terms of content. Google deems content high quality if it includes EEAT factors.
EEAT stands for experience, expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness. When you weave these aspects into your content, you send signals to Google that your content is indeed helpful. While EEAT isn’t a specific ranking factor for Google, these are helpful aspects to consider as you’re creating content.
Earlier, I noted that a content audit should start with people, namely your buyer personas. You should also think about people within your own organization — your experts — as they should be sharing their expertise in your content.
If your in-house experts aren’t writers or don’t have the time to write content for your website, hire writers or lean on your content marketing agency to interview your subject matter experts. Regardless of who does the writing, the content should include your unique point of view and demonstrate deep experience with the topic you’re writing about.
I’ll use madison/miles media and this blog post as an example. Our unique perspective on the most recent Google helpful content update is that it’s actually not all that earth-shattering that Google wants to share helpful content with people. Our expertise in this realm is that we were co-founded by a former journalist and have a team of experienced writers who don’t just regurgitate content you could easily find on others’ websites. We interview. We do our research. We synthesize information and write original blog posts and other content that we hope is helpful to people.
What About AI-Generated Content?
Google documentation went from prioritizing content “written by people, for people” to saying content “written for people.”
It’s a notable change in Google’s stance on AI-generated content (which isn’t surprising given that Google itself has a generative AI tool, Bard). In other words, AI-generated content is OK as long as it’s “written for people.”
Is AI-generated content written for people? In my experience, generative AI tools like ChatGPT 4 and Bing AI can offer good, well-organized summaries of a topic, but their responses are no replacement for writing that is created from lived experience or in-depth interviews with real-life human experts.
AI-generated content also can’t explain your unique perspective on a topic. Whatever content a chatbot can generate for you, it can churn out virtually the same content for your competitors.
Steps You Can Take to React to the Google Helpful Content Update
If you’ve found that your site has taken a hit in organic search rankings as a result of Google’s latest helpful content update, the steps I recommend in response to it are the same steps I’d recommend as part of any content marketing or SEO strategy. In general, these include:
- Deciding which keywords you want to rank for organically
- Understanding your current organic rankings
- Seeing how your competitors stack up organically
- Identifying the gap between where you are and where you want to be
- Auditing your content to ensure that it’s helpful to the people you’re targeting
- Developing new content where needed and optimizing older content that may need refreshing
These tasks require you to look at your current content and strategy through both subjective and objective lenses and ask yourself if what you’re creating is actually innovative, original and helpful. Start with a critical eye and look at your content from a qualitative perspective, using data analytics tools for an evidence-based, quantitative perspective.
This can be tricky to do with your own content, especially if you are the writer. A content-driven digital marketing agency can help you do this and understand how to optimize your content in light of Google’s helpful content update.