Google’s got a lot to protect. It wants to make sure its users maintain a great overall experience. It wants to make sure webmasters can’t artificially manipulate its ranking system. It also wants to prevent any competitors from directly copying its algorithm or cannibalizing its traffic. All of these reasons justify why Google is typically so secretive and elusive about what it takes into consideration when calculating ranks—except now, it’s released a massive 160-page document comprehensively detailing the factors it takes into consideration.
It’s called the Search Quality Rater’s Guidelines, and you can read the document for yourself—if you dare. It’s a time-consuming but rewarding process, as the document clarifies a lot of assumptions the SEO community has made in the past and reveals some new factors you might not have realized were taken into account.
Time is precious, so instead of sending you off to read the document for yourself, I’ve gone through it with a fine-toothed comb to bring you some of the most important takeaways from the piece:
First, let me explain why the document is important and why you shouldn’t get too excited. Some SEOs are proclaiming this document as some magical recipe for any business to rank for any keyword. Unfortunately, there are no cheat codes here. There are no shortcuts or loopholes to take advantage of. Google isn’t detailing all the finer points of its search engine algorithm; instead, it’s explaining its perspective on what makes sites “good” sites, and how webmasters can improve their sites accordingly. It still takes a lot of work, and not everything can be reduced to a simple, objective answer, but in the course of these 160 pages, Google has done a great deal of explaining, clarifying, and introducing important concepts for search.
Early in the rater’s guidelines, Google introduces the acronym YMYL, which stands for “your money or your life.” This acronym refers to the pages and sites Google finds most important—those that have the power to directly affect your money or your life. As a money example, an online storefront could influence your purchasing decision and give you a product in exchange for your money. As a life example, a medical database could help you figure out whether or not you need to go to the hospital.
Pages that deal with money or life are held to a much higher standard than other pages—they are judged more strictly, and queries related to them are interpreted with greater care. As a result, you must prioritize these pages and spend more time ensuring they are accurate, appropriate, and useful.
We all know Google likes to rank “high quality” sites, but what makes them high quality? Google introduces a new acronym—E-A-T—which stands for expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. The expertise present on a domain functions on a personal level. Who is writing the content on your site? Who is your webmaster? Who is your core team? Google takes this information seriously—known major players in your industry can boost your reputation, while newcomers or unknowns can bring it down. Authoritativeness works the same way, but for your domain rather than your people. Where is your domain mentioned? Who’s mentioning it? How well known is it throughout the web?
As for trustworthiness, there are a number of other factors here. Is your content backed up with research? Is your page layout inviting, non-threatening, and non-spammy? Does your site have a history of making good impressions on people and seeing positive transactions?
When digging into the reputation factors for a site, Google acknowledges the importance of third-party sources for acknowledgement. For example, being listed or cited in Wikipedia automatically imbues some authority. For certain industries, being listed in industry directories or professional listings can also help. The key is to get your business listed and recognized in every listing that matters—it’s not enough to have a lot of backlinks (though that’s still important, too).
Your content is the most important part of your site, so it’s important to keep it visible and accessible at all times. Hopefully, your content already meets Google’s new E-A-T criteria, so beyond that, you’ll need to make it easy for the user to read. First, your site needs to be mobile-friendly—that’s an absolute must. Then, the bulk of your important content needs to be “above the fold” on every major device. Minimize scrolling as much as possible.
You’ll also want to start paying more attention to supplementary content, a relatively new concept Google explains in the document. Supplementary content includes things like videos, links, and elaborations on the sides, top, or bottom of your pages.
When it comes to determining how a page is ranked for a given query, Google calls upon a system of “needs met,” ranging from “not met” to “fully met,” with “slightly met” and “highly met” in between. How your page ranks for this depends on how closely you’re able to answer a user’s query. If a user is searching for a specific product and you have a dedicated page for that product, you stand a fair chance of ranking as “fully met.” On the other hand, if a user has a long, specific inquiry about how to create something, and you only have content that talks about the subject generally, you might only get a “slightly met” needs rating. The lesson here is to include as much specific, detailed information as possible, and always keep your users’ needs in mind.
Google spends some time talking about “know queries” and “know simple queries,” which are queries that can be answered succinctly. Know simple queries are queries that can be answered objectively in the span of a sentence or two. Know queries are a bit more complicated, up for debate, or hard to pin down. Either way, for your content to be ranked or used for such an answer, you need to be able to answer user queries directly and succinctly. When crafting “how,” “why,” or other content that answers a question, start putting a short version of the answer near the top of your content body (and elaborate it further on in the piece).
These guidelines also revealed that Google is using a wayback machine to evaluate the true publication dates of your content. If you’re trying to make it appear that your site is updated more often than it is by re-dating old pieces, Google will now be able to catch on to your schemes. This is also true if you’re trying to backdate older archived pieces of content.
As always, Google makes sure to list and condemn black hat practices and manipulative schemes that can prevent you from ranking successfully. These include things like spammy link building, supporting a scam, writing low-quality content, and stuffing keywords into your content. Hopefully, by now, you’re staying far away from these types of tactics. Most of them are egregious and easy to avoid, so don’t worry about any surprises cropping up here. If you’re engaging in a black hat practice, you generally know you’re doing it. Google makes it clear that you can’t get away with these anymore.
For those of you thinking “I already knew most of this,” you’re partially correct. Most best practices in SEO—showcasing quality content, avoiding black hat practices, and so on—are still best practices. The key revelations here lie in specificity. We knew Google valued some pages more than others, but we didn’t know that “money” and “life” were its key considerations for relevance. We knew that Google liked “high quality” and “authoritative” websites, but we never knew the relationship between expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness as Google laid them out here.
The bottom line for you is to keep pursuing best practices, but think carefully about these new revelations and how you can improve your strategy for the better. If you have the time, I do encourage you to read the document in its entirety—if nothing else, it will reinforce your ideas on how search works and get you closer to Google’s way of thinking (which is always a good thing for your search ranks).