When it comes to SEO, we’ve all heard the adage, content is king. But how important is quality content to your SEO rankings?
Google went on record in March 2016 that saying the most important search ranking factors are quality content, back link profile, and machine learning.
But what determines quality content?
What Google says about quality content? What has independent research shown us about the correlation between content quality and search ranking? And what makes certain pages stand out from the rest of the pack?
Before we dive deeper into the effects of quality content on search ranking, let’s look at what Google considers quality page content.
Google’s Content Quality Guidelines
Google published their content quality guidelines most recently on March 14th, 2017.
Though Google’s search algorithm changes slightly hundreds of times per year, Google still use human testers to evaluate page quality.
Early in the Google search quality guidelines it is stated that page quality is measured by how well a page achieves its purpose. Shortly after this, it says that websites and pages should be created to help users. Sites that exist to make money, with no regard for helping users, are considered low quality.
This is a big clue to what Google (and other search engines) consider important.
Does the page help people solve their problem or answer their question? If so, it may be of high-quality. The type of page does not affect the quality of the page, as long as it exists to help users.
Google understands that there are different types of pages with different types of purposes. Some of the these may include:
- Sharing topical information.
- Sharing social or personal information.
- Photo sharing, video sharing, media sharing.
- Sharing opinions or viewpoints.
- To sell products or services.
- To entertain people.
- Providing a forum for asking and answering questions.
It is important that each page on your website has an explicit purpose, so your users are not confused.
Your Money or Your Life Pages
Google holds certain types of pages to a higher standard of accuracy and quality. These types of pages can have a greater impact on the people browsing those pages. If the information there is inaccurate, it can have a negative impact on the readers’ happiness, health, or financial well-being.
It is important that these pages reflect accurate, up-to-date information; are secure, and malware free.
These Your Money or Your Life pages include:
- Shopping pages, e-commerce websites, or any type of page where credit card transactions may take place.
- Financial information pages. This includes insurance, taxes, mortgages, financial planning, retirement, loans, or any advice about money.
- Medical and health pages. Hospital sites or any pages giving advice about health, prescriptions, mental health, diseases, prevention, or nutrition fall into this category.
- Legal information. This includes any pages about bankruptcy, legal proceedings, divorce, creating a will, family law, business law, or naturalization.
- News sites, or public / official information pages. These can include official sites at the local, regional, or national level. Pages that keep the citizens informed, government process pages, or international pages about business, news, science, or technology may be included here.
- Other. Any additional pages that may impact the lives of those reading the page (such as pages on adoption, recalls, auto safety, etc).
Anything that could potentially have a big impact on someone’s life if they follow the information or advice on that page is held to a high standard for quality.
Some Interesting Things Google Looks For in Quality Content
In quality content, Google says it should be clear who is responsible for a website, and who created the content on that page. Companies or organizations are usually responsible for business sites, and individuals are usually contributors.
There are reasons for making it clear who the site and page belongs to. These include maintaining copyright, acknowledging the contributors, and building trust with the audience.
Google says About and Contact pages should be present on a quality website. It also hints that larger organizations usually have pages for job openings, what they are doing in the community, press coverage, and other things you would expect to find reflected in a physical business.
The quality evaluation guidelines also point out that organizations want to be in contact with their customers, and may have different means of contacting different departments.
The message here is pretty clear. Search engines look for signs on your website that your company may reflect in the physical world. Having pages for About, Contact, Careers, Privacy, Customer Support, and multiple forms of contacting the company are signs this is a legitimate company with a quality website. Everything is about signalling trust to your customers as well as the search engines.
A Quick Word on Reputation Management
Though this falls outside the scope of on-page quality content, one thing the Search Quality Guidelines explicitly states is not to trust what a website says about itself. It is more important for outside sources to say a site has great content, than for a website to say it.
This can take the form of back links, reviews, brand mentions, outside news coverage, podcast appearances, etc.
Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness
Google looks at the overall expertise, authority, and trust of a site. They call this E-A-T for short.
When evaluating the main content of a page, they look at:
- The quality of information on a website.
- The quantity of information on a site.
- The external reputation of a website.
- The internal information on a website.
There are many specific examples given in the Search Quality Guidelines. But the questions that you need to ask yourself when producing and publishing content are:
- Does this content contain authority sources for my industry? Is this content based on facts and research rather than opinions?
- Would other people in my industry consider this a trustworthy source if they read it?
- Does this content sound professional? Will people read this and consider it authoritative?
- Is this content free from grammatical and contextual errors? Will people have a hard time reading it? Are the ideas easy to process?
- Is the content author speaking from a place of personal experience? Or does it sound like regurgitated buzzwords?
- Does the author have the necessary industry experience to speak with authority on this subject?
- If people follow the advice in this content, will it have a positive or a negative effect on their well-being?
- Would other people in my industry link to this content as a source? Could this be considered a definitive answer to the question that led people here?
What Does Google Consider High-Quality Page Content?
Google looks at each web page though the lens of whether a page achieves its intended goal. Search engines understand that there are different types of pages on the web. Looking at the page in the larger context of the website helps Google understand the purpose of the page.
That said, here are the E-A-T qualities Google is looking for in high quality content.
- The organization behind the site and the content author each have a high level of expertise, authority, and trustworthiness.
- There is a satisfying amount of main content on the page. The content is not shallow.
- You can easily find out who is responsible for the site. There is a satisfying amount of content about who is behind the site.
- If there are financial transactions on the site, you can easily contact customer service or support.
- The website that is responsible for the main content has a positive reputation.
What is really interesting here is there are outside factors of reputation that play into the E-A-T formula. If a website or organization has a bad reputation (excessive negative reviews, BBB complaints, shady back link profile), then this can potentially affect the rank of a certain page.
Just as important is the reputation of the content author. Google can make many connections about who a person is by their mentions, social profiles, and back links. Search engines like Google are investing very heavily into machine learning and artificial intelligence to make connections about entities, like people and organizations.
Highest Quality Content
Google makes a distinction between high quality content, and highest quality content.
When separating high quality from highest quality content, Google asks, how strong is the publisher’s brand ?
In the examples Google gives in their Search Quality Guidelines, the highest quality content is published by organizations with a stellar reputation in their field.
To dominate search rankings, you must build great content, which helps build your reputation, which helps your future content to rank.
To consistently rank well, you must have content that is above and beyond your competition. You must also have an organization with a trustworthy and authoritative presence in the online and offline world.
I cannot stress it enough — focus on becoming the go-to resource for information for your industry, and the search ranking will follow.
What Does Google Consider Low Quality Content?
Here are some cases where Google would grade the content quality as low:
- There is not enough main content on the page to satisfy the searcher.
- The main content is not very good. Someone searching for something is unsatisfied by the content.
- Perhaps the main content is good, but there are too many ads and pop-ups for the user to have a satisfying experience. The page is slow to load, or hard to read.
- It is difficult to find out who is responsible for the website or the page content, and there is no good reason for anonymity.
- The website has a negative reputation.
Much like the criteria for high quality content (but in reverse), a page with poor content has thin content, a poor user experience, or a bad reputation. It is noteworthy that sites that attempt to hide who is behind the site may also be considered lower quality.
Why You Should Invest In Site Content
Google states that low quality page content is the biggest reason why your pages aren’t ranking well.
Here are some common characteristics of low quality content:
- Scraped content that does not add extra value. Article spinning, or plagiarism, where a few words are changed here and there.
- Inaccurate facts, stretched truth, casting doubt on well-established facts.
- Content written with little to no planning. Grammatical errors. Disjointed ideas.
- Main content is text-based, but mostly pictures — designed to take up space and make the content seem longer.
- No sources or citations for statements. Made up sources, or false citations.
- Using many words to convey an idea where a few will suffice. Overly wordy and long-winded for no purpose.
Another thing to note: the larger the site, the higher the standards for quality. Hobby sites are graded on a curve compared to large business sites. But becoming a large business relies in large part on how you communicate through your website content.
Web pages can also be graded as low quality content if there are too many ads to actually read the content, or if there is too little information on the topic. The deeper you can go on a subject, the better.
Pages can also be downgraded as poor content if the business has a tarnished reputation; if the site lacks authority, trust, or expertise; or if it is unclear who is responsible for the website.
Lowest Quality Content
As you might suspect, sites that are hacked, defaced, otherwise malicious are considered lowest quality, and may even be de-indexed.
But it might surprise you that according to the Search Quality Guidelines, sites that are “keyword stuffed” may also be considered lowest quality.
Why You Should Avoid Keyword Stuffing
Keyword stuffing used to be a popular technique for SEO many years ago. But search engines have become more sophisticated, and recognize that keyword stuffing is an attempt to manipulate rankings.
When pages are keyword stuffed, they repeat the same phrase over and over. This may have fooled search engines in 2002, but it doesn’t work so well in 2017. More importantly, it is probably preventing you from getting more customers.
Read the text on your page out loud. If it sounds unnatural, or if you wouldn’t say it to a customer face to face, then don’t put it on your page.
Think about it. Is the goal to trick search engines into ranking you higher? Or is the goal to reach more people and convert them into paying customers?
Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
If you wouldn’t say it out loud to a customer face to face, don’t put it on your website.
Will Copied Content Harm Your SEO?
Before we look at whether copying and pasting content will hurt your SEO, let’s look at what Google considers copied content.
Copied Content is the Lazy Way Out
Google knows that your site needs interesting page content in order to rank. If it works for your competition, it can work for you — right?
Search engines like Google look at copying and pasting as your way of showing no effort, and no expertise.
It’s important to note that syndicated content, like the Associated Press, or other press releases is not considered copied content.
What is considered copied content?
- Content copied from an identifiable source, with no alteration. This could be an entire page or pieces of different pages patched together to make an entire page. (This practice can also get you into copyright trouble, if the original author finds out.)
- Content copied with a few words changed here and there. This is also known as article spinning. The articles are changed just enough that they are not an exact match.
- Content copied from a dynamic source.. This means the exact page is changing, but the source is entirely automated. This could include a search results page, or an RSS feed that is pulled into your page.
The common thread here is that there is no added value from the original material.
Google doesn’t care if you use blockquotes or citations in your content. What they do care about is you putting zero effort into creating new value for the reader.
In a 2013 video, Matt Cutts of Google said that boilerplate legal pages, like a Terms and Conditions, would not be considered copied content. What search engines consider is whether your content is spammy or keyword stuffed. That’s when you would receive a Google penalty.
Why You Should Never Copy-Paste Content From Your Competitors
Occasionally, I’ve had clients approach me and say something to the effect of, “Just copy all the content from my competitor’s site. Words are all the same anyway.”
Google says that scraped content, even if it is high-quality content, does not add any value to your users!
What Google is saying is, if you are copying and pasting someone else’s content, why should they rank your page? If you don’t have anything new to add to the topic, then there’s no reason at all to rank your page.
Remember when we talked about E-A-T? Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness?
Sites that blatantly steal other people’s content don’t have any expertise or authority of their own, they choose to borrow someone else’s.
Likewise sites that plagiarize content are nothing to worry about. Because they steal content, they aren’t trustworthy.
Content creators and websites that publish original material build thought leadership, expertise, and authority. These are the qualities of high quality content, which both your customers and search engines appreciate.
So that covers copied content. But what about duplicate content?
Does Google Penalize Duplicate Content on Your Site?
In a 2014 Google Webmaster video, Google’s John Mueller states that Google does not have a duplicate content penalty. However, there is a strong implication that Google is not obligated to make your duplicate content rank well.
If you have an e-commerce website, and you have several variations for each product, having a central page for each product is a good idea. Modern e-commerce software, like WooCommerce, allows you to have variations from a central page.
Building a page for each variation is something that spam sites do, so that is probably something you should avoid.
Some duplicate content within your own site is okay, as long as it doesn’t look like spam or search engine manipulation, and it makes sense. Building pages for search crawlers instead of humans is a bad idea, however.
So far, we’ve talked about high quality content and low quality content. But what about content that is neither high or low quality? What about the mushy middle ground?
Most of the Web is Medium Quality Content
The vast majority of the web contains medium quality content. This is content where nothing is wrong, but there’s nothing special about the content either.
This is content that makes a point, but it doesn’t go in-depth. It fails to drive traffic or engagement (comments, shares, people reading the entire page).
Sometimes this medium quality content is rather good, but the user experience on the website is poor. Perhaps the content is decent, but there are elements missing on the site, which cause people to leave.
But I have another theory about medium quality content. The focus on content marketing and SEO is the reason why there is so much mediocre content on the web today.
The Glut of Not-So-Quality Content
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, SEO consultants gave the general advice to publish as much as possible. The reasoning was that sites that would publish more often would be crawled and indexed more often.
This resulted in a glut of 300 to 500 word articles that fulfilled the quota to publish content on a regular schedule. Sadly though, much of this content was forgotten five minutes after it was read. For the most part, this short-form content spoke to no one, educated no one, and motivated no one to take any sort of action.
If you have an overstock of these 300 to 500 word articles today, and they aren’t getting any traffic, then they are probably not quality content. Many larger sites with this type of content should go through a website content audit to determine whether they should be kept, improved, combined, or deleted.
The conventional wisdom today is that you must have long-form content to rank well. Many studies recommend at least 2000 words per page, though this is also a generalization.
The content of a page should be as long as it needs to be to answer the intent of the searcher.
Sometimes this will be a short page. But more often than not, long pages will rank higher because they more thoroughly answer a question.
The New SEO Metrics to Watch
More than ever, Google is relying on user signals and engagement to determine whether a page needs to move up the search rankings or not. Measurable data like dwell time (how long users stay on a page), number of comments on a page, and bounce rate play a critical role. User experience and mobile-friendliness also determine whether a website will move up or down the rankings. Finally, factors such as site traffic, popularity, brand mentions, and brand-name searches indicate how customers truly view the quality of your site content.
Another factor to consider is how thorough your article is at answering a question.
Think of your pages like this: does this article represent the most definitive answer? Could this page rival the Wikipedia article for this subject?
The shorter the articles are, the more likely they are to fall out of the top five in ranking. What can we learn from this?
The highest ranking pages for specific searches tend to be well researched, and have a disproportionately large amount of information versus competing pages.
Not every study corroborates the “long content ranks better” narrative. A study by CanIRank.com shows that it is not just content length that matters, but relevancy.
The most thorough pages seem to win, and this happens to have a correlation with content length.
The Skyscraper Technique
The goal is to make your page the definitive reference for a specific search phrase. Brian Dean from Backlink.io calls this the Skyscraper Technique.
The Skyscraper Technique involves finding a top ranking piece of content, and then extending the information as much as possible. To rank number one in Google, your page must go above and beyond other pages ranking for that search phrase. The second half of Dean’s strategy is to do a back link out reach for your article. In this phase, your page receives back links that previously went to your competitors. By displacing rival back links, the authority for your page grows.
Is There a Correlation Between Traffic and Content Quality?
Content quality is thought to be measured in part by popularity, aka site traffic. Evidence suggests that site traffic, over an extended period of time, reveals what is the most authoritative piece of content on a subject.
If specific pages aren’t producing traffic, they must either be improved or pruned away. This is why content audits are so important.
During a content audit, you identify pages that are almost ranking on page one of Google and improve those pages. The idea is to improve the pages enough to move them to page one of the search rankings. This is better than producing yet more mediocre content that only gets 1 to 2 visitors per quarter.
Original Research as a Sign of Quality Content
One thing that cannot be easily replicated is original research. Most top ranking pages for specific terms seem to involve a lot of original research. Original long-form content that can be used as a reference for others draws attention, dwell time, and shares.
Compelling content is something that people want to share. If your website has low traffic to your website, but you’ve created some compelling content, consider driving traffic to the page with social advertising.
Google seems to know when traffic is going to a certain page, and will rank it higher accordingly. If you have a really great piece of content that is near best-in-class, use some of your advertising budget to get people to that page.
The idea is to drive social shares, which results in more traffic, and more back links.
How Do You Know If you Have a Piece of Quality Content?
Here’s a great benchmark for judging whether you have a piece of quality content or not.
If someone reads that page, are they going to change the way that they approach their business or problem?
A piece of content that compels someone to change their business strategy or influence their decision making can be considered high-quality.
In the end, quality content isn’t about a sales pitch. It’s about establishing trust and authority. Quality content should be all about solving a problem, addressing an issue, or offering up original research.
Final Thoughts on Quality Content
Quality content satisfies a need for information, and oftentimes changes the way we look at a subject. It offers proof, not opinions. Quality content is based on research and facts.
What drives the most traffic to your site? The highest quality content on your site is going to be responsible for most of the traffic. Believe it or not, when you’re doing content marketing right, your homepage is rarely the page with the most traffic.
If you’ve got lots of great content on your site, chances are your individual blog articles will bring in most your traffic. People are landing on these articles because they are solving their specific problems or answering there a specific question. Your pages are going into enough detail for them to believe that’s the definitive answer. Quality content sounds simple, but it is not easy. It takes dedication of time and resources to create.
Investing in quality cornerstone content that draws people into your site, and solves the problems your customers face, is the first step to gaining their trust. In turn, this helps establish your authority on a subject, which drives traffic, and gives those pages a better chance to rank.