What You Need To Know About The September 2023 Google Helpful Content Update

Shutterstock 395350411 What You Need To Know About The September 2023 Google Helpful Content Update Vizion Interactive Reading Time: 8 minutes

Just a few weeks ago (Sept 14-28), Google rolled out its helpful content update, triggering shifts in website rankings.

This new helpful content update impacts the whole site. Thousands of publishers witnessed traffic drops ranging from 10% to a staggering 70%.

However, Google claims that its update aims to distinguish between content engineered solely for search engine rankings and content crafted with the genuine intent to help and inform human readers. According to Google, helpful content:

Owing to this update, sites that use unhelpful content such as a lot of AI content (without editing it), won’t perform well in SERPs. Safeguarding your website against such traffic crashes requires that the focus shift to “people-first content” rather than just creating content that tries to game search engines.

This blog outlines the impact of the September 2023 Google Helpful Content update and lists key recommendations for SEO and websites.

Google Helpful Content Update: An Overview

The September 2023 Google Helpful Content Update: Quick Facts

Source: SearchEngineRoundTable

Name:Google September 2023 helpful content update
Launch Date:September 14 at 4:20 p.m. ET
Rollout:Roll-out ended on September 28 at 3:00 a.m. ET
Targets:Content that was created to rank well in search over helping humans
Search Only:Impacts Google Search and Google Discover
Penalty:Not mentioned. But this update may feel like a penalty for sites hit by it.
Promotes:Impacts the whole site
Sitewide:Impacts the whole site
Update type:Not a core update
Languages:Impacts all languages and global
Impact:Google has not revealed what percentage of queries or searches were impacted by this update. Will be felt more for online educational materials, entertainment, shopping, and tech-related content.
Recover:If hit, re-evaluate your content
Refreshes:Google updates the scores constantly here but there is a timeout period, and a validation period and it can take several months to recover from this update.

How Did The September 2023 Google Helpful Content Update Impact Search Results?

To understand the impact of this Google algorithm update, we used aggregate information from Data Providers. We also looked at information from SEOs that reported a traffic crash for their clients or their own websites.

Data Providers’ Findings About the Helpful Content Update

Many of the data providers didn’t pick up as much volatility with this update as is typical Google algorithm updates.

The Semrush sensor showed less volatility as the update progressed, and cooled consequently.

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Chart Depicting Industry Volatility In The September 2023 Google Helpful Content Update Source: SearchEngineLand
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Chart Depicting The Impact Of The September 2023 Google Helpful Content Update Source: SearchEngineLand

3 verticals (Business and Industrial, Home and Garden, and Shopping) saw peak volatility above 7 on the Semrush Sensor scale. The overall average didn’t hit a peak of 6.

On the other hand, the impact of the September 2023 update was felt strongly. It made the December 2022 one seem tame.

Here’s an industry-wide comparison between these two major updates:

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Rank Volatility Change Comparison Between  September 2023 and December 2022 Google Helpful Content Update Source: SearchEngineLand

RankRanger confirmed that the September update was bigger. The September 2023 update  saw more SERP fluctuations and position changes overall.

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Average Position Change Comparison Between The September 2023 and December 2022 Google Helpful Content Update Source: SearchEngineLand

Interestingly, in their report, the September update fluctuations were lower in the top 10 results, and substantially lower in the top 5 and top 3.

“The September 2023 update was overwhelming compared to the December 2022 update. It impacted Search Engine Optimization (SEO) more than the average website owner.”

Barry Schwartz, Contributing Editor to Search Engine Land, Owner of a NY-based web consulting firm

Websites Affected By The September 2023 Helpful Content Update

There has been quite some discussion (or speculation) among SEOs on the kind of websites hit by the September 2023 Google helpful content update.

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Screenshots of Google Traffic Drop Source: Maria Haynes Consulting

Key findings found that the biggest traffic drops were reported for websites that:

  • Make health claims in recipes without properly supporting their claims with evidence or data.
  • Show Recipe and How-to sites with unnecessary long introductory sections.
  • Allow ad companies to take over their Jump buttons. For instance, websites that send you to an ad when you click on “jump to recipe.”
  • Provide no context about the brand on the homepage, and just show articles and links to affiliate sites.
  • Try to rank for many topics without depth or value.
  • Create product reviews based on what others have said online, without offering unique value or reviews to users.
  • Existing only to make money.
  • Have poor UX
  • Use AI-written content heavily.
  • Have ads all over the page.
  • Have videos that auto-play, even following the user as they scroll down the page.
  • Have obstructive pop-ups.

In addition to these insights from Maria, we’ve also seen directories, news, and e-commerce sites that have also been affected.

Websites Not Affected By The September 2023 Helpful Content Update

Likely, Google’s model was trained on examples demonstrating real-world experience. This allows it to predict whether content is likely to help users much better.

In the September 2023 update, they introduced a new guideline under the topic: Understanding the Purpose of a Webpage:

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Google may begin elevating sites that focus on real-world experience, so these are the websites that are likely to see massive gains:

  • Websites run by real topic experts.
  • Websites that start real conversations around your topics.

According to Semrush, reddit.com saw some huge increases in keyword visibility, with top 10 rankings increasing from 13.3M keywords in August to 18.6M in September.

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Quora, which is another community site, also saw big gains in the top 10 rankings. The top 10 positions for Quora went up from 5M keywords in August to 8.1M in September.

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Likely, these gains happened because these community-driven sites don’t use generative AI technologies to create content. Instead, they curate answers given by people who are actually trying to help other people.

Oftentimes, the answers reflect real-life personal experiences. And while the individual may not be an expert themselves—the collective wisdom that’s shared does offer different solutions, viewpoints, and often a collection of different answers and solutions.

What To Do If Your Website Is Hit By The September 2023 Google Helpful Content Update?

If your website was hit by the Google Helpful update or September 2023, it’s likely that your website doesn’t meet Google’s guidelines. You can begin evaluating your website content by asking yourself questions provided by Google.

Also note, that some algorithm updates can cause temporary fluctuations that go back to normal after a few weeks. It can also take several months to recover if you do everything right and make changes to your content over time.

We advise waiting for the update to stabilize, and mid-October onwards will be a good time to start the recovery process.

Follow Google’s Advice to Build People-First Content

Re-evaluate your site by asking these questions:

  • 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 content demonstrate first-hand expertise and a depth of knowledge (for example, expertise that comes from having used a product or service, or visiting a place)?
  • Does your site have a primary purpose or focus?
  • After reading your content, will someone leave feeling they’ve learned enough about a topic to help achieve their goal?
  • Will someone reading your content leave feeling like they’ve had a satisfying experience?
  • Are you keeping in mind our guidance for core updates and product reviews?

Follow Google’s Advice to Avoid Creating Search Engine-First Content

Re-evaluate your site by asking these questions:

  • Is the content primarily to attract people from search engines, rather than made for humans?
  • Are you producing lots of content on different topics in hopes that some of it might perform well in search results?
  • Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?
  • Are you mainly summarizing what others have to say without adding much value?
  • Are you writing about things simply because they seem to trend and not because you’d write about them otherwise for your existing audience?
  • Does your content leave readers feeling like they need to search again to get better information from other sources?
  • Are you writing to a particular word count because you’ve heard or read that Google has a preferred word count? (No, we don’t).
  • Did you decide to enter some niche topic area without any real expertise, but instead mainly because you thought you’d get search traffic?
  • Does your content promise to answer a question that has no answer, such as suggesting there’s a release date for a product, movie, or TV show when one isn’t confirmed?
  • Are you changing the date of pages to make them seem fresh when the content has not substantially changed?
  • Are you adding a lot of new content or removing a lot of older content primarily because you believe it will help your search rankings overall by somehow making your site seem “fresh?” (No, it won’t.)

Ensure Your Content Demonstrates E–E-A-T

Google advises incorporating aspects of experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-E-A-T) in the content. Of these aspects, trust is the most important. The others contribute to trust, but content doesn’t necessarily have to demonstrate all of them.

E-E-A-T itself isn’t a specific ranking factor, it’s a framework that they use to evaluate the quality of content. Google doesn’t tell us what the specific ranking factors are, but if you generate content with these aspects of their framework in mind, you’re going to be on the right path.

If you’re looking to improve the quality of your blog posts, check out our top 10 tips to supercharge your blog content.

Summing It All Up

The September 2023 Google Helpful Content Update brought significant repercussions to the SEO landscape. This update reflects Google’s unwavering commitment to prioritizing valuable, user-centric content over content designed solely for search engine rankings.

Our exploration of the data has revealed the varying impacts across different industries, with sectors like Business and Industrial, Home and Garden, Recipe, and Shopping experiencing volatility. This underscores the need to adapt to and acquire a deep understanding of user intent in today’s digital environment.

If your website has felt the impact of this update, reassess your content with Google’s guidance and adopt a “people-first” approach. If you don’t already have a content lifecycle evaluation process in place, now would be the time to start that process, or get help from an SEO agency.

As you move forward, remember that your audience is the cornerstone of your online presence. By prioritizing their needs and delivering content that genuinely enhances their experiences, you can thrive in the digital era.


How Is Google Identifying Low-Value Content?

Google is using a new machine learning algorithm that can evaluate and identify unhelpful content. Besides, Google engineers tweak and improve the overall algorithms regularly. The helpful content update looks at a variety of signals about the page and site to determine the page’s ranking. 

What Led to Google’s Helpful Content Update?

Searchers have been frustrated upon landing on unhelpful webpages that rank well in search just because they were designed to rank well. Google’s new algorithm aims to downgrade such websites while promoting more authentic ones.

How frequently does Google plan to release updates like the Helpful Content Update?

Google typically rolls out algorithm updates regularly to refine its search results and improve user experience. While the exact frequency of major updates like the Helpful Content Update can vary, it's essential to stay informed about industry news and Google's official announcements. Following reputable SEO resources and keeping an eye on Google's blog can help you anticipate future updates and their potential impacts.

Are there specific industries or niches that were disproportionately affected by the September 2023 update?

Yes, the September 2023 Google Helpful Content Update affected industries and niches differently. Sectors like Business and Industrial, Home and Garden, Recipe, and Shopping experienced more significant volatility in search rankings. We also found some directories and news sites that were also impacted.

What role does user engagement play in determining whether content is considered 'helpful' by Google?

User engagement metrics like bounce rate, time on page, and click-through rate, can indicate the quality of your content, as more engaging content generally enhances these metrics. It’s often debated in the SEO community if Google uses these types of signals as part of its ranking factors.

Google aims to promote content that keeps users engaged and answers their questions, so it's important to monitor these metrics and strive to create content that not only attracts but also retains users, providing them with the information they seek.