Do you feel that SEO (search engine optimization) is all smoke and mirrors? That the rules are always changing? That you get conflicting answers from SEO experts on how to optimize your site for search?
Don’t you just wish that you had a cheat sheet for what Google is looking for so you could rank higher?
Well, now you do. Google recently officially released their Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines. This is a document that Google provides their raters—actual human beings—to help evaluate page quality across the web.
In short: this document details how Google evaluates web page quality. If you understand what they’re looking for, you can create pages that both rank higher and provide better value to your site visitors (aka future customers.)
Should you read it?
While the guide is available to all, at 160 pages it may only appeal to SEO nerds. Luckily for you, I’m one of those people.
So, in this article I’m going to share with you what I felt were the eight biggest takeaways, and what I’m sharing with our SEO copywriters and our clients to help them rank higher. I’m focusing primarily on the first section of the guide, which pertains to page quality: what makes a page valuable to the end user.
Again, these are my takeaways and interpretation of the guide. If you’d like to dig deeper into the source material, you can download the guide here.
Now, onto the good stuff!
What is Page Quality?
Page Quality, or PQ, refers to how well a webpage achieves its purpose and whether that purpose is positive. Most webpages are meant to be helpful, but others are meant only to make money without effort to help visitors, and still others are malicious.
There are pages for shopping, for education, for entertainment, for discussions, for watching videos, for making people think, and for making people laugh. The guide tries not to make a value judgment based on the type of page:
As long as the page is created to help users, we will not consider one particular purpose or type of page to be higher quality than another. For example, encyclopedia pages are not necessarily higher quality than humor pages.
That being said, Google has a higher page quality standard for so called Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) pages. So, if your website is about medical, financial, or legal topics, or asks visitors to trust you with their money (i.e., shopping pages), expect a higher level of scrutiny.
Takeaway 1: As far as Google’s search results go, it is looking to return high quality pages to the searcher. When looking at your own pages, ask yourself, “is the purpose of this page clear? Does it achieve it’s purpose?
What makes up a webpage?
Google breaks down a webpage into three sections:
- Main Content (MC): any part of the page that directly helps accomplish its purpose. This could be text, images, videos, calculators, etc. It also may be user-generated content, like on a forum or a site like Imagur.
- Supplementary Content (SC): contributes to good user experience, but doesn’t directly help the page achieve its purpose.
- Advertisements/Monetization (Ads): one way in which the website makes money. It’s important to note that there is nothing wrong with making money off of ads as long as it doesn’t become a detriment to the purpose of the page. Also, ads should be marked as such, i.e., Sponsored Content or Advertisements.
It’s important to note that there’s often no hard line between MC and SC, and what might be SC on one page could be MC on another.
Takeaway 2: Your MC should serve and complete the purpose of your webpage. SC is important if you want to raise yourself above your competitors. If you are using ads, make sure they’re clearly marked and that they don’t distract from the page’s purpose.
How does the website impact individual Page Quality?
The guide suggests that often the page needs to be viewed as part of the whole. I.e., what is the website about? Raters are told to find the About page. To visit the home page. To uncover who is responsible for the website and who created the content on the page.
It is suggested that raters try and determine if the website is being kept up-to-date. Do links work? Do images load?
Takeaway 3: as a business (or non-profit), it’s imperative that you make it easy for visitors to find out about you and that you keep your site well maintained.
How does website reputation impact Page Quality?
Raters are told not to stop at the confines of the website. “Be skeptical of claims that websites make about themselves.”
They are told to look for “reviews, references, recommendations by experts, news articles, and other critical information.” Sites like Yelp and the Better Business Bureau are referred to.
Takeaway 4: Your PQ doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Check your reputation management at sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor. See what people are saying about your product on Amazon. Google yourself.
What are the characteristics of a high quality page?
Google asks raters to rate pages on a 9 point scale from Lowest to Highest. To receive a high quality rating, the page should have a “satisfying amount” of high quality MC.
In addition, the website itself needs a high level of Expertise / Authoritativeness / Trustworthiness (E-A-T). As mentioned earlier, YMYL sites will be expected to have a higher level of E-A-T qualities.
One interesting note here: if you’re dispensing medical advice, you should have medical expertise (doctor, researcher, etc.). However, if you’re sharing what it’s like to take care of a loved one with diabetes, you are an “expert” based on your real life experience.
The page should have helpful SC, as well. If you’re selling belts, it might be a tool or video that shows you how to best measure your waist.
Design is important for high quality pages. That doesn’t mean beautiful, but it does mean functional. (Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a beautifully designed webpage that also is functional.)
Takeaway 5: “Thin” content is out. Whatever the purpose of your page, from getting someone to book a guestroom to meet with one of your counselors, you need to provide a “satisfying amount” of content—both main content and supplementary content—on that topic.
Your site needs to be informative about your business and how to contact you. You need to be seen as an expert, as an authority, and to have a solid reputation on the topic at hand.
Your page doesn’t need to be pretty, but the design needs to be logical and support the page in achieving its purpose.
If your page or site falls short on any of these, you’ll need to improve those pages.
What makes for a low quality page?
Now, I’m sure you’re not looking to create low quality pages, but here are some of the things to steer away from:
- Low quality or “unsatisfying amount” of main content
- Lacking E-A-T
- Having a negative reputation (online or off)
- Unhelpful supplementary content (often ads disguised as content)
- Poor page design (more about confusing visitors rather than just being butt-ugly)
- Poor care and maintenance (with a caveat that some sites need to be updated less often than others)
- “Unsatisfying amount” of information about the organization behind the website
Below low quality, there is lowest quality. This rating is saved for pages that are harmful, malicious, or deceptive.
While I know none of you would do this intentionally, one of the deceptive practices is “keyword stuff” main content. In other words, if you’re cramming your main content with keywords to rank higher, you may be heading for a fall.
Takeaway 6: Don’t do this stuff.
What’s most important to page quality?
In the last part of the PQ section, Google provides the raters with the Top Three PQ Considerations:
- Quality and quantity of the MC. I don’t think it’s an accident they put quality before quantity.
- Level of E-A-T of the page and the website. They again stress that YMYL pages are held to a higher standard.
- Reputation of website. This extends to your entire organization. No matter how high quality the content, a bad reputation will hurt you.
In an article at Search Engine Land, Google’s Mimi Underwood said that “ratings from evaluators do not determine individual site rankings, but are used help us understand our experiments.” She added, “The evaluators base their ratings on guidelines we give them; the guidelines reflect what Google thinks search users want.”
In other words, if you make the appropriate changes to your pages (or if they’re already amazing with a “satisfying amount” of content,) doesn’t mean that your individual rankings will go up.
Rather, that this is what Google is looking for in general. And perhaps, more importantly, this is what your site visitor is looking for.
Takeaway 7: The quality of your main content is paramount, but without expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness, or if you suffer from a bad reputation online or off, you’ll still fail.
In short, good advice from a bad source will be suspect.
The Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines is not a teacher’s edition where you can just flip to the back for the answers. Rather, it is a guide on how you can get to where you want to be.
You’ll notice that the Guidelines can be maddeningly vague at times. How much content is a “satisfying amount” anyway? There’s good reason for this.
First of all, it reinforces the fact that Google is rating, reviewing, and ranking different sites differently. News sites need to be updated more often than Bed & Breakfast sites. YMYL websites require more authority. Broad topics require more content than narrow topics.
If Google came out and said, “high quality pages require 300 or more words in the MC,” do you know how many 301 word web pages there would be? (Answer: all of them.)
This, of course, isn’t everything you’ll need to know to rank higher at the search engines. There are things like title tags, inbound links, site speed, mobile-friendliness, and hundreds of other variables that go into ranking higher at the search engines.
But if you follow these guidelines for improving the quality of your content, you should see your search rankings, site visits, and conversions, continue to improve.
P.S. The “Final Takeaway” counts as eight.