Google’s Explanation of Its Helpful Content System

4 min read

Google Search Liaison has clarified a perplexing section within their guidance regarding the Helpful Content System, which appeared to have the potential to affect innocent publishers unintentionally.


Helpful Content System


Google’s Helpful Content System relies on a machine learning model that employs classifiers to produce a signal. Google’s ranking system subsequently utilizes this signal to identify and filter out low-quality content.

A classifier, within a machine learning model, is an algorithm responsible for assigning a label to an input. In the context of the Helpful Content System, this machine learning model assigns labels to website content, subsequently producing a signal akin to a thumbs-down indicator.

This signal is also subject to weighting, signifying that a website containing only a tiny amount of unhelpful content receives a lesser thumbs-down. In contrast, a website with a substantial amount of unhelpful content would receive a more pronounced thumbs-down.

The Helpful Content System generates a signal, among the many, numbering in the hundreds or even thousands, used to evaluate and rank a website. These signals encompass factors such as links, relevancy, and more.


Google’s Guidance Unintentionally Obscure


During the last update of the Helpful Content System, Google revised its guidance to enhance the clarity of the signals. The intention was to provide publishers and SEOs with a better understanding of why specific sites experienced a loss in rankings.

The term “opaque” characterizes something as lacking clarity or transparency. One specific section of that guidance appeared to be unintentionally obscure and thus confused.


This is the excerpt in question:

“Are you changing the date of pages to make them seem fresh when the content has not substantially changed?”

This passage is directed at users attempting to manipulate Google’s freshness algorithm by making relatively minor alterations to the content and then updating the publication date to deceive Google into perceiving the old content as a newly published webpage.

The issue lies in the fact that a significant number of individuals revisit a webpage to make minor content adjustments, such as:

  1. Correcting typos.
  2. Replacing or adding a word for grammatical accuracy or clarity.
  3. Altering words to enhance content clarity.

These are legitimate, but minor modifications are frequently made to the content.

The guidance that appeared to forbid minor changes resulting in date updates inadvertently gave rise to a situation where even a slight enhancement could trigger a negative evaluation by the Helpful Content System.

This precise concern was raised and discussed on X (formerly Twitter).


Luke Jordan (@lr_jordan) expressed a valid concern:

“Google doesn’t grasp nuances well enough to establish one-size-fits-all rules. It penalizes websites for updating their ‘last updated’ date for ‘minor’ alterations. However, in the gaming world, a patch or update could be as straightforward as changing an item’s cost from 5 to 6 points. Such a minor adjustment can significantly impact its utility.

Users rely on the date and patch number to confirm that a post is current and, therefore, relevant. A genuinely valuable update might necessitate changing the number from 6 to 5 or the patch number from 9.0.1 to 9.0.2. If the date indicates that the guide was last updated six months ago, it makes no sense.

Additionally, the (alarmingly outdated) date appears in Google search results, leading to reduced click-through rates, another ranking factor. Of course, Google could claim they comprehend all this and that being exceptionally helpful will always prevail!”


Google Search Liaison responded:

“No, we don’t take such actions when updates are intended to benefit users. This is not something we advocate, and it’s not in our guidelines.”

Search Liaison’s statement is accurate, but due to the lack of clarity in that specific passage, it does align with Luke Jordan’s interpretation.


Luke further inquired:

To clarify, you can discern whether a single character change in an article is made with the intent to benefit users.

Luke also added a post along with a screenshot of the passage in the guidance:

“Because it’s explicitly stated in your guidelines that changing the date of pages when the content hasn’t substantially changed is discouraged.”


Search Liaison replied:

“The context of those questions pertains to actions done with Google in mind. Suppose you’re altering the date to give the impression of freshness to Google. In that case, your actions align with other behaviors that collectively contribute to the signals we utilize to assess the helpfulness of content.

It’s not a singular factor, and it’s not a direct correlation. This only becomes a concern if your actions are primarily motivated by wanting to cater to Google.”


Converging with Varied Behavioral Patterns

What Search Liaison is conveying is that altering the publication date is merely one of numerous tactics that the machine learning model employs to assess the statistical likelihood that a webpage is using SEO strategies for Google rather than prioritizing the creation of genuinely helpful and valuable content. In statistics, relying on a single metric in isolation can lead to erroneous decisions.

This is why, in statistical models related to search, it is well-documented that utilizing a combination of multiple signals to calculate statistical probabilities yields more precise results than relying on a single signal or metric.

For those new to this concept, consider examining a PDF on a statistical spam identification system that integrates various features such as on-page, off-page, and user interaction metrics to determine whether a webpage is spam.

While not speaking on behalf of Search Liaison, their response suggests that taking a single action that may indicate unhelpfulness is insufficient to categorize a webpage as unhelpful, especially when no other negative signals are present.


Here is the statement from Search Liaison:

“If you’re merely updating the date with the belief that it will create the impression of freshness for Google, you are probably engaging in behaviors that, on the whole, correspond with the signals we employ to gauge the helpfulness of content.”

Search Liaison’s clarification is beneficial because the original passage appeared to be overly broad and had the potential to result in false positives, where a legitimate website could be incorrectly categorized as spam.

If you still find things perplexing and challenging, consider exploring our monthly SEO packages and allow our experts to assist you.

Shilpi Mathur
[email protected]