If you have ever wondered how to decipher Google’s ranking algorithm, you are not alone.
Google is mysterious and tight-lipped about how it works and what changes after each update, not to mention what it all means for SEOs and marketers. So, many in the industry resort to detective work to figure it out and save their page rankings from sinking.
Sometimes, though, Google throws everyone a random, lucky bone.
In 2015, Google released its Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines in their entirety in response to a leaked version making the rounds on the web.
These guidelines contain three golden keys to how Google looks at web pages and how they differentiate high-quality content from low-quality:
- Beneficial Purpose
- E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness), or Page Quality
- YMYL (Your Money or Your Life)
Technically, the guidelines serve as a reference for Google’s human search evaluators – the people who rate how well Google’s algorithm is doing its job. However, because of that, this guide ALSO serves as an essential tool for insights into what Google looks for in a high-quality web page.
The answers lie in E-A-T, YMYL, and beneficial purpose – what they mean, and how they apply to content.
Let’s discuss what you need to know about each of them.
Beneficial Purpose, E-A-T, and YMYL: The Keys to Understanding Google’s Definition of Quality for Web Pages & Content
The Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines were updated twice: on July 20, 2018, and May 16, 2019. Multiple algorithm updates have happened between now and the original release date, too, including the Google June Core Update.
This guide references all the information about the current updates and incorporates them into how we understand E-A-T and YMYL.
Remember, the Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines (SQEG) only give us clues, not definitive answers, on Google’s ranking factors. We can only analyze and infer what it all means.
But, it turns out, there is more than enough to go on for making sure our content is up to snuff.
Let’s dig in.
Beneficial Purpose: All Websites Must Have It
The SQEG were updated once in 2018 and again in 2019. From the first update, one of the most signficant changes was the new emphasis on a concept called beneficial purpose.
Google makes a reference to beneficial purpose almost immediately in the updated text, in section 2.2: What is the Purpose of a Web Page?
“Websites and pages should be created to help users.”
Specifically, the page should fulfill its intended purpose, but that purpose also should be user-centered (whether that is to make readers laugh, sell them something, inform them, teach them, etc.).
On the other hand, a page created with the intention to make money “with no attempt to help users” is considered the lowest quality page.
"Beneficial purpose" is referenced again in section 3.2, and is cited as the first step of rating a page’s quality:
“Remember that the first step of PQ rating is to understand the true purpose of the page.”
The Google Core June Update in June 2019 emphasized beneficial purpose, too. Google’s spokespeople (specifically John Mueller and Danny Sullivan) hinted that sites whose rankings tanked had “nothing to fix” and the update was more broad in scope.
We tell lots of things to do. Improve site speed. Consider secure. Etc. But that's not what this update was about. It's broad. And respectfully, I think telling people there's no particular thing to "fix" is indeed helpful. It means, hopefully, they think more broadly...
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) August 1, 2018
In particular, John Mueller linked to a 2011 Webmaster Central Blog that highlighted providing “the best possible user experience” on your site for better rankings; this strategy is championed over laser-focusing on the algorithm and making your site fit what you think the algorithm wants.
It is about your users, first and foremost. Beneficial purpose plays right into that because it means your site and content should have a user-focused purpose that benefits them in some way.
YMYL: Your Money or Your Life Content
Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) content is the type of information that, if presented inaccurately, untruthfully, or deceptively, could directly impact the reader’s happiness, health, safety, or financial stability.
In other words, the stakes are high for this type of content. If you create a YMYL page with bad advice or bad information, it could affect people’s lives and livelihood.
Google takes this content very, very seriously. Experts with relevant expertise need to write YMYL content.
So, what constitutes YMYL topics? Google gives a rundown in section 2.3:
- News and current events on topics like business, science, politics, and technology
- Government, law, and civics-related topics (voting, social services, legal issues, government bodies, etc.)
- Financial advice on taxes, retirement, investments, loans, etc.
- Shopping information, such as researching purchases
- Medical advice, information on drugs, hospitals, emergencies, etc.
- Information on people of a particular ethnicity, race, religion, nationality, sexuality, etc.
There are plenty of other YMYL topics, but Google says quality evaluators need to use their judgment to determine whether a page qualifies as YMYL content. These pages need to contain the highest levels of E-A-T, which we will get into right now.
E-A-T: Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness (or Page Quality)
Next up is an acronym you have probably seen before if you read any SEO blogs: E-A-T, short for Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness.
The May 2019 update slightly changed the importance of E-A-T. Now, it is one factor in determining Page Quality, vs. a synonym for Page Quality.
Once it is determined that a page has a beneficial purpose, its level of E-A-T is carefully considered in terms of whether the content is YMYL. Non-YMYL content doesn’t require the same rigor as YMYL content.
1. Expertise: This refers to the creator of the main content (MC) on the page. Are they an expert on the topic? Do they have the credentials, if necessary, to back that up, and is this information available to read on the website?
- Additionally, in the recently-updated version of the guidelines, Google makes an exception for “everyday expertise.” This means people with relevant life experience in specific topics can be considered experts – no formal training or education required. However, this only holds true for non-YMYL content.
- According to section 4.5, “The standard for expertise depends on the topic of the page.” For example, a person who writes detailed and helpful restaurant reviews has everyday expertise if they are a frequent restaurant-goer and love food.
2. Authoritativeness: This refers to the MC creator, the content itself, and the website on which it appears. The definition of “authoritativeness” gives us a big clue on what this means to Google and websites:
“Authoritativeness” means having generally recognized authority. People know you, know your background, and look to you as a leader in your industry. They accept you as a good source of information.
3. Trustworthiness: The “Trustworthiness” part of E-A-T also refers to the MC creator, the content, and the website.
Being a trustworthy expert and source means people can trust you to provide honest, true information that is accurate.
Special E-A-T Considerations
The guidelines have some specific notes for certain topics that require high E-A-T. Specifically, pages containing the following YMYL content need to have specialized expertise behind them:
- Medical advice
- Journalistic news articles
- Information pages on scientific topics
- Financial advice, legal advice, and tax advice
- Advice pages on high-stakes topics (home remodeling, parenting, etc.)
- Pages on hobbies that require expertise, e.g., photography, playing guitar
High-Quality Content is Expert, User-Focused Content
To create high-quality content that Google will rank (and rank well), you need to look at the three keys found in the Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines: beneficial purpose, E-A-T, and YMYL.
- Every page must have a purpose, and that purpose must be accomplished to benefit the user.
- Every page needs the right expertise behind it. Some pages require higher levels of E-A-T than others due to their subject matter. Sometimes, for low or non-YMYL pages, the evidence for the expertise can be found in the content itself.
- YMYL pages need the highest E-A-T possible. These pages can have a direct impact on the reader’s lives, livelihood, or happiness.
Finally, remember that Google’s standards are constantly changing. That is because user expectations of search are always changing, too, and Google needs to keep up to stay relevant.
And so do you.