Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the magic curtain at Google? The modern day Wizard of Oz is shrouded in mystery surrounding how they develop their world conquering search algorithm. Most web marketers are left reading the tea leaves, trying to discern which quality signals to focus on this month.

That’s why Jennifer Slegg’s unearthing of version 5 of Google’s Quality Rating Guidelines is such a find (article). The original was published in October 2011, and as each iteration of the Quality Rating Guidelines escapes Mountain View, we get a clearer picture of what Google values and what factors get swept to the side. In short, the Quality Guidelines outline the qualities Google looks for in a high quality website and on the flip side of the coin, which elements scream for a website to be thrown atop the spam heap never to be seen in the search results again.

We’re going to pull out a few items we feel are most important to webmasters. A copy of the full guidelines, all 160 pages of it, was posted on Scribd if you want to analyze it with a fine tooth comb. Yes, I’m aware it is behind a paywall. This is not my doing.

Are You an Expert?
Google’s Knowledge Graph has been trending towards highlighting experts in their particular fields for a while now, and it continues in force with this recent version of the Guidelines. Google’s quality technicians are asked to look at a site and ask themselves, “Is this writer an expert in their field? Can I trust the information they are laying out? Is there authority that supports their words?”

Obviously, a person who practices collections law in the peach state would be trusted to talk about how difficult is it to collect a judgement in the state of Georgia. Others may not need an advanced degree and twenty years work experience to don the authoritative robes. Say you are a person who has battled lupus for the better part of a decade. Since you’ve lived with the disease every waking moment, that pretty much anoints you as an authority in the space.

For webmasters, this push towards expert content means that posting computer spun articles and hiring cheap overseas writers plucked off Elance are going to slowly erode your sites’ authority. The articles you post to your website should originate from experts in that respective field. If you think about it, it makes complete sense. If a user is executing a search on the best music festival in the southeast, would you rather have a writer who has spent his summer traveling from festival to festival, or a hired hand on the other side of the globe piecing together anecdotes from stray articles on Bonnaroo. I’ll go with the person who has crowd surfed to the Deftones and figured out how to find the cleanest porta potty.

Tone Down the Ads
Google’s Page Layout Penalty and aspects of Panda were developed to take on the problem of ad madness. I know you have come across one of these sites. Your eyes are confusingly scrolling the page to pinpoint the actual content. The continual flicker of rotating banner ads threatens to send your brain into tailspin mode.

The reasoning behind this one is pretty basic. Webpages that are drowning in a sea of ads severely degrade the user experience. I mean who doesn’t love a good popup ad? Ads should be available for the reader if they want to explore them, but they shouldn’t dominate the page, pushing away the true content. Inline advertising (words in the article text linked by double lines) was specifically targeted for jarring the flow of an article by stuffing it with unnecessary links. Thankfully, that practice seems to have died out on the web along with its cohorts Flash and scrolling gifs. I almost feel nostalgic just thinking about them.

This naturally begs the question of how many ads are too much? There is no definite answer here, but watch out for ads served up above-the-fold and ads that could be mistaken for the main content. Less is always better in Google’s eyes, but you have to weigh that against the monetary value those ads bring into the site.

Reputation Matters
Maybe those firms who work to salvage your reputation online are onto something. The Quality Rating Guidelines say that they are factoring in your firm’s reputation online. Are the SERPs for your company littered with poor ratings from the BBB? Are you getting continually nicked by dissatisfied customers courtesy of Yelp and Angie’s List reviews? Are those psuedo consumer advocacy sites (Ripoff Report and Pissed Consumer) littered with complaints about your brand?

The Quality rating of your site could already be suffering under the weight of this negative customer press. I would assume this is all relative. In other words, a couple bad reviews that attempts were made to resolve the issue shouldn’t sink a small business’ reputation. If you are Kenmore, I would imagine you’d have a mountain of these piling up almost daily. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking Kenmore as a brand, but saying that big brands — who sell lots of products to consumers — will obviously have x percentage of their customer base who isn’t happy and goes online to vent.

Judging reputation will be a tricky metric for Google to get right. A few examples were given that shed some light on how negative ratings might be applied:

A) A company has an F through the BBB, a credible news source reports financial fraud on the part of the company and several customer reviews crop up about paying for an item that never came.
B) A website is involved in criminal activity and makes threatening statements to its customers.
C) Many detailed fraudulent activities highlighted in articles originating from credible news sources and watchdog sites.

So it should be clear that a couple Ripoff Report articles or a handful of poor Amazon reviews aren’t going to tank your reputation in Google’s eyes. But if the weight of reviews from legitimate sources trends heavily negative or if authoritative media outlets start airing your dirty laundry to their readers, all bets are off. This does bring up an important question as to whether this could become the new negative SEO in the future? Imagine an onslaught of negative reviews hitting blogs, review sites, Ripoff Report and other online channels? Online slander en mass if you will. That’s a headache of epic proportions that I can’t really wrap my mind around.

Your Content is Nice and All, but What Supplemental Content Do You Have for Me?
Serving up what the user was searching for just isn’t enough anymore. Google expects site owners worthy of scaling the top of the SERPs to feature supplementary content.

So what is supplementary content you ask? Look at lyrics website Rap Genius. You are searching for the new Jay Z song (probably that one Miley Cyrus was singing about), and you happen to click on a page on Rap Genius. There are the lyrics you were looking for, but wait. Something else is going on here. This whole community of users is busily breaking down Hova’s lyrics line-by-painstaking-line to extract the essence of the song. You walked into this page trying to decipher that line that you’ve been butchering in the car, and thirty minutes later you leave an expert on the song and probably a few others in his catalog. Great websites let you get lost in their content.

Now we all can’t be Rap Geniuses, but Google asks every site owner to discover how the principles of rich, engaging, supplementary content can augment the content of their sites. Say you are a realtor, and a home buyer searches your site for that perfect home. Wouldn’t it be great if they could find out in a glance how the schools are rated in the area? How about a breakdown of how much this mortgage might cost based on current interest rates? You don’t want your visitor walking out the door to BankRate every time they need to plug away at a financial calculator. Every site owner needs to step back and objectively ask, “Am I doing everything I can to answer my reader’s question and keep them from wandering away to research the questions they have yet to ask?”

The Death of Q&A Forums?
Curiously enough, there is a post on Webmaster World this week asking just this question, “Has Google devalued forums?” Lots of forum owners chimed in to say that they’ve all seen steady traffic declines since around 2012. I ran the numbers on Webmaster World’s forums through SEM Rush, and this highly authoritative source was doing about 111,000 visitors back in January 2010 and last month they pulled in a paltry 33,000. So basically a 70% haircut in the span of three and a half years. What is even worse is looking at the variability between the high traffic mark to the low. It notched 179,000 visitors around March/April 2011 and fell down to 12,000 in November 2012. We’re talking a 93% negative change in Google search traffic. Wow!


I’m a frequent visitor and contributor there, and I can tell you there are a lot of valuable answers hiding within those posts. Of course, one website doesn’t tell the whole story. Coder heaven, Stack Overflow, took its trajectory from 221,000 visitors in December 2009 to 3.2 million last month. With that, maybe we have our answer. Perhaps the absolute creme de la creme of forums are sucking up all of that Q&A traffic.

The Quality Guidelines weighed in on the topic of forums saying you are analyzing the caliber of participants and the depth of the conversation. All those orphaned questions that haven’t found their answer companions are essentially low quality, thin content. In John Mueller’s most recent Google Webmaster Central Hangout (forward to the 1 hour 10 minute mark), he said forums should noindex all but the highest quality content. He even went so far as to recommend noindexing new members contributions until they’ve proven their worth within the community. This has panda written all over it.

So not only do forum administrators have to combat the relentless wave of spammers, but now they have to judge the worthiness of each individual post and flip the noindex switch eight times out of ten. Count me among those happy few that I never decided to start a forum.

Spam, Cloaking, Thin Affiliates — Oh My!
What got left out of the Quality Rating Guidelines is almost as interesting as what was added. Long held spammer practices like cloaking and building thin affiliate sites were noticeably omitted. Fire up those exact match domain microsites. We’re going to kick off these little virtual ATMs like its 2008 again.

Before we begin spamming ourselves into oblivion, it probably makes sense to look at our friendly Panda penalty algorithm as the vigilant fighter of all these low quality onsite factors. It doesn’t make sense for the Quality protectors to waste their precious time ferreting out these old school issues because Panda is already naturally harvesting them.

About Us, Contact, Return Policies Become Mandatory
If you are a merchant, you can’t leave your customers in the dark any longer. Your site should have a clear path from any page to get to contact information, an about us profile and other relevant information such as your return policy. These are all paramount to conversion rates anyway so there shouldn’t be too much kicking and screaming on the part of webmasters.

Still if you neglect these basic eCommerce site fixtures, Google may start lowering your site’s quality score in light of their absence.

The new Google Quality Ratings Guidelines shed a wealth of information concerning what Google is expecting from the sites it gives its prime real estate to. Basically, you can sum them up as what gives the reader the best user experience and what web resources are the most authoritative to deliver the given answer.

At the end of the day, Google hasn’t earned a 68% market share by serving up pages searchers aren’t looking for. It prides itself in delivering the best result regardless of what your little mind muses to search for at any given moment. Its a tall task, but the latest Quality Guidelines keep the search bohemeth charging to this goal. The websites who execute this vision best will dominate the next few years of search. Those companies who weave these tenants of the highest user experience backed up by the best expertise shouldn’t have to worry about algorithm updates and quality guideline changes. These sites will universally weather whatever storms Google throws their way.

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