Offline publishing standards have long been unquestionably and necessarily rigorous, with immutable workflows and controlled vocabularies overseen by hawk-like editors. They also usually put users and user testing at the forefront of new product development; to do otherwise could mean financial disaster.
In contrast, online publishing has (typically) been a much leaner process, which – while it rightly expedites publication/campaign cycles – risks a range of issues, from simple typos and ambiguity to confusing inconsistency and misleading information.
Does it really matter, though?
The perils of incorrect or misleading copy don’t need to be stated – and spell-checkers pick up most typos – but equally it can be difficult to justify the effort refining and proofing content, especially when something needs to go out the door yesterday.
But 20 years’ experience in creating, publishing and managing content, offline and online, tell me it most definitely does matter, and – as I hope we’ll see – there’s evidence to support my assertion.
Let's start with a statistic...
"73% of people who shop online at least once a month say incorrect or incomplete content always dissuades them from completing online purchases"
- EPiServer reimagining commerce report 2018
Even if users don’t consciously spot minor errors, there’s a cumulative and attritive cognitive burden imposed on them by having to process misused or inconsistent rules of grammar, punctuation in the wrong place, spelling error/typos, and self-serving hyperbole. And, if they do spot problems, trust will be eroded. At best the effect may be minor, but at worst it can mislead people, and contribute to abandonment (see above).
Also – and just as importantly – appropriate language, tone, richness and length (you can forget tl;dr, as we’ll see later) will significantly affect how users (and Google) perceive you.
Accordingly, as we’ll see, demonstrating you’re ‘expert’, ‘authoritative’ and ‘trustworthy’ in your field is of paramount importance to users and SEO, and thus ROI/ROE.
So what’s here?
Below, I’m going to provide one definition of content quality, and present a case for spending time on creating and maintaining high-quality, user-first content.
I’ll also provide examples of what counts as ‘quality’ according to Google’s guidelines, and how you might create and sustain it.
- What do we mean by ‘content quality’?
- Evaluating high-quality content
- Five key points to take away, & summary of ranking factors
What do we mean by ‘content quality’?
"Quality... the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something"
- Oxford Dictionary
So – by this definition – measuring quality means first deciding what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mean in a specific context; for this, you’ll need a benchmark, and standards.
You’ll also need to understand your users and their objectives so you can ascertain what ‘quality’ means for specific people with specific needs in specific contexts.
While quality is a subjective term, an organisation should identify and agree a definition that – within the context of content – defines ‘quality’ for its users, channels and brand in a way it can be appropriately and consistently applied and measured.
Building a benchmark for quality
Start with Google
Google makes it its business to know its users; the company spends considerable time and resources on matching the intent of user queries to the results it provides, and is a force that should not be ignored. This applies both in terms of fulfilling current SEO requirements and taking on board what Google thinks ‘quality’ looks like. Google wants us to ‘answer user information needs’ by providing the ‘best possible information available’.
Google’s quality standards
Sections 4 and 5 of Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines tell us what Google thinks is important for a page to be rated as ‘highest’ quality, summarised below; these have been changed in the July 2018 update to focus more on purpose, quality, satisfaction, safety, and the reputation of the website/content creator.
- High level of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (EAT)
- A satisfying amount of high quality MC (main content), including a descriptive or helpful title
- Satisfying website information and/or information about who is responsible for the website. If the page is primarily for shopping or includes financial transactions, then it should have satisfying customer service information
- Positive website reputation for a website that is responsible for the MC on the page. Positive reputation of the creator of the MC, if different from that of the website
And, “highest quality pages are created to serve a beneficial purpose and achieve their purpose very well. The distinction between high and highest is based on the quality and quantity of MC, as well as the level of reputation and EAT.”
Here, in defining who may have a positive ‘reputation’, Google includes YouTubers, bloggers, vloggers and professionals as well as journalists.
So, Google defines the concepts of beneficial content and site/author reputation as primary drivers of what the organisation considers to be high quality.
‘Your money or your life’ (YMYL) pages
Google has also boosted the importance of safety on YMYL pages, and widened the definition of such content – for example, to include product pages that represent a major investment/life-changing event, or significant expenditure.
Examples of YMYL pages:
- Shopping/financial transactions
- Financial information
- Medical information (Google’s recent core update has reportedly affected many health and wellness sites)
- Legal information
- News articles/official information or historical pages that are key to citizen information
- Other – for example, adoption and car safety; whether the content ‘could potentially negatively impact users’ happiness, health, financial stability, or safety’
Also, pages that feature products should also facilitate research, browsing and purchase decision-making, rather than just promoting the item on sale.
A new emphasis on EAT
High EAT medical advice should be written or produced by people or organisations with appropriate medical expertise or accreditation. High EAT medical advice or information should be written or produced in a professional style and should be edited, reviewed, and updated on a regular basis
High EAT news articles should be produced with journalistic professionalism – they should contain factually accurate content presented in a way that helps users achieve a better understanding of events. High EAT news sources typically have published established editorial policies and robust review processes
High EAT information pages on scientific topics should be produced by people or organisations with appropriate scientific expertise and represent well-established scientific consensus on issues where such consensus exists
High EAT financial advice, legal advice, tax advice, etc, should come from trustworthy sources and be maintained and updated regularly
High EAT advice pages on topics such as home remodeling (which can cost thousands of dollars and impact your living situation) or advice on parenting issues (which can impact the future happiness of a family) should also come from ‘expert’ or experienced sources that users can trust
- High EAT pages on hobbies, such as photography or learning to play a guitar, also require expertise
What does low-quality content look like to Google?
Sections 6 and 7 of the Guidelines set out what Google rates as low-quality MC; if a page has one or more of the following characteristics, the low rating applies:
- An inadequate level of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (EAT)
- The quality of the MC is low
- There is an unsatisfying amount of MC for the purpose of the page
- The title of the MC is exaggerated or shocking
- The ads or SC (supplementary content) distract from the MC
- There is an unsatisfying amount of website information or information about the creator of the MC for the purpose of the page (no good reason for anonymity)
- A mildly negative reputation for a website or creator of the MC, based on extensive reputation research. If a page has multiple low-quality attributes, a rating lower than low may be appropriate
Also, section 6.4 emphasises the impact of distracting ads or interstitial pages, which make it difficult to use the MC – for example, interruptions and difficult-to-close ads that follow page scrolling, or shocking or disturbing content.
Evaluating high-quality content
Based on the above, I propose that high-quality content – whether MC or SC – should adhere to the following heuristics (a subset of a new heuristic matrix we’ve developed, illustrated below).