Far too many SEO campaigns are flawed from the outset because they are based on inaccurate or out of date methodologies.
If an SEO company tells you that you need to increase your budget for the month to improve the loading speed of the pages on your site, are you just supposed to take their word for it?
Why does loading speed matter? Does it affect rankings directly, indirectly, or not at all? If it does, what kind of ROI does this investment offer? Can we measure and track its impact?
Even the SEO professionals armed with updated, proven strategies aren’t always great at explaining recommendations in real world terms that resonate with business owners and in-house marketers. And those client-side decision makers don’t always take (or have) the time to verify the statements made by their SEO pros.
How should a business owner hold their search engine optimization agency accountable for the claims they make?
In the long run, it’s about seeing the bottom line impact of SEO reflected in more qualified organic traffic, referral traffic, and ultimately more conversions (sales, signups, or whatever the main goal is for your site).
But at the outset of new campaigns, when new recommendations come up, or when you’re thinking about hiring an SEO company, you don’t have real world data to make an informed decision with yet.
In my opinion, any claim an SEO agency makes to you in that stage of the process should be backed up by official comments made by Google or high ranking employees at Google responsible for communicating their policies and procedures to the public.
If your SEO agency can’t easily pull up statements made by Google that back up what they’re saying, that could be a warning sign.
Sure, sometimes SEOs need to strategically bend Google’s rules and suggestions to accelerate results for a client. But if they are baffled by the request to back up their recommendations with actual advice from the king of search engines, it’s possible that the SEO team isn’t paying enough attention to the constantly evolving recommendations from Google.
It could shed light on the fact that they’re behind the times or engaging in practices that could earn your site a penalty.
I’m going to make it really easy for you to keep SEO companies honest and focused on what matters most to the success of your website.
Below you’ll find SEO quotes Google has given over the years to guide webmasters towards the most important and effective strategies.
It’s broken up into sections in case you’re particularly interested in what Google has to say about a certain subject.
Most Important SEO Quotes from Google
If you’re a business owner or in-house marketer trying to hire the right SEO company, or to keep your current provider honest and focused on the right strategies, this video from Google is a good place to start:
Google’s Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide is another great source of general information.
Here’s what they have to say about SEO in the introduction of that document:
“Search engine optimization is often about making small modifications to parts of your website. When viewed individually, these changes might seem like incremental improvements, but when combined with other optimizations, they could have a noticeable impact on your site’s user experience and performance in organic search results.”
The incremental improvements really do add up.
To someone who doesn’t live and breathe search engine optimization, improving the title tag and meta description on a page might not look like a big deal at first glance.
An SEO client may think: “you’re taking time to compress images and make code optimizations that only speed up the loading time of my page by a couple seconds?”
Or, “why should I care about you adding alt-text to images? Who’s even going to notice that?”
In fact, as you’ll see through quotes on SEO factors throughout this article, Google notices. One way or another, they pay close attention to these and many other factors that go into an overall quality grade for your site.
Yes, that’s right. Every domain indexed by Google is given a quality rating. Some of them are even rated by — gasp! — HUMAN BEINGS.
Didn’t think so.
Let me give you a quick recap of some of the key factors to understand about how individual pages and entire sites are rated for quality.
Keep in mind, feedback from raters does not directly impact rankings.
Mimi Underwood, Technical Project Manager at Google, speaking to Search Engine Land in 2015:
“ratings from evaluators do not determine individual site rankings, but are used to help us understand our experiments. The evaluators base their ratings on guidelines we give them; the guidelines reflect what Google thinks search users want.”
Raters tell Google about the quality of websites/listings in organic search results. Google then uses that feedback to determine whether they need to change their algorithms that determine rankings. And they do tweak it often — an estimated 500-600 times a year!
Anyway, there’s certainly a lot of correlation between what Google tells its evaluators to look for and what signals go into the actual algorithm that affects rankings. So let’s take a look at Google’s instructions for those tasked with rating a site’s quality.
Overall Website Quality
From the original 160-page version of the Quality Rating Guide released publicly in 2015:
“Webmasters are responsible for updating and maintaining sites they create. How can you tell that a website is being maintained and cared for? Links should work, images should load, content should be added and updated over time, etc.”
How do you show Google that you’re a responsible webmaster with a site deserving of high rankings?
That SEO quote from Google is a fantastic start to building an answer.
You should consistently check for broken links and images, and review your crawl report in Search Console for crawl errors like soft 404s. If these elements remain broken, Google should assume you’re not paying close attention to the user experience on your site.
Next, you should update and improve the main content of your site as needed. You also should add fresh content through blogs and other new pages.
Here’s more insight into overall quality as Google defines it in the most recent version of their instructions to human raters.
“The most important factors to consider when selecting an overall Page Quality rating:Let’s look closer at each item on that list.
Main Content Quality and Amount
Website Information/information about who is responsible for the website
Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness: This is an important quality characteristic.”
Content Quality and Amount
You’d probably guess that “quality content” would be good. No brainer. We’ll get more into how Google defines content quality in the section below dedicated solely to content.
Let’s talk about a related area where I see a lot of small business sites falling short: “amount of content.”
Google does not specify a minimum word count that pages need to meet. It’s not that simple. You absolutely can rank a page with only 50 words. You’re going to have to put something else that’s really great on that page (probably some kind of interactive tool), but you can do it. If you want to make thing unnecessarily hard on yourself.
If you don’t have an awesome widget or tool to share with visitors, get ready to write.
Research has shown that what Google considers a “satisfying amount of content” might be way more than what you’d ever guess.
One recent study that included analysis of search results for over 1 million keywords showed that the average word count for pages ranked in the top 10 spots on Google was 1,890 words.
The word count you should aim for depends, in part, on what type of keyword you’re trying to rank for. The general range appears to be from 850 words to 5000 words.
If you’re trying to rank for a service related search in Denver — let’s say “small business tax preparation Denver” — you can probably get away with being at the low end of the spectrum. If you’re trying to rank for “best SEO tools,” you should aim for the high end.
Reminder: quality trumps quantity. I just wanted to point out that most small business sites are a little short on content for service pages. Check out the section on content to learn how Google judges the quality of your content, whether it’s 5,000 words or 50.
“High quality websites provide clear and satisfying information for their purpose. YMYL websites demand a high degree of trust and need satisfying website information.”
That’s from the Quality Rating Guidelines document. The main takeaway here is that you should provide info on your site that proves your credibility.
This could mean providing badges and links to the professional societies you’re a member of, a list of relevant professional certifications, links to external publications where you’ve been published. Have you won industry-relevant awards? Have you been in business for decades? Do you have an excellent record with the Better Business Bureau? Let them know about it.
For easy access, you can provide some of this info in a footer that shows up on every page of your site, or you can add it to an About Us page.
The standard for showing credibility goes up for YMYL (your money your life) sites that take financial transactions or offer health advice/services. If your site falls in one of those categories, you better have a clear strategy for displaying your credibility on your site.
Whether you’re YMYL or not, each author that contributes to your company blog should write up a bio that shows off their experience and expertise on the subjects they write about. Include it on every blog they post.
Here’s what Google has to say specifically about “website reputation”:
“Many websites are eager to tell users how great they are. But for Page Quality rating, you must also look for outside, independent reputation information about the website. When the website says one thing about itself, but reputable external sources disagree with what the website says, trust the external sources.”
If raters are asked to look at reputable external sources for user/customer feedback on your site/business, you can bet the Google algorithm includes these signals in some way.
Google encourages raters to check the web for news articles, reviews, references, expert recommendations, forum posts, and other credible discussion about a website. They are specifically asked to search:
yoursite.com reviews -site:yoursite.com
What do you find when you run that search for your site name?
If your brand has few or no customer reviews on web, no mentions in local news articles, and a small footprint on social platforms, you’re holding back your quality rating due to lack of reputation.
Building up this web credibility goes to the heart of link building, which we’ll cover later.
Expertise, Authority, Trustworthiness (EAT)
Content quality and depth, website information, and website reputation all feed into what Google refers to as EAT.
These questions provide a solid definition of the type of content that passes the Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness (EAT) test mentioned earlier.
If your content gets a yes for the questions above, and it’s of sufficient length, you’re going to have a great chance of ranking well. The more pages you have on your site that meet this criteria, the better your rankings will be across the board and the easier it will be for you to rank for keywords with new content.
Content already came up a lot when we talked about overall site quality. There’s no denying it, content quality is a huge part of SEO in 2017.
John Mueller, 2016:
“I see lots and lots of SEO blogs talking about user experience, which I think is a great thing to focus on as well. Because that essentially kind of focuses on what we are trying to look at as well. We want to rank content that is useful for them (Google Search users) and if your content is really useful for them, then we want to rank it.”
How can you tell if your content is useful?
From the official Google Blog back in 2011:
“Our site quality algorithms are aimed at helping people find “high-quality” sites by reducing the rankings of low-quality content.Comparing your articles and pages to the list of questions is a great way to judge the quality of your content.
To step into Google’s mindset, the questions below provide some guidance on how we’ve been looking at the issue:
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 this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious? How much quality control is done on content?
Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?”
If you want to simplify things and just use a single question/test to determine the usefulness of your content, there’s a way.
For organic landing pages (the pages you’re trying to get ranked on Google to get organic traffic), ask yourself this: does my content satisfy the intent of the searcher?
What questions do they need to answer. This is one of the most difficult challenges in SEO today. Figuring out what searches want. Once you’ve done that, giving them the answers is usually pretty easy.
Luckily, there are a few tricks to finding this info out.
There are tools like answerthepublic.com, which will show you the most popular question searches on Google related to a given keyword. There’s bloomberry.com which searches a range of sites on the web for questions related to a keyword.
You can go directly to a Q&A site like Quora.com, search for a keyword, and see what questions people are posting. You go to Google and search for forums related to your keyword. What are the most popular threads about?
If you do the research and compile a list of needs your audience has when searching for a particular phrase, you will make your content better.
If you’re just realizing that the content on your site is of poor quality, you don’t necessarily need to rush into deleting all of it. Here’s a Google quote on the issue of dealing with low quality content:
“One other specific piece of guidance we’ve offered is that low-quality content on some parts of a website can impact the whole site’s rankings, and thus 1. removing low quality pages, 2. merging or 3. improving the content of individual shallow pages into more useful pages, or 4. moving low quality pages to a different domain could eventually help the rankings of your higher-quality content.”
if you think you can improve a page and you have a smaller site, merging or sprucing up the cotnent should be your first priority. If you’ve got way too many low quality pages to deal with, or a few LQPs that are just beyond fixing, removal is the best course of action.
But most importantly, THINK ABOUT CONTENT QUALITY first and foremost in your overall strategy. If you’re creating low quality pages just for the sake of “adding fresh content” you’re probably doing more harm than good.
In this particular answer, John Mueller is responding to a question from a webmaster for a forum site. However, his response provides really strong support for the idea that, for any type of website, the presence of low quality content on one part of the site will drag down the site’s rankings as a whole. Listening to his entire comment is highly recommended.
One last piece of advice from Google about content quality.
This one’s from John Mueller again:
“Some Low quality pages are unsatisfying because they have a small amount of main content for the purpose of the page. For example, imagine an encyclopedia article with just a few paragraphs on a very broad topic such as World War II. Important: An unsatisfying amount of main content is a sufficient reason to give a page a Low quality rating.”
If you’ve never done a content audit of your site, don’t put it off any longer. As you can see from Google’s comments on the issue, improving content quality is one of the most impactful SEO tactics in 2017.
There’s one really important Google quote about SEO that doesn’t come directly from Google.
This is from the book In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives, by Steven Levy:
“On the most basic level, Google could see how satisfied users were. To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy users were all the same. The best sign of their happiness was the “Long Click” — This occurred when someone went to a search result, ideally the top one, and did not return. That meant Google has successfully fulfilled the query.”
The concept of the “long click” is why it’s so important to closely monitor the user engagement metrics in your Google Analytics account. ‘Bounce rate,’ ‘Pages Per Session’ and ‘Average Time on Site” should be in monthly reports you get from your SEO company.
Does one of your organic landing pages have a really high bounce rate and low time on page? That’s a sign that you’re not answering your users’ questions. Or your page might be ranking for the wrong keyword.
If Google notices that a high percentage of your organic traffic is bouncing and going right back to search results to look for other sites, your ranking for that keyword is going to drop.
Once you’re ranking on page one, the user engagement stats play a huge role in determining your rank 1 through 10 (or possibly being bumped from page one).
If you get more clicks than you’re expected to when you rank #8 and you keep those users on your site for awhile, you’re going to be moving up in rankings.
Google will reward you if you earn a lot of “long clicks.” But you have to earn them through great content.
What about Google’s advice about keyword optimization to their army of quality raters?
From the latest version of the Quality Rating Guidelines:
“Pages may be created to lure search engines and users by repeating keywords over and over again, sometimes in unnatural and unhelpful ways. Such pages are created using words likely to be contained in queries issued by users. Keyword stuffing can range from mildly annoying to users, to complete gibberish. Pages created with the intent of luring search engines and users, rather than providing meaningful content to help users, should be rated Lowest.”
If you’re stuffing keywords in page content or any meta tags in 2017, you’re actually doing more harm than good.
Keyword stuffed pages get the lowest rating from Google.
If you worked with an SEO company in the past that didn’t know what they were doing, or you tried to SEO your own site and maybe used some outdated optimization strategies, keyword stuffing is another reason to do a content audit.
A few pages with outdated keyword stuffing techniques could drag down the overall quality of your site. This blog from Yoast will help you find the line between keyword stuffing and proper keyword optimization.
Keyword optimizing title tags and meta descriptions (without keyword stuffing, of course) is definitely not an outdated practice. Because of the important role in getting search engine users to click on your listings in organic search results, writing great meta tags is one of the most important tasks in SEO.
Google offers advice on title tags:
“Make sure every page on your site has a title specified in thetag.A lot of the same advice applies to meta descriptions:
Avoid repeated or boilerplate titles. It’s important to have distinct, descriptive titles for each page on your site.
Avoid keyword stuffing.
Page titles should be descriptive and concise.”
“Identical or similar descriptions on every page of a site aren’t helpful when individual pages appear in the web results. In these cases we’re less likely to display the boilerplate text. Wherever possible, create descriptions that accurately describe the specific page.”
Google also clarifies best practices on optimizing images for search engine bots and users:
“The alt attribute is used to describe the contents of an image file. It’s important for several reasons:
It provides Google with useful information about the subject matter of the image. We use this information to help determine the best image to return for a user’s query.
Many people-for example, users with visual impairments, or people using screen readers or who have low-bandwidth connections—may not be able to see images on web pages. Descriptive alt text provides these users with important information.
Wherever possible, it’s a good idea to make sure that images are placed near the relevant text. In addition, we recommend providing good, descriptive titles and captions for your images.”
Technical SEO Factors
The “big three” technical SEO factors are: Mobile-friendliness, page loading speed, and https secured connections.
Let’s see what John Mueller has to say about mobile-friendliness.
In early 2016, when asked what his biggest SEO tips were for the year ahead:
“Mobile friendly … is still a very big topic and we still see a lot of sites not doing that properly.”
Google is in the process of moving to a mobile-first index. In short, what that means is that soon they will be crawling, indexing, and rating your site primarily from a mobile perspective.
The implications of the mobile-first index could be pretty troubling for many webmasters. For now, you simply need to know that having a responsive website and regularly testing your site for mobile-friendliness issues (and resolving those issues) is a vital part of SEO. If you’re not doing mobile properly, reviewing usability warnings in Search Console is great way to find issues that need to be resolved.
“Our algorithms will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site, to understand structured data, and to show snippets from those pages in our results.”If you want to dig deeper, that quote comes from a very informative post on this subject on the official Webmaster Central Blog in November 2016.
Reading the entire article is highly recommended if you still have separate desktop and mobile versions of your site.
Moving on, we come to page loading speed.
From the Google Webmaster Central Blog in 2010:
“You may have heard that here at Google we’re obsessed with speed, in our products and on the web. As part of that effort, today we’re including a new signal in our search ranking algorithms: site speed. Site speed reflects how quickly a website responds to web requests.”
Faster sites create happy users and we’ve seen in our internal studies that when a site responds slowly, visitors spend less time there.
Google doesn’t often come out and say definitively that something is a part of their ranking algorithm.
They made this comment about loading speed back in 2010 because they wanted to make a strong statement that webmasters would react to. Google users are happy when they get served fast loading sites in results. Give them what they want.
HTTPS is the last of the big three technical SEO factors.
“Users expect a secure and private online experience when using a website. We encourage you to adopt HTTPS in order to protect your users’ connection to your website, regardless of the content on the site.”Pretty straightforward advice. You’re encouraged to purchase an SSL certificate and set HTTPS as the preferred version of your site in your .htaccess file. Google has confirmed it’s a ranking factor.
More Google Quotes on Technical SEODecided to change one of your URLs to make it more SEO-friendly? You can’t just rename the URL and call it a day. You need to set up a 301 redirect.
“If you need to change the URL of a page as it is shown in search engine results, we recommend that you use a server-side 301 redirect. This is the best way to ensure that users and search engines are directed to the correct page.”
Proper usage of redirects is especially important during a site redesign.
If a redirect isn’t set up properly, that’s one of many ways that a user or search engine bot may get a 404 error when browsing or crawling your site. Google has clear advice on what to do with your 404 page.
“Create useful 404 pages.
Tell visitors clearly that the page they’re looking for can’t be found. Use language that is friendly and inviting. Make sure your 404 page uses the same look and feel (including navigation) as the rest of your site. Consider adding links to your most popular articles or posts, as well as a link to your site’s home page. Think about providing a way for users to report a broken link.
No matter how beautiful and useful your custom 404 page, you probably don’t want it to appear in Google search results. In order to prevent 404 pages from being indexed by Google and other search engines, make sure that your webserver returns an actual 404 HTTP status code when a missing page is requested.”
It’s amazing how few sites follow this solid advice. Most 404 pages have little to no thought put into them — a definite error in user experience judgement.
URL structure is another undervalued SEO factor. Are your URLs SEO-friendly? It’s a question worth asking yourself or your SEO agency.
Google thinks creating a simple URL structure is an important part of creating a good user experience.
“Consider using punctuation in your URLs. The URL http://www.example.com/green-dress.html is much more useful to us than http://www.example.com/greendress.html. We recommend that you use hyphens (-) instead of underscores (_) in your URLs.
Overly complex URLs, especially those containing multiple parameters, can cause a problems for crawlers by creating unnecessarily high numbers of URLs that point to identical or similar content on your site. As a result, Googlebot may consume much more bandwidth than necessary, or may be unable to completely index all the content on your site.”
Here’s one quote from Google that you really never want to see:
“Dear site owner or webmaster, We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes. We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results. If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request. If you have any questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support. Sincerely,Google Search Quality Team.”
This is the message you’ll get from Google if you receive a manual penalty because of your link profile. If you get caught purchasing links with the intent of tricking the Google algorithm into thinking your site is more authoritative than it really is, you’ll be penalized.
Getting penalized means being removed from all organic search results until you fix the problem and Google gives you a pass.
There are many sites that purchase links and get away with it. Google can’t catch everybody, but they are getting better and better at identifying paid link schemes. In 2017, the benefit of buying links is almost certainly not worth the risk to the average small business website.
At the same time, Google understands that you want to do more than just sit back and wait for people to find your content and naturally link to you.
Here are Google’s thoughts from their Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide:
“Chances are, there are a number of sites that cover topic areas similar to yours. Opening up communication with these sites is usually beneficial. Hot topics in your niche or community could spark additional ideas for content or building a good community resource.”
Actionable advice to take from this quote: it’s good to find other sites in your area that serve a similar audience, and look for substantive ways to collaborate on content.
Let’s say you’re a real estate agent in Denver. Why not reach out to home inspectors, insurance agents, appraisers, builders, remodelers, and other businesses in your area that also serve homeowners? Find successful local bloggers with sites that might be willing to collaborate on content with you.
There are many ways to turn a collaboration into links or effective cross promotions that won’t run the risk of earning a Google penalty.
Just don’t overdo it with content cross promotions and collaborations, and make sure they are valuable collaborations that add real value to both sites, not just a scheme to get a higher PageRank.
Here’s how Google defines link schemes:
“The following are examples of link schemes which can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results:If you’re worried that questionable link building practices in the past may be putting your site in danger today, there’s a way to diminish the risk. It’s referred to as link disavowal.
– Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link
– Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking
– Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links
– Using automated programs or services to create links to your site.”
Here’s Google’s take on disavowing backlinks:
“First and foremost, we recommend that you remove as many spammy or low-quality links from the web as possible. We recommend that you disavow backlinks only if you believe you have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and if you are confident that the links are causing issues for you.”Disavowing links is serious business. If you’re dealing with a link penalty that you’re recovering from, this is absolutely the time to work with an SEO professional.
Earning valuable external links one of the most challenging facets of SEO. Luckily, external links aren’t the only links that can have an impact. Internal links are a very important, yet often overlooked, part of search engine optimization.
“we do use internal links to better understand the context of content of your sites.”That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but since Google keeps pretty mum on a lot of subjects, we’ll consider it important. If they came out and said “internal links are really important,” webmasters would add hundreds of links to every page and keyword spam the hell out of them.
That’s bad for users. It’s bad for everybody. So Google doesn’t want to overdo it on the endorsement.
But internal links can be very valuable in some contexts.
If you have a particular page that’s hanging out somewhere on page 2 on Google, you may not need to invest a lot of time and effort in building links from other sites.
Strategically adding keyword-rich internal links from some important pages on your site (or adding the page in need of a rankings boost to your main navigation menu) can sometimes be enough to push you up to page one.
What Do You Want to Ask Google?
Do you have questions about SEO, brand reputation, or website quality? Leave a comment and let me know about it!
Google has probably already weighed in on the issue on their official blog, their support site, or in public comment sessions. Send me your question and, if it’s out there, I’ll get you SEO quotes by Google that give you a solid answer.