Google Search recently announced an upcoming update to its Search algorithm called the “helpful content update.” Google is continuing on its path to improve the quality of search results in an effort to deliver and prioritize “more content by people, for people in Search.”
This is great news, but it has sent ripples through online communities of marketers about the potential penalties for using AI writing tools to create SEO content. As expected, some see this as the death of AI writing tools, and others look at it as nothing has changed as long as these tools are used responsibly.
In the release, they state, “The helpful content update aims to better reward content where visitors feel they’ve had a satisfying experience, while content that doesn’t meet a visitor’s expectations won’t perform as well.”
Doesn’t seem like a big change, right? This is exactly how it should be.
If we are assuming AI content will be penalized (if they can detect it), we are assuming that the AI generated content doesn’t meet the visitor’s expectations in terms of answering their questions and delivering value.
Of course this should be the case. If you publish garbage content using AI, you should not see good results. If you publish useful content using AI, there’s no reason it will be penalized.
AI generated content is not synonymous with low quality content. However, AI generated content can certainly be low quality, just like content created by low quality writers.
Content published on your site, whether AI plays a role or not, must provide value. If we are just publishing content according to a set of SEO and keyword guidelines without providing any value, we’re not doing ourselves any favors. We may get more traffic, but the majority of readers will recognize the low quality content and will not engage with the brand because of it.
This may not be how a lot of publishers operate. Some only try to create as much content in as many niches as possible to drive traffic and ad revenue. This isn’t what most “brands”, like B2B software or service providers are doing. They are creating content to drive relevant traffic and provide value to prospective and current customers.
The big reveal in this announcement is the explicit mention of the “extensive automation” in the “things to avoid” section that we’ll discuss below. If not for this, I doubt this release would be making as much noise as it is. In any case, let’s have a closer look at what the release says and the potential implications of using AI writing tools.
What is in the upcoming Google Search Update?
The Helpful Content Update announcement is light on details, but it provides a bit of insight into how Google Search is going to prioritize content moving forward. First, a set of “to-dos” is outlined as a checklist we can refer to as we create original content. This is followed up by a set of “don’t dos” to be similarly used. Finally, some details around how the update will be implemented and what to expect moving forward are provided.
People-first content is content created “by people, for people.”
Content should serve a purpose, include an original point of view, and add value beyond the references included in the piece. The content should not be an amalgamation of keywords that the writer is trying to rank for. Relevant keywords should appear naturally in order to add real value to the reader.
The “by people” part refers to who is writing the content, whether it’s a human writer, an AI writing tool, or a partnership between human writer and AI.
The “for people” part refers to writing content that actually helps people, rather than content that simply tries to rank and drive traffic. After all, the Google Search algorithm is simply an algorithm that takes into account thousands of parameters, most of them technical. After enough trial and error, it can be partially reversed engineered and content can rank without adding any real value to the reader.
Checklist of “to-dos”
The checklist of things “to do” when creating content is a series of questions you should ask yourself before hitting publish. They are as follows:
- Do you have an existing or intended audience for your business or site that would find the content useful if they came directly to you?
Commentary: Assuming search engines didn’t exist, would your prospective and current customers/audience find your content useful?
- Does your content clearly demonstrate first-hand expertise and a depth of knowledge (for example, expertise that comes from having actually used a product or service, or visiting a place)?
- Does your site have a primary purpose or focus?
Commentary: Make sure you’re not writing about too many things. Readers should know what they are getting into when they visit your site. This is sort of like a restaurant that serves too many styles of food. They can’t possibly do it all great, and it most likely is all sub-par.
- After reading your content, will someone leave feeling they’ve learned enough about a topic to help achieve their goal?
- Will someone reading your content leave feeling like they’ve had a satisfying experience?
- Are you keeping in mind our guidance for core updates and for product reviews?
Some of these are straightforward and self explanatory, but others are still quite vague. For example, evaluating whether or not a reader will leave “feeling like they’ve had a satisfying experience” could not be more loosely defined. But that seems to be the purpose of this entire update. We should be spending less time worrying about what the algorithm is looking for and more time worrying about what the reader is looking for.
Checklist of “don’t-dos”
The list of “don’t dos” is a similarly structured set of questions to ask yourself before hitting publish. They are largely redundant to the “to do” list, but in any case here they are:
- Is the content primarily to attract people from search engines, rather than made for humans?
Commentary: This is the “for people” part of the “by people, for people” mantra. They want writers to stop worrying about the algorithm and continue to create content that informs and entertains.
- Are you producing lots of content on different topics in hopes that some of it might perform well in search results?
Commentary: This is the same as #3 in the “to do” checklist. Don’t spray and pray. Hopefully your site is focused on a few core topics that are related to avoid this type of penalty.
- Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?
Commentary: Here it is. The one point that references “AI” in an indirectly direct way. Automation here is referring to automated content creation using tools like AI content writers. If this wasn’t in this update, everything else would really seem obvious and rooted in common sense. It’s important to note the specific language they use in saying “content on many topics.” They are referring to the users of AI writing tools that abuse their power by creating a spray and pray approach to publishing a huge number of blogs across an illogical number of topics. Normal users of AI writing tools that stick to a niche and closely edit their content absolutely do not fall into this bucket.
- Are you mainly summarizing what others have to say without adding much value?
- Are you writing about things simply because they seem trending and not because you’d write about them otherwise for your existing audience?
- Does your content leave readers feeling like they need to search again to get better information from other sources?
- Are you writing to a particular word count because you’ve heard or read that Google has a preferred word count? (No, we don’t).
- Did you decide to enter some niche topic area without any real expertise, but instead mainly because you thought you’d get search traffic?
- Does your content promise to answer a question that actually has no answer, such as suggesting there’s a release date for a product, movie, or TV show when one isn’t confirmed?
How does the Helpful Content Update affect Users of AI writing tools?
The “helpful content update” should not affect responsible users of AI writing tools. The users who simply press “go” and hit “publish” will not, and should not be rewarded. AI writing tools are tools not replacements. They should act as a partnership that supports the writer, researcher, and editor. These tools are not encyclopedias—they often spit out incorrect information (by design) and their outputs require human review and editing.
If AI writing tools are used responsibly as a partnership and as a tool, the content they help produce will still be “created by people, for people.”
The correct way to use AI writing tools
The correct way to use AI writing tools is not that different from the correct way to create content in general. You shouldn’t pump out hundreds of blogs per week about random topics without any research or point of view. This is true whether or not you use automated content generation.
AI writing tools should act as a partner to your content creation process not a replacement. They should not be used to “create a blog in 8 minutes” or to avoid hiring a copywriting expert, if that is the expertise you need.
They perform well under specific circumstances when the tools have enough context about your objectives. To give an AI writing tool a few keywords, press “go”, and proceed to publish is irresponsible. But the methodology of how you create that content isn’t core to the irresponsibility of the process. It’s the fact that you don’t care about editing the content for relevance and factual accuracy, and that you don’t care about building a site for a purpose other than to acquire traffic.
How are users of Automata’s AI platform affected by the Helpful Content Update?
Automata has been operating under this principle from the beginning. We did not build a platform to replace writers. We built a platform to support writers. In fact, our platform requires a complete or partially complete document to be uploaded to get any value at all. We help writers and marketers repurpose, distribute, and plan their content strategy based on the existing content they have already created.
Automata supports people-first content
People-first content is at the core of the products we build at Automata. We start from a piece of content created by a professional writer or marketer and process it from there. We have all the context we need to inform our AI platform about what is in the content to expand upon it for other channels and media platforms.
We have never tried to replace a writer or even attempt to convince our users that AI content generation will allow them to create 100’s of blogs per day. They are too smart to think there is any benefit to that kind of approach.
Google Search’s “helpful content update” should not affect responsible users of AI writing tools, because AI writing tools should not be used to replace human writers. They should be used to support them and help them write more creatively, bust through writer’s block, and plan their content strategy. As long as a real person is still intimately involved in the content creation process, there is no way an AI-assisted content pipeline will output content that is created for anything other than people.