Recovering a Niche Site From the Helpful Content Update

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By Jack Barton

In September 2023, Google released the so-called “Helpful Content” update to their search algorithm, followed by a one-two punch of “Core” and “Spam” updates in October.

These updates aim to improve the overall search experience on Google. They’re also meant to weed out the spammy and low-quality sites from search results.

Some would say Google took these updates way too far. 

What Happened With the Helpful Content Update?

The Helpful Content Update wrecked a lot of traditional “niche sites”. Plenty of them saw a sudden drop in traffic, keyword rankings, and revenue.

To say the SEO community was blindsided is an understatement.

Some of the affected websites were low-effort content sites made to target as many keywords as possible. It’s understandable why these were hit. 

But many other sites were genuine passion projects created by industry professionals and dedicated hobbyists. One of those was my site, Sonic Atlas.

What Happened With Sonic Atlas?

Sonic Atlas is my moderately successful “niche site” where I talk about music production gear and software. Before the updates, there were roughly 100 articles on the site that would receive anywhere between 300-400 visitors per day.

But after that September Helpful Content update, it dropped down to roughly 30 visitors per day.

It came back up for a few days after the update was done rolling out. Then the “Core” and “Spam” updates knocked it back down.

You can see these comical valleys in my site analytics below:

Google Analytics graph showing two valleys in the traffic.

How the Site Recovered

After a few weeks, I got Sonic Atlas back to the numbers it was performing before. Here’s what I did:

1. Maintain a Publishing Schedule and Don’t Take Drastic Actions

It’s tempting to make drastic, reactionary changes in response to big shake-ups like this. But overreacting can do more harm than good.

For the most part, I just kept publishing articles as I always did. No need to change my content strategy.

I waited till these updates were done rolling out before I made any other changes to the site.

2. Fix Site Performance Issues

Page speed and performance have always been high priorities for any website I work on. But occasionally, some performance issues creep in without me realizing it.

So I fixed a few of them and did some other updates around the site:

  • Removed unnecessary WordPress plugins Too many plugins can slow your site down. Turns out, I installed a few redundant ones over the past year. So if there was a function that could be reasonably done with an existing plugin (or no plugin at all), I’d remove it.
  • Remove other damaging plugins — One plugin in particular caused some reporting issues, which partially explained the drop in analytics. So it had to go.
  • Updated settings in WP RocketWP Rocket is an incredible plugin that optimizes your site’s code to load faster. It’s magical. I toggled a few additional settings to make the site load even faster than before.

As a result of these changes, pages now load in less than 0.6 seconds! Sonic Atlas also gets a near-perfect score from Google Pagespeed Insights.

Pagespeed Insights for Sonic Atlas as of November 2023

3. Update Out-of-Date Articles

Some of my articles got knocked down in search results. Refreshing them helped restore their rankings.

I mostly focused on the articles that weren’t knocked down too badly. I also focused on articles that were more topical or had upcoming seasonal traffic.

4. Write More Topical Content

Sonic Atlas was always meant to be an evergreen resource. I never want it to become a “news” or “deals” website. That said, writing about trending topics has helped it stay relevant over the past few months.

I try to do it in a way that’s on-brand for the site: mostly research-driven articles, reviews, and product comparisons.

In fact, three of the top five performing articles of the past few months have been about new audio products that launched since September.

5. Update Categories and Navigation

Some blog categories only had 2-3 posts in them. To reduce site clutter, I either deleted them or consolidated them into other categories.

Consequently, navigation links had to be updated as well. So the header and footer were changed accordingly.

The goal was to clean up the navigation and make it easier for search engines to crawl the site.

6. Create More Backlinks to Sonic Atlas

Google uses a number of factors to determine site rankings. One of those factors is backlinks from relevant websites

Google sees these as “votes of confidence” in your site. Theoretically, having more high-quality backlinks improves your chances of showing up higher in search results.

I didn’t go overboard with a huge backlinking campaign. My time is better spent creating content.

But I did link to a handful of my articles in some forums I frequently visit. And to avoid seeming spammy, I made sure they were relevant to the topic at hand and genuinely helpful to other users.

I’m also interlinking between my sites more frequently. Wavefront Creative and my personal music site each link to Sonic Atlas in the footer.


Sonic Atlas is back and better than ever! Traffic started climbing again after that second comical dip in October. And the site started breaking 500+ pageviews per day.

Google Analytics graph showing growth in the weeks following the initial traffic drops.

Future-Proofing Sonic Atlas From Other Volatile Search Updates

Don’t just treat symptoms without curing the disease.

It’s great to restore a site’s rankings in SERPS. But you need to do more to protect your site from future Google algorithm updates.

With that in mind, I’m working on other ways to protect Sonic Atlas in 2024 and beyond:

  • Email marketing — I just started collecting emails right before the algorithm updates (bad timing, I suppose). But now that the site’s traffic is back to where it was, email marketing is a higher priority. If Google, YouTube, or any other platform were to turn off traffic to my site, I’d at least have an email list to market to.
  • YouTube — It’s kind of silly to talk about audio products without hearing any audio samples. While YouTube was always part of my future plans, these search algorithm updates reinforced the need to improve my content with actual demonstrations of the products I use.
  • Social Media — Aside from YouTube, I’ll be looking into ways to diversify traffic with social media. I don’t want to overwhelm myself, so I’ll start with just one or two other platforms.

In the end, the faceless, anonymous websites got hit the hardest by these Google updates. But doing all the things above will help strengthen Sonic Atlas as an actual brand within the music industry.

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