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.
How to Increase your E-A-T
Full disclosure: these are not recommendations directly from Google. They are my own recommendations based on my own reading of the Search Quality Guidelines document.
1. Niche down.
In my view, it’s easier (especially for small sites) to generate authority if your site is more specific. Suppose you had an article on strollers. That articled would likely have a higher E-A-T if your site was only about baby stuff, and it would have an even higher E-A-T still if your site were only about strollers.
Of course, you have to balance this with what you want your site to do and your business goals, but focusing your energy on learning and writing about one thing or market is probably a good idea.
I did this with HerePup. I spent a great deal of time learning about dog food: the best ingredients, what different breeds needed, which foods to avoid, etc. I wrote 60,000 words just on dog food, and by the time I was done, I really did have a lot of expertise. I knew more about dog food than probably 95% of the people on planet earth, and my content showed it.
In The Authority Site System, I recommend writing at least the first 10 articles yourself. If you really want to develop expertise in your niche, you could take it a step further:
- Write the first 50 articles yourself (like I did)
- Spend a week reading about your niche as if you were studying for an exam
- Thoroughly fact check the first 100 articles yourself (here’s an actual fact-checking guide for journalists and here’s a checklist NPR uses)
2. Hire subject matter experts to either write or edit (or just become one yourself).
If you can afford subject matter experts to write, hire them. If you can’t afford them, hire a subject matter expert to edit your articles. If you can’t afford that, spend some time learning about it yourself so that you are the expert.
There are lots of good ways to hire writers and editors, but if you’re looking for subject matter experts, Problogger might be the best place to get them. Writers there tend to be a bit more specialized and professional.
Because this is much more of a professional marketplace, it costs money to post jobs here, but if you’re looking to hire a subject matter expert, you should be willing to spend money anyway.
3. Add personal experience to your content.
In the eyes of Google, personal experience is a legitimate form of expertise. Even if you haven’t, for example, used a particular blender, you might be a cook who has used several blenders and knows what features you personally look for when shopping for a blender and why.
Put that stuff in the content.
Your life = your expertise, and Google says over and over again in the SQG that it’s genuinely useful for their users.
As someone who’s taught college writing classes, for my money, the best way to inject personal experience into any kind of writing is with anecdotes.
Anecdotes = short, interesting stories or tidbits that really happened.
They don’t have to be fancy. Usually, the best way to “find” them is to just start sentences with story-type questions. You usually have more personal stories than you think. If you were writing an article about blenders, you could try stuff like:
- “When I was shopping for blenders…”
- “One thing I hate about most blenders is…”
- “I’ve always wanted a blender that… because…”
- “Here’s a quick rundown of all the blenders I’ve owned…”
- “In my opinion, a perfect blender would…”
- “Here’s how I personally use my blender…”
- “I almost cut my hand off with a blender once…”
- “I’ve never owned a blender that could successfully chop…”
- “I’m no blender expert, but after looking at hundreds of them, here’s what I learned…”
Not all of these are strictly anecdotal, but can you see how these are interesting and add personal expertise and personal experience?
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.
Creating a “Satisfying Quality and Amount” of Main Content
1. Don’t tackle individual keywords; instead, cover topics thoroughly.
Every article is (ideally) going to rank for hundreds of long tail keywords. You can’t write specifically for them all. Based on my reading of the SQG, the best course of action is to find good keywords and then tackle those topics and tightly related topics thoroughly in one article.
This will be a judgement call. What should I cover? What should I skip? One good place to start might be to use a TF-IDF analyzer like Onpage.org to see what kinds of topics the top-ranking pages seem to be covering. Or you might just look at the related keywords at the bottom of the SERPs.
One of my personal favorite ways is to use Ahrefs’ “Also Rank For” function, which allows you to input a keyword and see what pages ranking for that keyword also rank for. Here’s how to do it.
Start with a keyword. In this case, I started with “hiking boots.”
Then, just take note of what other related topics pages who rank for “hiking boots” also seem to be covering.
You can see the top pages also cover stuff like:
- Waterproof boots
- Danner boots (a brand)
- Hiking shoes
- Hiking boots for men
Each of these could conceivably be its own tiny subsection within your “hiking boots” article.
Combine these sections with the other sections that just make sense editorially (types of hiking boots, guide to brands, or whatever), and you should end up with a solid piece of content that covers a specific topic in a satisfying way and ranks for lots of good, juicy, long-tail keywords.
2. Get serious about sources.
There’s a weird, persistent discussion about whether or not you should link out to other sites in your niche. Google seems to be pretty clear here: show your users you are factually accurate.
The best way to do that? Cite. Good. Sources.
Almost everything we publish in our community is what google calls “information” content, and they say over and over again that for that sort of page, factual accuracy is critical to the quality of your MC.
Perhaps the easiest way to do this, especially if you’re outsourcing content, is to compile a big list of good, credible sources for your writers to use and cite.
I like to include these in my brief as a simple bullet list.
I just threw this together. Normally, my source lists include 15-20 sources I’ve come across in my research. I also encourage writers to use .edu and .gov sources.
3. Hire a fact checker.
You don’t have to keep a fact checker on staff or anything. And for the most part, you should be building content systems in which your writers and editors are empowered to do good research and bring their own expertise to the table.
However, it’s probably a good idea to hire a serious subject matter expert and simply have them fact check either (1) critical articles or (2) a small sample of your articles.
If you’ve already hired a subject matter expert to edit articles, they can usually also factcheck.
However, if you haven’t hired a subject matter expert, there are plenty of good fact checkers on UpWork. You’ll usually have the best luck searching in the proofreading category:
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.
How to Provide “Satisfying Website Information”
Google doesn’t explicitly state any of this stuff, but based on my reading, I think these would help build the sort of genuine trust Google wants its users to feel.
1. List either your real name or your company’s name along with your mission and real contact information on an “about” page.
The best place to do this is probably in an “about” page (one of the places Google asks search evaluators to look).
If you’re trying to stay in line with the SQG, I wouldn’t list a persona here. If you’re not comfortable listing your real name, create a company and list that. “This site is operated by blah blah blah.”
If you run your site, take this opportunity to talk about why you started it and where your expertise is (remember: Google thinks life experience qualifies as expertise).
If you’re listing your company as the owner, talk instead about the mission and goals of the site.
Along with this, an address and phone number probably go a long way. And no, you don’t have to give your personal info. Just buy:
You can buy each of these online, and they’ll be useful in your business anyway.
Create a “contributors” or “team” or “staff” page.
List your writers, editors and contributors. Do not lie. Do not make up fake people.
If you’re hiring writers, give them a bio and talk about their experience as well, emphasizing their real life experience.
If you’re hiring an agency, list an editor. Maybe it’s you. Maybe you hire a subject matter expert just to occasionally advise you. Just make sure it’s a real person who can speak to their expertise (again, even if it’s personal experience).
I usually like to include a picture and some contact info as well.
Provide a clear and legitimate way for people to contact you.
Google only mentions an email address in the SQG, but I imagine any form of contact will work, including a contact form, phone number or address.
These days, I don’t like putting my email on my websites, so I just use one of these contact forms:
It doesn’t matter what you use. What matters is that it legitimately connects you to your readers.
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!