If you use a digital PR service, you might wonder how Google’s latest big algorithm update will impact your digital PR campaigns. We take a look.
By William Furney, PR & content strategist, Reachology
In an ongoing quest to make the internet a better place for everyone, from everyday users to small business, giant corporations and just about everyone on the planet, search engine leader Google has introduced a new update to its core algorithm that’s designed to give people what they want when they’re searching for something online: quality content that’s actually helpful to them.
Because it’s hardly a secret that some, if not many, commercially minded entities — businesses of all shapes and sizes — have long since been attempting to engineer their way into Google’s graces by positioning their content towards the search engine instead of people. It used to be that website owners might stuff their content with keywords so they’d stand a greater chance of ranking higher in search engine results, thereby getting more traffic, but rendering their content gibberish in the process — until Google ruled out the practice, with its Panda update in 2011.
And even now, over a decade later, website publishers are still trying to stay ahead in search with strategies like latching onto trending stories that have little or nothing to do with their target audience and industry and are purely about trying to lure in more clicks. Google, once again, has had enough. And so we now have its helpful content update, aimed at recognising unhelpful content and not rewarding it with higher rankings.
What exactly is the helpful content update?
Google is in the business of delivering relevant and high-quality content to people searching for something, and as quickly as possible. That means the search engine is constantly refining its main and other algorithms, which do the sorting and matching work in a fraction of a second, to identify what’s good in the vast ecosystem of the internet, and what’s not. Google says its latest big update is meant to deliver “people-first content” that’s not primarily written to attract search-engine notice.
“The helpful content update aims to better reward content where visitors feel they’ve had a satisfying experience, while content that doesn’t meet a visitor’s expectations won’t perform as well,” says Google.
In other words, write for readers, not machines. And if you’re using machines to write for machines – as in content created by artificial intelligence-based software – because it’s fast and cheap, you’re certainly going to suffer. To stay in Google’s good books and not suffer a dramatic fall-off in rankings and traffic, websites must not:
- aim their content at search engines.
- create content on an array of topics, many of which may be irrelevant to your business and audience, in the hope of getting noticed — stick to your sector and what you know.
- use automated processes like robotic software to create content; no matter how good, there’s no substituting human ability and its creativity, passion and nuances.
- create content that summarises what’s already out there, with no added value — you’re not doing anything new, or of note.
- publish articles about current events or trending stories that have little or nothing to do with your expertise.
- write exhaustively long articles that run into the tens of thousands of words, because you think Google prefers long-form content over short — it doesn’t.
- create content that looks like it answers a question people are seeking answers to, only there is no answer; you’re duping them for clicks.
Helpful content and digital PR
As you can see, the new Google update is primarily aimed at website owners and the kind of content they choose to publish on them. Digital PR, whether you do it yourself or appoint a digital PR agency to run your campaigns, is also concerned with creating content — not for client websites but the media. That makes it all the more important to choose the types of digital sites and their journalists to pitch to. If news sites, for example, are merely regurgitating what other news media are saying, as some do, they may stand to lose out in Google rankings and be of less benefit to your client.
It’s worth pointing out that a digital PR strategy is fundamentally aimed at creating content that’s of value to readers, because it’s based on information and data of potential interest and that they may be able to use. So company announcements, research and surveys revealing compelling results, creative and entertaining content — all this and more is designed to be high-quality and of value, and this again is what sets digital PR apart from everyday website owners and their content.
Some search engine optimization (SEO) experts have noted that not much initially happened after Google unleashed its helpful content update towards the end of August. Was it all hype, much ado about nothing and things would stay the same?
Barry Schwartz, an SEO expert who writes for Search Engine Land and other industry media, told us he was not impressed.
“So far it’s a dud … you really need to wait until it’s fully done rolling out. It’s hard to say before that,” he said. “Initially I thought this would be a massive update impacting a lot of websites. But so far it has not.”
Jason Brooks, founder and co-director of our sister company UK Linkology and someone with many years of SEO experience, said the web was awash with large amounts of unhelpful content that does not satisfy visitors to sites, and that he had long argued about “writing pointless tripe” to try and get higher in search engine results.
“We write for humans and with our target keywords in mind too; that way the content serves a dual purpose,” he said, adding that the update was “significant because backlinks and how much PR they pass may not save a site from a crash. It puts content at the fore.”
Brooks’ colleague Rachel Thompson, an account director at UK Linkology, predicted that time was up for website owners trying to game the search system with their content.
“For years, many sites have gotten away with churning out AI-driven content, or content which provides no real purpose. These sites are often posting under as many niches as possible, in an attempt to cast their ranking net far and wide. Google’s latest update is just another means to drop these sites to the bottom of the search engine pile,” she said.
She added: “As Google gets smarter, those who have been using these tactics to get ahead are the ones who will be sweating over the coming weeks. Whilst there’s no guarantee that those who have been following best practice as much as possible will escape unscathed, if you have been writing quality editorial for your audience and not just search engines – that already complies with what Google deems to be ‘useful’ – then you will hopefully come out the other side unharmed.”
Aaron Watts of Siteologists, another arm of UK Linkology, agrees, and says sites relying on others’ content to generate online ad revenue could be hit hard by the helpful content change.
“The update is aimed to reinforce Google’s guidelines that content should be created to aid users – making it ‘helpful’. Although we haven’t seen many examples of huge fluctuations post-update, as of yet, the update aims to target sites that create content en masse in order to rank,” he said. “My view is that sites which scrape content to automatically generate their own pages, with the purpose of ranking to sell ad space, will be the ones that this update will impact the most.”
Helpful content update: cleaning up the web
Other industry watchers we spoke to said it was time for many website owners to start making a real effort with their content, or they would no longer get the kind of online traction they were used to, and could fall off the internet entirely, in terms of rankings.
Jeremy Roberts, founder and CEO of non-fungible token firm Funganomics, welcomed Google’s new update because, he said, the internet was “overrun by plagiarism” and sites ripping off each other’s content in an attempt to stay ahead online.
“This has led to lazy SEO, which leads to poorer search engine results and, in effect, a less superior search engine as a whole … I see it as a positive move for PR, as an additional weighted factor and assistance to content creators across the world who create new and valuable content.”
Philip Bacon, a director of Bacon Marketing, said: “This is going to absolutely hammer sites with old, out-of-date content that they thought was evergreen and sat back on their laurels with strong rankings. They will need to work harder on maintaining the rankings going forward and focus on delivering a good audience experience, increasing time on site and minimising bouncing.”
Finally, we heard from Ryan Turner, founder of email marketing agency EcommerceIntelligence. He said Google, with its helpful content update, was acting on its goal of cleaning up the web and delivering high-quality search results that people can use.
“In terms of what we’re doing ourselves and advising brands to do, it mainly comes down to working out what the user’s ‘search intent’ actually is when they Google a certain query,” he said. “Just focus on satisfying that intent and trying to create a content piece which leaves people not needing to return back to the search results for further information. Any kind of intense keyword optimization in content should be secondary to this.”
If you’d like to know more about how Google’s helpful content update may impact your site, or if you’re interested in a digital PR service to compliment your content and give you a boost in rankings, schedule a free initial consultation with the experts at Reachology now.