Google reveals the guidelines it uses to teach Search Quality Evaluators the difference between high quality content and low-quality content
There’s no three-word phrase we hear more in content marketing than “high quality content,” and even though legacy publishers have always been proponents of high quality content, this specific term has taken on new meaning when search engines are involved.
High quality content, in theory, follows the same lines as what has always been printed in magazines: bylines from renowned, popular writers, catchy headlines that mean something to their readers, words on a page that make you want to read to the end, and graphics that keep you entertained throughout.
However, something we learned quite quickly as an industry full of content that’s already high-quality according to all of these measures, is that it doesn’t always mean the same to the guards of the internet — the search engines – who decides what gets read and what does not. A three word headline that might be catchy won’t get found in search without keywords people are looking for, so even this simple measurement is flawed when applied to the web.
But Google and other search engines have been telling us time and time again, to just stick to writing high quality content, without any guidelines to elaborate on what that was. For all intents and purposes, publishers were already doing this. So they decided to do the Internet a favor and invest trillions of dollars in content that they’d give away for free, with the hope of attracting new paid subscribers.
It worked, and continues to work, but publishers continue to hit road blocks despite their best efforts to create high-quality content as they’ve always done, but also give most of it away for free, in an effort for long-tail monetization.
So what, then, could publishers do to please the Google Gods? Well, recently Google spilled some beans. It took me a month or so to really digest the whole thing, but I found all 200+ pages of Google General Guidelines (download PDF) to be really insightful, even if it merely confirms most of what we’ve been teaching. This handbook was meant to train Search Quality Evaluators at Google, the folks who decide what’s high-quality content. By hand.
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Hand-picked search results contribute to Google’s algorithm for high-quality content
In an interview search expert Eric Ward had with a woman named Susan, a Google Search Quality Evaluator, we learn a lot about the actual process of deeming high or low quality content and it’s very hands on. Susan details her process:
Imagine someone does a query for Knoxville bicycle repair. Some Raters will look at the search results in a single window while others may be looking at results in side by side windows where one side has the results as they are now, and the other side of the results as they would be after the implementation of a potential change to the algorithm. My job is to rate the page based on whether or not I feel the user will find it useful for that particular query.
In the interview, Eric Ward probes her about how she decides if the search results are useful. For example, what if it’s a professional rider searching, or just a dad trying to fix his kid’s bike. Her response confirms that the results could change depending on who is deciding who is rating the results, although they do all follow the same guidelines.
But she says, “it’s really not my job to try to determine the searchers intent at that level. I can’t know what the searcher was actually looking for, and for that matter neither can Google, unless it uses some other user signals that Google may know about the particular searcher at any given time, but to your question, my job is not to try to determine what the searcher actually wanted, my job is to determine based on that specific query, do the results that appear provide a useful result for that search. Will the searcher be happy.”
She also notes, “Ultimately if the quality raters cannot agree, somebody a little bit further up the ladder will probably make a decision about whether or not a page is considered a useful page or not. I cannot say who gives any page its “final” rating, or if there’s a final rating that happens after I rate a page.”
So, then, how would Susan and other Search Quality Evaluators determine what’s high-quality enough to stay on page one, and contribute to the overall algorithm for high-quality content?
Based on the documents released, and Susan’s feedback, here’s how Susan would deem content high quality
What struck me about the interview with Susan is just how biased these results may be on a microscopic level, where Susan uses a lot of phrases like, “for me personally” and “in my opinion” when describing how she makes decisions about a quality page. However, it’s clear that all of this work, which she describes as very clinical, contributes to the much larger picture, and results doesn’t necessarily reflect exactly what she’s entering into the system.
All evaluators live by EAT – examining the Expertise, Authority and Trustworthiness of a page. However, as Susan notes, it’s more than just who’s publishing the content and how good it is, it’s also about how the content is laid out, and whether ads are overreaching their necessary bounds and encroaching on content. “An extremely trustworthy source is not necessarily a helpful experience for the searcher if that searcher has to spend 20 minutes finding the actual content on the page.”
According to Google, here’s how they decide what is a high-quality page (see how I called it a “page” and not content, because it’s about more than the content.)
High quality pages are satisfying and achieve their purpose well. High quality pages exist for almost any purpose, from giving information to making you laugh.
What makes a High quality page? A High quality rating requires at least one of the following high quality characteristics:
- A satisfying amount of high quality MC (Main Content)
- The page and website are expert, authoritative, and trustworthy for the topic of the page.
- The website has a good reputation for the topic of the page.
In addition, the page and website should have most of the following:
- A satisfying amount of website information, for example, About Us information, Contact or Customer Service information, etc.
- SC (Supplementary Content) which contributes to a satisfying user experience on the page and website.
- Functional page design which allows users to easily focus on MC and use SC as desired.
- A website which is well cared for and maintained.
High-quality MC should be front and center, and although Google says not to rate content by how “pretty” the site is, they’re specific in their request that ads not be overshadowing the content, navigation is clear and that the content is the first priority of the page and nothing else.
High-quality SC according to Google would be, “a feature to multiply or divide the recipe to make the right quantity of food for a given number of people [on a recipe article]. Very helpful SC content on a shopping page might be other popular makers or models of the same kind of product featured on the page.” This may also be internal links to other resources on your site or offsite if they’re helpful and not monetized through affiliate codes.
Based on the interview with Susan, plus a thorough read through of Google’s 200 pages of guidelines, here’s what I think Google hopes the evaluators will keep in mind when they review pages and rate them.
- Content before ads. “If the first thing I see are a bunch of clickable links that are not navigational to content on that site, but instead are links that look like advertisements or buttons or ads or something that interferes with the purpose of the page, that is not a good thing. That is not useful,” says Susan. Google stresses throughout their guidelines that distracting ads are a no-no, but regular ads that are links or banner ads are perfectly fine as long as they don’t get in the way of the main content. In its document, Google tells its employees not to rate a site high or low based on the fact that they have ads (considered banner ads, monetized links, or anything commercial). They educate them on the fact that websites need ads to make money. Instead, a low score would be due to disruptive and unrelated ads.
- No broken links. Broken links aren’t user friendly, so when evaluators are going in to determine if your page is high-quality they’re also clicking on your links to see not only if they’re helpful, but also if they break. Susan notes this is more important in industries like the health field where related links truly need to work, however broken links might not kill a page on less serious subjects.
- A good reputation. When looking at reputation of a website, Google seeks third-party sources to tell them more about you. And if you thought the spiders were out there just checking up on Moz or Alexa scores, you’d be wrong. Google tells its employees to look up “reviews, references, recommendations by experts, news articles, and other credible information created/written by individuals about the website” like the Better Business Bureau or Yelp reviews to determine if it’s a reputable website.
- In-depth and organized. When reviewing a page for content, Google explains, “High quality encyclopedia articles should be factual, accurate, clearly written, and comprehensive. High quality shopping content should allow you to find the products you want and to purchase the products easily. High quality humor content should be entertaining.”
- Contact information. Depending on how serious the content on the site is, contact information is important. For a health website they would require an About Us page, contact information, and information about the authors and website creators. For something like a hobby or recipe website, an email address would suffice. The more the better, basically.
- Frequency. Google says specifically that the frequency of content being updated effects a high or low score, although brick and mortar stores get a break, publishers absolutely would not and Google would expect them to publish the most. They add, “all High quality websites are well cared for, maintained, and updated appropriately.”
- Time and effort. Google says, “We will consider the MC of the page to be very high or highest quality when it is created with a high degree of time and effort, and in particular, expertise, talent, and skill. Very high quality MC may be created by experts, hobbyists, or even people with everyday expertise. Our standards depend on the purpose of the page and the type of content. The Highest rating may be justified for pages with a satisfying or comprehensive amount of very high quality MC.”
- Highly edited and fact-checked. Google makes a point to compare low quality content to a poor college student. If the work has poor grammar and spelling, seems like it was written by someone other than the author (and an outsourced overseas writer), is inaccurate, fluffs up the content with obvious statements that are also repeated, has big graphics to make up for lack of quality copy, and plagiarizes or excerpts too much content from a news source, then it will be deemed low quality content.
- Long content. Google says that if there’s not enough Main Content, it will be given a low score, plain and simple. They don’t give a word count but we’ve been recommending 600+ words for some time now and even recommend 300+ words on tag and category pages so that Google has more than just links to read. We’re finding these pages get highly ranked more and more since we started doing this. Obviously the more the better, but 600 words should be the absolute minimum.
- Larger companies held to higher standards. The reason why a church blog might show up in the same rankings as an article from Biblical Archaeology Review is because they’re simply held to a higher standard. Google is explicit in it’s direction that large organizations should have a good looking, easy to use website with expert content, whereas a local church or a smaller business may not be held to the same standard as long as the content itself is high-quality.
Because we’ve worked with startup publishers in the health and financial fields who we’ve seen create a tremendous amount of high-quality content and take years before they start getting high search rankings, we found this section of Google’s training helpful not only to confirm that these are industries looked at closely by Google, but also to determine what they’re looking for:
- High quality medical advice should come from people or organizations with appropriate medical expertise or accreditation. High quality medical advice or information should be written or produced in a professional style and should be edited, reviewed, and updated on a regular basis.
- High quality financial advice, legal advice, tax advice, etc., should come from expert sources and be maintained and updated.
- High quality advice pages on topics such as home remodeling (which can cost thousands of dollars) or advice on parenting issues (which can impact the future happiness of a family) should also come from “expert” sources which users can trust.
- High quality pages on hobbies, such as photography or learning to play a guitar, also require expertise.
In other areas, Google says that “everyday expertise” by non-experts is OK as long as the content adheres to the other guidelines.
In terms of low-quality content, Google basically says the opposite of all the above, a Rater might deem low-quality:
- The quality of the MC is low.
- There is an unsatisfying amount of MC for the purpose of the page.
- The author of the page or website does not have enough expertise for the topic of the page and/or the website is not trustworthy or authoritative for the topic.
- The website has a negative reputation.
- The SC is distracting or unhelpful for the purpose of the page.
- There is an unsatisfying amount of website information.
- The page is lacking helpful SC.
- The page design is lacking. For example, the page layout or use of space distracts from the MC, making it difficult to use the MC.
- The website is lacking maintenance and updates.
What most pages fall into on the web, is what Google deems “Medium-quality content” which they characterize as “nothing wrong, but nothing special.” Mobile users also have another set of guidelines that all boil down to: “is this the best possible result for someone, so that they’d never need to look at any other results?” however they also have geolocation factors built in so even the best content might not end up on page one depending on where the person is searching from however I think this applies more to local businesses and geographically inclined searches.
I hope I’ve covered everything in the handbook worth noting, but feel free to check it out yourself. I’d love to discuss in the comments if you have more to add.