How to get to the top of Google search results? Learn from Google itself!
When it comes to search engine optimization, who can tell you better than the daddy of search engines and guru of SEO - that is Google?
Towards improving search results, Google has engaged thousands of Search Quality Raters throughout the world. Their task is to evaluate sample web pages and search results on the basis of quality parameters fixed by Google. So, Google has issued a document called Search Quality Rater Guidelines. Google first issued this doc in 2015 and has brought out the latest revision in 2019. The ratings given by Raters do not directly affect search but give valuable feedback on what Google considers as useful, relevant, trust-worthy search results - and tries to master the science of serving the best possible results to searchers.
The Search Quality Rater Guidelines feel boring to the lay reader as they are slightly technical and are specifically meant to guide individuals involved in website evaluation work. I give here the distilled takeaways from the document, in simple words. If you are keen to learn how to get to the top of search results pages (of not only Google but any search engine), you will find that these tips are immensely valuable. The guidelines also tell what actions we should avoid on our websites and individual web pages.
Here they are, the tips to get your website on Google's top search pages!
What determines the overall quality of websites, webpages?
Google tells the Raters (=evaluators) to observe the following on the websites and web page to determine the overall quality:
- The purpose of the web page: A web page must serve a purpose. If it does not, it is of little value. The purpose may not be virtuous or socially very useful - but the web page must not be aimless.
- Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness: In the eyes of Google, these together are the most important parameters to judge a website or web page's quality. If a web page lacks these qualities, it is assigned a low ranking.
- Main content quality and amount: On a website, the main content (not ads, navigation aids, etc) must be of very good quality. The creator of the content should have spent time and effort in creating that.
- Reputation: The reputation of the owner is very important in determining the overall quality of the website/ web page. While reputation comes from what people think about someone, the information given on the website itself - about the website as well as its owner - give an indication of how dependable the two are.
In fact, if you analyze the above carefully, you get the key to how to get to the top of Google search results. Let me explain them in detail:
The purpose of the website and its web pages is an important indicator of its value.
Google says, there must be a clear purpose for the existence of a web page and the web page must fulfill that purpose. The purpose in itself does not determine the standard of quality, but lack of purpose disqualifies the website and webpage from being rated. The purpose may not be socially or commercially very good. Even humor pages have a purpose (to make people laugh) and so do art pages (to showcase artistic creations) and gossip pages (to entertain people with how celebrities etc conduct). If a website/ web page fulfills that purpose, it qualifies on this parameter.
Google itself lists some types of pages and their purposes:
- To share information on a topic: informative/ news/ gossip websites and blogs.
- To share personal/ social information: personal blogs/ social pages.
- To share pictures, videos, etc.: video blogs, image sharing websites.
- To entertain: websites and web pages dealing with humor/ cinema/ music, etc.
- To sell products/ services: all types of websites that do e-commerce.
- To allow downloading of content: websites that allow download of software, music, etc.
Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness: the cornerstones of website quality.
If you ask me to pick up a single piece of advice from Google on how to get your website on Google's first page, I will, without hesitation, pick up this one. Google calls them together as E-A-T.
Expertise: It refers to the creator of the content (= website owner). An article written by an expert in that subject - as compared to a layman or an amateur - is likely to be more useful for the searcher. Interestingly, Google says, even having life experiences and everyday expertise can be a form of expertise and so a blogger writing informative product reviews based on his experience and a forum page in which participants give useful advice on the specific subject can be considered an expert for the purpose of rating that web entity. However, for advice that impacts people's life and well-being (e.g. medical or financial advice), a web page written by a medical doctor or a chartered accountant will rank higher for content quality as compared to that by a non-professional.
As a blogger or content creator, you cannot improve your expertise overnight if you are not known to be an expert in real life. However, when you create quality content on a regular basis, you are quoted and your articles are shared by others - that increases your expertise.
Authoritativeness: It refers to the owner, the main content, and also the website. Their authority is a key indicator that tells Google how much value the content of the web page can have for the searcher.
Some examples: Wikipedia pages, websites maintained by governments, reputed educational institutions, research journals and world bodies are taken as highly authoritative as they are expected to carry verified information. In the case of scientific/ social/ economic information on which there are conflicting views but one view is accepted to be true, the pages that give consensus view will naturally have much higher authority as compared to the one that gives unscientific/ unproven information.. [In response to "How is vaccination useful against COVID?", Google will not like to serve a web page on top of its search results that recommends that people should not be vaccinated. However, if someone specifically searches for "Can vaccination be bad?" or "Views of anti-vaxxers on vaccination", that web page will be relevant and will come high on search results.] Though a website maintained by a traders' body may be bad in design etc (and will lose on some other quality parameter), it is taken as an authoritative source if someone searches for traders in his locality.
One important feature of highly authoritative web pages is they either create or source their data from impeccable sources. This is a great takeaway for bloggers and others wanting to get their webpages to the top of Google search: use data from top sources [and link these sources where it looks natural and relevant].
Trustworthiness: Like authoritativeness, trustworthiness also refers to the owner, main content and the website itself. This quality tells Google whether the information given can be trusted - because Google will not like to serve results that are dubious. Trustworthiness usually goes together with authoritativeness.
Like other parameters, trust expected from a web page can differ according to the type of content. For example, the searcher looking for jokes will not mind if he is served web pages that collect jokes from anywhere (of course, within limits of decency, etc), but if the searcher looks for legal/ medical/ financial advice, he will expect Google to show him web pages that he can depend upon and the information and advice he gets will not get him into trouble: that is, he must get pages with a very high level of trustworthiness.
There are millions of video blogs on YouTube and many other blogs/ web pages that keep dishing out tips on home remedies, cooking, DIY, etc. without their being authoritative. The information and advice in such web pages is often not trustworthy, but they are able to hoodwink search engines. Since Google wants AI tools to be able to filter out such pages, it advises its Raters to flag such content as of poor quality.
If a website's 'main content' is not superb, it will pull the website's ranking down on Google.
The Google guidelines say, the content that directly serves the website/ web page's purpose is its main content. The supporting content and advertisements come lower in determining the value or quality of the website/ webpage. Google counts the following as main content: title, informative or advisory text, media, automated tools to help users, maps and whatever else that directly helps it in achieving its purpose.
What makes the main content valuable, high-quality? Google says, the content creator must have invested a significant amount of at least one of the following in creation of the content: good time, effort, expertise and talent/ skill. While Google values the quality of the main content a lot, it also lays emphasis on its quantity.
Conversely, the main content is considered of low-quality if it
- does not involve good amount of time, effort, expertise and talent.
- does not serve the purpose of the page.
- is misleading (e.g. has exaggerated or misleading headlines).
- is copy-pasted from somewhere else (even if it gives credit to the source, or the original content has been modified)
- is auto-generated (with RSS feed or else).
- is difficult to read or watch (images or videos) or listen (audio). The disruption can be due to quality or due to intrusive ads or pop-ups or how it is presented to the visitor.
- is not in sufficient quantity. Even a Wikipedia article or one on a reputed magazine is considered of low quality on this parameter if it is too short to discuss the topic well.
Google Search Quality Rater Guidelines thus give you another great tip on how to get your website to the top of Google search results: Give sufficient time, effort, expertise and talent to create the main content of each article/ post, and never copy-paste content from other places except for reference and small quotes.
Your reputation matters for getting your website on top of Google's first page!
People don't believe that, but Google says so. Not only your content but you also are important as far as the rating of your website is concerned.
Google Search Quality Rater Guidelines say that the reputation of both the website and the person or organization representing the website is important for knowing the quality of a website. Some indicators of good reputation of the owner and website are as follows:
- What the website writes about the owner and itself (contact information, 'about us', right content policies, etc).
- Reviews (on review sites or blogs), customer reviews and user opinions.
- News articles in reputed publications.
- Amount and type (from reputed organizations?) of references and recommendations.
- Received prestigious awards.
- Ratings by reputed organizations.
The following are major factors that lead to negative reputation of the owner and the website:
- Lack of information on the website about the owner and website.
- Negative reviews on reputed review sites or ranking sites.
- Regular complaints about the product or service.
- Malicious content on the website.
- Inaccurate content.
- Known for fraudulent or undesirable web activities (e.g. phishing, spamming, giving links to shady sites).
- Advice and information that goes against the scientific or societal consensus.
- Conspiracy theories.
- Deceptive/ misleading content, site title or article heading.
- Deceptive design in which visitors are misguided.
- Inappropriate content (e.g. hate-mongering, issuing threat, cheating, nudity in pages not expected to be showing it).
In case of serious subjects (professional subjects or matters that impact the searcher's life and well being), reputation of the content creator or the organization behind the website is directly correlated with expertise. In such searches, search engines try to show on top the web pages that have a very high reputation ranking. On social issues, controversial developments or major disasters also, the web pages with a very high reputation come on top of search because it is expected that these will present correct facts and not give fake news or misleading information. Answers of reputed individuals on Q-A websites also have a high chance of coming on top of search pages.
So, another set of tips for bringing your website to the top of Google is: Keep your own and your website's reputation high by publishing accurate, useful content and strictly avoid undesirable type of content. Don't indulge in misleading visitors by content or design. Don't use your website or your organization in any dubious activity.
Meeting the needs of the search query
Another set of SEO tips that we get from the Search Quality Rater Guidelines comes from examining whether the search result meets the needs of the searcher. Raters are expected to check web pages on mobile devices as more search queries are received from these as compared to laptops and desktops.
To 'fully meet' the needs of searchers, the search result must satisfy the searcher's intent and he should achieve whatever he wants to, with minimal effort. For example, if he searches for "restaurant nearby", Google will show him the popular restaurants around him, with open-close timings, distance and reviews. Perhaps a small map and the link to order dishes/ other details will also be there. An outstanding restaurant review page for that area will come later. An even better review page from a different country may not at all be shown.
On the other extreme are search results that 'fail to meet' searcher's expectations. Pages that deceive by claiming something but the content is something else get this red flag from Google. Pages that give sub-standard or wrong information also come very low in this respect. Pages that upset or offend the searcher in any way (e.g. by way of bad language, display or call to action) also fail to meet his need.
Google and other search engines have another challenge: what results to show when the search query is confusing, with different possible meanings or very broad? A searcher may just type "Chinese restaurant" when he is looking for an eatery near him that sells Chinese cuisine. Another guy may type "Chinese restaurant" to know the characteristics of Chinese restaurants. One may type the same query with the intent to find the location of a restaurant known by that specific name in that area. In such cases, Google has to best-judge his intent and give results in trying to serve him well. The query "Apple" might refer to the fruit or mobile company or a nearby shop with that name.
Google uses other available props in trying to understand the intent of the query (e.g. search/ purchase history on the computer or of that user, his location). OK, that is for Google to take care; for us - website owners and content creators - the takeaway is that we should make our post/ article in such a way that it meets the need of searchers looking for a specific subject. Let me translate that into actionable points:
- Make your post or article on one specific subject. You can (and you should) create some big articles that cover a wide subject, but most of your posts should try to satisfy the needs of searchers looking for specific topics.
- Try to judge the query that many searchers for this type of post might be using for search. This query (=keyword) should crystallize the 'need' of searchers on that topic.
- Use the likely search query or keyword in title, headings and body of your post. However, do not stuff it too much. Also use its variations and synonyms.
- Keep focus on the 'need' that the post is aimed to satisfy. And be as much valuable as possible so that the searcher does not feel like going to another web page for more details. This means:
- giving correct information
- giving details
- giving tips that will solve his problem or help him achieve his immediate task
- adding links to high-quality references if the post cannot fully meet the need
- Do not have a mismatch between (i) the title and description of the website and web pages and (ii) the main content.
- Do not optimize the web pages for unrelated keywords.
Google Search Quality document and SEO
Google has shared on its support page that it uses Raters'feedback to understand which changes make search more useful. Google also reveals that in 2019, it carried out as many as 383,605 search quality tests through Raters.
If Google invests heavily in Raters and depends so much on them (besides 'side-by-side experiments', 'live traffic experiments' and many tech tools), we must give these guidelines due importance in maintaining our websites and individual web pages. The goal of Google and other search engines is to give the most satisfying results in response to search queries - and therefore if you meticulously apply the tips that I have culled out from the Google document, you can be sure of sound search engine optimization
Let me close this post with this point on SEO: The tips that we get from Google's Search Quality Rater Guidelines serve one part of SEO - and without doubt, this is the most important part. You still need to take some more SEO actions to get to the top of Google search pages because of competition from high-quality pages. That is also important because other website owners take those actions and if you do not do the same, you lose. For learning more about SEO actions that are ethical and effective, you can look at the SEO articles on this blog or elsewhere.