Late last year, Google rolled out an algorithm update. Unlike previous updates with quirky code names (Caffeine, Medic, Panda), the purpose of this update was plain from its name: The helpful content update.
Just like previous updates, it has the potential to change how marketers and the organizations they serve present themselves online. Let’s review three things you should know about the helpful content update and the best practices for creating high-ranking content.
It Continues an Established Strategy
In 2013, Google introduced Hummingbird, the most dramatic algorithm change since at least 2001. Hummingbird was designed to recognize and prioritize content that was useful to users, while harshly downgrading pages designed primarily to get a search engine’s attention with keyword stuffing and other gimmicks.
The helpful content update is essentially a refinement of that strategy. It does a better job of recognizing language context and features of content that help the reader; it also does a better job of detecting content that is all SEO sizzle and no steak.
Google Is Getting Ahead of Artificial Intelligence
Google’s new guidelines for developers don’t specifically mention the algorithm being better at detecting AI-generated text, but they send clear signals about it. They recommend clearly disclosing any use of AI in producing your content and asking yourself whether you are “using extensive automation to produce content on many topics.”
There’s no denying AI will help creators produce more content faster, but Google is adapting to this by making all content meet the “helpful” standard and requiring transparency about AI content.
You Can Probably Relax
Google’s incentive is to give people the answers they search for. If you’re already helping your audience and speaking to them with authority, this update is designed to boost your signal, not make you jump through hoops.
To make sure the helpful content update is as helpful to you as possible, follow these best practices to make sure content ranks well.
Ask “Why, Who, and How” About Your Content
This is a recommendation right out of the developer guidelines, and we put “why” first, because as Google rightly maintains, it’s the most important question.
Why?—Why is the content being created? To help users and build trust or attract search engines? Google calls the former “people first” content, and it’s what the algorithm is looking for.
Who?—What features will tell the reader who has created the piece and why they are trustworthy?
How?—What can be included to make sure the reader knows how you developed the piece (with AI bots, or not?) and what you did to develop the knowledge being presented? For example, if you’re posting a product review, include details about how you used/tested the item.
Use Bylines and Other Author Information
Even if a piece is presented as speaking for your whole organization, include a byline and close the piece with an author summary. The new update sees these as marks of authority and authenticity.
Forget About Word Counts
Google's new developer guidelines had a simple answer for the question of whether there is a word count the search engine prefers: “No, we don't.”
Ask the Value Question
Ask yourself how your audience would feel if they were paying for the content you’re offering for free. As the developer guidelines put it, would they feel they had “learned enough about [your] topic to help achieve their goal?” Will they need to search again to find better information or move forward with knowledge they can trust?
Don’t Chase Trends and Stay In Your Niche
Resist the temptation to chase trending subjects to bring in more visitors; it will actually have the opposite effect. Google evaluates the authoritativeness of sites as a whole, not just as individual pieces, and this tendency appears to be even stronger with the new update. Writing about subjects just because they seem to be trending and/or departing from a subject you’ve established clear authority in will hurt your rankings.
SEO Is Still Crucial
What about SEO? Is it something Google considers to be “gaming the system,” “search engine first” instead of “people first,” etc.?
Think of SEO as a book cover. No matter how informative a book is, it won’t be read unless it has a cover giving the reader a good idea of what’s inside. SEO is designed to help the algorithm recognize what’s in your content, not fool it.
Keep the Right Mindset
Bots don’t build trust with an audience, and bots don’t buy products and services. If you create people-first content that’s designed to help your audience, you’ll not only be rewarded by the new Google algorithm, you’ll earn their trust and their business.
With so many new updates to producing helpful content, consider enlisting the experts at Cain & Company to help you create useful and interesting writing that ranks high in search engines and delivers more traffic to the website of your business or organization.