Google’s Webmaster Guidelines have a new name – Google Search Essentials.
The new guidelines tell us what is important to focus on when it comes to performing well in Google search.
Much of what moved the needle in terms of SEO years ago is no longer effective.
What matters in SEO today are things like E-A-T, core update quality questions, product review questions, and whether content is helpful.
So what will give you the best chance of performing well as Google continues to refine and improve its ranking algorithms?
What follows are my thoughts on how you can build an SEO strategy around the Google Search Essentials documentation.
1. Don’t overlook technical SEO
You can do a lot of good things with technical SEO. This article discusses the importance of:
- Optimizing site architecture.
- Ensuring pages are crawlable.
- Making sure pages are indexable.
- Improving page experience.
I have seen many sites improve their search presence because of improvements made to help Google better crawl and understand a site’s content.
But this cannot be our only strategy as an SEO.
Google’s documentation tells us there really are only three things required to rank on Google search:
- Googlebot isn’t blocked.
- The page works, meaning Google receives an HTTP 200 success status code.
- The page has indexable content.
Every site I review gets a crawl with either Screaming Frog or Sitebulb (and sometimes Ahrefs’ or Semrush’s site crawl). Any of these tools will give you insight into the technical health of a site and whether there are significant issues that could be impacting quality.
For me, it has been a long time since improving technical site health has been the main focus of my recommended SEO strategy.
In most corners of the web today, most sites are relatively sound when it comes to technical SEO.
If there are obvious issues that can be repaired with a good possibility of a positive return on investment, fix these things. But for most sites I work on, the bulk of my recommendations are not technical fixes.
2. Stay up to date with Google’s spam policies
In 2012, my main line of work was helping site owners remove Google penalties. It was incredibly common to see legitimate businesses hiring low-cost SEOs who built easy-to-obtain links in directories and articles at scale only to be demolished by Google’s Penguin algorithm.
Today, most sites I deal with do not have a problem with violating Google’s spam policies.
It is important for SEOs to be aware of these policies. If you suspect your client is using techniques like cloaking, keyword stuffing or republishing large amounts of scraped content, you need to be able to advise your client of the risks.
These are sometimes difficult conversations especially when it comes to link building.
If a client has performed well in the past on the power of paid or otherwise unnatural links, it is often hard to convince them that this type of practice goes against Google’s guidelines and could result in either a manual or algorithmic action which could have devastating consequences.
Google tells us:
“Any links that are intended to manipulate rankings in Google Search results may be considered link spam.”
The same page also contains good advice for affiliate site owners:
“Not every site that participates in an affiliate program is a thin affiliate. Good affiliate sites add value by offering meaningful content or features. Examples of good affiliate pages include offering additional information about price, original product reviews, rigorous testing and ratings, navigation of products or categories, and product comparisons.”
A good SEO should be on top of whether your clients are at risk because of spam issues.
But you are unlikely to improve your client’s rankings simply by disavowing links or cleaning up comment spam.
3. Use Google’s SEO Starter Guide which is loaded with things for SEOs to work on
Google recommends we read their SEO guide. It’s really really good. This guide tells us what is important for SEOs to monitor and do along with instructions on how to do it. It includes advice on:
- Common indexing issues.
- Best practices for title tags and meta description tags.
- Best practices for heading use.
- Best practices for using structured data.
- Understanding how to organize your site hierarchy.
- How to create good content.
- How to “act in a way that cultivates user trust.”
- How to demonstrate expertise.
- How to use anchor text for links.
- Best uses for nofollow.
- Best practices for image optimization.
- Tips for being mobile friendly.
- Tips for promoting your site.
- Tips for analyzing search performance and user behavior.
A good SEO can identify which of the above issues are a problem for their client and know how to prioritize fixes.
Tip: If you are unsure how to prioritize, ask your peers!
The SEO community on Twitter is always happy to give their opinion on SEO issues. If you can get past the fear that someone may think your question is dumb, you can learn a lot when you get the community chatting.
Once you’ve prioritized which fixes are likely to make a difference for your client, you can work through these tasks a little bit more each month.
Again though, these are all things that can help your site achieve equal footing with your competitors. It is the next section of the Google Essentials Guidelines that give us clues as to how we can be seen as better than our competitors in Google’s eyes.
4. Refer to ‘Key best practices’ for what content Google wants to rank
Some of Google’s key best practices are things SEOs have worked on for years:
- Use keywords in titles and headings and alt text.
- Make links crawlable.
- Tell people about your site.
Again, all possible things to investigate and optimize as an SEO.
Monitoring keywords in Google Search Console and determining where you are getting impressions that could be better optimized is a great monthly activity.
The first item listed under “key best practices” is to “create helpful, reliable people-first content.”
This is an area where we can continually improve upon in ways that can help improve rankings.
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5. Pay attention to Google’s advice on how to create helpful and reliable content that serves people first
Google tells us that their ranking systems are designed to “present helpful, reliable information that’s primarily created to benefit people, not gain search engine rankings.”
The Google Search Essentials document aggregates much of the advice that was previously given in Google’s documentation on what site owners should know about core updates, product review updates, helpful content update, and more.
If you want to know how to create the type of content Google is trying to rank, you absolutely need to be paying attention to the information in this document.
Google told us many years ago in the initial Panda update announcement – which first introduced questions like this – that this type of questions should give us some insight into how [they] try to write algorithms that distinguish higher-quality sites from lower-quality sites. These questions are important.
- First, Google understands the meaning of your query.
- Next, they find content that appears to be a good match.
It is the third step that has quietly snuck into the algorithms and that I believe Google continues to improve with each core update:
- Once these matches are found, Google does more work to “prioritize those that seem the most helpful.” They tell us they do this by identifying “signals that can help determine which content demonstrates E-A-T.”
This seems to me to be a very important step.
If Google prioritizes content that seems to be the most helpful based on whether it demonstrates E-A-T, then we should be paying close attention to the questions Google gives us to self-assess our E-A-T.
The good news is that these questions can give us many ideas to help our clients improve their content.
The bad news is that in many cases if a site wants to recover after a core update hit, what’s required is a massive overhaul of the site’s content… one piece at a time.
6. Craft a strategy around Google’s quality questions
The problem with Google’s quality questions is that there is so much that is open for interpretation.
How do we know whether our content is considered as having “original information, reporting research or analysis?”
When Google recommends “clear sourcing,” how do we know which sources to cite and does it matter whether they are inline links or references at the end of the content?
How do I know if my client’s content is considered expert-written by Google?
Here is what I do when assessing sites in the eyes of these questions:
Step 1: Find keywords that lost rankings following a Google update
Click around GSC and find examples of keywords whose average position dropped in conjunction with an announced Google update.
Step 2: Determine which competitors started outranking you
I’m currently finding Ahrefs’ position history to be the best tool to help me here.
Step 3: Compare these pages to yours in the eyes of the quality questions
If your rankings dropped for a query due to a core update, then it means that when Google made changes to their core ranking algorithm, the newly weighted algorithm preferred your competitor’s content over yours.
In Google’s words:
“Also consider an audit of the drops you may have experienced. What pages were most impacted and for what types of searches? Look closely at these to understand how they’re assessed against some of the questions outlined here.”
Look for clues among the questions that tell you what it is Google may have changed. Below are some made-up examples to help explain my thought process.
Example 1: Affiliate site
Let’s say you are advising an affiliate site owner who reviews baby supplies. The site used to rank well for “how to use a baby thermometer.”
But two sites started outranking them following a core update. Both of them have content that is written by a physician who treats babies in their practice.
In this case, there’s a good chance Google’s newly weighted algorithms have determined that when searchers type this query, one of the factors they should consider more heavily is medical expertise.
It is important to remember that the algorithms that determine this type of thing are weighted algorithms. This doesn’t necessarily mean that only a page with a medical author can rank in this position.
But, most likely having a medical author is something that is now being weighted heavily in these SERPs.
To compete, you can discuss the following with your client:
- Is there a way they can bring their article up to a level of expertise that a searcher would feel just as comfortable with? Perhaps by adding quotes from experts or asking a doctor to rewrite it?
- Is there a way they can improve their article to be significantly more helpful than the ones outranking them? If they are still ranking in good positions, this means that Google is satisfied that they have enough E-A-T to trust the content on the first page. It’s possible that significant content improvements that make it a better option for searchers than what currently exists could result in improved rankings.
- Are they bordering on writing on too many YMYL topics while lacking E-A-T? If so, a content prune or revision may be needed.
Example 2: Multi-topic statistics website
A client suffers a drop at the end of November. They have a site with hundreds of thousands of pages of helpful statistics on many topics, most of which are auto-generated from a database.
When you compare pages that improved when your client dropped you can see that these pages have similar content, but it is human-written rather than autogenerated.
Their content and the design of the page make it easy for searchers to find the answer they were looking for.
There are several things that can be discussed with this client:
- The site may have been impacted by Google’s helpful content classifier that runs all of the time now. Some of Google’s helpful content questions address this:
- “Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?”
- “Are you mainly summarizing what others have to say without adding much value?”
- “Does your content leave readers feeling like they need to search again to get better information from other sources?” (I personally think this question – whether content fully meets the needs of searchers – was more strongly assessed in the September core update.)
- Your job in this case would be to brainstorm strategies to make their content truly more helpful to searchers. Perhaps they could:
- Add well-moderated, user-generated content.
- Work on manually rewriting the most important of these pages.
- Hire an expert to add content to these pages based on their personal expertise
- Find additional ways to answer searcher questions that are important but competitors don’t cover.
- Consider whether there are UX changes to the page that could greatly improve its usability for searchers.
Your goal in each case should be to determine which of Google’s quality questions would be important to users. And then help your client make a plan to improve in this area.
A good regular strategy for SEO is to continue to look for keywords that are no longer ranking as well as expected and come up with ideas on how you can make these pages appear more helpful to searchers than what is currently ranking.
7. Don’t sleep on the quality rater guidelines
Google’s final piece of advice in this document is to “get to know E-A-T and the quality rater guidelines” (QRG).
I have written extensively on this topic in the past and also have written a book with my advice on how we can assess our sites like quality raters.
While the QRG is not an exact blueprint of Google’s algorithms, they give us many clues that can help us understand what kind of content Google wants to rank well when they write their algorithms.
Google ends their documentation on creating helpful content by telling us that doing so can help us rank better:
“Reading the guidelines may help you self-assess how your content is doing from an E-A-T perspective, improvements to consider, and help align it conceptually with the different signals that our automated systems use to rank content.”
Your key to SEO success
There is no shortage of things that an SEO can be working on to help improve a site’s presence in Google.
Some of our tasks, like technical improvements, help us keep our sites running well and improve Google’s ability to find and crawl our content. Keeping our sites technically sound is always a good idea.
Google’s Search Essentials guidelines give us so many things we can work on to have good healthy sites that are competition ready.
My bet though, is that your clients did not hire you just to keep their site technically sound.
They are likely paying you money to help them improve their Google presence and make more money as a result.
There are technical improvements that can help sites. But if you want to get ahead of your client’s competitors, the answer is going to be determining where and how to make content more helpful.
This could mean making E-A-T-related improvements or it may mean making substantial changes to how content is written and presented to searchers.
If you’ve been struggling to move the needle for your clients, I’d urge you to dedicate some time reviewing their sites in the eyes of Google’s Search Essentials documentation.
I especially encourage you to obsess over the quality questions Google tells us to ask ourselves.
If you can crack the nut and help your client create content that truly is seen by searchers as the content that they wanted to land on to fulfill their search needs, this is your key to success.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.
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