Up until this year, pretty much all Google had to say about writing high-quality content was what not to do.
Panda told us to avoid keyword stuffing, plagiarism, and duplicate content. Basically anything anyone who’s bothered about quality would already be doing.
Hummingbird pushed this further, cracking down on ‘low-quality’ content and adjusting the algorithm to serve results that better meet user intent. This meant keyword stuffing was well and truly out the window, and natural language was in.
Again, something content marketers knew all too well.
Then there came RankBrain: a machine learning system that delivers results even more relevant to the user. RankBrain meant harsher consequences for the familiar ‘low-quality’ content, and better results for content that delivers what a searcher really wants.
Hmm, still not much in the way of concrete, practical advice for us to work with.
So all this talk and little explanation left content marketers in a bit of a muddle. The confusion being that if we all follow Google’s spiel about what not to do, then how does it determine whose content is of higher quality?
For a long time, the best answer anyone could come up with was more — the phrase ‘Content is King’ taken to its literal extreme. People would churn out articles of 2, 3, 5, 10 thousand words — as if quantity was somehow exactly what Google meant by quality.
Of course, it wasn’t. And it quickly transpired — although some still refute it — that long-form content only works better at the right times and in the right places.
Or in other words, when it’s appropriate for the user’s intent.
It seems obvious when you look at it — that quality and intent go hand in hand. All Google’s recent updates have been aimed at both pushing out low quality while in the same breath honing in on that which better serves the user. And after all, Google is a search engine whose main job it is to deliver the right sort of content to the right people.
But the top content markets have known this since, or even long before, Google published their monster 160-page Search Quality Rating Guideline document back in 2015.
And so, even when following all the ‘do nots’ and doing all you can to meet the user’s intent, the question still stands: what the heck is high-quality content?
In September this year, Google finally revealed an insight into what it actually means, publishing several different guides to help its own creators create “high-quality documentation.”
So in celebration of this rare occasion, we’ve taken insights from this new information, along with data from its Search Quality Rating Guidelines, to paint a more complete picture of what Google may likely consider as high-quality content. We’ll explore this over four sections: High-quality Content; Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness (E-A-T); Purpose; and User Intent.
The Dos of High-quality Content
In typical Google style, some of the information outlined in the new quality document is pretty ambiguous. But if you understand it and use it well, it will go along way to lifting your content above the crowd.
Below is a brief overview of what Google recently laid out for their content creators in its Developer Documentation Style Guide:
• Use a friendly, conversational tone with a clear purpose — somewhere between the voice you use when talking to your buds and that you’d use if you were a robot.
• Try to sound like a knowledgeable friend who understands what users want to do.
• Use standard American spelling, grammar, punctuation and capitalization.
• Craft clear, concise, short sentences with simple words that users will understand.
• Implement effective and descriptive link text.
• Use accessible words and short sentences that will translate well to other languages.
• Consider numbered lists for sequences of events.
• Ensure outbound links are to sites that are “high-quality, reliable and respectable.”
Expertise, Authoritativeness & Trustworthiness (E-A-T)
In its Search Quality Guidelines, Google stresses that a high-quality page must meet several requirements. The most useful of which is that it must contain a satisfying amount of, you guessed it, “high-quality content”.
Google state that high-quality is one of the most important factors in generating the ‘Page Quality’ rating of a page. Here, it’s defined as content that takes a significant amount of at least one of the following: time, effort, expertise, and talent/skill (E-A-T for short).
Although broad, these markers tell us a lot about how content could fair well on Google’s quality scale — especially when combined with its new document. For instance, for an article to land on the high end of the scale, you would expect its content would be comprehensive and backed up and supported by expert consensus where available. It’s structure and formatting would contain a variety of styles and types of media where appropriate — video, lists, slideshows, tables. And its language and tone would be informative yet clear and conversational enough to be readable and engaging across all devices.
In section 7.2 of its Search Quality Guidelines, Google talks about the lack of purpose of a page, stating that those that lack purpose are to be rated ‘Lowest Quality’.
It seems obvious, but all over the web there are pages for which you wouldn’t have a clue why they exist. And if Google places purpose so highly, then no matter how eloquent the writing or high the level of E-A-T of the page, if the purpose is unclear, it will be considered useless.
Understanding User Intent
Now to the final and potentially most important factor in quality content: understanding user intent.
Like the purpose of a page, if the content totally misses the mark when it comes to what the reader is looking for, then it doesn’t stand much of a chance.
In fact, when purpose and intent line up perfectly, and you’ve nailed the do’s and E-A-T, then you may have found the magic combination.
Google breaks down understanding user intent into two simple stages. The first is knowing what type of query is being used to access the page: is it a know query, where a user is looking to know something; a do query, where a user is looking to take an action; a direct website query, where they’re looking for a specific website or webpage; or a visit-in-person query, where they’re looking for a specific business or organisation.
The next stage is getting clear on the purpose of the page. Here are a few common purposes of a webpage they provide as examples:
• To share information about a topic
• To share personal or social information
• To share pictures, videos or other forms of media
• To express an opinion or point of view
• To entertain
• To sell products or services
• To allow users to post questions for other users to answer
• To allow users to share files or to download software
One easy way to line up purpose and intent is to check what types of pages are ranking for the keywords you’re targeting. Say, for instance, you’re targeting the keywords “dog grooming tips”. If all the top results are informational rather than, say, directing users to local businesses, then it’s clear what the intent is and that you need to create more informational content to compete.
Every now and again, Google trickles out information that marketers can use to up their game in the SERPs. It’s how they grow — teasing black hatters to use and abuse the techniques so it can go back to the drawing board and come up with something better.
It’s pretty hard to fake things like time, expertise, and effort, though. So until someone develops a super advanced AI that can churn out articles that are indistinguishable from those crafted by the human hand, it seems good ol’ fashioned hard work and talent will remain the main components of high-quality content.
Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Find him on Medium exploring remote working, technology, spirituality, meditation, and everything in between.