The September 2023 Helpful Content Update has caused a lot of stir in the SEO community, with some people feeling the update has been “overly harsh” and is accidentally penalizing genuine websites.
What prompted this research was a Reddit thread, in which a travel blogger (a website 9 years old) reportedly lost 80% of their traffic overnight. For a blog relying on ad impressions and affiliates to make money, this is significant.
Google Search has a system that produces signals that their automated ranking mechanisms utilize to prioritize displaying original and useful content in search results pages.
This is known as the “Helpful Content Update“.
To date, there have been three updates officially named by Google as Helpful Content updates. These were released in August 2022, December 2022, and now September 2023.
To dive into this and see if the data supports the narrative, I’ve scraped an initial sample of 150 travel blogs (not company blogs, specific travel blogs), and after removing those with no third-party traffic – I’ve analyzed 103, looking at estimated month-on-month organic sessions to determine potential impact.
- Overall more travel blogs benefitted from this Helpful Content Update than saw a decline. 54% of travel blogs saw a MoM increase in estimated organic sessions overall, whilst 45% saw a decrease
- 26% of travel blogs in the sample of 103 saw an increase in MoM estimated organic sessions between 0-10%
- 23% of travel blogs in the sample of 103 saw a decrease in MoM estimated organic sessions between 0-10%
- 4.85% of the travel blogs saw an increase greater than 100%
- Growth was relatively spread out across 1% and 100%+, whereas almost 40% of travel blogs saw declines between 1% and 20%
- Qualitative analysis shows some correlation between travel blogs selling guest posts, with sporadic topic distribution, versus focusing on a single topic
- There are some clear victims of algorithm crossfire in the sample, but all could make improvements to avoid being impacted this way
I’ve worked in the travel sector a lot, from 50+ SMEs through to a top 5 largest commercial airline, with the usual suspects, OTAs, and vacation rental websites in between – so I know how valuable and amazing this sector can be, but I also know the “other side” to online travel.
Travel bloggers were some of the first websites to offer “influencer exposure” 10+ years ago, and a large number actively sell links.
The above screenshot is taken from a travel blog that saw a 31.66% decrease in MoM estimated organic sessions.
Travel Industry Perspectives
This is why I ask if the industry could have seen this update coming. In May 2023 Google started to talk about Perspectives more. I wrote an article on how to incorporate perspectives on Search Engine Land (as I believe this is a key component of future SEO success), you can read that article here – I also included this in my September 2022 BrightonSEO talk, on how to incorporate perspectives into eCommerce product pages (creating higher value propositions).
But a key takeaway from this May 2023 Google blog is this:
We’ll roll out an update to this system that more deeply understands content created from a personal or expert point of view, allowing us to rank more of this useful information on Search.
“Personal or expert point of view”
I’m not against the monetization of blogs, but if one week you’re posting content on African safaris, and the next the best golf resorts in Portugal… Does it feel (or look) authentic? Can you be an expert in both of those topics? Or can others online add greater expertise weight to them?
Travel Blog Example 1 – Negative Impact
As I write this, I’m looking at the last 5 posts written by a site that’s lost just over a third of it’s traffic, and the last 5 posts (all written by the same author over the past six weeks) cover the topics:
- Urban street photography
- 5 Reasons listicle on visiting Mexico
- 5 Reasons listicle on the best rooftop bars in an American city (in New England)
- A guide on Canadian visas
- An ultimate guide on visiting China
At least two of these, I would confidently say, contain sponsored/paid for links with exact match keyword anchor text to random companies that add no value/context to the article.
Travel Blog Example 2 – Negative Impact
Another example of loss is a site that’s lost ~24% of it’s estimated organic sessions, which is roughly 55,000.
The last 5 articles on this website (all published in a 28 day period) cover the topics:
- 5 Reason listicle on New Zealand
- An eSim review (including promo code and affiliate links)
- A passport safety article with an obvious link to an AI tool
- An article on hiking trails in Canada, with a link to a “fast payout” page for a Canadian online casino… This is probably one of the most obvious and worst link placements I’ve seen in 10 years.
- The 5 best car rental companies in New York, with a link only to one of them, mentioned – and specifically an exact match anchor for “SUVs” going directly to their SUV page… Hmm…
None of this content aligns with what Google is looking for.
It’s not trustworthy, it’s not coming from an expert… And there are clear guideline violations in action.
Travel Blog Example 3 – Positive Impact
On the flip side, looking at a travel blog that’s seen a 51.43% increase following the update, the content pattern still has affiliate links and some questionable links… But over the same period as Example 1 and 2, the 5 articles cover:
- A review of a specific luggage brand
- A listicle of best-checked luggage brands
- A listicle of best carry-on luggage
- A listicle of the best light-weight luggage options
- A listicle of hotel booking broker websites
And if you look back further, there are random articles that don’t talk about luggage – but there is a consistent theme tying things together. If I look at the Destination guide content, the majority of it is focusing on the US and including affiliate links – and for every article I see covering Germany or Spain, I see 5/6 covering different areas of California or the West Coast. There is a theme of expertise, with tangents – not scattergun topics.
Also, seeded throughout are articles 100% not targeting keywords, but personal reflections talking about learnings from the past year, the past 10 years… There’s a foundation of good, helpful content that the affiliate and brand content is then built on.
If You’ve Been Affected…
The issue is, that there are a lot of websites like this in the “travel blog sector”, and Google has to take a stand.
Unfortunately, algorithms occasionally confuse bad actors with genuine bloggers, who might be monetizing their websites through ads and affiliates, but nowhere near the extent of these others – who are clearly just spamming the internet.
The rise of AI content generation has almost poured petrol on this bonfire, and the ability to create a travel blog and mimic maybe 70% of the content already out there is so easily achievable.
Sadly there will be a number of genuine websites caught up in this crossfire.
Overall, more travel blogs in the sample saw growth from the update than losses… So if you have been caught in the crossfire, I would look at:
- How you’re monetizing your blog, and whether or not the “beneficial purpose” of the majority of your content is clearly to be educational, insightful, and informative.
- The publishing frequency of specific topics, authors… A lot of travel blogs are framed as an individual (or a couple)… It’s impossible to demonstrate expertise and publish weekly on such varying topics.
- Consider if the articles being published are adding value to the conversation, or regurgitating what a lot of the internet already says about the topic (this is why Google wants unique perspectives!)
- Reviewing your collaboration policies, and ensuring they’re in line with Google’s guidelines. Genuine brands who genuinely want exposure from genuine bloggers will still work with you regardless if it’s a follow link or not.
- Make sure you’re regularly adding Perspective content that adds personal value and isn’t just targeting keywords.
- Structure your content plan to show you’re an expert, and not just randomly publishing different topics one after the other.
It’s also possible that before this update has fully finished rolling out (at the time of publication it hasn’t), there will be some correction.
Other Useful Related Resources
If you have been affected by this update, or want to improve your travel blog – I’d recommend reading the below resources:
- How to optimize content for Google Perspectives
- The Big Guide To SEO For Travel Brands
- Early Stage User Queries & Query Stacking
- Riding The Core Algorithm Update Rollercoaster
- How Travel Companies Can Adopt Micro-Moments for Better Content
- Travel Micro-Moments Guide: How to Be There and Be Useful for Travelers
- How micro-moments are reshaping the travel customer journey