For many SEOs, a glimpse at the Google’s Search Quality Rater’s Guidelines is akin to looking into Google’s ranking algorithm. While they don’t give the secret sauce to rank number one on Google, they do offer some incredible insight into what Google views as quality – and not-so-quality – and the types of pages they want to serve at the top of their search results.
Last week, Google made the unprecedented move of releasing the entire Search Quality Rater’s Guidelines, following an analysis of a leaked copy obtained by The SEM Post. While Google released a condensed version of the guidelines in 2013, until last week, Google had never released the full guidelines that the search quality raters receive in their entirety.
First, it’s worth noting that quality raters themselves have no bearing on the rankings of the sites they rate. So quality raters could assign a low score to a website, but that low rating would not be reflected at all in the actual live Google search results.
Instead, Google uses the quality raters for experiments, assessing the quality of the search results when they run these experiments. The guidelines themselves are what Google feels searchers are looking for and want to find when they do a Google search. The type of sites that rate highest are the sites and pages they want to rank well. So while it isn’t directly search algorithm-related, it shows what they want their algos to rank the best.
The document itself weighs in at 160 pages, with hundreds of examples of search results and pages with detailed explanations of why each specific example is either good, bad, or somewhere in between. Here’s what’s most important for SEOs and webmasters to know in these newly-released guidelines.
Your Money or Your Life Pages (aka YMYL)
SEOs were first introduced to the concept of Your Money or Your Life pages last year in a leaked copy of the guidelines. These are the types of pages that Google holds to the highest standards because they’re the types of pages that can greatly impact a person’s life.
While anyone can make a webpage about a medical condition or offer advice about things such as retirement planning or child support, Google wants to ensure that these types of pages that impact a searcher’s money or life are as high-quality as possible.
In other words, if low-quality pages in these areas could “potentially negatively impact users’ happiness, health, or wealth,” Google does not want those pages to rank well.
If you have any web pages or websites that deal in these market areas, Google will hold your site to a higher standard than it would a site on a hockey team fan page or a page on rice cooker recipes.
It is also worth noting that Google does consider any website that has a shopping component, such as an online store, as a type of site that also falls under YMYL for ratings. Therefore, ensuring the sales process is secure would be another thing raters would consider.
If a rater wouldn’t feel comfortable ordering from the site or submitting personal information to it, then it wouldn’t rate well. And if a rater feels this way, it’s very likely visitors would feel the same too — meaning you should take steps to fix it.
Market areas for YMYL
Google details five areas that fall into this YMYL category. If your website falls within one of these areas, or you have web pages within a site that do, you’ll want to take extra care that you’re supporting this content with things like references, expert opinions, and helpful supplementary or additional content.
- Shopping or financial transaction pages
This doesn’t apply merely to sites where you might pay bills online, do online banking, or transfer money. Any online store that accepts orders and payment information will fall under this as well.
- Financial information pages
There are a ton of low-quality websites that fall under this umbrella of financial information pages. Google considers these types of pages to be in the areas of “investments, taxes, retirement planning, home purchase, paying for college, buying insurance, etc.”
- Medical information pages
Google considers these types of pages to go well beyond the standard medical conditions and pharmaceuticals, but it also covers things such as nutrition and very niche health sites for sufferers of specific diseases or conditions — the types of sites that are often set up by those suffering from medical condition themselves.
- Legal pages
We’ve seen a ton of legal-related sites pop up by webmasters who are looking to cash in on AdSense or affiliate revenue. But Google considers all types of legal information pages as falling under YMYL, including things such as immigration, child custody, divorce, and even creating a well.
- All-encompassing “Other”
Then, of course, there are a ton of other types of pages and sites that can fall under YMYL that aren’t necessarily in any of the above categories. These are still things where having the wrong information can negatively impact the searcher’s happiness, health, or wealth. For example, Google considers topics such as child adoption and car safety information as falling under this as well.
Google makes frequent reference to YMYL pages within the quality guidelines and repeatedly stresses the importance of holding these types of sites to a higher bar than others.
Expertise / Authoritativeness / Trustworthiness, aka E-A-T
Expertise / Authoritativeness / Trustworthiness — shortened to E-A-T — refers to what many think of as a website’s overall value. Is the site lacking in expertise? Does it lack authoritativeness? Does it lack trustworthiness? These are all things that readers are asked to consider when it comes to the overall quality of the website or web page, particularly for ones that fall into the YMYL category.
This is also a good rule of thumb for SEO in general. You want to make sure that your website has a great amount of expertise, whether it’s coming from you or contributors. You also want to show people why you have that expertise. Is it the the experience, relevant education, or other qualities that gives the writer of each page that stamp of expertise? Be sure to show and include it.
Authoritativeness is similar, but from the website perspective. Google wants websites that have high authority on the topic. This can come from the expertise of the writers, or even the year quality of the community if it’s something like a forum.
When it comes to trustworthiness, again Google wants raters to decide: Is a site you’d feel you can trust? Or is it somewhat sketchy and you’d have trouble believing what the website is trying to tell you?
Why you need E-A-T
This also comes down to something that goes well beyond just the quality raters and how they view E-A-T. It’s something that you should consider for your site even if these quality raters didn’t exist.
Every website should make a point of either showing how their site has a high E-A-T value or figure out what it is they can do to increase it. Does it mean bringing contributors on board? Or do you merely need to update things like author bios and “About Me” pages? What can you do to show that you have the E-A-T that not only quality raters are looking for, but also just the general visitors to your site?
If it is forums, can your posters show their credentials on publicly-visible profile pages, with additional profile fields for anything specific to the market area? This can really help to show expertise, and your contributors to the forums will appreciate being showcased as an expert, too.
This comes back to the whole concept of quality content. When a searcher lands on your page and they can easily tell that it’s created by someone (or a company) with high E-A-T, this not only tells that searcher that this is great authoritative content, but they’re also that much more likely to recommend or share it with others. It gives them the confidence that they’re sharing trustworthy and accurate information in their social circles.
Fortunately for webmasters, Google does discuss how someone can be an authority with less formal expertise; they’re not looking for degrees or other formal education for someone to be considered an expert. Things like great, detailed reviews, experiences shared on forums or blogs, and even life experience are all things that Google takes into account when considering whether someone’s an authority.
Supplementary content is where many webmasters are still struggling. Sometimes it’s not easy to add supplementary content, like sidebar tips, into something like your standard WordPress blog for those who are not tech-savvy.
However, supplementary content doesn’t have to require technical know-how. It can comprise things such as similar articles. There are plenty of plug-ins that allow users to add suggested content and can be used to provide helpful supplementary content. Just remember: the key word here is helpful. Things like those suggested-article ad networks, particularly when they lead to Zergnet-style landing pages, are not usually considered helpful.
Think about the additional supporting content that can be added to each page. Images, related articles, sidebar content, or anything else that could be seen as helpful to the visitor of the page is all considered supplementary content.
If you are questioning whether something on the page can be considered secondary content or not, look at the page — anything that isn’t either the main article or advertising can be considered supplementary content. Yes, this includes a strong navigation, too.
By now you’d think this is a no-brainer, but there are still some atrocious page designs out there with horrible user experiences. But this goes much further than how easy the website is to use.
Google wants raters to consider the focus of the pages. Ideally, the main content of the page, such as the main article, should be “front and center” and the highlight of the page. Don’t make your user scroll down to see the article. Don’t have a ton of ads above the fold that push the content lower. And don’t try to disguise your ad content. These are all things that will affect the rating.
They do include a caveat: Ugly does not equal bad. There are some ugly websites out there that are still user-friendly and meet visitors’ needs; Google even includes some of them as examples of pages with positive ratings.
More on advertising & E-A-T
Google isn’t just looking for ads that are placed above the fold and in a position where one would expect the article to begin. They examine some other aspects as well that can impact the user experience.
Are you somehow trying to blend your advertising too much with the content of the page? This can be an issue. In Google’s words, they say that ads can be present for any visitors that may want to interact with them. But the ads should also be something that can be ignored for those who aren’t interested in the ads.
They also want there to be a clear separation between advertising and the content. This doesn’t mean you must slap a big “ads” label on them, or anything along those lines. But there should be a distinction to differentiate the ads from the main content. Most websites do this, but many try and blur the lines between ads and content to incite accidental clicks by those who don’t realize it was actually an ad.
All about the website
There are still a ton of websites out there that lack basic information about the site itself. Do you have an “About” page? Do you have a “Contact Us” page so that visitors can contact you? If you are selling a service or a product, do you have a customer service page?
If your site falls into the YMYL category, Google considers this information imperative. But if your site isn’t a YMYL page, Google suggests that just a simple email address is fine, or you can use something like a contact form.
Always make sure there’s a way for a visitor to find a little bit more about you or your site, if they’re so inclined. But be sure to go above and beyond this if it’s a YMYL site.
For websites to get the highest possible rating, Google is looking at reputation as well. They ask the raters to consider the reputation of the site or author, and also ask them to do reputation research.
They direct the raters to look at Wikipedia and “other informational sources” as places to start doing reputation research when it comes to more formal topics. So if you’re giving medical advice or financial advice, for example, make sure that you have your online reputation listed in places that would be easy to find. If you don’t have a Wikipedia page, consider professional membership sites or similar sites to showcase your background and professional reputation.
Google also considers that there are some topics where this kind of professional reputation isn’t available. In these cases, they say that the reader can look at things such as “popularity, user engagement, and user reviews” to discover reputation within the community or market area. This can often be represented simply by a site that is highly popular, with plenty of comments or online references.
What makes a page low-quality?
On the other end of the spectrum, we have pages that Google considers low-quality. And as you can imagine, a lot of what makes a page low-quality should be obvious to many in the SEO industry. But as we know, webmasters aren’t necessarily thinking from the perspective of a user when gauging the quality of their sites, or they’re looking to take advantage of shortcuts.
Google does give us insight into exactly what they consider low-quality, in the form of five things raters should look for. Any one of these will usually result in the lowest ratings.
- The quality of the main content is low.
This shouldn’t be too surprising. Whether it’s spun content or just poorly-written content, low-quality content means a low rating. Useless content is useless.
- There is an unsatisfying amount of main content for the purpose of the page.
This doesn’t mean that short content cannot be considered great-quality content. But if your three-sentence article needs a few more paragraphs to fully explain what the title of that article implies or promises, then you need to rethink that content and perhaps expand it. Thin content is not your SEO friend.
- The author of the page or website doesn’t have enough expertise for the topic of the page, and/or the website is not trustworthy or authoritative enough for the topic. In other words, the page/website is lacking E-A-T.
Again, Google wants to know that the person has authority on the subject. If the site isn’t displaying the characteristics of E-A-T, it can be considered low-quality.
- The website has a negative reputation.
This is where reputation research comes back into play. Ensure you have a great online reputation for your website (or your personal name, if you’re writing under your own name). That said, don’t be overly concerned about it if you have a couple of negative reviews; almost every business does. But if you have overwhelmingly negative reviews, it will be an issue when it comes to how the quality raters see and rate your site.
- The supplementary content is distracting or unhelpful for the purpose of the page.
Again, don’t hit your visitors over the head with all ads, especially if they’re things like autoplay video ads or super flashy animated ads. Google wants the raters to be able to ignore ads on the page if they don’t need them. And again, don’t disguise your ads as content.
If you include links to affiliate programs on your site, be aware that Google does consider these to be “sneaky redirects” in the Quality Rater’s Guidelines. While there isn’t necessarily anything bad about one affiliate link on the page, bombarding visitors with those affiliate links can impact the perceived quality of the page.
The raters are also looking for other types of redirects. These include the ones we usually see used as doorway pages, where you’re redirected through multiple URLs before you end up at the final landing page — a page which usually has absolutely nothing to do with the original link you clicked.
Spammy main content
There’s a wide variety of things that Google is asking the raters to look at when it comes to quality of the main content of the page. Some are flags for what Google considers to be the lowest quality — things that are typically associated with spam. A lot of things are unsurprising, such as auto-generated main content and gibberish. But Google wants their raters to consider other things that signal low quality, in their eyes.
While we generally associate keyword stuffing with content so heavy with keywords that it comes across as almost unreadable, Google also considers it keyword stuffing when the overuse of those keywords seems only a little bit annoying. So for those of you that think you’re being very clever about inserting a few extra keywords in your content, definitely consider it from an outsider’s point of view.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but many people feel that unless someone is doing a direct comparison, they can get away with stealing or “borrowing” content. Whether you’re copying or scraping the content, Google asks the raters to look specifically at whether the content adds value or not. They also instruct them on how to find stolen content using Google searches and the Wayback Machine.
We still come across sites where the forum is filled with spam, where there’s no moderation on blog comments (so they’re brimming with auto-approved pharmaceutical spam), or where they’ve been hacked. Even if the content seems great, this still signals an untrustworthy site. If the site owner doesn’t care enough to prevent it, why should a visitor care enough to consider it worthy?
Whether a site is trying to solicit extensive personal information, is for a known scam, or is a phishing page, these are all signs of a lowest-quality page. Also included are pages with suspicious download links. If you’re offering a download, make sure it comes across as legitimate as possible, or use a third-party verified service for offering downloads.
If you haven’t taken one of the many hints from Google to make your site mobile friendly, know that this will hurt the perceived quality of your site. In fact, Google tells their raters to rate any page that is not mobile-friendly (a page that becomes unusable on a mobile device) at the lowest rating.
In this latest version of the quality guidelines, all ratings are now being done on a mobile device. Google has been telling us over and over for the last couple of years that mobile is where it’s at, and many countries have more mobile traffic than desktop. So, if you still haven’t made your site mobile-friendly, this should tell you emphatically that it needs to be a priority.
If you have an app, raters are also looking at things like app installs and in-app content in the search results.
Know & Know Simple Queries
Google added a new concept to their quality guidelines this year. It comes down to what they consider “Know Queries” and “Know Simple Queries.” Why is this important? Because Know Simple Queries are the driving force behind featured snippets, something many webmasters are coveting right now.
Know Simple Queries are the types of searches that could be answered in either one to two sentences or in a short list. These are the types of answers that can be featured quite easily in a featured snippet and contain most of the necessary information.
These are also queries where there’s usually a single accepted answer that most people would agree on. These are not controversial questions or types of questions where there are two very different opinions on the answer. These include things such as how tall or how old a particular person is – questions with a clear answer.
These also include implied queries. These are the types of searches where, even though it’s not in the form of a question, there’s clearly a question being asked. For example, someone searching for “Daniel Radcliffe’s height” is really asking “How tall is Daniel Radcliffe?”
If you’re looking for featured snippets, these are the types of questions you want to answer with your webpages and content. And while the first paragraph may only be 1–2 sentences long as a quick answer, you can definitely expand on it in subsequent paragraphs, particularly for those who are concerned about the length of content on the page.
The Know Queries are all the rest of the queries that would be too complex or have too many possible answers. For example, searches related to stock recommendations or a politician wouldn’t have a featured snippet because it’s not clear exactly what the searchers are looking for. “Barack Obama” would be a Know Query, while “Barack Obama’s age” would be a Know Simple Query.
Many controversial topics are considered to be Know Queries, because there are two or more very different opinions on the topic that usually can’t be answered in those 1–2 sentences.
The number of keywords in the search doesn’t necessarily preclude whether it is a Know Query or Know Simple Query. Many long-tail searches would still be considered Know Queries.
Needs Met is another new section to the new Quality Rater’s Guidelines. It looks at how well the search result meets what the searcher’s query is. This is where sites that are trying to rank for content that they don’t have supporting content for will have a hard time, since those landing pages won’t meet what the searchers are actually looking for.
Ratings for this range from “Fully Meets” to “Fails to Meet.”
The most important thing to know is that any site that is not mobile-friendly will get “Fails to Meet.” Again, if your site is not mobile-friendly, you need to make this an immediate priority.
Getting “Highly Meets”
Essentially, your page needs to be able to answer whatever the search query is. This means that the searcher can find all the information they were looking for from their search query on your page without having to visit other pages or websites for the answer. This is why it’s so crucial to make sure that your titles and keywords match your content, and your content is quality enough to answer fully whatever the searchers are looking for when your page surfaces in the SERPs.
Local Packs & “Fully Meets”
If your site is coming up in a local 3-pack, as long as those results in the 3-pack match what the query was, they can be awarded “Fully Meets.” The same applies when it’s a local business knowledge panel — again, provided that it matches whatever the search query is. This is where local businesses that spam Google My Business will run into problems.
If you have a quality product page and it matches the search query, this page can earn “Highly Meets.” It can be for both more general queries — the type that might lead to a page on the business website that lists all the products for that product type (such as a listing page for backpacks) — or for a specific product (such as a specific backpack).
Raters also look at featured snippets and gauging how well those snippets answer the question. We’ve all seen instances where a featured snippet seems quite odd compared to what the search query is, so Google seems to be testing how well their algorithm is choosing those snippets.
“Slightly Meets” and “Fails to Meet”
Google wants the raters to look at things like whether the content is outdated, or is far too broad or specific to what the page is primarily about. Also included is content that’s created without any expertise or has other signals that make it low-quality and untrustworthy.
Dated & updated content
There’s been a recent trend lately where webmasters change the dates on some of their content to make it appear more recent than it really is, even if they don’t change anything on the page. In contrast, others add updated dates to their content when they do a refresh or check, even when the publish date remains the same. Google now takes this into account and asks raters to check the Wayback Machine if there are any questions about the content date.
Often, YMYL sites run with heavy monetization. This is one of the things that Google asks the raters to look for, particularly if it’s distracting from the main content. If your page is YMYL, then you’ll want to balance the monetization with usability.
First and foremost, the biggest takeaway from the guidelines is to make your site mobile-friendly (if it’s not already). Without being mobile-friendly, you’re already missing out the mobile-friendly ranking boost, which means your site will get pushed down further in the results when someone searches on a mobile device. Clearly, Google is also looking at mobile-friendliness as a sign of quality. You might have fabulous, high-quality content, but Google sees those non-mobile-friendly pages as low-quality.
Having confirmation about how Google looks at queries when it comes to featured snippets means that SEOs can take more advantage of getting those featured snippets. Gary Illyes from Google has said that you need to make sure that you’re answering the question if you want featured snippets. This is clearly what’s at the heart of Know Simple Queries. Make sure that you’re answering the question for any search query you hope to get a featured snippet on.
Take a look at your supplementary content on the page and how it supports your main content. Adding related articles and linking to articles found on your own site is a simple way to provide additional value for the visitor — not to mention the fact that it will often keep them on your site longer. Think usefulness for your visitors.
And while looking at that supplementary content, make sure you’re not going overboard with advertising, especially on sites that are YMYL. It can sometimes be hard to find that balance between monetization and user experience, but this is where looking closely at your monetization efforts and figuring out what’s actually making money can really pay off. It’s not uncommon to find some that ad units generate pennies a month and are really not worth cluttering up the page to add fifty cents of monthly revenue.
Make sure you provide sufficient information to a visitor, or a quality rater, that can answer simple questions about your site. Is the author reputable? Does the site have authority? Should people consider the site trustworthy? And don’t forget to include things like a simple contact form. Your site should reflect E-A-T: Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness.
Read the original MOZ blog post here