Google has introduced the September 2023 Helpful Content Update, bringing forth two significant changes to the way Google evaluates and ranks websites.
- Google loosened its guidance on content generated with AI
- The system is taking strong measures against third-party content hosted on a main website or subdomain
- Changing publishing dates and replacing older content to trick Google into thinking your content is newer and more helpful doesn’t help at all
- If your content/site tanks after the rollout, you should self-assess and remove low-quality content
As part of its commitment to delivering more helpful content to users, Google continues to refine its algorithms. The last major system update was in December 2022, and the new September 2023 update rolled out over the course of the next two weeks. By the end of September, it was fully implemented.
Google’s Helpful Content System
In the pursuit of creating a more user-centric web environment, Google introduced its Helpful Content System in August 2022. It primarily aims to reward web content that is original, helpful, and contains valuable information.
Content generated with AI or robotic automation that does not provide any useful value to the user will generally be penalized (though you don’t necessarily need AI to write bad content).
Helpful content is:
Essentially, Google’s automated ranking systems identify numerous signals from web content that indicate these criteria.
If yours meets them, you’ll rank higher.
And if you’re writing solely for the purpose of manipulating search engines? It’ll catch that, too.
What is the September 2023 update about?
In a tweet from Google Search Central, the company revealed that its Helpful Content System will have “an improved classifier” to better identify and reward helpful content.
Here’s a breakdown of what that means:
Less strict guidance on AI-generated content
After a year of the internet arguing about whether or not Google can ~detect AI~ (or even cares), it finally put those claims to rest.
In a subtle yet substantial shift, Google has amended the wording in its official description of ‘helpful content’ by omitting the phrase “written by people.”
Now, the company simply defines the term as “original, helpful content created for people in search results.”
We don’t see this as an endorsement of AI-generated content, per se. But it’s certainly an admission that Google doesn’t care how you write it, provided it maintains the aforementioned standard of usefulness and relevance to the user.
So, if using AI tools helps you write better and faster, then by all means, use them. But don’t get too trigger-happy — you aren’t getting anywhere with SEO by posting hundreds of lame 500-word blogs. You still need to hire a good writer (or be one yourself).
Also remember that Google still cares where your content comes from. Don’t copy/paste from other sources or websites (and double-check your AI content for this). This has always led to penalties.
Third-party content hosted on your site/subdomains
The importance of originality brings us to Google’s next focus: Third-party content on your site.
Common examples of third-party content include:
- News sites hosting press releases from external sources
- Personal blogs featuring guest posts or articles written by someone else
- Ecommerce websites carrying product descriptions and images sourced from a third-party vendor
- Affiliate partners publishing content on your website
Google is now taking measures to better identify content that is not original to the website. This content will also be included in sitewide signals (including those for helpfulness) its algorithm generates.
This could negatively impact your site if you host lots of third-party content.
According to Google, you won’t be punished for hosting it, but you should block it from being indexed if it wasn’t posted with significant oversight or is contextually irrelevant to the main domain.
Changing and updating your web content
Replacing content and changing the publish date to make a piece appear more ‘fresh’ are two of the oldest tricks in the book. SEOs and website owners have been doing this for years because they think ‘freshness’ helps their content rank.
Google didn’t say its system would penalize this. It just flat-out said, “It doesn’t.”
So, if you’re practicing this to boost your rankings, don’t bother. You won’t get any SEO points for it. In fact, if you do it wrong, you could end up with an actual penalty or notice from Google instead — so be careful.
Did an expert review your content?
Another subtle change to Google’s official wording is the inclusion of the word “reviewed” to its sentence:
“Is this content written or reviewed by an expert or enthusiast who demonstrably knows the topic well?”
This means your writer could theoretically be anonymous, as long as you indicate the expert who reviewed it (though it’s a good idea to work with writers who are knowledgeable in the topic, too).
This addition is consistent with Google’s omission of the words “written by people” and apparent acceptance of AI-assisted content.
How to recover from a potential hit
If your content tanks after the rollout, Google says the best thing you can do is self-assess and remove low-quality content.
That said, you don’t need to go on a deleting spree. You should be able to grow your rankings back by updating/improving your existing content.
This means looking for ways to:
- add more value and insights
- replace generalist statements with concrete data
- remove content that is no longer true or relevant
- cite expert sources and verify facts
You should also focus on the overall user experience, which factors into how helpful Google sees your content as. Are your page load times slow? Is the content easy to scan and read? Is it engaging enough to keep visitors on the page for more than a few seconds?
The bottom line
September’s Helpful Content System update doesn’t mean much to you if already add continuous value through your content. If your articles and perspective get good engagement (and conversions), keep doing what you’re doing!
And if your content strategy consists of machine-spun articles with minimal human oversight, you’ve probably noticed none of that garbage converts anyway.
In that sense, updates like these are really just giving Googlers (including you) more of what they want: real, genuine answers to real, genuine questions.
If a few pages on your site take a hit, reread them for accuracy, value, and context. Google offers a list of more than 15 questions you can ask yourself to help you assess the quality of your content.
Bottom line: Keep producing content that represents you, your brand, and your audience, and should be OK! And for those who need to worry? You know who you are…