Inside Google’s Quality Standards

One of the biggest clichés on the web is “quality content”. It’s used just as often as there are cat videos on Youtube, which is an interesting correlation.  But what really defines quality content? Rather than state the obvious necessity for quality content, we need to analyze what quality content actually means through the eyes of search engines. This is at the heart of what true and honest SEO should be.

Fortunately, with a web post made to their Webmaster Central Blog, Google has given us 23 guidelines as to what content quality actually means. These are the actual signals (albeit in a watered down form) that Google uses to actually infer quality algorithmically.

This is perhaps the single most insightful article on the internals of  search that Google has ever released. In a single post we have 23 guidelines for what content publishers should be striving for. We should examine this post in-depth for clues and insights into how to structure an effective content strategy.  Let’s take an overview of each of these points:

1.    Would you trust the information presented in this article?

I believe this is the high-level goal of what Google is ultimately trying to infer. You could probably generalize everything else that follows into this simple question. This is the core question we must ask ourselves and formulate our content business strategy around.

But what defines “trust”?  Here’s the dictionary definition:

“assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something”

As we all know, trust is earned and very easily lost. It’s a reputation that takes time and discipline to build. Our goal as content publishers is to earn that trust with a systemized adoption to quality standards.

2. Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?

Expert knowledge is essential. Don’t try to fake it here.

A key term here is “shallow”. Shallow writing is easy to detect and leaves your viewers with zero fulfillment for giving you the time to read your article. Shallow writing is:

–  Content that simply states the problem or the query that a reader is asking
–  Has no real insights or answers to the question
–  Doesn’t actually provide a benefit to the reader
–  Is often written on trivial problems driven by pure search volumes

The Internet is polluted with keyword optimized problem statements. These are shallow cheaply written articles with zero benefit to the reader.

Keep in mind that experts can be writers and writers can be experts.  Your content should be sourced from expert writers.

3. Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?

Obviously, duplicating your content is stupid. But I’m a little confused as to the latter part of this assertion.

To me, this almost argues against long-tail content creation? In long tail keyword searches the idea is to identify longer and longer search phrases by keyword expansion. For example, “baby names”, “baby girl names”, and “baby girl names 2012”.  The idea here is to identify and offer more content to your readers. Which doesn’t strike me as a bad thing, necessarily.

I think this statement is more targeted to having multiple articles on the same keyword topic like “baby girl names” and “baby names for girls”. Both of these phrases are the same exact topic. Writing separate content for both of these phrases is duplication and reflects an over optimized keyword focus.

4.    Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?

This seems to reinforce the notion of “trust” in the first point. I may be reading into this too deeply, but perhaps this is stating that on-line retailers may have an inherent measure of trust as inferred by Google? Does credit card processing bump your trust measure? That would be an interesting interpretation.

However, this extra measure of trust makes sense.  A website collecting credit card information that is engaged in selling actual goods/services has much more inherent accountability.  A retailer can be traced to a person or corporation that could be held liable.

I do wonder if Google gives a boost to content on a retailer site?  This reinforces the need for increased attention to content by brands and retailers. Google may actually trust you more. The smart retailers will develop content strategies to capitalize on this potential. But keep in mind that trust can be lost easily as was the infamous case with JCPenney.

5. Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?

It’s clear and simple, good fundamental writing is required. This is bad news for technical math types like myself.

Detecting spelling, grammar, and stylistic writing errors is a well-established area of text analytics. I have no doubt that Google can detect spelling and grammar errors and have it negatively affect your rankings. Bad spelling and grammar is a clear indication of poor quality. You must focus on writing well.

6.    Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?

It’s a tough temptation to avoid, but don’t align your content plans completely on keyword lists. Doing so produces an uninspiring keyword generated website with little chance of repeat visitors.  Successful websites employ a content recipe with a mix of beneficial featured content as well as keyword driven content.

7. Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?

I’m not sure, but did they mention originality?

Are you positive that the content you just bought wasn’t scraped from some other website? Are you sure that your costly content hasn’t been scraped by someone else? It’s a good idea to invest in tools to verify your content’s originality when submitted by writers. In addition, you must protect that originality going forward with copy detection software tools.

While that answers the technical aspect of duplication, keep in mind that originality is also a writing style. How is your content different? What angle do you take that differentiates you from other websites?  Your unique style or brand is essential to refine and adhere to.

8. Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?

This is an interesting statement. I would infer what is being said is that quality is relative.  Don’t be content with good quality. You need BETTER quality.

9. How much quality control is done on content?

This suggests that organizations with an effective content quality process will be treated better. So an investment in a strong technical writing process with copy-editing and review is not a bad idea. What confuses me about this statement is how Google can effectively determine this (other than by seeing the final end quality). How does Google know you have an editorial department? Spooky…

10. Does the article describe both sides of a story?

Fair and balanced?  Good technical journalism seeks to inform a reader completely of an issue with multiple viewpoints and without bias.

I must admit, I’m not sure how Google can infer this algorithmically. Let’s also be real, nobody wants both sides of a story in one place and it’s almost impossible to find when you consider current events or political reporting. That’s why I read FoxNews first then go to CNN. We all want spin.

11. Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?

Authority is defined as:

“a citation (as from a book or file) used in defense or support”

This is undoubtedly stating that links are still important. A link in its purest form is a citation and attribution of authority. The original page rank algorithm is still a large input to Google’s algorithms. It’s just not true organic measure it once was when the Internet was young.

A lot has been said about link building in SEO circles.  While links are crucial, I believe link building is completely unnecessary if you have quality content. Good content should organically produce links without the need to “build” links.

12. Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?

Web farming is definitely bad.  But notice the ending qualifier? Attention and care is a consistent influx of content. Your authors as well should take ownership and give attention to the content they have developed.

13. Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?

Seems to reinforce the need for strong copy-editing in your content production process. You do have copy-editors? It’s not enough to simply have good writers. You must have quality control and check everything that gets published.

14. For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?

Credibility for a health topic is essential. Does calling this out specifically mean that Google applies an even more rigid trust filter for health topics? 

15. Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?

This seems to suggest that brands will gain an increased level of trust in Google’s new algorithms. Which seems to make sense, since brands are inherently protective of, well, their brand.

Brands already have an ingrained focus on content quality. Brand building is still an important way of reaching consumers and Google recognizes that attention.

16. Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?

This seems to suggest that a larger length article will rank better.  It’s difficult to say what a proper article length should be. However, what we might infer here is that short is very bad.

17. Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?

Stating the obvious provides zero benefit to your readers. It’s an important point to validate your content on. Shallow content will turn your readers away and tarnish your brand.

18. Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?

I think the very presence of this question in this list confirms Google’s “+1” does indeed affect search rankings.

19. Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?

Another strong temptation to avoid, don’t place too many ads on your web pages! It’s fairly simple for a search engine to ad up the number of ad network URL’s in your web page. More importantly, your readers can see this just as easily.

20. Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?

Obviously, it takes a much stronger commitment to quality to put something in print.  Once you print something it’s not exactly easily changed. You would spend money to print your article in a magazine?

21. Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?

Again, short and shallow content simply doesn’t pay.

22. Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?

Quality always shows through.  But its driven by a comprehensive quality control process that pays attention to the details.

23. Would users complain when they see pages from this site?

I would ask this a slightly different way, DO users complain about your pages? Have you noticed on Google’s result pages that when you click on a link and immediately return to Google that there is a new link that appears under the one you just clicked? It states: “block all results”.


Quality content production is a complicated and multi-stage process. Content producers must understand the dynamics of building trust with their readers.

  1. Build and define your own content quality control processes. You must institute a comprehensive and systematized workflow of checks to ensure quality content production. Simply hiring expensive writers doesn’t do it.
  2. Invest in high quality expert writers.  The best writers to recruit are experts that write. This is clear, you will need to invest time and money to find, hire, and pay experts to write for you.
  3. Invest in high quality copy-editing. It’s essential to vet your content for spelling, grammar, and style.
  4. Do not produce shallow content. Produce comprehensive and larger articles that deeply benefit readers.
  5. Invest in your brand building. Your brand recognition is an essential component in earning your readers trust.
  6. Ensure your content is original. Originality detection and copy protection software is a worthy investment for serious content producers.
  7. Do you trust the information in this article? I’ve done my best and hope I’ve added value here. This is the single most important question to ask yourself about every article you produce.


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