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The Helpful Content Update: How to Adapt

In this episode, Evan Facinger and Jon Ballard guide you through the March 2024 Google Helpful Content Update. With Google is cracking down on scaled content abuse, particularly AI-generated content lacking original insights, and manipulative linking practices, they're here to ensure your website isn't negatively impacted and where you can find opportunities to take advantage of this update.

The Importance of SEO Auditing in 2024

Hosts Evan Facinger and Jon Ballard walk through the impact of the March 2024 Google Helpful Content Update which doubled down on the September 2023 updates, aiming to elevate content quality across the web. This update emphasized original, user-focused content over content that is only created to manipulate search engines which will massively negatively impact AI-generated and spammy content, parasite SEO, and manipulative linking practices. Now more than ever, experience, expertise, authority, and trustworthiness (E-E-A-T) are necessary for creating high ranking content in the eyes of Google. Listeners will gain valuable insights into maintaining high rankings or recovering from losses post-update. Jon and Evan also discuss the role of high-quality backlinks, how the Core Web Vitals have changed, and trusted author attribution for content. If you're a marketer or website owner navigating these changes, this episode is packed with essential tips and strategies to ensure your content remains relevant and competitive. Tune in for expert advice and actionable steps to adapt and thrive amidst Google's ongoing updates.

Resources Referenced:

Google Feedback Form

Google Search Central Content Article


0:00 Intro
1:03 The March 2024 Google Helpful Content Update
2:06 What Unhelpful Content is to Google
6:03 Trusted Authors will be More Important in the Future
7:22 Google Search Central Content Article
8:04 How Important are High Quality Links?
10:03 What is Parasite SEO?
11:24 What to do if You've Been Negatively Impacted
14:00 Additional Google Updates
15:05 Outro

Find more marketing insights and show notes here


Evan Facinger: There's been a report that links aren't as important now. It seems to almost be the opposite. They used to identify it as an important factor, but now they stripped away that importance and they're simply calling it a factor. Hey everybody. Welcome to the Foremost Media Marketing Chat podcast. My name is Evan Facinger, and with me as always is the CEO and founder of Foremost Media, Jon Ballard.

Jon Ballard: Hey, good morning, Evan. How are you?

Evan Facinger: I'm doing well, thanks. I'm excited to talk about this topic. It's one that we've had on our radar. I think it's been on every person's radar that does search engine optimization, but we really wanted to wait until more of the dust settled around the March 2024 core update.

Jon Ballard: Yeah, it's a big topic, and it's been interesting to see. Let's back up a bit and just talk about what the core update is and kind of what Google did in March.

Evan Facinger: So the updates, right? It's the Helpful Content Update for March 2024, and it was a big one. It was the first 2024 core update that we've had. It seems to really sort of double down, I think is maybe a good term that we could use, on the September 2023 Helpful Content Updates. It's been sort of exciting to watch and also maybe sort of horrifying for a lot of customers. I shouldn't say customers but people with websites in general, because it's really targeting a lot of what SEOs I think were doing incorrectly or correctly if it was working at the time. You know, you could make a case for anything. When you're seeing it, there's reported, I think they said it was a 45% reduction in unhelpful content for it, so that's pretty massive. There's a lot of reports of sites losing a lot of steam.

Jon Ballard: Yeah, so let's talk a little bit about what unhelpful content is in Google's mind. That's an interesting topic and a big debate.

Evan Facinger: Yeah, and if you look at what they're reporting, you know, also with what they're doing a little bit is they're targeting a few different areas with that update that just happened. So part of it is a little bit more complex than usual because it's actually involving multiple core systems for it. It's supposed to signify an entire evolution in how Google is identifying the helpfulness of content. So it's taking a look at whether or not it has a poor user experience, whether that content was created for search engines instead of people. They're deeming that as low-value content. A lot of times what you're seeing there is being reported as scaled content abuse. It's mostly geared towards AI, but it doesn't have to be specific to that. What they're doing is focusing on content that's created by the intent of people just to increase their search rankings, trying to manipulate the search engines versus writing it for people, which is a big thing. That could be an entire podcast in itself. But also as part of that, they are going after the links that are intended just to manipulate rankings, as well as those outgoing links. That's factored into it—repurposing expired domains with different content, site reputation abuse with the parasite SEO. All of those things are wrapped up into this core update. So that's why it's been rolling out a lot longer than some of the other updates and also why it's been really so massive across the entire web.

Jon Ballard: Yeah, I like to think of it as there's been a big focus on just original content as well. There are a lot of sites that have had success in search engines just aggregating a bunch of data and not putting a lot of original thought or information in there. For example, maybe you have a review site that just rolls up a bunch of reviews from other sites. That's not really that helpful, and it's not that original, and there's no insight. So that's something that could be targeted by Google for unhelpful content. Or pages that, like you said, are just written strictly for search engines that are hoping to get people there, but the content on the page wasn't really original. It's just a regurgitation of what somebody else did to get the search engines there. So that's the kind of stuff that we're seeing as bad and getting targeted. Is that fair to say?

Evan Facinger: I think that's a lot of it, yeah. And there's always nuances into the type of content and how Google is determining whether it's helpful or unhelpful or written to manipulate search engines versus provide a good user experience for it. But I do think that having original content there is going to help. Especially with AI taking over, I think this was a reaction to the fear of what the web looks like when everything is just AI content. Because if all of a sudden you can produce a lot of content fast and put it out there with AI, well now you're just getting overloaded with really more or less the same content repeated, just worded differently. There's not any original insights in there, there's not any original data. That's what seems to be really suffering from it. It's not to say that if you were hit that it was a bad site by any means, it's just not enough data showing Google where it's going to be relevant and worthwhile. Some of those sites are smaller sites, it seems. It's not the big ones getting hit as much, it's the smaller publishers that seem to be getting hit more often.

Jon Ballard: Yeah, we haven't noticed a big drop in our client base that I know of as far as rankings because of this update. In fact, I think it's helped some of them because a lot of our manufacturing clients especially are kind of that original source of truth, and their content is unique and it's theirs. They're not creating articles and just dropping a bunch of junk out there to get search engine traffic. It can help you actually on the other side of this if you are publishing good content and spending time putting unique thoughts and ideas into it. The other thing I'd like to talk about a little bit is this kind of author push. I think that's going to become even more important where the content is attributed to a trusted author. I guess I haven't read that specifically, but I see that as the next logical step for them as a way to kind of understand what's going on and who's writing the content.

Evan Facinger: Yeah, I think that goes back to the E-A-T, right? The Expertise, Authority, Trustworthiness, and then they added the E for Experience as well. All of those different changes are really geared towards that, making sure it's content you can trust. So I think having that authorship is going to be important. I think it has been important. I'm not sure if that was directly impacted by this update, but there's so many different pieces that it's certainly not going to hurt you by having that authority and trustworthiness built out for it. The other thing that I've really been noticing and has been reported on as well is just the difference in the types of searches that are showing a lot more too. I don't know if you've noticed this, but anytime you go to search anything now, you seem to have a lot of Reddit and Quora showing.

Jon Ballard: Yeah, it's been an unusual shift, and it again kind of goes back to Google looking for unique content by unique individuals in my mind. One thing that I found really helpful if you're struggling with this or if you're worried about your site, Google Search Central has some documentation on what quality content is and how to do a self-assessment. There are quite a few bullet points, which I'm not going to read to you, but is it original? Is it substantial? Are the headlines unique or are they just clickbait? There's a lot of different things you can read through this list and say, is my content quality? Does it fit these standards? If you can say yes, then you're probably in pretty good shape. Google's been really transparent about what they're looking for in this rollout.

Evan Facinger: Yeah, and I think the other thing to always keep in mind with that too is it's hard to have a lot of success only doing what Google says. Would you say that's fair?

Jon Ballard: Yeah, that is fair.

Evan Facinger: One thing I have noticed, maybe this is anecdotal, there's been a report that links aren't as important now with this push, and I would say that it seems to almost be the opposite. Going back to some of that trustworthiness, it seems to be more important with this update. High-quality links, not the spammy links that are just set out there to manipulate the rankings, but high-quality links pointing to the site still seem to be a big factor because of increasing the overall strength of the domain and the sites and the overall trustworthiness. While they're saying it's not a factor, actually, I think they used to say and there were some changes there where they used to identify it as an important factor, but now they stripped away that important part and they're simply calling it a factor. So they're trying to lower the overall strength of it, it seems, but if you look at what's ranking and what's doing well, it still seems to be one of the top pieces.

Jon Ballard: Yeah, I don't know how they can get away from that. There's a quality signal, especially with how easy it is to generate good content these days, even content that's well thought out. I think the quality kind of depends on how the users review it and who's linking to it still, and I don't see them going away from that anytime soon. So I would agree with you.

Evan Facinger: Yeah, and some of the other things too, just why the clients that we work with aren't really seeing this major drawback, as well as because we weren't really doing a lot of the stuff that they determined was spammy. Maybe it would help temporarily but wouldn't help in the long term, and I don't think anybody would expect those things to help in the long term. Such as repurposing expired domains with different content. So if you go and buy a domain that somebody let expire that had some domain authority on it that was about a certain niche topic and then you rewrote everything about a completely different topic, that's no longer going to benefit you as much as it used to. Also, parasite SEO, which is something that's sort of unique because I don't know if it was necessarily wrong or spammy as much as it's getting hit now.

Jon Ballard: I haven't read a lot about parasite SEO. Can you explain the concept?

Evan Facinger: Yeah, so with the parasite SEO, it's really just geared towards having it set up in a way where you're putting your content and your information on a site that has a strong domain authority, and you're trying to be the parasite and suck all of that off. It was fairly common with the way things were set up, and just a reason why a lot of those sites were able to make some money on their high domain authority too. What they've done is actually start to penalize you for that, which has been interesting.

Jon Ballard: So give me an example. Are you talking about buying an article on a site and then linking off to your site? Is that what we're talking about here?

Evan Facinger: Yeah, it can be. There are different types of parasite SEO and different strategies for it. It depends on the platform a little bit. You can have blogs, forums, social networks—they're all a part of that. Like if you create a blog on a platform like Medium or WordPress, and then you just put the SEO pieces on those external blogs, you're trying to get that parasite SEO, linking to your site from their comments and forums. All of those can be considered part of that.

Jon Ballard: Sure, makes sense. So I'm sitting here thinking, I've seen a hit in my SEO. What do I do? What's the next step?

Evan Facinger: Well, there is a Google feedback form that you could fill out if you want. That's not necessarily your site in particular, but we can put a link to that in the show notes. Also, something that Google did that's interesting is that you can actually go in, put your feedback form, fill that out, and who knows if anything happens with it, but you'll at least feel better about filling it out. The other part is with these updates, assuming you didn't do anything spammy and you're just taking a look at the content, now that content is not ranking as high as it was, I think that's where you should focus on. One thing Google said that I thought was interesting is that it's not necessarily a fix. When they're looking at the helpful content, they're not saying all the time that just because you're losing some rankings on there that there's something wrong with that piece of content. It could just mean that the value of it is different. The way they're evaluating that content is different. I really like the explanation they gave. I might be paraphrasing here a little bit, hopefully not butchering it too much, but they said that if you created a list of the top 100 movies in 2015, it's probably going to be a different list in 2024. There's going to be some movies that are added, some older ones get removed. That's changing, and it's not necessarily saying that those movies that got removed from 2015 to 2024 are bad, they're just no longer the most deserving ones now. I think if you take a look at your content that way, why is it no longer deserving the ranking that it used to have? Are there more things you can add to it? Has the industry changed? Is there different data that can support it, different unique perspectives? All of those things are worth taking a look at.

Jon Ballard: And I think that's an interesting point too. One of the things you mentioned earlier was that we're starting to see more forum and Quora-type search results coming up. I think sometimes the content that Google is serving up for a specific search term changes over time because they've tested it and say, oh, more people are looking for this type of content versus an article. It's a good idea maybe to even look at if you've lost some rankings, what other types of sites are coming up for that search result. It's shifted away from just a long-form article to more of a forum or question and answer form. It might be a good chance to reevaluate. Is this even a good keyword for me anymore? Do I still answer this question?

Evan Facinger: Yeah, and making it even more fun, during the core update they actually released a couple of other updates as well. They weren't core updates, but they did have a lot of manual actions to spam that came out. I saw a lot of reports of people getting their sites de-indexed completely in Google as this core update was rolling out. So there was a lot going on. In fact, they even changed some of the core web vitals during this time also. Instead of going after the first input delay, they're not using that anymore. Now they're going against the interaction to next paint as part of those core web vitals. So that's another thing to keep an eye on.

Jon Ballard: Core web vitals, for those of you that don't know, are really kind of how the site performs, like speed, load time, those types of things because that's all part of the user experience.

Evan Facinger: Yeah, the big change for that is instead of going after the first input delay, now they're using the INP, which ties on the event timing API. It's supposed to assess the overall responsiveness of the web page. As you're making different interactions, as you're clicking on something and there's a drop-down, what's the speed of that or are there delays? It's interesting because it's measuring the overall user experience of the website that it’s measuring.

Jon Ballard: Yeah, I'm sure there'll be more changes next month. That's what keeps SEO people like us going and in business, right?

Evan Facinger: Yeah, it sure does. It keeps it exciting.

Jon Ballard: If you're struggling or you need some SEO help or you haven't lost rankings but you want to gain some rankings, we'd love to work with you guys. So feel free to give us a buzz.

Evan Facinger: Yeah, and if you just want to keep listening to us chat about these things, you can like the podcast, that would be great. You can also subscribe where you're listening to it from and make sure that you get alerted for when we release another one.

Jon Ballard: Yeah, and if you've got a topic you want us to talk about, drop us a note, or if you want to be on the show and have some expertise in search or marketing, digital marketing that you think is valuable, reach out. Let's talk.

Zach Baierl: Thanks for listening to the Foremost Media Marketing Chat Podcast. If you want to stay on top of your marketing game, make sure to like and subscribe so you never miss an episode. For more episodes, show transcripts, and marketing insights, go to foremostmedia.com