26 Aug 2022

Putting People First: Helpful Content Algorithm Update

Google has announced the roll out of an algorithm update this week. The update seems to be among the most significant changes since the introduction of Panda and Penguin a decade ago. 

The aptly named ‘Helpful Content’ update will separate content that is helpful and of high value to the reader from content purely written for ranking purposes. 

Google claimed the update will “tackle content that seems to have been primarily created for ranking well in search engines” and that the update will “help make sure that unoriginal, low-quality content doesn’t rank highly in Search.” So, if you’re writing content purely to drive search engine visibility, it might have the opposite effect. 

Google Helpful Content: The Basics 

Here’s your ‘need-to-knows’ about the update:

  • Roll out is due to start the week commencing 22nd August
  • Roll out phase will take approximately two weeks
  • The update will only impact Google Search
  • It is a sitewide algorithm update, reviewing whole websites instead of isolated pages
  • It is not a core update
  • The update will only target English-speaking content but is likely to expand to other languages
  • It’s not a manual action, but a signal will be applied to your site which might feel like a penalty
  • If you feel the hit of the roll-out, review and refresh your content

What is People-First Content?

Your idea of helpful content might differ from Google’s definition, which is broken down into four areas.

According to Google, helpful content:

  • Is created for specific audiences
  • Is credible and trustworthy
  • Features expertise 
  • Meets the needs or wants of the audience

Aleyda Solis, an international SEO consultant, industry speaker and author took to Twitter to ask SEOs if the algorithm update has them worried about their site’s content, or if they believe in what they produce. 

The final results were quite surprising. Out of 506 respondents:

  • 44.1% – No! My content is helpful 
  • 46.6% – Unsure tbh! Let’s see
  • 9.3% – Yes! Will prune/improve

We’re all prone to think the content we produce is great. That’s why it’s important to have an objective and data-based way to review and assess your content.

Luckily, Google has clarified exactly what they mean when they say people-first, helpful content.

How to Create Helpful Content

Google has laid out some questions to ask yourself when building content that targets these four areas. If you can confidently say yes to all or the vast majority of these questions, Google will deem your content helpful and it shouldn’t be penalised.

Content is created for specific audiences

  • Do you have an intended audience for your business that would find the content useful if it came directly to you? 
  • Does your website have a primary focus or purpose? 
  • Is the content primarily to help the audience, rather than attract visitors from search engines?
  • Do you produce lots of content on different topics purely to perform well in search results?
  • Are you using automation to produce content on many topics?
  • Are you writing about things because they seem to trend and not because they benefit your existing audience? 

Content is credible and trustworthy

  • Do you trust the information in this article?
  • Does the content present clear sourcing, evidence or expertise of background information about the author or publisher?
  • Does the content have easily-verified factual errors?
  • Would you trust this content for issues relating to your money or your life? 
  • Does the content offer original information, reporting, research or analysis?
  • Is the page title or headline exciting, descriptive, helpful and accurate summary of the content?
  • Could this content be referenced by a book, report or industry news?
  • Does the content have spelling or stylistic issues?
  • Was the content produced well, or does it appear hastily produced?
  • Does the article offer evidence such as visuals, audio, or other links to support your expertise and authenticity?
  • Did you include quantitative measurements about how a product measures up in various categories of performance?

Content features expertise 

  • Is this content written by an expert or enthusiast who demonstrably knows the topic well? 
  • Does your content demonstrate first-hand expertise and a depth of knowledge that comes from having used a product or service?
  • Does the content provide analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious? 
  • ​​If the content draws on external sources, does it copy and rewrite those sources or does it add substantial value and originality?
  • Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators?
  • Is the content spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention? 
  • Does the content provide substantial value in comparison to other pages in search results? 

Content meets the needs or wants of the audience

  • Will the reader leave feeling they’ve learned enough about a topic to help achieve their goal? 
  • Will the reader have a satisfying experience?
  • Does your content leave readers feeling like they need to search again to get better information from other sources?
  • Does your content promise to answer a question that has no answer?
  • Does content display well for mobile devices when viewed on them? 
  • Is there enough useful content in your ranked lists for them to stand on their own?

What Content Types Will be Impacted?

Algorithm updates don’t usually specify niche types of content. The safest bet is to assume all content on your website should meet the criteria.

However, Google said the sectors that will be affected the most by the HCU are:

  • Online educational materials
  • Tech-related content
  • Arts and Entertainment
  • Shopping

Google claims content in these areas is historically written more for search engines than helping humans. Therefore, the update will likely impact them the most.

The Helpful Content Update is a Sitewide Algorithm

Many Google algorithms are applied on a page-by-page basis. However, this is not the same for the sitewide Helpful Content Update.

If Google believes your site regularly produces unhelpful content purely written for search engine rankings, your whole website will be impacted.

Although Google hasn’t – and won’t – state what percentage of your content needs to be helpful versus unhelpful, since we know your whole site will be affected, you should review and optimise any lacklustre content imminently, even if you have many helpful pages. 

Google said, “removing unhelpful content could help the Google rankings of your other content.”

Is the Update a Penalty?

Google claimed that the HCU is not a manual action or a spam action, and you won’t find it in Google Search Console. It is one of Google’s many ranking “signals”.

However, if the signal is applied to your website it will feel like a penalty. The good news is that the algorithm that ranks sites for this update will run continuously, and you can get the classification removed if you improve your website’s content.

If your content shifts from unhelpful to helpful, the algorithm can reduce the strength of the signal or lift it completely, similar to the Panda and Penguin updates. Although they are part of the core algorithm, they too started as signals that were removed by cleaning up the link profile or improving content quality by the next time Google ran the Panda or Penguin updates.

The helpful content classifier will have a similar effect, but there are still some notable differences:

The helpful content classifier runs continuously in real-time

New sites created just for SEO purposes should have the signal applied immediately, and existing sites can be as soon as the amount of SEO content exceeds Google’s threshold. Equally, if you optimise your site’s unhelpful content, the signal can be removed quicker than seen with other algorithm updates.

Sites will be affected to different degrees over a few months

The impact of the HCU depends on the amount of unhelpful content found. Also, Google won’t run updates specifically to recover websites. Instead, the signal will reduce or be lifted if the content has improved and the classifier finds it has remained that way for a few months.

Should you Act Now?

Rushing to change all your website content in one go can be more damaging than it’s worth. 

As with any update, it pays to collect data or changes to your website traffic, analyse your website and learn everything you can about the update before you respond. This will allow you to act more deliberately and smartly.

If you were already planning to optimise or remove content from your website, it’s probably because you know the content isn’t useful or up to date. In this case, you should carry on with the planned changes. 


Creating people-first content for our clients has always been the SeventhElement ethos. Get in touch to see how we can humanise your content to accelerate your content marketing and SEO campaigns.