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Worried About Your SEO Future? Yes, You Will Survive the Google Helpful Content Update

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Worried About Your SEO Future? Yes, You Will Survive the Google Helpful Content Update

On any given day, your best SEO efforts may fall short. You don’t experience the search engine rankings you expected. Your top spots suddenly drop or disappear.

Forced to be vigilant, you pay close attention to the latest news about what Google expects. You ponder the search engine’s helpful content update rolled out Sept. 9 that certainly created a considerable buzz. Although many algorithm adjustments are narrow and often unannounced, the publicized helpful content update may have a widespread impact.

Among the questions posed on the Google Search Central Blog that SEO-focused content marketers should ask:

  • Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?
  • Are you mainly summarizing what others have to say without adding much value?
  • Does your content leave readers feeling like they need to search again to get better information from other sources?

If the answer is yes to any of those questions, Google indicates it won’t be as pleased with your content as it has been.

Personally, I have my doubts about the toll of Google’s helpful content update. It’s hardly poised to be the Big Bad Wolf that will blow a house down. I’m sure some website marketers will take a hit if they didn’t see this update coming, but they will be the exception. Here’s why:

@Google’s helpful content update isn’t the Big Bad Wolf ready to blow down your #SEO house, says @mikeonlinecoach via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Google isn’t surprising anyone

Quality is at the heart of this change. It should merely weed out websites that simply failed to play Google’s game. For years, Google has emphasized that websites should provide a good experience — relevant, user-friendly content that loads quickly. Google put the spotlight on quality with its major Panda update in 2011 that targeted websites filled with thin content.

Technology is sophisticated

I can’t begin to know what it takes to launch, feed, and support AI and machine-learning models like BERT, which Google introduced in 2018 to better understand the context of search queries. But the search engine operates in a complex environment, even if it’s not quite like the world in The Matrix movies. The elaborate technology now leads to websites routinely ranking for keywords that aren’t even in their content. All these advances have developed slowly. Google quietly adjusts its search engine with little fanfare, implementing more than 4,000 changes in 2021 alone.

@Google’s elaborate tech now leads websites to rank for keywords that aren’t in their #content, says @mikeonlinecoach via @CMIContent. #SEO Click To Tweet

Google is kind of two-faced

Google touts quality 24/7 (just look at its quality rater guidelines), but I’m a little skeptical about the company’s ability to remain faithful to what it claims to value. It’s too easy to come across content that’s self-focused, trite, and unclear. Google’s detection system is extremely limited or full of errors.

Google won’t bury organic rankings for major brands and authoritative websites

About 10 years ago, I told a business its search rankings were doomed because of its widespread use of duplicate content over multiple websites. I was wrong (thanks, Google, for feeding me a line). Maybe some rankings aren’t as high as they could be, but their digital properties ranked well for massive numbers of highly competitive keyword phrases. How did they pull it off? They’re a major leader in their space.

It’s worth noting this same company has experienced other Google ranking changes that just can’t be explained. One day an old website page that ranked well lost its high position. A year later, the rankings came back without a single change to the page.

Rankings can shift for many reasons – and organic traffic can suffer too. Maybe you have many top 10 rankings, but over time you get fewer of them. Or maybe a No. 3 ranking fell to No. 6. Competitors with fresh content on the same topic may surpass what you created long ago. Sometimes websites experience significant changes simply because search engine results pages (SERPs) have design revisions and adjustments to featured elements, pushing down traditional results.

In this example, a search for “precast concrete” results includes a map, local results, people also ask, a knowledge graph on the right, and a few normal results. Below this top-of-SERP view is a series of videos before websites are highlighted again.

Rather than remind you in detail about SEO best practices – like simple SEO page titles, descriptive headers, and internal linking – I’ll focus on what to watch if the helpful content update has sharp teeth.

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1. Aim for quality

Will Google catch you for using a cliché or a sentence fragment? Hardly. Is your content clear and well organized? Is it original? Think along those lines.

Northern Tool + Equipment has nothing to worry about despite how it sometimes frowns on short paragraphs to improve readability. Google ranks it No. 2 with an average of 110 monthly searches for “automotive parts washers.” On this page for automotive parts washers, the description runs almost 250 words without a single paragraph break. Clearly, Google is fine with this text presentation.
1663829403 443 Worried About Your SEO Future Yes You Will Survive the

2. Answer questions – lots of them

Google rewards websites that have the right answers – no matter whether it’s a well-known brand or blog that sticks to a niche. Your brand websites should explain themselves – we-do-this or we-have-these-capabilities pages. But focus on filling pages with content detailing explanations about how something works, what can go wrong, problems to anticipate, etc., and in other words, share your wisdom or insights.

Fill pages with #content explaining how something works, what can go wrong, etc., and @Google will be pleased, says @mikeonlinecoach via @CMIContent. #SEO Click To Tweet

3. Open the gates

Gated white papers, studies, e-books, how-to guides, and more are ideal for generating leads. But don’t hide too much information. At the least, review what you keep behind closed doors that requires a completed form to access. Can you excerpt a helpful portion of it for all to consume and use it to call attention to the full resource?

Orbit Media Studios doesn’t gate any of its annual blogging study:

1663829403 214 Worried About Your SEO Future Yes You Will Survive the

With a little bit of extra SEO work (text and SEO page title), some of these eighth through 26th place rankings could improve. At least the content is indexed.

1663829403 642 Worried About Your SEO Future Yes You Will Survive the

4. Create case studies

Too many companies won’t produce case studies because they don’t want competitors to know what they do, can’t show their customers’ products, or reveal a customer by name. So many excuses. How about using your wordsmiths to create case studies that work for both a search audience and your business needs? You could use phrasing such as:

  • Businesses routinely need to get the word out about why they’re the most experienced/notable/trustworthy in their office furniture/home building/automotive parts industry.
  • One company turned to us to design/engineer the best solution for them.
  • Last year, we shaped a branding campaign, designed four prototypes, created 3D models, etc.
  • In less than two weeks, we had a plan that they approved. It was possible because of our deep bench of experts – engineers, designers, project managers, and more.
  • Using our XYZ machine that we installed in 2021, the client …

Case studies can be loaded with all sorts of details about approaches, equipment, time savings, productivity efficiencies, and more without divulging proprietary information or client information.

5. Add transcripts to videos

I hear a few objections to publishing video transcripts. Even if website visitors won’t read all that text, a search engine will feast on every word, just like when people binge a 10-part streaming series on Hulu.

Concerned about the text interfering with the user experience or a call to action? Put pressure on a website designer to make the page work. At a minimum, place the critical call to action above or at least near the top of the transcript text.

No site is perfect

I think Google recognizes any website can have shortcomings. Quality content doesn’t always ensure top rankings. High domain authority doesn’t either. It’s not always the amount of content on a page or how many pages a website publishes.

If it’s clear that you’re an expert in your space, expect to achieve some presence among the top positions. If you have the right answer for a search query, you’ll more likely have the opportunity to appear high on the page – right after those ads, videos, people also ask, and any other quick fact Google packs in there.

But you’ll get your shot from time to time. Just keep sharing your content as much as you can.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute



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Why Even Crushing Content Failures Aren’t Mistakes

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Why Even Crushing Content Failures Aren’t Mistakes

Did you follow the Apple iPad Pro content debacle?

Here’s a quick recap. A recent online ad for the new iPad Pro showed a large hydraulic press slowly crushing various symbols of creativity. A metronome, a piano, a record player, a video game, paints, books, and other creative tools splinter and smash as the Sonny and Cher song All I Ever Need Is You plays.

The ad’s title? “Crush!”

The point of the commercial — I think — is to show that Apple managed to smush (that’s the technical term) all this heretofore analog creativity into its new, very thin iPad Pro.  

To say the ad received bad reviews is underselling the response. Judgment was swift and unrelenting. The creative world freaked out.

On X, actor Hugh Grant shared Tim Cook’s post featuring the ad and added this comment: “The destruction of the human experience. Courtesy of Silicon Valley.”

When fellow actor Justine Bateman shared the Tim Cook post, she simply wrote, “Truly, what is wrong with you?” Other critiques ranged from tone-challenged to wasteful to many worse things.

Actor Justine Bateman shared Tim Cook’s post on X, which featured the ad, and added this comment: "Truly, what is wrong with you?".

A couple of days later, Apple apologized and canceled plans to air the ad on television.

How not-so-great content ideas come to life

The level of anger surprises me. Look, the ad does show the eyeballs on an emoji-faced squishy ball popping under the plates’ pressure, but still. Calling the ad “actually psychotic” might be a skosh over the top.

Yes, the ad missed the mark. And the company’s subsequent decision to apologize makes sense.

But anyone who’s participated in creating a content misfire knows this truth: Mistakes look much more obvious in hindsight.

On paper, I bet this concept sounded great. The brainstorming meeting probably started with something like this: “We want to show how the iPad Pro metaphorically contains this huge mass of creative tools in a thin and cool package.”

Maybe someone suggested representing that exact thing with CGI (maybe a colorful tornado rising from the screen). Then someone else suggested showing the actual physical objects getting condensed would be more powerful.

Here’s my imagined version of the conversation that might have happened after someone pointed out the popular internet meme of things getting crushed in a hydraulic press.

“People love that!”

“If we add buckets of paint, it will be super colorful and cool.”

“It’ll be a cooler version of that LG ad that ran in 2008.”

“Exactly!”

“It’ll be just like that ad where a bus driver kidnaps and subsequently crushes all the cute little Pokémon characters in a bus!” (Believe it or not, that was actually a thing.)

The resulting commercial suffers from the perfect creative storm: A not-great (copycat) idea at the absolutely wrong time.

None of us know what constraints Apple’s creative team worked under. How much time did they have to come up with a concept? Did they have time to test it with audiences? Maybe crushing physical objects fit into the budget better than CGI. All these factors affect the creative process and options (even at a giant company like Apple).

That’s not an excuse — it’s just reality.

Content failure or content mistake?

Many ad campaigns provoke a “What the hell were they thinking?” response (think Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad or those cringy brand tributes that follow celebrity deaths).

Does that mean they’re failures? Or are they mistakes? And what’s the difference?

As I wrote after Peloton’s holiday ad debacle (remember that?), people learn to fear mistakes early on. Most of us hear cautionary messages almost from day one.

Some are necessary and helpful (“Don’t stick a knife in a live toaster” or “Look both ways before you cross the street.”) Some aren’t (“Make that essay perfect” or “Don’t miss that goal.”)

As a result, many people grow up afraid to take risks — and that hampers creativity. The problem arises from conflating failure and mistakes. It helps to know the difference.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1987 to become a rock ‘n’ roll musician. I failed. But it wasn’t a mistake. I wasn’t wrong to try. My attempt just didn’t work.

Labeling a failed attempt a “mistake” feeds the fears that keep people from attempting anything creative.

The conflation of failure and mistakes happens all too often in creative marketing. Sure, people create content pieces (and let’s not forget that there are always people behind those ideas) that genuinely count as mistakes.

They also create content that simply fails.

Don’t let extreme reactions make you fear failures

Here’s the thing about failed content. You can do all the work to research your audience and take the time to develop and polish your ideas — and the content still might fail. The story, the platform, or the format might not resonate, or the audience simply might not care for it. That doesn’t mean it’s a mistake.

Was the Apple ad a mistake? Maybe, but I don’t think so.

Was it a failure? The vitriolic response indicates yes.

Still, the commercial generated an impressive amount of awareness (53 million views of the Tim Cook post on X, per Variety.) And, despite the apology, the company hasn’t taken the ad down from its YouTube page where it’s earned more than 1 million views.

The fictional Captain Jean Luc Picard once said, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not weakness. That is life.” The Apple ad turns that statement on its head — Apple made many mistakes and still won a tremendous amount of attention.

I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t criticize creative work. Constructive critiques help us learn from our own and others’ failures. You can even have a good laugh about content fails.

Just acknowledge, as the Roman philosopher Cicero once wrote, “Not every mistake is a foolish one.” 

Creative teams take risks. They try things outside their comfort zone. Sometimes they fail (sometimes spectacularly).

But don’t let others’ expressions of anger over failures inhibit your willingness to try creative things.

Wouldn’t you love to get the whole world talking about the content you create? To get there, you have to risk that level of failure.

And taking that risk isn’t a mistake.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute 



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The Future of Content Success Is Social

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The Future of Content Success Is Social

Here’s a challenge: search “SEO RFP” on Google. Click on the results, and tell me how similar they are.

We did the same thing every other SEO does: We asked, “What words are thematically relevant?” Which themes have my competitors missed?” How can I put them in?” AND “How can I do everything just slightly better than they can?”

Then they do the same, and it becomes a cycle of beating mediocre content with slightly less mediocre content.

When I looked at our high-ranking content, I felt uncomfortable. Yes, it ranked, but it wasn’t overly helpful compared to everything else that ranked.

Ranking isn’t the job to be done; it is just a proxy.

Why would a high-ranking keyword make me feel uncomfortable? Isn’t that the whole freaking job to be done? Not for me. The job to be done is to help educate people, and ranking is a byproduct of doing that well.

I looked at our own content, and I put myself in the seat of a searcher, not an SEO; I looked at the top four rankings and decided that our content felt easy, almost ChatGPT-ish. It was predictable, it was repeatable, and it lacked hot takes and spicy punches.

So, I removed 80% of the content and replaced it with the 38 questions I would ask if I was hiring an SEO. I’m a 25-year SME, and I know what I would be looking for in these turbulent times. I wanted to write the questions that didn’t exist on anything ranking in the top ten. This was a risk, why? Because, semantically, I was going against what Google was likely expecting to see on this topic. This is when Mike King told me about information gain. Google will give you a boost in ranking signals if you bring it new info. Maybe breaking out of the sea of sameness + some social signals could be a key factor in improving rankings on top of doing the traditional SEO work.

What’s worth more?

Ten visits to my SEO RFP post from people to my content via a private procurement WhatsApp group or LinkedIn group?

One hundred people to the same content from search?

I had to make a call, and I was willing to lose rankings (that were getting low traffic but highly valued traffic) to write something that when people read it, they thought enough about it to share it in emails, groups, etc.

SME as the unlock to standout content?

I literally just asked myself, “Wil, what would you ask yourself if you were hiring an SEO company? Then I riffed for 6—8 hours and had tons of chats with ChatGPT. I was asking ChatGPT to get me thinking differently. Things like, “what would create the most value?” I never constrained myself to “what is the search volume,” I started with the riffs.

If I was going to lose my rankings, I had to socially promote it so people knew it existed. That was an unlock, too, if you go this route. It’s work, you are now going to rely on spikes from social, so having a reason to update it and put it back in social is very important.

Most of my “followers” aren’t looking for SEO services as they are digital marketers themselves. So I didn’t expect this post to take off HUGLEY, but given the content, I was shocked at how well it did and how much engagement it got from real actual people.

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7 Things Creators Should Know About Marketing Their Book

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7 Things Creators Should Know About Marketing Their Book

Writing a book is a gargantuan task, and reaching the finish line is a feat equal to summiting a mountain.

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