Helpful Content Update Recovery

If you lost rankings (and likely revenue) during Google’s Helpful Content Update this fall, recovery is possible and there is hope. It started rolling out in September of 2023, and many folks continued to see declines in their rankings throughout the core updates in October and November.

I had a different experience than most during the Helpful Content Update – my site took a big leap up.

Google had tried launching Helpful Content the previous year, but ultimately rolled it back for the most part. My partner and I had a feeling that they were going to fix the issues and re-release. We took a look at what sites it had promoted during their first attempt, what had been demoted, and what the commonalities were there. We did look at what they said the update was about, but you do need to take information from Google with a grain of salt. At the end of the day, the data is always your most reliable source of information.

We spent the entire summer busting our butts overhauling our website to better align with what Google would be looking for when Helpful Content came back. That’s the thing people seem to get caught up on – “But my site/page IS helpful and provides folks with great content!” The thing is, it doesn’t matter one iota what you deem helpful or relevant content, the only thing that will get you into the top results is matching what Google is looking for, and doing it better than anyone else.

Here are some things that HCU is not about:

  • Your backlinks
  • Your site speed
  • Your posting frequency
  • Having a table of contents on your post/page (this is fraught with potential for demotion, actually)
  • Your image alt tags (also fraught)
  • Keywords in headers & strong tags (you guessed it, fraught)

Helpful content is about two things:

  1. The quality of the content on your post or page
  2. The quality of the content your site as a whole

And remember, ‘quality’ is subjective and according to Google – not you.

I hear folks saying SEO is dead/a dumpster fire, is that true?

Not from where I’m standing, and in a way I think it’s actually a lot better than it was when I started out 10 years ago. Before you pull out the pitchfork, let me explain. Is search more competitive than it was 10 years ago? Yes, absolutely. Big publications and companies figured out there was really good money to be made online. Has AI changed things? Of course it has, but search has been continually evolving for the past 10 years. Change in the industry is nothing new, and this won’t be the last time it changes. Anyone old enough to remember the Panda and Penguin updates? Those didn’t destroy search, and neither will HCU.

However, it’s also much harder to scam your way into the top results than it was 10 years ago. I see way less spammy garbage sites in the top results now. Back in the day there were churn and burn site farms that would steal & spin content that barely made any sense, buy a boatload of backlinks to point at their terrible site, and rank #1 for massive searches like ‘Amazon coupon code’. The sites would eventually get taken down by Google, but in the meantime they’d rake in millions of dollars. And when one got nuked, they had another one ready to launch.

It was frustrating, y’all. When I’m losing out to a big site like The Guardian or Reddit (even though their content might not be amazing) I’m like “Okay, fair enough.” When I was losing to featuring unintelligible content it kinda toasted my buns, y’know?

So, yes, there are a lot more major players on the field than there used to be. And yes, they can get away with mid to crappy content sometimes based purely on the strength of the amount of traffic they get on a daily basis, and the quality of the site overall.

BUT – you can still rank, and well. I actually look at those searches where frankly bad content from big sites is doing well as fantastic opportunities. You can’t beat them on traffic (I mean, probably, I don’t know your site) but you can absolutely beat them on content. It will take time, it will take effort, but it is possible to do it. Even if you can just rank alongside them initially, when folks bounce off their crappy content your site will be ready and waiting with great information. Over time, that will get you promoted.

“I just feel so defeated…I put my heart & soul (not to mention hours, and probably some tears) into my site & Google just pushed it aside for big corporate sites”

First of all, I’ve been there and I’m sorry. It really sucks to work so hard, and get no result or have it taken away. Here is what I have learned in 10 years of SEO though:

  • It’s not personal. Google doesn’t know you exist, and search is currently being managed by an AI that isn’t capable of empathy anyways.
  • The only constant is change. You must practice the skill of adapting and pivoting to be successful at this in the long term.
  • The only thing you can truly rely on is the data. You can’t trust what John Mueller said on X, not what Google has on their official documentation, and not what any SEO experts say (For the record: I’m not an ‘SEO Expert’, I’m just a fellow webmaster who had big success through HCU).
  • Generally, things take longer than you think they will. SEO is a marathon, not a sprint – and quite often you don’t see the full effect of changes you make to your site until there is a broad core update. My big jump up during HCU was the result of 6 months of work prior to it.

I would really encourage you not to give up, it’s only been a few months and while they may have been tough months financially (and again, I’m sorry if they have been because I’ve been through that and it’s rough), you’ve read this far which tells me you want to get your rankings and your life back.

Full disclosure – my partner and I were struggling with our rankings for years until we got really serious, took a hard look at our content, and completely overhauled our site. That’s how we were able to thrive when everyone else was getting an absolute thrashing in the rankings this fall.

I see so many folks now who remind me of myself in the past: they are watching their income dwindle or disappear, trying to fix it, and getting no or negative results. It’s an awful & scary place to be, and that’s why I want to help. I wanted to create an educational resource rather than a service (though that is available, too) so that I could help more people, and they could develop the skills they will need for long-term results. All of my recommendations and current best practices are based on myself and my partners own testing and results in real world scenarios.

And you are…?

As I said earlier, I’m not an SEO expert or guru – for one thing I feel like SEO is so fluid that you can never really be an expert, you must always be learning. Teaching SEO is not my full time job, in fact this is my first foray into it. My full-time job for the last 10 years is running several coupon websites, mostly for the web hosting and travel industries but we have lots of different partner merchants we work with. I also do WordPress development on the side because I’m a huge nerd (you may have already guessed) and I find it fun! Honestly, that’s a very small part of my income though and mostly done for my own personal enjoyment.

Back to the coupon sites. We’ve never paid for ads or traffic (okay there was one experiment, but we deemed it not worth following up on), our sites don’t have any presence on social media, and we don’t have mailing lists. We’ve always gotten all of our traffic through organic search. At it’s peak, our business was bringing in more than $100,000 per month – yes, month – being run out of a home office with two people.

However, after doing really well for the first several years, our rankings had started to decline. It wasn’t that traffic dried up overnight, it was more like death by 1000 paper cuts. Each algorithm update seemed to drop a few more of our pages from the top results, which meant our income was going lower and lower. What was really curious was we would make improvements to the sites based on suggestions that came directly from Google, and our rankings would dip lower. Huh?!?!

We joined multiple, expensive groups run by ‘SEO experts’ (one of whom turned out not to actually run any real sites of their own 🤨), and the advice was always unhelpful. It’s not entirely their fault, part of the problem is that with the way search works now you really need to be tracking your own data and doing your own research. There are some very general things that will apply across all searches, but for the detailed stuff that actually moves the needle it’s going to vary from search to search. We focus entirely on searches that are things like ‘(Merchant Name) coupon code’ and even though you would ostensibly think that what would be considered ‘helpful’ would be the same across the board no matter what type of coupon it was, that’s not always the case! The coupon niche is extremely competitive, you are always going up against big name sites and publications, so you have to be spot on to have any chance at all of getting into the top results.

Honestly, we’d been through things like this before with the Panda and Penguin updates, it wasn’t the first time we’d had to pretty much rebuild all our content and it probably won’t be the last. The difference this time around was that the ‘fix’ was much more nuanced than adding 1000 words to every post or just making sure backlink text said specific things. So, we got serious that we needed to change our approach, start collecting our own information, really dig into the data, and write our content in the way that would best appeal to Google. I know, I know, JM always says ‘write for people not the algorithm’ but, frankly, that’s garbage. If the algorithm doesn’t like the content, you’ll never get in front of any people. Please don’t misinterpret me: I’m not saying to write content that is a keyword-stuffed out the wazoo nightmare. A) That won’t work. B) Your content should always be human-readable/enjoyable as well, but I do prioritize making sure that the algorithm will find it helpful and relevant enough to actually show it to people first.

We started working on overhauling one of our bigger sites that had previously been a top earner in March 2023, got it largely updated by the end of August of 2023, and by the time HCU rolled around in September we started seeing some upward movement. I can’t tell you what a relief that was after actual years of really middling results. I would also like to stress: we built absolutely no backlinks and made maybe a couple of new posts during this time. Let me say that again: NOT ONE BACKLINK WAS ADDED. We probably lost one or two, to be honest.

Encouraged by the results, we kept going and making improvements to our content. October and November brought big leaps forward, and now we’re starting off 2024 with our traffic is as high as ever plus a broader spread of posts that are doing well in the SERPs. I’m so glad that we didn’t throw in the towel, and that we didn’t give up on our sites.

I don’t know what the future of search will be, it will certainly be interesting to see how things develop with AI becoming more and more prevalent. I know the general feeling in the industry seems to be doom and gloom and that we should all move to Pinterest instead, but my outlook is positive. Now that we’ve rescued one site, for 2024 we’re going to work on bringing back some of our other sites that were previously good earners. And, I hope to be able to help some other folks do that for their sites too.

(Me too, I see you friend!)

If you are interested but just can’t swing it right now, you can always join the mailing list. That way you won’t forget about me, and when you’re ready the program will be ready and waiting for you!

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