Private parameters made public
Web developers have known for some time that Google employs people whose job largely consists of rating the quality of websites. In order to build the algorithms by which computers answer search queries, human engineers have to come up with objective, quantifiable measures for determining which pages are high quality and should rank higher on search results. The algorithms must then be tested to see whether they perform as expected — that is, whether they indeed favor websites that a human user, using a mix of objective and subjective criteria, would tend to find useful.
This testing process is where Google's “Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines,” recently made public in the form of a 160-page PDF, come in. The Guidelines instruct Google's evaluators, or “raters” (who tend to work for a third-party contractor, not directly for the company) on how to rate the quality of public websites.
Portions of this document have been leaked to the public over the years, but in November, 2015, Google released the Guidelines to the public in their entirety. Web developers sat up and took notice.
Google has said these ratings do not directly affect how pages rank in search results. They are only used to evaluate the performance of the search engine's algorithms. This makes sense, as the labor of evaluating web pages must be largely automated. There are simply too many web pages to manually rate them all. However, Microsoft has said that its evaluation program does affect how sites rank on its Bing search engine. But regardless of whether manual ratings affect search results, Google's published Guidelines offer valuable insight into what the company feels constitutes a useful web page.
The Guidelines come in three parts. The first is of great use to website owners and designers. It explains in detail how evaluators are to gauge a website's quality. This is a direct insight into Google's thoughts on what makes websites useful and, in turn, which factors its algorithms use to determine search result rankings. We will cover in detail the criteria evaluators use to determine page quality.
Parts 2 and 3 are focused on evaluating the performance of the search engine; that is, how well a page of search engine results answers a user's query. These parts are therefore less useful to third parties. However, it's important to note they both have a heavy emphasis on mobile (i.e., smartphone) users. Mobile users represent an ever-increasing segment of search engine queries. They have different needs and expectations, and their devices have different capabilities compared to desktop/laptop users. In recognizing this, Google places a great deal of emphasis on evaluating how well third-party websites and its own products meet mobile users' needs. Google's Guidelines are short on direct methods for evaluating how well third-party sites serve mobile users. But at the end of the article, we cover design principles that will help you understand whether your website soars or suffers on smartphones.
Determining page quality
A great deal of the Guidelines is devoted to teaching evaluators how to determine whether a given web page is high quality. No one factor is entirely objective or subjective. Evaluators are instructed to look for certain qualities in pages, but are often left to determine for themselves exactly how a page might exhibit those qualities.
Your Money or Your Life
Before getting into the specifics of page quality evaluation, it is important to understand that as a law firm, your website is held to higher standards than most. Google places special emphasis on pages concerning topics such as law, finance and heath. It calls these “Your Money or Your Life,” or “YMYL,” pages. The Guidelines specifically instruct evaluators to expect higher quality from YMYL pages because poor information on them can have significant negative impacts on users. Virtually any law firm's website will qualify as a YMYL page, especially if it goes beyond bare-bones contact information and includes a blog and/or FAQ section, as it should.
The first thing the Guidelines say that a high quality page should exhibit is “a satisfying amount of high quality main content.” Here, the problems of trying to understand exactly what evaluators are looking for immediately become apparent. The only objective term in that phrase is “main content” — it is that portion of the page that contributes directly toward its purposes, as distinguished from supplemental content and advertisements. Evaluators are largely left to determine for themselves what the terms “satisfying amount” and “high quality” mean.
Generally speaking, people know high quality when they see it. They also know what constitutes a “satisfying amount” of content. The first specific criterion in the Guidelines for determining a web page's quality is the evaluator's subjective impression upon reading and using it. The takeaway here is that web pages need to serve users, not search engines. If you favor verbosity over clarity, or if you favor the use of search keywords over making an impression on the reader, your site will suffer.
Google places significant emphasis on three distinct but related factors that make for high quality content: expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness, or E-A-T. Google seems to recognize that a thorough and objective determination of these qualities is likely beyond the reach of an evaluator who is spending only a short time on any given site. The Guidelines are short on specifics of how evaluators are to determine E-A-T; again, significant leeway is granted to the evaluator's subjective interpretation.
One caveat in the Guidelines is a reminder to the evaluator that YMYL topics such as law, finance and health require significant expertise. For you, as an attorney, this cuts both ways. You are assumed to have a certain level of E-A-T simply by virtue of being a licensed, practicing attorney; you are obviously not a layman pretending to be an expert. On the other hand, an extra-high level of E-A-T is demanded of legal professionals, so simply being an attorney is not enough. All the content on your website should attempt to strike a tone that conveys these three qualities. This goes double for brief, bold headlines, which grab the reader's eye and make a greater impression than paragraphs. “Legal Experts You Can Trust” wins hands-down over “We Care About Our Clients,” at least as far as the Guidelines are concerned.
Google tells its evaluators that reputation is very important in determining page quality. It asks them to do their own research into a site or organization's reputation, but gives a number of tips. The first thing the Guidelines mention is reviews. Do you see reviews of your firm on sites like Google Maps, Bing Maps and Yelp? Many firms lack any reviews at all, either because attorneys are reluctant to ask for them, or because it does not occur to clients to write them (unless, perhaps, their experience is very negative). Firms with multiple positive reviews really stand out — not just in terms of reputation, but in search results. If you want to improve your perceived reputation, you may have to start asking clients to review your services.
Google recommends news articles as another important source of reputation information. Press releases are an easy way to create a news presence for your firm. The company also steers evaluators toward the Better Business Bureau, Wikipedia and professional associations when researching reputation. Not all of these apply to all law firms, but in cases where they do, linking to these sources from your site is a good idea.
Website evaluators are also looking for signs of good website maintenance. At a minimum, all links should work and all images should load. But content should also be “added and updated over time.” Keep a blog and an FAQ section on your firm's site, and add to each at least once per month. Date your blog entries. Consider adding “last updated” text at the bottom of regularly updated sections, like FAQs. The content on your main landing pages is fine to leave alone for periods of time, but should be refreshed occasionally. Main pages with links to recent blog and FAQ entries make it clear that secondary pages have been updated recently.
“Functional page design” is another major factor in determining page quality. Functionality is largely a matter of how the main content is presented. The main content should be “front and center,” immediately visible upon opening the page, and easily differentiated from supplemental content (e.g., links to other pages on the site).
A high quality website should have a “satisfying amount of website information.” Again, what constitutes a “satisfying amount” is left to the evaluator to determine, but at least “website information” is an objectively defined term. It includes information about the organization the page belongs to, information on how to contact the organization or receive customer service, and information about who is responsible for content and website maintenance.
Serving mobile users
A good deal of the Guidelines document is focused on meeting the needs of mobile users. Smartphone use is growing across all demographic groups, and younger internet users skew heavily toward mobile computing. Among millennials, it is not uncommon to wonder whether owning a full-fledged computer is even necessary. Clearly, in order to be regarded as a technologically savvy law firm, your website must be responsive and well-designed for mobile users.
Unfortunately for content designers, the Guidelines offer little in the way of specific criteria for judging a third-party website's mobile-friendliness. Google's focus within this evaluation program is making sure its own search products are effectively answering mobile users' queries. This makes sense, as technology in the mobile space moves even faster than in the desktop space, and one of Google's greatest fears is a loss of search engine market share to a shiny new upstart.
However, a few tips in the Guidelines combined with a bit of testing and common sense can ensure your firm's website meets mobile users' basic expectations. View your website on both an iPhone and Android phone and make sure it provides a good user experience. The page should load quickly if you have a good internet connection. Links should not be so small that they require zooming in several times to tap. Opening and selecting from navigation menus should not be a clumsy affair. No page should load in such a way as to require left-to-right scrolling or zooming out in order to view fully.
Some sites, but not all, load a separate version of the site optimized for mobile phones upon detecting a smartphone browser. Not long ago, the capabilities of mobile phones and cellular data rates were such that loading a typical website was almost always a very slow affair, which necessitated a separate mobile version. While smartphones and cellular data signals are a great deal better than they were just a few years ago, it is still a useful practice to have a mobile-optimized version of your website. The tradeoff, of course, is that this requires designing and maintaining two separate versions of your site.
If you choose to go this route, you should expect your mobile site to load very quickly, especially with a modern phone and a fast connection. Text, images and menus should all be easily viewable and usable at default zoom levels, and content should be trimmed down to the essentials, with supplemental content accessible from navigation menus. A fairly conspicuous link to the full desktop version of the site should be available for those who prefer that user experience. If you choose not to have a separate mobile version of your site, you should make doubly sure that each page of your site loads quickly and is not unnecessarily long or graphics-laden. See how long your site takes to load over your cellular network, which is probably slower than your Wi-Fi. Perhaps even test it when you have a marginal signal.
While Google's public release of its Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines is a big deal to web developers and has a lot of useful information, it is important to note that nothing in them comes as a surprise. Google favors pages that are created with skill and effort; which exhibit expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness; and which are regularly maintained. The Guidelines place significant emphasis on website owners' reputation, and hold sites that affect users' money and livelihood to higher standards. And mobile users' ability to quickly load and easily navigate sites is increasingly important.
Be sure you show the same commitment to quality with your firm's website as you would with your most important client's legal briefs. You will reap the dividends of high search engine rankings and broad client outreach for a long time to come.