9 Lessons Publishers Should Take from Google's Leaked "Search Quality Rating Guidelines"
Google, the epitome of the internet ventures that have so disrupted the magazine industry, turns out to have a crush on traditional publishers, a recently leaked report reveals. But publishers' increasingly reckless behavior threatens to dash this odd-couple relationship on the rocks.
The coolest kid at the party, Google at first ignored the traditional publishers huddled in the corner while it hung out with its keyword-stuffing, digital-native buddies. But, tiring of all their link baiting and misleading come-ons, Google has been sidling over to our part of the room in search of meaningful relationships with those it can trust.
The leaked report, a March 2014 update of the search giant's Search Quality Rating Guidelines, is full of favorable references to print publications and their associated websites. It shows that Google's attempts to favor webpages with "expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness" are playing right into the hands of respected publishers who practice real journalism.
Google, of course, is motivated by money, not love. People who find relevant, reliable information on Google are more likely to return to the site for future searches -- and to be exposed to more Google ads.
Getting a high rating from a Google quality rater doesn't mean an immediate traffic boost for publishers. Google uses the raters' feedback to test and tweak its algorithms, so that searches are more likely to highlight high-quality pages -- the kind of pages that actual people find to be useful. (Google has created a brief video that explains the process.)
"Use reputation research to find out what real users, as well as experts, think about a website," the leaked report urges. "Look for reviews, references, recommendations by experts, news articles, and other credible information created/written by individuals about the website."
"Prestigious awards, such as the Pulitzer Prize award, are strong evidence of very positive reputation," the guidelines note. (Note: The Pulitzers are generally awarded to print publications, not websites.)
"This magazine has a positive reputation for interviews with musicians," the guidelines say of a website deemed to be of high quality. "This is a very high-quality and in-depth article on an award winning magazine website," it says of another. (Hmmm, maybe the magazine industry needs more journalism awards.)
What garners "Google love" these days is "very active editorial standards" and web pages "created with a high degree of time and effort, and in particular, expertise, talent, and skill."
The guidelines are full of lessons for publishers, as well as some warnings. Here are 9 lessons to take from the report.
1. In the long run, quality will win: Google wisely places a high value on the hallmarks of good journalism—content that is "created with a high degree of time and effort, and in particular, expertise, talent, and skill" where there is a clear line between content and promotional material. Many high-quality publishers are already seeing huge gains in search traffic, and we can expect more tuning of the search algorithms in ways that favor good, in-depth reporting.
2. Don't hide from print: Some publishers have the notion that being connected to a printed publication makes a website look bad. (Remember when The Daily Beast swallowed Newsweek.com?) It's clearly not true for Google. Given Google's apparent affinity for respected publications, it's conceivable that its algorithms actually favor sites that have promotions for paid subscriptions.
3. Bylines help: "Look for information written by a person, not statistics or other machine-compiled information," the guidelines advise. And not just any person; the author's expertise, credibility, track record, and skill all matter.
4. Watch those pop-ups and interstitials: Ads "should be arranged so as not to distract from the MC (main content)." They can be "there should the user want them, but they should be easily 'ignorable' if the user is not interested." Special hatred goes to "invasive Ads, such as popups that cannot be closed." Monetized links and ad-cluttered pages can also earn Google demerits.
5. Don't fool your readers: "Some webpages are designed to encourage users to click on SC [supplementary content] that is not helpful for the purpose of the page," the guidelines warn. Such content "is often distracting or prominently placed in order to lure users to highly monetized pages." Sometimes, the content is actually ads, which is "deceptive/misleading page design." Google doesn't seem to have a problem with native ads or sponsored content, as long as they don't masquerade as editorial content.
6. Editorial integrity matters: "Wikipedia articles, blog posts, magazine articles, forum discussions, and ratings from independent organizations can all be sources of reputation information. Look for independent, credible sources of information." Google obviously places a high value on content that is free of commercial interest. Shilling is killing; if you publish puff pieces for your advertisers, your search results will suffer.
7. Network ads can hurt you: Websites "may not always directly control the content of the Ads. However, we will consider a website responsible for the overall quality of the Ads displayed." So keep an eye on the remnant and programmatic ads running on your site. (I wonder what happens when the shady or tacky ads are served by Google's own AdSense program.)
8. Manage your comments and outside contributors closely: "A warning about user-contributed content: Many websites allow almost anyone to publish pretty much anything. Contributors choose their own topics with no oversight. Contributors may have very poor writing skills or may have absolutely no expertise in the topic of the page. Contributors may be paid per article (in some cases they may be paid per word), and may even be eligible for bonuses based on the traffic to their pages. Depending on the topic, pages on these websites may not be trustworthy." (Did someone say "Forbes"?)
9. Bottom line: An entire industry grew up around trying to game search results, with spammy and shady websites usually leaving traditional publishers in the dust. But, increasingly, Google love will go to sites that do what respected publishers have been doing for decades-providing people the information they need and can rely upon.
Related story: What's the Magazine Industry's Brand Identity?