How to evaluate content quality for audiences & search engines

Ask any leading figure at Google Search what it takes to rank well and they’ll all tell you the same thing: quality content. Google isn’t the only player in search but its algorithm still sets the standard when it comes to ranking signals. Recent updates make content quality more important than ever – so let’s discuss the most important characteristics you need to optimise.

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Why is content quality important?

You could write an entire thesis on the reasons why content quality is important for SEO. For the sake of convenience, though, we can condense it down into two fundamental reasons:

  1. Search engines need quality content: This keeps users coming back to search when they’re looking for information or to complete a specific action (eg: book a restaurant table)
  2. Your target audience needs quality content: People turn to search engines for specific reasons and your content needs to deliver what your target audience is looking for.

This reciprocal cycle explains why content is so important, both to search engines and their users. It also explains the advice we constantly hear from Google and other search engines: create content for people.

Content that doesn’t satisfy the end user harms the overall search experience. This is why search engines need quality content and much as the people they serve it to. So, think of it this way: create content for people and optimise it for search engines (to maximise visibility).

What makes ‘quality’ content?

The answer to this is slightly different for each page, but there are five key quality factors all website content should have:

  1. Meaning & understanding
  2. Relevance & usefulness
  3. Quality & helpfulness
  4. Context & personalisation
  5. Usability & experience

The role of these factors has changed a lot in recent years, largely due to improving search technology. Search engines are more capable of understanding keywords but also the needs of users for a growing variety of queries. This means we also have to evaluate content quality with more scrutiny.

1. Meaning & understanding

SEO has a long history of optimising for keywords but the modern search experience is far more sophisticated. Search technology has come a long way, particularly in the space of large language models (LLMs) and machine learning.

A search engine like Google is more capable of understanding the intended meaning behind complex queries than ever.

Google also has decades of search data with 8.5 billion daily searches constantly adding to the dataset. That’s six million searches every minute. It knows when a user types in the single phrase “pizza,” they’re probably looking to order a pizza in their local area. They’re not after recipes or the genius who invented pizza.

Statistical probability – backed up by huge amounts of data – tells Google to show local results for pizza places.

Google search results for pizza

Beyond the intended meaning and intent of words, Google also knows which results and content types are most suitable for any given query. If a user types “how to…” Google knows to show a mix of video results with blue links, prioritising content with step-by-step instructions.

Increasingly, Google shows these steps in featured snippets or its AI-generated answers.

Modern SEO is about so much more than optimising for keywords. It’s about understanding the true intent of queries, what your audience needs from content, which content format is most effective – and what kind of results they’re going to see in search.

TIPS >> How to optimise for meaning & understanding:

  • Know the intent of your audience and your target keywords
  • Understand the result types search engines show for your target keywords – blue links, paid ads, local results, video results, news carousel, etc.
  • Create a variety of content formats – text, video, image, podcast, etc.
  • Run content audits for competing pages, freshness, etc.
  • Regularly update your most important content
  • Regularly update news content and anything considered YMYL (eg: finance)

2. Relevance & usefulness

Relevant marketing content matches the specific needs and interests of the target audience. Useful content provides an actionable solution to whatever problem or need they have.

Search engines use language learning models (LLMs) to determine things like keyword and content relevance. However, they also analyse user interactions with content to gain a deeper understanding of how relevant and useful content is for each specific session.

Search engines perform this analysis on vast scales to constantly optimise results. They’re not only reordering blue links, either. They determine whether local results or video content are more useful for any given query and user intent.

For example, when someone searches for “hiking boots,” Google knows they’re probably not looking for a dictionary definition. The keyword implies commercial intent. So, Google is more likely to link to hiking boot category pages on footwear retailer websites. It might also include product images to highlight the relevance of results and encourage CTRs.

Google search results for hiking boots

When the query takes on a more informational nature – eg: “best hiking boots” or “best ankle boots for ankle support” – the criteria for relevance and usefulness change.

Now, you might see links to forum pages, “best of” lists, video guides and other formats in the mix. You’ll also notice results and formats may vary more across device types.

When a user clicks through, Google analyses interactions to determine the relevancy and usefulness of the content: time on page, page visits, clicks on interactive elements, items added to cart, conversions, video view durations, etc.

TIPS >> How to optimise for relevance & usefulness:

  • Analyse the search intent of your target keywords
  • Ensure relevance with topic, intent and keywords
  • Produce content that helps users achieve their goal
  • Create mixed content types for all devices
  • Optimise for on-page interactions

3. Quality & helpfulness

Expanding upon the concept of useful content, helpfulness is one of the most important characteristics of quality content. In 2022, Google launched its “helpful content system” and updated it multiple times since.

The helpful content system is part of Google’s drive to reward content created for people. This is increasingly important in the age of generative AI. Although Google is implementing generative AI into the search experience, it needs users to be one click away from seeing original, helpful content created for them.

The key elements of helpful content include:

  • Writing for people – unique content/data/insights, first-person perspective, showcasing experience and opinion where applicable
  • Positive page experience – mobile-friendly, fast-loading, secure, Core Web Vitals, etc.
  • Depth – complete topical coverage that’s well-written, and free of spam and other low-quality signals
  • Optimised on-page signals reinforcing relevancy, usefulness and readability
  • Trustworthy, credible and verified expertise, experience and authority (E-E-A-T) on the topic; displaying facts with related external and internal data, and supporting information

Google algorithmically analyses content helpfulness but it also has a team of human quality raters. These raters manually assess the quality of search results and content they link to, following Google’s Search Quality Rater Guidelines. This is where Experience, Expertise, Authority and Trustworthiness (E-E-A-T) come into play.

The search rating process involves two core stages:

the two stages of google's search rating process: page quality and needs met

In cases where pages have a clear purpose, quality raters are required to assess the type of page, its purpose and how effectively it fulfils its purpose.

The types of pages quality raters will assess and the purpose of each page.

Quality raters manually assess these pages and their content, grading them one of five Page Quality (PQ) scores:

The Google pages quality scores: lowest, low, medium, high and highest
  • Lowest: Lowest quality pages are untrustworthy, deceptive, harmful to people or society, or have other highly undesirable characteristics
  • Low: Low quality pages may have been intended to serve a beneficial purpose. However, they do not achieve their purpose well because they are lacking in an important dimension.
  • Medium: The page has a beneficial purpose and achieves its purpose; however it does not merit a high quality rating, nor is there anything to indicate that a low quality rating is appropriate. Or the page or website has strong high quality rating characteristics, but also has mild low quality characteristics. The strong high quality aspects make it difficult to rate the page low.
  • High: A high quality page serves a beneficial purpose and achieves its purpose well.
  • Highest: A highest quality page serves a beneficial purpose and achieves its purpose very well.

Refer to Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines for more info and take a look at our posts on E-E-A-T for more help with optimisation.

TIPS >> How to optimise for quality & helpfulness:

  • Use data/insights to demonstrate experience
  • Use first-person perspective to showcase opinion
  • Avoid ads, pop-ups and other low-quality signals
  • Analyse your content against Google quality guidelines
  • Optimise SEO content for E-E-A-T
  • Optimise potential YMYL pages to the strictest E-E-A-T standards

4. Context & personalisation

Search engines personalise the experience for users, based on their search history, device, location, filters and other factors. Google started personalising search results for all users in 2009 (users could opt-out) and a lot of SEOs freaked out at the time. After all, how can you optimise for an audience if you don’t know which results they’re going to see?

Well, it all comes back to relevance, usefulness and helpfulness. Personalised search can actually help you target your audience more effectively if you truly understand them.

TIPS >> How to optimise for context & personalisation:

  • Know your audience – where are they, what are their priorities
  • Understand the search intent of your target keywords
  • Double down on content relevance to the keyword and intent – eg: graphic design jobs vs graphic design services
  • Create content that reflects filters being used, such as location and ‘near me’ queries
  • Tailor content based on demographic insights
  • Again, optimise for page interactions – this tells search engines to show your content to more of the same searches
  • Optimise for long-tail keywords and extensive topical coverage of related keywords, subjects, etc.

5. Usability & experience

The quality content discussion usually centres around the actual contents of a page: writing, images, video, etc. Yes, the quality of your content yourself is the most important aspect here, but there’s a catch.

You could have the best content ever created on your website, but it counts for nothing if people can’t access it. If your website is too slow to load or content is blocked by popups, users will never get the chance to judge your content.

Google started ramping up its attack on poor experiences in 2012 with its first “page layout” algorithm update, targeting sites with too many ads. Two further page layout updates rolled out before the HTTPS update in 2014 and the great mobile-friendly update of 2015.

Since then, we’ve had mobile loading times, mobile-first indexing, a popup crackdown and the page experience update creating a unified signal for UX ranking factors.

The list of usability and user experience signals impacting search results continues to grow. At this point, any content quality optimisation strategy should start with a critical assessment of website UX.

TIPS >> How to optimise for usability & experience:

  • Optimise for all devices
  • Reduce page loading times (Core Web Vitals)
  • Ensure interactive page elements respond quickly (Core Web Vitals)
  • Ensure structural layout stability after elements load in the browser (Core Web Vitals)
  • Avoid intrusive popups
  • Maintain HTTPS secure encryption
  • Monitor the page experience report in Search Console
  • Implement accessibility best practices
  • Optimise for on-page engagement and conversion goals

Bringing it all together

Analysing your content for the latest quality standards will raise the bar of everything you publish. Regularly update your existing content and increase the overall quality of your content as your SEO strategy matures. Make this an ongoing process to keep up with quality standards as they increase and evolve.

Incorporate the following practices into your content strategy to create a culture of high-quality content:

  • Regularly audit and update your existing content
  • Merge competing pages into a single, high-quality page
  • Repurpose content in different formats for ease of understanding and broader user appeal
  • Use data to create content that is current, useful and resonates with your audience, demonstrating an understanding of their pain points
  • Keep tabs on competitor content to produce higher quality
  • Optimise every page for E-E-A-T
  • Remove pages that fail to make any traction after 6-12 months
  • Optimise for usability and page experience

At the end of the day, you need to do a better job than your rivals at providing what your target audience is looking for online.

Need help optimising content quality?

If you need help analysing and optimising your content, our team can help. Call us on 023 9283 0281 or send us your details and our search team will get back to you.

Lee Wilson profile picture
Lee Wilson

Lee has been working in the online arena, leading digital departments since the early 2000s, and oversees all our delivery services at Vertical Leap, having joined back in 2010. Lee joined our company Operations Team in May 2019. Before working at Vertical Leap, Lee completed a degree in Business Management & Communications at Winchester University, headed up the online development and direct marketing department for an international financial services company for ~7 years, and set up/run a limited company providing website design, development and digital marketing solutions. Lee had his first solely authored industry book (Tactical SEO) published in 2016, with 2 further industry books being published in 2019, and can be seen regularly expert contributing to industry websites including State of Digital, Search Engine Journal, The Drum, plus many others. Lee has a passion for management in the digital industry and loves to see the progression of others through personal learning, training and development. Outside the office he looks to help others while challenging himself, having skydived, bungie jumped and abseiled (despite a fear of heights) with many more fundraising and voluntary events completed and on the horizon. As a husband and dad, Lee loves to spend time with his family and friends. His hobbies include exercising, trying new experiences, eating out, playing countless team sports, as well as watching films (Gangster movies in particular – “forget about it”).

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