It’s been a year this week since Google released their most recent version of the Search Quality Rater Guidelines, the Holy Bible of SEO content marketing standards and source of many stomach ulcers for marketing professionals. Given the guidelines’ anniversary, and the recent rollout of Google’s BERT successor MUM, it’s an excellent time to consider how the newest guidelines should affect your SEO efforts—or if they even should at all.

You’ve no doubt brushed up against these new best practice rules in your SEO content marketing endeavors, even if you didn’t realize it. With each new update, it seems Google pushes their guidelines closer and closer to a “common sense” understanding of search, as their machine-learning tools grow increasingly capable of parsing human language. That’s a good thing for marketers and content creators like you and me, because it means we can spend more time writing great content about our areas of expertise, and less time worrying about click-think and fiddling with the back-end of Google Analytics.

But, the machine isn’t perfect yet, and until it is, optimizing content to land on page one of Google’s SERP (search engine results page) will be an incredibly important part of any digital marketing strategy. Given this necessity and the time we’ve had to sit with these updates, here are three key SEO content marketing takeaways from the 2020 Search Quality Rater Guidelines you might have missed:

1. Google’s Search Quality Raters do not actually directly impact your page.

This is probably one of the most common misconceptions about the Google Search Quality Rater process. Yes, it’s true that Google has about 10,000 employees worldwide whose singular goal is to research, review, and rate SERP results for various queries. And yes, it’s true that they will look at results pages—including yours—and evaluate them, assigning scores for “Needs Met” and “Page Quality.”

But Search Quality Rater scores do not individually move a page’s rank up or down on SERP. Rater scores exist for the purpose of informing and improving Google’s artificial intelligence. Basically, these 10,000 human evaluators serve as the quality control team for the one making the real decisions: a machine-learning A.I. called MUM (which is an acronym for a complicated natural language processing tool that basically means “really freaking smart machine that can decode your search queries”).

When a Search Quality Rater gives your page a score, that score does not directly impact your page’s position on Google’s SERP. Rather, it signals to MUM whether or not your page is where it should be in SERP, based on the rater’s review. Essentially, these scores are the check and balance that the A.I. is doing its job well, and if it isn’t then these scores are used to identify potential issues.

So, does this mean we can completely ignore the guidelines for Search Quality Rater scores when creating SEO-marketing content? No, not in the slightest. What the rater guidelines tell us is that when pages on our site are rated low, Google is actively working on adjusting the algorithms to rank those pages lower. So, we should still use the guidelines as a good measure for content quality, but also don’t wake up in a cold sweat wondering if the Big Bad Google Bot is going to demote your page today—it doesn’t work like that.

2. “Needs Met” is the rater metric Google is focused on right now.

Deducing the updates the Search Quality Rater Guidelines can be a bit like watching an art film at times—lots of room for interpretation, and significant emphasis on what is both explicitly stated and what goes unsaid. For example: in the 2020 update, very little new information was given about Google’s standards regarding E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness)—the portion of the rating Google calls “Page Quality.” So does this mean these things don’t matter, that Google no longer cares about the expertise, authority, or trustworthiness of content?

Obviously, the answer is no, they still care a great deal. But, in choosing to not alter these criteria but still publish an update, Google has telegraphed that there is another area of focus that is also very important to rater scores—important enough to warrant a new update just a year after the prior version was released.

“Needs Met” is the much more amorphous half of a page’s quality rating, and it often gets overlooked in posts and conversations about SEO content marketing. This is probably because it’s simply harder to quantify than Page Quality—the real “test” here that Google cares about is ‘did this page sufficiently answer the search query?

The updated rater guidelines give more attention to the relationship between Needs Met and Page Quality, and move this relationship further up the hierarchy of information. For SEO, this communicates that even if a page is “high quality” in terms of E-A-T, if it fails to match the search query, it is “low quality” with regard to meeting the needs of a user’s search.

Practically, this could look like loading a post with a bunch of keywords that rank well in SEO, but the post doesn’t actually answer the questions users are looking for with that search query. Too often Converse Digital witnesses pages rank well on keywords, but when you look at the content, it’s not truly or fully answering the query… instead, it sounds like it will, but once you click through you find that you have to talk to a person, download something that says it has the answer, etc.

Or, perhaps if a page fails to achieve a high “Needs Met” score it means you have high page authority in one area of expertise—say, car radiators—but don’t actually answer questions about a tangential topic—such as lawn mower radiators—even if you have the right search terms to index highly on SERP for those search queries—like searching for “how to replace my mower radiator.”

Given this nebulous-sounding metric, you might be asking now “well, how am I supposed to work around the barriers to a page one result?”

3. The best way to “trick” Google’s A.I. is to not try.

In the days of Google Panda, keyword dumping and content farming, we needed to give a lot of focus and attention to “playing the game” and beating the machine in order to rank highly in search. Given the rate of technological development in Google’s A.I.—even in the last 3 years (MUM is reportedly over 1,000x more powerful than BERT)—the best way to write highly-indexable content today is to write quality original content in your area of expertise for real, human people to read. Keywords and search terms still matter, but the quality, veracity, authority, and effectiveness of your content matters increasingly more.

Google’s goal hasn’t changed: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. What’s changed—and will continue to change—is the reduction of tricks for low quality content to hide behind.

So, rather than figuring out how to solve the Google puzzle, the question for webmasters and SEO content marketers today really should be: how do I write quality content that answers user questions, in the niche of my market where I have high E-A-T?

Your time, money, and effort will be much better spent on producing content in support of your brand’s core offerings than hunting down hot keywords outside of your scope.

Creating great SEO marketing content should really start at the most basic level—just create great content. With that in mind, here are four summary points for your SEO efforts:

  • Stay in your lane.
  • Write for your audience.
  • Provide useful content.
  • Hit the keywords you know you can win.

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