Transformative SEO Strategies Post-HCU - Issue 157

HCU Analyses; HCU Checklist; Brand Your Site; Web Publisher Association; Google SGE Draws; Image SEO; and Much More!

Brand Your Site.

For years, I've been an advocate of one mantra: 'Brand your site.' But why has this been my consistent message?

In the aftermath of Google's Helpful Content Update (HCU), niche sites, in particular, have felt a seismic shift.

Numerous analyses have attempted to dissect the HCU, often subtly spotlighting a critical element: branding. However, it's not outright mentioned as branding.

Branding isn't only a logo or a catchy tagline; it's the visuals, the content quality, the user experience, and the authenticity that collectively forges a memorable identity in the digital world.

When I talk about "branding" your site, I’m talking about creating an experience that resonates, persuades, and retains your audience. It’s this human-centric, genuine connectivity that stands tall, potentially swaying evaluators and algorithms alike.

Googlebots, adept as they are, can't assess how well-branded a site is, leaving human evaluators, or "humanbots," to shoulder that responsibility...

Imagine this: an army of over 16,000 Google Search Quality Raters, eyes poised over your site, fingers clicking away on their mice, analyzing, and shaping your site’s destiny. These are the humanbots at work behind the Googlebots and influencing the algorithm.

Google said that these 16,000+ search quality raters across the world assess the quality of search results. Let’s take a side step and look at Google’s human labor costs for a moment.

If all 16,000 raters were hired in the U.S. at the U.S. federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 per hour, Google would incur a total cost of $241.28 million annually.

If all were hired in the UK, the National Living Wage is £10.42 per hour and that’d be £346.78m to Google.

Why do I bring up Google’s potential labor costs? Because they don’t hire native English speakers from the US and UK exclusively.

They hire globally, which means if all were hired at $2.50 per hour, that’s $83.2m annually to Google. And at $5.00 per hour, that’s $166.4m annually.

Where do you think Google will hire most of their raters?

Disclaimer for Google’s legal team - these are hypotheticals and assumptions of daily work day/requirements rooted in public data.

Now, let’s imagine we’re a Quality Rater.

We studied and were tested on the 175-page Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines.

Now we’re going to use all that information to rate sites and with a minute, perhaps two, to rate each page, your 8-hour shift could span an evaluation of 240 to 480 webpages.

Would you be able to say you can effectively review hundreds of pages per day, 5 days a week? I know I can’t.

BUT I can tell when sites are horrible at a glance. And rate it is as poor.

And what if you were told that if the site you’re visiting doesn’t look like a “company” or online forum with many different experiences/opinions - mark it as “blog” (or “niche site”).

Ok, maybe not exactly that. But it can add things to check for like: ads, branded logo, user interaction, selling products or services, social media profiles, etc. Things that a company has and many blogs don’t.

Do I expect Google to change how they hire and work with these quality raters to allow more time for review? Nope. Significant changes that could substantially elevate the quality of ratings are unlikely.

So what can you do about it? Make your site as branded as possible.

First impressions matter - that’s why I don’t have ads above-the-fold. Make it feel trustworthy. Don’t give these raters a negative initial impression.

Let’s pivot to actionable steps, regardless of whether the HCU has impacted you.

Step one is objectivity: analyzing your site through the lens of a rater, constrained to a 1-2 minute evaluation.

For this first step, let’s just cover a couple things that are part of the rater’s Page Quality rating task to assess the quality of web pages.

  • Homepage - Does it feel like a brand? Or is it just a blog (aka niche site)?

  • Main Content (MC) - From the guidelines, MC is any part of the page that directly helps the page achieve its purpose. It’s the reason the page exists. MC can be text, images, videos, page features (e.g., calculators, games), and it can be content created by website users, such as videos, reviews, articles, comments posted by users, etc.

Review the MC with these factors in mind - and in less than 2 minutes:

  • Quality: Is it high quality? Well-written, engaging, and informative?

  • Relevance: Is the MC relevant to the page's purpose? Does it help the page achieve its intended goal?

  • Quantity: Is there enough MC to adequately cover the topic? Is it comprehensive and detailed?

  • Originality: Is the MC original or duplicated from another source?

  • Authority: Does the MC demonstrate expertise and credibility on the topic?

Here’s an image from the guidelines that highlights the MC, the Supplementary Content (navigational menu), the Ad.

Looking at that image breakdown - it underscores why “too many ads” emerged as a user experience (UX) focal point in numerous HCU analyses. The MC gets hidden and severely broken apart.

Now, is branding the solution to site recovery or a bulletproof vest against the HCU? Not exactly.

One rater who hates your site won’t take it down by their one rating. Conversely, one rater who loves your site won’t bring it back to life. They just provide data points to the algorithm. And after HCU, those data points seem to carry more weight.

While brands and branding are not directly addressed in the guidelines, I use it as an umbrella term to encapsulate the variety of page quality tasks.

Brand your site, not as a mere strategy to survive Google Updates, but as a commitment to quality, authenticity, and user engagement. Everything you doing to improve your pages and sites are the building blocks of long-term success.


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Anne Moss proposes forming a potential non-profit professional association for web publishers. Feeling the similar struggles that many publishers face, especially in light of the recent Google updates that seemed to have targeted niche sites, she's reviving an old idea with a fresh perspective.

Not just stopping at addressing issues, she proceeds to lay down a roadmap for what an association of web publishers could achieve, including advocating for fair treatment from search engines, offering educational and networking opportunities, and becoming a robust voice in public discussions.

Creating and maintaining such an association would require funds for various activities and legal incorporation as a non-profit, so there is a question on costs. Almost all associations have a cost, so it’s not surprising.

Anne has even created a form for publishers to express interest and contribute to the concept.


Eric Lancheres offers up one of the most informative deep-dives on the Google Helpful Content Update (HCU). Eric reviews the official statements and clues from Google, exploring the mechanisms possibly at work behind the algorithm.

There’s a particularly interesting section on how Google uses an AI classifier to determine page helpfulness. He suggests that the AI classifier is likely text-based, works predominantly with article-type pages, and suggests it might only evaluate the initial portion of a page’s content, possibly up to the first 2000 words, due to computational limitations. Some other takeaways:

  • Content that meets users' expectations is rewarded, while that which falls short may see diminished performance.

  • Though Google emphasizes original images in content guidelines, there doesn’t appear to be an explicit reward for utilizing them based on the provided examples and analysis.

  • Some unusual ranking patterns have been observed post-update, such as shorter articles (300-400 words, which was previously rare) ranking highly.

  • The update might not explicitly reward websites but could penalize certain sites instead.

Charles Floate offers HCU insights from analyzing a massive data set of 10,000 SERPs and numerous single-variable testing. He also notes Google's untrustworthiness and discrepancies between their guidelines and actual algorithmic actions. Some of the key takeaways:

  • The update instigated significant adjustments in Google's SERP features, notably propelling its own features like shopping results and site links.

  • A notable shift has occurred regarding duplicate content, especially for brand SERPs and platforms like YouTube.

  • A site-wide classifier can de-rank a website if it has enough unhelpful content.

  • An emphasis on brand-building on homepages has emerged, where Google expects information that helps it trust and authenticate the site's authority.

  • E-commerce websites are now favored in SERPs over informational content for certain non-informational-intent keywords.

  • The update has reshaped the intent of numerous SERPs, necessitating closer adherence to what Google perceives as the SERP's intent rather than purely focusing on user intent.

  • Websites harnessing user-generated content (UGC) such as Quora and Reddit have surged, reaching new heights in organic traffic from Google post-update.

Brodie Clark explores Google's removal of the 'Indented Results' feature from its SERP, an initiative that did not exactly unfurl as smoothly as one might anticipate.

Brodie sheds light on the historical context and the changes regarding indented results in Google Search. He shares the transition from displaying indented search results to now effectively de-grouping search listings for sites when multiple listings emerge.

However, it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows, as he unveils the discrepancies and unintended consequences this modification has generated, including instances where more than two listings appear for non-branded results, defying Google’s intention to cap it at two.

SEO Ripples

  • Veruska Anconitano provides a comprehensive guide for SEO professionals on finding your niche in the SEO industry. Get insights on how to narrow your focus, cater to specific market needs, and differentiate yourself in the competitive SEO industry.


Jared Bauman has created a big 124-point spreadsheet of perceived factors in Google’s Helpful Content Update.

You score each factor on a scale of 1-10 to help you evaluate what to improve on. The spreadsheet will automatically calculate which areas of your website need the most work.

Let’s take a look at a screenshot of the spreadsheet in the topical authority section. If you were a Topical Maps Unlocked student, you may already have all of these factors covered, so I hope they’re all 10’s for you! 😄 


Backlinko dives into the ins and outs of optimizing images to enhance your website's SEO and user experience (UX). They break down image optimization from choosing the right file types (hello, JPEGs, PNGs, and WebPs) to compressing images without sacrificing quality.

Plus, it sheds light on ensuring your images aren’t just visually stunning but also Google-friendly and accessible. With tips on utilizing various tools and ensuring images play nice with Google Lens, it's a guide that can bolster both your site’s visual appeal and SERP rankings.

And Alt text isn’t just SEO candy; it's vital for accessibility and provides context when images can't be rendered.

One of the best WordPress plugins I bought recently was because it creates a draft of the alt text for every image I upload. If the image is loaded while inside a post, it also grabs more context from the title, so it’s even optimized for keywords. The Appsumo deal is over, but you can still get it on their website starting at $5 for 100 credits. Get 50 more credits with this refer a friend link.


Hema Budaraju, Senior Director at Google, dives into the evolving world of generative AI in Google Search. Users can now employ Google’s AI to craft images based on descriptions and generate drafts of text content.

  • AI-Generated Images: Craft specific images using generative AI through descriptive search. In search and image search.

  • AI-Driven Drafts: Get a starting point for content writing with AI-generated drafts.

  • Responsible AI Use: Safeguards and restrictions are in place to monitor AI-generated content and imagery.

  • Metadata Labeling: AI-generated images will include metadata and watermarking to indicate AI creation.

source: Google Blog

AI Ripples

  • Google's AI chatbot, Bard, is facing internal doubts from its developers about its accuracy and value. Criticisms arise due to the bot providing unreliable information and its costly development, despite being rapidly integrated into various Google products.

  • At OpenAI’s inaugural developer conference on Nov. 6th, they’re expected to roll out substantial updates aimed at making it more cost-effective and swift to create software applications using its AI models. That includes introducing memory storage to its developer tools which could dramatically cut costs for application makers and vision capabilities


Zhenya Zerkalenkov dives deep how a product is introduced to the market. He shares 15 innovative approaches to generate buzz and effectively showcase your product's unique value proposition, amplify brand visibility, create urgency, and drive initial sales. Some of his ideas:

  • Influencer partnerships can help tap into new audiences and leverage trust through collaborative efforts.

  • Launch events provide an opportunity to personally and interactively connect with customers, partners, and media, creating buzz and potentially driving initial sales.

  • Social media contests capitalize on exponential reach by encouraging participants to engage and share content, thus amplifying brand visibility.

  • Referral programs can generate more qualified leads by incentivizing existing customers to spread the word about your products.

  • Pre-Sales and Pre-Orders can build anticipation and secure early sales by allowing customers to purchase or reserve products ahead of the official launch.

Davis Tucker gives a deep dive into the lucrative world of social media collaborations and their powerful impact on revenue growth. He also offers actionable strategies for businesses looking to navigate the world of social media collaborations effectively.

With 49% of customers rely on influencer recommendations and a whopping 68% are influenced by co-branded campaigns, he presents a compelling case for why and how to leverage strategic partnerships for brand profitability.


Edwin Toonen from Yoast dives deep into the impact of YMYL sites on users' financial and life decisions, hence the rigorous evaluation by Google. The author meticulously unpacks the underpinnings of YMYL pages, which encompass vital areas like finance, health, and legal advice where credible, expert-backed information is paramount.

Semrush shares a comprehensive guide on demystifying Organic CTR (Click-Through Rate) in SEO. The article explores what Organic CTR is, clarifying that although it's not a Google ranking factor, it's still a valuable metric to measure a website's visibility and performance in search results.

The article navigates through how to accurately determine your Organic CTR using Google Search Console and highlights that there isn’t a universal benchmark for a “good” CTR, as it can be heavily influenced by various factors like SERP position, search intent, and SERP features.


If you’re enjoying niche surfer, I’d love it if you would share it with your friends! I’ve put together some rewards as well:

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