It happens to the best of us — you’ve optimized your website and climbed the search engine results pages (SERPs) only to see your high-performing web pages take a rankings tumble after a Google update. 📉 😭
I’ve seen lots of SEO and site owners lament ranking drops on LinkedIn and Reddit after the initial launch of the helpful content system in September 2022 and subsequent updates. And they all ask one question:
How can I recover from the helpful content system?
Some even feel they can’t recover.
But that isn’t true.
The helpful content system is changing how we create SEO content — and that’s a good thing. By aligning your strategy with the factors the helpful content system values, you can regain your SERP footing and increase the quality of your content. It won’t be instantaneous, but it will be worth the effort.
In this post, I’m going to cover what the helpful content system (HCS) is and how it “decides” what’s useful. Then, I’m going to share some tips for recovering from ranking drops associated with the HCS and provide pointers for integrating HCS signals into your content strategy.
What Is the Helpful Content System?
Google’s helpful content system assesses how useful web pages are to readers. It sends a weighted signal that Google’s automated ranking system uses to boost helpful pages and downgrade unhelpful pages in SERPs.
One critical part of the helpful content system is that its assessments can impact an entire site, not just a particular page. So if you have multiple pages with thin, low-quality content, the helpful content system may deem your entire site unhelpful, causing ranking drops across all of your pages.
Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that I said the HCS sends a “weighted” signal. This means the more unhelpful pages that Google identifies, the worse your site will likely fare in search results.
Google says its system elevates “original, helpful content created for people.”
Honestly, this system doesn’t seem surprising and neatly aligns with Google Search’s approach and mission (emphasis mine):
- “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
- “Deliver the most relevant and reliable information available.”
- “Present information in the most useful way.
Those bolded words are all pretty synonymous with “helpful.”
So, what does that mean for SEO content?
The helpful content system is part of the search giant’s continued efforts to provide optimal user experiences. Google began considering content quality way back in 2011 when the Panda update penalized content farms and pages with thin content or a high ratio of ads. A few years later, Google introduced E-A-T guidelines to emphasize expert, trustworthy content, while RankBrain took into account how well content matched search intent.
This all paved the way for the E-E-A-T update and the helpful content system, both of which were released in 2022. Now with the latest refinement to the helpful content system in September 2023, those of us who have yet to improve our SEO content strategies need to take a critical eye to our existing content and our future content strategies if we want to maintain organic as a healthy traffic channel.
How the Helpful Content System Has Impacted Rankings
The helpful content system uses a machine learning model to classify low-value pages or content that appears to be written for search engines, not humans. 👎
It basically looks for certain signals that it’s been trained to believe signify unhelpful content. Because of this, you may see rankings drop for content that:
- Reiterates what others are saying without adding fresh perspectives.
- Fails to address a topic in-depth, providing an unsatisfying experience to readers.
- Contains outdated information.
- Lacks expertise that comes from the author’s first-hand experience.
It doesn’t matter whether your page was previously holding down the top spot in SERPS or has been ranking on page one for ten years, the HCS has knocked plenty of pages off their ranking perches, and it has reduced rankings and traffic sitewide for sites it’s assessed as having lots of unhelpful content.
Surprisingly, forums like Reddit, where users share opinions and thoughts rooted in personal knowledge, have enjoyed a lift in search rankings with the initial helpful content system updates, probably because of all the first-hand experience and original perspectives people share there. And while creating a large forum on your website would be untenable, that doesn’t mean you can’t apply that same idea to the content on your website.
Recovering From Helpful Content Update Ranking Losses
If ranking drops have left you looking like Kevin from Home Alone (😱), let’s dive into how you can improve your content and regain some SERP real estate.
To be clear, it may take several months for your site to recover, and there are no guarantees it ever will. (I mean, there are pretty much never any guarantees when it comes to Google.) Once the system has tagged unhelpful content, the signal stays in place until Google determines the content has improved.
Even if you aren’t experiencing a traffic loss right now, I suggest implementing some of the strategies below to keep your content fresh and in line with Google’s recommendations.
1. Pinpoint Ranking Drops
If you haven’t already identified which pages have been affected by the HCS, now is the time to evaluate ranking drops using your preferred keyword tracking tool. Note these drops and continue to monitor your keywords for additional shifts. If these pages are business-critical, prioritize updating them with the remaining tips.
I check our rankings at least weekly so that I can spot any trends early on and adjust content accordingly.
For example, if I see that a particular blog post is dropping in the rankings for different keywords over a period of a few weeks, I’ll go check out the pages Google is favoring for my target keyword theme and reoptimize my post with fresh insights.
2. Refresh Keyword Research
Readers have certain expectations when they click on a search result. To provide value, your content must serve up the answers they’re looking for. This means understanding the search intent or purpose behind the query.
The tricky part of search intent is that keyword usage changes over time, so you’ll need to monitor search behavior to ensure your content remains intent-based. Remember, Google promotes content that helps audiences accomplish their objectives. Watch for shifts in the intent behind certain keywords so your information is always aligned with the reader’s needs.
3. Reoptimize Content
I mentioned earlier that Google devalues content written primarily for search engines. To clarify, I’m talking about content that’s solely concerned with ranking in the SERPs without considering human readers. You still have to optimize content for search engines so Google can understand the topic and match your page to appropriate queries.
Optimization requires striking a fine balance; content that isn’t properly optimized won’t provide enough signals to search engines, and content that’s overoptimized may come across as spammy.
Here’s where SEO best practices come in:
- Organize your copy into sections and short paragraphs so it’s easy to read or scan.
- Place your primary keyword in the URL slug, page title, meta description, and an H2 header.
- Fit the keyword into the body content naturally a few times, but make sure it doesn’t sound forced.
- Use image alt text and structured data where applicable.
4. Run a Content Audit
Since the HCS is a site-wide system, you must implement a helpful content system recovery sitewide.
Give your entire site some care and attention by performing a content audit. Take an inventory of each page on your site and gauge whether it’s relevant to your audience and business goals. Check out the organic traffic, conversions, and referring domains for each page. If you have some that have “zeroes” across the board, consider pruning those pages.
5. Merge or Delete Thin, Unhelpful Content
Google has shared that removing unhelpful content from your site can help improve how well your other content ranks, so it’s time to put your editorial hat on.
Be meticulous when evaluating pages and eliminate content that lacks depth and substance. You may be able to repurpose some thin content by merging similar related pages to give the subject more weight. For example, if you have a page about “what is soy wax” and another on “why soy wax is best,” you can reasonably combine them to create a more comprehensive piece that candle buyers may be interested in.
Don’t simply cobble pages together, though. Make sure the final piece meets your readers’ needs and is in-depth, coherent, and useful.
6. Remove Irrelevant Content
Do you have a site about cybersecurity that features content about ergonomic desk chairs or a jewelry ecommerce site with blog posts about meditation?
Many sites have expanded well beyond their niches in an attempt to rank for more keywords. They might think that the more high-ranking content they have, the more people they can get to their site. And while this may have worked pre-HCS, it just doesn’t cut it in a helpful content world.
Google looks for signs you’re qualified to write about the topic at hand, which is why, in SEO circles, you’ll repeatedly encounter words such as authority, expertise, and credibility.
To demonstrate your special knowledge, tackle a handful of core topics well. This means carving out a niche and ensuring your website has a primary theme or focus. If content doesn’t serve a purpose or resonate with your target audience, remove it (but put the proper redirects in place).
7. Update Older Content
During your content audit, you may come across pages that feel stale. Maybe they feature stats from 2016 or don’t cover significant events related to the topic that have occurred since publication.
Updating older content can make it more helpful to readers. Beyond providing new stats or info, consider whether you should craft a more compelling introduction, improve readability, target a featured snippet, or add schema markup to the page as well.
A content update demonstrates to search engines that you’re actively maintaining your site and providing the best information available. You’ll also show your audience that they can trust you to be a go-to for current, accurate information.
And don’t be a stranger to this tactic! It’s helpful to build regular content reviews into your SEO strategy to ensure your pages are as up-to-date and beneficial as possible. In 2023, I made updating old content one of my goals for the Victorious blog. I waded through 4 years of blog posts, pruned what was irrelevant, and updated those that were worth keeping. I maintain an Asana board with all our published blog posts so I can easily toss pieces into review and update them. Since implementing it, we’ve been able to improve the rankings on numerous posts that had started lagging.
It goes without saying, of course, that you also need to monitor your site’s technical health and address issues covered by other Google updates.
6 Writing Tips for Surviving Google’s Helpful Content System Updates
So what makes content helpful? It seems like a silly question, but really, it’s all about determining what Google thinks searchers want.
When a user enters a query, Google wants to provide them with an accurate answer that meets their needs. Of course, this differs depending on the search terms.
Use the following strategies to elevate the helpfulness of your copy, whether you’re revamping affected pages or publishing new pieces.
1. Focus On Your Target Audience
Your content is only helpful if there’s an audience who wants to read it. When brainstorming, writing, or editing content, clearly define who you’re trying to reach and understand their motivations. From here, you can find the keywords your audience is using and fine-tune content that helps them accomplish their goals.
For example, if you’re marketing a SaaS product to a business owner, your approach may emphasize productivity and cost savings. If your SaaS product is for consumers, they may be more interested in lifestyle benefits. Because of this, these two products may require targeting different keywords, even if they’re similar.
2. Include Keyword Research in Your Content Strategy
Keyword research shouldn’t be an afterthought. Yes, there are going to be times when content marketers need to publish content for which they can’t find a good keyword. And that’s ok. But if your goal is to increase organic traffic to your website, then you must consistently integrate keyword research into your content strategy.
Here’s how I do this:
First, I’m always reading and educating myself on the latest search trends and different aspects of SEO and search marketing. I also frequently check how existing content is performing. Sometimes this sparks an idea, and I’ll create an Asana task on my content production board with the topic. Other times, I’ll dive right into Ahrefs to see how worthwhile covering a particular topic might be.
What I’m looking for is: Do people actually want to know more about this?
Search volume is often a good indicator of whether people are interested in a topic, but I won’t completely scrap an idea just because it doesn’t have adequate search volume. Zero-volume keywords can sometimes signify potential trends. (And if I ignored zero search volume keywords, I never would’ve written one of our most popular posts about ChatGPT content prompts.) However, depending on the topic and the amount of time I think it will take to create the piece, I do want some kind of reassurance that we have a reasonable chance to rank or that I’ll be able to repurpose the content in ways that provide sufficient value.
When you use your keyword research to help you align your ideas with your audience and your content marketing strategy, you can separate the wheat from the chaff and invest in those topics that are more likely to help you meet your goals.
3. Meet the Search Intent
Some people might identify search intent as part of their keyword research. However, even if you do that, it’s a good idea to check the search intent before briefing and outlining a new piece of content since search intent isn’t static. It can change as Google’s algorithms improve or as people’s search behavior evolves.
There’s always a purpose behind a search query, though. To make your content as helpful as possible, think about why someone’s using a particular search term.
- Informational searches gather knowledge.
- Commercial investigation searches compare products to help someone make a purchasing decision.
- Navigational searches use Google to find a specific web page.
- Transactional searches have an intent to buy.
Once you know the search intent, you can choose a content type that helps you meet it — whether that’s a landing page, blog post, or detailed guide — and help the reader achieve their goal.
4. Prioritize E-E-A-T
Google’s human raters assess content for E-E-A-T — experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. Google engineers then try to improve the search engine’s algorithms and systems to better highlight those pages believed to showcase E-E-A-T.
We don’t know the exact formula Google uses to determine E-E-A-T, so try to embody the spirit of the guidelines in as many ways as possible. Take a deeper dive into E-E-A-T here.
In my first draft, I had this point as “Keep E-E-A-T in Mind,” but I realized that wasn’t enough. E-E-A-T signals correspond beautifully with the helpful content system, so by prioritizing E-E-A-T and including it as part of your criteria for determining what content to produce, you can establish a workflow that consistently meets HCS standards.
5. Focus on Information Gain
Sometimes the SERPs can feel like Groundhog Day — each page seems the same as the one before. When lots of pages share the same info, researching a topic can feel torturous. No one wants to read the same information that’s worded slightly differently over and over.
Content diversity is key. Your goal is to bring something new to the table and elevate your content from the run-of-the-mill articles already out there. This is known as information gain.
Search Engine Land pointed out that just before the helpful content update was released, Google patented an information gain score. This measures how original a piece of content is compared to other pages covering the topic.
To crack the SERPs, provide information gain to help your content stand out. When creating content, review pages currently ranking for your desired keyword and consider how you can bring something new to the conversation. Original statistics, case studies, and fresh perspectives can help provide value that other pages are lacking.
6. Showcase Value
Helpful content aims to go above and beyond. Ask yourself if you’ve created a ho-hum piece of content or one that’s so insightful a person would tuck it away for future reference.
Emphasize original thought and analysis and provide a comprehensive look at the topic. Don’t ramble just to give the appearance of depth (or hit a certain word count). Your content should be well-written and deliver exceptional value compared to other pages in the SERPs.
Partner With an SEO Content Writing Service
If content writing isn’t your thing, that’s ok. Our SEO content writing services can help you publish smart, sharp content that ranks better in the SERPs. Our people-first content helps shed light on topics your target audience is interested in and serves to drive organic traffic to your website. Schedule a free consultation to learn more.