Initial Thoughts On The Helpful Content Update

My take as a small-time publisher.

Erik Bassett
5 min readOct 2, 2023

As a side hustle, I publish a small site about a lifelong hobby. It grew in fits and starts to a seasonal peak of around $1,200-$1,400/month.

It was hardly a job replacement — and I never thought it would be — but it was a nice boost to our savings rate.

So it hurt to lose 70% of my traffic over the course of about two days in mid-September.

Ouch. (Google Search Console screenshot by author.)

I won’t pretend to know exactly what Google is doing. I’m not sure any individual knows the entirety of it.

What’s more, keep in mind that this was a fundamentally punitive update. It classified certain sites as “unhelpful” and demoted them, leaving a void for others to fill. To the best of my knowledge, it did not classify other sites as “helpful.” At least not yet.

We can’t draw firm conclusions yet. I’m sure Google prefers the opposite of whatever characteristics these demoted sites share, but that’s not the same as a positive example of what it directly and explicitly rewards.

That said, one clear takeaway is that picking up endless long-tail queries is no longer sufficient or sustainable, and perhaps not even possible.

That worked for a while. In hindsight, though, I think it was a loophole that remained open long enough to resemble a business model for publishers. But, from Google’s perspective, it was more of a bug than a feature.

Some helpfulness isn’t enough

Every article I’ve published is accurate, useful, complete, and imbued with personal experience where possible.

That’s helpful.

However, I’ve come to the painful realization that it’s not necessarily helpful in the sense Google intends.

It’s marginally more helpful to cover the same topics as others, but with better writing and more pertinent anecdotes.

Candidly — and this hurts to acknowledge — that doesn’t mean I created a monumentally more valuable resource that people would be excited to share.

(Does Google actually use sharing data? Probably, but I don’t know. Either way, it’s helpful to think about.)

If that’s not true of many or most pages on the site — if my entire project isn’t a trove of unique information — then the whole site gets this “unhelpful” classification.

Of course, the most important questions remains open:

  • If a helpful but not groundbreaking site is punished, will a helpful and groundbreaking site be rewarded?
  • If Google frowns on writing keyword-driven content, but keywords are what people use to find anything, then how should we try to get found?

This update was all stick and no carrot, so we’ll have to wait and see.

Greater result diversity

Like several other publishers I follow, many queries simply feature more diverse results.

For a couple of my highest-traffic queries, I’m still in the top 3 website results. It’s just that most or all website results are now below YouTube videos, a shopping carousel, and so forth.

In other words, for certain queries, it seems like Google redefined the kind of content that could even be helpful in the first place.

The obvious step here is to get in on that diversity.

  • Start selling pertinent products (even just digital ones).
  • Double down on YouTube.
  • Build your own subreddit and Medium account.

That’s a bigger topic, and I don’t know what makes sense for me, let alone for you.

But it’s clear that web pages will fight for fewer and less visible spots down the road.

Links still matter, but it’s not that simple

I’ve never built links, whether black-hat or white-hat or anything in between. The site accumulated a few relevant links in its 3+ years, but barely enough to push my Ahrefs DR into double digits.

In hindsight, that may have been a mistake.

For some time, I’d lose out to DR 20–40 competitors with subpar content. We’re talking rehashed generalities written by folks who had obviously never participated in the activity.

Yet they’d win.

Most (possibly all) of those sites took enormous hits during the update. Their link profiles did not outweigh their poor content.

So, for all those sorta-but-not-really authoritative domains in the 20s and 30s, coasting along with lame articles may not be viable anymore. (Nor should it be.)

I haven’t done a deep-dive into all their link profiles. But I do know from previous analysis that some achieved their high-ish DR on a mountain of obviously paid placements in other unhelpful articles on other unhelpful sites.

Their houses of cards collapsed, and that doesn’t bother me.

However, there are zero signs that links have ceased to matter. I’d argue that there’s just more of a threshold effect, wherein very authoritative sites (probably in the realm of DR 70+) can still get away with just about anything.

I mean, we’ve all seen Forbes, the infamous Outlook India (although it did take a hit), and piles of obscure local news sites gobble up rankings on every lucrative topic under the Sun.

Nothing stops you from jumping on the parasite SEO bandwagon. That’s not common in my niche, but at the moment, with flatlining traffic, I’m inclined to experiment…

In any case, I would be more eager to build links, but more skeptical of anything but the highest quality of links.

Competitors who took the sketchier route (at the cost of many thousands of dollars) took the same hit I did.

So, what next?

For starters, I’m not doing anything drastic.

My site will still cruise along and pick up some traffic and revenue while the dust settles.

We’re talking about a sitewide classification, here. We don’t know exactly how it can be reversed, let alone how long it takes. A reasonable guess would be several months, i.e., until the next core or helpfulness update.

Still, I can’t say I’m excited to continue. Building a legit media brand is always an option. But there are already several large players in this space, so I’m not sure the juice is worth the squeeze.

However, I’m still excited about the possibilities of online niche publishing in general. It’s just time for franker self-assessment and a more diverse media approach than most of us (myself included) have grown accustomed to.

Speaking of helpfulness, would you like to see some breakdowns of competing sites that did and didn’t fare well in the HCU?

I’ve been interested in doing that sort of research, but it’s a big undertaking, so let me know a) if you’d find that interesting and b) what niche(s) or site(s) pique your interest.

I don’t expect to crack the code, but I do think we’ll find some interesting patterns.