Content Marketing Blog

How Google judges quality content

With Panda 4.0 putting quality content right back to the top of the search agenda, I thought it would be a good time to look at just how Google judges the content on your website. When you work in content marketing, Google is such a big part of everything you do that it’s easy to forget that it’s just a mathematical formula not a person or a hyper-intelligent super being.

So when it comes to something like assessing quality you have to think about the kind of signals that an algorithm can be taught to recognise. It’s one thing for a human being to judge whether page A is “better quality” than page B, but a formula – even one of the world’s most expensive and carefully maintained formulae – cannot make human judgements.[pullQuote position=”right”]Google is going to keep looking for reliable quality signals, which is great news for sites with a varied and sophisticated content marketing strategy.[/pullQuote]

We obviously talk a lot internally and with clients about quality content and some of the signals Google uses to try to replicate the decisions we would make if we could read every page in the index before choosing the best one. If you’re a website owner or a digital marketer you should be thinking really hard about these quality signals and some of the other indicators Google could use in the future.

You can bet that the search for new ways to measure quality will continue and that sites that really invest in their content will do increasingly well in search. Here is my rundown on some of Google’s quality signals along with some tips for ensuring you benefit from Google’s ongoing quality drive:

Always avoid duplicate content

[pullQuote position=”left”]Just because you don’t run an article directory doesn’t mean you can ignore the threat of duplicate content.[/pullQuote]Back in 2011, when Google first started rolling out Panda updates, duplicate content was firmly in its sights. The biggest victims of that first Panda mauling were article directories packed full of content that was also available on a bunch of different URLs.

But just because you don’t run an article directory doesn’t mean you can ignore the threat of duplicate content. Even now, three years after Panda 1.0, I see websites with duplicate content. Whether it’s an e-commerce site with product descriptions taken straight from the manufacturers or recruitment companies describing their vacancies in the exact same way as their competitors.

If you want a quick win in search, rewriting any pages that contain duplicate content is still a good strategy. That’s obviously a lot easier if you have a 50-page lead gen site rather than an e-commerce business featuring thousands of different products. My advice is that purging your site of duplicate content aught to trump most other tactics for generating more traffic.

If your budget doesn’t allow you to do it in one go, start with the popular or high margin products and create a schedule that eventually works through the whole lot. Another option would be to start a level or two up in your site hierarchy.

So, rather than your individual product pages, have a look at the landing pages for your categories. There will be fewer of them and there will usually be more traffic up for grabs as the keywords they will rank best for will have higher search volume.

Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to cut corners. Category pages and product descriptions can help your website win relevant, convertible traffic long after they’re first published, so it’s worth investing in some decent, well-written copy and thinking about how you can make your pages easy for Google to crawl and engaging for your target audience.

Rewrite or add to your lightweight content

[pullQuote position=”right”]If you’ve seen your pages lose search traffic in recent weeks better content and more of it could help you bounce back.[/pullQuote]Google doesn’t like duplicate content but it’s also getting much stricter with lightweight content. This is another good reason not to produce landing pages, blog posts or other content on the cheap.

It might have been enough to win you traffic while Google was purging its index of duplicate articles or keyword-stuffed gibberish, but 100-word pages have a limited shelf life, especially if your competition is investing in weightier content that also links through to a whole load of related pages offering similarly high quality material.

It’s not as simple as saying the more words on the page, the higher you rank in search. But pages that feature a higher volume of unique content, especially in relation to the space that’s given to your sidebars, ads or other elements that appear on multiple pages, definitely send a positive quality signal.

You can see evidence of this by looking at some of the sites that lost rankings after the Panda 4.0 update. eBay, the hugely popular auction website, took a hit because it’s user-generated product descriptions are often quite short, offering users little added value.

If you’ve seen some of your pages lose search traffic in recent weeks, it’s certainly worth looking for opportunities to provide more in-depth information. That might mean adding a few new sections or just beefing up what you’ve already got.

Break up your words with formatting, graphics and video

[pullQuote position=”right”]Google is going to keep tweaking its algorithm and adding new quality signals… investing in richer content can help your site outrank the competition.[/pullQuote]The aim of Google’s ongoing quality drive is to ensure that users are happy with the results they get served up with when they enter a search query. With so much junk out there, it’s getting increasingly difficult to do that and Google’s biggest threat is that users start going elsewhere (social media, smartphone apps) to find what they’re looking for.

Google is going to keep tweaking its algorithm and adding new quality signals. And when it does that it’s trying to replicate those very human decisions you would make when choosing between the different options available to you. It’s learned through exhaustive testing that certain on-page factors appeal to users. If you look at heat map studies, you’ll see those same elements highlighted in red.

So, if you’re looking to make your content more appealing to Google and to your potential customers you should look for opportunities to use text formatting (bullet points, sub-heads etc), graphics, photos and even videos to break up your words. This will improve the look and feel of your page and make it easier for users to find the bit that most interests them.

Google knows users like formatted text and they like photos, graphics, and videos so your pages that contain these elements will get a little boost. Just like a glossy magazine with beautiful pictures, pull quotes and little charts illustrating the key points might be considered better quality than a black-and-white, text only alternative, investing in richer content can help your site outrank the competition.

Mix up your content because everyone likes a bit of variety

As well as thinking about what your individual pages look like, you should also take a step back and look at your content as a whole. As Google puts more and more emphasis on quality, measurable elements, such as the variety you offer your users, are likely to become increasingly significant.

A varied content strategy is a good way to introduce some of the types of content Google knows users tend to like. It’s also an excellent way to be human. [pullQuote position=”left”]Being human should be at the heart of every content marketing strategy.[/pullQuote]

Being human should be at the heart of every content marketing strategy. Make your content look and feel like it comes from a real person and avoid the robotic, short-term tactics designed to game the system. If you do that your strategy will be more effective and more sustainable.

Most businesses have a blog these days. Even if they call it a “resource centre” or a “content hub”, the concept of a blog is a key element in most content marketing strategies. But it’s not enough just to have a blog when all of your competitors have one as well. You need to find ways to set your blog apart from the competition and variety is a great way to achieve this.

Varying the word count of your posts is a good start. If every post is the exact same length you’re missing an opportunity to be human and you risk sending an unnatural signal to Google. If you have a topic that deserves more words, don’t be constrained by an overly prescriptive brief. Blog posts should be as long as they need to be. That will be good for your user experience and your search performance.

Create more content and get really specific

Adjusting your content strategy for Google HummingbirdThe most common reason content marketing campaigns fail is because they stop. If you have content sitting in drafts or working its way through endless committees it’s not getting in front of your users, it’s not growing your website and it’s not helping your business.

The first rule of content marketing is to publish. The second is to keep publishing. When Google unveiled its new Hummingbird algorithm last year it made a clear statement of intent. It would be getting quicker, returning more specific results and reducing its reliance on keyword matches.

It’s important to remember that this is a work in progress but Google is trying to dig deeper into websites and find more specific results that closely match the intent behind searches.[pullQuote position=”right”]If you have content sitting in drafts or working its way through endless committees it’s not getting in front of your users, it’s not growing your website and it’s not helping your business.[/pullQuote]

This is a great opportunity for websites that publish. If you continually expand the content you offer and make sure it remains well-organised and easily accessible you’ll be able to take advantage of Google’s ongoing push to put the most relevant possible page in front of its users.

If, on the other hand, you’re complacent enough to believe pages that rank well now will keep sending you relevant traffic forever then Hummingbird and the wider quality agenda is a major threat to you. There are plenty of blog posts out there warning website owners and marketers that quality matters more than quantity.

It’s certainly true that a huge archive of weak content is of very little value from a search or user perspective. The demise of the many vast article directories is evidence of that. And there is no doubt that the quality bar is getting higher. But don’t be fooled into thinking less is always more. If you offer not just high quality content but also more of it than anyone else in your particular niche you’ll win more traffic from search and provide a superior experience to your users.

Producing less content only helps if you reinvest the time and energy in making your content better. In an ideal world, your budget would allow for both – more and better – because quantity, in the right circumstances, can be a valuable quality signal.

Promote your content because popular pages do well in search

[pullQuote position=”right”]Google still uses “popularity metrics” like inbound links and domain authority as important ranking signals.[/pullQuote]Google’s Webmaster Central Blog is an excellent resource for website owners and marketers trying to find solutions to their problems. It can also be a great source of entertainment as people who feel Google has treated them unfairly will often pop up in the comments section to vent their frustrations.

A common complaint is that Google is failing to give their website the ranking they feel it deserves. The problem for a lot of these sites is that they’re not already popular and Google still uses “popularity metrics” like inbound links and domain authority as important ranking signals.

So even if you have great content, a weak domain with no inbound links – or worse, lots of spammy low quality links – will make winning traffic from search an uphill battle. Earning natural, high quality links and building your domain authority will help show Google that you have quality content to offer and deserve a place among the top results for relevant searches.

This makes promoting your content a key part of your content marketing strategy. I would always start with social media as it’s such a great way to reach out to the type of people you want visiting your website. Email is also massively under-used, especially when you have lots of interesting and useful content to share.

If your content is attracting inbound links, finding traction on social and getting clicks when you email it out you can feel pretty confident that you’re hitting the mark and that the popularity of your content will be reflected in your search results. Some of the metrics in Google Analytics, like bounce rate, also offer a good indication of how well your content is being received and these are definitely quality signals that Google picks up on.

Check your spelling and grammar because Google does

I actually don’t think that’s quite right but there’s no doubt that spelling mistakes and grammatical errors would have a negative effect on some of those popularity metrics I mentioned in the last section. And I do think it’s likely that well written articles send other quality signals to Google. The idea of a Microsoft Word-style spell checker with all the red and green lines costing you a couple of places in Google’s results doesn’t seem likely. It could be that common typos get flagged in some way. Certainly Google is getting much better at understanding relevance and meaning, which could work against poorly written articles with lots of mistakes.

Invest in authorship (and not just Google+)

[pullQuote position=”right”]It’s likely that Google+ will be just one of the ways you can show users and search engines that content is yours and should be judged in the context of what you’ve produced previously.[/pullQuote]Since introducing Google+ authorship Google has been playing down the impact it has on search. Right now, the effect is more noticeable among your Google+ circles, but it seems likely that in the future authorship will become a much stronger quality signal for search in general.

Personally, I’m keen on Google+ and recommend it to clients even if it’s just for the indexing benefits. And after what Matt Cutts said earlier this year about the link between search and what happens on other social platforms I’m certain that content shared on Google+ has an advantage. Google+ authorship feels like a good investment with author rank widely tipped as a powerful search signal of the future.

Google already uses domain authority as a kind of quality signal. Rather than judging your content in isolation it considers where that content was published. Author rank will work in the same way, using the reputation of the author and the archive of content that author has previously created to help rank a new piece of content. But it’s important to remember that authorship is not limited to Google+.

In fact, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said himself that authorship, but not necessarily Google+ authorship, that would have a significant influence on future search results. It’s likely that Google+ will be just one of the ways you can show users and search engines that content is yours and should be judged in the context of what you’ve produced previously.

By Kate Davidson

Why do some content marketing campaigns fail? Find out here