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What lawyers can learn from Google's latest search quality handbook

What lawyers can learn from Google’s latest search quality handbook

Google’s algorithm uses a myriad of factors to determine what content to show users in search results. The algorithm is tweaked constantly in an effort to provide results that answer a searcher’s question in the best possible manner.

However powerful Google’s algorithm may be, it is not 100 percent responsible for evaluating the quality of pages and sites. Google employs human raters, known as its search quality team, to manually evaluate pages and assign page quality (PQ) rankings from High and Medium to Low — and even the dreaded Lowest.

The real people who evaluate page quality provide a level of human judgement that can catch problems that might cause the algorithm to unfairly punish or reward certain sites. Human raters are sometimes used to provide feedback on proposed algorithm changes before they are released.

Google publishes a search quality guide for its team. The guide attempts to clarify what human raters must look for when evaluating individual pages and websites as a whole. Version 5.0, dated March of 2014, has been leaked. This most recent iteration of the guide offers some new insights into how raters determine the quality and trustworthiness of web content.

While Google uses subjective terms like “quality” and “trustworthy” to describe the types of content that are likely to rank well, the search giant also attempts to explain what those words mean with relation to its standards. Google has had quality criteria published on its Webmaster Central Blog since 2011. And previous versions of Google’s human rater handbook have been leaked — some also dating back to 2011. You can take advantage of all this information to up your content game.

What do raters rate?

Google’s push to deliver only high-value results to its users has not changed for many years. The guidelines on their own blog and in previous handbooks are still relevant to search marketers. Version 5.0 of the handbook contains important additions concerning expertise, authority and trust, abbreviated E-A-T. These three items are now expressly being used as determinants of a website’s — and an individual page’s — overall success.

In terms of authoritativeness and trustworthiness, the principles of E-A-T state that high-quality content, especially that which offers advice on certain topics, must come from recognized experts. Since there are many types of sites, from medical to engineering to cooking to fashion, not all expertise must come from formal credentials. Google recognizes the value of real-world experience and advises raters to assign authority to individuals who have established a long history of knowledge and practice within a certain niche. Google wants its raters to be able to use their judgement to evaluate expertise from topic to topic, with the understanding that different types of training and learning can make a page successful.

Use your history and credentials

However, for some types of content, Google advises that establishing trustworthiness does require a level of formal training. Medical advice, for example, “should come from people or organizations with appropriate medical expertise or accreditation,” and be “written or produced in a professional style.”

It is safe to assume that high-quality legal content must also come from people or organizations with appropriate accreditation. But simply relying on the fact that you are a lawyer is not enough. Plenty of attorney websites produce spammy content on behalf of well-educated professionals. By writing about topics from which you can draw upon a history of personal experience, you can prove that you have both the education and the real-world expertise Google is looking for. You can also show that you are willing to use your background and knowledge to provide something of value and interest to Google’s users.

Maintenance matters

The guide also mentions that content should be “updated on a regular basis.” For websites to preserve their trustworthiness, they must be continuously maintained and brought up to date to reflect new developments in a given field. Establishing a regular content posting schedule is key to building authority. Be sure that the schedule is realistic; it is better to publish one or two well-written, in-depth pieces a month than several poorly edited or thin items. Updates are important but quality is king.

Build a positive reputation

Google has been using reputation as one determining factor in a site’s performance for some time. The latest version of its quality guidelines indicates that reputation is important enough it can overcome some deficits in content quality. According to the guide:

While a page can merit the High rating with no reputation, the High rating cannot be used for any website that has a convincing negative reputation. A very positive reputation can be a reason for using the High rating for an otherwise Medium page.

You can begin to establish a very positive reputation by doing good work, providing good client service and being involved in professional and civic groups. Google advises its raters to establish publisher and author reputation by looking for awards or peer recommendations from individuals and organizations known to be authorities.

To some extent, Google also looks to the opinions of readers, clients and customers when assessing reputation. A high level of user-engagement, which can be evaluated through metrics like time on page and time on site, or through activities like commenting and sharing, indicates visitors believe the site offers authoritative content. User reviews also play a roll, although Google advises its raters to use caution since, “Most businesses have some negative reviews, especially for customer service.”

Although Panda 4.0 has caused headaches for some formerly high-ranking sites, one positive feature of the update is the algorithm’s capacity for evaluating a site on a page-by-page basis in addition to assessing the overall quality of the site. Human raters do this as well. Some pages that contain spammy content may take a greater hit than the site as a whole, and you may be able to address ranking hits by re-writing pages that currently contain thin content. Google is increasingly relying on expertise, authority and trust to judge pages; be sure your pages reflect the real value you offer clients everyday.

For more: Watch Matt Cutts on human raters.


Kristen Friend
Kristen Friend is a 1999 graduate of Indiana University, with Bachelors Degrees in both journalism and religious studies. In 2003, she graduated from the International Academy of Design. She is a contributor to the Bigger Law Firm magazine, and is the Art Director for Adviatech (Custom Legal Marketing's parent company). When she isn't making law firms look their best, Kristen can be found hiking up Mt. Tamalpais or inventing gluten free baking recipes.

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