Google’s September 2023 Helpful Content Update Explained

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On the 14th September 2023, Google started rolling out the latest changes to their helpful content system, which is designed to reward websites that regularly publish people-focused, helpful content for their users.

With this latest update, named the September 2023 Helpful Content update, Google has made a few changes to the system and their guidance, which you’ll need to understand to make some super helpful, killer content for your audience.

In this blog post, I’ve explained what’s changed with this latest helpful content update and what you need to do if your content doesn’t follow the latest guidance.

What is the Helpful Content system?

Before I start going into the update, here’s a quick explanation of Google’s helpful content system, just in case it’s the first time you’ve heard about it.

Man using Google on his mobile phone to research the latest helpful content update.

Google launched the helpful content system in August 2022, which, at the time of release, was one of the most significant updates in years.

The system is designed to target content created for the primary goal of ranking high on search engines, rather than to help people. This was, and still is, a big issue on Google, and it creates a pretty rubbish experience for searchers, which is why this system was designed to tackle it.

The system introduced changes to Google’s ranking algorithm that are designed to help searchers find great content that Google identified as being “written by people, for people”. This bit particularly caused a bit of a stir due to the massive increase in AI-generated content in recent years.

So, in simple terms, if you’re taking the time to write high-quality content to help, teach, or entertain your audience, you’re going to rank higher than if you were just pumping out weak and pointless posts written by ChatGPT in an attempt to rank higher.

Now that’s been explained, let’s get back to the latest update.

Changes introduced in the September 2023 Helpful Content Update

Like many other algorithm updates that Google have released, the September 2023 Helpful Content update took around two weeks to roll out – completing on the 28th September 2023.

In this update, three main changes were introduced:

  1. Changes to Google’s guidance on AI-generated content
  2. New rules on hosting third-party content
  3. Advice on recovering traffic drops caused by Helpful Content updates

Below is a summary of each of these changes and what they mean.

Google’s new stance on AI-generated content

When Google first released the helpful content system, their guidance made it clear that if you wanted your content to rank well, you needed to write high-quality content that was “written by people, for people”.

I mentioned a moment ago that this clarification of “written by people” was aimed at tackling the issue of people using AI tools like ChatGPT to generate content that was… well, it was pretty crap.

However, in this latest update, Google seems to have changed their stance on AI content by removing the “written by people” from their guidance.

Here’s what the original guidance said:

“Google Search’s helpful content system generates a signal used by our automated ranking systems to better ensure people see original, helpful content written by people, for people, in search results.”

Google’s original helpful content guidance released in the August 2022 Helpful Content update.

And here’s the updated guidance from the September 2023 update:

“Google Search’s helpful content system generates a signal used by our automated ranking systems to better ensure people see original, helpful content created for people in search results.”

Google’s updated helpful content guidance from the September 2023 Helpful Content update.

This change in their guidance is likely the result of tools like ChatGPT becoming more popular, and the fact that they have become a big part of content creation for many businesses – even just for handling smaller tasks like research and creating content outlines.

So, this is essentially Google’s way of saying that you can use AI tools for creating content as long as the result is high-quality, people-first content that aims to provide value to the reader.

New rules on hosting third-party content

In the SEO community, it’s pretty well-known that Google isn’t a big fan of websites that host third-party content on their subdomains or subfolders.

A few years ago, when asked if hosting third-party content was against their guidelines, they replied that although it’s not against their guidelines, they’d recommend against it just in case it causes any issues.

With this latest helpful content update, Google has highlighted again that it’s not something they’d recommend doing.

In a new section in their helpful content guidance, Google added the following:

“If you host third-party content on your main site or in your subdomains, understand that such content may be included in site-wide signals we generate, such as the helpfulness of content. For this reason, if that content is largely independent of the main site’s purpose or produced without close supervision or the involvement of the primary site, we recommend that it should be blocked from being indexed by Google.”

The new section on third-party content added in the September 2023 Helpful Content Update.

So, if you continue hosting third-party content on your subdomains or subfolders, you should change these pages to Noindex to stop them from impacting your wider search performance.

Advice on avoiding traffic drops caused by Helpful Content updates

Google also added a few points to their guidance on sticking to best practices when creating or editing content and some advice for website owners who have noticed a drop in traffic after helpful content updates.

Changing dates on old content

Changing your content’s published dates without making significant changes to it is a big no-no.

You’ve probably come across this before; you’re looking for some information, and right there, on Google, you see a post that was published a week ago. FINALLY! Some fresh and relevant information!

But when you click on the link and start reading, it’s blatantly obvious that the content is outdated. It’s citing ‘recent’ events that happened years ago, and the information isn’t relevant anymore.

Google has now mentioned this problem in their ‘avoid creating search engine-first content’ guidance, adding: “Are you changing the dates of pages to make them seem fresh when the content has not substantially changed?”

With Google specifically mentioning this pretty dodgy SEO practice, they’re clearly looking to tackle the issue and improve the experience for searchers.

Adding or deleting large amounts of content

Google also added another line to that same section of the guidance, saying: “Are you adding a lot of new content or removing a lot of older content primarily because you believe it will help your search ranking overall by somehow making your site seem “fresh?” (No, it won’t)”.

Just to clarify this point, Google isn’t saying that adding new content or removing outdated content is a bad thing. They’re highlighting the issue of website owners adding or removing dozens of website pages, regardless of their quality, to keep things “fresh”.

If you haven’t conducted a proper content audit, then you should be careful when removing a lot of content from your website, because you may accidentally get rid of pages that were actually having a positive effect.

Just because a piece of content is old doesn’t mean it’s not providing value to your audience or your SEO.

So don’t just go through your website and get rid of anything you “think” or “feel” isn’t worth keeping; do the research on whether it’s still relevant and still bringing traffic to your website.

How to keep your content in line with the helpful content system

The great thing about Google’s helpful content guidance is that you’re given all the information you need to self-assess your content, make improvements, and focus on making people-first content in the future.

To properly self-assess your content and ensure that you’re creating people-first content, not search engine-first, go through the list of questions in Google’s ‘Creating helpful, reliable, people-first content’ guidance.

This guidance from Google covers different areas of assessing your content, including:

  • Content and quality
  • Expertise
  • Focusing on people-first content
  • Avoiding search engine-first content
  • Understanding E-E-A-T and creating great content

Here are some of the questions Google includes in their guidance on these topics:

  • “Does the content provide insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond the obvious?”
  • “Does the main heading or page title provide a descriptive, helpful summary of the content?”
  • “Does the content have any easily-verified factual errors?”
  • “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)?”

All of the guidance is pretty straightforward and makes self-assessing your content simple.

If you think your website has been affected by this latest helpful content update and your content needs a deeper assessment, our SEO team can carry out an in-depth content audit to ensure your content follows Google’s guidance, is useful and engaging to your audience, and is optimised for search engine performance.

If you’d like to learn more about content audits and how we can help, get in touch!

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