What Google Wants
Google does not want good content.
I know you’ve been told otherwise. I know that “Google wants good content” is a phrase repeated over and over, often by people who should know better. Unfortunately, it’s simply not true and believing it could be dangerous.
In this post, let’s examine what Google really wants and what that means for you.
Correlation and Causation
Before you start calling me a hypocrite, I’ll admit it right away: yes, I have often talked about the importance of good content for your websites and your marketing in general (and I will continue to do so). In fact, it’s clear to me why people keep saying that Google wants quality content. A quick glance at my own portfolio of websites makes it clear that those sites with low-quality, cheap, outsourced content are not faring as well as those with higher-quality content.
So, what am I on about?
We need to remember that correlation does not imply causation. For example, in some areas of the world, there are more human babies born during times when storks are nesting in the same region. In other words, there’s a correlation between the number of storks and the number of babies born. However, we know that this isn’t a case of one thing causing the other. The data is incidental and does not prove that human babies are, in fact, delivered by storks.
Similar correlations are constantly paraded up and down the news media, in their relentless quest to classify all inanimate objects in the world as either causing or preventing cancer. It’s easy to forget then, that just because two things coincide doesn’t mean that one is causing the other.
And so it is with Google and good content. Right now, there is some correlation between low quality, badly written, scraped and spammy content and low rankings. And there is also a correlation between quality content and high rankings. But there are two reasons why it’s important to realize that these are merely correlations, not causations.
Reason Number 1: Robots
Google’s evaluation of the web is based on algorithms. Robots and maths, if you will. There is no way for them to automate the human process of looking at a piece of content and seeing whether that content is “good” or “bad”.
This is a very important thing to keep in mind. Even if Google are getting better and better at separating the chaff from the wheat, quality-wise, they can’t actually detect quality. They always have to find a round-about way to approximate quality.
The original innovation was their PageRank algorithm, which treated external links on pages as “votes” for other pages. This is a round-about way of crowdsourcing the impossible task of evaluating every web-page on the Internet to every website owner on the Internet.
PageRank is still part of what Google do and, along with many, many other signals, it’s now joined by social metrics. The idea behind using social metrics is basically the same as the one behind PageRank: crowdsource every active Internet-user to determine the quality of websites. Google are looking for human signals to help them separate good from bad websites.
The reason I bring up social signals is because they serve as a great example for the correlation/causation issue with quality content: to make social signals more relevant and less easily exploitable, Google take something like “author authority” into account. A tweet from a twitter account with no followers and little activity doesn’t count as much as a tweet from a highly popular, highly active account. If you have a ton of followers, you have more credibility and your tweets carry more weight (and the same principle applies to other platforms).
In some cases, people are popular on social media because they consistently deliver great, valuable content. On the other hand, you can also be a nonsense-spewing celebrity and be wildly popular on twitter an co.
If we understand some of these inner workings, we can see that good, high-quality content, endorsed by links from high-quality websites and reputable social profiles can lead to high rankings. But so can rubbish content, endorsed by hordes of fans and social media celebs. Some people are famous for being famous. Some websites continue being popular because they’re popular. Quality doesn’t always enter the equation.
Reason Number 2: Money
Here’s the bigger reason why “Google wants quality content” is simply not true: Google wants more money for Google. Period. That’s the purpose of the company: to generate more revenue and more profit for itself, without breaking too many laws, or at least not all at once.
This is the driving factor behind everything that Google does. Of course we all know the argument that follows: “Google wants to show good, relevant content because that’s what keeps the search engine users happy, which is what makes Google so popular, which is how they make more money.”
Sounds reasonable enough and it’s even partially true. As long as showing quality content helps Google, there’s hope for people who create good content. But what if they decide that showing mediocre content from big brands is more beneficial to their bottom line? What if Google keep pushing organic search results further below the fold and fill up as much of the results page as possible with ads and links to Google-owned sites and services or Google partners? What if they start scraping the web to display information directly in the search results, instead of sending users to a website?
At the end of the day, Google don’t care one bit about the quality of your content. You can have the best content in the world and you can have worked harder for it than anyone else, but if there happens to be more money for Google in not showing your content in the results than in showing it, guess what they’ll do?
Time to Panic?
This is not a “end of SEO” post. It’s also not a post trying to scare you or spread panic.
If you realize that Google (the search engine) is driven by algorithms and you understand some of them, you will be able to make better decisions than if you think “Google wants quality content”. “Good content” is a fuzzy concept. Social signals, links, user engagement metrics and content optimization are concrete and real and they are where real results come from.
If you realize that Google (the company) is driven by a pursuit of increased profits, you’ll be in for fewer nasty surprises in the future and perhaps you’ll see why I’m making such a fuss about the New Traffic Paradigm, lately. And of course I continue to advocate creating good, valuable content. But you do that for people and for your brand, not for a search engine (remember: traffic is people!).
Sometimes, the buzzwords and the simple-but-fuzzy concepts are as popular as they are misleading. Seeing things as they really are will help you and your business and that’s why I wrote this post.
Do you agree? Disagree? What does Google really want, in your own experience?