On-page SEO

Helpful Content Recovery, per Studies

Google’s Helpful Content algorithm is now part of its core ranking system. Still, the impact of the Helpful Content component has been both severe and vague. The effect can be sitewide, with no clear recovery path.

Google states that its algorithms “are designed to present helpful, reliable information that’s primarily created to benefit people, not to gain search engine rankings.”

What does that mean? Do we not optimize for keywords?

SEO Studies

The answer may be to examine the data. A study by Cyrus Shepard, the founder of Syppy SEO, a consulting firm, examined 50 sites that lost or gained organic search traffic from Google updates in August through December of 2023.

The study found:

1. Sites with excessive ads risk being hit by a Helpful Content update. This aligns with Google’s page experience guidelines, which include a self-assessment for site owners. Google says answering “yes” to the following questions means the site is “on track in providing a good page experience”:

  • “Does the content lack an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?”
  • “Do pages lack intrusive interstitials?”
Screenshot of an illustration from Google of a mobile screen with a pop-up blocking the content.

Avoid interstitials that block content, such as this example from Google.

The guidelines also advise against using “intrusive interstitials [pop-ups] and dialogs … that obstruct users’ view of the content.”

The findings in Shepard’s study align with those of Glenn Gabe, the founder of G-Squared Interactive, an SEO firm, who revealed a strong correlation between sites heavily punished by Helpful Content updates and poor user experience, especially intrusive ads.

In short, to recover from a Helpful Content update, remove ads that obstruct a view of the content.

2. Writing in the first person may prevent a Helpful Content loss. Shephard’s study found a correlation between using first-person pronouns and not losing rankings from Helpful Content updates.

This also aligns with Google’s guidelines for human search-quality evaluators (PDF), which emphasize the importance of first-hand experience on the topic.

To me, first-person pronouns are not a direct ranking factor, although they may inform Google of first-hand experiences.

Thus to recover from a Helpful Content update, personalize your content with first-hand experiences, opinions, and observations.

For example, when reviewing platforms and apps, I describe how I used each tool and the features I liked and disliked.

3. Other elements correlate with Helpful Content impacts. These include:

  • Cookie consent forms (positive impact),
  • Contact details (positive impact),
  • Stock images (negative impact).

I believe these may be coincidences rather than causes. Higher-authority sites with quality content tend to have cookie consent forms and contact-us details. They are also less likely to use stock images. They are unaffected by Helpful Content updates owing to their content and topical authority.

I am unaware of a Helpful Content recovery example, especially after the dramatic September update. Google claims it takes months to recover — likely in the next update. Hence, while studies are helpful, recovery strategies largely rely on theories and guesses.

Ann Smarty
Ann Smarty
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