SEO Insights: September 2023 Report

As Google celebrated its 25th birthday on the 27th of September, it coincided with the completion of the rollout of one of the most impactful algorithm updates that we’ve seen in a very long time.

On the 14th of September, Google released its third iteration of the Helpful Content Update (HCU) and it was quite some update! Previous releases of the update have been relatively mild, but this latest one has been reminiscent of the days of the Panda and Penguin updates, which were quite impactful in terms of their effects on rankings and traffic from search.

What is the Helpful Content Update?

Google describes the update/system as follows:

“The helpful content system aims to better reward content where visitors feel they’ve had a satisfying experience, while content that doesn’t meet a visitor’s expectations won’t perform as well.

The system generates a site-wide signal that we consider among many other signals for use in Google Search (which includes Discover). The system automatically identifies content that seems to have little value, low-added value or is otherwise not particularly helpful to people.”

The most interesting aspect of this statement is that this system applies a “site-wide signal”. In other words, if Google deems that part of your website is not particularly helpful for users, it will demote the entire website in the search results, and not just the pages which it deems to be “unhelpful”.

The signal is also weighted, meaning that a website with a large amount of “unhelpful content” may experience a very significant ranking loss.

How to recover from the update

The first thing to note is that there is no quick recovery from this update. The ranking signal applied to a website is applied over a period of months and Google needs to be sure that you have fixed the issues on your website, and that the unhelpful content won’t return, before this signal can be removed.

This is a good time to properly evaluate the content on your website. How good is it? How does it compare to the top-ranking websites? Does it provide something unique and extra? Is it well written?

This is also a good time to review and remove (or update) old content pages. Maybe you’ve been running a blog for a few years and your older posts aren’t great and aren’t generating much traffic. It’s probably a good time to say goodbye and delete them.

The less pages you have, the more likely it is that you can ensure the pages are the best they can be.

This can be a painful and frustrating time for website owners, but it’s also a moment to reflect on what you’ve created and focus on making it the best it can possibly be.

Our initial observations

This update appears to have mainly targeted websites that were potentially “made for SEO”. In other words, websites that have been created to generate traffic for monetisation purposes, where SEOs have found potential keyword opportunities.

These websites are often not very user focused, lack a specific niche focus and aren’t backed up with specific expertise in that area.

However….aren’t all websites essentially created to generate traffic and to make money?

Yes, and this is where it gets interesting….

As with any Google algorithm update, perfectly legitimate websites will be caught up and impacted by it, even if they haven’t done anything wrong necessarily. A business has a website designed to generate traffic and leads/enquiries. We have seen some businesses impacted by this update; however, most are not ecommerce websites or legitimate businesses.

In theory, Google has understood with this update which websites are “made for SEO” and which are real, established businesses.

If anything, what appears to have happened is that Google has prioritised the established, trusted and known brands in the search results, above those which it doesn’t perhaps recognise as brands themselves.

The reality is that not all brands have helpful content….but the search results are now prioritising the brands more than ever.

Contradicting the Core Update

But, doesn’t this contradict the Core Updates, which are designed to, apart from other factors, reward websites with great content which would normally not rank highly due to the websites not being authoritative websites?

Yes! In fact, just before the HCU update ran, Google had just finished rolling out the last Core Update. Some websites may have seen an improvement with the Core Update, and then had it swiftly undone by the HCU update.

It seems that sometimes different departments within Google don’t talk to each other!

Moving forward

These may be tough times for the websites impacted by the update. But they are also an opportunity to refocus, learn and adapt to what is a very dynamic and fast-evolving area of marketing.

Apart from what Google advises, in terms of improving or removing content, it’s also a good time to learn about what makes a brand. What are considered to be brand signals when it comes to search? Don’t just focus on the content itself but understand branding, understand what makes a business real and trusted. This needs to be reflected on your website.

Google has already advised that the next HCU update will be equally disruptive, and it’s only going to continue. This is, perhaps, Google’s message to the SEO community that there is no quick way to work your website into the search results without some serious effort and a focus on quality (note to those using AI to generate their content).

The reality is that Google hasn’t quite got it right with this latest HCU update, but it’s not going away and it’s only going to intensify.

If you have any questions about the latest Google Helpful Content Update, please do not hesitate to reach out to us. We are constantly monitoring the effects that this update is having and are already implementing strategies to help our clients maintain their high rankings and streams of leads/enquiries.