Adam Barber

Mathematics of quality - how Google is judging your content

Last week, Google released some more information about how its algorithm is trying to recognise quality content when crawling sites. The blog post from Google's Amit Singhal listed some questions that the search provider is trying to answer algorithmically. In this article we'll take a look at some of those questions and ponder how the world's most talked-about mathematical formula is doing it...

Amit Singhal's full list runs to 23 questions. We've chosen to explore a small sample here as the points we've made apply to a number of similar questions in his list.

Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?

Duplicate content has been in Google's crosshairs for some time. If you publish material that is syndicated from other sites or even elsewhere on your own site, you run the risk of that content getting pushed down or removed from the index. These virtual black marks won't be restricted to pages displaying duplicate content - they can have implications for your entire site, something that appears more acute since the recent updates.

From an algorithmic perspective, finding duplicate content is relatively easy and there are in fact plenty of free tools available on the internet that seem to manage it. Deciding who to punish is a little trickier and it's something Google has been criticised for by site owners that have had their content ripped off and illegally republished.

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?

Search has come a long way since the days when keywords on the page largely determined which pages were returned in search. Keywords remain important, but Google's algorithm can spot keyword-stuffing, which is the first clue that a site is trying to game the system.

There are other factors as well, such as duplicate or near duplicate content. This will help to detect sites that are rewriting content and producing very similar pages to compete for different keyword variations ("Melbourne weekend breaks" and "weekend breaks in Melbourne", for example).  

Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?

It's not out of the question that the algorithm could spell check pages, but with local language variations, surnames, brand names etc it's a complex task. It's more likely that this question (along with other similar questions in Singhal's list) will be answered using metrics like bounce rate and dwell time. Badly-written, typo-riddled articles with little genuine relevance to a given query will have users quickly clicking away to find something else.  

Would you recognise this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?

Domain authority is a touchy subject. If you're a small business, you'll probably think big brands already have enough advantages without getting additional help from Google. But your domain authority has influenced how you rank for some time now.

Algorithmically, Google can look at your inbound link profile (not just how many links and what anchor text is used, but how authoritative are the sites linking to you). On a much smaller scale, it can look at data from its Chrome extension that allows users to manually block domains from their personalised results. And it can also look at social media, which brings us neatly to the next question...

Is this the sort of page you'd want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?

There is some debate about how directly social media influences organic search results, but retweets, Facebook Likes, Google Plus Ones, social bookmarking etc are certainly steers Google can use to help it assess the popularity of an article or a domain.

Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?

Article length is easy enough for an algorithm to measure. When the Panda update was first released, sites publishing thousands upon thousands of 150-word articles were expected to be the biggest losers. That wasn't the case across the board, but there were a good number of these content farms on the various lists of sites that had received the biggest rankings hit.

Length isn't always an indicator of quality, but it's likely that word count is an influencing factor in Google's algorithm, especially since Panda and subsequent tweaks. Does longer mean more substantial? It really depends on the topic and remit of the article. You could probably do a decent job of "how to boil an egg" in 150 words. When it comes to "helpful specifics", the crawler would have to rely on some of those other metrics, such as bounce rate, dwell time and inbound links.

A full copy of Amit Singhal's blog post "More guidance on building high-quality sites" is available on the Webmaster Central Blog. By the looks of it, some of the website owners that have lost rankings since the updates have been venting in the comment section.

As well as Singhal's blog post, you might also want to read this Panda update from SEOMoz or this rather forthright response from SEOBook. For some general background on the algorithm changes, read our article on Panda (or Farmer as it was called back then).

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Adam Barber Castleford Media Pty Ltd Adam Barber
Company: Castleford Media Pty Ltd
Position: Director
British new media professional living and working in Sydney. Interested in developments in online content, search, social media and the digital world in general.

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