Google isn’t big on sharing information that can be reverse engineered to see how their rankings work. And for good reason – gaming the search engine algorithm is potentially very lucrative.
Still, every now and again, Google gives users and webmasters a peek behind the hood.
And on November 19, they did something new: they released the full version of their Search Quality Rating Guidelines.
Before 2013, the guidelines were leaked a few times. In 2013, Google sent out the abridged version to the public.
This year is the first time digital marketers, SEOs, UX professionals, and anyone else who is interested in this space can read the full set of guidelines straight from the horse’s mouth.
At 160 pages, though, the guideline document is a pretty long read, so of course, we’re here to give you the CliffsNotes version.
Let’s dive in.
What is the Search Quality Guidelines?
It’s the document Google gives testers for reference, in a nutshell. On top of algorithm tweaks and click-through reviews, Google lets real users check web sites to assess “page quality.”
Do the guidelines affect my rankings in Google?
Page quality ratings do not directly affect site rankings, but the scores are used by Google as additional input to their experiments.
Should I care about these if they do not DIRECTLY affect my rankings?
Yes. The guidelines are a proxy for what users want, in Google’s eyes. So if you don’t match these closely in your space, and your competitors do, watch out.
Okay, is there anything I need to understand first?
Google divides pages into three core elements, for the Page Quality (PQ) Rating:
- Main Content (MC) – the core content of the page, and the thing that’s supposed to meet user intent. For a video page, this would mean the actual video. For a time zone calculator, it’s the main mechanism converting the time zones.
- Secondary Content (SC) – comments to videos, navigation elements, collections of helpful links, etc.
- Ads – these are, hopefully, self-explanatory
So … ads are bad, right?
Google asks participants to give high scores to sites that focus mainly on the MC, without the ads getting in the way.
So just because a site has ads doesn’t mean it’ll get a bad score, although low scores will be given if the ads GET IN THE WAY of the user finding the MC.
Well, that, and if a site violates many of the high quality page criteria.
What exactly does Google see as criteria for Page Quality?
The core set of tenets have to do with finding high quality content from a trustworthy source, or matching user intent with the page content itself. Google is concise enough that we can list it here:
- A satisfying amount of high quality MC
- The page and website are expert, authoritative, and trustworthy (E-A-T)for the topic of the page
- The website has a good reputation for the topic of the page
By high quality Main Content and trustworthy sites, Google means pretty, well-designed sites, right?
No. Google is actually pretty adamant about this. They don’t want pretty pages, they want pages that get the job done.
They reiterate on the guidelines that the steps followed are designed to help users analyze the site without using something as superficial as “is this site pretty?”
Got it. High quality MC, E-A-T for the subject matter, and general reputation for the topic. Anything else?
The secondary set of tenets is about the web site surrounding the MC.
- A satisfying amount of website information, for example, About Us information, Contact or Customer Service information, etc.
- SC which contributes to a satisfying user experience on the page and website
- Functional page design which allows users to easily focus on MC and use SC as desired
- A website which is well cared for and maintained
Are all sites scored on those criteria?
Yes, all sites are scored on those things.
However, Google asks raters to be tougher on what are called Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) pages. YMYL pages include shopping sites, or sites that deal with financial, legal, medical, or car safety information and the like – the ones that have more of a negative impact if the MC is wrong, low quality, or downright malicious.
So Google asks raters to be harsher on shopping sites and the like?
I think I get the gist, but it is still pretty abstract. What exactly are the things that I can trip up that will give me low Page Quality ratings?
- If your MC is very similar to the MC of other sites, down to the verbiage, with just a few things changed, that’s a serious point against PQ.
- If you have content written to appeal to search engines via keyword repetition, that’s a point against your MC.
- If there’s not enough of your MC for the purpose of the page, that’s also a point against your MC
- If independent sites give you mostly negative reviews, that’s a point against your reputation and E-A-T scores
- If you have several broken links on the site, that’s a point against your site being cared for and well-maintained
- If you’re missing key information about your business (contact information, About Us content, etc.) that’s a point against satisfying web site information.
- If users can’t navigate to sections other than the MC because of navigation decisions you’ve made on your site, that’s a hit against functional page design and your SC,
What about page organization?
Again, Google’s concise enough here that there’s not much of a need to summarize.
- The MC should be prominently displayed “front and center”
- The MC should be immediately visible when a user opens the page
- It should be clear what the MC actually is. The page design, organization, and use of space, as well as the choice of font, font size, background, etc., should make the MC very clear
- Ads and SC should be arranged so as not to distract from the MC – Ads and SC are there should the user want them, but they should be easily “ignorable” if the user is not interested.
- It should be clear what parts of the page are Ads, either by explicit labeling or simply by page organization or design.
Remember, some pages are “prettier” or more professional looking than others, but Google actually asks raters to base scores NOT on how “nice” the page looks.
Got it. So, basically, they want you to follow basic usability principles?
They don’t care about usability fixes for your conversion rate, but they care quite a bit that the user is satisfied with the results they are serving.
So if you have survey questions about whether or not your user can find what he or she needs, and whether or not he or she has been satisfied with your site, you should have a pretty good list of things to fix that will impact your search quality ratings.