What is E-A-T and Why Does it Matter for SEO?

Long-term success in SEO is predicated on staying abreast of the latest developments in our ever-changing industry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has meant that the SEO world is prone to using buzzwords and hopping on the latest trends and topics. One topic that’s been receiving a lot of buzz recently is E-A-T, so we thought we’d create a handy primer to get you caught up quickly.

What is E-A-T?

Simply put, E-A-T is an acronym for the three factors that Google looks at to try to determine whether or not content on a website, as well as the website itself, is offering legit content: Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trust. We’ll dive into each of these and what they mean, but first, some background.

Quality Raters and QR Guidelines

Terminology around E-A-T first surfaced in Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines. The Google Quality Rater program can be seen as a way of beta-testing Google results and algorithmic adjustments; teams of human Quality Raters are trained in how to evaluate a set of search results for quality, and then provide feedback on the degree to which various sites that might rank for a query are — or are not — high-quality results for that query.

It’s important to note that there’s a difference between quality rating and algorithmic testing. Google is testing various tweaks and changes to the algorithm almost constantly; many of these changes are likely evaluated solely based on user behavior in the SERP. Quality rating, on the other hand, is a human-led activity.

As SEOs, it can be useful for us to study the Quality Rater Guidelines, because they give us valuable insight into the human-readable quality signals that Google is trying to measure – does this page do a good job of answering the query? Does this website seem like a trustworthy source for this information? – as well as some insight into what Google already knows, from its vast set of user data, about what users find useful.

What the QR Guidelines are not are instructions on how Google’s algorithm weights various criteria. The QR Guidelines are intended for humans to read and use, not to train algorithms or AI. Google’s algorithms weigh hundreds of different machine-readable factors, many of which would be difficult or impossible for a human to weigh in their assessment of a page’s quality.

That said, Google has recently intimated that E-A-T factors are part of how they algorithmically assess site quality, so it’s worth taking some time to think about how a data juggernaut might find, process, and weight quality signals to measure human-readable qualities such as expertise and trust.

How Can a Robot Tell What is True?

As our lives become increasingly entwined with the Internet, and content quality signals become easier to fake, it’s getting harder for even human minds to ferret out whether or not a given piece of information is true. Inaccurate, misleading, and outright false information is circulating at a pretty healthy clip – a sobering prospect for any denizen of the web, and something that Google, with its vested interest in being “the place people come to find the right answer,” has an interest in combating.

The problem is, truth is pretty hard to decipher at an algorithmic level. In the whitepaper linked above, Google says, “It can be extremely difficult (or even impossible) for humans or technology to determine the veracity of, or intent behind, a given piece of content, especially when it relates to current events.“ When you’re operating at the scale at which Google operates, you can’t rely on individual right or wrong answers – Google is attempting to, wherever possible, address disinformation in programmatic, scalable ways.

By incorporating E-A-T signals into the algorithm, Google is trying to replicate the way humans figure out if information is accurate/trustworthy, and use it to evaluate information on a global scale.

Is E-A-T a Ranking Factor?

This is the question creating a great deal of conversation in the SEO industry of late, and it’s one that I find tiresome. In my opinion, the answer is: yes and no.

Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trust are not things that are easily quantifiable; I doubt that Google is e.g. giving sites a “score” for Expertise, Authoritativeness, or Trust, and then incorporating that score into their algorithmic weighting of various search results, so in that sense, no, E-A-T should not be considered a ranking factor. What is, in my opinion, far more likely is that each of these three signals is made up of multiple sub-signals, and that Google is capable of weighting these sub-signals differently depending on the site’s topic.

It may not even be that Google is looking at new or different signals than they were before; it may simply be that they are testing weighting signals relating to E-A-T more heavily in cases where factual accuracy becomes more important.

E-A-T are all human-readable quality signals; they debuted in a guide written by humans, for humans, which was intended to help humans judge the quality of a given search result. In this sense, viewing E-A-T as chiefly a human-readable concept, one can almost view it as a branding play: Google is using these terms as a way to easily encapsulate and express some quality factors that they think are important. In order to understand how search engines might evaluate those quality factors, it behooves us, as search marketers, to consider what the machine-readable proxies for those quality judgements might be, and to optimize them accordingly.

Optimizing for E-A-T

The short answer is, as usual: create the best answer for the user, and host it in the best experience possible. That said, there are human- and machine-readable ways that we can demonstrate to search engines and users alike that we are expert, authoritative, and trustworthy. Google is, of course, never going to come out and tell us exactly what they look at, but based on UpBuild’s collective SEO experience and Google’s information on the matter, here are some activities that would likely be worthwhile when optimizing for E-A-T.

Expertise

Think of Google solving the problem of expertise at a scalable, programmatic level. It wouldn’t be scalable for them to e.g. maintain a database of known experts on every topic known to humankind; instead, they’ll be looking to build connections between entities (such as authors and brands) and topics, to try to discern the level of expertise being brought to bear on a piece of content. To optimize for Expertise:

  • Recruit subject matter experts to create content. Don’t rely solely on your marketing team to create your in-depth content. If it’s expert advice, it should be coming from someone with some demonstrable expertise in the subject.
  • Build out your own experts’ reputations on other sites. If someone has a lot of knowledge on a subject, how will Google know? The answer is that that person’s name will be repeatedly associated with the subject on credible sites on that topic. The great thing about this tactic is that it’s basically just brand building – you’re doing PR and building a personal brand for your subject matter experts.
  • Link to robust author profiles and mark them up with structured data. To make it as easy as possible for search engines to find and understand your experts’ credentials, make sure you’re building robust profiles listing all their certifications, marking that data up with structured data (such as Author markup), and linking to those profiles from the content they’re creating.
  • Consider your subject matter experts’ names to be keywords you should be monitoring. As you build your experts’ brands in conjunction with your brand, you should be tracking and monitoring their names the same way you would any other branded term. What pages rank for their names, both on your site and on 3rd-party sites? You should also be monitoring co-occurrence: use tools like Keyword Tool (or the tried-and-true “Don’t Hit Enter” method) to see what people search for along with your experts’ names.

Authoritativeness

I’m pretty sure Authoritativeness in this context really just means PageRank, or, put even more simply, links and mentions. Google has, at this point, gotten really good at figuring out which links are important and should pass value, and which shouldn’t. This is why we usually recommend focusing on building authority, rather than just links. You can read more about this in the post linked above, but the TL;DR is – take the time to understand where the important online spaces in your niche are, and make sure you’re participating and building a presence there (the good news is, you should probably be doing this anyway to promote your business – the SEO benefits are just a nice synergistic benefit).

Trust

Building content on the web is getting easier all the time. This can be a boon for small business owners who can now build their own sites without a lot of tech savvy – but it also means it’s easier than ever for scammers and propaganda artists to make a legitimate-looking site. It’s much harder to fake an entire active brand than it is to slap up a fake site, though – so users and search engines alike will be looking for evidence that they can trust you.

  • Make it easy for users to find out who you are. Have a prominent About Us page that lists, at the very least, your leadership team by name (fortunately, you’ve already created robust profile pages when you were building Expertise). Link out to their relevant qualifications, publications, and social media profiles.
  • Make it easy for users to contact you. The more information your Contact Us page has, the better. Anyone can put up a contact form – who’s to say where those form submissions go, or if anyone will see them? To build trust with your users, at the very least have an email address and a phone number where they can contact you. I’d recommend going the extra mile and putting your company headquarters’ address (if you have one) on your Contact Us page, too – even if you’re not serving customers directly out of your location, a physical location is hard to fake, and being open about yours builds trust.
  • Cite your sources. Don’t be afraid to link out to other sites – if you’re citing another source in your content, link to the source in question. Showing that you’re backing up your content with information from other reputable sources builds trust. This is especially important for “Your Money or Your Life” (YMYL) sites, which Google defines as sites that could “could potentially impact the future happiness, health, financial stability, or safety of users.” Any site that claims to provide expert medical, financial, legal, or safety advice would be considered a YMYL site – as would any site that collects users’ financial information via e.g. a shopping cart.

If you’ve been in SEO for a while, none of this advice is going to sound particularly groundbreaking, because it’s not – most of the things a site would do to build E-A-T are things that search marketers have been encouraging their clients to do for years (this is, I suspect, the reason behind all the tiresome SEO discussion around it of late). E-A-T is, more than anything else, a new lens through which to view building a solid brand online. In an online world increasingly filled with mis- and disinformation, though, Google will be looking for ways to weigh these factors more heavily, and will only become more sophisticated in doing so. As search marketers, our best approach is to continue paying attention to the human-readable quality signals that Google is trying to detect, and trying to understand the machine-readable equivalents that we can optimize to send those signals.

Alaina O’Connor

Senior Marketing Strategist

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