Google Helpful Content Update: Making Sense of the September 2023 Update

For many digital marketers, the rollercoaster of 2023 is reminiscent of Al Pacino's iconic line from The Godfather III, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!" No sooner had we adjusted our sails to accommodate Google's August 2023 Core Update, the tech giant swiftly introduced the September 2023 Google Helpful Content Update. Just as Michael Corleone thought he had navigated his last challenge, so too did many of us, thinking we'd seen the year's primary algorithmic shift. But in the unpredictable world of SEO, anticipating the unexpected is the name of the game.

Google's Official Scoop

At the heart of this latest maneuver, Google has reemphasized a singular, pivotal directive: champion original, user-focused content. No shortcuts, no half-measures. With the new system, Google meticulously identifies and demotes content falling short of this gold standard. The clarion call? Purge subpar content to amplify overall site prominence.

This isn’t merely manual oversight. Enter the automated classifier process—a global initiative ensuring content from every nook and cranny gets its due scrutiny. Distilled to its essence, this is Google reaffirming its allegiance: prioritize content crafted with genuine user-centric intent.

Industry Reactions & Analyses

A shifting tide in SEO is never silent, and the voices of industry are a testament to that.

Glenn Gabe aptly observed that the aftershocks were surprisingly subdued—minimal collateral damage in the grand scheme of things. Yet, it's crucial not to underestimate the magnitude of this update; its ripple effects are vast.

Barry Schwartz, via Search Engine Roundtable, shed light on some insights. A standout? John Mueller from Google affirming the update's here to stay. The objective is crystal clear: elevate premium, user-centric content to the fore. Schwartz's retrospection paints Google as a relentless innovator, historically standing firm on its ranking updates.

Lily Ray identifies several actionable insights. Among them, the power of an unmistakable brand identity right on the homepage; the pitfalls of aimless content strategies; and the potential credibility drain from outdated web designs. Notably, she raises a red flag against overwhelming content with affiliate links—a surefire trust-breaker.

Lastly, Eli Schwartz draws a compelling analogy, likening the Helpful Content system to 2023's rendition of Panda. He deconstructs a prevalent myth: sites with dwindling traffic aren't penalized but merely stripped of prior undue advantages. His advice? For genuine growth, root strategies in user value, not mere search engine appeasement.

Acadia’s Insights: Unpacking the Current State of SERPs

Recent data from popular tools, Semrush and Mozcast, unveils nuanced shifts in the search landscape. Over the past month, SERP volatility maintained a modest 2.8/10. This backdrop foregrounds the rise of Related Searches, Sitelinks, and People Also Ask. They underscore evolving user behaviors: refining queries, valuing structured site navigation, and diving into comprehensive Q&A content.Overall, this aligns with what we are seeing for our portfolio of 100+ clients across a variety of industries.

As we zoom in on the Arts & Entertainment Semrush Sensor data, a volatility score of 5.4/10 suggests dynamic changes. The focus? Visual content. Video carousels and image packs are gaining traction, while the popularity of the "People Also Ask" section seems to dip. News domains, marked by a volatility of 7.4/10, show a clear favor for timely pieces and visual content. Yet, direct answers through featured snippets are taking a backseat. The Sports category reveals a similar tale with a volatility of 5.8/10. Video highlights and imagery lead, with less emphasis on in-depth Q&As.

Mozcast's trajectory offers further context. A high of 127 degrees on August 19, 2023, descended to a cool 88 degrees by September 25. This supports the “cooling trend” we’re seeing in the Sensor data and the low volatility we’re still seeing with our clients.

Actions for Brands & Website Owners

This is just one of many Helpful Content Updates that Google has rolled out over the last year and it won't be the last. With the rise and adoption of generative AI, Google is continuing to up the stakes of what quality and user-centric content actually is. To help you navigate the implications of the September 2023 Google Helpful Content Update and stay ahead of the curve, take heed of these action points"

  1. Understand Your SERP Climate: Regularly consult with your friendly SEO team and use tools like Semrush and Mozcast for up-to-date insights about your industry.
  2. Amplify Visual Content: Recognize the increasing emphasis on visually engaging material, from video highlights to image-centric features.
  3. Audit Content for Quality: Ensure content remains relevant, updated, and of high value to users.
  4. Elevate User Experience (UX): Revamp site designs and streamline website navigation for optimal user engagement.
  5. Strengthen Online Brand Identity: Position your brand distinctly and authentically in the digital space.
  6. Champion Transparency: Make content creation processes open, revealing authorship and expertise where appropriate.
  7. Refine Affiliate Strategies: Keep strategies user-centric, reducing aggressive affiliate link placements in favor of genuine, valuable content.

The Path Forward

In light of the September 2023 Helpful Content Update, it's imperative to understand its essence and the direction Google is setting. The insights from Semrush reinforce the need for adaptability in SEO practices. Instead of seeing the update as a challenge, it's an avenue for brands to realign with Google's user-centric vision, reflecting the ever-evolving nature of SEO and underscoring the importance of continual learning.

Share your experiences with the update and let's have a conversation that drives your digital growth. If you're looking to navigate these changes more effectively, Acadia is here to guide you with tailored SEO strategies. Reach out and let our expertise elevate your digital trajectory.

By Scott Walldren, Head of SEO at Acadia

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Scott Walldren