Google’s September, 2023 helpful content update should be complete around the end of the month. Will your rankings take a hit? They might, if you've been misusing AI to create your blog articles. Here's what you need to know about the latest Google update — and how to evaluate (and update) your content.
Table of Contents
- What is Google’s helpful content system?
- What does people-first content look like?
- What does the new Google update say about using AI-created content?
- How can you tell if your content is helpful?
- It’s time to bring your chickens home to roost.
Google ain’t nobody’s fool. As the largest and most widely used search engine on earth, It has a reputation to maintain. And that means keeping Its users’ frustration levels to minimum — which you surely understand if you’re old enough to remember when the SERP was a haphazard list of useless links that led you through a doom spiral of keyword-stuffed pages about everything and nothing.
Nowadays, Google does a pretty good job of making sure at least one of the top five results has just what you’re looking for. That accuracy was born from countless algorithm updates resulting from constant tinkering and obsessive fine-tuning. Google says It made more than 5,000 improvements to Search in 2021 alone.
What’s kind of ironic is how Google, one of the most powerful Machines on earth, took us all on a wild ride for all those years in search of the perfect recipe for ranking — and in the end, it all boils down to:
Unfortunately, ChatGPT and the like don’t write helpful content all by their robot selves. They pretend to — sometimes convincingly, if you just skim it. But you look at enough AI-generated articles, and you’ll see that the content it “writes” is mostly a train wreck of jargon couched in buzzwords, sandwiched between soft, warm disclaimers.
Google can smell unhelpful, AI-written “SEO content” from a mile away, which is why using ChatGPT and other bots to create content with the sole purpose of manipulating the SERPs is in direct violation of Its spam policies.
Furthermore, Google clearly tells us through Its helpful content system that search engine optimization tactics really only work on content that is fundamentally helpful to begin with.
What is Google’s helpful content system?
Google’s helpful content system is a powerful and game-changing algorithm upgrade made in mid-2022. It automatically identifies content that doesn’t appear to be particularly useful to people and ranks it accordingly. Periodically, Google issues a helpful content update, which gives producers, procurers, and purveyors of content a glimpse into what It’s digging these days.
The helpful content system isn’t the end-all and be-all of ranking — it’s one of scores of “signals” Google considers when evaluating a page — but it’s important enough that Google created it and even coined a term for the kind of stuff It wants to see in general on the internet: People-first content, written for the purpose of giving fellow humans a helping hand.
What does people-first content look like?
According to Google Itself, people-first content has an intended audience in mind and contains the information said audience expects to find based on the search terms they type in and the title of your article. People-first content demonstrates expertise on the topic and leaves the reader satisfied and armed with the information or solution they were looking for.
If your content is people-first, the latest Google update is likely to boost your rankings. If it’s not, your content may take a hit.
What does the new Google update say about using AI-created content?
Google doesn’t mind if you use AI to create content — It even cheerfully acknowledges that AI has long been used for that purpose, and successfully so. In fact, before the September 2023 update, Google defined people-first content as “original, helpful content written by people, for people.” In the latest updates, It took out the “written by people” bit, so it now reads, “...original, helpful content created for people.”
So Google doesn’t care how the content came into being — only that it’s helpful.
If your AI-generated articles got some sweet human lovin’ before they went live, you’re probably fine. If not, your content — and your site — might get dressed down by Google in the coming weeks and months.
AI-assisted or not, it’s a good idea to evaluate your content for helpfulness, just to be sure it’ll thrive in the people-first terrain of the new update.
How can you tell if your content is helpful?
You’ve probably heard of E.E.A.T. — experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. E.E.A.T. isn’t a ranking factor in itself, but rather a sort of framework that helps Google evaluate the gazillion signals It uses to rank the helpfulness of content. Trust is the most important of the four, because if you’re not trustworthy, the rest doesn’t matter.
You can save your sanity if you think of E.E.A.T. conceptually rather than as a checklist or set of definitive guidelines, because different aspects of it have different weights for different types of content.
For example, Google isn’t going to banish you to the back pages because your article about removing grease stains from cotton wasn’t written by a chemist. But if your article about taking blood pressure medications has no byline or other discernible cred, it probably won’t even clear the foothills of the SERPs.
To help you determine whether your content meets E.E.A.T. criteria — and therefore wins the coveted people-first designation — Google recommends holding it up to three lenses: Who wrote the content, how was it produced, and why was it created?
Who created the content?
A legit byline goes a long way toward establishing trust with your readers — especially on content where a reader might expect it, like legal, financial, medical, or mental health articles. In fact, Google has a name for such topics: “Your Money or Your Life,” or YMYL. These are subjects that could significantly impact the financial stability, health, or safety of people or the wellbeing of society, and Google wants to see that YMYL pieces were authored by someone with expertise on the matter:
If you work with an SEO agency that produces your content — or farms it out to the lowest bidder, as is generally the case — you probably don’t know who’s writing it. There’s a pretty good chance the author doesn’t have the experience, expertise, or authority — or the writing chops — to create a helpful, trustworthy article. Upon closer inspection, it may even be painfully evident that the writer really doesn’t give a fleeping flip whether or not the article is helpful — or even accurate.
The same thing goes with articles produced by a content “mill” or “farm,” where you send briefs into a void and get back content that spans the spectrum in quality, tone, and voice.
And while articles produced by AI usually have impeccable grammar and sentence structure, they’re generally bereft of depth, context, and humanity and are therefore not fundamentally helpful.
Google is weary of all the reindeer games businesses play in an attempt to load up their site with “SEO content” at the rock-bottomest of prices — and It is not amused. That content may be cheap, but it’s gonna cost you plenty in the long run.
How was this content created?
Building trust requires transparency in how you produce your content. For example, if you write a top-ten listicle, how do you vet the competition and come up with the contenders — do you pull them out of the aether, or do you create a framework of metrics and grade each entry based on a variety of factors? If you’re writing an article on the best way to get rid of ants, did you consult with an expert — either through an interview or by citing trustworthy sources — or did you just paraphrase an article on Houzz or The Spruce? (Looking at you, ChatGPT!)
This transparency applies to content that has a substantial AI component, too: If you used AI, Google wants you to disclose that fact when it would “reasonably be expected.” It wants you to explain how automation or AI-generation was used to create your content — and why you found AI useful for producing it.
So if you’ve been using AI to write your articles, and there’s no good reason for doing so beyond the fact that it’s fast, cheap, ‘n’ easy, there’s a good chance you’re going to start feeling the pain in the next few months. Because Google knows, and It is not pleased.
Why was this content created?
Let’s address the elephant in the room: Yes, the vast majority of content on business websites is created specifically to drive traffic and conversions. But if Google thinks that’s all you care about, It’s probably right, and you’re probably toast.
Why? Because Google knows what people want when they type in a search term, and if your content doesn’t give it to them, It’s not going to risk its own trustworthiness by putting it where people can see it — no matter that you used all of the right keywords in all of the right places and “optimized” it to the hilt.
To that end, all of the content you create should have one primary goal: To provide your readers with value. Not drivel, and not a quick ‘n’ dirty regurgitation of what’s already there at the top of the SERP.
More than SEO — more than 158-character meta descriptions that start with a call to action, and more than optimized headings and a primary keyword density of exactly 1.5% — Google cares about user experience and value. Is your content hard to follow because of a litany of ads, awful fonts, or useless anchor text and irrelevant links? That’s a problem. Does your content show readers that you understand exactly what the problem is, why it’s a problem, how it came to be, and what they can do about it? That’s what Google wants to see.
Whether you’re writing about how to find pants with a perfect fit, how to propagate a Christmas cactus, or how your SAAS platform helps your customers manage their product quality, your content should provide the reader with a complete picture — and above all, it should leave them with more answers than questions.
Google doesn’t make these algorithm updates to make your life hell — Its mission is to make the internet ever less of a hellscape for users. If your content is helpful and deserves a top spot, that’s where it will show up — Google will know, and It will reward you.
It’s time to bring your chickens home to roost.
So what happens if you look at your content and find it lacking in the helpful department?
If you don’t have the time or wherewithal to go in and rewrite everything, the best thing you can do is hire someone who does — and that someone is not an SEO agency. Remember, optimizing articles for search engines is only truly effective when content is fundamentally helpful to begin with.
And for that, you need a content agency that understands the big picture — an agency that knows there’s more to “SEO” than using cool tools to identify the right keywords, headings, and optimal word counts (the latter of which, by the way, Google explicitly says It doesn’t care about.)
Stretch (that’s us!) is one such agency. We know SEO like nobody’s biz, but we also know that applying SEO best-practices to a poorly done article is nothing but lipstick on a pig. Instead, we’ll help you evaluate your content and rework it so that it’s helpful, consistent, and on-brand, and then — and only then — fully optimize it for the search engines.
We are an agency of like-minded people — writers, editors, strategists, and SEO experts — who care deeply about what we put out there. We take great pride in producing authentically helpful content that’s accurate, trustworthy, and a helluva good read. You might say we’re a people-first content agency. Why not schedule a call with us, and see what we can do for you?