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Worried About Your SEO Future? Yes, You Will Survive the Google Helpful Content Update

On any given day, your best SEO efforts may fall short. You don’t experience the search engine rankings you expected. Your top spots suddenly drop or disappear.

Forced to be vigilant, you pay close attention to the latest news about what Google expects. You ponder the search engine’s helpful content update rolled out Sept. 9 that certainly created a considerable buzz. Although many algorithm adjustments are narrow and often unannounced, the publicized helpful content update may have a widespread impact.

Among the questions posed on the Google Search Central Blog that SEO-focused content marketers should ask:

  • Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?
  • Are you mainly summarizing what others have to say without adding much value?
  • Does your content leave readers feeling like they need to search again to get better information from other sources?

If the answer is yes to any of those questions, Google indicates it won’t be as pleased with your content as it has been.

Personally, I have my doubts about the toll of Google’s helpful content update. It’s hardly poised to be the Big Bad Wolf that will blow a house down. I’m sure some website marketers will take a hit if they didn’t see this update coming, but they will be the exception. Here’s why:

@Google’s helpful content update isn’t the Big Bad Wolf ready to blow down your #SEO house, says @mikeonlinecoach via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Google isn’t surprising anyone

Quality is at the heart of this change. It should merely weed out websites that simply failed to play Google’s game. For years, Google has emphasized that websites should provide a good experience — relevant, user-friendly content that loads quickly. Google put the spotlight on quality with its major Panda update in 2011 that targeted websites filled with thin content.

Technology is sophisticated

I can’t begin to know what it takes to launch, feed, and support AI and machine-learning models like BERT, which Google introduced in 2018 to better understand the context of search queries. But the search engine operates in a complex environment, even if it’s not quite like the world in The Matrix movies. The elaborate technology now leads to websites routinely ranking for keywords that aren’t even in their content. All these advances have developed slowly. Google quietly adjusts its search engine with little fanfare, implementing more than 4,000 changes in 2021 alone.

@Google’s elaborate tech now leads websites to rank for keywords that aren’t in their #content, says @mikeonlinecoach via @CMIContent. #SEO Click To Tweet

Google is kind of two-faced

Google touts quality 24/7 (just look at its quality rater guidelines), but I’m a little skeptical about the company’s ability to remain faithful to what it claims to value. It’s too easy to come across content that’s self-focused, trite, and unclear. Google’s detection system is extremely limited or full of errors.

Google won’t bury organic rankings for major brands and authoritative websites

About 10 years ago, I told a business its search rankings were doomed because of its widespread use of duplicate content over multiple websites. I was wrong (thanks, Google, for feeding me a line). Maybe some rankings aren’t as high as they could be, but their digital properties ranked well for massive numbers of highly competitive keyword phrases. How did they pull it off? They’re a major leader in their space.

It’s worth noting this same company has experienced other Google ranking changes that just can’t be explained. One day an old website page that ranked well lost its high position. A year later, the rankings came back without a single change to the page.

Rankings can shift for many reasons – and organic traffic can suffer too. Maybe you have many top 10 rankings, but over time you get fewer of them. Or maybe a No. 3 ranking fell to No. 6. Competitors with fresh content on the same topic may surpass what you created long ago. Sometimes websites experience significant changes simply because search engine results pages (SERPs) have design revisions and adjustments to featured elements, pushing down traditional results.

In this example, a search for “precast concrete” results includes a map, local results, people also ask, a knowledge graph on the right, and a few normal results. Below this top-of-SERP view is a series of videos before websites are highlighted again.

Rather than remind you in detail about SEO best practices – like simple SEO page titles, descriptive headers, and internal linking – I’ll focus on what to watch if the helpful content update has sharp teeth.

1. Aim for quality

Will Google catch you for using a cliché or a sentence fragment? Hardly. Is your content clear and well organized? Is it original? Think along those lines.

Northern Tool + Equipment has nothing to worry about despite how it sometimes frowns on short paragraphs to improve readability. Google ranks it No. 2 with an average of 110 monthly searches for “automotive parts washers.” On this page for automotive parts washers, the description runs almost 250 words without a single paragraph break. Clearly, Google is fine with this text presentation.

2. Answer questions – lots of them

Google rewards websites that have the right answers – no matter whether it’s a well-known brand or blog that sticks to a niche. Your brand websites should explain themselves – we-do-this or we-have-these-capabilities pages. But focus on filling pages with content detailing explanations about how something works, what can go wrong, problems to anticipate, etc., and in other words, share your wisdom or insights.

Fill pages with #content explaining how something works, what can go wrong, etc., and @Google will be pleased, says @mikeonlinecoach via @CMIContent. #SEO Click To Tweet

3. Open the gates

Gated white papers, studies, e-books, how-to guides, and more are ideal for generating leads. But don’t hide too much information. At the least, review what you keep behind closed doors that requires a completed form to access. Can you excerpt a helpful portion of it for all to consume and use it to call attention to the full resource?

Orbit Media Studios doesn’t gate any of its annual blogging study:

With a little bit of extra SEO work (text and SEO page title), some of these eighth through 26th place rankings could improve. At least the content is indexed.

4. Create case studies

Too many companies won’t produce case studies because they don’t want competitors to know what they do, can’t show their customers’ products, or reveal a customer by name. So many excuses. How about using your wordsmiths to create case studies that work for both a search audience and your business needs? You could use phrasing such as:

  • Businesses routinely need to get the word out about why they’re the most experienced/notable/trustworthy in their office furniture/home building/automotive parts industry.
  • One company turned to us to design/engineer the best solution for them.
  • Last year, we shaped a branding campaign, designed four prototypes, created 3D models, etc.
  • In less than two weeks, we had a plan that they approved. It was possible because of our deep bench of experts – engineers, designers, project managers, and more.
  • Using our XYZ machine that we installed in 2021, the client …

Case studies can be loaded with all sorts of details about approaches, equipment, time savings, productivity efficiencies, and more without divulging proprietary information or client information.

5. Add transcripts to videos

I hear a few objections to publishing video transcripts. Even if website visitors won’t read all that text, a search engine will feast on every word, just like when people binge a 10-part streaming series on Hulu.

Concerned about the text interfering with the user experience or a call to action? Put pressure on a website designer to make the page work. At a minimum, place the critical call to action above or at least near the top of the transcript text.

No site is perfect

I think Google recognizes any website can have shortcomings. Quality content doesn’t always ensure top rankings. High domain authority doesn’t either. It’s not always the amount of content on a page or how many pages a website publishes.

If it’s clear that you’re an expert in your space, expect to achieve some presence among the top positions. If you have the right answer for a search query, you’ll more likely have the opportunity to appear high on the page – right after those ads, videos, people also ask, and any other quick fact Google packs in there.

But you’ll get your shot from time to time. Just keep sharing your content as much as you can.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute