10 Quality Factors Search Engines Need to See on Your Site

What do the search engines mean by a “high quality site”?

While technical SEO still exists, a huge chunk of modern search engine optimization consists of “generating high-quality content.”

So what does that mean? Is following Google’s E-E-A-T and YMYL guidelines enough? When a search engine ‘bot looks at your site, what kinds of things is it looking for?

In this 23-minute episode, I talk about:

  • Some of the things (both simple and complicated) that can mess up your search rankings
  • Why you need to use professional-quality tools if you care about your web traffic
  • 10 factors that generate the “signals of quality” that search engines look for
  • Other ways to get discovered beyond the search engines

The specific quality factors I talk about include:

  1. Mostly original content (not scraped)
  2. A reasonable commitment to quality
  3. Freedom from stupid tactics like keyword stuffing
  4. Using the language of your audience (in other words, keyword research)
  5. Usefulness
  6. Truth
  7. Creativity and interest
  8. Smart content promotion
  9. Good links
  10. Breadth, depth, and richness — showing you actually know the topic

The Show Notes

  • If you’re ready to see for yourself why over 201,344 website owners trust StudioPress — the industry standard for premium WordPress themes and plugins — swing by StudioPress.com for all the details
  • Sean Jackson’s post on OCDC (optimizing content for discovery and conversion)
  • Follow the link in this post to pick up my ebook on content promotion (it’s free with registration)
  • Good tools include reliable site monitoring to keep malware and hackers away. We like Sucuri
  • A post I wrote about the right way to think about Google
  • I’m always happy to see your questions or thoughts on Twitter @soniasimone — or right here in the comments!

10 Quality Factors Search Engines Need to See on Your Site

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.

Sonia Simone: Copyblogger FM is brought to you by the all new StudioPress Sites, a turnkey solution that combines the ease of an all-in-one website builder with the flexible power of WordPress. It’s perfect for bloggers, podcasters, and affiliate marketers, as well as those of you who are selling physical products, digital downloads, or membership programs. If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why more than 200,000 website owners trust StudioPress. You can check it out by going to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress. That’s Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress.

Hey there, good to see you again. Welcome back to Copyblogger FM, the content marketing podcast. Copyblogger FM is about emerging content marketing trends, interesting disasters, and enduring best practices, along with the occasional rant. My name is Sonia Simone. I’m the Chief Content Officer for Rainmaker Digital and I like to hang out with the folks who do the heavy lifting over on the Copyblogger blog. You can always get extra links, extra resources, and the complete show archive by going to Copyblogger.FM.

SEO for the Rest of Us

It is March already, and this month on the Copyblogger blog we’re going to be talking quite a bit about SEO, search engine optimization. The art of getting found by the search engines and more important, getting found by people who use search engines. I try to never talk about SEO best practices without introducing the subject by saying there are so many people who know a lot more about the technical side of SEO than I do. Many, many, many people. We’re going to be inviting some of those people, some SEO heavy hitters, to the Copyblogger blog this month. They’re going to be talking about some of the more advanced scenarios, some of the more technical considerations of search engine optimization.

Today, I am not going to talk about that, because I’m not qualified to talk about that. Instead I’m going to talk about, I guess you could call it SEO for the rest of us. The kinds of best practices, solid business advice that normal businesses, especially smaller businesses that don’t have massive websites or massive budgets, things that we can do, good best practices that we can use, to improve our chances of getting found in the search engines, and just as important, not to waste money on things that don’t work well, things that are outdated, or something that’s being sold to us by somebody who’s really not fantastically great at SEO themselves.

If you are trying to rank for the keyword ‘weight loss,’ or something along those lines, something ultra competitive, if you have a massive site, a very database rich site, lots of queries, lots of data, lots of things going on, this podcast might be a little bit beyond your ken. Although, I do think that there are going to be some things you’re going to find useful here for how to structure your content, because that’s the part that I do know something about. Just to put the thing as crudely as possible, a search engine will rank your site well, in other words it will come in toward the top of the search engine’s results page, if it feels that your site is generating signals of high quality.

Some of the Things (Both Simple and Complicated) that can Mess Up Your Search Rankings

There are two approaches to search engine optimization. You can try to figure out what the algorithms are looking for today. That, of course, could change tomorrow. Then you can try to figure out how to generate a signal that matches what the algorithm is looking for. Or, you can create a site that is high quality. Immediately, all the SEOs are going to be yelling and rightly so, because that is really putting it overly simply. However, for a smaller business, for an individual website, for somebody who has a blog who’s just trying to get some search traffic on some low competition keywords, it’s a thing. Creating a site that actually is good is a thing and it helps.

I’m going to talk about some of what goes into that in this podcast and also in my Copyblogger post on the same topic. Now I’m not going to tell you that gaming the search engines never works, because that’s not true. It certainly has worked, it still works in some cases. The thing I will say is that I have been in this business for quite a while now, a good chunk of years. I have noticed that the ones who really crow about the results they get from being fairly creepy and fairly spammy and the ones who are really condescending about how well their creepy spam fest is working are the ones that one day you just don’t hear from anymore, because all of their clients overnight lost their rankings.

Does a certain amount of tomfoolery still work? Yeah, it probably still works. The problem is, when it stops working it’s really irritating to try and figure out why and fix it. I ignore those kind of tactics. I don’t have the bandwidth to keep up with them. It’s not what I’m good at. What I look at are essentially content fundamentals. For me, that’s really where the success is. That’s where I really see results.

Let’s start talking about specific recommendations. The first one is make sure your site isn’t borked. In other words, make sure that there is not something technical going on on your site that is messing you up. There are any number of things that you can do to mess things up.

For example, you can buy links and get caught, that will mess you up. You can also have, and this is a bit embarrassing when it happens, you can have some code on your website that tells search engine bots not to crawl the site, or not to index the site. In other words, not to analyze it, or if they do analyze it, don’t report it in the search engine’s results page. It’s a little thing on your site called the robots.txt file. I’ll give you a link that’ll show you what to look for, what not to look for.

It seems a bit silly, but sometimes, for example, somebody might have been working on your site, set one of these parameters to don’t index the page because I’m working on it and I don’t want it to index right now. Then you wonder why you’re not getting rankings. It’s just ’cause somebody forgot to turn that off. These are things that can happen. Small things, but a small thing with technology will bork it up just as bad as a major problem.

Why You Need to Use Professional-Quality Tools if You Care about Your Web Traffic

To that end, I really recommend if you care about your website, if you care about how much traffic you get, if you care about your search engine rankings, you have to use a reasonably professional grade class of tools. In other words, you’re going to use a premium WordPress theme. You’re going to use real hosting, you’re not going to use like the $2 a month stuff. You’re going to pay for site monitoring to make sure that some weirdo hasn’t hacked your site without you realizing it. You’re going to use tools, professional grade tools. These are not necessarily ultra crazy expensive. I’m not talking about something that’s going to cost you $1,000 a month, but I am saying a moderate professional investment.

If your site is teeming with malware, then your customers are not going to want to go through, Google is going to have a little warning on the search engine’s results page that’s going to say, “This site seems to have something yucky going on,” and other bad things will happen. You have to take reasonably good care. The most common problem that I hear from people about or that I hear about when I talk to people at conferences is a site that got borked by a bad SEO. This is a thing that can happen. Somebody comes in whose sales ability is a ten and whose actual technical SEO ability is like a 1.2 and implements all kinds of shenanigans and problems happen. Again, that’s not a bash on SEOs. It is a bash on terrible SEOs. Just like every other profession, there are plenty of them out there.

If somebody who comes in, they don’t know what they’re doing, they either buy a lot of really bad links or they stuff your content with a lot of keywords and tell you that they’re SEOing your content. Somehow, SEOing as a verb can be a red flag. I’ve seen that not work well, or people who make a lot of technical behind the scenes changes that instead of making your site cleaner and simpler for the search engines to analyze, which is an important part of technical SEO, they’ve made things complicated or confusing because they’re trying to play games.

I do not know of a remedy for a bad SEO who’s come and messed things up for you, other than to hire a really good SEO to come in and fix it. That person is not going to be the most budget person. I’m not going to say they’re going to be a fortune, but don’t expect to be a cheap fix and do not expect it to be an instant fix, unless you do have something silly like you’re robot’s text is set to no index or something.

Most SEO problems, if they’re real problems, take time to get corrected. If you’re using somebody’s time who’s very good at their job, then that’s going to cost money as well. Hopefully no such terrors have visited you, and we can talk about creating a quality site. And more to the point, what does a search engine mean when it’s looking for a high quality site?

10 Factors that Generate the “Signals of Quality” that Search Engines Look for

I’m just going to give you a little bit of a laundry list of some of the things that these algorithms are looking for that shows the search engines that your site is better than somebody else who’s writing about the same topics. Your content needs to be original. It’s content that you created, it’s not something that you scraped. People get hysterically worried about the duplicate content penalty, which is not exactly a thing. It’s okay if there is some content on your website that also appears in other places on the web. There are ways to finesse that and manage it, but your site’s not going to get dinged by Google if you have some content that also appears elsewhere.

Much of your content should be original. If you do have something that is original but also appears in other places, then you need to follow some basic, decent SEO practices and help the search engines recognize that yours is the one that they should consider to be the real one, this is the real post. The second factor is a reasonable commitment to quality. What I’m saying is not that all of your content should be able to be republished in The New Yorker at any moment, but that if you would like to rank for a particular term, a particular phrase, you have to be creating better content around that phrase than other people who are writing about it.

The more competitive your keyword phrase is, or your phrases are, the more amazing your content is going to have to be. That’s just logical. Your content is going to be free of foolishness like stuffing it with keywords in a extremely outdated attempt to fool the search engines into thinking it’s super, super relevant. You don’t ever want content that’s had something done to it in the name of SEO that makes it weird or awkward for a person to read. That, for me, is my most important north star, my most important rule of thumb. The content has to work for human users first and foremost and then you tweak it lightly, lightly so that the algorithms can find you and efficiently understand what your site’s doing.

A good site, a high quality site from the point of view of a search engine is going to use language that is related, that mirrors the kind of language that users enter into the search engine when they’re looking for something. That’s what keyword research is all about. It is very simply using the language that your audience is using to write about and think about the topic. It’s not any more exotic than that.

How does your intended audience think about this? What kinds of specific words do they use when they have a question about your topic? For this reason you can get into some issues with your search traffic if you use a lot of cutesy, in-terms, things you made up, for concepts that nobody else really shares with you. That can work well if you get a big enough audience for it. I’ve seen some marketers, and it’s kind of good from an audience building perspective, they have this whole private language that they use around their stuff. That’s fine, but make sure there’s some normal human speech in there as well.

High quality sites are useful. They answer questions that people are searching for. They are true. They’re not fake news, they’re not … Has fake news been doing well in search engine results? Yes it has. Is that going to keep being true? Probably not. It is a problem that is being worked on. Please publish information that is true, that is useful, that is helpful. If all we want to be is true, useful and helpful, we might as well all go work for Wikipedia, right?

Useful is not enough. It has to be interesting. The reason it has to be interesting is not that the bots that conduct these crawls and analyze content get bored easily. It’s because content that is interesting to people gets people to generate those signals of quality. Those are things like links, spending a lot of time on your website, sharing them. If your content is useful and interesting, it’s going to generate those signals of quality. And PS, special bonus, those signals of quality tend to get your content in front of more people. It’s building your authority with search engines, but just as important and really more important, it’s getting your content in front of people who could benefit from it, which is the point, right? It is the point of the exercise.

One thing I want to talk about is I think sometimes we definitely fall into this trap of thinking that if the content is good, so we made it interesting, we made it true, we made it useful, and so we’re going to publish it and then through some kind of magical event, Google is going to know that it’s good and reward it with a good ranking. That’s not really how it works. We have to publicize our content in order for people to start looking at it and generating the signals of quality. It has to be good first, because if you publicize crappy content you’re not going to get what you want. That means we have to start thinking about things like developing our professional network, about cultivating a community of publishers in our topic, about supporting each other’s work. All those good things.

I have a whole ebook on content promotion that will help you with that if that concept stresses you out. The ultimate signal of quality at this point is still links, as far as I know. Real links from real people, not links from weird sites that nobody’s ever heard of, but solid links from credible websites created by people who know what they’re talking about. Those are still the strongest signal. You get that signal by creating something worth linking to. Incidentally, I just talked about that community of publishers in your topic, give links to people who are producing good stuff on your site. Link to people who are good. It’s the right thing to do, it’s the right thing to do for your audience, it’s the right thing to do just in general. Be part of the community. Don’t imagine that this whole thing takes place in some kind of isolation ward, because it doesn’t.

The final thing I’ll talk about in terms of quality signals is really the breadth of your site, the richness of your site. We are not in the world anymore where one really well optimized web page will tend to rank. It can for a specific enough set of keywords, but by and large your site needs to have some richness. It needs to have a good volume of content that addresses your topic in different ways, in important ways. That’s why one of the more useful things you can do, especially when you’re launching a site, but really anytime when you want to just give your site some vitamins in terms of getting more attention, is to put together a cornerstone of the most useful, the most interesting kinds of content, the how-to content, answering the most important questions, that just essential knowledge cornerstone.

Other Ways to Get Discovered Beyond the Search Engines

If you can get 10 posts, 12 posts, 20 posts written about key topics in what you write about and get them published, that really helps. Again, it helps the bots, the algorithms, understand that you know about the topic, that you have a lot to say about it and you really have something to offer the searcher. That’s what they’re looking for. The final thing I’ll say is just keep in mind that Google is not the only game. For one, people do actually use other search engines. Google has a very large share of search traffic, but it doesn’t have all of it. More to the point, people discover sites and they discover content in multiple ways.

One of my business partners, Sean Jackson, wrote a post about this on Copyblogger. The way that he refers to it is OCDC, which is optimizing content for discovery and conversion. I have to admit that around the digital office the phrase OCDC makes some of our rather OCD people twitch a little bit. The point is we don’t live in the world of, “Hire the right SEO, buy the right links, make certain technical tweaks and then you’re going to get traffic and you’re going to make a lot of money.” That’s not the world we’re in anymore. The world we live in today is about people finding you from all over the place. More to the point, they find you from all over the place and they come across you again and again. You keep crossing their path.

They might see you from a search in a search engine, but they also might see you on social. They might see your social advertising. They might see a Facebook ad that you ran. Then they might get a recommendation, a referral from a friend. All of these things add up and work together to create a path that leads people to you and so it’s not just ranking the search engines and then a miracle happens. It’s more complex than that. The nice part about that is, you can be working on the whole path while your search game is being built. Over time, search is going to become an important part of it but it probably won’t be the whole thing. Really summing it up, the best practice in search engine optimization is to create content that deserves to be found.

I will repeat that because it is important. The best practice is to create content that deserves to be found. Then you figure out the path to getting found. The search path, the social path, what have you, and you make the tweaks, you make the changes that are going to make it easier to do that, that are going to smooth that path out a little bit and make it a little easier to see you in this vast forest of content. SEO techniques that help you do that or that are harmonious with that goal of creating content that deserves to be found are probably going to serve you well.

SEO techniques that you would never in a million years do if you weren’t trying to rank, those are the ones you really have to look at and ask yourself, “Is this a good use of my time? Is this a good use of my money? Is there any way in which what I’m doing is compromising my larger goal?” That’s what you want to stay away from. I hope you will tune in this month for SEO month. It’s going to be, of course, very content focused, but we’re also going to have some more technical people who understand lots of things I couldn’t begin to explain to you. I think it’s going to be fun and interesting and can’t wait to see you there. Take care.