Hands typing on a laptop into a Google search webpage

Google's Ongoing Quality Updates

One of the few things growing faster than Google’s profits is the level of user expectations and demands. Consumers want the right information, and they want it instantaneously. In today’s expectation economy, there is nothing more important than exceeding the needs of users, and there is no company that understands their users more thoroughly and intimately than Google.

Because Google knows their users want high-quality search results, the company is rightly obsessed with quality. Each update Google makes to its algorithm is designed to help users get to an answer from a high-quality website more quickly.

Although Google put out a blog post on April 25th, further discussing quality in the context of combatting offensive content and fake news, Google’s public focus on quality actually began in 2011 with the first release of their Panda algorithm update. Since then, there have been frequent updates to it, and many new algorithm updates that have focused on surfacing high-quality sites in search results. Unlike other updates, these updates are harder to diagnose in terms of cause and effect since there are many ways to define quality. Each year the frequency of updates seems to increase, and 2017 has continued as 2016 ended – with constant updates:

January 11th – Mobile Interstitial
February 7th – Unannounced Update
March 8th – Fred (See below)
April 4th – Unannounced Update

Google Fred

March 8, 2017 saw one of the most significant updates of the year: Google Fred. While the focus was on quality, heavy ad presence was one of the consistent attributes of sites that saw a decrease in visibility as a result of this update. Fred was a continuation of the quality updates that had been occurring previously, and many of the sites that were affected by the early January and February updates were also affected by the Fred update in March. The update that went into effect on April 4, 2017 also appeared to affect sites that had already been impacted by one of the previous updates, leading to the hypothesis that all these recent updates are related.

iProspect has seen enterprise sites across several various industries get rankings boosts from the February, and March updates, only to experience a negative impact in April:

Source: AHREFs Organic Traffic

iProspect has also seen sites decrease around the time of each update:

Source: AHREFs Organic Traffic

Reversing Negative Impacts

If your site has been negatively impacted by any of the recent updates, below are three things to consider fixing first. Keep in mind that fixing these obstacles is no guarantee of an improvement in visibility and that it will likely take at least one update cycle (which appear to occur at the beginning of each month) before changes can be seen in SERPs.

  1. Duplicate Content – A significant amount of duplicate content could be perceived as an indicator of a low-quality site. More importantly, showing duplicate pages to Google potentially prevents them from seeing unique content on your site.
  2. Thin Content – A “satisfying amount of high-quality main content” is one of the primary factors Google mentions in the Quality Rating Guidelines. Each URL should have a significant amount of unique content that exceeds the user’s expectations. If a high percentage of a site’s pages are thin, the site may be perceived as low quality and see a decrease in visibility.
  3. Intrusive Ads – The March 8th Google Fred update appeared to specifically impact sites with heavy monetization.

If your site has any of the above problems, fixing them appears to be the quickest way toward reclaiming lost visibility. Again, keep in mind you will likely have to wait for the next update cycle.

If your site does not have any of these issues, then these updates may have rewarded your competition for doing a better job of meeting the needs of users. Since search results are a zero-sum game (if your site loses visibility, other sites gain visibility and vice versa) the fact that your competition is seeing improved visibility in Google will translate into a visibility decrease for your own site.

Quality Rating Guidelines

Google’s Search Quality Rating Guidelines is a 160-page document that provides instructions for Google’s quality raters, people hired on behalf of Google to assess the quality of Google’s search results.Google uses its quality raters to better understand what they believe to be high-quality content, and also how they can reward those higher-quality sites in the SERPs with higher visibility. Last year Google used their Quality Raters to conduct:

130,336 Search Quality Tests
18,015 Side-by-side Experiments
9,800 Live Traffic Experiments
1,653 Launches

The 1,653 launches of updates to their search results averages out to more than four per day, most of which are ignored by the search community.

The Search Quality Rating Guidelines document should be required reading for marketers who are trying to gain a better understanding of what it takes to get to the top of Google’s organic search results. A thorough review of these guidelines is outside the scope of this analysis, however there are two primary areas of focus for quality raters: Page Quality (PQ) and Needs Met (NM).

Page Quality (PQ)

Page Quality is a query-independent score, meaning URLs have a PQ rating regardless of the query for which they appear in search results. Quality raters use PQ ratings to attempt to determine the expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness of a site and particular piece of content.

Page quality scale:

This is the metric Google quality raters use to let Google know which pages they think are high quality based on the standards Google provides in the document. Being marked as high quality doesn’t necessarily guarantee inclusion at the top of the search results, but being marked as low quality makes top rankings significantly more difficult.

Needs Met (NM)

Google quality raters are asked to rate whether a search result meets the needs of a user based on their intent and location.

Needs Met is a query-dependent rating, meaning each result needs to between judged based on the intent of the query and user location. Ratings range between Fails to Meet (FailsM) and Fully Meets (FullyM), with Slightly Meets (SM), Moderately Meets (MM) and Highly Meets (HM) in between.

Results can be low quality yet still meet the needs of users, but Google would rather reward high-quality sites if they exist.

Needs Met as a Ranking Factor

Meeting the needs of users is the most important action websites can take to maximize the likelihood of top rankings. As Google continues to increase its comprehension of query intent and whether the user can accomplish their goal based on their search, they will continue to reward sites that do the best job of meeting the needs of users.  Google’s relentless focus on quality is here to stay, so reading their Search Quality Rater Guidelines is imperative to better understand what they’d like to reward. High quality content that meets the needs of users to be a competitive advantage, but is now the cost of doing business if top rankings are desired.

While the “Needs Met” rating a site receives for a given query from quality raters is probably not a direct input into the core ranking algorithm, Google works to identify common signals of sites that consistently meet the needs of users and attempts to algorithmically reward those signals. Whether direct or indirect, meeting the needs of users is the best way to future-proof the success of your website and thrive in today’s expectation economy.