As part of search engines’ continuous efforts to provide their users with the results which best match their queries a variety of techniques are used.
Google provides us with some information about how the ranking algorithm is tweaked – it starts from an idea, which is discussed internally and then released to a larger audience for testing.
The first phase involves collecting feedback from human search quality evaluators, who rate webpages based on the search engines guidelines. Raters are not used to influence rankings directly, but evaluate a large amount of pages and provide feedback on how useful a URL is for a search query.
The next step is the launch evaluation, which is comparative scoring of the search results, before and after the application of the algorithm improvement. Human raters, who are not informed which set is which, are asked to select their prefered results and provide feedback on the returned URLs.
Following this a live test will be carried out, it will be based on a small amount of actual Google users. Their interactions with and preference for the new, or old, set of results will be analysed. This allows to confirm if the change is useful for real life scenarios, if so the algorithm modification will be launched to all users.
In late November 2015 Google released their updated search quality rating guidelines, which is a lengthy documentation aimed to help human raters understand how to score pages. This can also be used, to some extent, by webmasters or content creators as a set of suggestions on how to write for the web and structure websites to make them useful to their visitors.
I’ve analysed the main themes and topics contained within the document and summarised some of them below, so you don’t have to read through the 160 (sic!) page document.
This is the essence of the document, as pages are rated on a Likert scale. The document also presents a qualitative explanation behind the rating. The core marker of a high quality page is a satisfying amount of high quality main content (MC), in relation to the purpose of the page, this can be sharing information about a topic, entertainment, selling products or services, sharing media and more.
Google suggests that within the context of the purpose of the page the MC on the page needs to be “expert, authoritative and trustworthy” (E-A-T) – so different criteria will apply to a government healthcare website than will to a personal site on which someone is sharing photos from a visit to a vintage car show. The document advises to use ones own judgement when rating this. The authority of the site is the final criterion for rating the page.
Special consideration is given to “Your Money or Your Life” pages (YMYL), which would include financial transaction and information pages, medical and legal information pages, as well as other topics such as significant home improvement, road safety, and child adoption.
These type of sites will be heavily penalised if the pages are created without adequate time, effort, expertise or skill, as they can have a profound effect on the user.
Another category mentioned are Question and Answer-type pages, often forums, where experts on specifics subjects engage in discussion. Often niche information can only be found on these type of sites, so it should be evaluated with care. The term “expertise” is extended to “everyday expertise” as well as “expertise of one’s personal experience”, which depending on the context of the page can be useful to the user.
Aside of the main content, a site should also have supplementary content (SC) which contributes to a positive user experience. Supplementary content could be an FAQ section, or any other feature that might, for example, help shoppers find other products they might need. This type of content can be as important as the main features if a site.
In contrast, on low quality sites supplementary content might be distracting or not helpful for the main purpose of the page, or it might be missing completely.
Last but not least Google’s guidelines point out that high quality pages will be well cared for and maintained. A high quality brochure site should have an up to date catalog of products and company blogs should be updated frequently enough, and shouldn’t talk about summer products when it’s winter. On the other hand a small business website can be updated less frequently, as the shop opening hours might change less frequently.
This also includes hints regarding sites being technically sound and where errors are returned custom pages (see screenshot below, rated as “very high”) should be put in place to ensure a good user experience.
A large part of the document is focused on creating experiences which are pleasant, efficient, and provide a mobile with actionable information. This is somewhat different, with a large focus the layout of on search engine results, result blocks, and device specific features (such as voice search). As such it deserves it’s own blog post (coming soon).
The main points to take away from the Google document for content creators and webmasters it to make sure that the core focus is on the user’s’ needs as relating to the purpose of the site. Main content needs to be satisfactory and highly tailored to pages role in the user journey. Supplementary content can be used to facilitate it – both types of content require careful preparation and “expertise”.
To improve your website’s usefulness a good starting point might be the identification and analysis of pages with low wordcount, creating custom error pages containing advice on what to do next, and making sure that any areas which hosty fresh content are being updated on a regular basis and that user generated content (which is SC) is moderated. This should be a continuous process, as it’s critical to the success of your site.