Analytical marketers are obsessed with tracking metrics. As an industry, we’ve gotten very good at it. But when it comes to the more subjective elements of a content marketing strategy, like creating “high-quality content,” the to-do’s become a little more foggy. Yet the fact remains that bad content can cost your company.
You’ve probably seen such directives coming from SEO experts and Google itself, but why exactly does the success or failure of your content marketing strategy hinge on this seemingly nebulous term? Will you be screwed if your content isn’t “quality”? And how will you know when you’ve actually produced a piece of great content?
We’re going to walk through every aspect that Google considers when assessing the quality of your content. Plus, you’ll find actionable tips for improving your current blog posts and developing a plan to generate the relevant, high-quality content for which your potential customer is searching.
Ready to upgrade your content? Let’s go!
How Google Defines “Quality Content”
First, let’s talk about some of the basics. Content refers to any copy or images on your website – from your blog posts, to your ‘About Us’ page, to your logo. Content marketing refers to an inbound strategy wherein companies create blogs, ebooks, and emails meant to inform or entertain a targeted audience in an effort to acquire and retain customers. This can happen via organic search or paid advertising that points to the content. When Google says you need to have “quality content,” it means:
- Each page on your site must serve a clear purpose. Is it to inform? Collect information? Provide directions or company details? It should be apparent at first glance, or your bounce rate will soar.
- The content must be original, well-written, and researched. We call this a “comprehensive” piece of content.
Google doesn’t want to tell us everything about how to rank highly, but it does want us to produce valuable content. As such, the search behemoth provides detailed guidelines on what we should and shouldn’t do, with an emphasis on the “shouldn’t.”
- Make pages primarily for users, not search engines.
- Don’t deceive your users.
- Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
- Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field.
Many of Google’s rules and guidelines are meant to prevent manipulative or deceptive behavior, so we’ll get some of the more obvious ones out of the way right now.
Per Google, avoid:
- Automatically generated content
- Participating in link schemes
- Sneaky redirects
- Hidden text or links
- Doorway pages
- Scraped content
- Participating in affiliate programs without adding sufficient value
- Creating pages with malicious behavior, such as phishing or installing viruses, etc.
- Abusing rich snippets markup
- Sending automated queries to Google
At best, people using these tactics are doing so to pad their traffic metrics, usually to either drive ad revenue or increase the value of a monetized website. At worst, they’re trying to steal information. The point is, if you’re using these tactics, you already know what they are, so we won’t dig into them. We’ll leave it at this: These tactics will not bring you customers, but they may get your site shut down or penalized.
Now that we’ve weeded out anyone looking for the quick-and-dirty route, let’s talk about some of the more nuanced guidelines Google provides:
- Creating pages with little or no original content
- What this means: If there’s a page on your site that doesn’t provide any value to users, it probably doesn’t need to be there. Do an audit of your site to make sure each page has relevant, quality content and a defined purpose.
- Loading pages with irrelevant keywords
- What this means: In the early days of content marketing, a somewhat common practice was to write filler content stuffed with keywords to trick the algorithm into ranking the site highly. It was a bad idea then, and it’s an even worse idea now, as Google can now detect and penalize sites that use this tactic. This is also known as “keyword stuffing.”
Neither human nor machine will respond positively to sites with the issues mentioned above, so if you’re guilty of publishing thin or keyword-stuffed content, you should prioritize having it re-written. On that note, let’s talk about the great content Google does want to see.
There are five basic characteristics of what Google considers quality content:
- Useful and informative. If you’re only posting to boost rankings, you’re posting for the wrong reason. You need to answer your user’s questions or delight them with your content.
- Provide more value than what already exists. The internet is a deep pool with a lot of content. One way to rise to the top is to look at what others in your industry are doing, and do it better.
- Credible and accurate. Do your fact-checking and cite sources that have high trust signals, and you’re golden. It also doesn’t hurt to display your site author’s biography and case studies or testimonials to show you’re legit.
- High-quality. There it is again, that nebulous term. In this case, we’re talking about content that is free of typos and errors and provides a user-first experience with an easily digestible format. (Notice this easy-to-read bulleted list? Hint hint)
- Engaging and focused. Your site should look lively, but avoid clutter and distractions. Post quality images and graphics that match your brand.Then engage readers using widgets that inform visitors (and collect leads). Don’t overdo it on the lead collectors, though. It detracts from the user experience.
This isn’t rocket science, but it does take some work. If the thought of writing and doing research gives you hives, consider outsourcing your content writing to a freelancer or an agency. You’ll save yourself time by delegating the job, and you’ll likely end up with better quality when you hire an expert versus going it alone. Small businesses may enjoy the flexibility and lower costs of a freelance content writer, while larger companies may find it worthwhile to hire a full-scale agency for content production.
Now that you know how Google defines the good, the bad, and the ugly of content, let’s get into the nitty gritty details.
What Quality Signals Do Search Engines Look For?
As sophisticated as the Google algorithm has become, it still needs human intelligence to help it assess the quality of content. It’s no longer a secret that the search giant has a worldwide army of thousands of search quality evaluators who give ratings to individual pages on the web. In fact, you can view the very extensive search quality guidelines they follow. It’s worth a read, but be sure to carve out some time before digging in.
Here are the most important factors of page quality rating, per Google’s guidelines:
- Quality and quantity of the main content (i.e. the part of the page meant to achieve a goal)
- Visibility of website author information
- Website reputation
- Level of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness of the content
The lowest scores go to sites that use malicious or black-hat practices already discussed. We know you’re an honest marketer, so we won’t be redundant. But if you have any content on your site that may be old or was posted hastily, it’s a good idea to do a full audit to ensure that your site is free of content that is plagiarized, inaccurate, error-ridden, distracting, repetitive, or common knowledge with little or no new value. Raters will score sites with this type of content poorly. If a page has no clear purpose, it will receive the lowest possible rating, so be very thoughtful about your goal for each page and create content targeted to achieve it.
Raters answer a number of questions when deciding whether a site meets Google’s standards of high-quality content. You can view the full list here, but here are some examples from the Webmaster Central Blog:
- Would you trust the information presented in this article?
- Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
- Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
- Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
- Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
- Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
As you can see, the breadth and depth of content are weighted just as heavily as quality indicators such as accuracy and grammar. So you don’t just need a writer and a proofreader, but a planner as well. Luckily, there are some tools that can do the job for you. We’ll talk about that shortly.
While Google employs humans to look at the subjective stuff, bots can catch some of the more objective low-quality signals. Luckily, these tend to be simple fixes that can make a big difference in your ranking. Fix these issues for an easy win:
- Spelling and grammar errors. You can use a tool like Grammarly to scan your copy for errors, or you can enlist someone to proofread your site for you. Do what you need to do, because this is low-hanging fruit that makes a serious difference in your quality score.
- Broken links. Identifying these is easy with Google Webmaster Tools in your Search Console or a browser extension like Screaming Frog.
- Page load speed. Check your speed here, and get insights on how to improve it.
- Reading level. Be sure you’re using the right language for your audience, and assess your content’s Readability Score. Just because a sentence technically makes sense, doesn’t make it easy to read.
- Distracting ads. Advertising may be necessary for you, but excessive ads make for a bad user experience. Rather than piling on the ads, consider techniques to increase your traffic and get more money from fewer placements.
Google doesn’t give full disclosure of its ranking factors (that would be too easy), but the signals discussed here are known to affect search results. They give you a good idea of how quality content is defined at the page level, but it’s just as important to look broadly at how well you’re covering the topics related to your industry. Next, we’ll dive into evaluating the depth, breadth, and relevance of your content and how you can improve it.
Fine-Tuning Your Content Strategy with Depth, Breadth, and Relevance
By now you should get the idea that each piece of content needs to be well-researched, engaging, accurate, and valuable to your target audience. It’s easy to achieve this with a great editorial team or outsourced help, but how do you determine what they should write?
Google examines your individual pages for quality signals, and it also scans your site holistically to assess the depth of your content and how well you’re covering topics related to your business. The Hummingbird algorithm made this possible by introducing semantic analysis into the mix. This allows Google to think more like a human and determine the purpose of content, beyond specific keywords.
Hummingbird is the reason we created MarketMuse. Similar to the Google algorithm itself, our software runs semantic analysis of websites to identify the topic of the site, areas of satisfactory topic coverage, and deficiencies or gaps in coverage. While marketers have long considered backlinks to be the most important ranking factor, our research shows that Hummingbird is running the show by placing websites with focused, comprehensive topic coverage at the top of SERPs. (Neil Patel even wrote a lengthy article about our methodologies. Thanks, Neil!)
It’s a fine balance, though. If your topics are too broad, your site loses focus; if your topics are too narrow, you miss opportunities. MarketMuse can tell you exactly how broad your topics should be, the areas you’re overlooking, and how you compare to the competition. Below, we’ll give you the lowdown on how to achieve the perfect balance of breadth and depth of topics, and how to ensure content validity and relevancy.
How Deep is Your Content?
When we talk about depth of content, we’re referring to how thoroughly a piece covers a given subject. When we refer to breadth, we’re talking about how broad the topic coverage is across your site and how many related topics have been addressed. You should aim to limit your breadth of topics to just those that are relevant to your audience, while there’s no limit to how deeply you can cover the subjects your visitors care about.
First, let’s explore content depth. “Long-form content” has been a goal for SEOs since Panda came into play in 2011, with many advising a strict minimum of 1,500 words if you want to rank. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more to creating deep content than word count, and not every topic is going to warrant a novel.
One way to ensure you have great content is to run each post through the MarketMuse Content Analyzer. This advanced tool scans your content for keywords, semantic phrases, and related topics, then cross-analyzes it against other pieces on the web that rank highly for a certain topic. This gives you a Content Depth Score that indicates how well you covered the topic. It also tells you the average score of other posts competing for the same keywords, as well as the score of the No. 1 ranking post. What you get is an accurate, actionable depiction of where your content stands in terms of depth.
Here are some things to consider when evaluating your website’s content depth:
- Have you developed material that provides more value than what’s already out there? If not, consider what can be added.
- Could a potential customer learn everything they need to know about your chosen topic by reading your post? Think about it from the point of view of a novice or, if possible, invite someone who is unfamiliar with your topic to read it and give feedback.
- Are there opportunities to add internal links for more context? If you already have great existing content, utilize that by linking to it in related posts for an easy win. We call this deep linking.
- Does it show your unique perspective? Not every post needs to make a hard sell, but presumably you have a point-of-view on topics related to your industry, so tell people what you think.
Content breadth is a related but distinct animal. Using the MarketMuse Site Audit tool, you can see gaps in your content strategy and gauge the depth of existing content on your entire site. The tool then points to specific topics and keywords that are missing from your site, giving you a solid plan-of-action to make your content marketing strategy the best it can be. Keep in mind, these aren’t just keywords or keywords variants. They are conceptually related topics you might be overlooking.
By cross-referencing identified gaps in topics and keywords with data from sites that are ranking highly, you can eliminate keywords associated with sites and businesses that are not relevant to yours.
For example, when looking into topics related to “content quality,” we found that keywords like “relevant content” and “user experience” were ideal to use for SEO in this piece, as they showed up frequently in other well-performing posts on high-quality content. Meanwhile, keywords like “content comprehensiveness” and “content depth” were more heavily associated with health care and groundwater, respectively, than content marketing, so we could infer that these aren’t relevant keywords to target.
Staying somewhat narrow in terms of content breadth helps search engines (humans, too!) determine your areas of expertise. Going too broad can cause confusion among search bots, and it’s a waste of your time and budget to create content that neither delights nor informs users on topics that are relevant to you. Next, we’ll discuss why content validity is important and how to stay germane.
How to Serve Your Target Audience
Once you know which topics to cover, you’ll need to think about how to make them relevant to your specific audience. After all, writing about cloud computing for software end-users is much different than writing about it for developers. Consider the following about your audience:
- Level of expertise. Those with a low level of expertise in your industry will require a lot of explanations and definitions, while experts will only be engaged by high-level writing by someone who knows what they’re talking about.
- Demographics. Younger people will respond to casual language while older readers will prefer good old AP Style; a culturally homogenous group will love specific or even obscure references, while a diverse audience is better served by more relatable terms. (One caveat: Things can go horribly wrong when a writer tries to feign a tone or voice, so never force it. Always be authentically you.)
- Their position along the customer journey. People who are just learning about you want engaging content that gives a broad overview of the industry. Conversely, people who are at the bottom of your marketing funnel will want to know specifics and as much detail as possible, especially if your product is expensive and/or requires commitment to implement.
These are just a few factors to think about. You may want to create customer personas that map out your audiences’ traits, needs, obstacles, and pain points. You’d be surprised how much perspective this can give you and your content production team.
You’ll also want to make your content relevant to your delivery method. Below are some of the most popular content delivery methods, and points on creating valuable content tailored to them. We’ve covered blog posts pretty extensively, so we’ll dive into some other forms of content distribution:
- Email. Sending content via email is a great way to engage and re-engage your customers. You can send links to blog posts via a newsletter, quarterly whitepaper downloads, announcements, and even short posts within the body of the email itself.
- Social media. Your social followers already love you, so give them content with images so crisp and original, they can’t help but share it. Users are also more likely to share long-form content and event promotions on their social media channels. (Bonus: Social media shares will boost your SERP ranking.)
- Advertising. Driving traffic to content via ads can be effective, but know that the people who click may be irrelevant to you, or uninformed. As such, be very clear in your ad copy what users will be getting when they click, and make sure your content is top-of-the-funnel appropriate.
- Forums. Forums like Reddit can be a tough nut to crack (these communities are known to reject marketers), but if you manage to do it successfully, it’s a great way to draw a niche crowd. The key is to know who you’re speaking to and post very in-depth—even esoteric—content that they can’t find elsewhere.
And there you have it, folks! A complete guide on the “what” and “why” of ensuring your website content meets Google’s (and your customers’) quality standards. Hopefully you’ve learned a lot, and to help you remember the key tenets of a high-quality website, we’ll summarize it for you.
- Don’t try to cheat the system. It’s too smart for that.
- A.B.C. – Always be creating (new and exciting content).
- Cover your bases, and don’t miss opportunities to create deep, relevant content for your customers.
- Remember, a content marketing strategy is a marathon, not a sprint.