In November 17th, 2015, Google released the full version of its Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines and Handbook. The document aims to help Google Search Quality Raters understand how to evaluate the search results they are testing. The guidelines have been updated a few times since then; the most recent update was in September of 2019.
If you have a website, listen up. This 167-page document is jam-packed full of extremely helpful and insightful information about how your site is viewed and rated. The lessons we learn from these guidelines have the power to help not only your search rankings, but your overall online marketing strategy.
Back in 2013 Google released an abridged version of this document. But now, they have given us everything. In an overview article from Search Engine Land, they quoted Google’s Mimi Underwood who said that “ratings from evaluators do not determine individual site rankings, but are used to help us understand our experiments.” She added, “The evaluators base their ratings on guidelines we give them; the guidelines reflect what Google thinks search users want.” That last line is very important. These guidelines reflect what Google thinks the search users want.
I have spent a lot of time reading and looking over each page in this document. There is a ton of information, and for many it can seem overwhelming. The goal of this post is to highlight what I feel are the most important and impactful parts of the guidelines and to share what you can do to help improve your SEO, Website Design and over all inbound marketing strategy.
Search result ratings are broken into two over-arching categories: page quality and needs met. Page quality looks at each page in the SERP and rates that page on a number of factors. We will go much more in depth in the sections below. The Needs Met rating asks the rater to focus on mobile user needs and intent and judge how helpful and satisfying the results are for the mobile users. Notice the emphasis on “mobile user.” Google is gearing more and more of its focus to mobile search, and website owners need to pay attention. A bad mobile experience can crush your site’s potential. In 2016, Google launched the “Accelerated Mobile Pages Project.” This open sourced initiative is aimed at creating a faster and more optimized mobile web experience for everyone. If you are still behind on your mobile web presence, now is the time to act.
While these ratings do not directly affect how a site is ranked, they can give a website owner tremendous insight on what Google is looking for in a website. By putting what we learn from this document into practice, our sites will more clearly achieve their purpose. By building trust with our audiences and giving them what they need, we will also please the search engines and they may reward our hard work. With that being said, below is how the sites and search results are scored.
Needs Met: (Note: This is related specifically to mobile search results)
The majority of this post will cover Page Quality Ratings, but I wanted to make sure I briefly touched on the Needs Met Ratings. More searches are now done on a mobile device than on desktops. As marketers, designers and SEOs, we have to think about mobile first. People using their mobile devices are looking for answers now. The companies and webmasters who deliver a great user experience coupled with the right information are the ones that will win big. The following is a list of how Needs Met Ratings are scored.
The amount of results that will score a rating of “Fully Meets” is going to be low. The average user usually starts with a broad term and narrows down their search as they go. What we can learn from this is that Google is paying attention to what adds values to the searches and what does not. It’s hard for me to believe this won’t affect mobile ranking if your site is found to be grouped in with less than favorable results. No matter what industry or niche you are in, creating a high-quality mobile experience matters to Google, because it matters to searchers.
So if the Page Quality Rating doesn’t directly impact our site’s ranking, why should we even care? Well, first off, if Google releases a document of their expectations, every online marketer, website designer and SEO needs to listen up. Second, while what we learn from this document may not have a direct impact on our search rankings, the indirect impact cannot be ignored. If Google’s goal is to give the user the best possible solution to their query, don’t you think that the quality of the page will have something to do with the results they display?
The most common theme you will notice throughout the guideline is purpose. Every page online has a purpose and the goal of Page Quality Rating is to determine how well a page achieves its purpose. Different pages have different standards, but one constant is that the page must be helpful to its users.
“As long as the page is created to help users, we will not consider one particular purpose or type of page to be higher quality than another. For example, encyclopedia pages are not necessarily higher quality than humor pages.” (Pg. 8 of The Search Quality Evaluators Guidelines)
Here is the list of common helpful page purposes (but are not limited to):
Continuing with the theme that not all pages are graded the same, there is a special category that has much higher standards. This category is called Your Money, Your Life (YMYL) Pages. If your page falls under this category, much more is expected from you. This category includes shopping sites, financial information pages, medical pages, legal information and more.
The reason these pages are held to a higher standard is that low quality pages could result in harm to the user. It’s hard for me to believe that a low quality page grade in the YMYL category would not translate into negative rankings. The quality of your page matters and if it is perceived as low quality or harmful, you will be impacted.
If the Page Quality Rater’s job is to determine how well a page achieves its purpose, the page’s content is the measuring stick. According to the document, all content is broken down into three categories; Main Content, Supplementary Content and Advertisements/Monetization.
Your page will be judged most heavily on its Main Content. Main Content is defined as any part of the page that directly helps the page achieve its purpose. This includes text, images, video and any other page feature that helps it accomplish its goal. The Main Content is the reason the page exists and the quality of that content matters.
Now, the word “quality” has been terribly misused in the online marketing world. What is “quality” anyway, right? According to Google, they judge the quality of a page’s Main Content based on three things: Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness. To better understand how they may score this, you have to once again look at the purpose of a specific page. The expertise level of a gossip magazine is going to be very different from that of a medical journal.
It’s also important to note that they point out that life experience counts towards expertise on a particular subject. On page 19, they say “we will value this 'everyday expertise' and not penalize the person/page/website for not having 'formal' education or training in the field.” They also make it clear that this rule carries over into the YMYL pages that are held to a higher standard.
When creating a page on your site, make sure that you know the purpose or why you are creating it. Your main content needs to express that purpose clearly and effectively and in a way that proves your expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness on that subject.
A page’s supplementary content is also very important. The purpose of the page will determine what type, as well as how much, supplementary content should be used. The goal of this type of content is to support the main content and create a better user experience. This could be helpful links to other pages or content behind tabs. One thing to be sure of is that it is not invasive or distracting to the user. Using contextual marketing to deliver a more personalized experience for your users is a great way to enhance user experience.
The final type of content is ads. The truth is, without ads, some pages would not exist. Having a monetized page alone will not automatically get you a low score, but the ads you do have should not distract from the main content.
This seems pretty straight forward, but the reality is, there are a ton of pages that don’t clearly specify who created them or who owns them. Every website belongs to someone, and it needs to be clear. This plays into the trustworthiness factor. If you don’t clearly identify who you are then you must have a reason to hide. Don’t be anonymous. This is where having an “about us” page can be beneficial. This not only gives the user more information about your website, but it also is a page where you can be a little more personal and create a connection with your audience.
Your site needs to function properly across all platforms. Your links should work, your code should be clear, your content should be up-to-date, etc. This is where having a good knowledge of on-page SEO can really benefit you. Everything communicates. A poorly maintained site shows the users and the search engines that the owner or webmaster doesn’t care. Conversely, a well-maintained site, with up-to-date content around the site’s topics will add value to the user and will make the search engines happy.
Your website’s reputation is based on the experience of real users as well as experts on the topic you are covering. If you say one thing about yourself, but a reputable external source says something else, look out.
Make sure you can back up your claims. Don’t exaggerate or put yourself in a position where it appears you are trying to deceive the users. A bad reputation alone can be enough to give your site a low rating. This is why reviews are important. Not fake reviews, but real ones. For businesses looking to generate reviews from their customers there is a great free tool from WhiteSpark that will help you create printable instructions for how to leave a Google review, on desktop and mobile. Check it out here.
The reality is, bad reviews happen. You can’t please everyone. But having a bunch of fake “good” reviews can hurt you too. The best way to build a good reputation is to follow through on your promises.
They make a point on page 17 of the guidelines that for smaller businesses, a lack of reviews or reputation should not be considered an indication of low quality.
In this section, we will see how Google raters determine whether or not a page meets its purpose. While there are technically 5 ratings, Highest, High, Medium, Low and Lowest, we will focus most of our attention on what a high-quality page looks like.
High-Quality pages serve their purpose and are satisfying to the user. In order to get a high rating, a page needs to have a least one of the following:
In order to receive a high rating, a page must also have most of the following:
At this point you should start to see the picture coming together. Google’s goal is to deliver the best results and the best experience to their end-user. People trust them and the results they deliver, so they are working hard each day to ensure that they back up that trust with action. As a marketer, website designer, SEO or just a website owner, you also need to take your site seriously if you want to earn better rankings. I realize some of the bullet points are vague so let’s break them down a little more to help make sure we really understand.
The quality of the main content is one of the most important factors in determining Page Quality. No matter what category your site may fall under, high-quality content takes a significant amount of time, expertise, talent and effort. The amount of content required to earn a high quality rating depends on both the topic and the purpose of the page. The broader your topic the more content you need, the narrower your topic the less you will need. (This is why long tail keyword optimization is a good idea.)
“High quality pages and websites need enough expertise to be authoritative and trustworthy on their topic.” (pg. 21 of The Search Quality Evaluators Guidelines). We covered this above, but it makes sense to repeat it. You need to know what you’re talking about.
Reputation is heavily considered when giving out the high rating. If you have a bad reputation, you are automatically disqualified.
Supplementary Content is Good, but Not a Must
When adding supplementary content to your site, it needs to support the page’s main purpose. If it does, it can be extremely beneficial. If not, leave it out. According to the document, you can receive a high or even highest ranking without any supplemental content at all.
Functional Page Design
Listen up website designer, this section is for you! Content is part of the design. The main focus of your page must be the main content. The page needs to be organized and easy for the user to use. Below are a few bullet points to keep in mind when thinking about your page design.
Once again we see the word “purpose” in this section. The definition of functional page design depends on the purpose of the page. “Ugly” sites that have a functional design that fulfills its purpose can rank high. The example they give is perfect. Check out Craigslist. Not the prettiest site you’ll ever see, but it does fulfill its purpose.
A Well Cared for Site
All high-quality sites are well cared for and maintained. Depending on the site, purpose will dictate how frequently a site needs to be updated. For instance, a news site should be updated frequently but a local bakery, not as often.
Highest Quality: These pages are very satisfying and achieve their purpose very well. Basically take all the in-depth info in the high rating and add “very well” or “very satisfying” to them. The document goes into a little more detail on this rating, so download it and go to page 27.
Medium Quality: To me this may be the most depressing rating. The only characteristic they give is “Nothing wrong, but nothing special.” A medium rated site achieves its purpose but that’s about it.
Low Quality: A low quality site is either lacking elements that help it achieve its purpose (such as poor quality main content, bad reputation, not enough expertise, authority or trustworthiness) or has distracting supplementary content that draws focus away from the main content. The document covers this in a lot more detail so download it and go to page 34.
Lowest Quality: Simply put, if your website is harmful, deceitful or is focused solely around making money without an attempt to help users, you will earn this rating. The document goes into a lot more detail on this subject, so download it and go to page 37.
While my goal was to cover what I believe every website owner should know about Google's Search Quality Guidelines, there is a lot that I left out. I highly recommend that you download it and read through it yourself. There is a large section devoted to specific types of pages as well as a lot of examples. To download the Search Quality Evaluators Guidelines click here.
In order to succeed in online marketing, you have to know your purpose. You must know the “why” behind your “what.” Whether you are web designer, content marketer, SEO or a small business owner trying to market yourself online, you have to know and communicate your purpose clearly. The three most important takeaways from this document are:
By striving for excellence in these three areas, you will create better pages for your users and help them connect with you and your website. After all, isn’t that the purpose of creating the site in first place?
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in December, 2015, and has updated for accuracy.
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