It seems the Google Helpful Content update that the SEO world has been buzzing about is finally rolling out, albeit a week or so later than expected. Respected search engine optimization professional and social media personality, Lily Ray, reported that on August 29th, 2022 an affiliate site she watches saw a major drop in SERPs (search engine result pages). Essentially, this means the site is less visible on Google search result pages. This was one early indicator that got our attention.
Here at Agile, we also have noticed traffic on client sites, beginning to “pogo stick” (organic search traffic bouncing up and down over the course of a few days) early this week. This also seems to be a strong indicator that the Helpful Content update has started. But, what does this update mean to business owners and content creators and digital marketing pros? Here are our thoughts on the Helpful Content update and its potential relevance to business owners and content creators alike.
What Does Google’s Helpful Content Update Do?
Google has been rewarding websites that are very open and honest about their advertising policies and monetization strategies for some time now. This is beneficial to everyone involved. Naturally, an informed customer is a well served customer and these policies make for a more trustworthy experience for people using Google search.
Speculation from the SEO community suggests that Google’s Helpful Content update is more likely to impact sites monetized with affiliate links more so than other sites. An affiliate site is a website that sends traffic to other sites in exchange for a fee or which participates in any sort of incentive program when a specific product is purchased. Affiliation is a very common way to monetize websites and is employed by major corporations with a massive online presence like Amazon and Walmart. Product reviews are one of the most favored methods to entice visitors to click on a link or make a purchase. These pages are very popular for people who are researching specific products or services. They work quite well in part because they are legitimately informative and useful to the searcher. At the same time, they also facilitate the desired behavior the site was designed to elicit (click-through, submit info, make a purchase, etc.)
Google favors these pages because when they are done well, they represent useful, informative content to the end user. The searcher can find information and comparisons of the product or service and ideally an objective review from someone who has used it. That’s a lot of pertinent information in one place and it makes well-done affiliate sites great performers. The reality of course is that buying products for testing purposes can become prohibitively expensive. Testing the products out thoroughly enough to provide a useful review can be time consuming too. Generally the affiliate site owner is looking to generate as much revenue as possible as quickly as they can.
It’s not hard to see how those factors can come into conflict with one another and the end result sometimes is that the affiliate site is not really providing the useful information it claims to. It may be that product specs are incorrect or the product or service wasn’t actually tested and the review is a work of fiction. Sometimes it’s just poorly written content that can undermine an affiliate website’s performance. Understanding how Google views affiliate websites and how their Google Helpful Content update affects them is the key to building pages that perform well in the months ahead. While some of the specifics above concern affiliate websites, there are both signs and lessons that apply to just about any type of website or page that’s actively trying to rank well in SERPs.
How Will It Affect Healthcare Websites?
We have seen Google target specific industries in past updates, but we can only make some educated guesses about the specific target(s) of the Helpful Content update. Google is notoriously guarded when it comes to discussing the targets and specific purposes of its updates. It’s rare that Google gives the public many actionable details about an update. It is up to SEO professionals and industry experts to “read the tea leaves” as it were. We must both look for the effects of Google’s updates and correctly interpret their meaning so strategies can be adapted to maximum advantage.
The doesn’t mean that Google doesn’t provide us with any relevant guidance in regards to updates however. For example, from Google, we know the Helpful Content update is going to target content deliberately tailored to rank on search engines rather than prioritizing the answer to the searcher’s question. In 2018 when Google’s “The Medic” update rolled out and it wasn’t long before we discovered its prime target was sites concerning personal health or finances and other major life-altering topics. Any site that was monetized for topics in the “YMYL” or Your Money Your Life niche, as they call it, category was at risk of losing traffic. This included sites for private medical practices, hospitals, behavioral health facilities and any site trying to rank for keywords in the medical vertical.
The fact that sites in the medical industry first started being affected was not public knowledge before the Medic Update started rolling out. It took a few days for SEO professionals to start to get enough data to be able to recognize patterns of which sites were seeing rapid changes in traffic.This is just one more example that underscores the importance of informed analysis of the effects of Google’s updates. Anyone who is invested in SEO or relies on Internet traffic for a substantial portion of their business ignores the need for this intelligence at their peril.
Will the Helpful Content Update Affect A Specific Industry?
Google owns over 92% of the search market currently. Due to their near total dominance of the field, they have an oversized say in how search trends develop. In the western world, we operate within Google’s internet essentially. They set the rules and establish the standards. The bottom line is, no business with an online presence can afford to be unaware of what Google wants, what it’s doing and how it will affect their balance sheet. There is one thing Google has been very consistent and clear about is how we can recover from their updates. In short, they say you can not. As much as we’d all love to know, revealing the methods and intentions behind their Helpful Content update, or any of the others, would undermine their effectiveness. It’s important to remember though that Google updates are not designed to hurt us. They are intended to make the Internet, and specifically search, better. By and large, Google’s actions have contributed to a better Internet by both rewarding higher quality content and penalizing deceptive or dishonest content or tactics.
They do offer clear advice on things to take into consideration if your site is affected by an update, but it is a touch lacking in transparency. What this all means to you is that the focus should be on gaining actionable intelligence in the days and weeks after a Google update more than trying to prepare for it. In general, our advice is to think like Google. Remember that Google’s number one objective with its updates is improving the performance of their search engine. Their goal is providing the most relevant, trustworthy, high quality results possible. At Agile Marketing Group, this concept is always in the forefront of our minds.
Of course, we study Google’s actions and interpret their effects. We adapt strategies accordingly, when appropriate. But at the end of the day, the best thing we can possibly do to prepare for Google updates is to focus on producing relevant, informative and compelling content. We focus on quality and relevance. That’s our job. We let Google do its job and focus on turning out the best product we can, consistently rather than trying to “game” Google’s system. If any Internet marketer tells you they have some inside track or clever trick to “fool Google” or get the upper hand on them somehow, get as far away from them as you can.
Instead, focus on quality and integrity and look for guidance from experts after a change like the Helpful Content update. Rather than relying on speculation, make decisions based upon data and what you can see. Google’s updates always cause some ripples in the pond, but they shouldn’t be a source of anxiety nor should anyone make any radical moves in response to them. Remember to “think like Google” and focus on relevance and quality always.
How Do You Recover from Lost Traffic Following a Core Update?
When Google hides information from a webmaster, it is because they want to prevent websites from attempting to manipulate search results in a way that is not in the searchers best interest. These types of tactics were practically de rigueur in SEO practice in the early days. Google’s primary focus has always been making search results the most helpful to the searcher. The only thing that has changed is the level of sophistication with which they can pursue their mission. As technology advances, Google stays on the bleeding edge.
Some speculation leading up to the Helpful Content update was that the update might be Google rolling out a new algorithm that is able to identify content generated using artificial intelligence. AI generated content is increasingly becoming popular among websites who are trying to rank a website with a lower budget and higher output goals. Whether or not Google is able to identify AI content is not public knowledge. While it is possible they have been able to achieve that ability using machine learning technology slowly over time, no one outside of Google can be certain.
It is our job as SEO professionals to gather and analyze as much relevant data as possible. Observing many sites over time to gain insights and draw conclusions. Watching traffic fluctuate wildly is a very uncomfortable feeling for those who rely on organic search traffic as an integral part of their sales funnel. When businesses see organic traffic decline they see lower revenues which leads to worry and increases the temptation to make changes and soon. The problem with taking this approach is that making uninformed decisions based on speculation (or worse yet, internet rumors) can be costly and even harmful to your rankings in the long run.
If you are a business owner who is seeing a wild fluctuation in traffic in the wake of the Helpful Content update and you are wondering what to do here are the first steps you should take.
#1: Don’t Panic!
Lost traffic means lost revenue, but Google is very clear about what they are looking for in a good search result. Focus on giving the searcher what they want. Relevance and quality. Don’t look for shortcuts or “tricks”. There is a solution, but even if it is implemented quickly, you may have to wait for future algorithm updates to evaluate the results. We all operate on Google’s schedule. The good news is Google has gotten consistent with updating the algorithm so a correction is possible much sooner than in previous years. We typically see the dust begin to settle on an initial update like the Helpful Content Update 4 to 6 weeks after it is implemented.
It is very common for search rankings to change frequently for several weeks after a core update. While you will see speculation in the SEO community during this time, it is important to take any opinions with a grain of salt and be very careful who you are listening to. A professional with SEO experience and expertise in your specific industry will have the best advice. There is a LOT of bad information on proper SEO on the internet. You want to work with someone who has been through several Google updates before and has a plan long before the next update is released. Which leads us to point number 2.
#2: Remember – SEO is a long term investment
It stings when your site takes a hit from a shift like the Helpful Content update. We get it. Real SEO success comes from strategies which play out over months and years, not days and hours. It stings today, but lost traffic and missed revenue is recoverable in 99% of the time as long as you have an authentic SEO strategy and a steady hand on the tiller.
#3: Survey Your Options – Is it time to pivot to a paid search strategy?
When organic search traffic is down, paid search traffic is a sure fire way to drive traffic to your site. Done well, it is absolutely a practical and cost effective tool to grow your business. Again, experience and skill matter. If you want a favorable ROI, you need a skilled professional managing your ads account. An inexperienced marketer can and will cost an organization money and lost opportunities.
#4: Analyze – Why was your site affected by the Helpful Content Update?
After organic search traffic stabilizes it is time to look at the data and analyze why your site may have been affected. This also allows others to make observations which you can test on your own. Sometimes a sharp decline can be a blessing in disguise. It may bring to light a deficiency that had been bleeding your traffic flow for a while but went unnoticed. This isn’t a setback. It’s an opportunity to analyze and optimize!
#5: Create a Plan – How do we make our site more resilient to change?
The best thing a site owner can do after a Google Core Update, is focus on making their site the most informative and trustworthy in the industry. By now you’re probably noticing a recurrent theme in our advice. Your focus should be giving Google what it really wants. Relevant, high quality content that is both informative and trustworthy. Give the user what they want, as quickly and thoroughly as possibly. Leverage influencers and industry professionals into your content creation process to show authority and topic expertise.
That’s not as hard as it might sound. It does take time and money, but like we said real SEO success comes from long term strategies and consistency. Improving the quality and relevance of your site’s content is never a bad investment.
But taking shortcuts by using filler and fluff definitely is, no matter how much you think you saved in the short-term, you’re gambling with your brand’s image, reputation and authority. An article on PTSD or substance use disorder by an average content writer is much less trustworthy than an article written by a medical professional with expertise in the behavioral health field. As Google has become more sophisticated so has their ability to identify how “authoritative” an article is.
#6: Execute Your Plan – Put the improvements you identified into play.
Now that you have an idea of how the Helpful Content update has affected your organic search traffic, you can begin updating your site with quality, compelling content that is delivers the information the searcher may be looking for. Like we said, investing in quality content pays long-term dividends and it’s giving Google precisely what it wants, which is always a good idea. Apply any other changes to tactics that you identified in your plan, but don’t forget to assess the results. You not only want to increase the right kind of traffic — You also want to know what worked and (ideally) why.
Can I Protect My Organic Search Traffic from Future Update Spikes?
This is a difficult question to answer, of course. No one knows for certain what Google will do next. What we can do, however, is keep Google’s advice in mind when we look at every aspect of your website and remember what Google wants. If your content is engaging, thorough and trustworthy, the chances are you won’t have to worry. However, if your content is weak or poorly written there is an excellent chance your search traffic will decrease in the future.
One trend in Google’s updates that we can affirm is they are becoming pickier about content quality, relevance and trustworthiness and their tools for analysis are becoming more and more sophisticated. This is one reason why one of the first things we do for a new client is to probe their existing content for weaknesses we can shore up and reinforce. Agile Marketing Group is keenly attuned to the needs of the healthcare industry. We have years of experience in the healthcare arena. Most of us have worked in healthcare for a decade or more and the majority of our clients are in healthcare or healthcare adjacent. We intuitively understand the needs and unique challenges behavioral health care and other healthcare businesses face.
We will analyze traffic spikes for you and develop a plan to ensure your site is authoritative and engaging to the searcher. Website owners who sacrifice quality of content on their websites are likely to experience the greatest traffic losses during any update. It is still much too early to draw any detailed conclusions about how Google’s Helpful Content update will pan out. However, when you’re working with Agile Marketing Group, you benefit from our experience and expertise in navigating the digital marketplace. We have the skills you need to future proof your website and interact with Google proactively rather than reactively and that’s the best position to be in when changes like the recent Google update arise.