Google’s ‘helpful content update’ means no more SEO tricks

Google’s new helpful content update prioritises people-first content – here’s what that means and what you need to do now.

Rank better with quality content that’s written ‘for people, by people’

Like most businesses, Google is continuing to improve their services for its users. That’s why it recently released the HCU (Helpful Content Update). It changes the way its crawlers and bots look for content to serve, based on a user’s search.

Google is now smart enough to know if the content has been written with the sole purpose of ranking well or genuinely provides value to the reader. Sprinkling in keywords and search terms will no longer do the trick. In their own words, “create people-first content to be successful with Google Search, rather than search engine-first content, made primarily to gain search engine rankings.”

We agree with Google on this one, that quality writing following SEO best practise (in that order) gets the best results. Our customers also agree, see their results for yourself.

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Breaking down the HCU basics

Now that the HCU is live, Google's top priority is finding helpful, reliable information primarily created to benefit the reader. It’s a response to the SEO of old that saw some sites manipulating results by flooding their content with keywords and search terms. A new focus on good quality content means more relevant results and happier Googlers.

To help you write this content, Google has produced a handy article on creating helpful, reliable, people-first content. To us, it reads like a content-writing 101 guide: write for a specific target audience, be helpful, and include first-hand knowledge and up-to-date research (in fact, we’ve been teaching this approach in our copywriting courses for a while now).

There’s also an interesting section on “avoiding creating search-engine-first content” – not just writing for relevance but actively staying away from the keyword-heavy SEO method. It looks like, with one update, Google has turned the SEO world upside down.

Quality writing gets the top rankings

We’ve been banging on about how quality content is king for years now – we’re glad to see the machines now agree. Here’s what the new Google update will be looking for:  

Share your expertise

Google: "Does your content demonstrate first-hand expertise and a depth of knowledge? Did you decide to enter some niche topic area without real expertise, but mainly because you thought you'd get search traffic?

No more cutting and pasting someone else’s content, tweaking a wee bit but not adding anything new or of value.

Instead, share something unique about yourself, your brand or offering. Content in its purest form is about giving your voice, expertise and experience a platform and to bring something fresh and valuable to your audience.

Here’s our guide to finding your niche and writing quality content (without copying).

Focus on a single audience

Google: “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 site have a primary purpose or focus?”

Your website, like your business, should have a clear target audience. Not just a demographic but your ideal customer personified. That way, you can drill down into what makes your audience tick, what they might be searching for, and how you can help them find the answer.

We’ve written about how to create an audience persona for copywriting here.

Write for people

Google: “Is the content primarily made to attract visits from search engines?

Google’s guide on SEO (search engine optimisation), is about helping search engines understand and present content that can provide the most relevant search results.

In the past, there were ways you could trick the algorithms to rank well. Now with the HCU, there are no shortcuts, only best practices that will make it easier for search engines to crawl, index and understand your content – the best practice now being helpful content.

Rather than starting with keywords, start with your audience – what do they want or need to know? How does your expertise overlap? Keyword research is still valuable, but it won’t give you a real insight into what your audience wants. Find out more about Google’s AI tool, Rankbrain, which also values user behaviour over keyword placement.

Let people do the writing

Google: “Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?

Google now advises against using automated content creation that involves an AI writing tool – basically, getting computers to do your writing for you. Phew, our jobs are safe for now.

If you’re looking to replace automation with outsourcing your writing, here are some useful tips on what to look for in a copywriter.

Quality over quantity

Google: “Does your content leave readers feeling like they need to search again to get better information from other sources?

When it comes to content, it’s about quality, not quantity. In other words, don’t just spray and pray – start with a coherent content strategy and a defined target audience. This way, you will ensure that your content is targeted and useful to your readers.

Also, include research and up-to-date information. Your expertise is valuable, but it’s even better if you can back it up with outside info. To give your content cred, find relevant research or expert opinions you can link to and reference. Check that research links are up to date, from a reputable source and no older than three years.

Don’t worry about word counts

Google: “Are you writing to a particular word count because you’ve heard or read that Google has a preferred word count?" (No, we aren't).

Choose a topic relevant to your industry and readers, and cover it comprehensively. Don’t worry about keyword density or covering enough search queries. Think instead of the person at the other end and what they need and want to know. Ignore the instinct that tells you people don't want to read long bits of content, because they do. If an article is written and laid out well, with the information your audience wants, they will spend time with it. Same goes for content that’s short but to the point.

Audit your archives

Google: “Unhelpful content overall is less likely to perform well in search, assuming there is other content elsewhere from the web that's better to display. For this reason, removing unhelpful content could help the rankings of your other content.”

In other words, old, keyword-heavy content could drag your search rankings down. Go back through your archives and update anything that doesn’t deliver value to your target audience. Replace outdated and keyword-centric pieces with new blogs, white papers and thought leadership articles that your audience will find helpful.

OK, but where do I start?

If you’ve made yourself comfy in the SEO space, shifting your approach might seem overwhelming, especially if you already have a ton of search engine-focused content on your website.

We recommend outsourcing to some expert writers (ahem) who can give all your existing content an audit and write new articles that tick all the latest Google boxes. It’s also wise to create an ongoing content plan, to produce consistent, high-quality content and boost your search results.

The HCU may have just dropped, but we've been doing it this way for ages – and we know it works.  

Ready to make your content HCU-friendly? We can help.

Get in touch today for a chat.

Rowena Allsopp

Director Sales and Marketing