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2011 Google Quality Raters Guidelines (Oops!)

Google did something wrong. I did something wrong. Yet I believe that good will come of this. Let’s recap what happened with the 2011 Google Quality Raters Guidelines:

  • Step 1: I see a post in the Squidoo forums noting that Potpiegirl (aka Jennifer Ledbetter, WAHM affiliate marketer) ha a new post up about Google.
  • Step 2: I read Jennifer’s lengthy (and fairly useful) post on How Google Makes Algorithm Changes.
  • Step 3: I notice that Jennifer’s post links to Google’s 2011 Quality Raters Handbook.
  • Step 4: Classics major training kicks in: Wait, hang on, is this real? Is this legitimate? Why aren’t the major SEO websites like searchengineland, seomoz and seobook salivating over this carcass like a pack of rabid hyenas circling a dying zebra?
  • Step 5: I share the tip with SearchEngineLand, asking if the document is legitimate. Barry Schwartz seems to think so and posts about it.
  • Step 6: Lots of people download the 2011 Quality Raters Handbook.
  • Step 7: Google contacts Barry Schwartz and asks him to take down SEL’s mirror of the document. Google also contacts PotPieGirl and asks her to remove the link from her blog.
  • Step 8: Too late: the guidelines have gone viral. As a result, various SEO bloggers and experts discuss ways to make content more relevant and useful. (There, Google, was that so bad?)

I owe Jennifer an apology for tipping without thinking. Hopefully the amount of traffic that has landed on her blog as a result of this offsets the inconvenience of having to delete that link. I also feel guilty for my part in spreading the leak, but I honestly think that having the Quality Rater Guidelines out there will encourage people to focus more on the quality of their content, which is not a bad thing.

So, well, Mea culpa. Now, what are these Quality Rater Guidelines? Simply, they are the rating system that Google beta testers use to test, refine, and improve Google’s automated algorithm. They are not the algorithm itself. But in order to create a computer algorithm which can detect and rank sites relevant to a given search query, Google first needs to know which sites real people judge to be the best ones for a given search query.

The reason these raters guidelines are useful to us is that they give us some idea what Google considers “quality content.” I can’t talk too specifically about what’s in the guidelines, but here are three takeaway lessons:

  • The rating system is based on relevance to a topic. Content is king, but relevance is queen. And “relevance” here means “gives the searcher what they wanted when they typed in that search.” Is a site absolutely THE go-to place for a particular search query? It wins. Is a site incredibly relevant for that query, satisfying most people who search for it? It ranks pretty well. Does the site only have some relevant content, or is it from a less trustworthy source? That’s going to lose points. If it’s only slightly relevant, fuggeddaboudit.
  • Google defines webspam as anything designed to trick search engines into getting more traffic. So while backlink spamming, keyword stuffing, or other sneaky tricks may work for a while, sooner or later, Google will tweak its algorithm to negate those practices. If you’re doing something only for search engines, it’s probably not worth doing it (save, perhaps, making your content structured, organized and clear enough for search engines to comprehend it). If you’re doing something that really is for your readers, hopefully, long-term, you’ll win.
  • Google doesn’t define all affiliate marketing as spam or “thin” content, but it’s extra wary of affiliate marketing. Raters are told to watch out for warning signs like a product review on one page that sends people to buy things on another domain entirely, suggesting the review is there to benefit the reviewer (with commissions) not the visitor. If you’re doing affiliate marketing, you have to create relevant content that is useful to your readers — price comparisons, pros and cons, your own photos of the product in use, etc. If you only excerpt/quote customer reviews and info from the site selling the product, then your page has provided nothing of value to the reader that cannot be found on the original product page. That’s thin, that’s shallow, and it’s asking for Google to bury your page so far down in search results that no one sees it.

In sum, Google is trying its best to design an algorithm that rewards pages which are useful to readers and relevant to the search query.  Over time, the algorithm gets more and more successful in doing this (we hope). So, if you want your pages to rank well on Google, take a page from Kennedy:

Ask not what search traffic can do for your webpage, but what your webpage can do for search traffic.


UPDATE: I discuss this topic a little more here: Google’s “Quality Content” Guidelines: Do You Make the Cut?

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