As someone who has been writing online content for the last two decades, I’ve often received lengthy “SEO (search engine optimization) briefs” listing numerous keywords to be placed into the content a specified number of times at specific places, including in the title and subheadings. “SEO requirements” have, over the years, dictated the length of content, the number of keywords within, the number of links included, the title of the content, and much more.
Inorganic SEO requirements don’t help readers
While content creators like myself have generally understood the importance of SEO and search rankings for online content, working with rigid SEO requirements can feel like a straightjacket that limits content creativity and doesn’t result in helpful, readable content for consumers. Almost all content creators want to make organic, creative content that truly helps people who neither know about, nor care about, SEO requirements. People simply want content that’s valuable.
SEO has long sought to “figure out” what Google’s mysterious, all-important search engine algorithm requires for a high ranking. And if you think writing that sort of SEO-first content is tedious (trust me, it is), try reading this formulaic stuff – it can read like a bored robot wrote it on a bad day.
Google’s update: Creating content for humans, not search engines
Google created the “give the algorithm what it wants” problem and is now seeking to solve it with its recently launched Helpful Content Update. The new update began its roll out on August 25th and took until early September to conclude. The tone and content of Google’s Helpful Content Update announcement was music to the ears of every content creator and marketer who prefers to create content for real human beings rather than algorithms.
“We know people don’t find content helpful if it seems like it was designed to attract clicks rather than inform readers,” said Google’s announcement. “We’re rolling out a series of improvements to Search to make it easier for people to find helpful content made by, and for, people.”
Google is well aware that search engine optimization has become more of a rigid, formulaic game than a way to create content that actually serves and informs people. Users of Google’s search engine have noticed the problem for many years and have been complaining to Google about an array of misleading tactics driven by SEO “tricks,” including misleading headlines, content filled with repetitive, distracting SEO keywords, and content that performs well for SEO but that lacks any real insight or value for readers. Bottom line? People go to Google’s search engine for information and actionable insights, not to get tricked, and Google is now advocating for its human users.
“This ranking update will help make sure that unoriginal, low quality content doesn’t rank highly in Search,” says Google, “and our testing has found it will especially improve results related to online education, as well as arts and entertainment, shopping and tech-related content.”
Human-Centricity: It’s been a long time coming
These changes to Google’s search engine rankings that prioritize people over algorithms, that reward the helpfulness and originality of content over its adherence to some “check-the-box” approach to SEO, have been long overdue. The changes are great news for marketers and content creators who put helping people above “tricking” a search engine algorithm. The changes are also great news for people who use Google search to actually find useful, insightful, and original content.
Who does the change hurt? Anyone who has been creating and posting content with the primary purpose of driving search engine visibility and traffic, rather than helping people. These SEO tricksters will now need to perform the hardest trick of all (for them): actually helping people by creating valuable content.
Advice for adapting to Google's Helpful Content Update
Google helpfully provided the Search Engine Roundtable with two sets of questions content creators and marketers can ask themselves about their content in order to determine whether it will perform well with the new content update.
Answering “yes” to some or all of the questions is a warning sign that you might be taking a “search engine-first” approach (not a “people-first” approach) and should therefore reevaluate:
- Is the content primarily made for search engines rather than 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 said before without adding much value?
- Are you writing about things simply because they seem trending and not because you’d write about them otherwise?
- 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?
Google also added that “people-first content creators focus first on creating satisfying content. Answering “yes” to all or some of the questions below means you’re probably on the right track with a people-first approach to content.” Here’s the second set of questions:
- Do you have an existing or intended audience for your business 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 (for example, expertise that comes from having actually used a product or service, or visiting a place)?
- 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?
The bottom line on Google's Search Rankings update
The update from Google search offers marketers a clear message: create content that prioritizes value and usefulness for people rather than applying rigid SEO requirements. Google has, after a long time coming, finally gotten it right. Of course content should be created for people, not search engines. That’s a win-win-win for content creators, marketers, and anyone who seeks value from content.