For the past year or so, there has been a bevy of confusion surrounding Google’s Quality Rater’s Guidelines (referred to as the QRG from here on), and the contents within it. Following major algorithm updates, we have seen novice SEOs peddling theories in Facebook groups, subreddits, Twitter, blogs, and forums relating to E-A-T and ranking drops. The advice has been dangerously bad, because companies with limited resources are placing those resources into ineffective tactics. This guide is meant to address those problems by clearing up what the QRG is, and specifically why E-A-T is not a part of the ranking algorithm.
I also want to state that the intended audience for this guide was business owners, newer SEOs, and the poor sods who are part-time SEOs because they’re the closest thing to it in their org. My hope is that this will be most helpful for them.
However, in making this guide and ferreting out the sources I needed to reference, I found many industry experts participating in the cycle of false information. I’ve found articles that referenced themselves as source information. I’ve seen well known industry publications peddling the absolute falsehood that the QRG is “verified by Google” to be a part of the algorithm. I’ve seen agencies and consultants offering E-A-T optimization, which is misleading at best. The list goes on. For my colleagues in the industry, please take note and be a part of the solution, not the problem. I have the utmost respect for you all, but we can and should do better. I will have some recommendations for how we discuss E-A-T and the QRG with clients below to prevent the type of misinformation we’re seeing spread over the internet, like the article below.
What are the Quality Raters Guidelines (QRG)?
Much like a manufacturer, Google has a quality assurance team, known as Search Quality Raters. When they are considering launching a new algorithm, they use Quality Raters to judge whether or not it will produce better or worse results. To gain sufficient sample size, they employ over 10,000 quality raters. As you can imagine, quality can have very different definitions among that many people. To make sure everyone was grading in a similar manner, Google defined quality in a handbook known as the Quality Raters Guidelines. Just as you cannot go to a chocolate factory and ask the quality assurance team there for the recipe to a truffle from their handbook, you can’t go to the quality raters and ask for the recipe to the algorithm from the QRG.
So why are we talking about it? A brief history lesson.
Back in August of 2018, there was a broad core algorithm update. The nature of these updates is that they are broad, meaning that they affect a large number of queries and websites. SEOs are a superstitious suspicious lot and like to segment websites by industry so that we can see if one industry was impacted more than another. This particular update affected websites in the healthcare industry the most, which led to it being dubbed the “Medic Update”, despite the fact that it affected websites in every industry to some degree. From there, SEOs turned to the QRG in an act of desperation and found two acronyms that they felt contained all the answers: E-A-T and YMYL.
What is E-A-T?
E-A-T is Google’s acronym for exertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. It’s an acronym that’s used to help define quality for quality raters and is used throughout the QRG. Some consultants have taken it to mean that E-A-T is somehow a piece of the algorithm, despite the evidence to the contrary.
What is YMYL?
YMYL is a category that Google has defined for certain pages. The acronym stands for “Your Money or Your Life” and it’s supposed to set a higher standard for the quality raters when viewing pages about things like healthcare, safety, or financial advice. While many gloss over this aspect of it, it also applies to ecommerce websites, because you are sharing your credit card information online.
Are the Quality Raters Guidelines (and E-A-T) Part of the Algorithm?
In a word, no. And this is the crux of the entire issue. If you trust me on this, you could stop reading here and go back to your life. If you don’t trust me, you could listen to John Mueller, a Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google who communicates with the webmaster and SEO community every day. Here are a few clips where he responds to questions about quality raters, and attempts to clear up the confusion surrounding their jobs.
Q: Do Raters access pages which are noindex?
Takeaway quotes: “What the quality raters do is when the teams at Google make improvements to the algorithms, we’ll try to test those improvements.” and “…what these quality raters do is totally independent of how your website ranks.“
In this clip, John also recommends if you’re considering E-A-T that you check in with your users. He explicitly does not say it’s a part of the algorithm, because it’s not. And the next clip defines that clearly.
Q: How could it be possible that our authority could drop more than 50% overnight?
Takeaway quote: “So…in general, Google doesn’t evaluate a site’s authority.“
Remember that the A in E-A-T stands for authoritativeness. Google does not score your site for authority, meaning it is not part of the algorithm. There may be some confusion due to Moz’s Domain Authority, which is a custom metric that they use and is definitely not used by Google. You can read the bolded text near the top that says “Domain Authority is not a metric used by Google in determining search rankings and has no effect on the SERPs.”
Takeaway quotes: “Those raters are there primarily to judge different algorithms that we want to test” and “It’s not that the raters would look at your site and say ‘this is a bad site’ it should rank lower in the search results, it’s more that the raters would look at the general algorithm and say ‘well, in this case this version is better or this version is better“.
I’m highlighting this one because this is confusing for a lot of people. Quality raters are rating algorithms, not individual websites. Their input and feedback may indirectly impact your website because their feedback affects which algorithms Google implements, but it’s not the case that your website specifically could be affected by their rating. In other words, ignore the fact they exist.
What about all the SEO Experts Talking about E-A-T
Industry experts are doing their best to adapt to a world where this is the new terminology their clients connect with. Conceptually, it’s really not that different from what was there before, but now it has a new name. And there’s also this sense that getting clients to focus on the basics of good online marketing is also good for the industry and their clients as a whole. Let’s take an example from the SEMRush webinars, with some well-known names discussing the contents of the QRG. Under the section on how Google measures E-A-T we have this brief exchange:
Casey Markee: Please.
Marie Haynes: So at Pubcon conference in Austin last year, I asked Gary Illyes, who is a Google spokesperson, how does Google algorithmically measure E-A-T? He said it’s largely based on off-site links and mentions. So let’s unpack that.
Offsite links and mentions have been a part of SEO for decades – literally since Google’s inception in the previous century. So there’s nothing new here, it’s all familiar to SEOs. But what’s important is the disconnect between the QRG and Google’s algorithm. Someone who is reading the QRG may falsely conclude that adding an author bio will improve their rankings. In fact, a lot of articles and users in forums are recommending this. In reality, building high quality, relevant links will do that. Remember my analogy about asking the chocolate factory’s QA team for the recipe? This is why you can’t do that.
Keep in mind the article above is a webinar between professionals who have been in the industry for a long time. They know that links are important. But they’re also responding to clients and colleagues who are using this new acronym that keeps popping up, and they’re responding to things Google representatives have been putting out there on social media. When a new buzzword shows up in SEO, they’re almost compelled to investigate it and provide their own unique insights, and translate it for their clients in lingo they understand. It’s also refreshing to have clients focused on improving website quality vs. obsessing over rank reports. If they find that this is resonating with their clients, they’ll likely keep using it as a communication tool. My concern is the unintended consequences it has in spreading misinformation. For the record, Casey and Marie do a good job in that webinar trying to tie E-A-T back to actionable SEO fundamentals.
What Does Google Have to Say?
Here’s the tweet that started it all, from Danny Sullivan, Google’s Search Liaison.
What about Author Bios?
On the question of authorship, John Mueller has answered this before and the most recent answer is still that authorship is not a ranking signal. I’ve covered this topic extensively in another article, but to give some brief context about why this has been so confusing, let’s look at some conflicting information from Google. As people began unpacking the information in the QRG, they started running across instruction for researching the authors of webpages, especially for YMYL pages. So people began asking Google reps questions about authorship. Gary Illyes, always a fan of the SEO community, responded to a few of these in an AMA in the r/TechSEO subreddit on Feb 7th, 2019. So again, this is recent information.
The redditor asking the question links to a tweet from 2016 which referenced another AMA that Gary had participated in at SMX, where he also confirmed that authorship was not being used. This is because for a brief period of time, authorship actually was used, but was discontinued. The key here is that when authorship was a ranking signal, Google reps willingly disclosed that it was a part of the algorithm. This precendent tells us that if they started using authorship again, they would have no logical reason for hiding it. They would simply say, yes, we’re using authorship as a ranking signal again, just like they did when page speed and https became ranking signals.
So now we have two people from Google recently verifying that authorship is not used as a ranking signal, and exactly zero studies from SEOs showing authorship to be a ranking signal. Know what this means? Authorship is not a ranking signal. You can write as many author bios as you want, but it’s not going to move you up in rankings. Authorship is a key component of the concept of E-A-T as a ranking signal, because you need to be able to identify and score authors to determine their expertise for a particular topic. You could score a website for expertise, but you would probably be using links as a proxy for that. And linkbuilding is just good old fashioned offsite-SEO.
What about YMYL?
Google has gone on public record several times that they do not alter their algorithm for specific industries, and the data we have with rank tracking tools like algoroo or SEMRush Sensor tends to back that up. However, they can and do adjust specific weights on ranking signals for different queries. Basically it means that they may be identifying a type of query as YMYL algorithmically and adjusting their rankings based on the type of query, not based on the type of industry. It’s a bit of semantics, but we do have a statement from Google to back this one up.
Q: When the team pushes out algorithm changes are there times where the changes are aimed at just a specific industry or are the changes made and they just happen to affect one industry more than others?
Takeaway quotes: “So it’s not so much that we focus on the industry but rather we focus on the these searches that people make.“
In this clip, John goes on to describe how this might apply to medical queries. Meaning that you could safely say that YMYL pages are subjected to a different set of ranking criteria. However, the guidance in the YMYL section is no different than what many in the SEO community have been promoting for years. Build extremely high quality content and earn relevant links to that content. Even the quality raters are evaluating your page’s quality by looking at links and mentions. You can see how they’re doing that in sections 2.6.2 and 2.6.4.
The QRG is not a ranking guide for SEOs. It’s a handbook for quality raters. There is no E-A-T score that gets applied to your website to determine where you rank. Google does not use Authorship. Authorship is nececssary to determine Expertise, the E in E-A-T. Google does not measure Authority. The A in E-A-T stands for Authoritativeness. Two thirds of the E-A-T acronym are explicitly neither tracked nor measured by Google. The focus on building expertise, authority, and trust via onsite-SEO seems misguided, as it is indicated that links play an important role. Yet they are completely ignored in nearly every article on the topic.
Why am I concerned about this? Because this perpetuates the same problem we have with people believing Domain Authority is a ranking signal used by Google. E-A-T and Domain Authority are both just proxies, and should be treated as such. Just as focusing exclusively on raising your domain authority may not improve your rankings, focusing on E-A-T also may not improve your rankings. By focusing on the wrong things, we fail to achieve the results we need to justify things like bigger budgets, better retainers and higher salaries. This is harmful to everyone in the industry, whether you’re a consultant, agency or client. But it’s also unlikely this terminology will go away, even if Google removes it from the QRG.
I hope this helps arm you with a greater understanding of what the QRG is and what E-A-T is for. If you want to use the QRG and E-A-T as a guide for improving website quality, I think that’s great. There is valuable guidance in there. Just don’t use it as a guide for SEO.
What can we do as SEO Professionals?
As consultants, part of our job is to educate and inform our clients. I have a lot of respect for how Moz handled the question of Domain Authority. Although the misunderstanding that Domain Authority as a piece of the algorithm was probably good for their business position, they actively worked to correct the record. They maintain on their website exactly what Domain Authority is and how it is best used, and what it is not used for. They responded on social media through well known profiles when questions have arisen. They have responded in forums. And while it’s purely anecdotal, I believe this dedication to transparency has helped. Clients and professionals seem more educated and less inclined to believe that Domain Authority is the new PageRank, and are better primed to use it well because of it. We can do the same thing regarding E-A-T. When we’re discussing this topic with clients, or posting articles about it, we should include the following disclaimers prominently in our statements and writing:
- The Quality Raters Guidelines are not a part of Google’s Algorithm
- Quality Raters do not affect your website’s rankings
- There is no E-A-T score
We know those three things to be true. Let’s do better as an industry. Thank you.