Quality, Not Quantity
Earlier this year, Google rolled out their much-vaunted “mobilegeddon” update, which prioritised search results for websites that were mobile-friendly – but that wasn’t the only change they made to their algorithms this year, and for all it was shouted about, it might not even be the most significant.
Alarm bells started ringing as early as the first week of May, when there were some dramatic upheavals to search results on sites that were fully optimised for mobile and tablet traffic, so thought they were safe from Mobilegeddon. It was a horror story for some websites, who dropped significantly in search results for their key terms, and had no real idea as to why.
Google avoided confirming whether there had been any changes for several weeks, but the internet was abuzz with speculation. Some big sites took a tumble down the search rankings, but others floated further to the top. In particular, it haunted “how-to” and review sites – places with lots of users to notice that something had changed – and it was dubbed the “phantom update”, because it had appeared so silently.
Phantoms and algorithms
It didn’t take long for the blogosphere to identify the phantom’s trend. Analysts, commentators and industry bigwigs all started saying one thing: content quality. The sites that were suffering had serious quality control issues when it came to their content.
Eventually, Google officially confirmed that they’d made a change to their core ranking algorithm, and it acquired the more sensible but less spooky title of Quality Update.
As always, Google’s drive is to reward sites with quality content and enjoyable user experience, and to punish those who do not. Their first commandment is “focus on the user and all else will follow” – so why were so many sites with user-generated content suddenly taking a hit?
Further analysis of the changes showed the sites that suffered didn’t just rely on lots of user-generated content. The users who went to the sites to generate the content naturally generated high traffic levels for many of those sites – who’d capitalised on that by hosting lots of ads on their pages.
But we all get annoyed when ads dominate a page, or cover the content we’re trying to read. Google tries to think like its users, so it knows what people don’t like. Too many ads, low-quality content, bad website design: all of these are now being punished by Google’s Quality Update changes.
Focusing on the user
The key to understanding SEO is that to please Google, you must please Google’s users. Though many a website calls Google “the overlords”, when it comes to search results, they are entirely focused on serving exactly what their users want to see.
The Quality Update shows that this remains their primary motivation. Whenever someone types in a search term, Google wants to show them the most useful and valuable information first time. Though it seems counter-intuitive, Google wants people to spent as little time as possible searching: they exist to connect users with what they’re looking for, and they want the websites that they list to adhere to basic quality standards.
- Credible: Show your site’s credibility by using original research, citations, links, reviews and testimonials. An author biography or testimonials from real customers can help boost your site’s trustworthiness and reputation.
- High quality: Your site’s content should be unique, specific and high quality. It should not be mass-produced or outsourced on a large number of other sites. Keep in mind that your content should be created primarily to give visitors a good user experience, not to rank well in search engines.
- Engaging: Bring color and life to your site by adding images of your products, your team, or yourself. Make sure visitors are not distracted by spelling, stylistic, and factual errors. An excessive amount of ads can also be distracting for visitors. Engage visitors by interacting with them through regular updates, comment boxes, or social media widgets.
As well as telling you what you need to do, Google offer reams of information on what to avoid: broken links, bad website design, inaccurate information, excessive ads and mistakes in grammar and spelling can all cause them to push your site lower in their search results for your key terms.
In short, the Quality Update is focused on making sure that websites are good – and this is how they want you to do it:
- structure your site logically, so that it’s easy for people to use
- use relevant images to brighten up your site, so it’s enjoyable for people to use
- update your site regularly, either through a blog, comments, or social media feeds: show people that you’ve got plenty to say
- make sure your content is original, not copied and pasted from somewhere else, so that users can see what makes you different from your competitors
- keep an eye on your comments and make sure all of the text on your site is high quality, with good spelling and grammar, so that you’re clearly a reputable organisation
- get rid of intrusive ads – especially auto-play videos, they’re incredibly annoying!
What you can see from this list is that Google’s focus isn’t really on the people who run websites: it’s on the people who use them. If your site makes people happy, it’ll perform better in search results, but it will also perform better for you anyway.
For all that it started life as a spectre with a spooky name, Google’s Quality Update is actually just a logical progression of the Panda updates they’ve been running since at least 2011. The central message is still quality over quantity. If you don’t please your users, you’ll lose out on the top spot in the search results – but you’ll lose out anyway, because if you don’t follow Google’s guidelines, you won’t be showing people all the reasons they should use you, rather than your competitors.