Google uses its Search Quality Rater Guidelines to train its thousands of human evaluators on how to analyze real-life examples of webpages in order to gauge their overall quality. The information collected by these evaluations is then benchmarked and used to improve Google’s algorithm.
Google updates these Guidelines about one to two times per year, and when these updates take place, it can be a big deal for the SEO community. For one, it shows that Google has been making adjustments to what it considers to be high or low-quality content. Analyzing these changes can give us important clues about what Google is attempting to emphasize (or de-emphasize) with its algorithm. More importantly, changes to the Search Quality Guidelines often precede major core algorithm updates – so the guidelines can give us a hint as to what type of changes we might anticipate with the next major algorithm update.
Note: the information offered here related to these updates are my personal opinions and speculations, not anything that has been explicitly communicated or confirmed by Google.
Here are 5 takeaways from some of the changes Google made to its Search Quality Guidelines between May 19 and September 6, 2019:
1. The examples listed of YMYL websites were modified and rearranged
Google made some significant changes to the ordering of its YMYL (Your Money Your Life) examples and the language it uses to describe them. Google also indicates that YMYL content can be a “topic,” as well as a page, which is a new development for this version of the guidelines. This may hint at the fact that some YMYL content on a page can be enough for the page to considered YMYL, even if that is not the overall purpose of the page.
“News and current events” was placed above all YMYL topics, which is noteworthy, given that it was previously the 5th example listed. This may indicate that Google is attempting to increase the priority and importance of news as a YMYL category. Google also broke out “civics, government and laws” into its own category, likely in order to reduce ambiguity from this topic being grouped together with “news” in the previous iteration of the Guidelines.
“Shopping” and “finance” were also separated into separate categories after being grouped into the same topic in the previous version of the Guidelines. This helps reduce any confusion that all shopping websites are YMYL in nature, not just ones that relate to financial topics.
What the previous version of the Guidelines called “medical information” has now become “health and safety.” Google removed the language about “specific diseases or conditions” and “mental health” and is now seemingly using the blanket term “medical issues” to describe all of these.
2. Google added specificity around how “Very High Quality Main Content” should be defined
Google added a few entirely new paragraphs around what it specifically means to have “Very High Quality Main Content.” This additional section provides specific examples and reduces ambiguity about what content quality might look like across different industries, including news, art, and informational content.
For news sites, Google emphasizes the originality of the content: would this information have been known if the news site were not to have reported on it? Google also indicates that high-quality reporting requires time and skill to create, and should include a list of the primary sources used for research.
For artistic content, Google indicates that high-quality content also requires a high degree of skill, talent and time to create. It is interesting to note that Google’s quality standards extend beyond just text content: it classifies artistic content as “videos, images, photography, writing, etc.”
For informational content: Google suggests that high-quality informational content should be accurate, thorough, clear, professional, and “should reflect expert consensus as appropriate.” Google indicates that the level of expert consensus depends on the expectations of the content itself, citing “scientific papers” as an example of content that would require much more scrutiny than “stamp collecting.”
3. The Pulitzer Prize is no longer depicted as the only source of journalistic integrity
An interesting development in this version of the Quality Rater Guidelines is that Google is now supplementing any reference of the “Pulitzer Prize” with other examples of awards or accolades that indicate journalistic quality. This may have been done because of Google faced backlash for suggesting that the Pulitzer Prize should be the primary way one should measure the trustworthiness of a news publication. Furthermore, there is some discussion among conservative publications online that the Pulitzer Prize predominantly rewards liberal publications, so this change may have been an attempt for Google to appear as more politically neutral.
4. Google added more recommendations around measuring reputation for YMYL content creators
Google inserted a new paragraph around how to conduct “careful checks” for the reputation of content creators on YMYL topics. These checks should be based on “evidence from experts, professional societies, awards,” etc. Google also indicates that, for shopping sites, these checks should consider experts those individuals who have “used the store to make a purchase.” This is a good indicator that reviews from prior customers can be considered a factor that contributes to the trustworthiness of an ecommerce site. However, when analyzing medical advice, the reputation checks should go a level deeper and look at commentary from real medical experts.
5. Google changed the language about which pages “Promote Hate”
Google made some small tweaks to how it defines pages that promote hate or violence:
- “Ethnicity” became “ethnic origin”
- “Gender” became “gender or gender identity”
- “Citizenship” was removed
- “Socio-economic status” was removed
- “Political beliefs” was removed
- “Victims of atrocities” was removed
It is difficult (and probably not a good idea) to speculate about why these changes were made, but it likely plays into Google wanting to ensure that its official documentation is as accurate and inclusive as possible.
The September 2019 edition of the Search Quality Guidelines appears to have largely been updated in order to increase specificity and reduce ambiguity around how to measure content quality and the Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (E-A-T) of content, particularly Your Money Your Life (YMYL) content. It also appears that Google may be trying to ensure its updated documentation is as inclusive, inoffensive, and politically neutral as possible.
Special thanks to our SEO Specialist, Giovanni Peguero, and SEO Analyst, Sarah Domingo, for helping compile these changes!