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What law firms can learn about mobile search from Google’s latest quality rating guidelines

What law firms can learn about mobile search from Google’s latest quality rating guidelines

In November, Google released the full version of its Search Quality Rating Guidelines for the first time. Last week, we discussed Google’s standards for quality content and website reputation, as detailed in the document. This week, we will delve into the newest section of the guidelines: mobile ratings.

The rating guidelines document is given to Google’s human quality raters to help them determine how to rate a series of test queries. The scores raters give pages do not directly affect that page’s ranking. Rather, Google uses the evaluations to tweak its algorithm. If, for example raters find that a certain query reliably returns pages that receive low quality scores, Google will attempt to modify its algorithm to improve those results. As a marketing practice, you want your page elements and design to most closely correlate with the characteristics of high and highest quality pages.

Quality testers are now rating the results of searches made from desktop and mobile devices, an unsurprising development given Google’s push to incorporate mobile and user-friendliness signals into its ranking factors. Here are some of the new additions to the guide that relate to mobile result quality.

Identifying difficulties mobile users might have:

Before delving into rating guidelines, Google takes some time to outline the difficulties that mobile users may face based upon their device specifications. These include:

a) Entering data is more difficult and sometimes impossible manually, which forces people to use voice recognition that may not always be accurate.

b) Small screen sizes make some things difficult to see.

c) Some pages are difficult to use due to sizing of images or navigation elements, or use of Flash. Some force users to scroll sideways, which is not intuitive.

d) Data connectivity can be inconsistent or slow.

Google recognizes the potential limitations of mobile devices (as compared to desktop machines), and it is attempting to train its algorithm to return mobile-specific results that will be most helpful to the user given the nature of his or her device. Google wants mobile users to be able to find the information they are looking for quickly, without having to perform tasks that could be cumbersome on a smartphone.

1. Understanding user intent

In order to help raters understand user intent, Google breaks the types of queries a user might perform into four categories:

  • Know and Know Simple queries, in which a searcher is looking for information — either general or specific
  • Do and Device Action queries, in which a user wants to perform a task like purchasing a specific item or opening an app on the phone
  • Website queries, in which a searcher wants to visit a specific website or page
  • Visit-in-person queries, where a user wants to find and visit a business. These searchers may be looking for a specific place, or they may be looking for a category of businesses, like a sushi restaurant or a bookstore.

2. Know & Know Simple Queries

For the purposes of law firms, the most applicable types of searches will be Know and Know Simple queries. Searchers may also be looking for a specific category (or practice area) like an estate planning or family law firm, but they are less likely to be interested in visiting a specific firm in-person at the time of the search (a Visit-in-person query). Most searches related to law firms are informational; users want to perform research to better understand a specific issue and find the best attorney to help resolve that issue.

According to Google, the intent of a Know query is to find information. Know Simple queries are types of Know queries. With a Know Simple query, a user is looking for a specific fact, usually one that can be explained with one or two lines or in a simple diagram. The answer to a Know Simple query should be complete in and of itself; the user should not have to make any further clicks.

Know queries are more complex and require in-depth explanation. Know queries may involve a topic for which different users are looking for different types of information, or information-based queries for which no definitive correct answer exists. A Know Simple query might be, “current weather in Tampa” while a Know query might be, “2016 hurricane season.”

Law firms want their sites to rank highly for Know queries on both mobile and desktop searches. The way to do so is to produce regularly updated, quality content that is focused on user needs. And, importantly, to display this content within pages that are mobile and user friendly. You may have the most comprehensive guide to the personal injury lawsuit process available on the web, but if it is hidden in a Flash video Google will consider it to be low quality content.

The introduction of the Know Simple query can also be informative for attorneys. In order to appear in a Special Content Result Block for a mobile search, a page must contain a known fact or commonly agreed upon answer to a specific question, and the site and page author must both have a high level of authority. It is admittedly unlikely that a law firm website might be used as the source for the answer to a Know Simple query, but it is not impossible. Devote some pages on your site to specific information about the law and include up-to-date facts. Provide answers to questions like, “What is the current estate tax rate?” or “What is the statute of limitations for a personal injury claim after a car accident?”

Even if you are not able to achieve placement in a special content block, providing thorough and helpful information will build your site’s authority and prove to Google that you can produce high quality content. This will benefit your overall rankings on both desktop and mobile and build trust with your visitors — all laudable goals.

3. Needs Met Rating Guideline

The Needs Met Rating is a new introduction in the latest guide and is specific to mobile users. To determine how a page ranks on the Needs Met scale, raters are asked to focus on mobile user needs and judge how well the page meets those needs.

Like Page Quality, Needs Met is judged on a scale. The options, from lowest to highest, are: Fails to Meet, Slightly Meets, Moderately Meets, Highly Meets and Fully Meets. And as with quality ratings, a page can receive an in between rating, like Highly Meets+ or Moderately Meets-. Google encourages raters to use the Full Meets rating very sparingly. A Fully Meets rating is reserved for pages that contain a “complete and perfect response or answer” such that no other results are needed to answer the question.

Most pages will receive a rating of Highly Meets or lower.

Highly Meets

Highly Meets ratings are reserved for results that fulfill the needs of “most” users. The content will be satisfying and a good fit for the query. It will also have some or all of these attributes: high quality, authoritative, entertaining and recent (or breaking) news.

A Highly Meets rating may also be assigned to high quality results for queries that can have multiple meanings. This is not the fault of the result itself, but it still disqualifies a page from a Fully Meets rating. For example, someone searching for “estate planning” could be looking for general information about planning, a specific estate planning document or an attorney to help with estate planning. A good estate planning attorney website will therefore contain useful information about planning generally as well as information about the firm and the services it offers.

Moderately Meets

A result would receive a Mostly Meets rating if it is a satisfying fit for many users or very fulfilling to some users. Moderately Meets results will still be helpful, but they will not be as impressive as Highly Meets pages. Content on Moderately Meets results pages will be accurate, but it may be older, less comprehensive or come from a source with less authority.

Slightly Meets

A rating of Slightly Meets is given to results that some or few users would find helpful or satisfying. The result may not be a good fit for the query, or it may apply to a minor interpretation of the query.

The guide gives the example of the query “hot dog” performed by searcher in Sunnyvale, California that produces the IMDB result, Hot Dog, the 1984 movie. This is a minor interpretation of the query that some people might be interested in. However, more people are likely interested in information about hot dogs, like recipes or nutrition, or a place to eat hot dogs nearby.

In an example more relevant to lawyers, Google lists an ezinearticles.com page as an example of a Slightly Meets result because it was “created by a person without expertise” in the area and has low authority. Attorneys should stay away from article distribution sites generally, as they publish duplicate content and have poor reputations. And, Google wants informational content written by people whom it sees as experts in a specific area to rank highly. Receiving client reviews and recommendations by professional associations will help you build this reputation in a penalty-free manner.

Fails to Meet

The Fails to Meet rating is reserved for sites that are helpful to very few users. These results may be irrelevant, factually incorrect or of very poor quality. They may also be a mismatch for the user intent, such as showing results that ignore a user’s location.

Fails to Meet results might also be difficult or impossible to use on a mobile device because they use technology (such as Flash) that is not mobile-friendly. Google tells its raters any page that is not mobile-friendly must receive a Fails to Meet rating.

4. The relationship between Needs Met and E-A-T [Expertise, Authoritativeness, or Trustworthiness]

Google notes that the Needs Met rating is based on both the query and the result — the extent to which user’s need are met is based on the relationship between the query, the intent of that query and how well the result fits that intent. An E-A-T rating is independent of the query. Raters are told not to consider the query when rating the authority of a page (or website).

Therefore, a result can receive a Fails to Meet rating even if the page has high E-A-T. In Google’s words, “Useless is useless.” However a result cannot get a Highly Met rating if the page has low E-A-T or other unsatisfactory characteristics. These can include a lack of contact information or lack of information about the author. (Build out those bio pages!)

Pages that contain roughly the same amount of helpful, on topic information will be judged differently based upon E-A-T information. Useful but low E-A-T results swill receive lower Needs Met ratings than results that are useful and on-topic and have high E-A-T results.

The addition of a mobile section — and one that encompasses over half of the document’s 160 pages — is yet another indication of the importance Google is assigning to mobile user needs. The design and functionality of your website must take multiple devices into consideration. Mobile and responsive versions of a page should be designed for mobile users rather then just being smaller versions of a desktop site. Attention must be paid to what information is included on a mobile page and how easy that information is to access. Simply passing the mobile-friendly test is not enough.


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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