Rankings changed quite a bit with the “helpful content” update by Google that released in late 2023.

Some SEOs have reported massive ranking hits, in some cases apparently losing 50% of their web traffic.

Interestingly, as YukariSEO mentions in the video below, sites with the common types of info you’d associate a real business with (name, address, phone number, and other signals) were not negatively affected.

(YukariSEO)

I’ve also noticed that while rankings tended to stay around the same on sites I manage, it’s been harder to continue gaining momentum with some of the sites.

The Helpful Content update has also sparked a lot of questions about AI content. Google had said earlier on that they were planning to detect and penalize AI content.

But perhaps predictably since Google’s Search Generative Experience will be using their own AI to produce answers, their stance on AI content seems to have softened to, “Any content that is legitimately useful is ok.”

Of course, what is legitimately useful beyond what seems obvious at first? And if the “real business” signals are so important in preventing rankings losses, does this unfairly discriminate against websites with good information that aren’t set up like a traditional local business website?

After all, many blogs could be written by rather knowledgeable people but aren’t necessarily business websites selling a service. Should their answers not be taken seriously because they don’t have a local address on-page?

The short term effects of this update are both confusing and frustrating for some. But like many Google updates, the immediate effects and the longer term effects once refinements are added may yield results that are useful for those in the game.

Aims of the Update:

  1. User-Focused Content: The update aims to reward content primarily created for people, not for search engine rankings. It encourages creators to produce content that is informative, engaging, and directly answers users’ queries.
  2. Reducing Low-Quality Content: By demoting or filtering out content that seems to be created primarily for ranking well in search engines, Google intends to decrease the visibility of low-quality, unhelpful content.
  3. Encouraging Expertise and Depth: The update promotes content that demonstrates expertise and a deep understanding of the subject matter, ensuring users get authoritative and trustworthy information.

Bias For Larger Websites

There’s a perception that Google’s algorithm may sometimes favor content from larger, more authoritative sites, even if smaller sites have equally relevant and high-quality content.

Small sites are often encouraged to focus on niche topics where they can establish clear expertise and authority, potentially offsetting the advantage of larger sites.

For instance, Google heavily favors user content from sites like Reddit on various topics and not blog discussions of the same things. In other cases sites like Forbes that are demonstrably not specialized in topics outside of business still gain favor over more specialized (and smaller) sites.

In all of those cases, what seems to matter most is the size and popularity of the websites in question. For reviews of blenders or garden equipment, is Forbes really the best resource for a user versus actual gardening websites/blogs?

This seems to be the negative consequence of Google’s preference for sites with a lot of traffic and links. It creates a feedback loop where a big company’s website that gets a lot of attention merely for being a big company will outrank other websites, continuing to get more attention that then continues to cause it to outrank other sites.

Contrastingly, smaller websites often don’t get the spotlight, and when they fall behind they stay behind. That’s not meant as an empty complaint, but to give voice to a sentiment that’s been growing in the web pro community for years.

Ironically, whatever negative perception Google has of SEO and how it aims to “game their system” is actually encouraged by the more recent updates.

Google claims they are making these changes to help thoughtful content shine, but often the actual effect is that deserving websites are crushed by big brands. Without an SEO pro playing that system to get that content noticed, it’s more invisible than ever.

This is because many of the signals Google is using to determine “legitimacy” backfire, causing sites like Forbes to be able to run rampant with parasite SEO — cases where many other websites are probably objectively better answers to questions about certain topics but the big brand wins because it’s the big brand. This ends up accomplishing the opposite the aims of these algorithm updates.