A Look at Google’s ‘Quality Rater Guidelines’ Over Time: How to Put Information Into Action

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Google is vague on a lot of things, but every now and then we get a glimpse into what the search giant values and deems important. The folks at the search engine don’t tell us every time a change is made to the ranking algorithm, and they don’t tell us each and every one of the variables they use to determine ranking. Yet, occasionally we get a few golden nuggets of information, such as the Quality Rater Guidelines (Guidelines).

Year after year, Google has updated this document, which is provided to its evaluators. According to Google, the purpose of the Rating program is to evaluate the search engine quality globally. Evaluators give a quality rating to the websites they encounter and report back to Google. The search engine then uses this information to judge whether or not the search results are helpful for users.

For years, the Guidelines were “confidential,” but each version was leaked allowing search marketers to dissect and analyze what Google considers to be quality. Google started to release the Guidelines to the public and you can find the most recent document here.

How Quality Has Changed Over Time
Every time Google releases a new version, you can count on Jennifer Slegg with The SEM Post to give a detailed account on what has changed. Below is a 4-year timeline in reverse order starting with 2017.

2017: Fake News, Clickbait & Bogus Claims
As “fake news” has become a major topic today, it isn’t surprising to see it show up in Google’s definition of a low quality website. Google has also applied the Your Money Your Life (YMYL) standards to news articles. Some other examples of low quality per this 2017 version include unsubstantiated claims, clickbait and hate sites. You can see more details about the 2017 document in the section ahead.

2016: Supplementary Content Gone
The 2016 Guidelines pushed local even more than previous years and started referring to this category as “Visit-in-Person.” Google also continued to put an emphasis on mobile and added more information about the most important factors to consider when determining the quality. These factors included main content quality and amount, website information, such as details of who is responsible for the website, website reputation and the overall Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness (EAT). What was interesting in this version is that Google removed a section about “supplementary content,” which is likely due to the mobile experience and making it a better one for users.

2015: Mobile & Local
2015 was the year of mobile. Google added a substantial amount of information to their Guidelines about mobile and how raters must test the website not only on desktop, but also on a mobile device. Many of the examples that were provided to raters within the Guidelines showed mobile, not desktop, which further shows what Google is emphasizing. Raters were instructed to consider the ease of inputting data, performance on small screens and other issues that might arise for mobile users. Local was highlighted substantially in the 2015 version. Not only were raters told to consider local intent, but also a new term was introduced, “Explicit Locations, ” which refers to a local searcher adding the geographic location to his or her query (i.e. Phoenix dentist).

2014: EAT & YMYL
In 2014, Google gave us a new acronym to add to our search vocabulary, Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness (EAT). The guidelines during this year were vastly different than previous editions and focused on what makes an expert. In addition, Google outlined criteria for Your Money Your Life (YMYL) websites. Knowledge Graphs also made an appearance in this version, as raters were to evaluate the graphs. The existence of the Knowledge Graphs in the Guidelines hinted at Google’s plans to continue to carve out a spot on the search results page.

What You Should Do Today
It’s no secret that Google is focused on the user, which is apparent in the Quality Rater Guidelines. They know that having a good experience is what keeps users coming back. From a high level, you can see how Google has refined what makes a website quality—from showing expertise to providing a great mobile experience to ensuring news is accurate. To ensure that we are chasing the same thing as Google (i.e. a great user experience on a quality website), here are a few areas to focus on:

  • Show that you are an expert. If you are going to provide content on a subject, you better have expertise and/or experience with it. This is especially true with the YMYL category. That is how Google will consider the page trustworthy.

Takeaway: Clearly define your company’s experience, accreditation and knowledge on your website and stick with the topics that align with your expertise. Instead of offering content that is already commonly known, add your depth of knowledge to demonstrate you truly are an expert. This concept applies to the company that has the content on the website, as well as the individual author.

  • Focus on raising your online reputation. One of the tasks that raters are asked to complete is to look for reputation information about the website. Google instructs them to find what other reputable sources are saying about them, such as in the media, on the BBB website and even Wikipedia. Google makes a point to say that the brand’s social profiles, such as Twitter and Facebook, are not sufficient to judge reputation.

Takeaway: Position your company as an expert and look for opportunities in the media. HARO is a great resource. Also, know what is being said about your organization. That should be straightforward, but if you have not set up Google Alerts and are using social monitoring tools, do it.

  • Support facts and claims. Fake news has become a hot topic of conversation and people are more leery than ever before. Google is putting a greater responsibility on websites providing news, and advice related to YMYL. For instance, Google states that “high quality information pages on scientific topics should represent well-established scientific consensus on issues where such consensus exists.”

Takeaway: Have the mindset that you are creating and promoting an academic piece, meaning any claims, details or statistics are backed by appropriate resources. At a doctoral level, students are expected to support their claims with reputable sources and not rely on their opinion alone. The same concept applies. Plus, citing authoritative websites is great for outbound linking, so it can be a win-win situation.

  • Know the user intent. Mobile is an important area for Google and user intent is a big part of it. Google breaks intent into these categories: Know, Do, Website Query, Visit-in-Person. These intents are relevant to all types of websites, from local to international. A user wants to accomplish something when doing a search and to catch that traffic, and convert, it is imperative to know your users’ intent(s).

Takeaway: Take the time to identify your target visitors’ intent and keep in mind there might be more than one. If it is a local business, the intent might be to find information or for them to visit the store. Address these queries on the website and make it simple for people to find what they’re looking for.

Google always keeps things interesting and the Quality Rating Guidelines document is just one example. As a closing thought, continue to pay attention to what search engines are following and you’ll set yourself up on the right path.

Mindy Weinstein is the founder and president of Market MindShift, as well as a national speaker, trainer and digital marketing strategist. She teaches part-time at Grand Canyon University and has been a search geek since 2007.