We Dissected Google's Search Quality Guidelines
Here is what you can learn from them...
Perrin Carrell - June 29th 2017
We talk a lot about content here.
It’s a big part of SEO, and good content is one of the primary ways independently owned authority sites can compete with the big brands out there who are increasingly filling up the SERPs with their own niche sites.
So it’s important. But what’s good content?
Well, there are lots of ways to define that, but if we’re in the business of SEO, one of the best ways to define it is just by trying to understand what Google thinks “good” content looks like.
Luckily, they released their complete Search Quality Guidelines a few years back (which they’ve since kept updated).
Of course, it’s not actually for us. It’s a document created for the Google employees who actually review the SERPs manually to train the AI that powers the algorithm. In case you didn't know, yes, Google does use humans to rate search results.
They give them different versions of search results and ask them to chose which ones answer the query the best.
This is what it looks like:
So really, the search quality guidelines we are reviewing today is an employee handbook for manual SERP reviewer. But it does give us great insight into what Google wants to display in their SERPs. So, needless to say, it’s a super useful document.
And it’s a monster.
It’s 160 pages that covers basically every kind of content on the web and tells search evaluators how to assess a page’s quality.
There are lots of great insights in there, and there are a few bits of info that are particularly useful for independent site builders like us. For example, do you know what Google thinks is a good way to tackle review keywords?
You will after reading this :P
Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the whole beast of a document, I want to get a couple of things out of the way…
How to use this blog post
Here’s what this blog post is NOT:
- A complete overview of the Search Quality Guidelines
- A summary of changes from 2016 to 2017
- A discussion of details irrelevant to authority site building
If you want to read about this something that is very comprehensive and highlights the most recent changes, I can’t recommend this article by The SEM Post’s Jennifer Slegg highly enough. It’s extremely comprehensive.
Today, I mostly want to look at this document through the lense of what we do here: build authority sites that are a mix of informational content and product-driven, review-based content.
So, here’s the approach I want to take: dive into the mind of a search evaluator, try to understand how they assess pages, and then (and this is the important bit) try to come up with some kind of actionable takeaway that we can apply to our own sites.
In other words, we want to use this document to up our content game.
I also want to do a short resource assessment at the end to figure out if implementing any of this stuff will affect the cost of content production, which is one of the main questions I had going in.
Some Quick Terminology
There are really only three terms you need to know to understand 90% of the quality guidelines: main content (MC), supplementary content (SC) and ads.
- Main Content (MC) - Main content is basically all the main stuff on the page. The text of the article. The infographic you created. The videos. Everything meant to convey information about that particular query. Here’s an example of MC:
- Supplementary Content (SC) - Supplementary content is all the stuff on the page that isn’t specifically MC. This includes stuff like widgets, related posts, sidebars, and navigation. Here’s an example of SC:
- Ads - Ads, in this document, include basically all methods of monetization, from banner ads to affiliate links and everything in betwee. It’s more or less a blanket term.
Most other stuff can be explained as we go, but those are the definitions we need to kick things off.
Understanding Google’s Search Quality Guidelines & How to Use Them to Utterly Destroy & Humiliate Your Competition
But after reading through this monster, I really do feel like I have a much better grasp on the difference, in Google’s eyes, between high-, medium-, and low-quality content.
I want break my findings into a few sections (each with a few subsections):
- Page quality factors
- What does not matter
- How Google views product reviews
Page Quality Factors
This is a bit reductive, but in general, Google’s search evaluators assess pages on a few key things, listed in the “Most Important Factors” section (section 3.1, p.18):
- The E-A-T (expertise, authority, and trustworthiness) of both the page and the website
- The “quality and amount” of main content (MC)
- The reputation of the website and the information about the website
- Information about the website owner or writer
In my reading of the document, nearly everything else search evaluators do is done in the context of these things. Let’s go through them one by one.
1. E.A.T. (Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness)
E-A-T is at the core of (or is a component of) pretty much everything else in the Search Quality Guidelines. Or, perhaps more accurately in Google’s words:
In short, Google wants you to know what you’re talking about; they want people to trust you; and they want your content to reflect it.
They are, however, very careful to say that there are lots of different kinds of experts and therefore many different manifestations of E-A-T. Here are my interpretations of a few different kinds of expertise they mention:
- E-A-T for news articles might = factually accurate and timely info.
- E-A-T for a humor website might = engaged fans + good reputation.
- E-A-T for life situations might = personal experience.
- E-A-T for a gossip site might = reliable insider info + good reputation.
- E-A-T for a science blog might = established consensus + credible sources.
In other words, there’s not just one definition of E-A-T; it’s going to depend on what your site is trying to do.
One of the most important points here, though, is this: Google does not require formal education on the topic, and they do value life experience and/or good, well-cited research.
That’s good for us, because it’s means we do have the room to create good content without having an advanced degree, and that our research and learning along the way can be a form of expertise.
Google does, however, go out of their way to call out one specific type of content for which they are much more strict about E-A-T…
...Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) content.
YMYL content is content that could potentially affect the physical, emotional, or financial well-being of a user. Examples include:
- Transaction/sales/checkout pages
- Finance-related information
- Medical information
- Legal information
- Important news pages
- ...and others
If you provide inaccurate information in this type of content, and users follow your advice, it could have serious consequences. As such, Google is a lot more of a hard*ss about them, requiring real expertise or vigorous research with highly credible sources.
That said, they still allow room for personal experience.
We see this on blogs like Making Sense of Cents, a site about financial advice that is run by one person who is not a formal expert but who does give advice based on her own life experience and research.
- Read more about E-A-T in Section 3.2 on p.18 of the SQG.
2. Satisfying Main Content
Google says they want good content to have a “satisfying quality and amount” of main content (MC).
Since this is fuzzy, I interpret it to mean: we want you to give the user what he or she wants to find after typing in a query.
If that feels like common sense, here are a few nuances…
First, the purpose of the page affects what “satisfying” means.
For example, users searching for a game to play expect to find a game and probably aren’t as interested in an article about the game (unless they are specifically looking for reviews).
In the same way, humorous articles can still be high quality if they’re not factually accurate, since the main purpose is to be funny and not to inform.
Google does indirectly show us what they want out of “information pages” here, too, which is how I’d classify 99% of what we as independent site builders create. They want information pages to include:
- Factual accuracy
- Clarity of writing
They also say this about information pages: “[For] information pages, high quality MC... must be supported by expert consensus where such consensus exists.”
This essentially translates to citing good sources that support what you say.
Finally, Google makes a few notes about the amount of content to be “satisfying,” saying pretty much what you probably expect (and they provide a few good examples):
So the purpose of the page is what determines how long it should be to be “satisfying.”
You shouldn’t expect this to translate to a specific word count or anything. It should just support the idea that your MC’s main job is to serve the searcher what they are expecting to find and/or need after typing in a query.
Nor should you think this implies longer content is better. While long content does tend to correlate with better rankings, we’ve also proven short content can do really well, which probably indicates some angelic search evaluator getting a massage somewhere in a brightly light Mountain View cubicle and eating complimentary sushi... has at least once looked at a 500-word article and thought it was “satisfying.”
Of all the concepts in the SQG, I think “satisfying main content” is probably the most nebulous. Here’s my whack at making it actionable.
- Read more about “satisfying” MC in section 4.2 on p.19.
3. A Good Real Website with a Reputation
This is really a combination of two of Google’s main quality factors:
I combined them here because I think they are closely related and because most of our websites will hardly be big enough to have any sort of robust reputation, and as long as you’re not ripping people off or something, you’re likely fine.
So we won’t spend much time here on reputation except to say: don’t publish harmful or misleading info, don’t rip people off, and don’t do things that make people mad.
Basically, don’t be a dick.
But what about this other thing: website information or information about who is responsible for the site?
Here’s the critical bit, though:
So the level of information you need to provide about who it is that runs the site really depends on your niche.
In most low-stakes niches, in Google’s words, “an email address may be sufficient.”
The more you venture into YMYL territory, however, the more you need to be ready to provide information about who you (or your company) are and who exactly is writing this content.
It’s important to keep in mind that the goal here is to establish trust:
So, while the SQG don’t give us any specific guidelines about how to create this (it’s not for us, after all), I do think there are a few things you can do on your end.
- Read more about satisfying website information in section 4.3 on p.20.
So that’s the big stuff--the stuff that is most important. Now I want to tell you what you don’t necessarily need to worry about…
A Few Key Things that DON’T Matter
I don’t mean what follows doesn’t matter at all.
What follows are things that Google has specifically said either don’t matter or don’t necessarily matter.
We’re not going to spend too much time on these because, well, they don’t matter.
Page type doesn’t matter.
The type of page displayed in the search results should not, for a search evaluator, impact the quality score of the page.
Instead, the important thing is the relationship between the search intent and the purpose of the page.
For us, the implications of this are mostly that -- at least from a search quality standpoint -- we are free to create pages that aren’t just text. We can create tools, videos, or whatever else lines up best with the intent of the user.
However, in practice, it often happens that a "type" of page (product page, roundup review, list post etc) dominates specific key terms so before creating content, always Google your target keyword and look at what page type dominates there to pick the right type.
Design doesn’t matter.
Google cautions their evaluators against letting a gut reaction based on how a page flooks inform their quality score.
In fact, they ask their evaluators to do the exact opposite: to completely disregard the design and focus only on the content.
Does this mean it’s okay if your site looks like crap? No!
Remember, we’re only talking about how manual search quality evaluators review pages in the SERPs. The overwhelming majority of the time, however, on Google’s end, it’s not going to be person looking at your page -- it’s going to be be an algorithm. And we know creating a strong UX can indirectly affect how the algorithm views your site. Good design (or at least clean design is a part of that).
So don’t skimp on design.
The takeaway is instead that as design isn’t a quality factor for Google and won’t impact you negatively.
- This is from the FAQ section on p.60.
Finally, I want to tackle one of the biggies (for our community anyway)...
How Google Thinks About the Quality of Product Reviews
Now we’re getting to the juicy stuff.
Honestly, for a while there, I was convinced Google looked at folks who did product reviews as a special kind of scum.
But, if the Search Quality Guidelines are any indication, they really don’t. They also don’t tell their evaluators specifically how to tackle product reviews.
They do, however, drop hints throughout the document that I’ve cobbled together for you here.
Product reviews fall under “know” user intent.
When processing product-related queries, Google puts a strong emphasis on user intent, breaking it down (in the context of products in particular) into three intent types.
- “Know” intent. These are queries that indicate the user wants to consume more information about a product. Google references “review” keywords, but this almost certainly includes other buying intent keywords as well (“best,” etc.).
- “Do” intent. Queries in this category indicate the user wants to take an action -- usually in the form of making a purchase. The example Google gives is “buy ipad.” If I were going to guess based on how the SERPs typically look, I’d imagine this also mostly covers general, unmodified product keywords like “ipad.”
- “Navigation” internet. These queries indicate the user wants to get to find products in a specific place on the web. For example “ipad site:apple.com” would mean the user specifically wants to see ipads on apple.com.
Reviews fall under “know” intent.
The following isn’t applied specifically to “know” intent queries, but it seems to jive, and, for us, becomes one of the more important sections in the document.
And then check this one out:
This is one of Google’s examples of a high quality result for a product query. The page is a review, and among the strong points of the page, the evaluator notes “reviews about many specific models,” which may indicate Google values a certain level of comprehensiveness (interestingly, this query doesn’t have what we usually call a “buying intent modifier,” contradicting what I said earlier).
In my view, all this stuff combined provides a really strong indication of what Google thinks product review content should be doing.
- Read more about user intent for product queries in section 21.0 on p.145. The example page evaluation is from the same section.
Google may consider product reviews YMYL pages.
To refresh your memory, YMYM (Your Money or Your Life) pages are pages that cover topics that could affect a user’s physical, emotional, or financial well-being.
At first, I thought YMYL pages were mentioned alongside product queries because checkout pages were mentioned in the definition of YMYL pages. So I thought it was an eCommerce thing.
But then I saw this:
The implication here seems to be that the YMYL designation extends to a user’s research phase, which would include reviews.
If this is true, it means we should be taking E-A-T a bit more seriously if we’re recommending any products at all -- and not just if we’re in a YMYL market.
- Read more about YMYL product queries in section 21.0 on p.145.
Life experience is still a good form of expertise for product reviews.
Finally, here, I want to return to something Google mentions in passing at the beginning of the document (and something we’ve already talked about a bit).
This is from the section explaining E-A-T:
Here, Google seems to be saying that no formal expertise is required to review products, but that there is an expectation that they are both detailed and helpful.
The underlying implication, I think, is that anyone can be qualified to write a product review as long as they’re bringing the appropriate experience to the table.
- From section 3.2 on p.18.
Okay, but is adhering to all this stuff actually worth it? Let’s talk resources.
To talk resources, I want compile and recap all the action items I came up with above.
- Go a bit nichier to create more E-A-T.
- Hire subject matter experts to either write or edit.
- Add personal experience to content.
- Use keywords as a starting point to cover topics.
- Get serious about sources and build a big list of credible sources.
- Hire a fact checker.
- List either your name or your company name on an “about” page.
- List editors and contributors somewhere, highlighting their experience.
- Provide ways for users to contact you
On that list, there are really only two things that would cost money: hiring subject matter experts to write/edit and hiring a fact checker.
Of course, it’s ideal if you could hire those folks full-time, but most of us don’t have (even remotely) that sort of budget.
But I don’t think you have to.
In either case, it’d be perfectly fine to find and hire regular writers who can simply bring relevant life experience to their content and then occasionally hire editors and fact checkers with more expertise for one-off projects to review content.
It costs money, but it would not be outrageous compared to the probable earnings of your authority site.
And, in my view, it’s probably worth it. When I started growing HerePup (see the anecdote here ;)), I made some pretty big mistakes in my content -- factual inaccuracies that people contacted me about enraged.
I corrected them immediately and resolved to buckle down and really build up my own expertise, which, by the way, doesn’t cost anything.
So maybe that’s the real solution…
Maybe it’s not a matter of hiring a bunch of experts. If you’re in a niche in which you’re not a formal expert, maybe it’s just resolving to undergo a learning phase yourself so that you become the expert.
Just making sure you know what the f*ck you’re talking about and making sure users know you do, t00, is, well, free.
Over to you…
This is a long, intricate document, guys.
I’ve pulled out what I think are the important parts, but there are definitely lots of good tidbits in there I wasn’t able to cover.
So I’m leaving that up to you…
What did I miss? What else do you think is important? What other actionable things can we all do to up our content game?
Let me know in the comments!