A recent post on YouMoz (SEO Moz’s user-contributed blog section) addressed what they believed to be the injustice of Google’s Farmer/Panda update that devalued poor-quality websites using a basic and apparently flawed evaluation system. I was honestly surprised to find some people believe that Google is trying to make itself the judge and jury of content quality, shamelessly devaluing sites offering content they don’t deem authoritative. The author of the article suggests that Google should be offering users relevant content, not acting as a content editor by determining the quality of each item it presents. He argues that content quality and relevancy are very different metrics, asserting that “relevancy can be determined by algorithms, but quality needs to be determined by the users.”
While I know there was some collateral damage after the Panda update, what many website owners suffering penalties from the update fail to realize is that user signals heavily influence search results, and not only since the Panda update. By monitoring user behavior, a search engine can learn just about anything it wants to know about a website, and about a user:
- How many times did the user click on a website from the search results?
- Did they hit the back button or dive deeper into the website?
- How long did they stay on the site?
- Did the user return to the website, and if so, how many times, and over what period of time?
Search engines are further able to evaluate the quality of a website by assessing how well the site is constructed:
- Is the site built with proper document structure, section headers, image alt attributes, appropriate emphasis, and clean and validating code?
- Is the site suitable for the device the user is on?
- Does the site content reflect the information contained in the site title and description?
- Did the website load quickly and without issue for the user requesting it?
- What is the text to image ratio on the website?
Google knows if people like your website and they know if it’s built really well – and they either reward or punish you for these things.
In the Panda update, the search giant went above and beyond, asking actual users how they perceive certain websites. For example, users were told to visit selected websites and asked questions like “do you consider this site to be authoritative?” and “does this site have excessive ads?” – questions important in establishing metrics important to users as well as a baseline for determining the trustworthiness and quality of a website and its content. As a search-dominant public, we can’t possibly complain about Google refining their system to give us better quality results. That would be plain silly.
At the end of the day, human signals are one of the most important factors for Google and other search engines in determining how to place websites. With a flourishing model based on providing the most relevant and high-quality results to users, it is a fact that Google’s main priority is tearing through their index to determine what is rubbish and what is not. Content quality and relevancy may look like very different metrics on the surface, but they’re really one in the same. Give the user what they’re looking for and make it the best information available so they won’t go anywhere else. It’s how a search engine works at the very heart of things – and it’s not new. Hearing how terribly wounded SEOs are about lost rankings as a result of having low-quality websites reminds me of how overly focused some Internet marketers are on the wrong things. In the midst of monetizing ads, keyword-dense copywriting, link building, reporting, and incessantly watching rankings, we often get so caught up with trying to do what the robots want us to do that we forget about our real audience: humans.
If you have a website, I challenge you to stop fighting progression and obsessing about search engine algorithms and instead focus your energy on creating a beautiful and usable website, content that users will truly enjoy, and an experience they’ll want to tell their friends about. Regardless of changes in the search engines, the theme remains consistent – focus on offering value to the user and everything else will fall into place.