skip to Main Content

Google’s ‘Helpful Content System’ Update. What Does it Mean for Website Owners?

Mid-2022, Google released its new ‘Helpful Content System’ designed to significantly change how it perceived website content. The changes were significant, but news of this new system didn’t quite grab the widespread attention one might have expected.

To be clear, the SEO specialists who knew about this may well have appreciated the gravity of this major update, but this was either not conveyed to website owners with any sense of urgency, or it fell on deaf ears.

The latter is more likely to be the case because it implies more expense.

One year on, it’s now become very serious.

On September 14th, 2023, the digital landscape shifted again with the rollout of a significant update to the ‘Helpful Content System’, one that will have a profound impact on content and search engine results. This time, everyone needs to pay close attention.

Google’s September’s algorithm update revolutionises how websites are ranked. No longer will it be sufficient to optimise websites for keywords, URLs and backlinks. Instead, Google will prioritise and reward pages that provide a satisfying and valuable user experience.

Brace yourselves, as this shift towards value will impact the vast majority of websites and is an urgent wake-up call to everyone involved in website content creation: to ensure the content delivers genuine value or risk vanishing into digital obscurity.

Just stop for a moment to consider Google’s choice of words here, “… provide a satisfying and valuable user experience”, and think about how your own content measures up against this.

People-first content is about solving problems, not just filling pages. When your website is genuinely helpful, it becomes an asset, not an expense.

Jay Baer, Author and Inspirational Marketing Speaker

Fighting your way to the top

It’s impossible to say with any certainty how many pages of content Google has indexed, but at the last count, it was way over 100 billion. And while not all of those pages will be business owners’ content pages – who knows, perhaps 50%? – how many of those 50 billion pages would you think confidently deliver content that provides a satisfying and valuable user experience?

Does yours?

The top slot on page one of Google’s search results is a coveted position for websites and the businesses that own them. Achieving that coveted spot depends on understanding and aligning with Google’s complex ranking systems. This is no mean task, even for experienced SEO specialists who are dedicated to the cause.

If you’ve been online for long enough, you’ll know the way Google results appear hasn’t changed much since its inception. Of course, there have been styling and layout changes. They include Sponsored/Pay-Per-Click Ads, the Featured Snippet, Local Search Results, Related Search Terms, and FAQs. But to the uninitiated, these are just more results presented in a different way. Whereas from Google’s perspective, the technology and investment behind them are immense and cost many millions to implement.

The game we all play is figuring out a) what these different panels actually are, and b) how we can get to display our content there as search results.

You need a really switched-on SEO specialist to guide you through all this.

Content should be designed to touch the human soul, to resolve its quandaries and to celebrate its victories. Anything less is just noise.

Simon Sinek, Author and Motivational Speaker

A snapshot of Google’s timeline

Google’s history is littered with algorithm updates. On the one hand, they generally result in significant improvements to search results. But on the other hand, they can cause complete outrage among clients and SEO consultants.

Ultimately, Google doesn’t really care about the latter. It cares only about playing a continually changing tune that we continue to dance to, and if you can’t dance or you can’t afford to pay someone to dance for you, it’s probably time for a career change.

Of course, some clever types like to fight back, and in the good old days, it was relatively easy to trick Google, or indeed any other search engine, into thinking that a specific webpage or website perfectly matched a particular search query.

Unscrupulous, or ‘black hat’ developers employed an array of tricks designed to misdirect search engines, including;

Cloaking: Showing different content to search engines and users to improve rankings.

Link farms: Creating networks of websites that link to each other to artificially inflate a site’s perceived authority.

Hidden links: Placing invisible links on a page to boost the link count.

Article spinning: Rewriting existing articles slightly and publishing them as new to avoid duplicate content penalties.

Doorway pages: Creating low-quality web pages solely to funnel users to the main website.

Duplicate content: Copying content from high-ranking websites and using it as one’s own.

Meta keyword stuffing: Overloading the meta tags with keywords irrelevant to the page’s content.

…and probably many more besides.

Thankfully, those days are long gone. Google is way beyond being tricked into giving false results now and quickly moved on to making relevance a key criterion. However, even that isn’t perfect because relevance to a search phrase isn’t always relevant in chronological terms.

In its ongoing quest for the ultimate aim of delivering accurate and invaluable search results, Google’s latest update refines its approach to identifying winners and losers in the quest for top rankings. It focuses on evaluating the overall quality of content offered by websites and severely penalises those who score low.

As for the name, while the development team might have had a different, more critical name in mind for this update, one aimed at eliminating low-quality, thin or misleading content, the marketing department has cleverly cast it in a decidedly positive light.

In a digital world where attention is scarce, people-first content is not just good ethics, it’s good business.

Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer at MarketingProfs.

Understanding what Google’s ‘Helpful Content System’ actually means to you, the business website owner

As you go through this article, you will see the term ‘signals’ mentioned several times, so it’s probably important that you understand what this means in the context of what Google will be looking for, which determines how it ranks a page.

Gone are the days when dumping pages of loosely related [to your business, products, services, etc.] content into your website would make your website look like you knew what you were talking about. Most notable of the changes Google made since those days was its understanding of duplicated content and then penalising websites for using it.

Oscar Wilde may have said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” However, Google just sees duplicated content as plagiarism, and Mr Wilde’s sense of wit is wasted on them.

Signals are various metrics or indicators that it uses to assess the quality, relevance, and credibility of web content. Google uses ‘signals’ to determine how to rank your website’s content in terms of which pages are most likely to provide the best user experience (most relevant content) for a particular search term.

Some of the most common signals Google uses are:

Is the content high quality? Signals related to content quality include factors like the uniqueness of the content, its depth and comprehensiveness, and whether it provides valuable and accurate information to users.

How do users engage with your content? This may include metrics (measurements) such as click-through rate (CTR), bounce rate, and dwell time (time sating on the page). These metrics indicate how users interact with a web page and whether they find it useful and engaging.

How relevant is the content? This assesses how close the content is to being the right result for a specific search query, and it does this by analysing keywords, search intent, and the presence of relevant information.

Does your website demonstrate authority and trustworthiness? This is a tough one as it’s probably the biggest cause of failure for website pages, or even entire websites, to perform at their best. Authority and trustworthiness include factors like the credibility of the website, the expertise of the content creators, and the presence of authoritative references and citations.

How quickly do your web pages load? Possibly the single biggest challenge website owners face, as it requires knowledge of so many technical factors in order to get it right. The speed at which a web page loads is massively significant, but faster pages means less fancy content. Google isn’t wrong in believing that faster-loading pages tend to provide a better user experience; hence, faster pages can positively influence rankings.

How well does your website work on a mobile? The majority of people now use their mobile devices to access websites, so Google’s first port of call when testing how a website performs is to do so through what is effectively a mobile interface first. Mobile-friendliness assesses whether a website and its pages are optimised for mobile devices and adjusts its ranking accordingly.

Are there any links pointing back to your website? The number and quality of links pointing back to a website or specific web page can be a strong signal of its authority and relevance. High-quality backlinks from reputable sources can boost a page’s ranking. The reality is this can be nearly impossible to achieve for many websites.

How easy is your website to use? User experience (otherwise referred to as UX) includes factors like the ease of navigation, the absence of intrusive pop-ups, and overall design considerations that enhance the user experience.

Is your content fresh? Google loves new, updated content, and freshness signals are very relevant for certain types of content. Google may prioritise recently updated or published content for queries related to news, events, or rapidly changing topics.
Is your content relevant to the search location? For location-based queries such as ‘shoe shops in Shoreditch’ or ‘wig makers in Wigan’, signals related to geographic relevance are considered extremely important. Even less specific searches, such as those that frequently end with ‘near me’, are considered geographically significant (they work by knowing your mobile phone’s location).

Google looks for signals in the content that specifically relate to location, where the location is highly relevant, such as for a high street shop or hotel. Often, it requires only a simple change to how website content is worded for it to be effective, yet this is frequently overlooked.

As you might imagine, Google has a great many signals that it uses to assess and rank web pages, not all of which are made public. The job of your SEO consultant is to understand the critical signals Google will be looking for and optimise your website accordingly.

In a noisy, crowded marketplace, putting people first in your content is how you shout without screaming.

Brian Clark, Founder of Copyblogger Media

Should Google’s ‘Helpful Content System’ be of concern to you in relation to your own website?

Realistically, yes. This change to Google’s strategy should greatly concern many website owners, although if the content falls foul of Google’s quality ranking signals, it’s not necessarily their fault. Why? Well, unless you’re an SEO expert or stay up to date with the continual stream of changes Google makes to its algorithms, how could you possibly know what is the right and wrong type of content in Google’s eyes?

There is an answer to this question that many people won’t like to hear, but before we go into that, below are several elements follow these recent changes that might give website owners cause for concern:

Impact on rankings: The most significant concern for website owners is the potential impact on their website’s rankings. Google’s helpful content system evaluates the quality of content, and if a site is identified as having a significant amount of unhelpful content, it may result in decreased visibility and traffic.

Automated classification: The system’s automated nature means that machine-learning models carry out content evaluation without human intervention. This could quite easily lead to your content being incorrectly classified, which would lead to misunderstandings of the content’s value.

Content removal: Removing what Google (or its robots) consider to be unhelpful content from one website could help improve the rankings of content on your website. But the reverse is also true. Any of your content that’s considered to be ‘unhelpful’ might also be removed to the benefit of others, i.e. your competitors.

Timeframe for improvement: Google states that websites identified by the system may see the changes impact their website over a period of months. This is good news because it means it’s not like a switch – one day, you’re at the top; the next, you’re halfway down the page or disappeared completely. But… and it’s a big but… this means that if your website is negatively impacted by Google’s findings, it might take weeks or months to recover once you’ve made the necessary improvements.

Signal weight: This one could be incredibly frustrating, but it will impact everyone, so in some respects, it’s a level playing field. Essentially, the impact of the helpful content signal may vary. And here’s why: Content is wildly different and diverse in terms of subject matter, interpretation, style, tone, and so on, so websites with a high amount of unhelpful content may experience a stronger negative effect. The question this raises is how much effort is needed to mitigate the potential impact of your own unhelpful content. How long is a piece of string?

Third-party content: If you host third-party content, such as guest blogs, on your own website, this type of content will also influence site-wide signals – including how helpful it is perceived to be. It would certainly be a concern if you have limited control over the quality of the third-party content, and if that is the case, Google recommends this content be actively excluded from being indexed.

Lack of manual intervention: Another biggy, but perhaps completely expected given how prevalent machine learning and AI are these days, although Google implemented machine learning as far back as 2015!

Fundamentally, it means the helpful content system is not a result of or determined by manual actions – human intervention. This means a decision will be a decision, and you’ll have limited recourse to appeal or challenge the system’s classification of your content – even if you can figure out what it is!

The evaluation process is entirely automated, powered by sophisticated machine-learning models that work seamlessly across different languages. It identifies content that appears to provide little value, low-added value, or is generally unhelpful to users and makes a decision on how to rank it.

On a positive note, it’s important to understand that whilst Google’s appraisal of the value of content is key, it does so along with many other signals when ranking content. Therefore, even if your site contains some content that’s considered unhelpful and, therefore, low quality, other signals may still help your people-first content rank well.

The question referred to earlier, “What is the right and wrong type of content in Google’s eyes?” is, to be frank, something you should already know the answer to. The right type of content is simply content that perfectly describes what you do. Granted, it’s harder than you think to create this type of content, but doing so with care, attention to detail and authenticity will reap rewards in the form of better, more relevant positioning in search engine results.

Your customers are not metrics, clicks, or data points. They’re people with challenges that your business can solve. Remember this when creating content.

Dharmesh Shah, Co-Founder of HubSpot

What technology is Google using to determine how to rank web pages?

You would be forgiven for believing Google is really just an immense collection of billions of web pages that it keeps in a database and delivers those that best match your search term.

That would be a directory and is what Yahoo was originally, but who these days knows Yahoo was originally a ‘search engine’?
Google is definitely not a directory. It’s so much more complex than that, and that’s why when we refer to search engines, we really only mean Google.

Did someone say Edge?

Interestingly, Google’s search technology is generally referred to in the singular as “Google’s algorithm”, especially when referring to an update. But it’s not one algorithm; it’s multiple algorithms, all working together. It’s like a multidisciplinary board of medical experts who all come together to discuss a patient’s condition, collectively arriving at a conclusion.

Google employs diverse ranking systems, each serving a unique purpose. These systems collectively evaluate hundreds of billions of web pages and, in lightning-fast time, ensure the most relevant and useful content appears in search results.

Some of the notable ranking systems that Google owns up to include:

  • BERT: An AI system that understands the nuances of language, improving search results. BERT is ‘Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers.’ You did ask.
  • Crisis Information Systems: Providing timely information during crises, including personal and widespread emergencies.
  • Deduplication Systems: Preventing unhelpful duplication of search results.
  • Freshness Systems: Displaying recent content for queries where it’s expected.
  • Link Analysis Systems and PageRank: Understanding how pages link to each other.
  • Local News Systems: Identifying and highlighting local news sources.
  • MUM: An AI system enhancing searches for specific applications. MUM is ‘Multitask Unified Model.’
  • Neural Matching: Understanding and matching concepts in queries and pages.
  • Original Content Systems: Prioritizing original content in search results.
  • Removal-Based Demotion Systems: Responding to valid content removal requests.
  • Passage Ranking System: Identifying relevant sections of web pages.
  • RankBrain: Improving search results by understanding word relationships.
  • Reliable Information Systems: Promoting authoritative content and demoting low-quality material.
  • Reviews System: Rewarding high-quality reviews and expert content.
    Site Diversity System: Preventing one site from dominating search results.
    Spam Detection Systems: Filtering out spam content to ensure quality results.

You can see from the list above, and what they’re each designed to focus on, how challenging it appears to be to create content that Google likes enough to rank highly. Of course, we’ve all seen terrible content appear at the top of search results, so it’s far from a perfect system!

Putting people first in your content means you’re not just capturing attention—you’re capturing hearts. And that’s a connection that pays long-term dividends.

Seth Godin, Author and Marketing Guru

Creating content that genuinely benefits the user

Creating content that genuinely benefits users is the cornerstone of a successful digital presence. Everything you create for your website should be people-first content.

To ensure you’re on the right track, consider the following questions when evaluating your content:

  • Does our content offer original information, research, or analysis?
  • Is it comprehensive and insightful, going beyond the obvious?
  • Does it avoid simply rehashing existing sources?
  • Is your content well-presented and free from spelling or stylistic issues?
  • Does it provide substantial value compared to competing pages?
  • Is it created with care and expertise, not mass-produced or generated by an AI engine?

Adhering to these principles ensures your content is people-first, which is absolutely key for gaining both improved search engine rankings and user satisfaction.

We know that search engine optimisation plays a crucial role in ensuring content visibility, but it should complement, not dominate people-first content. In fact, Google’s own best practice guidance tells you exactly what you need to do to stand the best chance of ranking further up the results page.

One such best practice is the E-A-T structure of your content.

E-A-T stands for Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. While not a direct ranking factor, Google’s systems give weight to content that strongly aligns with the E-A-T framework, especially for topics impacting health, finance, safety, or society’s well-being.

Another approach is to evaluate the overall quality of your content. Ask yourself “Who, How, and Why” to gauge your content’s alignment with Google’s guidelines:

  • Who (created the content): Ensure authorship is clear and backed by expertise.
  • How (the content was created): Share the process, especially when quoting AI-generated content.
  • Why (was the content created): Content should primarily aim to help people, not manipulate rankings.

Finally, ethical content creation is paramount. Content should serve users, not just attract search engine visits. Avoid manipulative practices like excessive automation or creating content without genuine expertise. Be real, be authentic, truthful, and honest.

The ultimate aim of your content should be to become a useful resource for your audience. When you put people first, you’re always useful, never irrelevant.

Kristina Halvorson, CEO and Founder of Brain Traffic

Conclusion

Whilst SEO is an essential feature of all good websites, you do not need to be an SEO expert and fully understand Google’s ranking systems in order to create great content that works well. Remember that all Google is doing is effectively trying to mimic natural human behaviour in how we determine what’s right/wrong, good/bad, etc.

Think of it like this: when we walk into a restaurant, and it doesn’t feel right because the place isn’t clean, the staff are not courteous, the menu is way too big, the seating is too close together, the lighting is too bright, etc., we’re likely to make a snap judgement and leave. It’s a combination of ‘signals’ that tell us the situation is not what we thought it was going to be.

Google can’t do this as it only has the content on the restaurant’s website and the reviews posted by the public on which to base its assessment – and if the reviews are not Google reviews, it’s unlikely to join the dots. So, it’s more inclined to believe what it reads because it can’t visit the restaurant and see for itself. Not yet, anyway.

Don’t think about Google’s vast array of technology and algorithms when you’re creating content; think about the human aspect of what you’re writing about and how the reader will be positively impacted by your content. Think ‘people-first’. By doing so, you will automatically be aligning your content with Google’s guidelines, and your content will not only rank higher but will also provide huge value to the people reading it.

With more than 30 years experience in business and marketing, Clive is the visionary behind The Marketing Alliance, launched in 2018. Clive leads a curated tribe of accomplished marketing and business support professionals who consistently delight clients through their creativity, innovation, strategy and an unwavering commitment to excellence.
Find out more here

LET'S TALK OR MEET

Email. Arrange a Zoom call or talk to us.

READ FOR AN AUDIT?

Take The Marketing Audit Health Check

READY FOR A STRATEGY?

Take The Marketing Strategy Health Check

GET THE NEWSLETTER

Sign up for our regular, insightful newsletter

You are here:

Home » Marketing Insight » Google’s ‘Helpful Content System’ Update. What Does it Mean for Website Owners?

Copyright © 2010 – 2024 Marketing Alliance Group Ltd.
The Marketing Alliance is a trading name of Marketing Alliance Group Ltd. Registered in England and Wales, No. 10104213. VAT Number: GB 245 9880 61
Registered Office: Marketing Alliance Group Ltd., 34 Croydon Road, Caterham, Surrey, England, CR3 6QB.

Back To Top
Click to chat with us
Scan the code