What Do Google’s Search Quality Standards Mean for Search Engine Optimization?

by Stefan Binion, Digital Marketing Coordinator

Whether you’re an SEO rookie or veteran, you want to maximize returns on your SEO budget.

Search Engine Optimization is not just about Google, but when it comes to economies of scale, optimizing for Google is a smart way to kill several proverbial birds with one stone.

In all but a few places, Google is THE search engine. No one else even comes close. As of 2021, Google accounts for between 86% to 92% of all online search queries worldwide. (The second-most popular search tool—the YouTube search bar—is also owned by Google.)

So, for webmasters and anyone else working in SEO, learning to play Google’s game is well worth the time and energy.

But where to begin?

Seeing Like a Search Engine

Before obsessing over alt text descriptions, Schema markup and keyword density, start with the big picture: when you enter a query in Search, what does Google look for?

The proprietary guts of Google’s Search algorithm remain closely guarded (and patent-protected), but in 2015, Google revealed a valuable kernel for the SEO-inclined: the Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines. Though the Google algorithm decides which websites will rank highly on the results page, Google employs a small army of humans to grade the results the algorithm spits out. In addition to specific procedures for Search Quality Evaluators, Google sketches out a philosophy of what a website should be and, by extension, what kind of content Google wants to deliver.

At the core, Google argues a website should have what the company terms “Beneficial Purpose.” A website should “benefit” the user, though not necessarily in a utilitarian or moral sense. Google clarifies that belief with a series of common instances of beneficial purpose:

  • To “share information about a topic.”
  • To “share personal or social information – pictures, videos or other forms of media.”
  • To “express an opinion, entertain, sell products or services, allow users to post questions, or allow users to share files or download software.”

A user “benefits” when the page meets the want articulated by the user in a search query.

Really, it’s less about morality than consistency: does your website clearly state and explain its purpose? Does it do what it claims to? Does it provide a satisfying user experience?

However, Google aims to introduce morality into the equation when a user’s query is related to particularly sensitive topics – what Google abbreviates as “YMYL” or “Your Money or Your Life” scenarios.

When a page contains information that could have direct repercussions for the user’s health or economic security, Google aims to place a higher burden of proof on the content providers: When the stakes are high, why should anybody listen to you?

While it’s especially important in YMYL situations, Google wants evidence or reputability before displaying a page at the top of the search results page.

Google attempts to judge credibility in terms of three essential attributes: Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness (E-A-T).

The key, however, is knowing 1) what/whom each attribute applies to, and 2) what Google considers strong evidence for each attribute.

Google breaks it down like this:

 

While it’s often hard to separate truth and fiction, Google deems a page more likely to be credible if it:

  • Contains several links to AND from established sites
  • Clearly explains the purpose and scope of the site AND the specific page
  • Has prior content to reference
  • Enjoys a positive reputation from external and trusted sources
  • Has positive customer reviews (mostly for stores and other businesses)

When looking at your website, think of it in terms of Beneficial Purpose, YMYL and EAT. Ask yourself honestly:

  • Is my site consistent?
  • Is the subject matter medically or financially sensitive?
  • Do I provide evidence or credibility?

SEO wizards are always looking for new ways to “game” the Google Search algorithm. Back-end tech stuff is important, too, but before worrying about any of that, focus on the fundamentals.

If you’re ready for a more detailed overview of Google Search Quality standards and their implications for SEO, this article from the Semrush Blog is a good place to start. For other digital marketing insights, check out TouchStone.

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