Running a search engine isn’t an easy task. Companies like Google and Microsoft have the unenviable job of trying to create guidelines that can be used to determine which web pages are an appropriate spot for a particular query. Much of this ranking process is hidden from end-users to prevent abuse of the system, but it’s possible to gain some insight. Last week, Google updated its Search Quality Rater Guidelines, which will influence how some pages are ranked.

Search engines have changed dramatically over the years, and it’s no longer about trying to stuff your website copy with the right keywords. Keywords matter, but companies like Google take other factors into consideration. Google judges online content by its quality, which helps them make the best selections for search results. Last week, Google made some significant updates to its Search Quality Rater Guidelines, which give an indication of what the platform will be looking for in the future. 

One takeaway from the update is that Google will be watching to see the source of content on a site. An addition to a subsection of 2.5 (Understanding the Website) states, “Websites want users to be able to distinguish between content created by themselves versus content that was added by other users.” This seems to refer to websites that syndicate content from another source. Website owners need to make it clear where the original content came from, and how it was licensed for use. 

Similarly, Google is putting more emphasis on the reputation of the writer, the publication, and the website if they’re publishing news-related content. A subsection of 2.6 (Reputation of the Website or Creator of the Main Content) replaces the term “newspaper website” with “newspaper (with an associated website).” The document also directs search quality raters to consider the site’s track record of high-quality, original reporting when making a decision.

There’s also an indication that Google will begin to penalize pages that have negative themes. In its section on the lowest ranking pages, Google expanded the wording for “pages that potentially spread hate.” Though the changes are minor, they allow raters to use more discretion when determining if a page is potentially spreading hate. Similar changes were made to the wording for using the Upsetting-Offensive flag. Google is moving from tightly defined groups to broader protection against abusive content online.  

One thing to keep in mind is that these quality rules are more lenient when the purpose of the page isn’t to be serious. Google made it clear to raters that pages existing for the sake of artistic expression, humor, entertainment and the like are “all valid and valued page purposes,” and thus may not necessarily deserve a low-quality rating because they do not serve more practical purposes. However, the line between prejudice and parody can be blurry, so this distinction may still be problematic for raters for a while.

Every change in a document such is important and reflects a shift in the way Google wants to rank content. You can see a helpful side-by-side comparison of all of the changes on Search Engine Land

For more recent news about changes to Google, read this article on a test where Google is placing competitor ads on local business listings.