Originally featured in Strixus Magazine
The global market for SEO services is valued at over $46.6 million, yet the mere act of search engine optimization goes against Google’s guidelines. Of course, those guidelines have been ignored since the dawn of the internet, so why would anyone care now?
Prior to Google becoming the go-to search engine around 2007, early internet adopters had over 1,600 search engines to play with — each with different ranking algorithms that they quickly learned to exploit. Nearly two decades later, SEO gurus continue to circumvent guidelines and find ways to use Google’s ever-changing algorithm to their advantage. But Google isn’t giving up.
In August, Google released the single biggest update to its search engine algorithm in years with the help of new AI and machine learning. The so-called “Helpful Content” update, followed by multiple “Spam Updates” designed to harm the rankings of content that doesn’t adhere to Google’s guidelines, has shaken things up for websites big and small. That has implications for anyone investing in SEO.
Are You Going Against Google’s Guidelines?
The mere act of creating content with its future search engine rankings as the primary focus contravenes Google’s guidelines. In fact, Google’s experts routinely remind people that writing for the human is the best way to see better rankings, but is that true?
Search engine optimization hasn’t become profitable just by serving up empty promises. True SEO gurus have devoted years to intensely studying the algorithm and the hundreds of updates that are made every month. They closely track changes in rankings and split-test thousands of variables in order to pinpoint key ranking factors. Once that information is uncovered, it’s only a matter of time before it makes it into SEO checklists and is touted as a rule.
Sometimes, SEO gurus manage to improve the overall quality of content on the web by pushing publishers to incorporate certain elements — like image alt text and multiple headings — in order for their content to remain competitive in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). Other times, they identify exploits that don’t actually improve quality or readability, and that’s when Google has to make yet another algorithm change to stay a step ahead.
Google’s latest guidelines have adapted to keep up with evolving definitions of “helpful content” and “spam content.” The former is vaguely described as content that offers a satisfying user experience. The latter is clearer, but perhaps controversial, with Google dubbing all of the following content as spam:
- Content generated using extensive automation.
- Content that merely summarizes other content on the web.
- Content that is “fluffed up” to hit a specific word count.
- Content that suggests an answer to a question that has no answer.
The question is, and always has been, whether or not Google’s search algorithm can confidently identify content that meets these definitions. For instance, how can Google say with any certainty whether an article was produced using one of the countless AI writing tools on the market today? As it turns out, while not perfect, the algorithm is stronger than ever.
What’s in the Helpful Content Update?
Google’s web crawlers are constantly reviewing and analyzing content, discovering more than 40 billion spammy pages every day. Last year alone, the company managed to reduce sites with scraped and auto-generated content by more than 80% compared to two years prior. This year’s Helpful Content update brought them another step closer to bringing spammy results down to zero.
The goal of August’s algorithm update was to bring more original, helpful content to searchers. It was unique in many ways, but one of the most notable aspects is that Google explicitly told publishers that deleting potentially unhelpful content could help the rest of their content rank better. For SEO gurus who have believed in creating “topic clusters” and content chains for decades now, this suggestion emphasized that Google Search is headed in a new direction.
In an attempt to give priority to content that’s written with a “people-first” mindset, Google laid out new guidelines. These include:
- Ensuring that your site has a primary purpose or focus.
- Creating content that aligns with your primary audience’s needs and interests.
- Clearly demonstrating first-hand expertise and depth of knowledge when covering a topic.
- Enriching content with unique value not found elsewhere on the internet.
- Taking steps to make sure readers will feel satisfied and like they have learned enough after finishing your content.
If you find that your website isn’t in alignment with these priorities, taking strides to reform your existing content, and removing some of it altogether, could help you climb the SERPs.
Is Google Trying to Drive Down the Value of SEO?
The concept of search engine optimization will always present a conundrum. While Google advises publishers to never cater to the algorithm when creating content, the SEO priority will always persist as businesses feel pressured to stay on top of key ranking factors to remain competitive.
Google’s goal is not to get in the way of optimization, but to ensure that optimization does not get in the way of delivering quality content to readers. The Helpful Content update represents the single biggest improvement Google has ever made to align its algorithm with the needs of searchers.
As a result of this year’s updates, even as individuals and SEO agencies continue to prioritize ranking factors over everything else, Google’s algorithm will help make sure those ranking factors intentionally push publishers to write more relevant and more valuable content that keeps the reader in mind.