Here globally comes the Helpful Content system: beware of content usefulness
It has been one of the big topics of the last few months in the United States, accompanied by bombastic premises that, however, have not (yet?) given the expected effects, at least in terms of SERPs upheaval: about three months after the release on the U.S. version, Google has officially rolled out Helpful Content System, formerly known as Helpful Content Update, also in all other versions of the search engine. And so, as of December 5, the new algorithm that takes into account the usefulness of content for ranking purposes is finally working on a global level: let’s find out everything there is to know about this update and the best practices to keep in mind in order to publish quality pages according to Google’s criteria.
Google’s Helpful Content System extended to all languages
Helpful Content System is the fully automated system through a machine learning model that Google designed to reward web pages created for people rather than for search engines with higher rankings, and aims to better rank content that adds unique value to the Web beyond what is already widely available on other sites and from other publishers.
Originally launched in late August 2022, as of Dec. 5, the operation of this system has been extended to content globally in all languages, as made official by an announcement on Twitter:
The Dec. 2022 helpful content update was released Dec. 5, starting to become more visible today & will take about two weeks to fully roll out. It improves our classifier & works across content globally in all languages. Our help page explains more: https://t.co/MS7hbcBTsp
— Google Search Central (@googlesearchc) December 6, 2022
The full roll-out of Helpful Content System takes about 15 days, Google warns, during which time it is likely to start seeing movement and changes in SERPs, as also usually happens with broad core updates.
Improved signals are coming, as well
Google’s tweet also informs us of another relevant aspect in addition to the expansion into all languages: for the first time since its debut, Helpful Content System is also subject to an update, with additional signals introduced to support Google in identifying useful content, meaning that it can potentially include new ranking factors or changes to signals previously considered.
We say potentially because, of course, Google has not provided more and more specific details about this system update, merely reminding us that the goal is always to unearth and surface content created primarily for people.
To avoid confusion, then, it is useful (pardon the pun) to remember that in recent weeks Google has introduced new terminology to define algorithm interventions: ranking system (as in fact Helpful Content in its interest) is an enhancement to Google’s algorithm that is constantly running in the background, while update refers to a timely improvement made to one of the ranking systems (and thus, we can say that Google has now released the first Helpful Content system update).
What is this system and what does helpful content mean
But let’s broaden the framework of information to briefly recall what Helpful Content is and what it means for sites, and thus what useful content Google invites us to publish.
As the guidelines page makes clear, the system generates a site-level signal that is in addition to the other ranking factors used for ranking, uses a classifier that operates continuously (allowing newly launched and existing sites to be monitored), and has as its main goal to target and limit the presence in SERPs of “content that appears to have been created primarily to rank well on search engines rather than to help or inform people.”
In contrast, then, Helpful Content aims to help users find “high-quality content“, better and more useful content that is written for humans and to help users complete the need that prompted them to use the search engine-that is, satisfy the search intent.
In Google’s experience, content written for the sole purpose of ranking on search engines-what we might call ” search engine-first content” or “SEO content”-risks a negative user experience, who feel frustrated when they arrive on useless web pages that rank well in Search because they were designed precisely to rank well, but do not offer valid information and have no purpose for people (to use a formula already present in the guidance to Google’s quality raters, which is also explicitly cited in the official documentation).
And so, this Google algorithm aims to downgrade pages and websites that put the concrete user experience on the back burner and only aim for final ranking, and is part of the search engine’s broader “ongoing effort” “to reduce low-quality content and make it easier to find content that looks authentic and useful in search.”
Directions for sites: how to write useful content
So what does “useful content” actually mean?
Google has published a new set of questions that can help us understand whether we are taking the right approach in crafting text for our pages-there are a total of 32 questions to assess actual usefulness – but it doesn’t really give us precise details.
We do, however, know what “search-engine first” or useless content is to Google, i.e., “content that appears to be poor, has little added value, or is otherwise not particularly useful to searchers”, written primarily to manipulate search engine rankings, and so we can do a kind of reverse engineering to understand what the search engine is asking of us.
To self-evaluate content in the light of Helpful Content and understand whether we offer useful and trustworthy pages we need to answer these questions (and, the guide suggests, ask other people we trust who are not affiliated with our site for greater objectivity for an honest opinion), divided into 4 macro-areas, which pertain as we shall see also to the aspects of Experience, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness, or the initials of E-A-T, an increasingly central theme for Google today.
Questions related to content and quality
- Does the content provide original information, report findings, research, or analysis?
- Does the content provide a meaningful or complete description of the topic?
- Does the content provide detailed analysis or interesting, non-obvious information?
- If the content comes from other sources, rather than just copying or rewriting it, do you offer significant added value and an original point of view?
- Does the page title or main header provide a descriptive and useful summary of the content?
- Does the page title or main header avoid shocking or exaggerated tones?
- Is this the kind of page you would bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
- Would you expect this content to be included or cited in a print magazine, encyclopedia, or book?
- Does the content provide relevant value compared to other pages displayed in search results?
Questions related to expertise
- Does the content present information in a way that allows it to be considered reliable, e.g., through clear sources, evidence of the expertise of the provider, information about the author or the site that publishes it (e.g., through links to an author’s page or an information page on a site)?
- If a user searches for the site producing the content, would he or she get the impression that it is reliable or widely recognized as authoritative on the topic in question?
- Was this content written by an experienced or passionate person who is objectively knowledgeable about the topic?
- Does the content have easily verifiable objective errors?
Questions related to presentation and production
- Does the content have spelling or stylistic errors?
- Has the content been developed to the best of its ability or does it appear to be produced without any care or in a hasty manner?
- Is the content mass-generated, entrusted to many different authors for creation, or distributed over a vast network of sites with the result that individual pages or sites do not receive much attention or care?
- Are there too many ads in the content that divert attention from or interfere with the main content?
- Does the content display properly on mobile devices?
Make content designed for people
- Do you have an existing or intended audience for your business or site that would find content useful if it came directly from you?
- Does your content clearly demonstrate firsthand experience and in-depth knowledge (e.g., experience from actually using a product or service or visiting a place)?
- Does your site have a main purpose or goal?
- After reading your content, will a user feel that they have learned enough about a topic so that they can achieve their goal?
- Will a user who reads your content find their experience satisfying?
Avoid creating content designed for search engines
- Is your content designed primarily to attract visits from search engines?
- Are you producing a lot of content on different topics in the hope that some of it will perform well in search results?
- Are you using large-scale automation to produce content on many topics?
- Are you mainly summarizing other people’s opinions without adding value?
- Are you producing content just because it looks trendy and not because you would write it for your existing audience anyway?
- Does your content make readers feel they have to do another search for better information from other sources?
- Are you making content within a specific word limit because you have heard or read that Google prefers text of a given length? (No, we have no preference in this regard).
- Did you decide to go into a niche topic without having any real expertise, but mainly because you thought you would receive search traffic?
- Does your content promise to answer a question that is actually unanswered, such as suggesting the release date of a product, movie, or TV show when it is unconfirmed?
Helpful Content: what to do if your site gets hit
Google’s questions should therefore help us have a compass to guide our content to the ranking system, but what to do if we notice drops in organic performance and visibility in SERPs as a result of this update?
Google has clarified that Helpful Content is neither a manual action nor an action against spam, but “just one of many indicators” evaluated to rank content; acting at the site level, it can therefore affect all content on sites that have a relatively high amount of content that is not useful in Google’s view, which prefers to show in its SERPs “other content on the Web” that appears better.
In addition, the algorithmic indicator is weighted, “so sites with a lot of non-useful content might notice a greater effect.” However, some “user-focused” content that is published on sites that Google judges as having “non-useful content” might still rank well if other indicators are present that establish the presence of user-focused, useful and relevant content to a specific query.
In addition, the classic “it depends” rule applies, and actually in these three months of operation in the U.S. version of Google alone there have been no cases of blatant downgrading of sites with useless content, nor do the SERPs actually present only useful content.
However, if our site is hit and deemed as “not useful” we must first arm ourselves with patience: it may indeed take several months to restore, assuming we do well with fixes and make changes to content and the approach itself over time.
A first step, also suggested by Google’s guide, is to remove unhelpful content in an effort to improve the ranking of other (more useful) content on the site. It is then important to check the traffic and performance declines found, to understand which pages have been most affected and for which types of searches: the site may have shortcomings in other areas as well, so content work alone may not be enough to recover the initial situation.
From a time perspective, it may take several months before a site experiences improvements following the removal of unhelpful content, because Google’s indicator may be applied throughout this interval, and it ends the negative rating when it “determines the absence of unhelpful content in the long run“.