There’s been plenty of panic at the (SEO) disco over the last few days as the big G has announced a potentially revolutionary new algorithm update they’re calling “Helpful Content,” because sadly the days of naming things after cute animals seem to be behind us.

What we know (so far)

  • This is a significant and major search update designed to reward content written for “users first” rather than “SEO first” in an effort to make search results more useful
  • It is a sitewide update rather than page by page – if Google thinks the site as a whole is producing a significant proportion of unhelpful/over-SEO-ed content, the entire site will suffer a visibility hit from the update
    • “Removing unhelpful content can help the rankings of better content” – Google
  • Not targeted to a specific niche but especially expected to impact: online education/tutorials, arts and entertainment, shopping, and anything tech related
  • Anticipated to hit a “significant” percentage of queries but precise impact TBC – however it has been confirmed that it is expected to “change SEO much like Panda did” (i.e. not at all for those of us who haven’t been spamming/black-hatting it so far…)
  • Sites that get hit will take several months to recover even once they start to take improvement actions, so buckle up folks
  • The algorithm is based directly off feedback from human quality evaluators and uses a wide range of (non-disclosed) signals to evaluate content for helpfulness and quality
  • Deploying w/c 22nd August (English sites only at first) with a roughly 2 week full rollout (that said, no sign of any big SERP storms yet as of time of writing)

What is “good content?” – a reminder

There’s a nice writeup on the Google dev blog that outlines some key questions to ask of your content approach and strategy. It basically boils down to “are you building a brand/destination (good) or a content click farm (bad)” but is well worth a read.

As an extra bonus, the always-marvellous SEO powerhouse that is Aleyda Solis has put together a wonderful content checklist which is an excellent tool to have in your arsenal for content planning – frankly you could build most of a strategy with this as a starting point so definitely give it a look!

To these excellent checkpoints I would add the following as considerations:

  • Is the presentation and style of writing of the content suitably aligned to make it easily consumable by the target audience (e.g. avoiding long “walls of text” when bullet points would be better to present items)
  • If you looked at similar content on the same website, would you come away with an impression that the site is a good authority on the broader topic and has not just mass-produced poor quality “stuffing” articles for purely SEO purposes?
  • Is the imagery/media used to support the written content both good quality and highly relevant to the content? (I actually found a piece of content the other day all about baby moose but only showing pictures of fully grown adult moose… whoops)!
  • Is the content free of filler, irrelevant information or other excess word count that does not add to the reading experience?

So how do I “optimise” content now?

If you’ve ever survived – ahem – experienced one of my SEO training workshops, you probably know where this is going (in fact you probably guessed it the second you saw the headline image for the blog)…

SEO Content Optimisation Fundamentals

Here’s my not-at-all-patented “how to tie core SEO stuff into your content” tactic:

  1. Know what your “hero” keyword or phrase would be for this bit of content (on a URL by URL basis) – if in an ideal world you could rank this URL #1 for any single phrase or term, what would that be?
  2. Make sure that hero term (or a very close synonym) is present in four key locations within your content, whether it’s a blog or a service page or whatever else:
    • Title (some people call this field the “meta title”)
    • Description (the meta description field, specifically)
    • Headline (or the article H1)
    • First paragraph of the content
  3. Use This Dog Hates Frogs as a silly mnemonic to remember those four key locations, and the picture of this displeased pooch to remind you of the reminder.
  4. Then just write kickass copy for humans. Disregard all that nonsense like keyword density or number of subheadings or word count or whatever else comes along. Focus your copywriters on producing excellent and above all useful (haha!) content that reads great in tone and style for whatever your desired audience is.

I used this methodology to “optimise” the content on a startup I worked with (in partnership with an awesome copywriter who absolutely nailed the whole quality and tone angle, of course) and they did pretty darn well out of it.

Content Optimisation Example Results

This shizzle works, folks.

Boom... Obama mic drop

Hey, my content’s already rocking… what should I do?

If you’ve been doing it right all along and are sitting there right now like hey, my content doesn’t read like a spamtastic pile and my users love it, you might wonder what the dickens all the fuss is about. Should you be doing anything? Joining in the ambient panic? Buying a giant panda plushie to weep into once the update deploys?

Probably not. As with all these things it’s impossible to know until, well, we know, but here’s what I’d suggest (and what I’m suggesting to all my clients).

  • Brace and manage expectations vs forecast/growth – even if all your content seems to be totally fine, often major algorithm deployments can impact in unexpected ways and will require analysis and retroactive actions. Until the update fully deploys, it is impossible to be sure.
  • Ensure that in flight content production is being rigorously checked against the new expanded guidelines, especially for utility to audience vs inflated word counts or arbitrarily-chosen topics.
  • Supercharge the allocation of all onsite content, such as blogs or resources, to ensure that a specific, named author is supplied rather than a general “Our Team” type placeholder. Gotta show that E-A-T stuff, folks.
  • Ensure the addition of references (don’t by shy about external linking to sources) for any purely factual articles to consolidate that trust and authority signalling.

Things may turn out to be more explosively interesting than expected, in which case I’ll try to update here in between the juicier analysis stuff, but in the meantime, here’s some good additional reading.

Now, go forth and write kickass content, people. It can, in fact, be that simple. If you’re still not sure how, give me a shout and let’s chat.