With Google updating its Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines in July this year, and the company’s subsequent 1 August core update, the timing seems right for a detailed look at what might constitute – and how we can create – high-quality pages and content.

Offline publishing standards have long been unquestionably and necessarily rigorous, with immutable workflows and controlled vocabularies overseen by hawk-like editors. They also usually put users and user testing at the forefront of new product development; to do otherwise could mean financial disaster.

In contrast, online publishing has (typically) been a much leaner process, which – while it rightly expedites publication/campaign cycles – risks a range of issues, from simple typos and ambiguity to confusing inconsistency and misleading information.

Does it really matter, though?

The perils of incorrect or misleading copy don’t need to be stated – and spell-checkers pick up most typos – but equally it can be difficult to justify the effort refining and proofing content, especially when something needs to go out the door yesterday.

But 20 years’ experience in creating, publishing and managing content, offline and online, tell me it most definitely does matter, and – as I hope we’ll see – there’s evidence to support my assertion. Let’s start with a statistic…

EpiphanyBlogQuotes1a Even if users don’t consciously spot minor errors, there’s a cumulative and attritive cognitive burden imposed on them by having to process misused or inconsistent rules of grammar, punctuation in the wrong place, spelling error/typos, and self-serving hyperbole. And, if they do spot problems, trust will be eroded. At best the effect may be minor, but at worst it can mislead people, and contribute to abandonment (see above).

Also – and just as importantly – appropriate language, tone, richness and length (you can forget tl;dr, as we’ll see later) will significantly affect how users (and Google) perceive you.

Accordingly, as we’ll see, demonstrating you’re ‘expert’, ‘authoritative’ and ‘trustworthy’ in your field is of paramount importance to users and SEO, and thus ROI/ROE.

So what’s here?

Below, I’m going to provide one definition of content quality, and present a case for spending time on creating and maintaining high-quality, user-first content.

I’ll also provide examples of what counts as ‘quality’ according to Google’s guidelines, and how you might create and sustain it.

  • What do we mean by ‘content quality’?
  • Evaluating high-quality content
  • Five key points to take away, & summary of ranking factors

What do we mean by ‘content quality’?

EpiphanyBlogQuotes2a So – by this definition – measuring quality means first deciding what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mean in a specific context; for this, you’ll need a benchmark, and standards.

You’ll also need to understand your users and their objectives so you can ascertain what ‘quality’ means for specific people with specific needs in specific contexts.

While quality is a subjective term, an organisation should identify and agree a definition that – within the context of content – defines ‘quality’ for its users, channels and brand in a way it can be appropriately and consistently applied and measured.

Building a benchmark for quality

Start with Google

Google makes it its business to know its users; the company spends considerable time and resources on matching the intent of user queries to the results it provides, and is a force that should not be ignored. This applies both in terms of fulfilling current SEO requirements and taking on board what Google thinks ‘quality’ looks like. Google wants us to ‘answer user information needs’ by providing the ‘best possible information available’.

Google’s quality standards

Sections 4 and 5 of Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines tell us what Google thinks is important for a page to be rated as ‘highest’ quality, summarised below; these have been changed in the July 2018 update to focus more on purpose, quality, satisfaction, safety, and the reputation of the website/content creator.

  • High level of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (EAT)
  • A satisfying amount of high quality MC (main content), including a descriptive or helpful title
  • Satisfying website information and/or information about who is responsible for the website. If the page is primarily for shopping or includes financial transactions, then it should have satisfying customer service information
  • Positive website reputation for a website that is responsible for the MC on the page. Positive reputation of the creator of the MC, if different from that of the website

And, “highest quality pages are created to serve a beneficial purpose and achieve their purpose very well. The distinction between high and highest is based on the quality and quantity of MC, as well as the level of reputation and EAT.”

Here, in defining who may have a positive ‘reputation’, Google includes YouTubers, bloggers, vloggers and professionals as well as journalists.

So, Google defines the concepts of beneficial content and site/author reputation as primary drivers of what the organisation considers to be high quality.

‘Your money or your life’ (YMYL) pages

Google has also boosted the importance of safety on YMYL pages, and widened the definition of such content – for example, to include product pages that represent a major investment/life-changing event, or significant expenditure.

Examples of YMYL pages:

  • Shopping/financial transactions
  • Financial information
  • Medical information (Google’s recent core update has reportedly affected many health and wellness sites)
  • Legal information
  • News articles/official information or historical pages that are key to citizen information
  • Other – for example, adoption and car safety; whether the content ‘could potentially negatively impact users’ happiness, health, financial stability, or safety’

Also, pages that feature products should also facilitate research, browsing and purchase decision-making, rather than just promoting the item on sale.

A new emphasis on EAT

  • High EAT medical advice should be written or produced by people or organisations with appropriate medical expertise or accreditation. High EAT medical advice or information should be written or produced in a professional style and should be edited, reviewed, and updated on a regular basis

  • High EAT news articles should be produced with journalistic professionalism – they should contain factually accurate content presented in a way that helps users achieve a better understanding of events. High EAT news sources typically have published established editorial policies and robust review processes

  • High EAT information pages on scientific topics should be produced by people or organisations with appropriate scientific expertise and represent well-established scientific consensus on issues where such consensus exists

  • High EAT financial advice, legal advice, tax advice, etc, should come from trustworthy sources and be maintained and updated regularly

  • High EAT advice pages on topics such as home remodeling (which can cost thousands of dollars and impact your living situation) or advice on parenting issues (which can impact the future happiness of a family) should also come from ‘expert’ or experienced sources that users can trust

  • High EAT pages on hobbies, such as photography or learning to play a guitar, also require expertise

What does low-quality content look like to Google?

Sections 6 and 7 of the Guidelines set out what Google rates as low-quality MC; if a page has one or more of the following characteristics, the low rating applies:

  • An inadequate level of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (EAT)
  • The quality of the MC is low
  • There is an unsatisfying amount of MC for the purpose of the page
  • The title of the MC is exaggerated or shocking
  • The ads or SC (supplementary content) distract from the MC
  • There is an unsatisfying amount of website information or information about the creator of the MC for the purpose of the page (no good reason for anonymity)
  • A mildly negative reputation for a website or creator of the MC, based on extensive reputation research. If a page has multiple low-quality attributes, a rating lower than low may be appropriate

Also, section 6.4 emphasises the impact of distracting ads or interstitial pages, which make it difficult to use the MC – for example, interruptions and difficult-to-close ads that follow page scrolling, or shocking or disturbing content.

Evaluating high-quality content

Based on the above, I propose that high-quality content – whether MC or SC – should adhere to the following heuristics (a subset of a new heuristic matrix we’ve developed, illustrated below).

Heuristic Matrix

Useful

Valuable - Desired, desirable, informative, and of use in addressing identified users’ wants, needs and problems.

Comprehensive - Includes everything required for the task to be completed; fully addresses the wants, needs and problems of the user.

Helpful - Provides clear feedback, help and documentation for all users, which is consistent with the digital standards for the site/brand.

Unique - Content is original, not copied or plagiarised (without citation), or duplicated on the site or anywhere else (without rel=canonical).

Targeted - Addresses identified users and their objectives specifically, in order of priority, within the context of their situation, and organisational objectives.

Relevant - Appropriate to the topic and users; not trivial, superfluous, redundant, hyperbolic or self-serving.

Aligned - Coordinated with other related content (and actions), orchestrated so as not to cause confusion, conflict or attribution problems.

Influencing - Encourages or persuades users to change attitude/behaviour, convert, engage, return or share through intrinsic value.

Clear

Readable - Typography and heading hierarchy are legible and correctly implemented on all defined devices.

Comprehensible - Uses language that users will understand and expect, presented in a format that is meaningful to them (including microcopy).

Recognisable - Supports initial orientation (ie, conforms to ‘real-world’ convention) and continued learning throughout lifetime of use.

Consistent- Created and maintained to a standard across the site and related channels (design and information scent, brand, language and tone, etc).

Specific - Addresses the defined purpose directly, stays on topic, and is unambiguous and to the point.

Minimalist - Includes only what’s needed to fulfil user/brand objectives; user is not distracted or subjected to unnecessary cognitive load.

Credible

Validated - Backed up by evidence (or a link to it); no unsupported claims or self-serving hyperbole; objective.

Up to date - Current, published promptly, and not out of date; content lifecycle should be carefully managed.

Trustworthy - Factually correct and not misleading, either deliberately or inadvertently; expert and accurate.

Authoritative - The best of its kind, reliable, authentic and definitive; written from the perspective, and in the theme vocabulary, of the subject matter expert, where appropriate.

Compliant - Adheres to regulations, standards and accepted best practice (legal – including DP – web and organisational).

Expert - Demonstrates meaningful effort in the development and maintenance of content, design and system according to best practice; is well executed.

While this may seem overwhelming at first sight, they’re called heuristics because they can and should be ‘rules of thumb’.

And with a content standard as a reference point, and a simple editorial process – which I’ll expand upon in another article – it’ll become organisational second nature; it’s way easier than it sounds, and the benefits far outweigh the effort.

Five key points to take away*

1. Make sure your content has a purpose

Content must be beneficial and of interest to your users - ie, it should have an explicit purpose that addresses and satisfies their needs, wants and problems - and must be satisfying and EAT. It should not have exaggerated ‘clickbait’ titles, and the purpose of both page and content must be aligned. Product pages must enable browsing, research and decision-making as well as purchase.

2. Pay attention to the detail

Demonstrate care and effort (to your users, and therefore Google) in the creation and presentation of your content. Grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, inaccuracy and ambiguity reduce trust and clarity, and thus negatively affect the user experience (and your ranking), as do excessive and/or distracting advertising, and self-serving hyperbole or unsupported claims.

3. Don’t worry about your content being too long

Make sure that your content is long enough to treat the subject with sufficient detail; there is no one word count that works well for every subject – for example, the content length of top ten results in SERPs averages more than 2,000 words. Don’t let the old chestnut ‘is it too long?’ put you off; the real questions are, ‘what’s the purpose and have we fulfilled it?’

4. Back up what you say

Make sure that content has a reputable source/is written by a subject matter expert, and uses the niche vocabulary for the domain of expertise; it should also be kept up to date. Be especially vigilant with YMYL pages: Google now expects higher standards for any content that deals with shopping, financial transactions/information, medical or legal information, expensive purchases, life-changing events, important news and (historical) facts.

5. Satisfy your customer

Provide “highly satisfying website information and/or information about who is responsible for the website or for stores and pages involving financial transactions… highly satisfying customer service reputation is very important”; on YMYL sites, include comprehensive information about the site provenance, authors and customer services.

Quick summary of Google page ranking factors

Here’s an overview of what Google considers important when ranking pages, or has updated in its latest documentation:

  1. Page and content purpose
  2. Page and content quality (includes all other considerations)
  3. Demonstrable user benefit
  4. More emphasis on EAT content
  5. Reputation (of site/authors), and information about who’s responsible for MC
  6. Safety (on sites that handle transactions, medical, financial and legal info, and news/articles aimed at informing citizens)

Thanks for reading; hopefully there’s some information of use to you here. Next, I’ll be looking at media standards, niche vocabulary, content strategy and governance.

*Sources for the 5 takeaway points