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The September 2023 Helpful Content Update has generated considerable discussion within the SEO community. Some believe the update has been “overly harsh,” unintentionally penalizing legitimate websites.

This research was prompted by a Reddit thread in which a travel blogger, whose website is nine years old, reportedly lost 80% of their traffic overnight. Such a significant drop is critical for a blog that relies on ad impressions and affiliate marketing for revenue.

Google Search uses a system that generates signals to help its automated ranking mechanisms prioritize original and valuable content on search results pages. This is known as the “Helpful Content Update.”

So far, Google has released three updates under the “Helpful Content” name, in August 2022, December 2022, and most recently, September 2023.

To investigate this further and assess if the data aligns with the prevailing narrative, I’ve collected an initial sample of 150 travel blogs (excluding company blogs). After filtering out blogs with no third-party traffic, I analyzed 103 of them, examining estimated month-over-month organic sessions to gauge the potential impact.

I’ve gained extensive experience in the travel sector, working with over 50 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), as well as one of the top five commercial airlines. In between, I’ve collaborated with OTAs and vacation rental websites.

I understand the immense value and potential of this sector, but I’m also familiar with the less favorable aspects of online travel.

Travel bloggers were among the first to provide “influencer exposure” more than 10 years ago, and many of them actively sell links.

The screenshot above is from a travel blog that experienced a 31.66% decline in month-on-month (MoM) estimated organic sessions.


Overall, more travel blogs benefited from this Helpful Content Update than experienced a decline.

54% of travel blogs observed a month-on-month (MoM) increase in estimated organic sessions, while 45% saw a decrease.

Among the 103 travel blogs sampled:

  • 26% saw a MoM increase in estimated organic sessions of 0-10%.
  • 23% saw a MoM decrease in estimated organic sessions of 0-10%.
  • 4.85% experienced an increase greater than 100%.

Growth was relatively dispersed across a range of 1% to over 100%, while almost 40% of travel blogs experienced declines between 1% and 20%.

Qualitative analysis indicates some correlation between travel blogs that sell guest posts and have varied topics, compared to those that focus on a single subject.

Although some travel blogs were negatively affected by this algorithm update, all have room for improvement to mitigate future impacts.


The win/loss data spread of the travel blog sample.

Travel Industry Perspectives

This is why I wonder if the industry could have anticipated this update. In May 2023, Google emphasized “Perspectives” more prominently. I wrote an article for Search Engine Land detailing how to integrate perspectives into SEO strategy, as I believe this is crucial for future success. You can read the article here. I also included these ideas in my September 2022 BrightonSEO presentation, explaining how to weave perspectives into eCommerce product pages to create higher-value propositions.

A significant insight from Google’s May 2023 blog is the following:

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 opposed to monetizing blogs, but if one week features content on African safaris and the next is about the best golf resorts in Portugal, does it seem authentic? Is it possible to be an expert in both topics, or are others better equipped to provide more authoritative insights?

Travel Blog Example 1 – Negative Impact

As I write this, I’m reviewing the last five posts from a site that has lost just over a third of its traffic. These five posts, all written by the same author over the past six weeks, cover the following topics:

  1. Urban street photography
  2. A “5 Reasons” listicle on visiting Mexico
  3. A “5 Reasons” listicle about the best rooftop bars in an American city (located in New England)
  4. A guide on Canadian visas
  5. An ultimate guide to visiting China

I can confidently say that at least two of these posts contain sponsored or paid links with exact-match keyword anchor text to unrelated companies, providing no added value or context to the articles.

Travel Blog Example 2 – Negative Impact

Another instance of significant traffic loss is a website that has seen an estimated 24% drop in organic sessions, equating to roughly 55,000 sessions.

In a 28-day period, this site’s last five articles cover the following topics:

  1. A “5 Reasons” listicle on New Zealand
  2. An eSIM review, complete with promo code and affiliate links
  3. A passport safety article, featuring a prominent link to an AI tool
  4. An article on hiking trails in Canada, with a dubious link to a “fast payout” page for a Canadian online casino, possibly one of the most blatant and inappropriate link placements I’ve seen in 10 years
  5. An article listing the five best car rental companies in New York, but linking only to one, with an exact-match anchor for “SUVs” that directs readers to that company’s SUV page—questionable, to say the least.

None of this content aligns with what Google values. It’s not trustworthy, lacks authoritative expertise, and violates clear guidelines.

Travel Blog Example 3 – Positive Impact

On the other hand, consider a travel blog that experienced a 51.43% increase in traffic after the update. Although it still contains affiliate and questionable links, its five most recent articles over the same period as the previous two examples include:

  1. A review of a specific luggage brand
  2. A list of the best-checked luggage brands
  3. A list of the best carry-on luggage brands
  4. A roundup of the best lightweight luggage options
  5. A list of the best hotel booking broker websites

Despite occasional unrelated articles further back in the archive, there’s a consistent theme connecting the content. The destination guide articles mainly focus on the U.S. with affiliate links, and for every article on Germany or Spain, there are five or six covering different parts of California or the West Coast. This reflects a theme of expertise with occasional tangential topics rather than a scattergun approach.

Moreover, the blog includes articles that don’t specifically target keywords but are personal reflections on lessons learned over the past year or decade. This creates a foundation of useful and insightful content upon which the affiliate and brand articles are built.

If You’ve Been Affected…

The problem is that many websites like this exist in the “travel blog sector,” and Google has had to take a stand.

Unfortunately, algorithms sometimes mistake genuine bloggers for bad actors, even though these legitimate bloggers monetize their websites with ads and affiliates to a far lesser extent than those who are clearly spamming the internet.

The rise of AI-generated content has only added fuel to this fire, as creating a travel blog and replicating 70% of existing content has become far too easy.

Regrettably, some genuine websites will get caught in this crossfire.

Despite this, more travel blogs in the sample experienced growth from the update than losses. If your site has been affected, consider these points:

  1. Monetization and Purpose: Assess how you’re monetizing your blog. Does the majority of your content have a “beneficial purpose,” such as providing education, insight, or information?
  2. Topic and Author Frequency: Review how often specific topics and authors are published. Many travel blogs present themselves as run by individuals or couples, so it’s unrealistic to claim expertise while publishing frequently on widely varying topics.
  3. Content Value: Ensure your articles contribute value to the conversation instead of simply echoing what already exists online. This is why Google prioritizes unique perspectives!
  4. Collaboration Policies: Align your collaboration policies with Google’s guidelines. Authentic brands seeking genuine exposure will work with you regardless of whether the link is a follow or not.
  5. Unique Perspectives: Regularly include perspective-based content that offers personal value and isn’t just about targeting keywords.
  6. Content Structure: Structure your content plan to showcase expertise rather than randomly publishing on different topics.

It’s also possible that there may be some corrections as the update continues to roll out.

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:


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