A Guide to Google’s September 2023 Update: How To Recover and Improve Your Rankings

Google’s constant algorithm changes are essential in improving its search experience, it’s why we get things like the December 2022 Link Spam Update, August 2023 Core Update, and, most recently, the September 2023 Helpful Content Update.

The last is particularly important for Google to fulfill its main purpose: showing users the content they’re looking for. Each time Google pushes another Helpful Content Update, it changes how it evaluates content, which determines how it re-ranks said content based on new criteria. 

So what does this mean for you and your website? Let’s go over the key points of this update, what to do with unhelpful content, and how to create more valuable content in the future.

Key Points on the September 2023 Helpful Content Update

This update started rolling out on September 14th. Here’s what we know so far:

Purpose: Evaluates which content was made for rankings, rather than to help users.
Scope: Only affects results on Google Search and Google Discover.
Penalty: Google has not officially mentioned a penalty. However, your rankings may be negatively affected by this update. 
Scale: It is a sitewide algorithm update, so it will affect your website as a whole, rather than just a few pages. 
Impact: No official announcement as to the percentage of searches that were impacted by the Helpful Content Update. 
Languages: Affects all languages.
Recovery: Requires a holistic review of your website’s content. With ongoing rollout and refreshes, it may take time for your rankings to settle, as well as a few more weeks to recover from this update. 

Notable Changes to the Official Helpful Content Page

Google has a page all about the Helpful Content Update, which you can read here. It has recently been updated, which provides more points of consideration if you’re looking to recover from it.

Added new guidelines on hosting third-party content.
Added suggestions on what webmasters can do after the Helpful Content Update.
Added new considerations on removing content and changing publishing dates.

The last change is especially interesting. In the previous version of the page, Google wrote:

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. This page explains more about how the system works, and what you can do to assess and improve your content.

Now it reads:

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. This page explains more about how the system works, and what you can do to assess and improve your content.

See the difference? They removed the words “written by people” — which could mean that they are now officially considering that AI-written or augmented content may be helpful to users. 

It’s something I mentioned months ago when I covered how Google can detect AI-generated content—even though they can tell when you use AI, it doesn’t automatically think it’s bad. But you do have to be careful about how you use it. 

I cannot stress this enough: do not use AI just to generate tons of content to rank. You need to ensure the content is of quality and input your expertise to make it unique and valuable to users (i.e., making sure it has a human touch.)

How to Recover from the September 2023 Helpful Content Update

The answer lies in its name: Helpful Content Update. To recover, you need to consider if your content, as it is now, is helpful for the users that read it. If it isn’t then you need to follow this strategy:

Review your keywords. Are you targeting the right keywords for your business? If not, it’s time to find better ones. I have a guide on how to do keyword research you can follow. You can also experiment with tools like SE Ranking to discover relevant keywords and phrases. While doing this, pay attention to long-tail keywords and latent semantic indexing (LSI) keywords. Using these in your strategy can help diversify your content and cater to different user queries.
Analyze user intent. If you are targeting the right keywords, are you pairing it with the right content and page type? Remember, the Helpful Content Update will prioritize those that align with user search intent. Understanding why users are searching for specific keywords is crucial. 
Reevaluate your content. If the page type aligns with the search intent of a keyword, then it’s time to take a look at your content. The Helpful Content Update will reward pages that provide substantial information and value to users. Strive for in-depth, comprehensive articles that thoroughly cover a given topic. Keep E-E-A-T in mind when writing. 
Improve user experience. Aside from the usual UX considerations, think about the experience your users are looking for when they try to find content like yours. Put yourselves in their shoes. If they’re searching for your keyword, what is their state of mind? Are they looking for a quick answer? Or an in-depth solution? Tailor the flow of your content to create that experience they’re looking for. 
Refresh content. Make sure your content is all updated, especially if it’s on a topic where data or information needs to be updated frequently. Keep in mind that Google values fresh, up-to-date content.

Webmaster’s Note: This is an update to my previous guide to Google’s Helpful Content Update, where I share my insights and strategies to better align your content with Google’s newest standards. Read that if you want a more in-depth guide for your content. 

Key Takeaway

Google’s Helpful Content update once again emphasizes user-centricity and content quality. Recovering from this update means a thorough assessment of your website, and realigning your SEO content strategy with Google’s new standards.

Keep keyword targeting, aligning content with user intent, improving content quality and freshness, and creating the best possible user experience in mind while creating your new SEO strategy. Do that, and you may just see your rankings recover—or even improve—over the next few weeks.

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