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Google Helpful Content Update 2023: 4 New Changes and How to Recover

For website owners trying to increase their online visibility, staying on top of new Google algorithm updates can feel like an endless grind. The search engine giant is consistently rolling out changes, both big and small, to increase the relevancy and quality of search results. While ultimately the purpose of their ever-evolving ranking criteria is to improve the experience for searchers, it can lead to seemingly unexplained fluctuations in your website’s keyword rankings and positions in search results. 

In September of 2023, Google released a helpful content update that revised how their system evaluates and ranks content. This is the third helpful content update since the launch of the helpful content system in August of 2022, and is the most significant update to the system yet.

This year, Google has revised their helpful content guidelines and other content-related documentation, providing updated guidance in several areas including machine generated (AI) content, third-party content, and user experience (UX) design. 

The September 2023 update has come with an "improved classifier" that more readily targets and cracks down on unhelpful content. Since the update, content that Google deems was written primarily for SEO purposes rather than for people, and/or that provides subpar UX has suffered the most.

If your website was affected by Google's algorithm update this September, or you just want to learn how to align your content with the current criteria and prepare for future updates, read on.

What are Google helpful content guidelines?

Google uses a myriad of algorithmic processes to rank online content and connect searchers with the best answers to their queries. One crucial ranking factor Google uses is the analyses of their ranking systems, which are automated technologies that work together to determine the hierarchy of SERPs based on sets of criteria or operational guidelines. Its helpful content system outlines the specific characteristics of quality content and, conversely, unhelpful content.

According to Google, their helpful content system uses a machine learning model to generate “a site-wide signal” that they consider among many other factors to determine a site’s ranking. This means that even if only some pages on a website are considered “unhelpful”, other pages on the website are less likely to rank well.

Google uses their ranking systems to prioritize “people-first” content, or content that was written for people rather than for search engines. Helpful content guidelines were created in part to counteract overly-optimized or spammy content made to cater to the algorithm. The most helpful content is original and provides unique value and information, and is created to benefit searchers first and foremost. 

How do I know if my content is “helpful”?

Google offers a self-assessment to help webmasters evaluate their content. The assessment questions are made to analyze a site’s E-E-A-T: Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. 

It’s helpful to assess your content while creating it, and once you’re finished, keep the assessment in your back pocket for the future. Going forward, if you’ve found your pages are decreasing in keyword rankings following a helpful content update, you may benefit from revisiting the assessment.

The 4 biggest changes made by the Google September 2023 helpful content update

Google has been making changes to their documentation throughout 2023 to focus more on user experience. In April 2023, Google added a section to their helpful content guidelines addressing the impact of overall page experience on a site’s ranking. It also revised its guidance on AI-authored content back in February 2023.

Many SEO experts are theorizing that the September 2023 update cracked down on the new changes and set up a system to more accurately target and enforce the helpful content guidelines.

Some of the biggest changes to Google’s documentation that have been implemented this year, which were likely addressed by the most recent helpful content update or will be addressed in the near future, include:

  1. Loosened guidance on AI-generated content
  2. Cracked down on third-party hosted content
  3. Edited the self-assessment guidance to clarify Google’s position on “fake freshness”
  4. Added section about page experience to helpful content guidelines

Let’s dive into each of these points individually.

Loosened guidance on AI-generated content

Previously, Google’s guidance specifically favored content authored by people, but earlier this year they removed that criteria from their guidance about AI content

The original content specified that the helpful content system favored content generated “by people, for people”. That’s no longer the case, meaning high-quality AI-generated content could potentially rank as well as content written by people. This change was likely made to adapt to the current AI renaissance and rise of AI content.

Crackdown on third-party hosted content

A common practice by many websites, particularly blogs and news sites, is hosting third-party content - copy or other assets that were created by an entity not directly affiliated with the owner of the website they're hosted on. Frequent examples of third-party content are guest blogging and content syndication.

Google added a section to their helpful content guidelines stating the following: 

If you host third-party content on your main site or in your subdomains, understand that such content may be included in site-wide signals we generate, such as the helpfulness of content. For this reason, if that content is largely independent of the main site's purpose or produced without close supervision or the involvement of the primary site, we recommend that it should be blocked from being indexed by Google. 

While Google is becoming increasingly less tolerant of websites that host a lot of unrelated third-party content for SEO purposes, Google Search employees such as Google analyst Gary Illyes have clarified that the new Helpful Content Guidelines concerning third-party content are not in effect yet. However, it’s recommended that website owners act now before the changes are implemented, or their rankings may suffer down the line.

Clarified their position on “fake freshness”

Depending on the keyword or search query, content that is “fresh” may be favored by Google. There’s a misconception that Google generally boosts newer content, but that’s not the case - in fact, in many cases, content that’s a bit older is able to rank better, since it’s had time to build a backlink profile and garner web traffic.

There are some types of queries, though, that demand new or updated content. Some subject matter that requires updated information includes:

  • Local searches like “Best restaurants near me”
  • Current or evolving events
  • “Best of” articles that list top-rated products within a specific time frame, usually a year

Google has a system for scoring whether a query demands fresh content, a factor that they’ve named “Query Deserves Freshness” or QDF.

A web page doesn't need to be newly created to be considered "fresh" - it can be a page that’s being continuously updated with new information. 

Google added new self-assessment guidance specifically addressing content freshness. The new changes state that changing the publish dates of articles without substantially editing the content of the article will not serve to boost a page’s freshness factor. 

Google also clarified that “adding a lot of new content or removing a lot of older content” for the express purpose of making your website seem fresh will not boost your site’s rankings.

Added section about page experience to helpful content guidelines

Back in April 2023, Google updated their helpful content guidelines with a section about page experience. The new criteria stresses that an “overall great page experience” is important for a site’s ranking. Page experience is evaluated not by one or two factors alone, but rather by a combination of many aspects that determine how easy a page is to navigate.

Some factors that contribute to a positive page experience, as outlined in Google's page experience guidelines, include:

  • Lack of “intrusive interstitials” such as embedded ads that obstruct a user’s view of the page content
  • Lack of excessive and distracting ads
  • Content that displays equally well on mobile and desktop
  • Page security

What can I do if my site has been affected?

It’s important to note that the helpful content update is not implemented all at once, but rather rolled out slowly over the course of a couple of weeks. According to Google’s ranking release history page, the rollout began on September 14th, 2023, and took place over the course of 13 days and 11 hours.

That being said, if your keyword rankings and site traffic have experienced precipitous drops in the past few weeks, the update is most likely a factor.

The best way forward is to reassess your web pages using the new and pre-existing guidelines. Review the self-assessment, and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What keywords specifically are being affected, and what web pages rank for those keywords?
  • If you frequently update your web pages or blog articles, do you substantially change the page’s content during each update?
  • Do you host third-party content on your website (your main site or subdomain) that’s loosely related or unrelated to the main subject of your website?

Is your website in need of some TLC?

Staying on top of Google’s content guidelines is vital for maintaining your site’s performance, but it’s not the only factor that determines your page rankings. Your site’s load speed, mobile friendliness, and security are also huge.

Gain a quick, comprehensive overview of your website’s overall performance and standing with our free Website Grader. Just input your site’s URL and we’ll grade its SEO, mobile friendliness, security, and performance and provide methods of improving its status in all categories. 

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