Originally published December, 2015 and completely updated October, 2018.
Google is anything but transparent. As such, its algorithm inner workings have never been easy to interpret.
In fact, SEOs dedicate themselves to a sort of “algorithm watch.” They spend eons of time poring over search metrics. They write novel-length blog posts analyzing the changes they can only guess happened, and how these changes may or may not affect search rankings.
So, when Google threw everyone a bone, the SEO community latched on. Back in October of 2015, The SEM Post got a leaked copy of Google’s Search Quality Guidelines, and their interpreted version went viral.
In response, Google broke the internet by releasing the Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines in their entirety.
Since then, Google has released multiple updates of these guidelines. The most recent hit the internet on July 20, 2018, and we’ve updated this post to reflect all the major changes
While Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines don’t lay out exactly what we need to know to rocket to the top of the rankings, they do provide some valuable information:
- What kind of pages are viewed as high quality
- Which factors influence high- and low-quality ratings (SUPER important, as these factors may be similar to how Google measures page quality for SERP rankings)
We’ve taken an inside look and studied the document as they relate to your SEO and on-page site content, including those fresh updates. 🔍Still not clear on how Google ranks pages? Here's everything you need to know, dissected by @JuliaEMcCoy from Google's 200+ page Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines. #EAT #YMYL #Google #SEO Click To Tweet
Without further ado, here’s a rundown of key points in this major SEO document for your online content writing and publishing.
What Are Google’s Search Guidelines All About?
Screenshot from page 4 of the Google Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines
Google’s search guidelines document is over 160 pages long and broken into an overview, three separate parts, and an appendix.
The major parts are as follows:
- General Guidelines Overview
- Part 1: Page Quality Rating Guideline
- Part 2: Understanding Mobile User Needs
- Part 3: Needs Met Rating Guideline
- Appendix: 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 a good reputation for websites and/or content creators.
This isn’t hugely surprising – it’s simply a variation on what Google has been saying for years: The best websites are ones that deliver relevant, trustworthy, quality information to users.
We all know Google focuses heavily on experimentation and adjusting their algorithms to improve web quality. These guidelines provide specific instructions on what the Google engineers want people to do 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 key points we’ve found within them.
12 Key SEO Content Factors in the Google Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines
For SEOs who have dedicated themselves to keeping up with Google’s ever-changing algorithms, this document will serve mainly to reaffirm 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 and the future of SEO. The guidelines lay out specifics about Google’s algorithms and how, exactly, SEOs can better predict changes to it in the future.
1. Beneficial Purpose
One of the newer additions to the guidelines is the concept of “beneficial purpose.” This term defines websites with pages created, first and foremost, for the user’s benefit.
On the other hand, many pages are created solely for the purpose of ranking on Google or are created with no intention of helping users. In Google’s eyes, these pages have zero beneficial purpose.
According to the guidelines (part one, section 3), raters are supposed to give these pages the lowest rating:
“Websites or pages without any beneficial purpose, including pages that are created with no attempt to help users, or pages that potentially spread hate, cause harm, or misinform or deceive users, should receive the Lowest rating.”
In stark contrast, pages with beneficial purpose are the very definition of high-quality:
“High-quality pages exist for almost any beneficial purpose, from giving information to making people laugh to expressing oneself artistically to purchasing products or services online.” – Part one, section 4.1
According to Google, high-quality pages not only have a beneficial purpose; they also achieve that purpose.
In other words, if you’re not writing to help your audience in some way, your page will have little overall value to the search engine. Thus, “beneficial purpose” is the ground-floor factor that affects your page quality.High-quality pages not only have a beneficial purpose; they also achieve that purpose. This and more takeaways on @JuliaEMcCoy's post on Google's Search Quality Guidelines #googlerankings #serpsranking #googlesearch Click To Tweet
2. Page Quality (E-A-T)
Page quality has always been a bit of a mystery. Google uses hundreds of ranking factors and it’s often unclear how they all relate to one another.
We’ve always known unique, relevant, well-written content helps produce a high-quality page, but the guidelines have some additional insights 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 name for what every high-quality page needs: E-A-T.
E-A-T stands for “Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness,” and it may be one of the major factors Google is using to rank pages.
Screenshot via Google’s Guidelines, section 3.2
Pages that are expert, authoritative, and trustworthy will be viewed as higher-quality than those that aren’t.
But what does that mean, exactly?
A. High-Quality Pages
Google’s guidelines state that the search algorithm ranks websites on a scale of lowest, low, medium, high, and highest.
Via section 3.0
According to Section 4.1 of Part 1, high-quality pages possess the following characteristics:
- A “satisfying amount” of high-quality MC, including a title that’s appropriately descriptive/helpful
- “Satisfying website information” or information about the website’s owner/creator (shopping or transactional pages need satisfying customer service information, conversely)
- The page and its associated website have a high amount of E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness)
- The website (or the MC creator) has a good reputation
It’s 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.”
Google provides this page as an example of high-quality content (partial screenshot):
According to Google, this page has high-quality, humorous MC. Plus, the website has a positive reputation and displays expertise in farcical humor.
B. Low-Quality Pages
According to the Google search guidelines (part one, section 6.0), low-quality pages feature the following:
- Poor, low-quality MC
- An inadequate amount of E-A-T
- Unsatisfying amounts of MC for the purpose of the page (a dense topic with little information, for example)
- A page title that is essentially clickbait (“exaggerated or shocking”)
- An author that doesn’t have the level of expertise needed to write about the topic
- A website or content creator with a “mildly negative” or mixed reputation
- Unsatisfying information about who created the content/who’s behind the website
- Page content that distracts from the MC, like intrusive ads/interstitials
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 Shepherd is a dog”) or over-complicating simple facts.
Here’s an example Google provides of a low-quality page (partial screenshot):
According to Google, this page has low-quality MC, is lacking in E-A-T, and has a misleading page title.
Google also says that pages will be considered low-quality if they’re 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 Google search guidelines close by saying that low-quality content is reason enough for a quality rater to grant you a low page rating.
The takeaway: Make sure you’re always creating content with a high level of E-A-T. If your site doesn’t have the E-A-T that raters are looking for, you need to dedicate some time and effort to increase it.
C. How Can You Increase E-A-T on Your Pages?
One of the main ways E-A-T standards have been tweaked with the recent update to the guidelines: A bigger emphasis is on the author/creator.
According to Larry Alton for ProBlogger, you can make sure your content meets current E-A-T standards in a few ways:
- Enlist high-authority content contributors
- Include author credentials alongside content (A.K.A. author bylines)
- Update author bios and “About me” pages
- Create publicly visible profile pages
All of these actions help establish your expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (and your contributors’, if you have them).
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.
3. YMYL Content
Leaked copies of the guidelines have been making the rounds on the web since as early as 2007. The concept of YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) pages was first introduced during one of these leaks.
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.
Screenshot via Google’s 2018 Guidelines, section 2.3
Google says YMYL pages are the ones that can “impact the future happiness, health, financial stability, or safety of users.” These pages include:
- Shopping or financial transaction pages
- Medical information pages
- Legal information pages
- Financial information pages
- News articles and/or public/official pages important for informing citizens
- Any other topics that can deeply affect users’ lives, i.e. child adoption or car safety information
Because of their importance, these pages have high, high page quality standards.
They must be authoritative, factual, and written by experts.
4. Expert Reputation, Credentials and/or Experience
The guidelines make it clear that any content needs to be created 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 it: 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 expert/experienced sources that readers can trust.
- Pages with scientific information must be written by people/organizations with relevant scientific expertise. For topics where scientific consensus exists, producers should represent that consensus accurately.
- News articles need to be written with journalistic professionalism and contain factually accurate information.
- 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.
- Recent updates to the guidelines also stipulate that the content creator must have a positive reputation and adequate experience in relation to the topic about which they’re writing. In short, page authors/creators must also have a high level of E-A-T. (According to Stone Temple, two pages with basically the same information might be ranked differently based on the reputation and authority level of their authors.)
A. What Does It Take to Be an Expert Content Creator?
Now, upon reading all that, it’s likely you’ll wonder what constitutes an “expert.”
No, an expert doesn’t always have to be a credentialed, highly trained person (the exceptions: when they’re writing about medicine, law, finances, taxes, or other YMYL topics).
Google makes it clear that, in some cases, first-person experience can be a form of expertise, especially in settings where you don’t necessarily need formal training to have an extensive knowledge base, such as on hobby pages.
In fact, Google 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.
- Example 1: Say you have lived with diabetes for 22 years. You may be qualified to offer tips about coping with the disease (YMYL content) because you have extensive first-hand experience. However, at the same time, you would not be qualified to write a high-quality medical blog about the symptoms and onset of diabetes.
- Example 2: On the hobby site The Spruce Crafts, expert crafters teach all kinds of techniques in informative blog posts. These are highly ranked because each writer has plenty of personal experience that qualifies them as experts. Take this post on “How to Knit the Garter Stitch”:
The author is an expert because of her years of personal experience. Her bio reflects this perfectly:
The Reputation of the Website/Creator
Finally, reputation plays a role in expertise, too.
There’s a whole section dedicated to this facet of expertise in the guidelines (under part one, section 2.6):
This information is not about how creators or websites describe their own credentials and expertise. It’s how the wider web (“reputable external sources”) views these things.
According to Google, these external sources that provide independent reputation information about a website or MC creator may include:
- News articles
- Wikipedia articles
- Magazine articles
- Blog posts
- Ratings from independent organizations
- Forum discussions
- Customer reviews (for these, content matters as much as the number of reviews available – one negative review or one positive review are not good sources unless you have a number of other reviews to compare it to)
B. Why Is Google So Stringent About Expertise?
The search engine wants to ensure deep, broad, important topics get the necessary treatment so searchers can find accurate, useful information about them.
If the search results served up low-quality, untrustworthy content constantly, we would quickly begin to distrust and stop using Google to fulfill our information needs.
- Example 3: Most kids in the U.S. learn about World War II in school. However, it would be absurd to believe this type of broad knowledge qualifies anyone to write an informative page about what it was like to live through it.
In the end, it’s important to think about what constitutes an expert for different topics:
How much expertise do you need to possess to write about a subject in a way that’s useful and valuable to others?
How much expertise do you need about a topic so you don’t lead readers astray or negatively impact their lives?
5. Supplementary Content
The importance of supplementary content (such as sidebar tips) is one of the most interesting features of the Google search guidelines. This content is supportive because it provides additional information to users alongside the MC.
Supplementary content can also include links to similar articles or anything else that can help the reader understand your page’s information. Pages with high-quality, useful supplementary content may be generally ranked higher than those without.
Allrecipes has good examples of pages with supplementary content (SC). On their recipe pages, you get the ingredients and instructions (the MC) as well as photos, recommended recipes, user comments, reviews, and serving information (the SC).
6. Lowest-Quality Pages
Some pages receive the “lowest” rating from search quality evaluators on principle. These types of pages are created with the intent to misinform or deceive users or may potentially harm them or spread hate.
Here’s the full list of types of pages that automatically get rated as the lowest quality possible:
- Pages that promote hate or violence towards other people (like a specific group)
- Pages that encourage harming oneself or others
- Malicious pages (scams, phishing, malware, etc.), or pages with a malicious/extremely negative reputation attached to the creator/website
- Pages that could spread misinformation, including content that’s obviously inaccurate, YMYL content that contradicts the consensus of experts, and content that propagates debunked/unsubstantiated conspiracy theories
- Pages meant to deceive users, including deceptive page design (ads that look like MC)
- “Lack of purpose pages” that have no MC, MC that is “gibberish,” or content with no apparent purpose
- “Pages that fail to achieve their purpose”
- These have the lowest possible E-A-T
- May include copied or auto-generated content
- May have content that’s inaccessible or obstructed
- May have unsatisfying information about the website/MC creator
- May have unmaintained pages, hacked pages, defaced pages, or spam
Google’s example of a page with lowest-quality is this deceptive site designed to imitate the ABC News homepage:
A. Copied Content
Google also specifies what they mean by “copied content” in this subsection (part one, section 7.2.4). Naturally, any content that is not original will get the lowest quality rating from a search evaluator.
What many people don’t know, however, is that Google doesn’t consider rewritten content original if it relies too heavily on its source. Google puts it like this in the guidelines:
“The Lowest rating is appropriate if all or almost all of the MC on the page is copied with little or no time, effort, expertise, manual curation, or added value for users. Such pages should be rated Lowest, even if the page assigns credit for the content to another source.”
Content creators who like to “spin” content should thus tread carefully here.
7. Mobile Optimization
One of the first things SEOs who consult the Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines notice is no less than ¼ of this huge document is dedicated to mobile search.
Check out this chart from “Part 2: Understanding Mobile User Needs”:
The chart underscores just how much people turn to their mobile phones for different tasks.
These tasks vary from simple to complex. As such, the Google guidelines are careful to lay out information about how algorithms understand and interpret mobile queries.
This focus on clarifying search queries is indicative of Google’s leaning toward voice search, which is becoming a search optimization priority. (According to Gartner, by 2020, 30% of all searches will be voice searches.)
Mobile search is one of the most important trends in digital marketing right now. Every page on a website needs to be optimized for mobile platforms to do well in search (but you already knew that, right?).
8. User Experience: “Needs Met” Ratings
In the user experience portion of the Google search guidelines (Part 3: Needs Met Rating Guideline), we circle back to mobile platforms. In this section, Google asks raters to evaluate the results of various search queries.
For example, the guidelines ask raters to consider mobile user needs and how helpful the result is for those mobile users. This chart in the guidelines illustrates the rating scale, from “Fully Meets” all the way down to “Fails to Meet”:
These ratings help Google understand how search queries are related to user intent, and how their search results are measuring up. For example, if a lot of low-quality pages that “fail to meet” user needs are showing up for a certain query, Google obviously needs to work on delivering better, more relevant and useful results for that query.
9. E-A-T Versus Needs Met
The guidelines make a clear distinction between “needs met” ratings and page quality ratings. The difference is important to understand.
“Needs met” ratings are based on both the search query and the result, while page quality (E-A-T) ratings are only based upon the result and whether it achieves its purpose. This means that useless results for a particular query are always rated “fails to meet” – even if they have outstanding page quality ratings.
Think of it this way: A high-quality page with fantastic information about sea lions is useless to you if you actually want information about otters. If you searched for “otters” but got search results featuring pages about sea lions, your search needs would be unfulfilled.What are Google's E-A-T and needs-met ratings? @JuliaEMcCoy discusses Google's Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines in this blog post #searchmarketing #searchrankingfactors #googlesearch Click To Tweet
Conversely, when considering page ratings, the search query is unimportant. This means that high E-A-T pages can still have low “meet” scores if they are deemed unhelpful for a query or do not fulfill a user’s search needs.
According to Google’s guidelines, this page about sea lions would receive a high page quality rating, but may not necessarily receive a high “needs met” rating – that depends on the page’s relevance to the search query.
The guidelines also state that when a user is searching for very recent information (like breaking news, for instance) a site can earn a “fails to meet” rating if the content is stale or useless for the user’s particular query. This means pages appearing in search results for time-sensitive queries featuring content about past events, old products, or outdated information will be marked useless and given a “fails to meet” rating.
While fresh content is important, older content can have a high E-A-T rating without sacrificing usefulness. This is true for evergreen content and “timeless” information.
For example, users who search for information about Ronald Regan will find biographical information useful, even if it was written many years ago. This is not true, however, for unmaintained or abandoned websites that feature infrequently updated or inaccurate content.
10. “Fails to Meet” Pages
“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 search intent or 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.
Here are a few examples of “fails to meet” content results for different queries:
As you can see, in the second example (for the query “American beauty”), the result is actually directly related/relevant to the topic of the search. However, because the result has unsatisfying content, it gets the lowest possible “needs met” rating.
In the updated guidelines, Google makes plenty of references to clickbait. Specifically, they don’t want to see it. Ever.
That’s because clickbait builds up a user’s expectations and then fails them spectacularly. This leaves the user dissatisfied, confused, and frustrated/annoyed, all things Google does not want to be associated with its search results.
In the section on “Low-Quality Main Content” (part one, section 6.3), the guidelines specifically mention that raters should pay attention to a page’s title, as it “should describe the content.” If the title doesn’t properly do that or creates unrealistic expectations of the MC, Google says the page should be rated “Low.”
Here is Google’s example of a clickbait title that helps the page in question earn a low “needs met” rating:
“Planet Nibiru has appeared in the sky and DOOMSDAY is on the way” – clickbait much?
12. Medium-Quality Pages
In the guidelines, we have seen that raters may rank page quality anywhere from highest to lowest.
Google defines each rating and which characteristics exemplify that rating. One of the most interesting is the definition of “medium” quality pages (part one, section 8).
Google states that there are two types of medium pages:
- Nothing is wrong with the page, but then again, there’s nothing special about it, either.
- The page has high-quality characteristics mixed with some low-quality characteristics.
The first type of medium-quality page goes straight to the heart of what it takes to stand out in content. You can do everything right SEO-wise, but if there is nothing unique or special about your page/your content, you can’t expect to rank well.
From Google, here is an example of a medium-quality page. The website is a trusted source, but the content is merely “okay”:
3 Major Takeaways from the Updated Google Search Guidelines
Two of the biggest takeaways from the guidelines is the importance of mobile optimization and 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.
Google values pages with high levels of expertise, authority, and trustworthiness. Websites and content creators that champion these things by hiring and staffing expert writers will be rewarded for their efforts. This is especially true for YMYL pages.
Because YMYL pages are so important and have big potential to positively or negatively affect a reader’s life, Google puts them under heavy scrutiny. That means 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 YMYL pages, more than likely, they will enjoy both higher rankings in Google’s index and a position as an industry leader.
2. Reputation Matters
The recent updates to Google’s Search Evaluator Guidelines underline the importance of website/MC creator reputation when determining page quality.
Google exhaustively goes over the different ways reputation can affect a page’s quality and stipulates the best ways to research this vital factor. For example, the guidelines recommended using third-party websites and sources to do research about websites and content creators/authors.
A few they particularly mention include Wikipedia, the Better Business Bureau, Yelp, Amazon reviews, and Google Shopping.
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:
Google respects these sites’ opinions of other sites and will consider content low or high-quality based on BBB ratings, Wikipedia links and claims, and outside reviews/evaluations.
3. You Must Be Mobile-Friendly
Sites that aren’t mobile-friendly have a 0% chance of ranking well. Obviously, Google cares more now than ever about mobile-friendly pages – after all, nearly a quarter of their search evaluator guidelines are dedicated to mobile user needs.How are pages rated? How much value does Google put on the mobile-friendliness of a website? @JuliaEMcCoy discusses Google's Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines in this post #googlesearchguidelines #searchmarketing #contentmarketing Click To Tweet
Image via Google Search Guides
Great content isn’t enough, so be sure that your entire website is optimized for mobile users.
4. You Must Create Content That Benefits Users
Imagine the new inclusion of the concept of “beneficial purpose” in these guidelines as a huge flag waving in your SEO landscape.
It’s clear that Google is looking at it as the main determiner of a page’s quality. If a page has no apparent beneficial purpose for users, it automatically gets a low rating from search evaluators. That tells us a lot about Google’s user-first mentality, and also how we should be treating each and every piece of content we create.
Plus, the concept is reflected across Google’s other guidelines, including the brief but pointed Quality Guidelines in Search Console Help:
Take this as a sign that you should be asking yourself, “What’s the beneficial purpose of this page?” for each content piece you create.
To Be SEO-Savvy, Don’t Stop at Reading This Blog Post
My favorite SEO and content marketing resources include Backlinko (Brian Dean), BuzzSumo, Moz, and Content Marketing Institute. You can also subscribe to our Write Blog for the latest in content marketing, SEO and content writing.
Look up industry content marketing and SEO authors, too, for some must-read books. For a few solid marketing reads, I recommend anything by Ryan Holiday, Jonah Berger, Ann Handley, Joe Pulizzi, Mark Schaefer.
Dr. Seuss said it best:
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” – Dr. Seuss