Almost everyone in web marketing heard the news when Google released its last big update in April 2015. It prioritized mobile-friendly pages in mobile search results and caused some hubbub as older sites scrambled to get up to date. (Happily, LeadPages® users were able to sit back and relax—every page created on the platform is mobile-responsive by default.)
Two weeks ago, Google made a quieter announcement. It was a little easier to miss, but this bit of SEO news could still affect where your site and landing pages land on the search-results page. And it’s smart to start assessing your web assets now, before changes take place.
It turns out that, in preparation for further changes to its search algorithm, Google has just completed a major revision of its search-quality rating guidelines—and, in a rare move, made those guidelines public.
So what does that mean?
Let’s start by looking at how search-quality rating guidelines are used. Although Google is known for its unfathomably powerful algorithm, there are actual people behind it. They’re called search-quality evaluators.
Search-results pages aren’t created by people going through websites and determining rankings one by one, of course. But before Google rolls out a change to its algorithm—that is, the formula that determines which pages appear in which order when someone runs a Google search—it tests those changes to make sure they produce search results that are as relevant as possible to real people searching.
The real people who assess the quality of those results? Those are the search-quality evaluators. If their ratings for the top-ranked pages are high, Google knows can trust its algorithm; it they’re low, there’s more work to be done. The guidelines they work with are what Google has just revised.
The guidelines themselves take the form of a hefty 160-page document. It’s a lot to read through, but you don’t really have to—because in this post, I’ll be pulling out the most crucial insights to apply to your website and landing pages.
One thing definitely hasn’t changed in this revision: the importance of high-quality, unique content. To go along with the insights in this post, we’re giving you a free PDF worksheet designed to help you create unique content for your site on any topic in just 6 steps. Click below to download it now:
Read on for everything else you’ll want to know about positioning your content for maximal SEO under the new guidelines.
The Basics: What’s Your Purpose?
So what does a high-quality page mean in Google’s all-seeing eyes?
It’s pretty simple. Above anything else, Google cares about how well the page achieves its purpose.
And that purpose has to be in line with the purpose it represents to web users. If your page initially says it’s a page about charitable efforts to help wild bears, but then launches into sales copy promoting your bearskin rug company, Google and its search evaluators are not going to be impressed. In fact, the guidelines reserve some of its strongest language for pages designed to “make money with no attempt to help users.”
Call it Rule Number 1: be helpful. You can make money along the way; it’s truly helpful to sell people a product they truly need. But even a sales page needs to be informative and easy to use. Things like descriptive copy and clear layouts matter everywhere.
Both in quantity and quality of information, a high-ranking page should leave users satisfied with the experience and the outcome of visiting that page. Cutting corners here could slash your search ranking.
Confirmed: Mobile Matters More Than Ever
Much of the new material in Google’s guidelines covers the mobile experience. Obviously, mobile-responsive pages are important here. But beyond that, the guidelines emphasize a few other interesting qualities that are becoming increasingly important for getting organic traffic on mobile:
- Ease of use: “Important: Mobile smartphones should make tasks easy, even for mobile users with a small screen device (i.e., size of smartphone, not a tablet),” say the guidelines. That means your pages should load quickly, have easy-to-tap buttons and fields, and be not just legible but easy to breeze through.
- Voices and places: You could see this as another reason why the old, black-hat keyword-stuffing SEO tactics are declining: with voice-based searching on the rise, search engines have to get a lot less literal in interpreting search queries and a lot more location-sensitive. Someone who might have once typed in “dry cleaning Houston” is now simply speaking “dry cleaner near me” into a phone. There aren’t many clear implications for ordinary landing pages in this right now, but it’ll be interesting to see if and how this shapes the face of SEO in the years to come.
- Not search results but search result: On smaller screens, the top result looms larger. For mobile searches, Google thinks that, in many cases, the top-ranked search result should be the only page a searcher needs to see. (And in some cases, it might even displaced by a “special content block,” such as a dictionary definition or an encyclopedia snippet, that doesn’t require a clickthrough.) The more likely it is that users would want to see additional pages, the lower the rating for the result—though there are exceptions for very broadly informational queries.
You might assume this more transactional approach to search results would harm the ranking of less utilitarian pages such as blog posts. But on the other hand, it may simply be a realistic assessment of how people are already using their mobile devices—and my money’s on the latter interpretation.
For Page Design, Choose Function First (and Have a Backup Plan)
In line with Google’s focus on clarity of purpose, the rating guidelines specify that your main content should be “front and center,” with few distractions or impediments (however pretty or profitable they may be).
That’s great news for marketers who rely on landing pages templates like the ones we create at LeadPages®—they’re built to immediately showcase one particular topic or call to action. While they look nice, the information always comes first.
It almost goes without saying that everything on your page needs to literally function, too. Dead links, elements that don’t load, and broken widgets are all cause for a low quality rating.
To mitigate your risk, be sure to set up a custom 404 page—one of these on the New Yorker’s website is among the examples of “highest” quality, amusingly enough. As the document later notes, “Some websites do a nice job of not only alerting users about a problem, but also giving them help.” That’s what pages like our 404 Opt-in Page do, too:
Marketer Beware: Does Your Industry Put You on Thin Ice?
One of my favorite concepts in Google’s guidelines is the “Your Money or Your Life” page.
This is a page that—simply by virtue of its subject matter and function—has the potential to make a dramatically positive or negative impact on visitors’ happiness, health, or wealth. Because of that potential, Google’s standards are a lot stricter here.
E-commerce pages fall into this category. (If you’re selling anything, it’s crucial to identify who you are and how your business can be contacted to do well in search.) But so do pages treating other highly charged topics. Those topics include:
- Financial information and advice
- Medical and nutritional advice
- Legal guidance
- Other topics that brush up against safety or the law, such as adoption or car safety
If you market in these fields, you’ll want to be especially careful to represent your product or service straightforwardly. Yes, you should still focus on your services’ benefits, but you’ll need to steer way clear of hyperbolic claims or misleading imagery. And you may need to be more diligent about including contact and company information than marketers in other industries.
Another of Google’s acronyms can help here: E-A-T. Make sure that your page is communicating expertise, authority, and trustworthiness to stay on solid ground. Conversely, Google says that even pages that simply feel like they could be scammy should get the lowest quality rating—no further investigation needed.
That doesn’t mean that only doctors can create high-ranking pages on health, or that you need an MBA to promote your system for sticking to a personal budget. Ground your pages in your own experience and you’ll still convey E-A-T. Google says:
If it seems as if the person creating the content has the type and amount of life experience to make him or her an ‘expert’ on the topic, we will value this ‘everyday expertise’ and not penalize the person/page/website for not having ‘formal’ education or training in the field.”
Bloggers, Take Heed: Slapdash Content Gets a Slapdown
One thing becomes very clear as you peruse the guidelines’ section on low-quality content: Google does not like content mills these days. If anyone was still on the fence about the effectiveness of keyword-stuffed, mass-produced content for SEO, this should be definitive evidence against it. Evaluators are asked to watch out for things like:
- Pages that are too short to adequately cover their topic
- Authors with no demonstrable expertise in their topic
- Poor writing and indiscriminate use of images
- Articles filled with overly basic, unoriginal statements or lightly veiled plagiarism
- Ads disguised as other kinds of content, such as independent reviews or search results
Human readers have always hated encountering his kind of content, and increasingly, search algorithms hate it, too.
According to the guidelines, nothing can save a page that has content like this from a low rating. Don’t do it.
Follow These 4 Pathways into Quality Content
Google’s rating guidelines also say something interesting about what it takes to make content that does pass the bar:
Creating high quality main content takes a significant amount of at least one of the following: time, effort, expertise, and talent/skill.”
These things probably aren’t quite tangible enough to go into an algorithm directly. But something about that statement was clarifying for me, and I think it’s pretty good news for most of us.
Not everyone starts out with the most expertise or natural talent in their industry, but they can still create the content they need to get traffic. If you’re feeling stuck when you think about what kind of highly valuable, highly searchable content you can create for your business, think about which of these 4 approaches matches where you are:
- Time: Starting a blog? Maybe you don’t have a ton of authority yet, but if you have time on your side you can gain traction by updating more frequently or covering topics more thoroughly than your competitors.
- Effort: If you’re not finding inspiration, perspiration can do at least as much for you. Dig deeper. Present richer content. Serve more carefully defined audiences.
- Expertise: Of course, if you are an established expert in your field, play up your authority. Don’t rest on your laurels, but do take the opportunity to highlight your credentials.
- Talent/skill: Maybe you don’t have a track record yet, but perhaps you have a special skill for presenting information in a way no one else can. Lean on your natural strengths and make them part of your brand.
Even pages that meet Google’s highest quality rating don’t need to demonstrate all these qualities equally. The document explains:
What makes a page Highest quality? We require at least one of the following:
- Very high or highest quality MC [main content], with demonstrated expertise, talent, and/or skill.
- Very high level of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (page and website) on the topic of the page.
- Very good reputation (website or author) on the topic of the page.”
Plus, they note later that even the next page rating down, “very high,” can easily be achieved by hobbyists and people with everyday life experience. “Very high”-quality content may be best in show depending on your niche.
To create unique, high-quality content that works for you, follow the guidelines in our Unique Content Worksheet. (Personally, I love this resource—it takes all the stress and unpredictability away from brainstorming when you’re drawing a blank.) Click below for a free download:
Your Action Items for the Near-Future of SEO
There are no huge shockers in Google’s updated guidelines—which is a very good thing, on the whole. Yes, it means there is no deviously clever secret weapon to uncover; on the other hand, it also means you can rely heavily on common sense and common standards of usability when assessing how your pages will perform organically.
Looking back over all 160 pages, these are my key takeaways you can start applying to your website and landing pages today:
- Be mobile-responsive and mobile-usable. You don’t want to effectively disappear from the web if your prospect happens to be browsing on a phone. Make sure every page on your site looks just as good and behaves just as well on mobile (though if it’s a LeadPage, you’re already good to go).
- Be trustworthy, and look trustworthy too. Your credentials don’t necessarily speak for themselves. Opt for descriptive, straightforward language and professional imagery so that your page looks and sounds as authoritative as you are.
- Create plenty of content—as long as it has a purpose. Readers will drift away from poorly executed content, and so will search engines. Pages that aren’t primarily designed to help or inform visitors will soon stop doing anything at all for their creators.
- Be who you are. Trust, transparency, accessibility . . . there’s a theme here. If your pages are built around the best version of who you are and what you can realistically offer, you have a winning formula—both on the search results page and in your business as whole.