Don’t we all want to be on the first place in Google? Getting masses of organic free traffic every month is a dream that is probably as old as the search engine itself. Hell, the entire field of SEO is basically based on this goal.
If only we could get a glimpse at the inner workings of Google and how they put together their search rankings.
Now you can, with the release of Google’s Search Quality Rating Guidelines.
To understand what they are, you first need to know that Google has hired hundreds of people as content quality raters. Their entire job is to manually rate the content of Google search results and assign quality scores to the websites that show up there.
To do this work, the search giant provides them with a 160-page thick document known as — you guessed it — the aforementioned Search Quality Rating Guidelines
Usually, these are not meant for the general public, although several version have leaked throughout the years.
A month ago, it happened again with a very recently updated version, October 2015 to be exact. Shortly after that Google then officially released the document.
This is important it gives us a rare view into exactly how Google determines the quality of web content and — ultimately — search rankings. If you would like to know more about the content of this document and what it means for your website, just keep reading. We will look at it shortly.
Is This a Fool-Proof Way to #1 Rankings?
At first glance, having access to the guidelines might seem like a dream come true for anyone in the web business.
A document that says exactly what Google is looking for in a website? Sounds like a step-by-step guide to ranking first place for any keyword to me.
Or maybe you are panicking, thinking that there are people out there who can simply downvote your site and forever doom it to low rankings.
The truth, of course, is more complex.
First of all, even if a quality rater assigns a bad score to your site, this has no direct bearing on your live rankings. Google merely uses their feedback to assess the content quality of their search results or to evaluate the outcome of experiments they are running. The guidelines represent the essence of what they think users are looking for in search results, and serves as a basis for the search quality raters to put together a content score.
Google will then use this feedback to further improve their algorithm so that it serves up more of the good results and less of the bad. Therefore, reading the guidelines is different than looking directly at Google’s algorithm. While it gives you an idea of what the search engine is looking for, you still don’t know how the different content components are weighted.
The guidelines also don’t address many technical parts of SEO that factor into search rankings but are invisible to human users. Plus, as the name clearly states, we are looking at guidelines, not formulas. Therefore, following them to the letter is not a guaranteed path to web success.
On the flipside, it does give us a very good idea of what Google considers top-notch content and by adhering to them, we better our chances of ranking higher.
All clear? Good, then let’s get to the meat and potatoes of Google’s search quality ranking guidelines.
The Google Search Quality Rating Guidelines
Before we get into some actionable tips on how to improve your content, let’s look at some important concepts from the guidelines:
Your Money or Your Life Pages (YMYL)
YMYL is a term that was coined in 2014 and describes pages that “could potentially impact the future happiness, health, or wealth of users”.
Pages that belong to this category are:
- Shopping and other financial transaction pages — This includes online banking and online stores.
- Financial information pages — Pages that provide advice and information on investment, taxes, home purchase, buying insurance and more.
- Medical information pages — Information on medical conditions and pharmaceuticals, specific diseases, mental health, nutrition and similar topics.
- Legal Information pages — Any type of legal information such as immigration law, divorce, child custody, etc.
- Other — Additional sites and pages that can have significant impact on users’ lives such as info on adoption and car safety.
The reason this matters is because Google holds these types of websites to the highest standards. With the significant impact they can have on the “health, wealth and happiness” of searchers, the search engine wants to make sure they deliver high-quality websites and weed out sites that could do more harm then good.
Consequently, if your website operates in these areas, and many do, you would do well to try and please Google with the quality of your content. More on that below.
E-A-T: Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness
This neat little acronym stands for three main factors Google uses to determine a website’s overall value. Especially if your site is in the YMYL category, you need to convey a lot of E-A-T in order to be deemed high quality by Google’s content raters.
Google basically looks at your page from the users perspective and asks the question Can I trust this website and the information on this page? Not only is this a question about the accuracy of your content and your qualification to put it out there, but also whether or not a page can be trusted with sensitive information.
For example, if you have an eCommerce site, you need to provide a safe checkout process in order to be deemed trustworthy. If you fail to do so or if your site otherwise lacks in the expertise, trust or authority department, it’s not worth showing to the searcher.
The Needs Met Rating Guideline
The Needs Met rating is a new addition to the current guidelines that wasn’t part of earlier versions and one of the main emphases of this edition of the guidelines. This rating looks at the searcher’s original intent and how well the content of a page found in the search results addresses it.
It stands in contrast to E-A-T which looks at the quality of the page or site in question as separate from the search query that got you there.
The range of the Needs Met scale is as follows:
- Fully Meets — The highest score available for pages. It describes a complete and perfect response to the search query/user intent. All or almost all users would be completely satisfied with the result and have no need to visit other pages or websites.
- Highly Meets — Describes a good fit for the query that will be very helpful for most or many users. Searchers can generally find their answer but some may wish to see additional results.
- Moderately Meets — Helpful for many users or very helpful for some. Content might lack in the E-A-T department and a good chunk of users will look for more.
- Slightly Meets — Content of low quality, outdated, neglected or too unspecific. While helpful to some users, most will wish to see additional results.
- Fails to Meet — The lowest possible rating. Describes scraped content, outdated information, content ranking for terms it has nothing to do with and other instances that will cause virtually all users to keep searching.
As you can see, when rating the quality of your page content, Google strongly cares about how much value you provide to your users. What’s interesting is that this scale was specifically introduced for rating the search quality of mobile search, which brings us to the next point.
A Strong Focus on Mobile Friendliness
In recent years, search engines — and in particular Google — have told us over and over again that they care about the mobile compatibility of websites. It’s not a big surprise since in many countries traffic from mobile devices has long eclipsed that of desktop computers.
By now, having a site that plays well with mobile devices has moved from “nice to have” to “imperative” and Google’s search quality rating guidelines confirm that. If a page pops up in the search results is not properly usable on a mobile device, the guidelines specify that it automatically be set to the lowest rating!
That’s right, your site will be judged as “fails to meet” user intent. While that may seem harsh at first glance, it completely makes sense in today’s online environment.
What Does That Mean For Your Site?
Alright, now we know what it says inside the guidelines, what consequences does that have for our websites?
How can we make sure Google will deem our content worthy to score well in their search rankings?
In the following, we will look at a few ideas.
Know the Purpose of Your Pages
One thing that Google’s guidelines stress over and over again is the importance of matching your content to the user intent. In fact, the entire Needs Met scale is based upon that premise.
Therefore, the publication of Google’s guidelines would be a good occasion to go back to square one and think about the basic premise of each of your pages: What brings visitors to them? What are they trying to accomplish? What do they want and need? And — most importantly — how can you help and support them in achieving what they set out to?
Thoroughly thinking through these questions will likely turn up a few pointers on how to further improve your content and better serve your audience.
Make Content “Front and Center”
When talking about user intent, the reason why visitors come to your site in the first place is, in all probability, your main content. Whether that’s a blog post, such as this one, or a product page — nobody is on your website to gaze at sidebar widgets.
Therefore, it’s only natural that the main content functions as the focus of your page, something that is also stressed in Google’s guidelines. In fact, functional page design and user friendliness is emphasized almost as much as overall content quality.
In particular that means:
- Place the main content above the fold — Don’t make visitors scroll for it
- Eliminate distractions — Make sure the main content takes center stage
- Separate ads from content — Advertisement should be easily “ignorable”
Keep in mind that this is more about user friendliness and guidance than design. A page can be ugly but still comfortable to use and thus receive a positive rating.
Produce High-Quality Content
This line might be one of the most overused phrases on the Internet, right after “Content is King. However, the difference is that with the new guidelines in hand, we now know exactly what Google considers high-quality content.
(Spoiler alert: It’s what many of us in the content marketing game have been preaching all along.)
Let’s first take a look at what Google thinks of as content of the lowest quality:
- Spun, poorly-written, thin, unsatisfying and otherwise useless
- Seriously lacking in E-A-T markers
- Scraped and/or duplicate content
- Keyword stuffed to the point of being unreadable
- Too focused on monetization
- Containing “sneaky redirects”, i.e. links to low-quality pages that have nothing to do with the original content
- Pages with distracting or unhelpful supplementary content (see below)
- Sites and pages overrun with spam or that are otherwise scammy
- Outdated and/or abandoned websites
I think we can all agree on this point of view, can’t we? So, what then does Google think marks content of the highest quality?
As the Need Met rating scale suggests, the best pages are one-stop pages. That means, almost all searchers coming here can find all the information they were looking for without having to visit any other place.
How do we achieve this?
- By creating original, well-written, in-depth content that covers our topic from all angles.
- Keeping it up to date by regularly adding new and relevant information.
- Making the content “front and center”.
- Balancing information and monetization.
- Using plenty of E-A-T markers (more on that below).
By adhering to these principles, not only will your visitors come to love what you have to offer, Google will too.
Provide Supplementary Content
Of course there is more to content than the main part of a web page. Very few pages only consist of a blog post or product page and nothing else. After all, most of us want to get our visitors to do interact with our sites in a specific way.
In Google speak, everything outside the main content is called “Supplementary Content.” Among others, this includes:
- Navigation elements
- Images and other media
- Related articles (there are plugins for that)
- Sidebar content
The guidelines specifically talk about how this type of content can be “a large part of what makes a High quality page very satisfying for its purpose”.
For us that means we need to do our best to align our secondary content with the overall goal of serving our visitors. Basically anything that can help them in their search — be it for products, information or else — has a place on the page.
So, don’t forget about your sidebar widgets. You’re welcome.
Invest in E-A-T
Another marker of top-notch content is the aforementioned E-A-T. Quick reminder: The three letters stand for Expertise/Authoritativeness/Trustworthiness.
In a nutshell, E-A-T is all about trust.
Why should searchers trust you? How can they be sure that what they find on your website is the real deal? E-A-T will answers these questions for you.
Yet, how can you convey these attributes in a practical manner, especially if your site belongs to the YMYL kind? The guidelines provide a few ideas:
- Stress your own experience, expertise and education in the topic you cover
- Add credentials to author bios (also for guest posters)
- If you don’t have formal credentials, cite other reputable experts who do
- Produce professional, high-quality content (see above for what that means)
- Encourage high-levels of user engagement on and beyond your site for social proof
- Have an About Me/Contact Us/Customer Service page or other way to contact you
As you can see, it comes down to proving to visitors that you know what you are talking about and being available for them.
Make Mobile Friendliness a Priority
As you have seen earlier, Google doesn’t joke around when it comes to making your site compatible with mobile devices. Failing to do so will quickly have your site punished in the SERPs.
In particular, Google asks their search quality raters to look at the following factors:
- Ease of use for entering data (e.g. web forms)
- Readability/need to side scroll to read content
- Ease of navigation
- Image adjustment to screen size
- Presence of incompatible technologies like Flash
- Performance with unreliable or slow Internet connections
Most of these are easily addressed by using a high-quality responsive theme like the Genesis Framework or some other mobile solution in plugin form.
In addition to that, you might also want to look into ways to decrease page load time. WordCamp Berlin also saw a great talk on how to increase usability on mobile, which you can read up on here.
What Are Your Takeaways?
The Google Search Quality Rating Guidelines offer a unique look into the inner workings of the search giant. While it’s hard to summarize 160 pages in one sentence, if I had to, it would be: Make it all about the user. To Google, high-quality content is that which understands exactly what searchers are looking for and goes above and beyond to deliver it. This is a notion all of us can subscribe to.
Consequently, instead of trying to game the Google algorithm, we would be well advised to concentrate on building websites for people, not machines. By concentrating on usability and value for our visitors, we can not only please them but the almighty Google as well.
Here’s a quick review of what have learned from the search quality rating guidelines:
- Your Money or Your Life pages are held to the highest quality standards and need to make an extra effort
- Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness are markers of high quality
- Google loves sites that address and meet the user intent
- Mobile-friendliness is no longer an option but par for the course
- Each page on your site should be goal oriented
- Put your main content “front and center” and support it with supplementary content
- Focus on producing original, high-quality and up-to-date content
By heeding the above advice you can make sure you create exactly the type of content Google would like to see in 2016.
If you want to take a look at the guidelines for yourself, you can do so here. Google has also stated they will keep them updated according to how searches and user activity change.
What do you think about Google’s search quality rating guidelines? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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