Deciphering Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines to Define ‘Highest Quality’

In November 2015 Google released their 160-page Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines, something that got the whole SEO community excited as we got a peek into an exclusive world.

Google’s ranking engineers have spent years digesting and breaking up the web into index shards (collections of millions of pages) and then processing queries by first understanding them, then using a retrieval and scoring system before making post-retrieval adjustments to ensure that the SERPs are meeting user’s needs. This process was explained in full by Paul Haahr at SMX West earlier in 2016 (if you haven’t seen the video, click here).

It’s during the retrieval scoring where the engineers determine whether or not pages meet the criteria to be classed as ‘the highest' standard. ‘Highest Quality Pages' are pages that wholly satisfy user intent and achieve their purpose, and then some.

This is beyond the idea of SEO landing pages, but creating pages for the user, with SEO and attracting organic traffic as the secondary reason.

The distinction between High and Highest is based on the quality of MC as well as the level of E-A-T and reputation of the website.

Ultimately the main content quality, reputation and accountability of a page (and website as a whole) contribute to it’s E-A-T score. This is a measure of the page’s level of Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness.

The level of expertise can vary between websites. For websites that focus on topics such as medical or legal, the level of expertise would be higher than a sports blog or a recipes website.

Evaluators are asked to consider the below questions when evaluating a page:

  • — Who are the experts?
  • — What makes a source trustworthy for the topic?
  • — What makes a website highly authoritative for the topic?

Main Content Quality

In order to achieve the rating of ‘highest' or ‘high', the main content (MC) on the page needs to have been curated with a level of expertise, talent and skill. If it is curated in this way, it will be clear that a lot of time and effort has gone into the content and this will contribute to the E-A-T score of the page.

Content needs to be comprehensive, structured with header tags, broken up into readable paragraphs, include imagery and external links to other authoritative sources. There are a number of copywriting guides available on the internet, as well as webinars and free courses and it’s important that your writer is a native speaker of the content being written.

It’s also important that the usual ‘SEO best practices' are adhered too, such as avoiding falling into traps such as ‘keyword density' or relying on third-party SEO tools to evaluate your content.
If you want to use any tools to verify the quality of your content, I recommend using one of the many site’s offering the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. This scores your content purely on its reading ease level, which is more important than keyword density or keyword stuffing. If you’re going to write comprehensive content on a specific topic, you’re going to naturally include the relevant keywords, so don’t worry about that.

Quality content takes time to produce. It needs to be thoroughly researched and written with a level of expertise. It cannot be ‘churned’ out or mass produced effectively
Quality content takes time to produce. It needs to be thoroughly researched and written with a level of expertise. It cannot be ‘churned' out or mass produced effectively

Positive Reputation

My interpretation of this section of the guidelines is that this is both an online and offline factor. Evaluators are encouraged to research the websites (brands) reputation and the guidelines even highlight Wikipedia as a «good starting point for reputation research»

Very positive reputation is often based on prestigious awards or recommendations from known experts or professional societies on the topic of the website.

Does the link profile matter?

It’s not clear whether or not a domains backlink profile is looked at as part of this research, as I know if I was looking into the reputation of a brand, I’d look to see where they’ve been featured online and maybe look for natural links from high quality editorial sites and industry and trade specific sites and e-zines.

While it is possible to buy links on some of the higher quality editorial sites, it doesn’t take a genius to work out which links have been placed there by link-building SEOs and which links have occurred naturally.

For example, typically when an editorial such as the Guardian or Huffington Post do a feature on holiday destinations, they include specific hotels or locations and then accredit sources to the brand (and maybe link to the brand’s root domain).

However, editorials such as the Guardian and Huffington Post are wise to this, so link-builders hide links to their commercial websites (clients) with anchor text, which is often optimized, as you can see in the image below:

Anchor text linking to a blog article on a commercial website that has low authority and naturally wouldn’t have acquired the link. This practice is common to try and increase a website's Domain Authority, with the logic being that it will rank higher
Anchor text linking to a blog article on a commercial website that has low authority and naturally wouldn’t have acquired the link. This practice is common to try and increase a website’s Domain Authority, with the logic being that it will rank higher

Offline PR

This is where offline efforts count. Not all websites will link back to a root domain, for example in the UK, I’ve had clients mentioned and featured on the BBC, but they don’t link out.

Likewise, I’ve had an alternative jewellery website featured in Kerrang! Magazine, there wasn’t any mention online but the specific product that was featured saw an increase in page views and purchases on the day that the magazine was published (and the days after).

It’s important to capitalise on these efforts and include ‘logo candy' prominently on your site highlighting where you have been featured (both online and offline).

Testimonials from ‘authoritative figures' are also important, and need to be easily accessible. If you manufacture soccer boots and you get a testimonial on your homepage from David Beckham, you’re reputation and apparent expertise has some verification.

Accountability

This is especially important for websites that fall under YMYL (websites that can affect Your Money or Your Life, typically sites offering services or ecommerce sites).

This means that there needs to be clear information on who is responsible for the website, and accountable for any pages involving financial transactions. Google reviews and independent third-party reviews for products, services and customer service quality are also important.

Users need to know that they are safe on your site, the evaluators need to see this too. If you don’t have any accountability visible, how can someone verify that if there is an issue that they will be protected and assisted?
Users need to know that they are safe on your site, the evaluators need to see this too. If you don’t have any accountability visible, how can someone verify that if there is an issue that they will be protected and assisted?

I would also recommend serving your website on a secure protocol and using an SSL, this demonstrates to Google (and to users now that Chrome has started warning that websites are being served on un-secure http protocols) that you have taken steps to protect users on your website.

TL:DR;

It’s very difficult to fake high quality webpages and trick Google into thinking your content is more valuable than it actually is. The entire eco-system of the domain needs to be technically sound and be strong in order to achieve the ‘highest' rating and be considered as an expert, an authority and a trustworthy source.


Dan Taylor is a Technical SEO consultant at SALT.agency. He spends his days working with clients around the world improving their online search performance. He is also a Marketing Columnist and write regular posts for Social Media London, OnCrawl, SEMRush, Digital Marketing Magazine and more

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