The last two weeks of September presented a challenge for numerous SEO marketers and business owners due to Google’s latest helpful content update (HCU). They have seen a drastic drop in their website traffic, consequently affecting their revenue when Google launched the update on September 14, 2023.
Essentially, Google’s helpful content system underwent major improvements in its classifier, resulting in shifts in rankings that many in the SEO community found “ridiculous.” Some even went so far as to label it the Google “Unhelpful” Content Update.
It didn’t help that Google released the October core and spam updates barely a week after HCU completed its rollout. This series of events was too much to handle for sites already struggling in September.
But no matter how much the SEO community complains about these updates, Google will not pause to sympathize with those affected. SEO is fundamentally challenging due to the fact that no one but Google has control over the search ranking algorithms. When the updates roll out, there is nothing we can do about them.
Except for one thing: damage control in the aftermath of the release. We must assess which content was impacted the most, figure out the most likely cause by knowing what content now dominates the search engine result pages (SERPs), and adjust our strategy in light of these changes.
But beyond addressing what’s no longer working, I think the most important lesson here is realizing that helpful content is now more critical than ever in any SEO strategy. Search marketers should put helpful content at the forefront of their efforts if they are serious about getting noticed by Google.
The truth is, unless you occupy a niche with negligible competition or you are already a well-known brand, your service or product pages typically won’t suffice to generate a steady flow of new visitors from search engines to your site.
And even with blog posts, you will always find it difficult to rank and drive organic traffic if your content is so-so—no matter how well-optimized they are—and Google can find superior, more helpful versions to display.
Earlier this month, I took on the responsibility of leading Online Officer’s content marketing, and I knew right off the bat that if we are to move the needle on the company’s SEO activity, the marketing team must take content production even more seriously this time.
Let me share how I plan to accomplish that using helpful content.
Online Officer maintains a blog with 89 posts—until I decided to remove every single one of them. None of these posts has generated a single organic search traffic to the site in the last 16 months. Our blog didn’t stand a chance simply because there are many other sites out there with better, comprehensive, and up-to-date content. As a result, it failed to attract new visitors and potential clients.
I’m certain that Online Officer is not alone in this predicament. Many business websites view content creation merely as a way to rank on Google, which, ironically, often results in no discernable visibility on the most popular search engine. They focus on the quantity of posts but overlook one important fact: that content quality is what matters the most. The missing piece is content that satisfies user intent and genuinely provides value to the reader.
I repeat, “genuinely provides value.”
This value-centric approach is aligned with Google’s mission of presenting “helpful, reliable information that’s primarily created to benefit people, not to gain search engine rankings, in the top Search results.”
According to this, when you create helpful, reliable, and people-first content and implement best SEO practices around them, Google’s automated ranking systems will eventually take notice and reward that content (though your actual rank will still depend on whether or not Google can find a superior version of the same content to display).
With all this in mind, here are the actions I deem necessary to change the status quo and improve Online Officer’s organic search traffic in the long run.
Remove “unhelpful” content
Content is necessary, yes, but only if it is “helpful.”
In our case, removing the 89 posts is our best course of action. These posts more or less adhere to a specific word count, a requirement on the part of the writer that doesn’t benefit the reader at all. For instance, we have a piece titled “15 Ways To Generate Leads For Your Business in 2020” that is split into three articles, each containing only around 600 words.
These relatively “thin” articles would have been better combined into one, making it easier for users to find and read the useful tips. Unfortunately, I would say that most of the 89 posts were created only for the sake of producing some blog content. They were not created with the users’ best interests in mind.
Additionally, many posts are outdated, and the majority fall into the informational category or awareness phase of the buyer’s journey, yielding little to no conversions even if they manage to gain traffic. Thus, the decision to unpublish all of them.
In its HCU documentation, Google alluded to the benefit of removing content that doesn’t meet visitors’ expectations.
“Any content—not just unhelpful content—on sites determined to have relatively high amounts of unhelpful content overall is less likely to perform well in Search, assuming there is other content elsewhere from the web that’s better to display. For this reason, removing unhelpful content could help the rankings of your other content.”
This implies that any content failing to serve its intended purpose for the user is better off removed from your site. By reducing or entirely eliminating the amount of unhelpful content, you increase the likelihood of your other content performing better in the rankings. This also means that your entire site’s “helpfulness” plays a huge factor.
However, removing the existing 89 posts doesn’t mean totally deleting and forgetting them. They remain assets that Online Officer may repurpose in the future. We’ll keep them in draft status until I decide on the best course of action for each.
I could merge some of those posts into one longer and more helpful version, which brings me to my next point.
Create comprehensive guides
Our blog’s business goal is to attract potential clients, so going forward we will focus on middle- and bottom-of-the-funnel content targeting an audience that is more likely to convert. We are going to consolidate a few of those removed posts and create comprehensive outsourcing guides with new and more helpful information.
This way, our readers can find all the closely related information in a single article, eliminating the need for them to navigate several pages.
However, it’s important to note that long-form and improved word count alone don’t constitute “better” content. Google has no word count preference, and as I mentioned in my article about word count in SEO, it ultimately boils down to which content will be most helpful to the user.
Case in point: a user on the r/SEO subreddit shared that after the September 2023 HCU, their article, which used to rank well, is now positioned below user generated content (UGC) that has a fewer word count.
Why is that? Because that certain UCG, although short, directly answers the user’s query. Have you ever tried searching for information and found an article so long that it was difficult to find what you were looking for? The point is, Google will prioritize content it thinks will best serve the user, regardless of word count.
In these comprehensive guides—including our business owner’s guide to SEO—we are going to take into account the user-friendliness of our content in terms of finding specific information quickly. We know they’ll be quite lengthy because they discuss several subtopics—NOT because they need to be long—so it would help if we are going to use a table of contents at the beginning of the article, along with a content structure that is intuitively easy to skim when necessary.
Publish more helpful content
After working on the comprehensive pieces—which will also serve as our pillar or cornerstone content—we will delve into creating other types of content that offer valuable information and advice to our readers.
That might sound vague, right?
I have recently created a mission statement for our Blog—something we didn’t have before—that will be instrumental in giving us direction in the many years to come. Whatever we do from now on should be aligned with this mission and the core purpose of creating helpful content.
If you haven’t yet, I recommend that you define your mission, too, as doing so will help you better identify what posts to focus on and stop creating content in silos.
Moving forward, it’s crucial to remember that publishing should be driven by a commitment to sharing content that prioritizes the benefit for people, rather than being solely focused on meeting a specific monthly blog post quota and just kind of hope for the best to happen.
So, what’s the takeaway here?
Content will continue to play a significant role in the organic search success of any business. As Google’s ranking systems continue to evolve and de-prioritize what it calls “search engine-first content” in the rankings, focusing on genuinely helpful, people-first content would give you an edge over your competitors.
And if your business faces stiff competition like ours, developing a content marketing strategy that puts your users first is even more important. It’s the only way you could significantly improve your organic search reach and stay competitive for a long period of time.
This is not groundbreaking advice, of course. I am simply pointing out that as many businesses and marketers publish a large volume of search engine-first content—some relying excessively on generative AI tools like ChatGPT with minimal human review—primarily to gain search engine rankings, the real benefits for the users have somewhat dwindled in recent years. Google doesn’t like that.
AI-written content is not necessarily bad, but that’s a topic for another discussion.