Takeaways from the Google Quality Rater Guidelines

Like many software companies, Google employs a team of human beta testers to check the quality of their search results. Called “Quality Raters,” these human testers evaluate algorithm updates by assessing whether or not a given set of search results are good results for the query that generated them. Google provides Quality Raters with a lengthy document of guidelines outlining what makes a webpage a high- or low-quality result for a query.

For years, SEOs coveted the Google Quality Rater Guidelines. Despite the heavy layers of nondisclosure agreements Quality Raters sign, sooner or later the guidelines would leak out to be dissected by SEOs, fueling rounds of speculation as to Google’s goals for the algorithm. Starting in November 2015, however, Google decided to fight leaks with total transparency and publish the Quality Rater Guidelines.

I recently spoke at SMX Advanced on the panel, “What Advanced SEOs Should Know from the Google Quality Rater Guidelines.” My focus was on on how SEOs can use the Quality Rater Guidelines (or QR guidelines as I’ll refer to them henceforth) to improve overall page quality (you can read the full set of guidelines here).

Things to Keep in Mind About the QR Guidelines

  1. Quality raters don’t have any input into whether or not a given site does or doesn’t rank for a specific query. They only give feedback to Google about whether or not a set of results for that query accomplishes what that query sets out to do.
  2. Quality raters have no input into the algorithm, in terms of the factors that it weighs or what will get tested. They are there to assess existing algorithm changes.
  3. Most SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) will never be reviewed by a human. The algorithm is what’s really driving the boat here.

So if Quality Raters have no control over what sites rank for what queries, why should SEOs bother with the QR Guidelines at all?

The Guidelines give us some deep insight into what Google is going for with search results. They break down, in simple, human-readable language, what Google thinks is a high-quality result for a page. This is valuable because as SEOs, we’re ultimately trying to market to people – and that’s who Google is trying to please by continually improving its algorithm as well. Google is a machine trying to determine what humans will find valuable. To get a sense of how we can show Google that our sites provide good value to searchers, we have to ask: what are the machine-readable versions of the human-readable quality signals Google tells Quality Raters to look out for?

Why Are You Here?

One of the main things Quality Raters try to determine about a page is whether or not it “achieves its purpose.” Does the page do what it sets out to do, and is the page being honest about what it’s trying to do?

As marketers, we need to have a clear understanding of what the purpose of each page is, and whether that matches the search intent of the query we’re targeting with that page. Think of the keyword you’re targeting as a promise to the person searching for that keyword, a promise that says “I have what you’re looking for.”

Be very honest with yourself about what you’re trying to do with each page. A classic example of this going wrong in SEO is targeting highly informational queries with content that is more about delivering a sales pitch than information. If you have a page called “chocolate chip cookie recipe” that is actually a shopping page for buying chocolate chip cookies, you have not fulfilled your stated purpose (and you’re likely to annoy any visitors you get to that page). Even if there is a recipe on that page, if half the content is on the importance of using your particular brand of chocolate chips, you’ve also broken your promise. In essence, you’ve tricked users into reading a sales pitch by only nominally taking care of their needs. That’s not a good user experience, and it’s one that Google would see as not achieving its purpose.

Your Money or Your Life Pages

your money or your life

Another big thing Quality Raters look out for are what Google calls Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) pages – pages with the potential to impact the future happiness, health, or financial stability of a user. Quality Raters hold YMYL pages to a higher standard than other pages on the web; Google takes potential risks to people’s health or finances very seriously. Any page with health- or finance-related advice or information could be considered a YMYL page – as could any page from which users might potentially input credit card information to make a purchase.

You read that right: if you have an ecommerce site, you’re considered a YMYL site. That means striving for the highest-quality pages possible is even more important if you’re selling anything on your site (or if you’re giving health advice).

You Are What You E-A-T

In addition to assessing whether or not a page achieves its intended purpose, Quality Raters also evaluate a page’s Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness relative to the query:

  • Expertise pertains to the author: is this person qualified to be giving information on this topic? Professional expertise isn’t the only kind that counts – the QR guidelines call out relevant life experience as well.
  • Authoritativeness relates to the website as a whole. Is the site well-regarded as a source of information on this topic?
  • Trustworthiness also has to do with the site as a whole. Could a user trust information from this site? This may pull in factors such as reputation, accuracy of information, and even general site appearance. A site that doesn’t look polished or professional could be considered less trustworthy for professional topics.

Remember, all of these are in relationship to the query. If an expert opinion isn’t necessary for the topic at hand, the requirements for Expertise will be lower. There is plenty of room for amateur and hobby sites, as well as sites with less of a design flair, to earn high E-A-T scores for the right queries.

The Quality Scale

Quality Raters rate pages on a scale from Lowest to Highest. The full scale is Lowest > Lowest+ > Low > Low+ > Medium > Medium+ > High > High+ > Highest.

Pages of Low or Lowest quality are ones that are exceedingly spammy, deliberately deceptive, or otherwise misleading. Some examples: sites that attempt to install malware or ensnare people in obvious scams; pages that attempt to disguise ads as regular page content; pages that are entirely ads with little to no unique content. Google has a vested interest in keeping these pages out of the SERPs. Most SEOs worth their salt wouldn’t be engaging in these techniques.

Nothing Wrong, But Nothing Special

Many SEOs still get stuck on medium-quality pages. According to the QR guidelines, these fall into two main categories:

  • Nothing wrong, but nothing special: “This page achieves its purpose, however, it does not merit a High quality rating, nor is there anything to indicate that a Low quality rating is appropriate.”
  • Mixed, but has some E-A-T: “The page or website has some characteristics of both High and Low quality pages, but the low quality characteristics are mild enough that the convincing high quality aspects make it difficult to rate the page Low.”

There are a ton of digital marketers out there cranking out fine-but-not-special pages in the name of “content.” These pages might perform well in certain niches or underserved markets, but don’t have a good chance of ranking in a more competitive SERP.

Note that good E-A-T can mitigate lackluster content, but isn’t enough to save the day on its own. Your individual pages still have to be achieving their purposes well, and low-quality elements can drag you down.

High-Quality Pages

Fortunately, the QR Guidelines also tell us what Google looks for in a High quality page:

“A High quality page may have the following characteristics:

  • High level of Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (E-A-T)

  • A satisfying amount of high quality MC (Main Content)

  • Satisfying website information and/or information about who is responsible for the website or satisfying customer service information, if the page is primarily for shopping or includes financial transactions.

  • Positive website reputation for a website that is responsible for the MC on the page.”

We’ve already talked a bit about E-A-T for web pages and websites; let’s focus on additional things site owners can do to increase their page quality.

On-Site Optimization

checklist

A lot of the best takeaways from the QR guidelines are things that site owners and digital marketers can implement on-site, without needing assistance from a third party. These include:

Better content

By now, you’re probably tired of hearing that you need to create better content in order to rank. There are still a lot of sites out there that are publishing mediocre content and getting mediocre results. “Good” content doesn’t necessarily mean “long;” it means that the content on the page provides a complete answer to the intent of the query, and gives a user the information they need to move to the next step in their decision-making process.

When thinking of content, don’t neglect your product pages. Writing a blog post may be more interesting, but having a satisfying amount of high quality main content on your product pages will go a long way toward raising those pages’ quality.

Here is an example of a product page that Google calls out as having high quality main content.

mixer

What does this page have that makes its content so high-quality?

  • A detailed, original product description.This description is unique to the page and provides additional information a user might find useful while deciding whether or not to buy.
  • Manufacturer specifications.In addition to the description, this page also includes manufacturer specifications so the user can understand exactly what they’d be buying.
  • Customer service information on-page. Instead of making users click away to a different page to get information on things like returns and shipping, Target provides that information directly on the page.
  • FAQ and reviews. Reviews play heavily into most purchasers’ decision-making online. Having that information readily available (again, without the user having to visit a different page) provides a service to users.
  • Supplementary content. Not only does this page provide all the details necessary for the purchase decision, it takes it a step further by providing information about optional accessories, to help users on their customer journey beyond the purchase.

Satisfying website information

Humans and Google both want to know: “is this business a legitimate business?” This is an especially important question when it comes to YMYL sites. Fortunately, the human- and machine-readable signals for information about your business are the same.

Wherever possible, you want to have real contact information for your business. Emails are easy to fake. A phone number and address send a stronger message that you are who you say you are. Dust off your neglected About Us page and make sure it contains a good amount of information about who the company is, your history and any key team members. Your site should send signals that it is regularly maintained and updated; broken links and outdated information can damage trust with users and search engines alike. Make sure it’s easy to find customer service information. Users want to know that if there’s a problem, they won’t be on their own to solve it.

Clearly marked ads

It’s fine to have ads on your page – Google understands that ads are how many websites make money. You just want to make sure that there aren’t more ads on the page than non-ad content; that the page isn’t there solely as a way to get people to look at/click on ads; and that all ad content is clearly marked as such, including native advertising and sponsored content (The FCC and Google both care about ads being marked as ads, so you definitely want to get that right). Bonus points if ads are relevant enough to the page to enhance, rather than distract from, the user experience.

A trustworthy shopping cart

shopping cart

This one is partially conjecture on my part, but it makes a lot of sense. Google likes to see reputable, well-maintained websites. An up-to-date, secure shopping cart experience is part of any well-maintained site (remember, if you have a shopping cart, you’re a YMYL site). Don’t let your buggy, out-of-date shopping cart tool drag your nice shiny ecommerce site down. Since ecommerce sites often rely on third-party providers for shopping carts, you’ll want to make sure your provider is reputable and that they provide frequent updates to enhance security and user experience.

Customer service information

This is one example of what you do offline affecting how well you do online. “Is customer service information public and easily accessible online” is a pretty easy signal for machines to parse. Plus, making customer service a priority, online and off, will make a difference in your brand’s reputation online.

Which brings us to…

Reputation

A “positive reputation” for the website is the final item that contributes to a page’s quality. It’s easy for SEOs to see “reputation” and think “links,” but that’s not how users experience your brand’s reputation. We know that Google struggles with incorporating link metrics into page rankings in useful, spam-resistant ways. In the QR Guidelines, we can see Google’s attempts to use more sophisticated metrics and inputs than just links. Optimizing for these inputs allows us to build trust and awareness with users and with Google at the same time.

Google originally released the latest QR Guidelines in November of 2015, and then released an updated version in March of 2016. In the section on Reputation, the March version of the guidelines says: “While a page can merit the High rating with no reputation, the High rating cannot be used for any website that has a convincing negative reputation.” The previous (November) version of the guidelines says the same, but adds: “A very positive reputation can be a reason for using the High rating for an otherwise Medium page.” My theory: this second sentence was removed in the updated guidelines because raters were lending it too much credence and rating too many pages as High that really should be Medium – not because it’s no longer true. Regardless of the reason for the sentence’s removal, it seems clear that reputation is an important signal to build.

Google instructs Quality Raters to look in several different places for reputation signals. This gives marketers a blueprint for where to start building our websites’ reputations online:

Reviews

Reviews are already a well-known quality signal for local search. They’re certainly the first place most users look to research a business’ reputation. There are lots of tools to get/monitor reviews. I like GetFiveStars for review generation, and most major local SEO tools have a review monitoring feature. Resist the temptation to game the system by posting phony reviews (or having a service post them for you). Google is getting better at sniffing out fake reviews, and most don’t pass the smell test for users either. Instead, spend that time and effort improving your customer service and encouraging satisfied users to leave you a review.

References

The section of the QR Guidelines on References comes closest to being about classic SEO link building. When searching out references, Google instructs raters to:

“Look for information written by a person, not statistics or other machine-compiled information. News articles, Wikipedia articles, blog posts, magazine articles, forum discussions, and ratings from independent organizations can all be sources of reputation information. Look for independent, credible sources of information.”

The emphasis on things like forum posts is a possible indicator that co-occurrence (a mention in connection with the topic, but no link) may be a signal, something SEOs have long suspected.

Experts

We think of expertise and reputation chiefly in terms of sites passing domain authority, which is still the most machine-readable signal of expertise. There are often smaller expert sites in your topic or niche. These may not have the domain authority of e.g. a news site but do have your customers’ respect and attention. Build relationships with experts to get them to create content for you if you can. Also, try to get them talking about you – it’s a brand signal that’s also machine-readable.

Professional associations

Google specifically calls out professional organizations like the Better Business Bureau as sources of reputation info. Users tend to really trust them, too. Regardless of your feelings on professional associations, they’re a machine-readable signal that Google specifically references in the QR guidelines. They’re likely worthwhile places to work on building your business’ reputation.

Build your brand

follow me

All of this boils down to: take some time to build your brand. The best way to have a positive reputation is to have a positive reputation. Especially with things like co-occurrence, mentions by experts, and reviews, a strong brand presence will build your online reputation in machine-readable ways. It will also keep you top-of-mind for your target audience and help you grow your business through other channels.

Reputation audit

The QR Guidelines include these handy-dandy instructions for a quick reputation audit. You can use them with your site: where you can make those signals stronger and more positive?

“Using ibm.com as an example, try one or more of the following searches on Google:

  • [ibm –site:ibm.com]: A search for IBM which excludes pages on ibm.com.

  • [“ibm.com” –site:ibm.com]: A search for “ibm.com” which excludes pages on ibm.com.

  • [ibm reviews –site:ibm.com] A search for reviews of IBM which excludes pages on ibm.com.

  • [“ibm.com” reviews –site:ibm.com]: A search for reviews of “ibm.com” which excludes pages on ibm.com.”

Optimism vs. Reality

Keep in mind that the QR guidelines are more about how Google would LIKE the SERPs to be than how they actually are/work today. Optimizing for where Google is going is a great way to make sure you’re ranking in the future. At the same time, keep optimizing for the way the algorithm works today. Try not to get discouraged when the algorithm gets it wrong and ranks lower-quality pages above yours.

Written by
Drawing on over a decade of digital marketing experience (both in-house & agency-side), Ruth leads the team to drive client strategy forward.

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