Case Study: How Our Client Gained During HCU September 2023

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helpful content update case study

This case study is unique.  All but two of our SEO clients gained traffic and exposure during the September 2023 helpful content update, (We don’t list SEO clients on our site, even if we do affiliate or digital strategy for them.)  Although each SEO strategy is unique to the client’s needs, over the summer half of them had the same exact type of work done.

In each of these cases we didn’t make any content changes to make things more “helpful”, but each of these sites gained and followed the same patterns.  Sounds weird right?  It shouldn’t if you look at what the helpful content update is designed to reward and demote.

This update is a sitewide evaluation and not a page-by-page signal.  Yes, the content on the page needs to remove the fluff, branded content, and excessive ads (not all ads), but more important the entire site needs to be “helpful”Here’s my guide on what useful or helpful content is if you want to read it.  Only one client has given us the ok to share their search console story, but multiple show this same spike in the same two to three day period.  And each of the sites with the spike had the same results after the spike settled.

There are two types of gains across each of these websites.

  1. Main keywords moved up in SERP position
  2. More keywords in the top 100 positions in Google

So here’s the screenshots from search console, and then what we did.

helpful content seo changes to make

september 2023 helpful content update gains.png

Update: Google launched a core update, and most clients climbed again.  Here’s what happened with the one featured above.

helpful content and core update seo case study

Update on 10/17/2023: I tweeted the other day about calling Google’s rolling update Google Steps as it’s the pattern we’re seeing.  Now that search console has caught up, here’s a better visual.

helpful content and core update seo case study

Adding another update on 12/3/2023.  The core update finished rolling out and we’re continuing to climb for non-branded queries.  The giant spike you see from the previous week is Black Friday and Cyber Monday traffic, not-regular levels.

updated screenshot for seo case study with core algorithms

Now that January 2024 is almost over, and the holiday boom has settled, here’s where we are.  We’ve been working on moving up in the rankings on the first page vs. attracting new audiences.

updated screenshot from seo case study january 2024

The past few months we didn’t update copy, we focused on cleaning up indexing and crawling issues (read about the differences between indexing and crawling here), fixing errors like 404 pages, cleaning up broken images, and removing daisy chain redirects.  On average this reduced our pages in Google’s indexes and crawls between 30% and 60%.  Many of these pages were thin, outdated, or duplicate.  In some instances they were old landing pages or promo pages that didn’t serve a purpose anymore.

Best practice alert: Google has a best practice for annual sale pages like Black Friday (I apply it to Valentine’s and other annual sales your customers expect) to keep the page live with a placeholder that explains when it will come back.  I determine what stays on if there is a visible search volume for “brand + modifier sale” in Google specifically.

Once we reduced the excessive pages, Google found our best pages and we saw “refresh” hitting them at intervals we would hope for.  Then it became time to look at creating better crawl paths to help users and search engines know what our pages are about.  This includes a mix of updating navigational and internal links.

Pro-tip: Internal links should not be forced, they should be used to provide a better experience for a visitor.  i.e. if you mention a jargon word and the explanation of that word doesn’t add to the experience on the page, link to your definition, explanation, or guide page dedicated too it.  This way the person can learn if they want and come back to finish your guide.

We first made sure navigational elements were absolute URLs (because I’m still superstitious that search engines don’t want to have to figure out the full URL path).  This is more important on sites where server side redirects aren’t in place, and the search engines have to guess what the URL is (www. or non, trailing slash or none, etc,,,).  Canonical links can help, but you’re adding redirects vs. a direct crawl making the spiders have to work harder.  Then we audited the internal links.

I spidered the sites and pulled a list of all internal links.  From there I sorted by keyword and the page they point to.  This let me see if we’re linking to the same page off of the same themes (not words).  Pointing the same keyword to the same page isn’t always best as the user intent and user experience is equally as important.  Remember, SEO and the helpful content update are both about the user experience, not about doing things for rankings.  If you only do things for rankings, you’ll likely get tanked during an update.

I divided the pages being linked to into groups:

  • Shopping content
  • Explanation and informative content
  • Just a visitor, doesn’t need either

If the post or page giving the internal link had a user with high intent to convert, and the content did not need explanations, we modified the link and sent it to the conversion page.  When the intent to convert was low, and the content around the link was informative vs. conversion, we modified the wording of the link and pointed it to a better explanation so the user would get the information they needed.

For the cases where it was likely a one time visitor and not really relevant to the site, we evaluated if the post or page was needed.  In some cases we deleted it and in others we updated the link based on the criteria above.  The goal was to provide a better user experience with each internal link, not sculpt authority.

We didn’t do anything massive or that involved a PHD, we just looked at how we can make the site better as a whole for the visitor on the site.  The idea is to get the visitor to the best experience possible whether it was information or a conversion.  It is remarketing’s job to bring them back once they’re ready to convert, it is our job to bring them to us and build the trust or drive the conversion.

And with each site this happened on we saw the spike and a settle at a higher SERP after.  The spike is the part I hadn’t seen before, but it happened on multiple clients before the HCU was announced.  It could have been an anomaly, or it could be related.

Either way, each of the sites we spent the spring and summer cleaning up had the same gains during the helpful content update, and each of the changes would technically make the site as a whole more helpful to the end user.  So I’m taking it as a win that this is what the September 2023 was looking for.  I hope it helps you, and if you got hit by the update, contact me through the form on this site and I’ll be happy to take a look if I have time.

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