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How to survive and thrive in a Google helpful content world

Google’s September 2023 helpful content update started rolling out Sept. 14 and completed rolling out 14 days later, on Sept. 28. The impact of this update was significant – many websites were devastated.

X (formerly Twitter), forums, and Facebook groups were inundated with thousands of publishers reporting traffic drops from 10% to 70%. The update was so dire that companies even publicly commented they would have to lay off dozens of employees.

Google says that the point of helpful content updates is to promote helpful, reliable, people-first content, and it directed affected site owners to review their help page for information on how to self-assess content if they feel negatively impacted.

Google was also clear that this update would not be rolled back, and as of publication of this article, we have not seen that happen. That’s a sign that Google is confident that the update did what it was intended to do, which is no salve or comfort for affected site owners.

So what happened?

What did this update target, and what is really the difference between helpful and non-helpful content?

First, some great analysis of this update has already been done by several of my colleagues. I would urge any who have not already done so to review:

These resources provide a great overview of the update, good commentary on what has changed compared to 2022 versions of the update and strategies for possible recovery.

I’m going to concentrate today on my personal observations as a site auditor, focused exclusively on the food, travel and lifestyle niches. These niches, explicitly, were incredibly impacted by the update.

Because I routinely do hundreds of audits a year, I have access, at any one time, to 400+ Google Search Console profiles. This provides me with an incredible amount of data from sites big and small, from which I can pull Google-only data to discern any clear patterns.

Next, as a recognized professional in the food and lifestyle niche, I’m an invited “group expert” in several of the world’s largest Facebook groups. That also allows me to pull detailed information on affected sites.

I’ve taken that data and distilled it down to the top seven findings below.

These findings are what I’m using to assess sites that come to me following the helpful content update and what I would recommend site owners also consider when doing a self-assessment to recover lost traffic.

1. Ad companies are not your friend 

You want to read endless horror stories about traffic loss? Visit the Mediavine or Raptive ad network groups on Facebook. The recent update affected thousands of bloggers and the drops were significant.

The drops, unfortunately, are not surprising.

Ad companies are notorious for pushing aggressive ad density percentages, giving incredibly poor SEO advice and optimizing for “ad income” over site UX whenever possible.

Some of the more questionable practices from these ad companies include the following;

  • Auto-playing video ads that follow the user down the page are the norm.
  • Pushing full-screen vignette ads that activate “between pages” covering the entire screen.
  • Advice to write longer posts so that “you can stuff more ads” onto the page.
  • Pushing for “one-sentence paragraphs” and repetitive photography to increase page length.
  • Ad densities as high as 28% to 32%, which is well above “recommended” levels.
  • GumGum sticky ads that attach to the bottom of in-post images. The new ones actually cover the entire ad briefly and then disappear.
  • Stuffing the above-the-fold area with leaderboard banners and auto-playing video ads.

The helpful content update has a clear Page Experience component, and it is here where we can start to see why Google would target “ad aggressive sites” algorithmically:

“Does the content lack an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?”

Also from the same page:

“Does content display well for mobile devices when viewed on them?”

If a page is covered in ads, and the user struggles to discern all the content on that page, then by its very nature, that page is no longer “helpful.”

Finally, it’s worth noting that Google’s Markus Bordihn published a blog post on web.dev on Friday, Sept. 29, just one day after the end of the September 2023 helpful content update. 

This blog post discusses the interaction between ads and UX and how users need to balance their overall UX with their end goal of generating revenue.

Bottom line: If you are running ads and were negatively impacted by the recent update, this is the first thing I would look at. 

Dial your ads back. Always optimize for the user. 

2. Always optimize for usability

Besides dialing your ads back, optimizing for the user can be done in other simple ways.

Two of the easiest ways to improve usability in content these days is to include either “jump links” or a “table of contents” at the top of posts.

For the average recipe site, having a “jump to recipe” button is a simple user-first optimization that allows visitors to access the recipe card quickly to qualify their time. For example, do I have the ingredients on hand for this? Can this be made in less than 30 minutes?

Unfortunately, some ad companies “take over” this jump button. So instead of sending the user to the recipe card, they send them to an ad.

This is both a slap in the face to users and a WCAG accessibility violation. 

You are communicating to both visual users and the visually impaired using a screen reader that the user is going to the recipe card by clicking on this button. Instead, you send them to an ad, and they have to click a second link to go to where they should have been going in the first place.

That’s not usability and certainly not “helpful” for the user.

The second issue here involves the popular practice of adding a table of contents to the top of posts. You can see great examples of this in action on sites here and here.

But imagine including a nice table of contents, then closing it completely. That’s become a common recommendation from ad companies in 2023. 

Do not do this. 

There is no reason to include a table of content nobody will see. And again, it’s certainly not “helpful” to do this.

3. Stop using interstitials and pop-ups incorrectly

The Page Experience algorithm is something routinely coupled with the helpful content update. I’ve already noted the “avoid excessive ads that cover main content” notation above.

But another one that is commonly seen (and ignored by site owners) is the use of violating interstitials on a website. 

Google can filter and/or penalize a site if it uses regular “violating interstitials” that “cover the majority of content on a page,” per the guidelines.

I cannot tell you how many times per day I see a site running a “violating interstitial.” 

As a review, if you are running any pop-up (email, newsletter, ebook, etc.) that takes up more than one-third of the screen and activates on the “first click from Google,” you are in violation.

“But my interstitial only activates when you scroll down.” Still a violation!

“But my interstitial only activates as an exit-only.” Still a violation!

If you want to run a pop-up, focus on making sure that it activates “between pages” and, most importantly, not after the first click from Google.

Finally, please stop showing the pop-up to the same person multiple times as they navigate the site. You will not get that person to sign up the second or third time.

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4. Helpful content doesn’t mean more content

No matter how many times Google says it, most still don’t understand that word count is not a ranking factor.

One of the bigger themes seen while reviewing sites during this recent update was the incredible amount of superfluous content that existed on affected pages.

Example: Recipe site 

The author wrote an entire treatise on “Crème Brulee” and then wondered why they were beaten by multiple sites with less info.

Being helpful means providing the information the user needs and, in many cases, only the information the user needs. 

Having an extra 400 words on the “disputed history of crème brulee dating back to the 17th century” is not needed to fulfill the intent of this recipe for the average user.

Example: Travel site 

The author wrote a detailed article on sights to see in Wellington, NZ. The article was well above the ranking average for word count and very detailed. 

The problem? The author had never personally visited the country or any sight listed therein.

The article reflected that: 

  • No photos with the author in them existed.
  • The information lacked any clear personal observations from someone who would have visited.
  • More than one “point of interest” referenced in the post no longer existed.

Being helpful means showing “clear expertise” per the guidelines on what you are actually writing about.  

Writing a detailed article is not enough, especially when you also use stock photography and have no first-hand observations to share with the audience.

5. Bloggers must support any and all health claims

Health-related blogs and recipe sites were hit noticeably during this last update. A clear pattern was easy to see when reviewing the aggregate of the sites affected.

The vast majority of health sites that were hit struggled to understand the difference between a “health fact” and a “health claim.”

For example, a blogger can say, “This recipe is dairy-free,” and that is not a health claim. That’s a health fact. Something is either “dairy-free” or it’s not. No outside support is usually needed.

But if the same blogger says, “This recipe is dairy-free and, as such, will work great to clear up acne,” that’s a health claim that has to be supported.

One of the easiest ways to see if you have done this accidentally or intentionally is to conduct simple Google Site Operator searches of your site content.

Here are some major ones I recommend when auditing a site:

  • site:yoursite.com intext:health benefits
  • site:yoursite.com intext:weight loss
  • site:yoursite.com intext:reducing inflammation
  • site:yoursite.com intext:heart disease

The above would fall under the proving expertise of the content and author section, per Google Helpful Content Update guidelines. Does the information make you trust the author by means of clear sourcing or verifiable information?

In the examples above, little to no visible expertise was involved, and the ranking drops for the target sites reflected as such.

6. Stop writing copy just because you think it will rank.

This is the most confusing one for site owners. 

Per Google, if you are writing content “solely because it’s something you think you can rank for,” that’s actually not something they wish to rank. Ironic, right?

This is detailed under the “why” portion of Google’s “How to Create Reliable People-First Content” page.

This update continues a string of changes we see with Google where the main focus is to elevate content that is original, unique, or that adds something new for users to truly find useful and, in turn, helpful. 

The content quality questions that Google provides here become increasingly valuable with every update. As a site owner, look at your dropped content. 

Now, compare that content against the 12 content quality questions Google lays out for all publishers.

When you do your content audit and look at what dropped, ask yourself three simple questions:

  • Is your content primarily written for human or search engine readers? 
  • Does your content provide unique and valuable insights that are not readily available elsewhere?
  • Would you be happy to share your content with your friends, family, or colleagues?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” it’s time to rethink that piece of content and remove it completely from the site!

7. Niche down and elevate individual expertise

A very noticeable minority of affected sites from this most recent update were multi-niche in nature. 

Those sites had food, lifestyle, and travel posts. Or, they had food and travel posts. Or, they had how-to, health, food, and product reviews all living on the same domain.

Google has said many times that although they grade on the individual page level, they penalize at the host level. And the Helpful Content Update is a sitewide algorithm.

Do you have multiple niches that exist on your site? Is it possible one or more of those niches have significant downgrades in overall content quality?

Understand that it is not only possible, but exceedingly common, to have varied content quality across multiple niches. And with the Helpful Content, that can specifically hurt your overall ranking prospects.

Example: Travel site

Site authors previously traveled a lot pre-pandemic but had to move to another niche (recipes) when COVID-19 shut down travel.

For the last several years, they have been expanding their content choices to more and more niches, first to recipes, then to how-tos, and more recently to a whole section on product reviews.

This site is now down 50% following the September Helpful Content Update. A review shows that some niches have extremely low-quality content compared to others.

Just like you may have to cut away a gangrenous limb to save the entire body, that may be the case with this site if it wishes to recover. Cut away the low-quality, weak niche content and start moving forward again with what you used to do best.

Example: Dessert blogger

This blogger initially did incredibly well niching down to just gluten-free dessert recipes. She did a fantastic job writing complete recipes and staying away from health claims.

Then, she decided to expand the blog to cover non-recipe-related content because she was told she needed more content to really grow her blog. 

The result was a significant amount of “complementary content” made with AI tools that didn’t remotely match her previous content quality.

New content posts like “X ways to use fondant icing” and “What to serve with pumpkin dip” were then chosen, not because her audience was asking for them, but because her ad company provided tools that were telling her, “Hey, you can rank for this and we can serve more ads for you when you do.”

That site is down 52% since the update. Most content published in the last 18 months no longer ranks competitively.

Finally, and most importantly, work to elevate your individual expertise. 

It’s not enough these days to say you are good at something. You must show it. Rewrite that About page and brag to all that will hear, “Hey, I’m really damn good, and this is why you should trust my content.”

You also need to look externally for cheerleaders. From podcasts and interviews to past clients and existing fans, milk all of them for whatever visible examples of expertise you can show.

Now is the time to consider optimizing for a knowledge panel. Or writing that cookbook you’ve been putting off. Or, just getting over your insecurities and finding a podcast to tell your story.

Bottom line: We cannot be experts in all niches. If you are suffering traffic losses, now is the time to go back to what you know and what Google was initially using to rank you. Remove the new niche content, or move the new niche content to a completely new domain.  

Also, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, they always say. Make it impossible to be ignored. Be your own cheerleader and build up external mentions to your site to reinforce your E-E-A-T.

It’s never been harder to be a content creator

It’s a dark wasteland for many bloggers right now.

I’ve been a search marketing professional for nearly 25 years. And yet, I’m no better today at consoling a blogger or site owner who has lost their livelihood.

Although you can recover from Google’s core and helpful ccontent updates, it’s not a quick fix. It takes several months and a clear effort to communicate to Google that you are writing for humans, not robots.

But you can do it. Focus on the takeaways above. 

Always put the user front and center. The site you save will be your own.

Good luck out there.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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