Helpful Content System: Google wants useful and quality content
To make original and useful content, written first and foremost to meet people’s needs, appear in SERPs. In a nutshell, this is the task of Helpful Content System, a major new update to Google Search’s ranking algorithm first launched in August 2022 and then subjected to various improvements, always with the goal of presenting search engine users with only useful pages, precisely, demoting and removing visibility from overtly unhelpful content.
What is the Google Helpful Content System
Helpful Content is one of Google’s ranking systems and aims to better reward content where visitors feel they have had a satisfactory experience, consequently making content that does not meet the visitor’s expectations perform less well.
Translated into Italian as Useful Content System, with this piece of the algorithm Google has from the beginning aimed to reduce the presence in SERPs of content written for the sole purpose of ranking in search engines and that does not help or inform people.
More specifically, in presenting the news back in August 2022, Danny Sullivan wrote that the goal is “to counter content that appears to have been created primarily for good search engine rankings rather than to help or inform people,” and “to ensure that unoriginal, low-quality content does not rank high in Search.” In addition, the Public Liaison for Search adds that Google’s initial internal tests “found that it will particularly improve results related to online education, as well as arts and entertainment content, shopping, and technology” (not because the tests focused on these areas, but because these topics may have larger amounts of target content for the update).
How the algorithmic system for useful content works
From a technical standpoint, the useful content system generates a site-level indicator that Google’s algorithms take into account among the many others used to define rankings on Search and also on Discover.
More specifically, the system automatically identifies content that appears to be poor, has little added value, or is not particularly useful to people, although a variety of onpage and onsite signals are aggregated to definitively determine a page’s ranking, about which of course Google has not provided more specific guidance – these are still the classic 200 ranking factors, presumably.
The rater’s procedure is fully automated, uses a machine learning model, and works globally in all languages: this allows helpful content to continuously learn, improve, and change.
From this point of view, it is important to dwell on the words Google chose to define its intervention at launch: helpful content system is a “site-wide ranking signal that is always active,” thus applied to the entire site (and not individual pages) and continuously running-unlike therefore broad core updates or changes such as the product reviews update, which require periodic updating. Moreover, its effects do not produce a manual action or an anti-spam penalty, although for those affected the result is similar to that of a penalty.
In short, HC is just one of many indicators that Google evaluates to classify content, specifically distinguishing it into “helpful” and “not helpful,” i.e., designed only to rank well in Search and not to provide benefits to users.
What Helpful Content means for a site
Generally speaking, the latest version of Google’s guidance updated in September 2023 also reiterates, any content (and not just content that does not turn out or is not considered helpful) on sites that (according to the algorithms’ criteria) have relatively large amounts of non-helpful content in general is less likely to perform well in Search, because Google assumes and assumes that there is other content on the Web that is better, which will therefore have “priority” in terms of visibility. In practice, this site-level ranking signal can affect the rankings of the entire site, including those of higher quality content.
This means, however, that it is also possible that some “people-centered” content posted on sites generally ranked as not useful could still rank well if there are other signals that identify such content as useful and relevant to a query.
Regarding the impact on sites, Google reports that the signal is weighted and, therefore, sites with a lot of useless content might notice a stronger effect. However, if we notice a strong drop, even a “simple” removal of unhelpful content could improve the ranking of other pages on the site.
In addition, if we host third-party content on the main site or in subdomains, Google invites us to keep in mind that such content might be included in site-wide generated signals, such as precisely the useful content system. For this reason, if the content is largely independent of the purpose of the main site or produced without close supervision or involvement of the main site, it would be preferable to block it from being indexed by Google using the various methods available, such as noindex.
This means that some content designed for users on sites ranked as having no-useful content could still rank well, if other indicators are present that establish the presence of user-targeted, useful and relevant content to a query.
Other interesting information, Google confirmed to Barry Schwartz that these algorithms have been validated with quality raters and that using this system improves search quality, just as Google validates any kind of ranking improvement before launch.
How to respond to traffic declines for useless content
Google also offers some guidance for those who own or operate a site and are (understandably) concerned about the potential impact of this algorithmic system.
If we believe we are producing and offering useful content, “there is nothing to do or change,” the guide summarizes, and indeed the algorithmic update could prove beneficial to our site, since precisely it is designed to reward useful content.
If, however, we have noticed a change in traffic that we suspect may be related to this system (particularly after an official update), we must learn to self-assess content and correct or remove content that seems unnecessary, referring to the guide to see if the content are useful, trustworthy, and people-centered.
But how long does it take for a site to recover traffic and visibility lost to the system? First of all, as mentioned Google invites you to remove (or significantly improve) useless content from your site. At this point, if our site has been identified by Helpful Content as “carrying unhelpful content,” it may be under the lens of the signal for a few months: the Google classifier runs continuously, so it monitors newly launched and existing sites, and will only stop applying its rating when it determines the absence of unhelpful content on that site in the long run.
Specifically, and somewhat like how it works with recovery time from a core update, the termination of the negative classifier can occur on a new system update: periodically, in fact, Google refines the way the classifier detects unhelpful content by launching specific “Helpful Content updates” reported on the official updates page. At the end of the global implementation (which typically takes at least two weeks), if the classifier thus refined detects that indeed the content has improved, the previous classifier’s unhelpful classification may no longer apply.
What the Helpful Content system is for: Google’s goals
Helpful Content System was originally launched on August 25, 2022, with a rollout ending on September 9, limited only to English searches globally; however, already after three months, global experimentation had begun and Helpful Content System debuted in other countries as well.
In the words of those months, the new site-wide and fully automated ranking signal was created with the aim of better ranking content that adds unique value to the Web, beyond what is already widely available on other sites and from other publishers.
Simply put, the system is designed to target search-engine first content-that is, content created first to please search engines and gain visibility positions in SERPs-that proves to be of little use to users, to whom it provides no real support in terms of information or achieving search intent.
In contrast, Google’s goal is to bring out people-first content, content that is crafted with people’s needs in mind and that ensures a complete and satisfying search experience.
Google’s first introductory post specifically stated that with helpful content it was charting a course to “reward content where visitors feel they had a satisfying experience, while content that does not meet a visitor’s expectations will not perform as well.” Examples of “useless content” included pages that simply aggregate information from other sources without providing any value or unique insights, and more or less between the lines to AI-generated content as well, because bad practices included pages that “don’t look like they were created for, or even by, a person.”
Offering some further guidance was Danny Sullivan, who explained that “people don’t find useful content that seems to have been designed to attract clicks rather than to inform readers”: for example, if we’re looking for information about a new movie, it’s frustrating to come across “articles that aggregate reviews from other sites without adding perspectives beyond those available elsewhere,” because they don’t offer something particularly useful or new. Instead, with this update, we will see more results with “unique and authentic information,” following Google’s mission to “reduce low-quality content and make it easier to find authentic and useful content in Search.”
In practical terms, since it is a site-level and weighted signal (and therefore, sites with a lot of useless content might notice a stronger effect), when the machine learning algorithm determines that a relatively large amount of the published content is unsatisfactory or unhelpful, the entire site might be flagged by this classifier, causing negative effects to the ranking of all pages, even though “some people-first content on sites ranked as having unhelpful content might still rank well, if there are other signals that identify that people-first content as useful and relevant to a query.”
What’s new in the 2023 updates: AI recognition
In fact, perhaps also in light of the expansion of the use of Generative Artificial Intelligence systems applied to the digital sphere, content creation included, and Google’s official position on AI expressed in December 2022, with the aforementioned September 2023 update of the guidelines, some references in this regard have changed.
If, therefore, Google’s previous guidelines emphasized that the useful content system prioritized human-created content, now the crackdown in Google’s attitude toward AI content is “official,” more aligning what actually happens next in SERPs.
Why did Google launch the update on helpful content?
But what is the reason for this acceleration by Google against over-optimized or unhelpful content for people? Obviously, there is no certainty, but many observers have linked the desire to reward content “that offers more original perspectives not available elsewhere on the Web” to Mountain View’s attempt to increase the authenticity of the search results it proposes and avoid a series of SERPs that trivially repeat the same thing, the same viewpoint and the same information, leading to a poor search experience.
A situation, this, that seems to be increasingly common at Google, which for months has been at the center of controversy and criticism for an overall worsening of the experience provided to users, as also summarized well by an article entitled “Google search is dying“, published on a blog by 26-year-old U.S. engineer Dmitri Brereton, which had generated a great echo in the specialized media.
In analyzing search trends, Brereton had written that Google, while remaining the most widely used search engine in the world, has over time lost its ability to offer users useful content within an increasingly crowded supply of sponsored content and content that is essentially the same as everyone else’s. And it is no coincidence that, even these days, there is more and more talk about how young people are using other tools to do research and look for information online, starting with TikTok, Instagram and other social platforms – for example, GenZ (18-24 years old) does not use Google search or Maps to look for a place for lunch , but uses precisely TikTok and Instagram.
The effects on SEO and content production
Google’s new HCU (helpful content update) signal is thus an always-on ranker that aims to reduce the amount of low-quality content in SERPs, powered by a site-level ranking signal that identifies and hits search engine-first content.
According to first impressions and Google’s official communications, it hit those who produce content with the overriding (or absolute) goal of increasing search engine visibility and traffic, i.e., the old understanding of SEO, because Google will be looking to promote and increase rankings of content that offers more original perspectives not available elsewhere on the Web, in an effort to increase authenticity and avoid a series of search results that trivially repeat the same thing, the same viewpoint, and the same information, leading to a poor search experience.
According to Marie Haynes‘ analysis, the types of sites affected by this update could include:
- Sites that publish AI-generated content.
- “Niche sites” (unless they do a really good job demonstrating expertise and fully meeting the needs of the researcher).
- Sites that do little more than aggregate information from other online sources.
- Heavy affiliate sites (although many of these have already been heavily influenced by the update on product reviews).
Also under the lens, as noted by Glenn Gabe, content generated by artificial intelligence and through AI models such as GPT-3 and others (which have begun to proliferate and sometimes rank well in recent times) will also end up under the lens, because the goal of the update is “to surface content that will be seen as helping and adding value to the topics searched,” and those who create “search engine-first content, including AI-based content, could suffer.”
Google HCU: new SEO best practices to create useful content
Broadening the analysis, the U.S. expert points out that HCU aims to reward content creators who focus heavily on a topic, have deep expertise in an area, and who can demonstrate first-hand skills and deep knowledge. The advice for SEOs (and SEOs) is therefore to try to “stay in your own lane,” i.e., don’t try to cover too many different topics if we are unable to provide in-depth information for each one.
In this framework, it is therefore more appropriate to focus on what we really have expertise in, while changing the strategic approach: Gabe explicitly calls for “providing top-notch, high-quality content that can really help users, don’t just follow search volume, do not use automation to create a lot of lower-quality content just to target search-volume queries, don’t just summarize what others are saying, don’t artificially increase the word count thinking Google is trying to reward it, don’t promise an answer to a question that has no answer.”
In addition, as already evident with other recent updates, the helpful content update also puts the role of EEAT at the center of SEO discourse, particularly in terms of incorporating real expertise into our content strategies.
Lily Ray also provides some interesting insights into a new SEO approach to content creation, and specifically recommends:
- Conduct an objective analysis of our content to assess its quality and the extent to which it meets user expectations, possibly engaging objective third parties to conduct user testing as a means of assessing content quality.
- Eliminate or significantly update content that could be considered “SEO-first” and is not useful to users.
- If there is a significant amount of such useless content on our site that provides no value (traffic, conversions, any other KPI focus), it may be time to consider deleting, not indexing, or consolidating to another relevant position on the site.
- Involve real experts in the content strategy, through direct contributions to the article, interviews, or by getting quotes from experts, to help demonstrate the authenticity of the information.
- Do not rely on keyword research tools and reverse engineering what everyone else has already written as content strategy. Google is getting better at identifying when articles are all saying the same thing and wants unique perspectives that can only come from real human beings with experience.
Useful content: direction also comes from EEAT and guidelines
It was then Google’s own official guidance that underscored the close relationship between this Useful Content System and other documents intended to improve the search engine’s efficiency, adding a specific paragraph on EEAT and guidelines for quality evaluators in a later amendment.
In summary, Google urges people to keep the guidelines for search quality evaluators in mind because they can help us “independently assess the effectiveness of content according to EEAT principles and the improvements to be considered, as well as conceptually align content with the various indicators used by our automated systems to rank it.”
In fact, Google uses automated systems designed to use many different factors in order to rank quality content: after identifying relevant content, the guide goes on to explain, these systems aim to prioritize content that seems most useful, identifying a combination of factors that can help determine which content demonstrates direct experience, expertise, authority and trustworthiness, what we summarize as EEAT.
The paper again reminds us that EEAT criteria are not a direct ranking factor, but also that algorithms use “a combination of factors that can identify content with a good EEAT standard”: for example, the systems “give greater weight to content that is in line with a high EEAT standard for topics that could significantly affect people’s health, financial stability or security, or the well-being of society,” i.e., YMYL topics.
No less relevant is the work of the quality raters, also mentioned in the guide (which also reiterates how they have no control over page ranking), who offer the search engine useful feedback on whether systems are working, providing information on algorithm performance, whether changes made are effective, and whether content has a high EEAT standard.
Google and SEO: does the search engine punish optimizations?
The threat of limiting visibility to search-engine first content has led many analysts to question Google’s ultimate goal with this update, and in particular what appears to be a fight against SEO, which is also why there was a paragraph in the guide clarifying the relationship between Google and SEO.
According to Mountain View, “there are some things you could do specifically to help search engines discover and better understand your content,” working on the complex set of strategies that rely on an “approach that is called search engine optimization or SEO,” which-in Google’s view, “can be a useful activity when applied to content designed for people, rather than content designed for search engines.”
In short: Google recognizes the usefulness of SEO from the perspective in which it does not neglect users and finalizes optimizations to improving their experience with the site, before maximizing returns on visits obtained through search engine rankings.
Helpful content: how affected sites can recover
We have already made brief reference to possible corrective actions to try to recover lost rankings if our site has been affected by the helpful content update, but we can expand on the considerations thanks to some insights from Marie Haynes (and interpreting what Google has said in its two articles on the topic).
First, let’s reiterate that a site can indeed regain traffic, ranking, and visibility lost due to the new signal if it takes action by correcting (or removing) unnecessary and “search engine-first” content, but that Google’s reevaluation process takes time and could take up to several months to complete.
Corrective action could focus on the following steps:
- Identify what content is created primarily for ranking and develop a strategy to noindex, remove or improve this content.
- Ensure that first-hand experience on the topic is demonstrated on the site and find ways to get others in the industry to recognize our experience and knowledge on such topics.
- Renew content and improve EAT according to Google’s official best practices and guidelines for site owners (e.g., on core updates, product reviews, and or affiliate content), specifically adhering to:
- demonstrate better first-hand experience;
- do more to make themselves known to others as experts (e.g., good content marketing and PR);
- find ways to make content as valuable as possible to users;
- focus on understanding what the researcher intends to do and find and deliver content that meets that need.
- Clarify what the purpose or focus of each page is (and ensure that this focus is first and foremost intended to help people).
- Compare the type of content Google is ranking from competitors for inspiration.