Google’s Helpful Content update is good news for quality publishers?

helpful content update
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In August, Google introduced its ‘Helpful Content’ Search update. On releasing the update, the search giant said it recognized that people don’t find content useful if it seems like it was designed to attract clicks rather than inform readers; the aim of the algorithm changes was to surface content that really answered their queries. Two months on, analysts say this is good news for publishers producing quality content.

  • Digital publishing is too often defined by a struggle for clicks driven by the need for publishers to generate traffic volumes that will support their online advertising ambitions. Instead of focusing content creators on the quality of their output, the realities of the online business model shift the focus on techniques to fool the search engines.
  • SEO (search engine optimization) has been focused more on beating the algorithm than responding to genuine search queries. The problem is this approach undercuts the true purpose of quality publishing – to deliver information, in context.
  • According to Italian editor and media analyst Alberto Puliafito, journalism has become as much about counting how many times a primary keyword was repeated, writing to the ‘ideal’ article length and bolding the right number of relevant words. Writing in The Fix, he said:

If you need clicks to survive, the traffic goal becomes obsessive, and you will do anything for them.

SEO as an ally
  • Puliafito’s work focuses on the relationship between content producers and people looking for information. He believes the most powerful asset publishers have is good content and thinks Google’s Helpful Content update may have swung the balance back in favor of quality. Instead of SEO best-practice restricting content creators, it could become a ‘powerful ally’.
  • He references the work of fellow Italian Giorgio Taverniti, author of Google Liquido (Liquid Google) , a book on Google’s evolution. Taverniti identifies two phases in search; determining the topic of a piece of content through keyword analysis and then content analysis to determine its relevance.
  • Taverniti says quality content will address both, placing keywords in title and body text, but also creating content that communicates an understanding of the topic and that delivers relevant information. Agreeing, Puliafito says:

Offering relevant content hasn’t anything to do with repeating keywords.

Best practice

At the time of releasing its Helpful Content update, Google provided advice for content creators on its Search Central blog to help them meet revised Search requirements. It advised content creators to focus first on creating satisfying content and use SEO best practice including a series of questions to help publishers focus on people-first rather than search-engine first content.

  • Looking at the questions, Puliafito draws parallels between SEO best-practices and journalistic and publishing best-practices. For him, the essence of journalism and the essence of SEO are substantially the same.
  • He says the main goal of search engines is to provide people with the information they are looking for. This is also the primary purpose of journalists and Puliafito suggests they can do a great job in line with Google’s Helpful Content update by doing their job ‘excellently’.
  • Neither Taverniti or Puliafito seem to think that the chase for traffic will disappear from online publishing – quantitative metrics play a huge part in current business models. But they are optimistic that, with changes like the Helpful Content update, other metrics will start to come into play. Taverniti writes:

If they want to look at the clicks, that’s fine. But we can also help them focus on other metrics, like session duration by pages or time, page depth, or bounce rate.

Puliafito acknowledges the continued importance of technical SEO, but says excellent content is key. He concludes:

The essential SEO technique is to become, for the audience, the most relevant source for a topic.

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