In a Google Webmaster Hangout someone asked John Mueller what was quality content for Google. Mueller essentially said that publishers know what “quality” is better than Google does. Mueller then shared what the publisher should focus on instead.
What is Quality Content for Google?
To put this question into context, a few years ago the SEO community kept announcing what they called a Quality Update every month. Month after month, they kept saying an update was happening and it was about quality.
Google denied that those updates were actual updates. But the idea that “quality” might be an important ranking factor persisted.
Even after Google introduced BERT, Neural Matching, RankBrain and other strides in Natural Language Processing to search results, publishers still think in terms of creating “quality content.”
Quality is good. But in my opinion, based on twenty years of search marketing experience and following the latest developments in search, Google primarily ranks websites for usefulness, which is about relevance to the search query intent.
Authority is a part of determining what is relevant.
Relevance is the end and authority is the means.
Bill Slawski, a search marketer who follows search related patents, published an article in 2017 about a patent related to authority. In it he quoted this about authority:
“In general, an authoritative site is a site that the search system has determined to include particularly trusted, accurate, or reliable content. The search system can distinguish authoritative sites from low-quality sites that include resources with shallow content or that frequently include spam advertisements.
Whether the search system considers a site to be authoritative will typically be query-dependent. For example, the search system can consider the site for the Centers for Disease Control, “cdc.gov,” to be an authoritative site for the query “cdc mosquito stop bites,” but may not consider the same site to be authoritative for the query “restaurant recommendations””
Here is the question:
“What is quality content in Google’s eyes? If two people are writing on the same content it’s possible they have a different opinion on the same thing. Then how does Google decide which one is better?”
John Mueller answered:
“With regards to quality content, in general this is something where you as the site owner probably know a lot more about what is actually quality content for your specific kind of site.”
What is quality? It’s a subjective opinion of excellence. There aren’t really any patents or research papers about creating a subjective opinion of quality across a range of topics.
Something like authoritativeness has been researched. Authority is about accuracy and factual truth. A site that acquires links and other signals of affirmation can be said to be authoritative.
A concept like quality is abstract and subjective. Search, in my opinion, is not about providing subjective answers but about providing useful answers that are accurate in terms of solving the question or need that underlies the search query, also known as search intent.
Related: How to Create High-Quality Content
“So that’s something where I wouldn’t worry too much about what Google thinks about quality content. But rather you need to show that you really have something that’s unique and compelling and of high quality.”
Mueller appears to be saying to stop focusing on what Google might algorithmically think is high quality and start focusing on what users will respond to as high quality.
His follow up statement encourages publishers to focus on how users may respond and that might sound “holistic” and new age-y and non-actionable. But it’s not.
Here’s Mueller’s follow up statement:
“So instead of trying to work back how Google’s algorithms might be working, I would recommend trying to figure out what your users are actually thinking and doing things like user studies, inviting a bunch of people to your office or virtually to show them something new that you’re providing on your website and ask them really hard questions where sometimes the answer might be we don’t like your website or we were confused by your website or we don’t like the color of your logo or something.
But kind of this is the hard feedback that’s really important to get and a lot of times these are things that you might not agree with but if all of your users are saying this then maybe that’s something you need to consider as well.”
In my opinion and experience what Mueller is describing is a pragmatic approach for ranking. What I mean is that when people talk about delighting users what they are really talking about is providing relevant answers or relevant experiences or relevant usefulness (utility).
- Relevant answers
- Relevant experiences
- Relevant usefulness (utility)
Then to put a bow around those concepts of relevance there are considerations like ease of use and attractiveness.
Attractiveness is About Relevance
In my opinion, attractiveness is more about being appealing and less about being stylish. Attractiveness, when considered in terms of being appealing, is really about relevance.
For example, a site about tying fishing flies might work best if it looks like it was hand coded by a twelve year old. That will resonate with people who are focused on the information and not on how pretty a site looks. Attractiveness is about relevance. So when you design a site a consideration should be understanding how a user might feel about the look of the site and how it relates to them (relevance).
Importance of Being Relevant to Users
Finally Mueller shared how Google itself focuses on being relevant to users:
Here he mentions being relevant:
“This is something we do all the time as well. We do a/b tests in the search results all the time to see how can we make sure that we continue to provide relevant results, even when users needs and expectations continue to change over time.”
Now Mueller describes the importance of how users experience Google:
“We do user studies in search console as well where we try new features out and try to kind of see which ways users are either confused by these new features or which way they can work better with these new features.”
Finally he underlines the usefulness of approaching the problem of ranking in the same way Google approaches the problem of ranking.
“These are things you always need to do and you should focus on your users rather than on how Google’s algorithms might currently be trying to figure out what is high quality content.
One of the other reasons why you shouldn’t be focusing on how Google’s algorithms figure this out is that Google’s algorithms will also continue to evolve and continue to focus on the users and see what they need.
And if you’re just focusing on Google’s algorithms you’re always a step behind.
So try to focus on your users and figure out what their needs are and what you can do to provide something that is really unique and compelling and different from everyone else in that area that you’re active in.”
Related: The Three Pillars of SEO: Authority, Relevance, and Trust
Relevance Versus Quality
A not uncommon issue I find when performing a site audit is that the publisher focuses too much on the excellence of the content and not enough on being relevant to the user they are trying to reach.
Content quality becomes defined within the context of being comprehensive. So they write 5,000 word web pages.
Meanwhile their competitors are outranking them with pages that are significantly shorter in content.
Why is that? That’s the answer I provide and it’s always different but it mostly centers on relevance.
This is what I meant when I said that Mueller’s answer kind of sounds new age-y but in reality there are some pragmatic and actionable takeaways.
Watch the Google hangout here: