Protecting your site from Google's updates

Over time, Google updates its search algorithm to adjust which sites it includes in its search index and how well they rank – or don’t.

These updates are intended to remove unhelpful content from search results and ensure that users are given the most relevant information possible. But, inevitably, even good sites can be caught in the wake of these updates, seeing major losses in rankings and traffic from search.

Especially in light of the September 2023 Helpful Content Update, many of us are asking what we can do to protect ourselves and our websites.

Side Hustle Road took a bit of a hit in late 2023 and is recovering slowly, and it’s had me thinking: What is a conscientious content creator to do to protect himself and his website from Google’s algorithm updates? Several things, in fact.

Let’s take a look.

Create human-first content.

In the past, it was trendy to write content full of keywords and phrases simply to get the article or post to rank more highly in search. Some even took this to an extreme and did something called “keyword stuffing” – using as many instances of a keyword or keyword phrase as possible, without even the slightest regard for the human who would be reading that content.

Thankfully, those days are past, and Google has said “no more” to that kind of junk, and that’s not going to work anymore.

Good.

But just avoiding keyword stuffing and other bad habits isn’t in and of itself enough to keep Google happy with us. Avoiding the negative isn’t enough by itself. We need to also focus on the positive side: actively creating content with human readers in mind.

Write in a way that flows naturally and makes sense to users. Make sure your sentences are understandable and make sense and aren’t just a loosely connected string of keywords meant to pull in search traffic.

Actively think about the person who will read what you have to say. Do your words make sense to him? Are your points laid out in an order that is easy to follow and understand?

As you write about your topic, certainly use keywords where appropriate, but don’t overdo it. Otherwise it feels forced and unnatural and ruins the experience for humans.

Google updates are designed to enhance the experience of the user and to weed out sites that shouldn’t be ranked. The best way to ensure our sites aren’t among them is to be sure we’re creating the kind of content that considers the reader and is helpful.

Provide value with your content.

Value is the commodity of the digital age. It’s a real, actual benefit to your end user. What form that takes will vary, of course, depending on your niche or the type of content you’re creating. But the concept is the same across the board.

Google is getting good at determining whether or not people might find a piece of content valuable or a waste of their time. So it’s on us as content creators to be sure that the kind of content we create is the kind of content that provides value.

Content that provides value will almost invariably do one of four things:

  1. Save someone time.
  2. Save someone money.
  3. Provide entertainment.
  4. Teach a concept or skill.

There are exceptions, sure, but these are the big four. With every piece of content you create, try to hit one or more of these pillars and you’ll be providing value.

Think about what your target reader wants and try to hit that target. Solve problems. Answer questions. Entertain him. Teach her something.

Yes, that’s hard work. Yes, that means doing research and trying to figure out what it is people actually want. But this is essential for standing out from the crowd of content creators and especially essential for staying on Google’s good side.

I dare say that no Google algorithm update will ever penalize providing value. Ever.

Research and back up your claims.

As you know, the Internet is full of misinformation and bogus information. And the dawn of AI-written content isn’t helping on bit. Be different. When you make a claim, back it up. Do your homework to make sure that what you’re saying is actually true. Because if it isn’t, you’ll only be adding to the ocean of misinformation.

And nobody wants that.

Where appropriate and possible, provide sources. No, this isn’t English class all over again, but in a way… it is.

Making a claim is easy. Anybody can say XYZ is true or this or that is fact and be wrong. That’s no secret. But a claim that’s backed up with sources and references for further research? That’s far more respectable and believable than the alternative.

Especially if someone could rely on a claim to make an important business or life decision, it’s vital to make sure the claim is accurate and to provide sources for those who want to verify for themselves.

This is especially important in the context of E-E-A-T, which we’ll discuss below.

Link to reputable, helpful content.

As content creators, one of our goals ought to be to help people – contrary to popular opinion, perhaps. The reality is there are far too many selfish creators who have no interest in helping others and who balk at the idea of sending traffic elsewhere, even if that’s what the reader needs.

But I would submit to you that that’s a toxic mindset. I – we – have to be okay with the fact that sometimes a reader may need to go elsewhere to get what he needs. Maybe a topic isn’t covered here – or as well – and the reader would be better served by referring to a different site?

Or maybe I know I don’t have the time or space to cover something in depth and know another related resource that would be interesting or helpful to my reader. I should provide the link.

On one hand, that’s just being a good team player. On the other, it shows Google and your reader that you care more about helping your reader than keeping someone on your site at all costs.

In so doing, you’re signaling that you want people to get the best answers and the best content – even if it’s not yours.

Selfishly, this also has another benefit: associating your content with those resources to which you link.

Focus on building E-E-A-T.

Any time you create content for your website, you need to remember four very important concepts:

  1. Experience.
  2. Expertise.
  3. Authoritativeness.
  4. Trustworthiness.

Collectively, SEO experts refer to these as “E-E-A-T.”

Previously known simply as “E-A-T,” this acronym gained an extra E for “experience” in December of 2022 and became “E-E-A-T” – a somewhat more awkward bit of word salad, but still important to know.

Let’s look at each of these letters and what they mean.

Experience: Google prioritizes content from those who actually have the experience to back up what they’re saying. And truly, that’s a good thing. We wouldn’t want to read about computer repair from someone who has never repaired a computer, right? How would we know we’re getting correct info?

Or would we want a product review from someone who’s never used the product? Or a restaurant review from someone who’s never been there? Good content should “demonstrate that it was produced with some degree of experience, such as with actual use of a product, having actually visited a place or communicating what a person experienced.”

This is done to prioritize the work of those with “first-hand, life experience on the topic at hand” according to the December 2022 update to the quality rater guidelines.

Create content that talks about your own experiences – what worked and didn’t work for you, what you liked and didn’t like, and so on. In so doing, you’ll signal to Google and your readers that you have the experience to back up what you’re saying.

Expertise: Secondly, Google prioritizes those who have demonstrated knowledge on a given topic. While experience and expertise often go together, they aren’t quite the same. Google wants to promote content from people who show they know what they’re talking about. For example, does someone talking about building a business actually own a business, and has he shown that he knows what he’s doing?

Would we want advice about saving money from someone who has no budget and constantly lives in debt? Probably not.

If you have credentials, certifications, awards or accomplishments in your industry or niche, mention that.

If you have or have had a job in the industry, talk about that. Show people that you have the paper and lived-out knowledge to back up your supposed expertise.

Authoritativeness: Rightly, Google wants to make sure it’s pushing content from people who are respected and have good reputations in their various industries and niches.

Google evaluates whether or not a content creator is a respected source of information on a topic or someone known for writing low-quality, incorrect information. And, let’s face it, the Internet has enough fake info as it is.

Further, Google wants to send people to the sites and resources that have the most authority on a given topic. For example, if someone needs advice about car repair, the most authoritative resource on that topic probably isn’t going to be a small little website with four blog posts and no backlinks. Instead, Google would prefer to recommend a resource that’s well-known for good advice and information on that topic.

This is one reason newer sites struggle a bit. They haven’t had time to become well-known as an authoritative resource, and that times time.

Trustworthiness: You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Clearly. And with a rash of false information both online and offline, it’s vital to ensure that your content presents facts in a true and trustworthy way.

The bottom line here is this: If you make a claim, can your readers trust you, believing that it’s true? Is the image that’s portrayed by your website trustworthy?

Can readers in good conscious believe what you’re saying and recommend your content to other people? If not, there’s a problem.

Before you hit publish, check your facts. Make sure any claims you’ve made are backed up – as mentioned above – and cite sources where you can. It can be hard to know what’s true and false online (and offline) but your content shouldn’t add to the confusion. As best as possible, ensure that the overall picture your site paints is one that visitors can trust and recommend without reservation.

Don’t rely only on search for traffic.

If you build a quality website, the odds are that you’ll get some traffic from search engines. And certainly there are ways to improve your odds of getting more traffic than less.

But as anyone who has been in the web game for long will tell you, search traffic fluctuates and it’s a bad thing to rely on.

One month may be great. The next may be terrible.

And even what you consider to be some of your best work may never get indexed by Google. You could spend hours crafting what you think is excellent content, only for Google to decide that it’s not worthy of being indexed. Ouch.

If you rely on search alone for your traffic and haven’t taken the time to build other sources too, any disruption in that search traffic can be especially painful. With other sources to fall back on, you could still be in business while you work to fix whatever you need to fix after a dip from a Google update. And if you’re not relying solely on search traffic, even those pieces that are never indexed by search engines could still get direct traffic.

Bottom line? Yes, you should optimize for search. But don’t let that be your only source. Otherwise, your site could be one algorithm update away from irrelevance, even if temporarily. And posts that aren’t indexed might never be seen.

Build audiences on other platforms too.

On the other hand, if you have other platforms to fall back on and leverage, you’ll be in much better shape.

Those who have followed this site for long know that I’ve enjoyed writing elsewhere as well. And while I have some gripes, I’d say it’s definitely been worth it.

Why?

One of the most important lessons any content creator can learn is this: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t assume that you’ll have access to any given platform indefinitely. You might. But you might not.

I strongly believe in the power and importance of building your website. But don’t let that be the only thing you do. There are lots of great platforms out there.

Leverage them.

And as you build your influence on other platforms, you can drive traffic to your own site – and use your site to drive traffic to those other platforms as well. Used well, they work together.

Even following best practices, you may find that a Google update here and there impacts your search rankings a bit or that a piece of content you thought was so amazing at one time now isn’t doing so well – or isn’t ranked at all now. It happens to the best of sites.

With audiences on other platforms too, you’re less dependent on Google than you might be otherwise.

What’s needed is a mindset shift.

True, ultimately there’s nothing that we can do to guarantee that we’ll never be negatively impacted by a Google search update, we can reduce the odds of problems if can do what we should be doing anyway – creating content that will truly provide value and help people.

The best way to protect ourselves from Google’s updates is simply to remember who our target audiences are and create genuinely helpful content. That’s what Google claims to want. And that’s what we need to remember.

In the past, website owners could (I’d argue wrongly) be content to spew content designed solely for ranking in search engines. Thankfully those days are gone, but some of the bad habits of yesteryear linger, and some of that same, old, bad advice can be found around the web.

It’s not enough to remember to avoid the bad practices that, in the past, would have caused Google to penalize a site. We need to go further and focus on the positive: actually providing beneficial, helpful content to the reader.

Much more can be said about protecting ourselves from Google updates – and has been elsewhere at length. Search engine optimization is a huge industry and takes years to truly get right. And to complicate matters, the game changes periodically as Google and other search engines update their respective algorithms.

As the Google updates come, we need to be able to examine our strategies and adjust accordingly.

That’s the way we succeed.