Google September Helpful Content Update 2023 - How Does This Impact My Site?

26 September 2023

By: Kieran Read, Content SEO Executive

Category: Blogs

Google has announced the rollout of their September 2023 Helpful Content Update which is set to wrap up soon – but what does this mean for your site and it’s content?

It’s been a busy few months for Google. This announcement comes hot off the heels of a Core Update which ran from 22 August to 7 September which helps Google refine their abilities to return reliable and relevant results for its users. They also recently updated their Search Central documentation to ensure it indexes CSV files. 

However, the Helpful Content Update presents a new set of considerations to help your content evolve alongside the search engine. Below, we break down what the update is, how it may affect you and how to keep your content ahead of the curve and organically visible.

What is the Helpful Content Update?

As the name suggests, Google’s Helpful Content Updates aim to champion and reward content that is high-quality, informative and user-friendly. They often do so by tackling current issues and spammy tactics which are deemed foul play and/or trying to cheat the system. They also continuously refine the algorithm’s ability to detect the highest quality content for any given search query and placing it higher on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

These updates often occur a few times per year. The last Helpful Content update rolled out between 5 December 2022 to 12 January 2023, following a prior update which was implemented across August 2022.

Google robots checking content

What are the key changes from the September 2023 Helpful Content Update?

Google’s biggest initiative for this recent rollout is to re-address its stance on machine-generated content and clamp down on third-party content hosted on websites or their given subdomains, amongst a few other key areas to consider.

Has Google changed its mind on AI?

Most prior Helpful Content updates would specifically emphasise the importance of content ‘written by people, for people’. This felt especially important given the rise of AI-generated copy, with a pretty clear stance against machine-generated content.

However, Google has since changed its messaging around how it ranks content that has been created or assisted by AI. See both statements below:

Original guidance: 

“Google Search’s helpful content system generates a signal used by our automated ranking systems to better ensure people see original, helpful content written by people, for people, in search results.”

Updated guidance:

“Google Search’s helpful content system generates a signal used by our automated ranking systems to better ensure people see original, helpful content created for people in search results.”

Notice they have removed “by people” in their description. The use of machine-generated content digitally feels inevitable, but also even beneficial to Google’s aspirations for ‘helpful’ content.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should pack out your site with low-effort, low-quality work straight from Chat GPT. Instead, look to incorporate AI into your current practices as opposed to completely replacing them. 

Work to refine your prompts and always take a keen editorial eye to any machine-generated output. This is also alluded to in a change made within Google’s updated Helpful Content Self Assessment: 

Original guidance: 

“Is this content written by an expert or enthusiast who demonstrably knows the topic well?”

Updated guidance:

“Is this content written or reviewed by an expert or enthusiast who demonstrably knows the topic well?”

No more third-party content 

Many sites adopt the strategy of hosting third-party content on either their main pages or subdomains. This is done as a means of transferring some of that site’s ranking power to the lesser-acknowledged subdomain.

Google has now acknowledged this often leads to irrelevant content, especially if posted to the main part of their website, as this sends conflicting signals to search engines about the site’s purpose. See their statement below:

“If you host third-party content on your main site or in your subdomains, understand that such content may be included in site-wide signals we generate, such as the helpfulness of content.

For this reason, if that content is largely independent of the main site’s purpose or produced without close supervision or the involvement of the primary site, we recommend that it should be blocked from being indexed by Google.”

Gary Illyes, a renowned Analyst on the Google Search team, also posted this to LinkedIn:

“We’ve heard (and also noticed) that some sites “rent out” their subdomains or sometimes even subdirectories to third-parties, typically without any oversight over the content that’s hosted on those new, generally low quality micro-sites that have nothing to do with the parent site.

In fact the micro-sites are rarely ever linked from the parent sites, which don’t actually want to endorse these often questionable sites. The only reason the owners of these shady (?) micro-sites rent the sub-spaces is to manipulate search results.”

Google’s stance on this one feels pretty clear: no more third-party content.

Avoid ‘faking’ page updates

Another key area Google is looking at is ‘faking’ how relevant/fresh your content is. The guidelines have seen a couple of new additions which address this directly, including the baseless creation and/or removal of content without topical relevance or care: 

“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)”

The next addition takes aim at the practice of simply changing on-page data:

“Are you changing the date of pages to make them seem fresh when the content has not substantially changed?”

These steps attempt to refocus creators on what actually makes content ‘fresh’ instead of making work and/or workflow simply seem relevant.

Google helpful content update robots checking content

What should I look out for with the new Helpful Content update?

Firstly, don’t panic! If your site abides by these practices and aims to create relevant and informative content, this update could very well go in your favour. 

It’s also important to allow the update to roll out completely so you can accurately assess how it may have impacted your site before any drastic changes are made. Keep a close eye on this page to see when it’s fully wrapped up, and then keep a lookout for any major changes to key performance indicators for your content.

Below, we’ve got a checklist of specific things to look out for following this update (alongside your usual list of best practices, of course!):

Your Helpful Content Update checklist

  1. If you’re using AI, ensure you do so in a subtle way and with keen attention to the ‘human’ audience. It’s a powerful tool but shouldn’t be swapped out entirely for your current process – instead, find an effective middle ground which works for your site.
  2. Avoid hosting any content provided by third parties on your main pages or subdomains.
  3. Ensure that, if you are removing and/or adding mass amounts of content, you are doing so for a specific reason, not just to make your site seem ‘fresh’.
  4. Avoid simply changing the upload dates of articles to make them seem newer and/or more relevant (unless you are making genuine time-sensitive updates).

You can access the entire guidelines by Google for creating helpful content here: 

In need of expert guidance? 

Need help and support with your content strategy, to make the most of the positive improvements Google is making to search? Partnering with a reputable Sitecore agency or Sitecore partners like Sagittarius ensures a smooth implementation and a platform tailored to your specific needs, including understanding Sitecore Pricing for your brand. Contact our team of strategy, content and SEO experts today.

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