A man uses Google search on his phone

What do Google’s ‘helpful content’ changes mean for small business ranking?

Google recently sent shockwaves around the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) industry when it announced that it was making some pretty significant changes to its search ranking algorithm. The new changes which will be rolled out over a two week period, starting the last week of August 2022, will aim to reward ‘helpful content’ which was written for humans and not ‘for search engines.’

What has changed?

What is being referred to there is websites that write content just to rank on Google without a care about how useful this content is for actual site visitors.

The change will affect whole websites and not individual pages. This means that Google is assessing if your site as a whole is generally made up of helpful content. So if you have a few great articles on your website but most of your stuff is basically keyword-stuffed word porridge, the ranking of your good articles will be affected too.

Previously, the algorithm was looking at content more from the perspective of how well it covered all the bases for a certain topic. So, say you had a blog on your company website about tech widgets and every so often wrote a blog post about random trending issues because you knew it was what people were looking for, that content may have ranked pretty well before, but now Google will be trying to make sure that you are not just doing content because you believe it will generate traffic, but that you are starting from the point of view of helping your specific target audience.

The logic behind this is straightforward; If Google is to keep searchers delighted, it needs to make sure it’s serving up the most useful content to them.

Why Google search ranking changes are critical

Google rankings can mean the difference between success and failure for many businesses. As we discussed in a previous blog post on important features for every small business website, 93% of all website traffic is generated through search engines and Google currently has over 90% of all search traffic globally and close to 90% in the United States, so it’s easy to see why so many people would panic when changes are announced.

US Search Engine Market Share 2022

For small businesses that have small marketing budgets, being able to rank well on Google can mean the difference between a struggling business and a thriving one.

As a result, many clued in businesses spend a lot of time, effort, and money on SEO, so that their websites show up higher in Google searches.

Previously, when Google has changed the algorithm, it has caused seismic changes in the rankings of some websites. When Google released its Panda update in 2011, some websites that had ranked at the top of searches in their industry woke up one morning and found that a lot of their organic traffic from search had vanished.

After a June 2019 algorithm update, some sites that had managed to get away with posting lots of content simply designed for ranking found that they were punished seriously by the changes.

How can you tell if your content is ‘helpful?’

In a blog post on August 18, Google’s Chris Nelson posted; “Google Search is always working to better connect people to helpful information. To this end, we’re launching what we’re calling the ‘helpful content update’ that’s part of a broader effort to ensure people see more original, helpful content written by people, for people, in search results.”

He went on to explain that the update is meant to reward content where ‘visitors feel like they have had a satisfying experience.’

A number of small businesses have SEO agencies or other freelancers generating content for them on a regular basis and some of this content might fall into this category of content written for search engines. You want to be producing ‘people-first’ content. How can you tell?

Nelson gives a list of questions as a guideline. If you can answer yes to these questions, you’re probably safe:

  • Do you have an existing or intended audience for your business or site that would find the content useful if they came directly to you?
  • Does your content clearly demonstrate first-hand expertise and a depth of knowledge (for example, expertise that comes from having actually used a product or service, or visiting a place)?
  • Does your site have a primary purpose or focus?
  • After reading your content, will someone leave feeling they’ve learned enough about a topic to help achieve their goal?
  • Will someone reading your content leave feeling like they’ve had a satisfying experience?
  • Are you keeping in mind our guidance for core updates and for product reviews?
The endless search to understand how Google works. Google has announced that its new changes will reward websites that publish helpful content.
The endless search to understand how Google works. Google has announced that its new changes will reward websites that publish helpful content.

There are further guidelines in the article on how to avoid creating for search engines first. The blog post says that SEO is still a great activity – when applied to people-first content and gives us more questions to help understand what this sort of content looks like:

  • Is the content primarily to attract people from search engines, rather than made for humans?
  • Are you producing lots of content on different topics in hopes that some of it might perform well in search results?
  • Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?
  • Are you mainly summarizing what others have to say without adding much value?
  • Are you writing about things simply because they seem trending and not because you’d write about them otherwise for your existing audience?
  • Does your content leave readers feeling like they need to search again to get better information from other sources?
  • Are you writing to a particular word count because you’ve heard or read that Google has a preferred word count? (No, we don’t).
  • Did you decide to enter some niche topic area without any real expertise, but instead mainly because you thought you’d get search traffic?
  • Does your content promise to answer a question that actually has no answer, such as suggesting there’s a release date for a product, movie, or TV show when one isn’t confirmed?

The automation issue came up earlier in the year when Google Search Advocate, John Mueller, speaking during a virtual hangout, said that content automatically generated with AI writing tools is considered spam according to Google’s webmaster guidelines. He was referring to the recent rise in AI tools such as Jasper [affiliate link] and Anyword which can generate whole blog posts from a short description.

What Does Your Small Business Need to Do Going Forward?

  1. Check your content and make sure it abides by Google’s advice on building quality websites and that you are following its webmaster guidelines.
  2. If you have someone writing content for your website, have a chat with them about these new algorithm changes and review the policy for the sort of content you want created for your website. You may have to reduce the number of articles you’re posting so that you can focus on really high quality content.
  3. Monitor your rankings over the next few months and see how they will fare with the new changes and use this to inform your content development process.
  4. As usual, make sure that SEO activities are taking place continuously and not a once of thing.

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