This essay originally appeared in CT No. 134: Editorial via algorithms: What is Helpful Content?, which was sent to paid subscribers on August 25, 2022.
Google's updates are programed algorithmically, and they aren't as prescriptive as those in a traditional style guide. Although they're created by technologists and linguists and engineers at one company, they're developed with an editorial ideal of a website in mind. As in much of the tech industry, they're iterative and outcome-focused instead of the one-and-done process of traditional content publishing.
These newest updates reverse engineer standards that are similar to established book or periodical publishing principles. If we format and publish information on the web while following consistent norms, that information becomes more credible.
Yes, it's problematic that Google exclusively holds the keys to information quality through search. I'm tired of writing about Google and following only their ideas of what's best for the web. I wish our system provided better options for a comprehensive, searchable index of web content.
However, if you're in the business of facts and you want to reach global audiences of all ages, search optimization is necessary to distribute information and ideas. Digital search is a deeply established information-seeking behavior, like watching tv news or reading before bedtime. It requires equal, if not more, editorial effort than publishing on other media.
In last week's links, I shared Google's recent assertion that its search engine now "understands consensus." My postmodern brain wonders whether understanding consensus is even achievable for a human brain... but for Google, the phrase means that when multiple high-quality websites make the same claim, the search engine displays that claim as factual. Compared with real-time social media, Google is better equipped to handle consensus on facts because its algorithms value
- website longevity and relative permanence
- established social proof and topical authority through linking and content
- trust signals like context, citations and authorship.
If you're a disinformation actor or even a high-quality but brand new source of reliable information, it is challenging to spin up a website and have your shiny new facts display on the first page of search results immediately for an established query. Web, which Google has made synonymous with SEO, is a medium of credibility. That means your brand or publication's reputation is dependent on both the links of others and similarity to other sources covering the same topic.
It takes six months to a year of regular content creation to begin appearing in search results for the most marginal topics. Once you've established a reputation of expertise, it's easier to rank for brand new queries, but organic search algos are engineered to be hard to hack. Google's newly announced updates are designed to highlight facts and improve information quality.
If you're building a website without focusing on organic search/SEO/Google... your very expensive website is a money pit. Organic social traffic continues to diminish, paid promotion costs keep rising, and word-of-mouth/traditional PR is chancy, expensive and time consuming. Organic search, on the other hand, reliably and regularly attracts audiences who are actively looking for your content directly to your website. When websites focus on search optimization, their traffic and ROI for creating organic content grows every year.
SEO is a long-term, slow investment in developing and maintaining expertise. Creating a website can be faster than publishing and distributing a book with new ideas and research... but not that much faster.* The slow speed is also the advantage: website content has a far longer shelf life than any periodical, broadcast or social medium with a higher long-term return on investment, financially or influentially.
*It's not much cheaper, either. We all need to get over the idea that "websites are free" because they are quite expensive and on par with printing costs.
Pruning the imperfect index
In the same post with the consensus news, Google also acknowledged that users rely on the search engine for confirmation of facts.** Glimpse a controversial new statement on a preferred social discovery medium, corroborate that info through search. Sure, marketing or shopping, are far more profitable behaviors, and the search engine has honed them over the past two decades. But the tool's unique strength is the same as when it was a research project known as PageRank: Google is a searchable index of information.
The index has never been perfect. Its ability to process, understand and serve quality, factual information for new or rapidly changing queries remains Google's biggest challenge. The consensus found in early search results has too often reflected the worldview of the Silicon Valley hacker-engineer stereotype who built the internet, parroting the basement creep who has time, means and energy to screed.** But Google is now actively making changes like media literacy notifications and an active effort to monitor viral disinformation and emerging queries. It gives me hope for the stability and quality of the index because, hey, 90% of the world uses the search engine multiple times daily.
If you manage a website, the best thing you can do (in Google's eyes, right now) is to make content more helpful.
**For more on how Google's algoritms reinforce established biases, check out Safiya Umoja Noble's Algorithms of Oppression. Worth noting that shitposting not a new problem in publishing. Rich trolls and graduate students have distributed bile — along with valid and legitimate new ideas — since the printing press was invented.
What Google's helpful content update means for your website
The imminently scheduled Helpful Content Update is the first major content-focused Google algorithm update in about a decade. Previous algo updates, nicknamed Panda (2011) and Hummingbird (2013) significantly improved the quality of search results, and many of us on the content side hope Helpful Content does the same.