Google’s latest search algorithm update could have important ramifications for brand publishers.
The “Helpful Content Update” will begin rolling out next week, and is designed to better prioritize content written for and by humans, rather than that created primarily to cater to algorithms or by automated copywriting programs. Google has long stated its search algorithms are designed to favor content that helps and informs searchers best, and says its latest update is designed to do just that by deprioritizing thin-value content that’s primarily designed to generate traffic rather than satisfy the needs of users after the click.
Google’s move is part of a larger, industry-wide shift towards content that’s better in sync with the needs, demands and tastes of real humans. Websites are littered with low-value content designed purely to generate traffic or drive action from visitors, but the pendulum is swinging back towards content that engages and informs rather than content that generates traffic.
Brands have been as guilty of this as anyone. So-called “content marketing” can often end up being less content and more marketing, a honeytrap designed to get people on brand websites in order to shill products or gather leads. It’s one big reason why, when advising clients, we talk more broadly about brand publishing, which goes beyond tactical content creation to be a much more cohesive, audience-first content strategy that seeks to inform, educate, entertain and elucidate.
As Kameron Jenkins, who manages content for Shopify tweeted in response to the update, brands must remember “audience is the goal.”
We broke down some of the nuances of the update and how it’ll affect brand publishers below.
Prioritize audiences, not search engines
Working inside newsrooms, the big difference you immediately notice is that writers, reporters and editors generally talk about people first. The goal is to create content that is designed for people, whether it’s to help them learn about something, keep them informed, or just entertain them. It’s an important distinction that brands are serious about publishing must also make: Content has to be for people, not search engines. That means brand publishers will have to be more thoughtful than ever about who their audience is, what their goals and needs are, and where they have permission to enter the conversation.
Demonstrating expertise and a depth of knowledge
Brand publishers have to be careful and thoughtful about the topics and stories that they engage in. Successful publishers rely on existing in-house expertise that can be parlayed into content. That means only covering the topics where authoritative expertise already exists, and staying away from topics that may be zeitgeisty, but aren’t relevant to what the brand does. Crowding into already competitive areas without a clear reason to be there will hurt in the long run.
Ensure there is a primary focus
The update will reward websites that have a clearly demonstrated focus or purpose. That means publications should have a clear audience and content strategy that is “ownable” on a consistent basis. Having a clear sense of focus in the topics that are covered and what purpose they serve will stand brand publishers well. The update will not reward content destinations that produce a lot of disparate content on different topics.
Brands should be wary of automated copy-generating tools
Those relying too heavily on automation could find their content deprioritized in search results. Many brands use automation that combines keywords with audience “profiles” to generate content in an effort to make the content production process less resource-heavy. That is often what results in supposed search-friendly content that uses all the right words, but rarely is helpful or authoritative.
Length for the sake of length is now a thing of the past
Thin-value content is often long because of a (mistaken) assumption that Google rewards it. That often leads to many websites publishing content that repeats itself in an effort to get to a certain word count, because they’re doing it with search in mind. Google says that a “warning sign” is if content is too long just because it is, without a clear reason. This will mean brand publishers must be even more careful to ensure content gets to the point early and answers the question it sets out to.
Being original is paramount
The update will also reward content that answers questions, leaves readers feeling like they learned something of value (and they don’t have to keep digging) and that adds something to the conversation. Google says that content that only summarizes without adding analysis or value will be dinged. That may mean that brands interested in publishing should think about building reporting expertise versus relying on aggregation or “curation” only.