Top 5 Takeaways from Google's Search Quality Guidelines and What They Mean for SEO

A few weeks ago, Google released their newest Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines, which teach Google’s search quality raters how to determine whether or not a search result is high quality.  This is the first time Google has released the guidelines in their entirety, though versions of the guidelines have been leaked in the past and an abridged version was released by Google in 2013.

Why is this necessary? “Quality” is no longer simply a function of text on a page; it differs by device, location, search query, and everything we know about the user. By understanding how Google sees quality we can improve websites and organic performance.

Here’s a countdown of our top 5 takeaways from Google’s newest guidelines and how they can improve your SEO strategy.

#5: User Intent: All queries are not created equal

Remember when Google released Hummingbird, aimed at better supplying search results by understanding the meaning behind words, in September 2013 and it was supposed to change SEO forever? Google’s making good on that promise by identifying a few specific ways to understand users’ intent that they consider law across all searches:

  • “Know” vs.Know Simple” Queries: “Know Simple” queries can be answered in 1-2 sentences. These are the types of queries that can be addressed with quick answers. “Know” queries can have different interpretations based on a number of factors including location and ambiguity. Consider if a user were to search for “what is an apple” versus just “apple.” A definition would answer the former, but the latter could seek multiple different pieces of information—Apple stock prices, nutrition facts, recipes, etc. Note that device can also impact whether a query is considered “Know” or “Know Simple” due to varying user intent per device.

Source: Google Quality Evaluator Guidelines, Section 12.7

  • “Do” and “Device Action” Queries: “Do” queries want to do something on a website like purchase, download, or interact. “Device actions” want to do something on our device such as open an app, send a text, or view a picture. These results can be influenced by Google’s Private Index and can be highly personalized to the user.
  • Website Queries: These indicate that the user is searching for a specific website or webpage.
  • Visit-in-Person Queries: These queries indicate that a user could be looking for information in order to visit a location or business.

SEO Strategy Implications: It’s no longer enough to optimize pages based on keywords that have the most search volume. A better strategy is understanding which users in which locations on which devices are looking for your content and what they’re searching for, as search results are now more catered to these details. Better yet, understand who those users are and what they want at a psychographic level and how you can improve or expand your content to meet their needs.

#4: Supplementary Content: Answering users’ questions isn’t enough

Google doesn’t think it’s enough to have a page that only answers the user’s immediate question. A good webpage will answer the question well and anticipate other questions or needs the user might have. For example, internal linking modules to related content can answer questions the user didn’t know they had when they landed on a page.

Some examples of good supplementary content include:

  • Internal linking modules to highly related content
  • A useful 404 page
  • Helpful tools such as calculators, save buttons, or wish lists

Some recipe sites have been particularly good at incorporating supplementary content on the page:

Source: AllRecipes.com

In case the UX benefit isn’t enough to convince you, Google specifically states that they expect large companies with a lot of content to put a great deal of effort into supplementary content. If they don’t, it could be grounds for a low rating.

SEO Strategy Implications: UX matters! Content that helps users can do more than improve conversion or retain customers. Doing whatever you can to address as many of your users’ questions and needs as possible is a strong quality signal and will help organic performance in the long run, especially as the algorithm gets better at quantifying it.

#3: “A good reputation is more valuable than money.”

Google boils down how it analyzes internet clout with the acronym EAT - Expertise, Authority, Trustworthiness. These factors aren't totally new news, but now that Google’s put an effort into specifying how to measure clout, things like industry awards, in depth article publications, authoritative authors, and customer/expert reviews should be a strategy focus.

A critical area that was added to the guidelines last year is online reputation. Google claims that they should be able to find reputation information for any large business, and stated that “negative reputation is sufficient reason to give a page a low quality rating.” Maybe more surprising, a source can move from a medium to a high rating in Google’s eyes just due to reputation alone.

Here are some sources that quality raters are encouraged to check:

  • Customer reviews – “We consider a large number of positive user reviews as evidence of positive reputation…For businesses, there are many sources of reputation information and reviews…[such as] Yelp, Better Business Bureau..., Amazon, and Google Product Search.”
  • BBB ratings – “Please consider very low ratings on the BBB site to be evidence of a negative reputation.”
  • Prestigious awards – “Prestigious awards, such as the Pulitzer Prize award, are strong evidence of a very strong reputation.”
  • Recommendations expert sources or professional societies
  • Information written by a person such as news articles, blog posts, forums, magazines, and surprisingly, Wikipedia.

SEO Strategy Implications: Go the extra mile to make sure users, experts, and organizations are giving you strong online clout. Incorporate positive authority indicators, such as customer reviews or ratings, where people (and bots) can see them. If you have a negative online reputation, invest resources in fixing the problem; performance may depend on it.

Last, make sure your strategy doesn’t focus solely on backlinks. There’s no telling how Google will update the algorithm to tweak or add ranking factors to evaluate EAT, so widening your portfolio of authority may better ensure long-term success.

#2: Localization Matters

The local space is changing, and along with it is Google’s understanding of how location affects the way people search. Google is trying to understand how to interpret intent, and they have a few query and user attributes that they consider vitally important for returning relevant results.

Understanding these attributes can help SEOs better optimize web pages:

  • User Location: Google is now focusing more heavily on user location and how it drives intent. Quality raters are encouraged to consider local queries as any query that could trigger the 3-pack. Keep in mind that this includes searches that SEOs previously might not have considered localized such as “investors” or “digital marketing.” This also means that the role of local search engines is bigger than ever.
  • Explicit Locations: Google assumes that local searches won’t actually include a location keyword because the user assumes that their device knows where they are. “Explicit locations” are queries that do include the location keyword and imply that you’re searching for local results from a non-local location. For example, if you search for “Charlottesville restaurant,” Google might assume you’re searching from out of town and more interested in getting information comparing different restaurants than seeing websites for restaurants that are closest to the city centroid.
  • “Nearby” Queries: The big takeaway here is that Google is trying to interpret “nearby” differently based on the query. For example, they might assume a user would travel farther for a specialty doctor than for a grocery store, therefore “grocery stores nearby” would return results for stores in a considerably smaller area.
  • Visit-in-Person Queries: Visit-in-person queries indicate that a user is looking for information in order to visit a location. Some local queries have this intent, but others do not. Some such as “hotels,” “post office,” or “apple store” have both visit-in-person and non-visit-in-person intent.

SEO Strategy Implications: Start using Google’s current understanding of user intent to help interpret what users want to see on a page and which keywords they will use. More importantly, proactively try to understand how your particular customers in your particular industry are affected by local, and tailor your content to their behavior. SEOs can also become more effective by making local search engine rank a primary KPI and customizing SEO strategies to different local markets.

#1: Mobile is the Future

The number one biggest takeaway from Google’s newest Quality Guidelines is that they’re written almost exclusively from the perspective of what makes sense for mobile. According to Merkle|RKG’s Q3 2015 Digital Marketing Report, mobile represents 45% of organic site visits and an even higher share of query volume in general.

Not only that, but new mobile capabilities are coming out every day such as app indexing and deep linking. With so much current and potential traffic at risk, it’s an understatement to say mobile optimization should be a top priority.

At this point in the evolution of SEO, mobile search results are still ranked based on desktop content. If you’re banking on desktop optimizations supporting your mobile website, don’t. It’s only a matter of time until Google finishes their separate mobile index, at which point the industry standard for mobile optimization is bound to experience a serious wake up call.

SEO Strategy Implications:  Getting ahead on mobile may pay off big when the next shakeup happens. At a minimum, ensure your mobile site is useful and mobile friendly. Additionally, prioritize app indexation and any new mobile capabilities. Google is looking at the industry with a “mobile first” perspective, and you should too.

Conclusion

These five components of the Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines are going to be hugely important for SEOs as we head into 2016. Make sure you understand what Google is looking for in these areas and optimize accordingly in order to stay competitive in organic search.

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