While everyone would love to know the exactly formula that Google uses to determine how websites rank in their search results, the algorithm is a carefully guarded secret.

You can however get some good clues on what’s important to Google by reviewing the instructions they provide to their human quality raters (also known as Search Quality Raters). This guide is designed to help Google’s human reviewers assign a quality rating to a website for the purpose of determining how high up in the search results it will show.

However, you’re a busy business owner who probably doesn’t have time to read through Google’s 166-page document on website quality guidelines. So we’ve summarised the main points and key takeaways, perfect for anyone with a small business website and a busy schedule.

What are the Search Quality guidelines?

Google uses a range of signals to determine which websites deserve to rank high in their search results. Due to the sheer number of websites that need to be ranked many of these signals are calculated automatically. However they also employ real live human beings to physically eyeball websites as an extra measure to check site quality. This might surprise you if you thought Google was just a big mindless machine that sorted search results on a whim (or, if you’re a conspiracy theorist, whoever was secretly bribing them on the sly!) but it’s actually true – and they play an important role in making sure low-quality websites are downgraded in the search results.

The Search Quality guidelines are provided to the many Google human reviewers to help make sure that all sites are rated consistently, and without personal bias. It’s also publicly available for website owners to download if they’d like to understand Google’s processes and get more transparency on what has traditionally been a secretive process.

While it might seem like Google is being very generous with advice for website owners, it’s actually self-serving. They know that if they start to deliver poor quality results to searchers (the customer) that they may lose market share. So they do a lot of work to make sure that searchers get the best possible result and that means making sure the best sites are promoted to the top.

So while they’re not doing this for the benefit of website owners if you want to improve your Google search rankings then it makes sense to do what you can to get on Google’s good side.

After going through the whole guide we’ve picked out what we believe are the top five takeaways for website owners.

1 – Focus on your core expertise

As a business what’s your superpower? What get you new customers and keeps old ones coming back? Why do they come to you and not the competition? In our industry of developing websites this is vital since there is a massive amount of competition, and for us, while we offer a lot of different web-related services our core strength is giving business owners access to these products and services a lot cheaper than they can get them anywhere else. By focusing on affordable websites and offering tips and tricks on saving money while maximising your online presence, we stick to our primary focus.

The reason developing a primary focus is important is because Google uses the EAT scale (Expertise / Authoritativeness / Trustworthiness) to determine if a website should be viewed as a quality source of information for its main content (also referred to as MC). You’re more likely to achieve a higher EAT score if you’ve developed your expertise over time and have earned a reputation as a trusted authority on whatever is your core strength. For example, you might be a plumber but perhaps you do a lot of work with hot water cylinders. Or you’re a mechanic and have a lot of experience with replacing cambelts. An electrician but you’re an expert in LED lights.

It’s also important to make sure your main content is beneficial (e.g. gives helpful advice), rather than just a sales page.

A blog (we include one free with every website) is a great way for you to communicate your expertise, both to Google and customers looking for help.

2 – Manage your reputation

Like it or not, Google does rely on the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ to rate business websites. While it is impossible to make sure every review is 100% positive, you can actively manage your online reputation. Flag rogue or fake reviews, and respond constructively to reviews if needed. Google your business from time to time to check for any new content related to your business, good, bad or otherwise (or setup a Google Alert). Do this for other platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Avoid trying to game the system by adding reviews yourself (or getting staff to) as Google raters are taught to check this and it could backfire.

The best way to build a positive reputation is be an awesome business, make customers super happy and then make it easy for them to tell their friends.

3 – YMYL websites need extra care

An area of special focus for Google raters are YMYL websites (Your Money / Your Life). This is because it’s an area of the internet with a lot of spam websites trying to sell dubious/fake/harmful products that can rob people of their money and/or health. If you want to learn more about how Google tries to combat spam sites, browse some of Matt Cutt’s videos on YouTube.

Google sets the bar high for YMYL sites so if your product or service is in this category then work extra hard to assure visitors (and Google) that you are 100% trustworthy (see point #2)!

4 – Beware of detractors

Raters are provided with a list of low quality indicators and while some are not intentionally bad, they can detract from the user’s experience, and may lead to lower Google rankings.

Some examples of detractors include low quality content (badly written, minimal text, directionless or copied from another site), poor page design, difficult navigation (such as annoying popups/interstitials) or excessive ads on the page.

Not having enough information about your business and who you are can also work against you so make sure you have an effective About Us page (we don’t charge any extra for additional pages).

And while WordPress is a great framework for your website it’s also a popular target for hackers, and a hacked website will definitely work against your efforts to get good search result rankings. As WordPress specialists, we offer managed hosting to help give you the best defence against hackers (see also our best practice suggestions for WordPress website owners).

5 – Remember mobile users

Google ranks websites differently when a user searches on a mobile device (smartphone, tablet etc.). They understand that while a website may be high quality and very useful to desktop visitors, there may be reasons why it’s not as helpful to mobile users. This can be for a number of reasons including:

  • Small screen sizes make browsing large pages cumbersome
  • Input is difficult so queries may be shorter or completing forms may be difficult
  • Users may be on a slow connection
  • Users need results in a hurry or to be relevant to their current location

An easy way to see if your website is serving mobile users well is to try it yourself. Enter some common queries and see how well your website works to answer them. Then follow through with completing a contact form or trying to call your business. If you need help with making your website more mobile-friendly contact us (we can also help you to find out how many of your visitors are using mobile devices).

Better Google search rankings is a work-in-progress

Maybe you already have a website that’s doing well in Google’s search results. Great, but as the continual updating of the search rater guidelines shows (it first came out in 2015 and the most recent update was May 2019) you can’t just assume you’re set to continue getting good rankings. You need to keep making sure your website is serving users as best as possible for the queries and keywords you want to be showing up for.

If there’s anything you think you need help with, talk to us – we can offer some helpful suggestions on things you can do – and as we’ve mentioned, our main focus is helping website owners do it cheap, so you’ll get plenty of affordable options to improve your rankings!

5 Top Tips from Google’s Search Quality Guidelines
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