Every 24 hours, 2 million unique blog posts are published. In light of this statistic, the quest to claim the #1 spot on Google’s search results for key terms in your industry suddenly seems harder than ever, doesn’t it?
Google’s search algorithm uses myriad different factors, known as “signals,” to determine quality of content. The factors and their relative weights are all a closely-guarded secret, but you’ll be pleased to know that content creators aren’t completely left out in the cold. It’s critical to not just acknowledge Google’s quality guidelines, but to also make them an integral part of how you approach the production of web content.
What Are the Quality Guidelines?
Matt Cutts and the rest of the web-spam team offer webmaster guidelines, with a stated intention to “help Google find, index, and rank your site.” The site covers technical and user experience tips before delving into content quality, with a clear caveat that the guidelines aren’t intended to be comprehensive. It’s definitely in your brand’s best interest to avoid using deceptive principles just because they’re not illustrated on the list, and uphold “the spirit of the basic principles.” There’s no substitute for reading the guidelines, but the points consist primarily of the following:
Create blog content, landing pages, and site pages for people, not search rankings.
Don’t try to trick anyone, and don’t use any tactics you wouldn’t feel comfortable explaining to Cutts himself.
Invest significant time and resources into differentiating within your niche, and providing value.
Google also contracts with third-party organizations to utilize human quality raters, who use a prescribed method to describe the quality of search results. This feedback doesn’t measure the quality of content or affect results, but instead is used to determine how accurately their algorithm is indexing results by quality.
Google has various categories into which content is separated, too, that help determine which articles pass the quality guidelines and which do not. Vital content is stuff that would come directly from a particular company’s site about their products or services. Useful content might answer questions the company website does not, provide reviews about the products or services, or perhaps suggestions for use. Relevant content might include an overview, expand on previous content, or perhaps answer less in-depth questions. Slightly Relevant would, as you may have guessed, provide information that only marginally relates to the topic at hand. Off-Topic, obviously, is content that has nothing to do with the search at all.
These third-party organizations manually fight spam under these categories, while also seeking out dirty tactics, including cloaking and redirects, unnatural linking to and from websites, hacked sites, automatically generated content, user-generated spam, hidden text and keyword stuffing, and content with little to no value.
Following several leaks of the guidelines given to search raters, an annotated version of the document has been made public. While the 43-page document is pretty much the opposite of light reading, and there’s plenty of information that’s not particularly relevant to inbound marketers, there are some outstanding insights on the definition of spam that are well worth incorporating into your research.
What Quality Means for Your Content Strategy
In a recent interview with Eric Enge of Stone Temple, Cutts encouraged marketers to “raise the quality threshold of content,” especially when it comes to accepting blog posts from guests. To be clear, originality and quality are definitely intertwined in the eyes of Google. The search ranking guidelines include a look toward expertise and authority, and you certainly aren’t giving the impression that you know what you’re talking about, or are willing to do the legwork on research, if you’re just regurgitating basics. Writing something that’s already been covered by your competitors won’t do you much good unless you add value to the topic. Taking your competitors content and making just a few minor tweaks could even do you some harm.
Does continual effort to differentiate in search of quality mean you should exclusively focus on newsjacking, or pick a very narrow focus and stick with it permanently? No, but it adds weight to the concept that content reflects your company’s voice. Your CEO should put significant energy into building a company that adds value to your market, and your content should do the same thing.
Quality means delving deeper into topics that fit your company’s focus, and that doesn’t necessarily require choosing a narrow vertical. You can keep your focus broad, but delve deeper into mapping your content toward buyer personas. You can develop a trademark irreverent tone that’s not currently being used by anyone in your market. However you choose to present your content, the most important thing to remember is that it must provide some value. Seek out other articles on your company’s subject and determine the ground that has already been covered. You may want to summarize those points, but the real meat of your work should be wholly your own. Dig more deeply, provide a new angle, make unusual comparisons, and offer your own voice, your own knowledge, and your own interpretation. How you share your quality content is up to you, but it must be something different enough to provide value in a way that no one else is.
These are all practices explicitly forbidden by Google, but they’re not the only ways to suffer poor SEO. In the words of Enge, “just because Google doesn’t currently enforce something, doesn’t mean they condone it.” Will your search rankings suffer if you’re occasionally using long tail keywords in a slightly unnatural way? Perhaps, and if they don’t, they could suffer in the future.
However, I couldn’t help but get stuck on one component of their quality guidelines, which recommend you ask yourself “would you do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
Would content marketing in the digital space even exist without search engines? While some search experts have theorized that the internet could become so saturated with content one day that solutions like Google, Bing, and Yahoo are rendered useless, that day’s pretty far into the future -- if it ever comes. In the meantime, we’ll stick to the best practice of writing content for our buyer personas, creating helpful content that gets resurfaced and referenced time and time again, and optimizing for user experience.
Are These Quality Guidelines Enough?
Do Google’s quality guidelines contain all the knowledge you need to stay out of hot water, and create content people love? Probably not, but that’s okay. In fact, it's probably by design -- because the intent is clear: Google doesn’t hate content creators or SEO, they just probably won’t reward anyone who isn’t willing to put the legwork into building an authoritative website over time. There are no shortcuts.