Google's Search Quality Guidelines: what are Raters looking for?
By Stephen Hudson - Digital Marketing Consultant.
Anyone who works in website development or digital marketing will know that Google is constantly updating the way it ranks websites on its search engine. The Google of today now favours websites that are both mobile and user-friendly, and offer high-quality, unique content. As website developers and digital marketers, we are always striving to build, maintain and market websites in accordance with Google’s regulations. However, Google hasn't always shared how it rates websites and pages - until now!
Google has previously released snippets of its Search Quality Guidelines, but recently, the giant search engine firm made its entire guidelines available to download – instead of seeing them leaked! As a result, we are all able to see just how Google’s team of Search Quality evaluators rate websites and pages. The PDF is a whopping 160 pages long, but fret not, as we've highlighted some of the key things you need to be aware of!
Rating criteria differ according to the type of website rated
In the guidelines, Google states that every website on the Internet is created for different purposes, and as a result, the search giant’s expectations differ. Google evaluators are expected to search through a website to determine its purpose before issuing a rating, and by default, no type of website page (be it shopping, news, forum, video and so forth) is automatically high or low quality. Interestingly, Google also warned its evaluators about rating websites based on their search results: a high ranking in the SERPs doesn't necessarily correlate to a high-quality website. The evaluators were given strict instructions not to rate a website highly just because it appears at the top of the SERPs!
Google also has very high page quality rating standards for “Your Money or Your Life” (YMYL) pages, as these pages could seriously impact on the happiness, wealth or health of users. The pages that fall under YMYL include: financial information pages, financial transaction pages and medical information pages.
Reviews and reputation
Many businesses today can be easily reviewed online, and Google has suggested that evaluators take these reviews into consideration when rating pages. However, it also stressed that a small company, or a personal website, cannot be considered to have a bad reputation just because it has no reviews at all. Evaluators were also told to take into account the content of reviews and not just the numbers.
Google also stressed that any webpage can receive a high rating with little or no reputation, but a high rating cannot be awarded to any website or page with an overwhelmingly negative reputation. What’s more, a very positive reputation can boost a medium rating up to high, but a negative reputation can also be used to lower a page rating.
Size doesn’t matter, purpose, and meeting that purpose does
You might think that Google favours large corporations such as Apple or Amazon (and to be fair, it clearly looks like it!), but in fact, according to their guidelines, the size of an organisation isn’t related to quality when it comes to ratings. Google indicated that a small organisation can have a good-quality website with a number of high-grade pages, whereas a big corporation could have a poor-quality website with a number of low-grade pages.
Pretty doesn’t always mean perfect
A lot of poor website developers will spend time and money making a website look attractive, but neglect functionality. Well, Google has warned its raters not to take a website’s appearance into account when deciding on a rating. The firm states that a page may be “prettier” or more professional than others, but a page can be functional and achieve its primary goal without needing to be “pretty”. One of the examples given is that of a personal website with the purpose to share photos with one’s family. That website is not expecting to look particularly pretty, but if it serves its purpose – showing pictures - perfectly well then it can be ranked highly.
Regular website maintenance is paramount
Website maintenance was highlighted as a key rating factor, and without significant maintenance a website or page is unlikely to receive a high or highest rating. Issues such as broken images and links, along with outdated content, are key indicators that a website hasn’t been maintained properly. However, evaluators were also told to use their initiative and think about the purpose of a website when analysing website maintenance; if a website which posts news on a daily basis stops updating for a year, it’s a red flag, whereas, if a small sandwich shop doesn’t update its content for 6 months, it’s fine as the menu likely hasn’t changed.
404 errors are bad, however 404 pages can be rated highly
Broken links were also highlighted, and Google stressed that a broken page on a high quality website should be rated as low quality, or lowest quality if it’s not an isolated event (which implies that the website isn’t maintained anymore). However, customised 404 error pages should be rated high because they’re fulfilling a purpose. Sneaky redirects are also frowned upon by Google, and their evaluators were told to rate pages with links designed to deceive search engines and users as lowest.
Content is still king
Google has made no secret of its love for high-quality, unique and fresh content, using it to help rank websites on its SERPs, and this love of content is also apparent in the guidelines it gives to its rating evaluators. The guidelines detail exactly what main content, supplementary content and advertising content are and explain how each can affect a website’s rating.
The difference between main, secondary and advertising content
Main content is described as text, images, videos, etc. which directly help a page achieve its purpose, while supplementary content doesn’t necessarily help a page achieve its purpose but should contribute to a good user experience. Advertising content is described as content which helps a webmaster monetise their website and Google keenly stressed that the absence or presence of ads is not by itself sufficient for a low or high quality rating!
To have or not to have secondary content?
Main content is by its nature vital for every website, but Google stressed that specialised secondary content may benefit large websites with many pages as it will allow users to find and access content on subsequent pages with ease. Smaller businesses or personalised websites may not need as much secondary content to achieve their purpose. It was stressed that a page can receive a high or highest rating with no secondary content at all.
It may not come as a surprise to hear that websites which copied content, be it main or secondary, are looked down on by Google evaluators; the evaluators are told to rate pages with duplicate content as lowest, even if credit is given to the original source. Interestingly, Google has stated that it doesn’t consider legitimately licensed or syndicated content (news articles from Reuters etc.) to be copied. Evaluators were also told to look out for keyword stuffing and rate pages accordingly – keyword stuffing can annoy users or even make text unreadable gibberish.
Advertising content doesn’t mean bad quality
Advertisements have a notorious reputation for being annoying (who remembers when pop-up ads were all the rage?), nevertheless Google doesn’t want to shoot itself in the foot by saying that a page with ads is a poor-quality one. However, Google has stressed that pages which deliberately shift the user’s attention from the main content to monetised links should be ranked low, as this impacts on user experience. Likewise, evaluators were told to rate pages which are created to deliberately manipulate users to click on ads as lowest.
Forums are not all bad – if they’re maintained and filter out spammy comments
The content of forums was also highlighted in the guidelines, with Google stressing that forum pages with a large amount of spammed discussions or unnecessary user comments should be rated low or lowest. Google evaluators were told to consider comments or forum discussions as spam if they didn’t help users, were unrelated to the topic, or directed users to another website or advertisement.
Webmasters are therefore advised to maintain their forums and remove spam content because it leads to poor user experience.
What makes a page high or low quality?
If you’re a webmaster worried about the quality of your website and its pages, Google has revealed the criteria it uses when deciding whether a page is high or low quality. To achieve the high or highest rating, website pages must have a satisfying amount of high quality main content (content which requires time, effort, expertise and skill to create), have a good reputation for the topic, and be authoritative and trustworthy. High or highest quality pages and websites will also generally need secondary content that contributes to user experience, a satisfying amount of website information such as about us and contact pages, functional website design, and evidence of prolonged website maintenance.
On the other end of the scale, websites and pages will be given the low or lowest rating if they have low quality or an unsatisfactory amount of main content, a negative reputation, secondary content which is distracting, and/or a lack of knowledge and authority for the topic. The lowest rating will be given to pages which are also harmful, malicious, deceptive and/or unrelated. Evaluators were also advised to rate pages which lack purpose, lack main content or were created just for money, with little to no attempt to aid user experience, as lowest.
In summary, the Google evaluators were told that the three most important page quality considerations were: the quality and quantity of main content, the reputation of the website, and the level of expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness of the page and website. Authoritativeness can take various forms, from very formal for scientific websites for instance, to life experience and ‘everyday expertise’ for more personal websites or forum. For instance, parents can rightfully be considered authoritative when it comes to the way they raised their children and their experience with being a parent.
A warning to webmasters and evaluators
Amongst the detailed information about website content, links, reviews etc., Google also issued a little warning to evaluators and webmasters:
“Some webmasters have read these rating guidelines and have included information on their sites to influence your Page Quality rating!"
This little pique refers to Google’s guidelines having been leaked before, and to everyone doing SEO, but we take it particularly as a message to black hat SEOs who will only try to make it so their websites look like they follow Google’s guidelines, without making the effort necessary to do real high-quality websites. If white hat SEOs change their actions after reading these guidelines, it’s only to give Google what they want.
Here at Orantec, we strongly believe in ethical website development and digital marketing, and while the publication of Google’s guidelines is indeed helpful, they only reinforce the importance of high-quality work, while giving some hope to smaller businesses that their websites can be considered of the highest quality, no matter their size. If you've got a digital project or would like to discuss our digital services, please don’t hesitate to drop us a message!