Google Search Quality Guidelines

Imagine playing a game where the rules aren’t published, it costs you money every time you lose and you are more or less obliged to play in order to survive. I’m going to call this ‘the Google game‘; it’s something that Online Marketers like myself know how to play very well.


Until quite recently, the actual rules for playing ‘the Google game‘ were hidden from view. Google wouldn’t tell you how to play properly, there were various (sometimes conflicting) third party opinions on what Google actually meant when any information was actually published and there was always the question “can you really trust what Google is saying?”  – a very valid question when you realise that Google is run for shareholders, not to play fair to retailers.

Whilst I personally will always be on the cynical side where Google is concerned and continue to question motives of the search giant, I am glad to see that Google is continuing to expand its guide for search quality raters, giving at least some insight into how Google ‘thinks’.

What is the Search Quality Rating Programme?

To be brief, the Google Search Quality Rating Program was set up to aid Google to identify the quality of pages out there on the ‘web in order to push the development of more robust search engine algorithms. The program is backed by a set of guidelines which can be found at detailing what should be considered factors for assigning quality ratings to a web page or website. The guidelines document is fairly lengthy at 158 pages, with many abbreviations to keep in your head whilst reading, but does give a fair insight into what Google is looking for when assessing the quality of a page of content.

Google first introduced the Search Quality Rating program back in 2005, but until recent years the workings and methodologies of the programme have been hidden. It was only since 2011 and the Google Panda update that the program has really been ‘out in the open’, although there was a leak of an early release of the rating document back in 2008.

The Search Quality Rating Program relies on a large group of manual page reviewers. In the early days, these were Google employees, however reviews are now farmed out to external companies.

The program works by manually reviewing web pages and websites using many different quality markers, this data then being fed back to Google in order to enable better quality search engine algorithms to be built. The manual review teams therefore provide feedback to the Google staff tasked with writing the complex code which powers the Google search engine, helping Google to give the best search results to Google users.

A read of the latest document doesn’t really give any surprises to a seasoned web marketer, but is useful for underlining why we, as web marketers do the things we do.

It’s all about quality!

No surprises really where the content of pages is concerned. Google loves quality content and will actively penalise pages which fall below a certain level. What most may not know is that the layout, design and functionality of a website plays an important part of Search Quality Rating reports and can make the difference between a very high rating and a poor rating.

Examples of poor layout mentioned in the Quality Rating Program document includes ‘poor quality design’, ‘bad navigation structure’ and ‘potentially deceptive layout’. Whilst these wouldn’t affect a recent eCommerce website using modern frameworks like the Intelligent Retail Connect software, Magento, Actinic or similar, eCommerce websites which have been around for several years would naturally get altered over time, potentially introducing some usability issues which could be construed by a quality rater as being below the quality required for Google.

Copied text – Why You Shouldn’t

One thing which is mentioned quite strongly in the reasons for giving a page a ‘lowest’ rating in the Google Search Quality Rating Program document is the use of copied text. We have been advising clients for several years that using supplier descriptions alone without some effort to personalise is a bad idea as we have noticed rankings for product level keyphrases slipping for those clients who choose to do this.

Google states that “We do not consider legitimately licensed or syndicated content to be copied” however given our own experience when writing unique product level copy for clients, the results are hard to argue against.

If you want a ‘before and after’ snapshot, how about bottom of page 2 in Google results for a product page using supplier sourced description against a position in the top 3 in Google for a product utilising unique page copy written by a professional copywriter. As the No.1 spot gets the bulk of clicks from organic results, writing a good product description and an informative product title really is a no-brainer, even factoring in the effort required. See this Google result – you should see the Jeanstore page very near the top of organic results. (as of Mar 2016)

I’d recommend that anyone who is serious about their website read the Quality Rating Program document, it gives real insight into what Google is looking for when rating websites and can really reinforce the advice given by a good search engine marketer.  If nothing else, once you have read and absorbed the document you will be able to recognise a bad website from a really good one!

This article was written by David Fairhurst, Head of Creative Online Marketing at Intelligent Retail.  It originally appeared in industry leading trade magazine, Nursery Today.

Stock image by Viktor Hanacek.

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