Content Quality is about User Needs

As a search engine optimisation consultant, I work with clients who publish content to help users find answers to their questions. I previously led SEO strategy for the consumer group Which? for a decade, and I am part of an ecosystem which relies on search engines to show the content they discover within their search results pages.

Nearly every day there’s another article which says the recipe to guarantee high SEO results is high-quality content. They say all it takes is for you to create the ultimate guide, or the best version of an article that you can muster, against the competition that you face. Or that content quality increases with a certain word count. Some will also say that high-quality content should solve a problem for a user. The real answer is a bit more complicated.

There is an inordinate amount of discussion about Google Quality Rater Guidelines. In particular, the elements which deal with E-A-T: Expertise, Authority and Trust. Google are continually adjusting the algorithms which determine the search results and some of those changes target low-quality content.

Google told webmasters when they launched an offensive back in 2011 against low-quality content and again when their Panda algorithm went global that they “…have a responsibility to encourage a healthy web ecosystem. Therefore, it is important for high-quality sites to be rewarded…”. 

Finding the right sorts of content to reward is not an easy task for Google. In the morass of content published on the web each day is good and bad. Some will have a clear focus and purpose to resolve questions for a user. Others, well they resort to producing content to evade Google’s filters, with content which engages users but is far from the publishers brand identity, voice and tone.

Those off-brand content items are created without consideration of the user. These disappointing content items clutter up the web search and reading experience and impact on us all as consumers, denting our trust in those publishers.

Unsurprisingly, during my time at Which? I had ingrained the centrality of audience needs, and I helped put this into practice. Each advice article or news item created has a purpose, audience, scope and topic. Editorial teams dedicate time to review and keep content up-to-date, and there’s a discipline applied to check content fitness for purpose.

People like you and me want answers to a multitude of questions and use objective and subjective considerations to determine success in finding those answers.

We experience content quality differently

Whereas objective factors like time on page, bounce rate and goal conversion are measurable, personal factors which include emotions, affect, feelings and perceptions are more challenging to capture consistently.

SEO industry articles have not helped, as they mostly consider objective measures like generating leads, getting social shares and better SEO position as a function of high-quality content. That is true extent and many a marketing team will value those measures, but there are also subjective factors which are beneficial to the user and are often more nuanced.

The original secret sauce to Google’s rise to verbiage PageRank, implied quality content as a prerequisite: highly linked-to web pages were expected to be of the best quality. Producing stories in digital form which engage people, entertain them, help them learn something or make them feel better informed is new, but storytelling is not.

Wang, Hawke and Tenopir (2000) discovered that successful search performance made users feel better, reducing negative feelings such as anxiety. Subjective factors were tested in research by Gwizdka and Lopatovska (2009). Their study confirmed previous work and found that how a user feels before and after a search may be a predictor of the type of search outcome achieved. 

Search engines are motivated to work hard at finding and presenting search results, and more often than not, the answers in the results pages provide their users with a complete and relevant picture. But consider web businesses which don’t serve their customers or audiences well. The Internet has a comprehensive sample of poor reviews of those businesses.

If web sites publish junk content, they’re operating in a false economy which does not value users. Relying on the halo of irrelevance from cruft to lift their unremarkable content is not good business. Businesses which discovered a perverse kink in Google’s algorithm, which rewarded poor reviews found it was put right by the search giant in 2010. So the net effect to a business which treats the needs of potential customers as secondary is a higher cost and effort to build trust with them.

It’s helpful for businesses to consider which of their users’ tasks the company can uniquely help satisfy, and to redirect efforts from quantity to quality. With this aim front of mind, all other business functions can deliver direct value for the business, and indirect benefit as they meet more of those expectations which are inherent in meeting users’ expectations.

How do you measure a feeling?

Pioneer of User Experience Jakob Nielsen was advocating more than two decades ago for business to invest in high-quality content and experiences for users. In his 1999 book Designing Web Usability, Nielsen expounds his formula for high-quality using the catchy acronym HOME RUN, which still holds true:

  • High-Quality content
  • Often Updated
  • Minimal download time
  • Ease of use
  • Relevant to users’ needs
  • Unique to the online medium
  • Net-centric corporate culture

Nielsen said “The HOME RUN approach to web design requires the entire company to get behind the website to deliver an optimal customer experience in the online world. No web team, no matter how good, can create a website that works if the rest of the company is mired in the physical world and unwilling to put the Internet first in all aspects of virtually all projects.”

Why has it taken us all so long to take proper notice? Perhaps we have been too focused on the value we want to achieve, more than the delight we deliver to the audiences we are here to serve? The frustration with poor quality content is a phenomenon which is being recognised.

Jennifer Slegg commented on Twitter: 

and Lyndon Antcliff mentions:

Dave Davis, an SEO columnist for Search Engine Land took a survey of some existing research on high-quality content. He discovered “Quality is defined by the simple principle of exceeding your visitors’ expectations on what they will find when they get to your web resource. That’s it.”

We need to be bolder and reconsider how we apply those early lessons about quality and user experience from Nielsen. In our views on what information quality is and how we think about our content as being of ‘benefit to the user’. 

Quantifying subjective factors

In another study, researchers Lopatovska and Mokros (2008) investigated the willingness of users to pay for search results, and the utility they experience from them to quantify what are frequently subjective measures of experience and value.

Their research found it is possible to evaluate content using the common themes of usefulness, style, thoroughness, interestingness and reliability. A nod to some of the values of good storytelling. Willingness to pay; asks users to give a positive or negative value to a content item found in a search result.

When users rated their ‘experienced utility’ the data suggest they did so with different needs states. Willingness to pay aligned more strongly to content which fulfilled ‘rational and emotional aspects of content valuations’.

The research found a users’ willingness to pay relied most on the ability of the content to be useful, followed by its style and how thorough the content was. When considering style, a large majority of participants rated the value of shorter content more highly than longer content.

Experienced utility, the more emotional measure, had a different priority ascribed by study participants, with style, interest and usefulness measures mattering more. Aesthetically pleasing features and aspects related to user experience design are familiar areas for Google to consider. The URL Inspection Tool within Google Search Console and the Mobile-Friendly Test Tool both provide practical feedback.

To put this into action, speak to the ‘why’ of your product or service. Show rather than tell the audience how your solution will make an impact on their life, helping to solve a problem that they have. The audience which receives this message will be far more inclined to take on the information you have to offer and build a trusting relationship with your brand.