Web Development

Google HCU Helpful Content Update: All you need to know

By Steven, on November 7, 2023, updated on October 23, 2023 - 5 min read

In response to user dissatisfaction and the degradation of online content quality, Google has recently launched a major update: Google HCU Helpful Content Update.

Its goal? Penalize content that is not or barely useful to the user.

So, if you’ve noticed a sudden drop in traffic or visibility of your website on Google since August 2022, December 2022 or September 2023, this update could well be the cause…

And, like any website owner who sees their site’s performance plummet after a “penalty”, you’re worried. That’s normal.

But rest assured, although annoying this algorithm is not a penalty in itself, and, with a little methodology, by showing good faith, it is possible to remedy this problem.

Think you’ve been penalized by Google’s update? Don’t panic, Debugbar, gives you all the keys to understand this update and know how to adapt your content.

So, ready to dive into the heart of the subject and thwart the pitfalls of this update? Let’s go!

What is Google’s Helpful Content Update?

The Helpful Content Update is an update of Google’s algorithm designed to assess and reward content quality. Initially applied to English language sites (on August 25, 2022), it now applies to all content since December 5, 2022, and was updated on September 14, 2023.

Its mission? Promote the visibility of content that is genuinely helpful to users and, conversely, penalize those that are simply intended for search engines and completely unhelpful for users.

In SEO jargon, this is called a “ranking signal”. That is to say, it allows Google to adjust the positioning (ranking) of a website based on the quality of its content.

So this is quite an important update. And, as you might have guessed, Google put it in place for a good reason…

what is google helpful content update

Why did Google make this update?

Let’s be frank, Google wants users to find what they’re looking for on their Search engine. Yes, that seems simple enough, doesn’t it? But if users are constantly confronted with dubious, redundant, or simply useless content, they will have a poor experience and eventually turn elsewhere for information.

And Google certainly doesn’t want that!

So HCU is Google’s weapon to counteract this degradation of online quality linked to the rise of AI and improve user experience.

It is designed to encourage content creators to produce material that is genuinely helpful and relevant to their audience.

How does the HCU algorithm work?

It’s simple. The HCU algo is referred to as “sitewide”. In other words, it doesn’t just look at a single page but the entirety of a site’s pages.

This means that if a site has an excess number of pages deemed irrelevant, its overall score can decrease within this algo.

However, keep in mind that HCU can have a greater or lesser impact on websites.

For example, a site that mostly contains irrelevant content may see its traffic significantly affected for several months.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what Google bases its content quality evaluation on? Well, let’s look at that right now…

What criteria does the HCU algorithm use?

Helpful Content Update examines several criteria to assess the relevance of content, including:

  • Editorial quality: The algo will analyze if your content meets the expectations of your users. It must be concise and well-written.
  • The presence of AI-generated content: Helpful Content Update was designed to detect if content has been generated by artificial intelligence. Such contents are often of poor quality and therefore penalized.
  • User behavior: Google takes into account signals such as time spent on the site or bounce rate to judge content quality.
  • Google EAT: Three key factors that Google takes into account:
    • expertise,
    • authority,
    • and trust (EAT in English).

Furthermore, you should know that Google continuously analyzes all sites.

In other words, there’s no specific time or day to be evaluated by the algo. However, it can take several months for changes made to your content to be reflected in its ranking.

google algo

In which situations might Google penalize you?

The Helpful Content Update is fairly strict and can penalize your site in certain circumstances. You are at risk of being penalized if:

  • Your content is mainly created to please search engines rather than provide real value to users. In short, if your content is an awful mess that only consists of keyword stuffing, Google is highly likely to penalize you.
  • You produce large quantities of content in the hope of improving your website SEO, but without really adding value for your readers. Creating content just for the sake of creating content is not a good strategy. Google will now prioritize web page quality over quantity.
  • You use automation to generate content. AI is fairly good at certain points, but when it comes to writing, the texts lose quality compared to human writers. This makes reading not always enjoyable for the reader.
  • Your website’s content is redundant or paraphrases other sources without providing additional information or a different perspective. In these cases, you’re just producing yet another uninteresting piece of content.

If you recognize yourself in these situations, it’s possible that the algo has affected your site’s traffic or positioning.

How to know if your website is penalized or at risk of being penalized?

After all we’ve discussed, the crucial question is: how can you know if you’re in the algo’s crosshairs?

The first clue could be a significant drop in your traffic or a fall in your positioning in Google’s search engine results.

If you notice a decline in performance, you will then need to ask yourself these questions to determine if your content is the problem:

  • Was your content primarily created for search engines?
  • Do you produce large amounts of content in hopes of improving your SEO?
  • Are you excessively using AI to generate content?
  • Is your content redundant without adding value?
  • Are you tackling trending topics unrelated to your audience?
  • Does your content lead elsewhere for additional information?
  • Are you following a word limit to appease Google?
  • Are you exploiting a niche without being an expert in the field?

Did you answer yes to several of these questions? Then there’s little doubt, if you’ve noticed a drop in traffic, Google has decided to penalize you. Ouch… This is troublesome. But don’t worry, there are solutions.

yellow card

What to do if you’re penalized by Google?

If you suspect a penalty by the Helpful Content Update algo, here are some actions to take:

  • Check the association between the SEO decline and this update. If the date of the sudden drop in traffic or ranking predates the update, the problem may lie elsewhere.
  • Perform a complete audit of your site to identify pages that are more focused on SEO than on the user.
  • Improve these pages by emphasizing expertise, authority, and trust (E-A-T in English) and by meeting the promises made in title tags and meta descriptions.
  • Delete low-value or irrelevant pages and set up redirects.

To put it simply, you need to show good faith to regain credibility in Google’s eyes.

But beware: the changes you make to your site to meet this algo’s demands will not have immediate effects. You will likely have to wait a few months before seeing improvements.

Haven’t been penalized but want to avoid it? Have you gotten out of the penalty and want to avoid going back? Then the following will be of interest to you.

Our 7 SEO Tips to Avoid Getting Penalized by Google HCU

  1. Add humanity and expertise: Google appreciates texts written by real people who know their subject well. Demonstrate your expertise and passion through your content.
  2. Select relevant keywords: Choose keywords that really align with the subject of your content and match what your users are likely to search for.
  3. Comprehensively answer audience questions: Show depth in your answers to give your readers all the information they need.
  4. Add unique value for readers: Your content should not simply repeat what is found elsewhere on the internet. Provide a new angle, perspective, or exclusive information.
  5. Balance SEO expectations with invested resources: Don’t sacrifice the quality of your content for dubious SEO tactics. The game isn’t worth the candle.
  6. Avoid duplication or paraphrasing: Your content should be original and personal. If you’re citing another site, do it properly and contribute your own thoughts to the topic.
  7. Cite sources when necessary: This is a proof of honesty and transparency that will be appreciated by your readers and by Google.

Google Helpful Content Update: Key Takeaways

To summarize, here are three important points to remember about Google’s Helpful Content Update (HCU):

  • The update aims to promote quality and user-beneficial content, while penalizing ones mainly designed for search engines.
  • Penalized websites can carry out an audit, optimize impacted pages, improve their technical SEO score, and be patient.
  • Creating content primarily intended for users, clearly adding value for readers, demonstrating genuine expertise, and aligning with Google’s advice is recommended.