Ever tried to figure out how Google’s algorithm works?
Then you know already that the process is a little bit like trying to solve the mysteries of the known universe.
Google is anything but transparent and, as such, its algorithm history has been far from easily interpretable.
Until now, if you weren’t a part of Google’s inner circle, it was highly unlikely that you’d ever understand how the algorithm works.
We repeat, though: until now.
Recently, The SEM Post got a hold of a leaked copy of Google’s Search Quality Guidelines. Their interpreted version went viral and, in response, Google broke the Internet by releasing the Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines in their entirety. (Here’s the full PDF Google released.)
While the Google search quality guidelines don’t lay out exactly what we need to know to rocket to the top of Google’s rankings, they do provide some extremely valuable information about what’s viewed as quality and what kind of pages will rank well with Google.
We’ve taken an inside look, studied the document, and in today’s piece we’re presenting what you need to know about this major development in SEO, specifically in regards to your online content writing and publishing.
What Are The New Google Search Guidelines All About?
Google’s recently released search guidelines document is 160 pages long and is broken into an overview and four separate parts.
The four parts are as follows:
- Part 1: Page Quality Rating Guideline
- Part 2: Understanding Mobile User Needs
- Part 3: Needs Met Rating Guideline
- Part 4: Using the Evaluation Platform
In addition to focusing heavily on mobile search, Google’s search guidelines also focus on the importance of building trust and reputation in websites. This isn’t hugely surprising as it’s simply a variation on what Google has been saying for years: the best websites are the ones that deliver relevant, trustworthy, quality information to users.
We all know that Google focuses heavily on experimentation and adjusting their algorithms to improve web quality, but these Guidelines provide specific instruction on what the Google engineers want people to do in order to improve individual site quality.
Needless to say, the Google search guidelines are dense. They cover everything from important definitions to duplicate landing pages and all the places in between. For those of you who want to read through the Guidelines on your own, you can find the link here. For everyone else, here’s the breakdown of what we’ve found within them.
12 Key SEO Content Factors In the Google Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines
For SEOs who have dedicated themselves to staying up on Google’s ever-changing algorithms, this document will serve mainly to re-affirm what you already know, with a few goodies thrown in here and there.
For SEO newbies, though, this document offers an expansive guide to Google’s preferences. As far as the future of SEO is concerned, the guidelines lay out some specifics about the overall Google algorithms and how, exactly, SEOs can better predict changes to it in the future.
1. Page Quality (E-A-T)
Page Quality has always been a bit of a mystery. Google uses hundreds of ranking factors and, until now, it’s been unclear how they all relate to one another. We’ve always known that unique, relevant, well-written content helps produce a high-quality page, but the new guidelines have some new insight to offer on this topic.
According to the Guidelines, it’s not just high-quality main content (MC) that matters. In fact, Google has created a new name for what every high-quality page needs: E-A-T.
E-A-T stands for “Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness” and it seems to be one of the major factors Google is using to rank pages. In addition to being important for page ranking, paying attention to E-A-T is a good SEO rule. Pages that are expert, authoritative, and trustworthy will be viewed as higher-quality than those that aren’t.
In order for Google to rank pages well, it wants to know that they have high authority and that users can trust the site.
But what does that mean, exactly?
According to Section 4.1 of Part 1, high quality pages possess the following characteristics:
- A “satisfying amount” of high-quality MC
- The page and its associated website are authoritative, trustworthy, and informed about the topic
- The website has a good reputation
The guidelines go on to say that the website should also have ample “about us, contact, and customer service” information as well as boasting a functional page design and a face that is obviously tended to and updated frequently. It is worth noting that Google doesn’t specify how much content a page needs to be considered “satisfying,” only that it “Depends on the purpose of the page.”
The takeaway? Broad topics require more content than narrow topics and quality content is still the most reliable way to earn yourself high page rankings.
Google’s new guidelines state that it ranks websites on a scale of lowest, low, medium, high, and highest. In order for pages to earn high rankings, they’ll need to feature the above bulleted things.
Based on those guidelines, it seems easy to determine what low-quality content would be, but Google lays it out for us anyway.
According to the Google search guidelines, low-quality pages feature the following:
- Poor MC
- Unsatisfying amounts of MC for the purpose of the page (a dense topic with little information, for example)
- An author that doesn’t have the level of expertise needed to write about the topic
- The website has a poor reputation (not enough E-A-T)
- The content on the page is distracting or unhelpful
Google goes on to say that you can land yourself in low-quality content land by making things up, not editing material enough, buying papers, using obvious facts (“A German Shepard is a dog”) or over-complicating simple facts. Google’s example? “Pandas eat bamboo. Pandas eat a lot of bamboo. It’s the best food for a Panda bear.”
Google also states that pages will be considered low-quality if they are created “without adequate time, effort, expertise, or talent/skill.” This is a broad statement, but it’s safe to say that it encompasses everything from poorly designed and scraped content to content that’s written by unskilled or unknowledgeable writers. The Guidelines also state, however, that Google judges large, professional sites differently than they do small, local sites. That said, the playing field isn’t quite level and small sites may get a bit more leeway than their big-time counterparts. That said, though, everyone needs to focus on quality content designed with a high level of E-A-T. While page design isn’t a one-size-fits-all affair, Google does expect everyone to dedicate themselves fully to producing high-quality content.
The Google search guidelines close by saying that low-quality content is reason enough for the search engine to grant you a low page rating. The takeaway? Make sure that you’re always creating content with a high level of E-A-T. If your site doesn’t have E-A-T that raters are looking for, you need to dedicate some time and effort to considering what you can do to increase it.
Sometimes this means involving contributors, posting credentials, updating author bios and “About me” pages, and sometimes it simply means creating publicly visible profile pages. No matter what you choose to do, ensuring your E-A-T level is high is one of the best ways to earn high page rankings.
2. Expert Content (Y-M-Y-L)
The concept of YMYL (your money or your life) pages was first breached last year, when a leaked copy of the Guidelines made its rounds on the web. According to the full Guidelines, these pages are the ones that Google pays the most attention to because they’re the ones that can most profoundly impact a person’s life.
According to Google, YMYL pages are the ones that can “impact the future happiness, health, or wealth of users.” These pages include shopping or financial pages, medical information pages, legal information pages, and retirement planning pages. Because of their importance, these pages have high, high page quality standards.
While anyone can create these pages, Google pays special attention to the fact that they are all authoritative, factual, and written by experts.
Overall, one of the biggest trends of the Google search guidelines is the need for content written by experts. This applies to more than just expert pages, known as YMYL pages and expands out into all aspects of the Google ranking universe. The Guidelines make it very clear that any content that is going to be written and published needs to be done so in an authoritative and expert manner. While there are “Expert” websites in all niches, including food, industry, fashion, law, and medicine, Google makes no bones about the fact that when “expert” content is needed, true experts need to write it.
This means the following:
- Any high-quality medical advice that gets published needs to be written by individuals and communities with appropriate levels of medical accreditation
- Complex financial advice, tax advice, or legal advice needs to come from highly qualified, expert sources and must be updated and maintained on a regular basis to accommodate changing information, laws, and statutes
- Medical advice must be written in a professional fashion and, once published, must be edited, reviewed, maintained, and updated regularly in order to keep up with changing medical consensus and beliefs
- Pages that address topics that can cost consumers thousands of dollars (investment platforms, for example) or that can affect the health of a family or individual (parenting sites, mental health sites, etc.) must be written by professionals that readers can trust. These pages are known as YMYL pages and are held to much higher standards than even other expert pages
- Pages on specific hobbies, like horseback riding or hockey, must also be written by people who are knowledgeable about the topic and can provide sound advice
Now, upon reading that, it’s likely that you’ll wonder what constitutes an “Expert.” No, an expert doesn’t always have to be a credentialed, highly trained person, (although if they are writing about medicine, law, or taxes they must). Google makes it clear that, in some cases, first-person experience can be a form of expertise, especially in settings where a person doesn’t necessarily need formal training to have an extensive knowledge base, such as on hobby pages. In fact, Google actually states that “for some unusual hobbies, the most expert advice may exist on blogs, forums, and other user-generated content websites.”
In these instances, what Google is looking for is a display of expertise. Personal experience can certainly be a display of expertise and may be needed in settings like support pages or peer Q&A boards. While a person whose father lived with diabetes for 22 years may be qualified to offer tips about coping with and reacting to the disease (subjects in which this person has extensive first-person experience and is thus an expert), this person is not qualified to write a high-quality medical blog about the nature and onset of diabetes.
Part of the reason Google is so stringent about this is that it wants to ensure that deep, broad, important topics get all of the air time they deserve. While most schoolchildren in America have learned about World War II, it would be unfair and absurd to believe that anyone with a working knowledge of the event could write a page that would inform other people about it. This would, inherently, deprive Google users of needed detail about the events, thus rendering the search results useless and irrelevant.
In the end, it’s important to think about what constitutes an expert in any given topic and how much expertise a person must possess in order to write the page in a way that allows it to be useful and valuable to others. While formal expertise is needed for technical and specialty pages, less formal expertise can be valid for support or humor pages.
3. Supplementary Content
One of the most interesting features of the Google search guidelines is that they lay out the importance of supplementary content, such as sidebar tips. This content is considered by raters to be the supporting content that provides additional help to visitors. For those without extensive coding know-how, however, don’t fear. Supplementary content can also be links to similar articles or anything else that can help the reader navigate your page’s information. Pages with high-quality, useful supplementary content are generally ranked higher than those without.
4. Page Design
Page design is important in the new Guidelines. One of the main takeaways that Google offers is that each page’s unique focus needs to be the highlight. This means that main content should be front and center and that readers shouldn’t have to scroll for minutes to find relevant content. Ad content should be easily identifiable but not overbearing (i.e. – there shouldn’t be so many ads above the fold that they push your content down the page).
Keep in mind, however, that Google doesn’t immediately condemn ugly pages in these guidelines. In fact, the guidelines state that many ugly pages can be very useful to viewers, which is enough to earn them positive ratings. The takeaway? Having a functional, streamlined, intuitive page is more important than the perfect color scheme. Google values functionality over beauty.
5. Mobile Optimization
One of the first things SEOs who consulted the Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines noticed is that no less than ¼ of this huge document is dedicated to mobile search. When you take into account that 2015 was the year that mobile search surpassed desktop search in the US, Japan, and 8 other countries, it’s clear that this isn’t entirely surprising. Regardless, however, it’s still significant and many expert SEOs believe that the focus on mobile in this new document is evidence of Google’s redoubled efforts to optimize its algorithms for mobile.
Check out this chart from Part 2 of the new Google guidelines:
The chart underscores just how much people turn to their mobile phones and for how many different tasks. These tasks vary from simple to complex and the new Google guidelines are careful to lay out information about how algorithms understand and interpret mobile queries. Most of this is educational and some SEOs wonder if this focus on clarifying search queries isn’t indicative of Google’s leaning-toward voice-search, which is projected to dominate search in the near future.
Mobile search is one of the most important trends in digital marketing right now: so every page on a website needs to be optimized for mobile platforms.
What many marketers don’t know, however, is that the trusted Mobile-Friendly Test isn’t always the last word on mobile optimization.
According to these new guidelines, websites that are going to be truly mobile friendly will need to be tested across a variety of mobile devices and operating systems. This is because Google has recognized within this document that all mobile OS’s are different and, as such, there’s no cut and dry one size fits all test. This means that SEOs who want to keep up with the post-guideline SEO climate will need to undergo more extensive testing on their sites.
6. The Importance of Trust
One of the things the Guidelines highlight is the importance of websites being trustworthy. In addition to underscoring the importance of this, the guidelines take it a step further by offering some new insights on how, exactly, SEOs can achieve this:
- Citing information linked to credible, relevant sources and linking to external, highly trustworthy sources
- Including the names and bio links of authors and contributors
- Ensuring all sites are easy to navigate and include links to contact pages, about pages, and privacy policies
7. User Experience: Meeting Needs
In the user experience portion of the Google search guidelines (Part 3) we circle back around to mobile platforms. In order to provide a seamless user experience, today’s websites also need to provide increased mobile usability. This means that websites must be able to track user behavior on mobile platforms and ensure that data is being used to improve user experience, decrease bounce rates, and increase engagement.
For example, the guidelines ask webmasters to consider mobile user needs and how helpful the result is for those mobile users. This chart in the guidelines illustrates:
8. Satisfying Content
For content to fully meet a user’s needs, the Guidelines state that the content must be “fully satisfying for mobile user,” require minimal effort to locate, and provide value enough that most or all users would be satisfied with the results.
9. What You Don’t Want: Fails-To-Meet Content
Fails to meet content is a boat you don’t want to be in. According to the Guidelines, fails to meet content is helpful and satisfying to virtually nobody. The content results are unrelated to the query, filled with incorrect facts, or in dire need of additional supporting information. Because of these things, this content doesn’t meet a user’s need. The Guidelines go on to state that content may also be marked “Fails to meet” when it is low-quality, stale, outdated, or impossible to use on a mobile device. The guidelines also specify that it is possible for sites to earn in-between ratings.
10. E-A-T and Needs Met
The guidelines make it clear that needs met ratings are based on both result and query, while the E-A-T rating is only based upon the results. This means that useless results are always rated “fails to meet” even if they have outstanding E-A-T ratings. When considering page rankings, it’s not important for the query to be considered when assigning E-A-T ratings. This means that high E-A-T pages can still have low “-meet” scores if they are deemed useless or do not fulfill a user’s needs.
The Guidelines also state that when a user is searching for very recent information (As is true in the case of breaking news) a site can earn a “fails to meet” rating if the content therein is stale or useless for a user’s particular query. This means that pages that appear and feature content about past events, old products, or outdated information will be marked useless and given a “fails to meet” rating.
This is not true, however, for E-A-T. While fresh content is important, older content can have a high E-A-T rating without sacrificing usefulness. This is true in the event of Evergreen content and “timeless” information. For example, users who issue queries about Ronald Regan will find biographical information useful, even if it was written many years ago. This is not true, however, for un-maintained or abandoned websites that feature infrequently updated or inaccurate content.
11. Misspelled Queries
While misspelled and mistyped queries are difficult to interpret, they are rated based on user intent rather than literal interpretation. In these cases, search engines often display spelling suggestions under “Did you mean…?” suggestions. These are Special Content Results Blocks that often take users to search results for suggested spellings. In these cases, a needs met rating will reflect the helpfulness of the suggestion.
While keyword stuffing is often considered to be present in content that’s dripping with awkward keyword phrases, Google’s Guidelines make it clear that it considers content to be keyword stuffed when the presence of the keyword is only moderately noticeable or annoying. That said, pay careful attention to your keyword density and think twice before you add in a few more.
Two Major Takeaways
Two of the biggest takeaways from the guidelines is the importance of mobile optimization & producing and publishing content written by an expert.
1. The Need for Expert Content is HUGE.
As Google made clear with their discussions on both E-A-T and YMYL, the need for expert content is huge right now. Google values pages with high levels of expertise, authority, and trustworthiness and sites that create these things by hiring and staffing expert writers will be rewarded by Google for their efforts. This is especially true for YMYL pages.
Because YMYL pages are so important and have such a potential to positively or negatively affect a reader’s life, these pages are under extra scrutiny by Google. That means that websites that specialize in these pages absolutely need to hire expert writers and content creators. The price of not doing this is too high, for both websites and readers alike. Fortunately, when websites hire expert writers to improve their page’s E-A-T and to write important, highly-scrutinized YMYL pages, they will enjoy both higher rankings in Google’s indexes and a position as an industry leader.
2. Wikipedia and the BBB matter, according to Google.
Evidence that both of these key sites matter is all throughout the Google SERP guidelines.
From page 17 of the Google Search Evaluator Guidelines, here’s the impact BBB has on rankings (negative ratings, and later on the doc mentions “many negative reviews”–so more than one–will impact the rating of a site to very low):
And here’s the section mentioning the power of Wikipedia. Google calls it a “good source,” and throughout the doc, mentions the linking of Wikipedia to other sites as a quality factor:
Screenshots courtesy Google Search Quality Guidelines
Google respects these sites’ opinions of other sites and will consider low or high quality content based on BBB ratings and Wikipedia links and claims.
3. You must be mobile friendly.
Sites that aren’t mobile-friendly have a 0 chance of ranking well and it’s clear that Google cares more now than ever about mobile-friendly pages. Great content isn’t enough, so be sure that everything you have is optimized for the mobile platform. Google has outlined exactly what they look for in terms of mobile-friendliness. Results may be pulled directly from a site to Google’s results if they find an answer to the searcher’s question. When you optimize for mobile, think of a long tail answer that the mobile searcher will want. Also, be accurate. Google says things like outdated phone numbers will make the site get a low rating. They even discuss that it’s good to associate an app with your content, and Google will know if you want your viewers to open your site in a browser or an app.
Marketers who want to learn more about the Google search guidelines should read through them in their entirety or check out the recent Moz guide on the subject. While it’s not quite a crystal ball of ranking goodness, it’s safe to say that this is the closest we’ve ever come to understanding the inner workings of Google.
Have some thoughts on Google’s new guidelines?
We’d love to hear! Please share in the comments.