Insights from Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines in the Age of Quality Updates

An earthquake called Phantom Update shook the whole SEO scene several weeks ago, as we observed enormous rises and falls in different sites’ rankings. According to a lot of experts the core algorithm changes casted an eye on quality content. As we all know the series of Panda-updates, especially focused on content and website quality, continues. The latest Google Panda 4.2 refresh is rolling out as we speak.

So it’s getting more and more important to create useful content that offers value to the user and to create high quality pages!

Google's Quality Rater Guidelines

But what are high quality pages? Do we have any benchmarks? Does it depend on the industry of the page? A lot of questions occur the moment you start talking about high quality pages and quality content. To bring light into the darkness of Google’s understanding of quality websites you should have a look at the Google Quality Rater Guidelines.

First of all: what are the Google Quality Rater Guidelines?

In 2008 Google introduced the Google Quality Rater Guidelines. These guidelines are especially created for external Google staff members, who support Google in rating websites. According to Google, these ratings are part of the improvement and development of Google’s ranking algorithm, but no websites are penalized due to these ratings. At least that is what Matt Cutts said. Contrary to Google, BING announced that they are using their guidelines and rater reviews for manual actions. So I find it hard to believe that Google doesn’t use this knowledge for any type of manual actions. But it’s up to you to form an opinion about that. In any case these Guidelines are used to refine the search algorithms, so at least you should know these guidelines as they can tell you something about Google’s understanding of quality websites.

Beside the public version from 2012 there are also “leaked” official versions, the latest from 2014 is 160 pages long.

As you won’t be keen on reading those 160 pages, I will give you a short summary of the most important takings from the Google Quality Rater Guidelines 2014 in this article. I neither want to explain the exact process of Google rating websites, nor will I explain every method in detail. Instead I want to clarify what quality means in the eyes of Google, so that you can use these insights while creating your website and your content. The Google Quality Rater Guidelines will definitely give us a clue of Google’s understanding of high quality websites, so let’s have a look at these guidelines.

Utility and Quality

In my opinion the most interesting parts of Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines are the Utility Rating Guidelines and the Page Quality Rating Guidelines.

In the Utility Rating Guidelines, raters have to judge the utility of a search result (that means search result plus landing page) according to a certain search query by considering user intention, user location and some other factors. Utility-Rating is “query-dependent”, which means that the usability of each result has to be judged depending on the respective search result.

Page Quality Rating on the other hand is “query-dependent”. In this chapter on the one hand you judge the quality of a landing page and on the other hand the overall quality of a website. A website with a bad overall rating can also have a negative impact on the quality of a landing page.

The scale of quality-judgment involves five dimensions:

  1.  Lowest
  2. Low
  3. Medium
  4. High
  5. Highest

I’ll get into details about how quality is assessed, both on page-level and site-level, but before that, there are a couple of other concepts used across Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines that we need to look into to understand how Google is determining content quality.

Structuring the content from Google’s perspective

On a website, Google distinguishes between Main Content (MC), Supplementary Content (SC) and Advertisements (Ads).

Main Content is the reason why this website exists and supports the site in fulfilling its purpose. Supplementary Content instead optimizes user experience but doesn’t contribute to the fulfilling of the website’s purpose. Depending on the content and purpose of the website, Supplementary Content can vary from comments, ratings and links to relevant pages, videos and similar features.

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 Purpose of the Page

A term that appears again and again in Google Quality Rater Guidelines is “purpose of the page”. Before rating the page, the quality raters should make themselves aware of the purpose of the page. According to the purpose that a page wants to fulfill, the quality rater also has to create the benchmark for assessment. For example, a site that only wants to inform about the departure of the local buses in town, has to fit other standards than a site that wants to inform about the global stock market on a daily basis. For high quality pages it is indispensable that the site has a recognizable purpose and its purpose is fulfilled by high quality content. Creation of high quality content requires at least a high amount of one of the following aspects: time, effort, expertise, talent and skills.

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Highest Quality Pages

Highest Quality Pages (HQP) should be considered in the creation and conceptual design of websites. According to Google they meet the following criteria:

  • They have an obvious purpose and fulfill this purpose very well as they provide the highest degree of satisfaction to the user.
  • The Main Content (MC) is created by experts in the topic. The author may not be necessarily known by name. For high quality websites, it is assumed that the articles are written by experts.
  • HQP have a very satisfactory amount of Main Content.
  • The layout supports the visibility of Main Content – Main Content is visible immediately.
  • The Supplementary Content (SC) is helpful and leads to a very positive user experience.
  • These pages use quality content produced in an almost professional way.
  • HQP are often seen on high quality and authoritative websites.

Special case YMYL

The so-called YMYL pages represent a special category in the Google Quality Rater Guidelines. YMYL stands for: your money or your life. For these type of pages the quality is of significant importance. YMYL pages could have an impact on the current or future well-being (physical, financial security and so on) of the user. YMYL pages are usually a type of website, which have a high reputation and its content was created with very high expertise. Contact information, reputation and updating the website are also extremely important in the overall context.

The following sites are examples of YMYL-sites:

  • Sites that are used for monetary transactions.
  • Sites that provide medical or health-relevant information that influences the physical well-being of user.
  • Sites that offer advice on issues that may significantly affect the lives of the users, such as sites about financial investments, weddings, parenting, real estate purchases et. al..

Before a rater evaluates a site, he must consider whether the landing page is a YMYL page or not.

The E-A-T chapter is a new part of the 2014 Google Quality Rater Guidelines. This part of the guidelines explains the principle of E-A-T and its importance especially for high quality pages and YMYL pages. E-A-T stand for Expertise – Authoritativeness – Trustworthiness. That means that high quality pages and websites must have a certain amount of expertise on a certain topic to be authoritative and trustworthy. Beside YMYL-pages, pages about hobbies such as fishing can be high quality pages if they have a high level of E-A-T. For example, if a webmaster has a lifelong experience in fishing and has won many fishing-contests, than he is an expert that can provide valuable insights in fishing.

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What should you avoid when you design a website?

You can learn a lot even from negative examples, therefore it’s worth taking a look at the way Google defines Lowest Quality Pages.

Google gives a negative rating to pages that have a purpose, but don’t fulfill it. Pages are also rated as lowest quality pages if they don’t provide enough main content or if main content is even missing. Once a page fails the website level checks, because, for example, it doesn’t provide contact information, this leads to a lowest-rating.

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What about ads?

As long as a page has helpful Main Content (MC) ads won’t be considered as spam. The situation is different for pages that primarily exist to provide ads and generate ad-clicks. The following types of pages containing ads are classified as spam: no MC, deceptive or useless MC, copied MC and automatically-generated MC.

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Bottom line

While rating a landing page quality, raters have to analyze the page regarding the following criteria:

  • Identify the purpose of the landing page.
  • Identify main content, supplementary content and advertisements. Is it easy to identify the main content immediately?
  • Review main content with regard to the purpose of the page.
  • Determine the amount of useful main content.
  • Determine the benefit of the supplementary content.
  • Review the layout and use of space on the page. It’s not important that the design is fancy, but that layout and space allocation contribute to fulfill the purpose of the landing page.
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In addition to the rating of the landing page, raters need to also determine overall quality of a website. An overall high rating may be awarded only if both the page level and the site level deserve a high rating.

To evaluate a website the following will be checked:

  • Is it possible to find the homepage of the website?
  • Are purpose of the homepage and purpose of the website consistent to each other? In this case, inconsistency is seen as an indicator for the Lowest Quality and raters are instructed to examine these pages in more detail.
  • Is it clear who is responsible for the content of both website and landing page?
  • Is there enough contact information available?
  • What’s the reputation of the website like? Reputation is based on awards, reviews etc. Here, it’s ok to have some negative reviews on the website as this is a common occurrence.
  • Is the homepage of the website updated or maintained frequently? Again the key is the purpose of the site. News sites have to be updated much more frequently than a hobby site about pyramids in Egypt.
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Takeaways

If we focus on the Google Quality Rater Guidelines, then it is fundamentally important for any website, especially the homepage, to be updated regularly, that you can find contact information and the person in charge of the website easily, whether the contact person is an individual or a company. This is particularly important for online stores. This could be an indication that authorship could become increasingly important, even if Google dropped the author pictures from the SERPs.

Furthermore the reputation of websites is of high relevance in the overall rating of a website. However, reputation must not be measured by business success or traffic data. A page can have a lot of traffic but still have a bad reputation.

On page level it’s extremely important that the purpose of the page is immediately apparent. Main Content should also be straightforward and professionally created, should fit the user’s search intent and solve their problems. Depending on the type and the purpose of the page “professionalism” occurs in different ways. Nevertheless you never have to worry that your own content maybe could be too good. If there are actually only weak websites in a niche, all will be rated as low quality, even the best of them.

Regarding Supplementary content you should always try to support the actual Main Content with useful additional content. For example, you could add videos to your cooking recipes page, comments in blog articles or further product recommendations in online stores.

It is also interesting that ads are officially not bad for Google in general, as long as they are not the real purpose of the page or as long as the Main Content is not outweighted by them. You should focus on useful, high quality content and a good user experience.

What about you? Has anyone of you dealt with the Google Quality Rater Guidelines? What conclusions did you draw from the guidelines? What is the criteria for high quality content in your opinion?

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author, and not necessarily the views of Caphyon, its staff, or its partners.

Author: Mario Schwertfeger

Mario graduated in business administration at the University of Bayreuth and worked in the photovoltaics business and at the online marketing department of a regional bank. He is currently working as a SEO Consultant at Catbird Seat in Munich, an agency specialized on Performance Marketing Consulting & Services. Follow him on Twitter.

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