Google is rolling out its latest search engine algorithm update. Updates of any kind can affect search engine rankings. In the case of the September 2023 Helpful Content Update, this is classified as an update rather than a “broad core update.” Broad core updates typically affect rankings more dramatically. However, this latest helpful content update institutes more changes toward content quality and the use of AI.
As AI grows in popularity, where technology companies position themselves becomes more impactful and relevant. Translation: Google’s update is important to marketers beyond organic search engine rankings; it helps us understand Google’s positioning and viewpoint with AI. And that’s a big part of what we’re looking for as we delve into the details of the September 2023 helpful content update.
Timing – When Did It Start; When Will It Finish?
According to Search Engine Land’s Barry Schwartz, the September 2023 helpful content update began rolling out late afternoon on September 14. It continues to roll out today with an expected completion time of around two weeks.
To preface, Google doesn’t disclose granular details of its search algorithm updates as a way to help prevent gaming of rankings.
So, what is a “classifier?”
A classifier refers to a machine-learning process that classifies content for the algorithm. Classifiers exist in email inboxes as a way to organize emails by labels (think spam, promotions, updates), and they also influence where content ranks in Google’s search engine.
The classifier aims to help searchers find the most relevant and impactful content.
There are two main focuses in this update concerning the classification of content:
- Hosted Third-Party Content
- Artificial Intelligence-Produced Content
It is crucial that marketers understand both aspects.
Hosted Third-Party Content
Google added a section to their “what’s new” documentation involving third-party content and the responsibility of the website operator.
We aren’t going to spend a lot of time here because we don’t feel this aspect of the update affects our clients. Google intends to help website owners understand that content hosted on a subdomain or in a subfolder that’s irrelevant to the site’s brand or entity and may be low quality should be no-indexed.
Artificial Intelligence-Produced Content
In the same documentation, Google made a subtle but powerful change to its content authorship guidelines.
The opening paragraph prior to the September update (note the bold):
“Google Search’s helpful content system generates a signal used by our automated ranking systems to better ensure people see original helpful content written by people, for people, in search results. This page explains more about how the system works and what you can do to assess and improve your content.”
“Google Search’s helpful content system generates a signal used by our automated ranking systems to better ensure people see original, helpful content created for people in search results. This page explains more about how the system works and what you can do to assess and improve your content.”
The change in verbiage is minor, but the impact on Google’s viewpoint regarding AI and its use in content creation is immense.
Our assessment of the verbiage change is that Google now understands that AI will contribute to creating content at some level and to varying degrees, likely depending on the subject matter. When AI began to enter content production as a tool (both good and bad), Google appeared to take a skittish stance, alluding to potential penalties for all instances (see prior verbiage).
Google’s Bard offers content creation help, so their evolving outlook on AI in content creation isn’t a surprise. Moreover, Google is likely realizing that the era of using AI as an assistant in creating legitimate, helpful content is now upon us.
However, Google certainly leaves itself great space to operate in demoting content that’s fully produced using AI. Below is a list created via Google Bard after we asked, “What are the risks associated with using AI to fully create your content?”
- Inaccuracy and hallucination: AI models are trained on large amounts of data, but this data is not always accurate or complete. As a result, AI-generated content may contain factual errors or make false claims. Additionally, AI models can sometimes generate content that is not relevant to the topic at hand or that does not make sense.
- Plagiarism: AI models can sometimes generate content that is plagiarized from other sources. This is because AI models are not able to understand the concept of plagiarism or copyright infringement.
- Lack of originality: AI-generated content is often derivative and unoriginal. This is because AI models are trained on existing content, and they are not able to generate new ideas or concepts on their own.
- Loss of control: If you use AI to fully create your content, you may lose control over the tone, style, and voice of your content. This can make it difficult to maintain a consistent brand identity.
- Ethical concerns: There are a number of ethical concerns associated with the use of AI to create content. For example, some people worry that AI could be used to generate fake news or propaganda. Additionally, some people worry that AI could be used to create content that is harmful or offensive.
It is important to keep in mind that Google Bard is not reflective of any official Google position. Moreover, specifically in terms of copyright issues, Google has signaled its attempt to have AI scraping, which is how some AI platforms “learn,” permissible under Section 107 of the Copyright Act. The Verge wrote a nice contribution to this perspective here. Hence, there is much confusion from every side on this issue.
What are better ways to use AI in content creation?
- Use AI to generate ideas and outlines. These ideas and outlines are often best developed following your creations. This helps you fill in ideas and outline gaps.
- Carefully review and edit any AI-generated content pieces. This includes fact-checking and providing sources. Remember, Google’s algorithm looks for source material, whether verifiable expert opinions or high-authority source links.
- Be aware of the potential for plagiarism.
- Ensure AI content aligns with your brand’s voice and values.
Our Perspective on the Future of Content
AI is a new tool, no different than cloud-based writing assistance tools that are now over a decade old (think Grammarly). New tools help content creators craft ideas and content more efficiently, allowing more energy to focus on the creative process.
This typically results in content evolution. Translation: Content is about to get a whole lot better.
Now is a great time to audit your content for quality and ensure that your content development strategy focuses on superior production.
Look to enhance your content strategy by deploying video within blog posts. Reach out to field experts for quotes and link to their LinkedIn profiles. Assess current content or outlines in development queues for informational gaps. Pay attention to content loading times and mobile readability.
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