Search Quality Guidelines: How Google’s Raters Review Your Site

By Team Contribution / March 2, 2021 / Search Engine Optimization

As the world’s leading search engine, the engineers at Google know that, as the needs of its users shift, so should Google’s ranking algorithm.

It’s important for Google to be able to gauge which information is useful and relevant to a searcher’s query, and shift the information served to that user accordingly.

To measure the quality of search results, Google works with external Search Quality Raters to QA those search results.

According to Google, the raters do not directly impact rankings, but they help Google to understand the quality of its search results.

In the last year, Google performed 383,605 search quality tests with raters.

Although Google keeps its ranking algorithm secret, it has published Search Quality Rater Guidelines that give us a look into what Google is looking for in its search results and what the search engine tries to accomplish in the results it serves. These guidelines are updated as priorities shift.

The Search Quality Rater Guidelines outline the conditions and elements that need to be considered, such as Page Quality and Needs Met.

Google has hired thousands of raters to rate and record the quality of websites across a variety of metrics.

a printout of the full guidelines for the Google search quality raters on an office desk

How Raters Influence the Web

The raters don’t directly impact the rankings of the specific websites they rate. Instead, the raters are evaluating Google’s algorithm and its effectiveness, not each individual site.

The raters use a sliding scale to assign values based on a series of metrics from Google like purpose, expertise, and authoritativeness of a website that influence user satisfaction of search results.

These values then go to machine learning systems designed to update the Google algorithm.

If a site or a group of similar sites are consistently receiving positive ratings, the machine learning system would review the data and search for commonality.

The opposite is true for sites receiving negative and low ratings.

The Purpose of Search Quality Rater Guidelines

For SEOs, the Search Quality Rater Guidelines can give us insight into what Google is prioritizing and what could potentially be a ranking factor in the future.

 “You can view the rater guidelines as where we want the search algorithm to go,” said Ben Gomes, Google’s Vice President of Search, Assistant & News. “They don’t tell you how the algorithm is ranking results, but they fundamentally show what the algorithm should do. “

So, the guidelines show digital marketers how Google ensures that the machine learning algorithm is giving users the relevant content they’re searching for.

SEOs can use the Quality Raters Guidelines to see how Google describes a quality website, but it will not provide any real insights into the algorithm itself, which is to be expected as the algorithm contains proprietary information.

The guidelines do not describe why certain websites rank higher than others for relevant keywords.  Throughout the guidelines, Google instructs raters to check websites like Wikipedia and Yelp.

That doesn’t mean that Google uses those websites as ranking signals, it simply means that users typically see these are reputable sources.

Just like raters are a third-party way of making sure Google is working, raters use additional third-party sites like Wikipedia or Yelp to decide if an author or site is credible.

Search Rater Guidelines Focuses on Diversity & Inclusion

In December 2019, Google updated the Search Rater Guidelines to emphasize that ratings should not be based on opinion, political affiliation, religion, or any other factor that could lead to bias.

Users of all genders, races, sexuality, religion, and backgrounds are using Google. Therefore, the Guidelines should reflect the diversity of Google’s userbase.

Google stated in the Guidelines: “Different types of searches need very different types of search results.”

Raters are advised to represent the cultural standards and norms of their locale, without interjecting any personal bias.

Web Page Quality (PQ) Rating

One of the important elements that raters look at is the content of a website.

The content will help raters understand the quality of the website, if it meets the needs of the searcher, and how Google can further improve its algorithm.

The guidelines categorize content into three types: Main Content (MC), Supplementary Content (SC), and Advertisements/Monetization (Ads)

Main Content (MC)

This type of content is the focus of a particular page.

It could be a single news article, product page, forum post, or even a video gallery.

The Main Content of the page should be clear in its intent. It should also be accurate, insightful, and easy to read with limited distracting ads.

Supplementary Content (SC)

While Supplementary Content does not directly support the Main Content of a particular page, it assists with creating a good user experience.

To do this, the content should highlight similar blogs, find related videos, or shop for additional products.

The most common types of Supplementary Content are navigation links that appear on the page.

Advertisements/Monetization (Ads)

This type of content is displayed for the purpose of making money.

The presence or absence of ads doesn’t determine if a webpage is high-quality or low-quality.

But distracting ads or ads that prevent users from navigating the site with ease can certainly lower the quality of a page.

Expertise/Authoritativeness/Trustworthiness (E-A-T)

Raters will take a look at a website’s content and rate it based on the expertise, authority, in addition to the trustworthiness of the author, website, and overall brand.

This element of the content-rating system is known as E-A-T.

Google has shifted towards prioritizing websites and brands that maintain a high-level of authority in their given industry, especially in the wake of COVID-19.

So, how can brands use their websites to prove to Google that they are a trusted expert in their field?

Begin by optimizing your profile on business review websites such as Google My Business and Yelp. Raters will look at these profiles when rating webpages.

For websites with a blog, raters will check to see whether the content is produced by authors with expertise in their field.

Websites should have author biographies that clearly state why these individuals are experts.

E-commerce sites, on the other hand, are judged based on clearly stated customer support information, whether it provides resources for payment security, or how customers can resolve issues.

Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) Pages

Pages that directly affect a person’s happiness, health, financial stability, or safety, coined Your Money or Your Life pages, are rated using higher standards.

These websites don’t just include financial publications or lifestyle blogs. But websites such as news outlets, government-related, consumer information, and websites about protected classes fall under this category.

Raters expected a higher standard of quality to be met.

Low-quality YMYL pages could potentially affect someone’s health, safety, and happiness and should fall out of the search rankings if they are deemed untrustworthy.

It’s imperative for these websites to highlight their expertise when publishing content.

Are licensed doctors writing health articles? Are experts in finance writing content on the stock market?

Raters will look at who has published the content and whether readers should trust this website.

Needs Met Rating for Mobile Users

Google’s mobile-first indexing initiative launched in 2016, which prioritized the use of mobile versions of websites as the primary source for content and ranking signals.

In March 2021, Google will shift to “mobile-only” indexing and will not crawl any content, including text, images, videos, links, and structured data, that only appears on desktop versions of websites.

This update was supposed to happen in September 2020, but it was delayed due to COVID-19.

This is why raters are helping Google understand search from a mobile user’s perspective by understanding needs-based searches.

Types of Searches for Mobile Users

In addition to understanding content on individual websites, raters are tasked with understanding how varying search types can affect the quality of search rankings in mobile.

Google and the quality raters categorize searches in the following ways:

Know Query

These queries are looking for information on a topic.

Google breaks these down into two main categories; general Know queries such as [Barack Obama] and more specific Know Simple queries like [how tall is Obama].

Do Query

These queries hope to accomplish a goal, such as download, purchase, or call.  

Additionally, there are special types of Do queries called Device Action queries that allow users to directly interact with their phone.

These could be searches for [call Mom], [send a text to John], or [set an alarm for 9am]. These commands work with voice control to trigger installed apps on the mobile device.

Website Query

Website queries are searched by users who are looking for a specific website or section of a website. The query can include a full URL or simply the name of the website.

For example, searches like [youtube], [ebay], and [ eos digital camera] are website queries.

Visit In-Person Query

These queries are to find nearby results, such as [Chinese restaurant], [gas station], or [dentist] to ultimately visit in-person.

Some queries are ambiguous and could have different intents. A search for [Walmart], for example, could be a Visit-in-person or Website query.

Raters use these variables when understanding if webpages that rank for certain keywords actually meet the needs of the searcher.

If someone who searches [dogs] is looking for pictures of dogs, but gets local dog grooming businesses, this doesn’t meet the needs of the search.

Understanding the different needs-based searches helps Google optimize its algorithm to better align with mobile users. This affects the Special Content Result Blocks, explained below, and additional features Google may roll out in the future.

Special Content Result Blocks

One of the highest-ranking elements in the organic search results are Special Content Results Blocks.

These are featured snippets and knowledge panels such as weather, movie showtimes, sports scores, and other featured snippets like frequently asked questions.

screenshot of a search result for football sports scores using a special content results block

Google also considers this type of content when rating searches for mobile users. This can help Google develop new features or tweak existing features to better meet the needs of its users.

What We Can Learn from These Guidelines

Google is always changing.

Core algorithm updates are often impacted by the results of these ratings. And when they are released, marketers are on the edge of their seats waiting for the impacts of these changes to their clients.

And fingers crossed it’s a positive impact, rather than negative.

Working with a team of marketing experts is the best way for any business to stay on top of the ever-changing world of organic search.

So, if you are looking to elevate your brand in organic search, contact our search engine marketing experts today.

Contributions to this news update were made by Lindsey Garrant and Shea Lynch.