SEO In 2024: What I Learned After Google's Helpful Content Update

September's helpful content update 2023: Things You Need To Know

Why You Need To Pay Extra Attention To User Experience On Your Website

Since the helpful content update rolled out in September, many people have been complaining about loss of rankings. From my research a bad user experience has led to many sites being classified as ‘unhelpful’ and why some sites MAY have been hit. 

Please note, it is normally more than one reason, and the update brought in site wide punishments, which means even if just a percentage of your site is deemed unhelpful, rather than the individual pages being hit, the whole site is hit. What this percentage is only Google know.

I follow all the latest SEO news on Twitter and studies done by respected SEO’s, and these are just my conclusions from what I have read. You can look at what Google says on there ‘helpful’ pages, but it is ambiguous at best.

Google’s main point they always repeat is build for the user, not Google. Which isn’t very helpful as it is a catch 22, both things are linked together in my view. Even by some of the things I write here as to what Google seems to be punishing, by not doing this going forward, are we not still building for Google? As I say, the two things are interlinked.

Google uses signals to tell them what content is helpful or not, again no-one except Google know what this is. It is basically educated guesses, and guesses that, again in my view, are pretty risky and a dangerous way to go about it, especially as what is helpful to one person may differ to another. They are basically playing judge/jury/executioner.

What Contributes To A Bad User Experience?

‘Unhelpful Content’ is not just the content on a page, it is the overall user experience of when a user hits your page. When you publish content, look at the page as a USER, not as the owner of the site. 

User experience has always played a part with Google, but it has been ramped up in this latest HCU it seems.

The main things to pay attention to are:

Does Your Site Have Too Many Annoying Ads?

A lot of sites ad heavy or have annoying ads seemed to have been hit, especially from ad networks that encourage as many ads as possible. That doesn’t mean you cannot have ads, but you need to ask yourself a few questions, and look at your site as a user.

  • Do you have ads above the fold so the first thing the user see’s is an advertisement rather than the content?

  • Do you have auto playing ads or multiple pop ups?

  • Do any of the ads interfere with the content?

  • Are the ads made clear that they are ads and not sneakily made to look like onsite content?

In my view the safest bet is to have your ad half way down the page after the query has been answered. Again, think as a user, if you go onto a page wanting a quick answer to a query, and have to scroll past ads to get it, is that a good user experience? Read this for some reasons why it is a bad user experience. Which brings me onto the next point.

Do You Have Too Much Fluff Content?

A lot of recipe sites in particular got hit very hard in this HCU, because of fluff content. But fluff content can relate to any site. It basically means if a user lands on your page to find an answer, do they have to scroll down a lot to get the answer? Are you filling the page with fluff content before answering the query? A lot of sites do this — You may think this fluff content is useful, and it may well be, however if a user has to scroll too much to get the actual answer, Google does not like this.

  • Answer the search query right at the top of the article

  • Put any fluff content after the question is answered if you wish to expand on it more. Give the user the option to scroll or not if they want more information, do not force them to scroll to get the answer.

  • Google does not seem to think a ‘table of contents’ means you do not have to do the above. 

E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness)

Google wants to show results from people who know what they are talking about. Putting an author box on the page saying you are an expert is NOT enough, Google aren’t going to just believe you. They want proof. Are you referenced as an expert on another site? (Still have an author box of some sort however for the user, but don't expect it to mean much to Google). But having proof you are an expert is a better user experience for the user in Google's eyes because it can apparently be trusted more.

Do you have any proof you are an expert apart from your own words? This is also probably where backlinks play a major part. If high authority sites are linking to you as a reference, that will help a lot. Which is also probably why the SERPS are dominated by older websites with lots of backlinks. It is harder than ever after the update for a new site to get ahead, even if their content is much much better and more useful for the user. 

Are You Building For Google?

Another interesting obsveration that has been doing the rounds is websites that have been ‘built for Google’ have been hit. By this it means sites that only concentrate on long tail keywords and have been built with this intention. You know the micro niche drill that has been done by many over the years.

Do keyword research, find a niche and long tail keywords that are easier to rank for, build content. Google does not want this. Why? Because people are clearly doing it without any expertise on the subject, they are doing it just because it is easier to rank. They are building for Google/SEO.

Micro niche sites will still work, but only short term now in my opinion. Google are on to this type of site. You now need to think about building a brand you are an expert in, not just build a site with easy to rank keywords to make some quick money on a subject you actually know nothing about. This would not be a good user experience for a user in Google's eyes.

That is not to say keyword research for keywords is not needed, but you need to mix it up a bit going forward.

How Do You Know If Your Content Is Helpful?

As said above, no-one knows what signals Google use. No doubt backlinks and authority will play a major part, which is why so many authority sites have pages ranking even on niche’s they are not about. In my view, the search results are a bit of a mess, even as a user I am searching 2/3 times sometimes to get what I need. 

And ironically I have to scroll normally to get past the Youtube videos in the results. (If I want Youtube results, I will goto Youtube). It is very inconsistent and different sites seem to have different rules. So we are just guessing, but Google’s advice is to write for the user and you will have nothing to worry about. Don’t write for Google.

Now obviously there are other reasons sites get hit, it normally isn’t just one thing, and Google looks at 200+ things when ranking a site. But the user experience seems to have been a big one in the latest helpful content update in particular.

SEO and blogging is becoming harder, and it is a challenge where patience is key. But if you want to start a blog, don't let it put you off. If you have patience and passion with knowledge you can be successful in the long term.

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