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Google’s September 2023 Helpful Content Update: What Changed & Why?

By Amanda Tietjen

September 15, 2023

september 2023 helpful content update

On September 14th, Google rolled out the September 2023 Helpful Content Update, its latest algorithm update affecting search rankings. According to Google’s documentation, this update specifically targets the helpful content system classifier. It’s expected to take about 2 weeks to fully roll out.

What exactly does this update mean for content creators and SEO professionals? A few key changes were made to Google’s helpful content documentation that provide clues as to what this algorithm update prioritizes. Let’s break it down:

1. Google Clarifies Stance on “AI-Written” Content

In the past, the opening paragraph of Google’s helpful content guidance stated content should be “created by people for people.” This wording has now been updated to simply say “created for people” without the mention of human-written.

Rather than saying “Google states…” repeatedly, we can surmise that this change likely confirms content written with AI assistance is acceptable to Google, as long as it provides original information focused on helping users. This exemplifies one way AI is reshaping SEO.

2. Expertise Can Be From Writers & Reviewers

Previously, Google evaluated whether content was “written by an expert” when gauging expertise as part of their E-E-A-T signals in SEO. September’s updated guidance now clarifies that high-quality, expert content can be “written or reviewed by an expert.”

The main takeaway here is that having an expert review and verify content can be enough to signal expertise on a topic, even if that expert did not directly write the piece themselves.

3. Ensure All Subdomains Follow Helpful Content Principles

Google added a paragraph to their helpful content guidance regarding hosting third-party content on your website. 

“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, an analyst on the Google Search team, then posted on LinkedIn to provide additional insight into what spurred this portion of the update: 

“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.”

There are a few interesting tidbits to pull out of these statements. 

  1. This change is aimed at catching sites who are attempting to game the SEO system by renting out subdomain microsites to third-parties with no oversight of the content. So if you are consistently following SEO best practices and posting relevant, original, helpful content curated to your audience, then you have nothing to worry about here. 
  2. If you are curating third-party content, make sure to provide unique analysis, commentary, or perspective to be considered high-quality. Simply grabbing and reposting content from other sites won’t pass muster.
  3. Historically, Google has treated subdomains as separate from the main domains for SEO.  As recently as last year, Google’s Public Liaison for Search Danny Sullivan explained, “We tend to see subdomains apart from root domains.” However, this September update highlights that, at least for the site-wide helpful content signal, they may be evaluated together. The takeaway? You should take a holistic look at the helpfulness of your content across your entire digital presence (not just the main domain) to stay in Google’s good graces. 

4. Don’t Manipulate Dates Without Content Updates

We know that freshness of content is important to both search engines and users. All things the same, I’m going to choose an article from search results that was written in 2023 over one from 2015.

However, in response to websites trying to game the system by simply modifying the dates of old content without making any significant tweaks, Google added this line to their documentation:  

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

To align with their guidelines, page publish dates should only be updated if there is significant new information added to the post at the same time.

5. Keep Creating Helpful, People-Focused Content

After each algorithm update, Google’s overarching advice remains the same: Focus on publishing genuinely helpful content that provides value to human users rather than trying to reverse engineer or game the system.

The key for content creators is to stay focused on producing genuinely helpful, high-quality content rather than trying to reverse engineer Google’s algorithms. Provide tangible value focused on human users and best practices. As Google continues updating their systems, doing this will pose your content for ongoing search success.

Google Algorithm Tweaks Come and Go – Creating Great Content is Timeless

Don’t let the latest Google update shake you. Their core advice remains unchanged – create content focused on helping users, not ranking keywords. Lean into best practices like expert-backed content, fresh information and site-wide quality.
Avoid trying to hack the system and instead focus on your audience’s needs. Useful content that provides value will satisfy both users and Google. For hands-on help improving your strategy, our team of experts is here to assist.

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