Google’s algorithm has often been described amongst SEO professionals as a “moving target” - as soon as you have a strategy to tackle it, another core update is rolled out and the rules change. 

The 2023 Google Helpful Content Update was especially divisive. Changes to Google’s algorithm were rolled out from September 14th to 28th, and some sites saw their rankings plummet while others experienced unexpected growth. But why?

This blog will uncover how the 2023 Google Helpful Content Update has affected long-term rankings, and how we can write content that will weather all the core updates on the horizon.

What is the Google Helpful Content Update?

The Google Helpful Content Update, released in September 2023, was not the first attack Google made against bad content. The first “helpful content” core update came out in August 2022, followed by another in December 2022. As we discussed in our 2022 guide to the Google Helpful Content Update, the purpose of all of these updates is the same: to reward and encourage helpful content, while penalising unhelpful content.


The Impact

September’s Helpful Content Update pushed the focus on “helpful” content even more than the 2022 updates - this meant an even clearer push towards the values behind the E-E-A-T acronym. We dive into E-E-A-T in our blog on Creating Valuable and Search-Friendly Content, but essentially it underlies creating content that is designed far more for the users it reaches than the algorithm.

To see the effects in action, here is a SEMrush graph of Nido Living’s rankings over the last two years. Nido has consistently written informative, engaging and helpful content, but as you can see, the visibility was consistently fairly low month on month until December 2022. Then the rankings start shooting up, leading to Nido’s content ranking far more at the top of SERPs, and receiving far more SERP features like featured snippets. The visibility increased even further after the September 2023 update. The Google Helpful Content Updates have worked over time to boost Nido’s great content. You can learn more about our SEO work with Nido through our Nido Living case study.

Meanwhile, websites relying on black-hat SEO practices to “trick” search engines started to see negative results. For example, some websites regularly change the dates on their blog articles to convince search engines that the content is regularly being updated for the user’s benefit. While that may have been rewarded before 2023, the latest Google Helpful Content Update prevented this from being rewarded unless the body text of the article had been significantly (positively) altered. In other words, there are no shortcuts to success.

Andy Mollison, our Head of SEO, summarises the positive impact of the Google Helpful Content Updates perfectly:

“The Google Helpful Content Updates have been another really positive step in the E-E-A-T direction of Google's algorithm updates, helping to filter out poor-quality results. In turn, search results favour those websites that truly demonstrate their expertise, and really do care about their readers.

If your website's content is only focused on lead-gen, sales and conversions - without covering the questions your users are going to ask, the advice they are going to need to make a decision, or the guidance they are going to require to be reassured - then you are going to fall foul of future updates as Google continues to move towards an expert-led set of search results.”

While many reported that spammy websites were being rightfully penalised, the September Google Helpful Content Update also had an unintended negative impact. Firstly, small businesses were disproportionately affected by this update - this is likely because larger, well-established websites with many inbound links were treated as more authoritative by the algorithm, even if smaller niche sites were producing better content.

In addition, many noticed that misinformation was still rampant in featured snippets, so in many ways the metrics for “helpful” content had not been perfected yet. This example of birds being stated as having four legs is commonly used as an example of the issue.

In hindsight, many of these issues seem to have been rectified with the spam updates that have been released from September to now, in particular the March 2024 Core Update, which among other issues tackled scaled content abuse. With fewer spammy sites competing for rankings and spreading misinformation, there are more opportunities now than ever for websites with accurate and informative content (who may have been impacted by the September update) to see their way to the top of the SERPs. 


What can we learn?

There are several things we’ve noticed since the September 2023 update.

#1 Useful content will (almost) always be rewarded.

In Google’s own words, they want to see “useful, reliable, people-first content” - content that is useful, above all else, is what will be rewarded. But what could this mean in practice?

One example of how you can ensure your content is useful is to aim for featured snippets. Featured snippets are a SERP feature that allow users to have their questions answered before ever clicking on a website. Here, for example, are some featured snippets we have secured for TeamSport in our SEO work with them:

If, within your content, you aim to provide short, clear answers to common queries around the subject, the chances of getting a featured snippet or a feature in the “People Also Ask” section of the SERP massively increases. There has been a greater focus on the importance of this kind of content since Google’s Helpful Content Update.

#2 Removing duplicate and unhelpful content is key.

If you’ve been poorly affected and are wondering how to recover from the Google Helpful Content Update, then thoroughly assessing your website content is key. In Google’s Helpful Content FAQs, they explain that unhelpful content can hurt the rankings of many pages, so in many instances, it makes sense to remove it completely. 

If you notice:

  • Duplicate content
  • Unoriginal or plagiarised content
  • Uninformative content

Removing this may be the best course of action. However, if you notice content that isn’t great but has a lot of potential (pages you could re-work to create more informative, unique and useful content) then you may decide to update it instead. This would also be useful if these pages are important to the infrastructure of the website.

#3 AI content has changed everything.

The addition of widespread AI content to our virtual landscape in the last few years required the September 2023 Helpful Content Update to lay down some ground rules. The initial guidance laid out insisted that good SEO content is “written for people, by people”. E for Experience was added to the E-E-A-T acronym as a result, to indicate that content which feels authentically human will be rewarded.

However, opinions on AI content have noticeably softened as people are finding ways to use it constructively to generate ideas or reduce the time spent writing. In turn, Google removed the “by people” part from their guidance, so the statement instead reads: “original, helpful content written for people”. In short, AI content in itself is not discouraged - just ensure that, if you decide to use it, you edit the output to ensure it’s as helpful for users as possible.

To weather future Google Helpful Content Updates, the solution is simple: Regularly revisit and assess your old content for quality, and create new content designed to help your users as much as possible. 


Key Takeaways

In summary, Google’s Helpful Content Update has had a mostly positive impact - while some small businesses were unfairly affected, many websites with helpful content saw fantastic improvements in their rankings. The push towards the E-E-A-T model with every new Helpful Content Update and core update makes it easy to know how you can make your content rank better - focus on helping the users as much as possible, and you’re certain to benefit. 

For more SEO insights and help recovering from Google Helpful Content Updates, reach out to our SEO team.



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As SEO Copywriter, Ella is primarily responsible with planning and writing engaging blog content, as well as implementing on-page SEO strategies to optimise the copy on clients' websites.

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