Google announcing its search engine algorithm updates has become less of a major news story over the years. Updates to its popular search are very frequent, so any news can feel like a blur generating only minor interest.
But this latest change from Google is indeed bold, introduced with a user-friendly name and a significant user-friendly signal that marketers and consumers can equally embrace.
Google is introducing Helpful Content Update in its search engine. It evaluates how well content satisfies the user. It provides Google a tremendous opportunity to help marketers create a meaningful customer experience that starts through search.
How Helpful Content Update Works
Helpful Content Update (HCU) is an algorithmic ranking signal. It checks how closely a given site page follows Google's core search guidelines, such as providing substantial descriptions, clear source attributions and original research and analysis within the content. It is meant to devalue content that is overly optimized to influence search engines.
At first blush, this signal does not feel new. The guidelines for search date back 2019; so much of the recommendations for HCU sounds like those long shared to prevent black hat SEO tactics, a perspective familiar to SEO and marketing experts. Black hat SEO are tactics that overly optimize page elements to influence search engine query results.
But well-intended content tips to prevent deceptive tactics have jumped the shark, with content creators from various backgrounds gaming various search engine optimization techniques that straddle close to Black SEO tactics. They create searchable content, but much of the content was not a neutral Wikipedia-style tone. This type of content alludes to a response that may not be a great answer for the reader, even though keywords appear in the metadata and H1 tags without stuffing.
Moreover some publishers became too fixated in following algorithmic changes, although an announced change would be one of hundreds of algorithmic improvements. Panda, for example, was just one of roughly 500 search improvement according to Google.
Bringing Balance to SEO tactics
The HCU signal is part of a larger effort by Google to balance what people see in the content they discover in its search engine. Google added a suggestion this year that marketers can include pros and cons of products and services in their structured data. Adding these will appear in the rich snippets query results. Goggle offers a Rich Results Test to verify its recognition in its search engine.
In fact, the name Helpful Content Update is an interesting play to rebalance expectations. It is a label in layperson's language. In years past, Google's search engine algorithm changes have been well-known by their code word, such as Pigeon, Hummingbird and Panda. But while the shift to choose a phrase that speaks to the common users looks minor on the surface, it represents the endgame of a series of algorithm changes that reflect technical aspects of a query.
The idea behind Google's best known algorithm changes was to address how HTML elements in website pages are arranged relative to a query. Now the search algorithm can distinguish intent among webpage elements with sophistication. Moreover, SEO techniques have evolved in identifying where keywords can be better placed and in regarding links as a signal of interest.
Related Article: How to Use Keyword Density in a Modern SEO Strategy
Putting Search Power in Hands of Creators
Helpful Content Update is the next step of signaling, directing focus on creator usage rather than HTML. It encourages creators to choose their content in a more natural way for people to appreciate instead of a potential over-focus on page syntax. It also rebalances publisher expectations in focusing on a key change, rather than a series of minor changes which may not have an impact to customer experience or page content.
The change also acknowledges the different ecosystem that Google faces compared to the infancy of the search engine. Organic search is still a juggernaut when it comes to building discoverability for sales, with Google retaining the lion's share of search-generated traffic and usage.
But other platforms have emerged as starting search points of the customer journey, altering customer experience as a result. People search on Amazon in the same vein as they would on Google or Bing, usually with a product already in mind. Customers at home will ask Alexa for a nearby service just as likely as they would conduct a search from a smartphone....and will likely not be at a laptop at home.
This means Google must account for these new attribution points while encouraging content providers to imagine these touch points when planning content. Such considerations are appearing in reporting adjustment to its tools like Google Analytics 4 and Google Search Console. Content is now part of a standard marketing strategy, and the material is measurable and helpful for attribution.
Related Article: What Marketers Can Expect from Google MUM
People Still Want Answers Through Search
Moreover, not everyone who uses a search engine is just a customer or would-be customer. People turn to Google for a variety of purposes. People rely on Google search results for a variety of content that they consider as factual and sound because they expect it to solve a problem through advice, inspiration or guidance.
Thus, Helpful Content Update represents how Google is aware of the social cost lingering bad content creates. Misinformation and its role in major cultural issues and political events over the last several years have revealed how their products can be misused. Returning information accurately to a query is a start to address those concerns.
You can be sure this will also trickle down in some capacity to YouTube. YouTube is the second largest search engine behind Google and is central to a few online activities (see my post on CTV as an example). While YouTube videos have a different optimization consideration than a website page, the philosophy behind Helpful Page Update will be adopted.The rollout for Helpful Page Update is being implemented this week, with further supporting enhancements added in the months to come. Google also has a page where updated information will be shared, as well as a tool for checking if the updates will impact your website. Marketers should use this time, along with the current movement to transition UA to GA4, to help managers identify how to improve content to be people-centric in its digital presentation.