Don’t let Google’s “helpful content” update catch you flat-footed

“Write for humans, not search engines.”

Have you ever heard that advice? If you’re one of my SEO clients, most likely you have.

That’s because Google’s job is to deliver the best content to people. Content that is written by people for people.

Pretty much every Google algorithm update has been designed to fulfil that mission. They are constantly improving their ability to semantically understand the true intent of your search and deliver content that will satisfy that intent.

Brace yourselves because Google is taking this mission a huge step forward with the “helpful content update” roll-out. And it promises to change the way a lot of SEOs approach their work.

Essentially, this new update will reward creators who “write for humans” and potentially hurt those who “write for search engines”.

But never fear. There are steps you can take to not only avoid losing traffic, but to also capitalize on this development to really see increased engagement to your site. Here’s how:

What is the “helpful content” update anyway?

Billed as an effort to “better connect people to helpful information,” this update is designed to make sure that people see content that is original and, well, helpful. The goal is to reward content that delivers a more satisfying experience and meets a visitor’s expectations.

That means that content that simply restates what has already been published, no matter how drastically the actual words have been “SEOed,” will not rank. If nothing new is offered – no unique perspective, update, or audience-centric added-value – then it might as well not go live.

A site-wide update.

This update will have site-wide effects and will not just focus on individual pages. Any content – helpful or not – on a site that is found to have a lot of low quality content will be less likely to perform well in Search. So those great blog posts and educational pages you have published will suffer if the rest of your site isn’t considered helpful to humans (not search engines).

What does this mean for nonprofits?

When you know what you’re looking for, unhelpful content is obvious. And I come across it frequently among the nonprofit sites I’ve visited recently, especially in the arts world (although it’s pretty widespread).

I’ve seen nonprofit sites that attempt to appeal to a wide-range of people with an equally wide-range of content topics, even when these topics have little to do with the organization’s mission. This content doesn’t depend on the nonprofit’s actual expertise and just screams SEO.

Example: A youth center that publishes a story about back-to-school fashion.

I’ve seen even more nonprofits completely disregard the true intent of a search and deliver “look what we do!” promotional content on the page rather than relevant information that enlightens the searcher. It’s clearly designed to satisfy the organization’s development and fundraising team, and not the search intent.

Example: a page about an organization’s free Thanksgiving meal program that tells its history, number of people served, and ways to donate money or volunteer without telling those who are hungry and homeless any helpful details about the actual event, including location and timing.

And across the board I’ve seen nonprofit agencies jump on bandwagon topics because they are “trending,” regardless of whether they have anything to do with the services they offer.

Example: a museum that publishes a blog post about the local pro sports team’s recent success.

If you have relied on these types of tactics before and they’ve driven visitors to your site before, great! Just know they probably won’t work for much longer and their existence on your site might come back to bite you.

What should we as nonprofits do about this?

If you’re concerned about seeing a loss in organic traffic, I encourage you to do a quick spot-check of your existing content and really look at it through the eyes of your target audience. Is this page helpful to them? Does it answer their questions?

Fortunately, Google has offered a list of questions to determine if you are taking a people-first approach. Answering yes to any of these should raise a red flag to your content creators:

  • 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? (this is rampant everywhere)
  • Are you writing about things simply because they seem trending 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?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, the first thing you should do is find ways to add a unique perspective, add value, or otherwise make it serve your audience rather than your promotional goals. That means even re-shooting highly branded videos.

How should nonprofits think about content creation moving forward?

Here Google has made simple again. If you can answer yes to all these questions, you’re definitely on the right track with people-first content:

  • Do you have an existing or intended audience for your organization or site that would find the content useful if they came directly to you?
  • Does your content clearly demonstrate first-hand expertise and a depth of knowledge?
  • 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?

Or you could just adopt my mantra when it comes to website content: Write for people, not search engines.

The truth is more than 50 percent of the global internet traffic begins with an organic Google search and I’d be surprised if your own analytics don’t bear that out. Don’t let an ill-advised strategy of rigging the search system make it hard to discover all of the great things you are doing to help your communities and uplift the world.