I feel a bit like Arthur Weasley when he takes Harry Potter to stand trial before the entire Wizengamot (the magical community equivalent of Parliament) in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix". I'm not allowed to go in there with you to face what must seem like a terrifying inquisition but — don't worry — "As the Muggles say: Truth will out!"
Your Wizengamot isn't a collection of witches and wizards assembled by a hostile Cornelius Fudge — rather, your Wizengamot is a collection of quality raters assembled by Google. They have been told a certain story, that there are Websites of high and low value mixed together, and that their judgement will be used to determine which are the best sites and which are the ugly sites.
However, you're not even privileged to stand before the Wizengamot — they have already made their choices. You must instead live with the Ministry of Magic's interpretations of those choices as executed by the Pandalyzer, a magical beast that quickly scans Websites and sorts them into "High Quality Websites" and "Low Quality Websites".
The Pandalyzer listened carefully to the Wizengamot but it's a strange beast that the Ministry has not fully mastered. They don't quite know what to expect of it. They keep a close watch over the poor beast but they don't actually interfere with its business. They're probably not sure they could stop it if it ran amok.
Website Quality? Er….
Website quality is a perilous topic to fling around in casual conversation. I have seen many a frustrated Webmaster complain about Google's judgements through the years. They always have "quality links", "quality content", are mentioned on "quality sites", and basically invest in "high quality content". And yet, somehow, magically, they get slammed by nearly every major advance Google makes in the war against "low quality Websites".
As Inigo Montoya might say, "You keep using the word 'quality' — I do not thin' it means what you thin' it means."
Of course, in typical El Kabong/Quick Draw McDraw fashion, many an indignant Webmaster angrily replies, "I'll do the thinnin' around here Babalooie (er, Inigo)!"
The point is, when it comes to determining what is a high quality site in Google's eyes, you and I don't get to do the thinnin' around here. We're playing in Google's sandbox and Google gets to call the shots, make the rules, choose whose pails and shovels are used and whose are not.
It's not that your business is completely at Google's mercy — if you feel it is then you have to take responsibility for your choices in how to acquire Web traffic. However, your participation in Google's court of Website quality opinion IS completely at Google's mercy. And let's be honest here: Google showed no mercy to a lot of sites this year.
The previous 9 paragraphs lead up to this one simple point. Here is Google's definition for a high quality Website: [S*E*C*R*E*T]
That's not a cheat, but rather a simple truth. Neither you nor I know what their definition is. So it's time that SEOs and Webmasters alike stop insisting that Google made a mistake. Google may make mistakes but don't mistake Google's CHOICES for MISTAKES.
Identifying High Quality Websites
Since we're not privy to the precise details of what constitutes a high quality Website in Google's eyes, we have a couple of alternatives. The first alternative is for us all to pool our ideas together and see what we can come up with. BZZT! Sorry, but I don't like what the SEO community has come up with so far. Too little attention has been paid to the details. Too much attention has been paid to El Grande Teorios y Mitos.
That's los loca manera de recoger los hechos.
So let's look at what lies behind door number 2: A collection of opinions from trusted resources about how to identify "high quality Websites". These resources have credentials, but you may not like those credentials. That's fine, but before we quibble over whether their credentials are better than yours, let's see if their methods produce better results than what we have seen so far.
In short, let's look for some agreement among previous efforts to nail down what makes a high quality Website among sources that had virtually no commercial incentive to influence Google's search results. Let's scour the Web for a few examples of Website quality assessment that precede the Panda algorithm and help shed light on what people, mere simple people, can do to identify high quality Websites.
So after all that preamble, here is the list of sources I have selected:
- "Assessing the quality of web sites" published on Science Direct from Volume 9, Issue 1 (January 2011) of Applied Computing and Informatics.
- Web Site Quality Evaluation Tool For Food Safety Project (February 7, 2007) by Claire R. McInerney and Nora J. Bird.
- University of Oregon Libraries: Critical Evaluation of Information Sources, Last Modified May 19, 2009.
- "Quality Criteria for Website Excellence" from World Best Websites (last copyright 2004), cited by numerous EDU sites.
- Website Assessment and Evaluation from TRIO TRAINING at the University of Washington (last copyright date 2010).
Those are the primary sources. Here are three more that tend to agree with much of what is written on the above sites:
- Evaluating Web Information from the University of North Carolina, Asheville (last updated July 19, 2005).
- Evaluating Web Sites from the University of Maryland University Libraries (last update August 8, 2006).
- Evaluating Web Sites: Criteria and Tools from Cornell University Library, Olin & Uris Libraries (last updated October 5, 2010).
Quality: What They Say
I'm not going to synthesize what all these articles say for you. If you really care about Website quality, you'll do that yourself. But I'll offer some opinions here on what I think contributes to high Website quality and why.
- Navigation – A high quality Website uses only as much navigation as the user needs to intuitively deduce what is probably available on the site.
- Presentation – A high quality Website puts the information first and the monetization second.
- Transparency – A high quality Website makes it easy for the user to find (both on-site and through a search engine) who is behind the site, what the site is about, and how to contact the site operator.
- Independent Confirmability – It's easy enough to fake being an expert by planting supporting evidence throughout social media and on fake blogs, but if news sites, insitutional Websites, books, and other media (as well as random Websites) cite your information as a source, that's independent confirmation.
- Focus – A high quality Website focuses on the information and the user, not on the potential benefits to be gained from links, monetization, and "SEO".
- Topicality – Only a small percentage of a high quality site's content is highly relevant to whatever people are searching for.
Website navigation is usually the first part of a site that is perverted to the mindless production of "SEO value". Bloated navigation structures are a sure sign that someone is trying to "optimize" for search.
Presentation and Style – Classy Websites have style. High quality Websites have style even if they look ugly. Low quality Websites rely upon cookie-cutter, formulaic, expensive-template approaches to their presentations.
Transparency and Openness – Given a choice between giving your credit card information to some nameless self-promotional schmuck and Amazon.com (or eBay, or Barnes and Noble, or Wal-Mart, et. al.), who you gonna call? It ain't the ghost behind Schmuckster Door Number 1, is it?
Confirmable Facts – It's easy to create 100 blogs that all say the same thing you say. It's not so easy to get CNN, Wikipedia, and the University of California – Berkeley to publish your information and cite you as a credible source. If you're publishing information no one cares about, you ain't got no high quality. Even your product prices should be worth someone's time somewhere on the Web.
Focus on the User – We pay a lot of lip service to this topic because, after all, we want user conversions. Here's a clue: Most high quality Websites are not trying to optimize for one type of conversion. Remember that the average consumer spends up to 2 weeks researching major purchase decisions. Which site are YOU most likely to buy from: the one that helped you do that research (while promoting its low prices to you) or the one that just says, "HEY! I'm an AFFILIATE! GIVE ME YOUR MONEY NOW!"? This should be a no-brainer.
Topicality and Timeliness – Don't you think it's odd that every time you type in a query asking a question, some schmucky Website pops up near the top of the results with an "answer"? Of course — you're an SEO and you know this is "good SEO". Problem is, those sites slip past the Pandalyzer for less obvious reasons. There cannot be any authoritative Website that knows everything about everything. At some point, these answer sites will be downgraded in ways we cannot imagine. Wikipedia does not appear in all the queries that I run. What the heck is Answers.com doing in there?
Reverse Engineering Panda – Yeah Right
If you're looking for ways to reverse engineer the Panda Effect, this article ain't it. And honestly you don't need to do that. If you got hit by Panda, just stop and think about what that says about your opinion of what constitutes "high quality".
All it says is that your opinion doesn't agree with Google's — and only Google's opinion matters in these matters.
The thing you need to be doing is changing your site. But if you don't know what you should be doing with your site, what good would it do for you to change it? That's why I provided the links above. You can ignore my opinions because they're just opinions. But a lot of people have thought about what goes into a "high quality site" through the years.
Their tips may seem no more helpful than the 23 questions Google published on May 6, 2011 — but then again, it just may help if you look at a half dozen or so other perspectives.
There is something I call the Principle of Corroboration: "In any class of inexpert observers, the more agreement between conclusive arguments provided by multiple observers, the more likely the corroborated arguments are correct." As far as Google's Panda technology is concerned, all the sites I linked to above are "inexpert" — just like you and me. But you and I have very insular opinions. I think those sites offer some credible outside, non-SEO perspectives on the subject of "high quality Websites".
The more agreement you find between those sites and your own choices about what to do with your site design and content, the better (in my opinion) the chances you'll be able to recover from and evolve with Google's Pandalyzer.
I'd love to be Albus Dumbledore, bringing up your witness for the defense. Unfortunately, not only did I NOT get the owl saying that the time and place of the hearing before the Wizengamot had been moved — by an unhappy chance I happened to NOT be at the Ministry when the hearing was held.
You're not entirely on your own, but from this point forward you have only opportunity and choice to accompany you. Trust these new companions in your World Wide Web adventures. I think they are more trustworthy than the conspiracy theories you used to run around with.