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What law firms can learn from Google's latest search quality guidelines

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

For the first time, Google has released the full version of its Quality Raters Guidelines and Handbook. Google provides the 160 page .pdf to its human testers, who perform searches and rate the results based on these guidelines. Google then uses this rating information to enhance its algorithm in an attempt to continuously improve results for searchers.

Raters assign a Page Quality rating based on a sliding rating scale. The scale contains five primary rating options: Lowest, Low, Medium, High, and Highest. Pages that meet some criteria of a certain rating but not others may be scored in the middle of these options. For example, a page that has some characteristics of a High quality rating and some characteristics of a Medium quality rating may be rated Medium+.

As an instructional tool, the guidelines provide an abundance of information about what characteristics Google wants to see in pages that rank well and, equally importantly, what types of pages and content Google wants its algorithm to rank poorly. It is fair to say that if by Google’s own standards a certain set of attributes should lead to a Lowest rating, its engineers will be tweaking the algorithm to rank pages with those attributes lower in search results.

Firms can use these guidelines to evaluate how their websites stack up against Google’s quality standards — and to make adjustments where necessary.

What is the purpose of the page?

“The goal of PQ rating is to determine how well a page achieves its purpose. In order to assign a rating, you must understand the purpose of the page and sometimes the website.”

– Search quality guidelines

According to Google, purpose lies at the core of page quality. After a brief section that defines important website terms, Google devotes the first several pages of its rater guidelines to methods for determining the purpose of a website. Understanding the purpose of a website is critical to being an effective rater because the fundamental goal of a Page Quality (PQ) rating is to evaluate how effectively a page fulfills its purpose.

A rater must know also the purpose of a page because:

  • » Different types of pages are evaluated according to different standards.
  • » Google believes all websites should exist to help people in some way. Raters must be able to determine whether and how pages are helpful in order to asses quality.

Generally, as long as a page is helpful in some way, Google does not distinguish between different purposes. An opinion page, a humor page and an entertainment page can each receive the highest or lowest ratings based upon how they fulfill their individual goals; the rating is not comparative.

While Google does not judge the value of different types of purposes, it does recognize the vast diversity that exists amid the websites it is ranking. Because pages on small, individually run sites are competing for the same spots in search results as those on large, corporate sites, PQ ratings are not “one-size-fits-all.” A big e-commerce site is held to different standards than a small, personal site. Raters are expected to hold bigger, professional sites to higher standards in design, maintenance, content and reputation, among others.

Your Money or Your Life Pages

Pages Google refers to as Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) pages are held to a higher standard than others. YMYL pages are those that can directly affect the future health, wealth, happiness or well-being of searchers. Since YMYL pages can cause significant harm to users if the information they contain is incorrect, these pages are held to very high rating quality standards.

Legal information pages are specifically pointed to as examples of YMYL pages. This means that pages on an attorney website that contain information about the law are held to higher standards than other types pages. Both the caliber of content and reputation of the website must be superior to non-YMYL pages in order to achieve the same rating, and, in theory, to compete in search results.

Different types of content

Google breaks page content into three parts: Main Content (MC), Supplementary Content (SC) and Advertisements (Ads). Main Content directly contributes to the page’s ability to achieve its purpose. Text, images, videos, sound, animations and any other page elements that help visitors understand a page are considered Main Content. Supplementary Content can contribute to a page’s purpose but does not by definition have to. Navigation items and related content widgets are two examples of Supplementary Content. At its worst, Supplementary Content can interfere with a page’s helpfulness by being distracting or misleading. Both of these examples would be reason to give a page a low rating.

Google does not consider the presence of Ads in and of themselves to be a reason for giving a site a high or low rating. It does, however, consider distracting ads or ads that interfere with a visitor’s ability to use the page to be a reason for a lower rating.

A key takeaway from the discussion of MC, SC and Ads is that Google is training its algorithm to rank sites with confusing or unnecessary content lower in results. Everything that goes on a page should be carefully considered and should lead visitors through a logical series of steps or toward intuitive navigation elements. Clean, deliberate design is more helpful than pages that throw the kitchen sink at visitors and expect them to sort out what information is most important.

Website maintenance

Google expects page content to be updated to reflect current, accurate information and code to be maintained to comply with browser standards. Google wants raters to look for evidence that sites are kept up by clicking around, testing links and checking for publish dates on articles. If your site contains a blog, it should be updated regularly and the article date should be published. You do not have to publish every day, or even every week, but there should be evidence that new posts are being created. (Hint: the most recent publish date should at the very least match the current year.)

YMYL pages that contain information about the law must be kept up to date. If you are an estate planning lawyer and the most recent estate tax information on your site is from before the passage of the 2010 Tax Relief Act, your site is not well-maintained. Google sees this as a reason to dock your Page Quality score.

What are the characteristics of high quality page?

Google distinguishes High quality pages from Highest quality pages through three factors:

  • » The quality of Main Content
  • » The level of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness of both the page and the website
  • » The reputation of website or page author

High quality Main Content

According to Google, one of the most important factors in a page’s rating is the quality of the Main Content, since it is crucial to achieving the page’s purpose. Information pages that do not have enough well-written, current and accurate content cannot achieve a High PQ rating. Google tells its raters it should be clear to them that the content has required a considerable amount of either time, effort, expertise, talent or skill.

Highest quality MC should exhibit a very high level of both expertise and skill.

Expertise/Authoritativeness/Trustworthiness (E-A-T)

Another important factor in determining Page Quality is whether the page and website demonstrate enough expertise to be considered a trusted authority on the topic. Again, Google does not distinguish between types of authority — for example a gossip site can have a high level of trust for its particular topic, as can an encyclopedia site or a forum.

Google does, however, expect a considerable level of expertise to be demonstrated on YMYL pages. High quality YMYL page content should be professionally written, well-edited and regularly updated. The author should clearly be educated on the topic and in a position to write as an authority.

Pages on attorneys websites must display a considerable amount of knowledge, and the site itself must have a very good reputation. One way to demonstrate to Google that the content on your site is written by trustworthy professionals is through well-written and maintained attorney bio pages. Bio pages can contain personal and professional information, links to articles written by the attorney, links to press mentions, videos, reviews and any other features that help prove expertise.

Having current, comprehensive bio pages is good for search engines and visitors. Attorney bio pages are some of the most visited pages on a law firm website, so keeping them fresh and relatable can help improve conversion rates as well.

Researching a website’s reputation

Google specifically tells its raters to look for information about a site’s reputation on third-party websites. According to the guidelines, reputation is based on real user experience and the opinions of other people who are authorities on the same topics the website covers.

Raters are instructed to look for:

  • » Reviews
  • » Recommendations
  • » News articles and press mentions
  • » Awards
  • » Forum posts about the business
  • » Comments on large directory sites like Yelp
  • » Opinions of other expert sources, like professional organizations

The document warns raters that webmasters may have read the guidelines and added information to a site specifically to fool Google’s algorithm. Because of this, they should be wary of what a site may say about itself and instead look to confirm claims of greatness through other sources.

The document also notes that a high quality rating cannot be given to any site that has a convincing negative reputation.

Broadcasting grand stories about your firm on your website and your social media profiles will only get you so far with Google’s algorithm. Your claims need independent verification. Try to develop relationships with local reporters, or sign up for a website like HARO, which will connect you with journalists looking for experts in certain areas. Collect reviews from both clients and colleagues and stay involved in professional organizations. You want to get people talking about you — positively, of course. Mentions from third-party sites with good reputations, like new sources and schools, can go a long way toward building your website’s reputation.

Also, make sure that your site contains clear contact information and information about the website owners (your firm). Google expects visitors to easily be able to learn more about your firm and how to contact you as part of a good user experience.

Functional page design

A page’s design is also considered when rating quality. Google does not necessarily expect pages to be aesthetically stunning; it wants the design to be functional. Visitors should be able to easily and quickly identify the Main Content. Navigation should support and supplement the Main Content, not distract from it. The content should be clearly organized, with an obvious sitemap and page hierarchy, and space should be utilized to emphasize the most important elements of the page.

Creating a clear purpose for your pages will help you determine what to include and what to leave out in order to provide the most helpful user experience.


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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