On August 18th, 2022 Google announced the “helpful content update” for English users.
Widely reported as a crackdown on poor auto-generated content, the announcement formed part of a broader effort to ensure people see more original, helpful content written by people, for people, in their search results.
What does it mean for your organic traffic and rankings?
The simple answer is we don’t know yet. Like previous Google algorithm updates, the details are sketchy.
However, the search engine’s blog makes clear they wish to promote content that puts human readers first, rather than prioritising SEO performance.
What does that mean for copywriters working on a content brief from their business or client?
What Helpful SEO Ranking Copy Means Today
The main message from Google seems to be that if you are writing strong, user-focused copy already, the new update will mean business as usual. For example, it says the following about the new rules.
Answering yes to the questions below means you’re probably on the right track with a people-first approach:
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?
If you are writing for your own business and writing about your area of interest or expertise (as I am now), this should be quite straightforward.
If you are working on many sites, through an agency perhaps, it is sometimes easy to fall into the trap of writing generically. Supplying copy that lacks focus and direct first-hand experience is likely to fall foul of the new rules.
Does Putting SEO First Mean A Decline In Traffic?
It feels counter-intuitive, but the answer may be yes. In the future focusing solely on ranking and traffic potentially will cost you in results.
Obviously, as SEO professionals getting traffic from organic search has to remain a major objective.
When it comes to copy, however, the number of shortcuts is dwindling.
The ‘helpful update’ is explicitly designed to move Search away from being process driven.
Google has concluded something that has been anecdotally clear to us all for years – content created primarily to drive traffic is strongly correlated with dissatisfied readers.
As a result, they’ve clearly decided they will penalise content that doesn’t put people first.
Prioritise creating content purely for traffic over readability and usefulness and your content may be deemed unhelpful. Unhelpful content is now less likely to perform well in Search.
What does Google consider unhelpful content?
Answering yes to some or all of the questions is a warning sign that you should reevaluate how you’re creating content across your site:
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 summarising 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 implication of the above is that automated, inaccurate, light, comment-driven content will suffer.
You’ll get more attention with helpful fact-heavy content that comes directly from experts. It is hard to argue that this won’t make Google a better place for its users.
The question is how to avoid falling into the above pitfalls if you’re a copywriter with dozens of blog posts to write a week.
I guess this is where I put the new algorithm to the test and write about something I have direct experience of. The pressure is on.
Top Tips For Copywriters Following The Helpful Content Update
In keeping with the spirit of Google Helpful update, I have avoided reaching for keyword analysis as I’ve put the following tips together.
They are not intended to be exhaustive or represent anything other than my personal experience. To quote google directly, they want to ensure more people see more original, helpful content written by people. And I am a person.
Keywords, Copywriting and Search Intent
Now more than ever, you need to use keyword analysis intelligently. Search is becoming more sophisticated and users are increasingly impatient. As a copywriter, my tip would be to not always take keywords and search volume at face value. The key to success is understanding Search Intent. Why have your readers turned to Google? What will make them happy?
Imagine yourself as the searcher, apply some common sense and focus on the features and benefits of the product or service you’ve been asked to write about.
We can’t discount keywords, but the update perhaps means taking a more natural approach to how they form our copy choices. This might mean, seemingly, missing out on some big numbers but the risk of content being deemed as unhelpful is higher the more you chase keywords with questionable relevance. It should support value.
Traffic Or Conversion?
Why are you writing copy?
It may be that your client simply wants to increase organic inbound traffic. However, it is worth quizzing them on their intentions.
Would they consider less traffic yet more relevance and ‘helpfulness?’ It is a trade-off, but any content written with a tighter focus targeted at conversion is less likely to suffer in the new Search landscape.
In my experience, clients will often agree to this more bottom-of-the-funnel approach if you promise greater enquiries and revenue.
Expertise and First-Hand Knowledge
There is an art to writing on behalf of others.
It is the copywriter’s task to share skills, knowledge and understanding we don’t possess ourselves. This can be very challenging and, as a result, we are all guilty of glossing over the details from time to time.
Google has made it clear that mere comments and discussions are going to be valued less in the future. They want facts and direct guidance.
This means we are going to have to be more confident, both in terms of what we write but also in how we engage with our clients.
We will have to become adept at quizzing them and capturing their take on the world. The last thing we want is for the clients to have to spend time on tasks they’ve outsourced, but this engagement is going to prove more and more important as Google changes roll out.
I’d advise planning a transfer of knowledge into your client relationships moving forward. The good news is that, on a good day, most people love talking about themselves and their businesses. The trick is to capture the information you need as efficiently as possible.
Use a Human Tone of Voice
The team at Google writes a lot about putting people first. It’s clear they want to prioritise human-to-human reader experiences. To help, don’t be afraid to use conversational asides (like this one) to bring a sense of humanity to your writing. It is the one piece of the puzzle that automated SEO tools cannot really help you with, but it’s increasingly important to, ultimately, be a good engaging read. Let your clients’ personalities shine through.
Grammar and Punctuation
Readability leads to correct grammar and punctuation. I’m not discussing the tiresome level of pedantry you sometimes see on social media. I don’t mind whether you use a semicolon or colon necessarily.
The right test of your grammar and punctuation is the ease of reading. If your copy doesn’t make sense or gets in the way of your message, it is time to get the textbook out for a refresher.
As an aside, automated spell and grammar checking tools – such as Grammarly and Copywriterly – are great but they are no substitute for careful professional proofreading.
There are tools that can assess your writing against different criteria. They can check you’re writing for the right age group and literacy levels for example. They can identify long, hard-to-read sentences or when you’ve used the passive voice. Many use specific techniques developed by linguists prior to digital concerns such as the Gunning Fog Index or Flesch–Kincaid Reading Ease Score to give you insights into your writing.
Getting to The Point
The spectre of filler copy and meandering opinions haunts many pieces of online content. Brevity and succinctness definitely feel like they will be rewarded more than they have been by Google’s new algorithm.
A bored reader, reading a long unnecessary preamble to a recipe for example, is not going to count your material as helpful. The news that Google doesn’t have a word count should reassure us that we can quit once we’ve made our key points.
In fact, I should do that now.
How to Choose Relevant Content Ideas
Having covered some of my SEO copywriting tips above, I am conscious I haven’t discussed the bigger question that hangs over all online content. What should we write about in the first place?
Any digital marketing agency worth its salt should be able to tell you what your potential customers are searching for.
Informal market research should also identify ‘hot’ topics for discussion in your space. However, Google’s latest update asks a more sophisticated question from us. What do your potential customers find useful?
This might mean some hard truths need to be swallowed. It may not mean a pure opinion piece or a product description.
Helpfulness means understanding their lives and the problems they’re facing.
Are you genuinely contributing to a solution?
This is the question you should ask when planning your content. That way, you’ll stay one step ahead of Google’s latest developments. You’ll also find higher engagement rates which is surely the intention after all.
If you need help or have any comments, do feel free to contact the team at Almond Marketing. The discussion will no doubt continue as Google’s Helpfulness Upgrade rolls on.