As an SEO I’m obviously keenly interested in Google’s Search Quality Rater’s Guidelines. For those of you who are unaware of what they are, they are the guidelines Google gives to it’s manual reviewers covering how to judge pages on the web. The manual reviews we’re referring to here are not reviews based on manual actions (i.e. penalties). Google hires reviewers to grade sites and then uses this data to improve their algorithm. This is what makes these guidelines such interesting reading, they outline what Google is looking at, concerned about and where their attention is.
The most recent guidelines were released by Google for the first time last November. If you’re interested they’re available for here.
Assuming you’re not up for a 160 page read, here are the takeaways …
Section 2.4.4 – Summary Of The Parts Of A Page
Google describes the core parts of a page. They are:
Main Content (MC) – The content on the page that helps it attain it’s purpose. This area is the key to the rest of the guidelines.
Secondary Content (SC) – The secondary content can either help the page attain it’s goal, help the user navigate to other pages, or distract from the goal as a whole.
Advertisements – Google notes, “Many pages have advertisements/monetization (Ads). Without advertising and monetization, some webpages could not exist because it costs money to maintain a website and create high quality content. The presence or absence of Ads is not by itself a reason for a High or Low quality rating.” This is great news for publishers. Advertisements are not a sign of low or high quality. We’ll read more on this later.
Section 2.7 – Website Reputation
Google outlines some very specific rules about judging reputation that make a lot of sense. They are:
- If the website says one thing about itself but reputable external sources say another, the external source is to be trusted.
- Research into reputation needs to include not just the website but also the company, organization or entity that the website is representing.
- Wisely they also point out that website owners may have read past or current guidelines and created content purely to impact their reputation and reviewers need to be wary.
- They also note in Section 2.7.1 that reviewers should not be biased to believe that sites they use are necessarily good and reputable. This is quite good advice for all of us.
- In section 2.7.3 they further note that user views both positive and negative should be taken with a grain of salt.
Section 4.2 – A Satisfying Amount of High Quality Main Content
In section 4.2 we really get into the critical data that should help guide our efforts. Google notes specifically here, “The quality of the MC is one of the most important considerations in Page Quality rating. For all types of webpages, creating high quality MC takes a significant amount of at least one of the following: time, effort, expertise, and talent/skill.” So not only are we told that having excellent Main Content is key, the criteria for it’s creation is also outlined. We know as we judge our own content that is needs to have taken a significant amount of time, effort, expertise and/or skill to produce.
They also note in this section that MC can include functionality and not just verbiage and that this should be taken into account in the rating.
Section 4.5 – Helpful Supplemental Content
Supplemental Content can be a large part of what makes a High quality page satisfying. Helpful SC on a recipe page for example can be the difference between it being a success or failure. Supplemental Content in this case may include reviews or comments.
Section 4.6 – Functional Page Design
Google outlines what a high quality page is structured like. Their guidelines are:
- 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.
While all these are outlined they are clear that the rating should not be on how “nice” the page is but how it serves the user.
Section 6.5.3 – Poor Page Design
While we saw what makes a good design in section 4.6 here we see how they define a poor site. Their guidelines here are:
- Many Ads or highly distracting Ads on the visible part of the page when it first loads in the browser (before you do any scrolling), making it difficult to read the MC.
- Repeated insertion of Ads between sections of the MC, so that the page jolts the user back and forth between MC and Ads in a way that makes the MC difficult to read.
- Invasive Ads, such as popups that cannot be closed.
- A large quantity of Ads with a relatively small amount of helpful MC.
- Text ads, placed beside or within the site’s navigation links, which may confuse users.
Can you too see the trend? Ads are a key to a low quality rating if abused.
Section 9.2 – The Top Three PQ Considerations
PQ refers to Page Quality. This is different than the more global design and entity valuations noted above. Google lists the following three factors as the most important:
- Quality and quantity of Main Content – Examine the MC carefully. Given the purpose of the page, evaluate the quality and quantity of MC.
- Level of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-A-T) of the page and the website – The level of E-A-T is extremely important for YMYL pages.
- Reputation of the website – The reputation of a website is very important when the website demands a high level of trust.
The second of these posts references YMYL pages. The acronym stands for Your Money or Your Life and refers to web pages the reference advice, products or services around finances or your health or welfare. This is why expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness are specifically critical here.
In cases where different content may be produced by different authors (YouTube for example) PQ is a critical. When a site is created by a single individual or company, has very active editorial standards or has an extremely positive reputation the website level E-A-T is more important.
Interestingly they mention Wikipedia and list cases where there is little MC as a reason to give a Medium rating or even lower.
Regarding forums, in section 10.3 Google mentions that the rating should be from the point of view of a user and not a participant. This makes sense if we think of it from the context of a Google user who will be looking for an answer to a query and has not likely participated in the forum previously.
Section 12 – Understanding Mobile Users, Mobile Queries, and Mobile Results
Google begins the discussion on mobile scenarios with four points:
- Entering data may be cumbersome: typing is difficult on mobile smartphones, and when users speak to their phones instead of typing, voice recognition may not always be accurate.
- Small screen sizes make it difficult to use some phone features, apps, and webpages.
- Some webpages are difficult to use on a mobile phone. Website navigation can be difficult as menus and navigation links may be small. Webpages may require left-to-right scrolling to read text. Images may not fit on the screen. In addition, many mobile devices cannot access webpages with Flash or other similar features.
- Internet connectivity can be slow and inconsistent for mobile users going in and out of networks. App opening, recognition of voice commands, and webpage load times can be very slow on a mobile phone.
While this may seem obvious it is interesting to note that quality ratings are given differently for mobile and desktop and why.
Section 12.7.1 – Know and Know Simple Queries
Google defines know simple queries as, “Know Simple queries seek a very specific answer, like a fact, diagram, etc. This answer has to be correct and complete, and can be displayed in a relatively small amount of space: the size of a mobile phone screen. As a rule of thumb, if most people would agree on a correct answer, and it would fit in 1-2 sentences or a short list of items, the query can be called a Know Simple query.”
They list specifically that raters must think about mobile users when deciding if queries are Know Simple.
Section 12.7.2 – Do and Device Action Queries
These are special types of queries. Do Queries are trying to accomplish a specific task such as “get candy crush game” whereas Device Queries are queries where users are asking their phone to do something for them such as “call mom”.
Section 12.7.4 – Visit-In-Person Queries and User Location
Visit-In-Person queries are queries that involve a user looking for a place they want to go such as a restaurant.
In section 12.7.5 however Google outlines challenges such as a user on their device requesting “walmart”. Are they looking to visit the store, visit the website or know about the company?
In section 12.8.2 they address a portion of this challenge discussing Special Content Result Blocks that displays content directly on the results page. This allows for less clicking and provides more information quicker and with less bandwidth.
Section 13.0 – Rating Using The Needs Met Scale
Part 3 begins in section 13 with a description of Needs Met. This is a simple 5-point rating system that breaks down how well a page meets the needs of the user. The 5 points are:
- Fully Meets
- Highly Meets
- Moderately Meets
- Slightly Meets
- Fails To Meet
What we need to think about while producing content is how a rater would value it. If it would get a Fully Meets or Highly Meets rating you’ve done well.
Reading the guidelines can be a bit dry but while I’ve tried to cover well here the gist, there are examples and subtleties within the 160 page document that I obviously didn’t get to. They key understanding to take away is that the manual reviewers are in place to help Google develop and tweak the algorithm. The rules and strategies they feed to Google will be applied to your site through automated systems. In short, understanding what Google’s looking for structurally and how they’re rating your content manually will tell you what they will be applying algorithmically in the near future.
So make good quality content, locate it within easy reach of the user on page load, make sure it’s easily accessible on mobile and most importantly, make sure it meets the needs of your users. As a perk, you’ll likely find your links, social shares and visitor engagement improving with your rankings.