Well, I actually read through the 172-page Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines, with all of its memorable examples featuring jungle gyms, Tom Cruise, and the Utopia Animal Hospital.
I waded through this dense midge-water marsh of information hoping to enhance my comprehension of how Google understands local business reputation. I did it so you might not have to, and today’s column summarizes the clues I found amid the reeds as well as checking in with Dr. Marie Haynes for her algorithm update expertise.
For local brands, reputation is everything. It’s an always-on sales force, quality control, and a business intelligence methodology when creatively managed. It’s renown or infamy, a source of pride or a signal that improvements are required. It’s a multi-faceted local search engine ranking factor and it’s also a key component in how Google views entities. Today, we’ll take a swift trek through top takeaways from one enormous .pdf which just might inspire you to seek out many new ways of proving to Google and the public that the local businesses you market are the best in town.
The purpose of quality raters: somewhat clearer than mud!
Google employs 10,000+ people, referred to as “raters” or “evaluators” to judge webpages on the basis of the Search Quality Evaluator guidelines (sometimes referred to as the QRG). What sometimes confuses folks, though, is that these evaluations do not directly impact the rankings of the entities being reviewed. Rather, Google’s simplified explanation of the the purpose of this large human network is to:
“Help make sure Search is returning relevant results from the most reliable sources available”
How this works is that the raters are supposed to act as checks on whether Google’s ongoing algorithmic updates are producing better or worse results. For example, a quality rater might be tasked with looking at a set of results for the query “lead-free garden hose” before a Google update, and then compare that to the results for the same search after Google has made an adjustment. Did the adjustment produce better results, according to the principles in the guidelines? That’s the kind of question the rater is there to answer. As Google explains:
“They help us measure how well our systems are working to deliver great content.”
I like to think of the evaluators as a big flock of wading birds, probing the muddy sands of search for what they’ve been trained to think of as delicious. And why do we care what is on their menu? Because the guidelines tell us, in advance, something about how Google views search quality, and insights into their take on a good reputation are especially relevant to local business owners and their marketers.
Talking QRG + reputation with Dr. Marie Hanyes
When it comes to exploring the morass of Google’s algorithms, author and speaker Dr. Marie Haynes’ work is among the most respected in the industry and I’ve come to rely on her expertise. She has written extensively about the QRG and what it tells us about Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness (E-A-T) and about Your-Money-or-Your-Life (YMYL) business models, and I particularly value the thoughts she shared with me about Google’s vision of reputation:
While Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines are not an exact representation of what Google’s algorithms do, we know that what’s in the QRG represents what Google is trying to accomplish in their algorithms. The QRG speaks several times about the importance of reputation. Google does not want to rank websites that are untrustworthy. What I found the most interesting in the QRG is how the raters are told to find different types of reputation information depending on the nature of the business they are researching. The guidelines say, “A website’s reputation is based on the experience of real users, as well as the opinion of people who are experts in the topic of the website.”
If you are writing on YMYL topics, then I believe that in order to rank you need to have information that is backed up by experts in your field. For many sites, improving E-A-T can start with responding to reviews, rectifying negative reviews and fixing the business issues that lead to users leaving those negative reviews. In section 2.6.1 of the QRG, it says, “For YMYL informational topics, the reputation of a website or content creator should be judged by what experts in the field have to say. Recommendations from expert sources, such as professional societies, are strong evidence of a very positive reputation.”
But even if you are not writing on YMYL topics, reputation is important! The guidelines say, “For example, customer ratings and reviews may be helpful for reputation research of online stores, but much less so for medical information websites.” And also, “For some topics, such as humor or recipes, less formal expertise is OK. For these topics, popularity, user engagement, and user reviews can be considered evidence of reputation. For topics that need less formal expertise, websites can be considered to have a positive reputation if they are highly popular and well-loved for their topic or content type, and are focused on helping users.
Real users, formal and less-formal experts, and a variety of independent sources, then, all come into play when it comes to raters identifying reputations. Thank you, Dr. Haynes!
What makes for a good or bad reputation, according to Google’s Guidelines?
To start with, it’s interesting to note that Google sets an extremely low bar for many local businesses when it comes to their reputation. Nota bene:
Many small, local businesses or community organizations have a small “web presence” and rely on word of mouth, not online reviews. For these smaller businesses and organizations, lack of reputation should not be considered an indication of low page quality.
I find this quote fascinating for three reasons:
On the one hand, Moz readers will know that I am a very strong proponent of local businesses investing seriously in earning amazing word of mouth and a large body of positive reviews. Doing so should be table stakes for every local brand, no matter how small and no matter what Google thinks!
On the other hand, the fact that Google’s SMB expectations are so modest may lend a welcome note of ease to players just jumping into the local search marketing game; you need to become the best in town, but you’re not up against Google’s index of the whole world!
Finally, the foregoing excerpt from the guidelines is useful, because it illustrates how Google conceptualizes reputation in the context of overall page quality. In a nutshell, raters are looking around the web for proof of reputation to help them determine whether a web page deserves to be considered high or low quality.
Google’s document contains multiple examples of signs of a good or bad reputation, which I’ll pare down to just two:
Google points to a business selling jungle gyms that is the subject of multiple reviews claiming to have been ripped off and also of news articles citing fraud.
Google mentions a medical facility which Wikipedia and news articles from respected sources name as one of the top four hospitals in the US.
The difference is easy to see, and your job in marketing a local business is to make it very obvious to the raters into which category your brand falls!
Where to build a reputational beacon any rater can see
Think of those thousands of raters in a boggy maze and learn to construct signals of reputation which handily guide them to a true and good quality assessment. Google lists all of the following as your options for this work:
The local businesses you market will all make claims on their websites about offering top quality goods and services, but the QRG goes out of its way to instruct raters to disregard this sentiment in favor of the independent evaluations captured in actual customer reviews. Raters can examine your review corpus to see if the public feels the brand is meeting expectations. Famous brands may need to care most about reviews that judge whether a business is living up to hype, but every local company should implement a review acquisition and management strategy which seeks to prove to both the community and the raters that a high-quality reputation is being won via excellent customer service.
If your industry includes a professional review site or network, make it a goal to earn this press. In the restaurant space, I’ve learned that most professional review sites don’t accept solicitations. Rather, an eatery must take the indirect approach of building up enough local word-of-mouth buzz to catch the attention of the professional reviewer. If your vertical lends itself to this type of notice, know that Google’s quality raters can closely examine this type of content for signals of brand quality.
If the community you serve is lucky enough to have one or more dedicated local blogs, their authors should be neighbors you get to know. Avoid a hard sell in your outreach. Rather, discover a meaningful way to start talking about your shared love of your city; local bloggers tend to be serious community advocates, and if you can prove that your business shares such aesthetics, you’re taking the first steps to becoming blog-worthy. If Google’s raters can find nearby writers speaking well of the brands you market, it can go far towards validating a good reputation.
Many online magazines have a small business focus, and while you may need to work hard to achieve the level of fame that would win mentions of the brands you market in a publication like Entrepreneur or Fast Company, smaller concerns like Small Business Trends Magazine regularly spotlight SMBs. Columnists and editors are always looking for a good story, and while the inquiry and submission policies for each magazine will be different, thoughtful outreach on your part with an interesting business anecdote from which peers can derive takeaways is another great way to prove to the raters that a company is growing its good reputation.
From years of reading local business news stories, I’ve realized that the best way to earn inclusion is through simple helpfulness to the community. Whether that’s providing straight-up relief in a time of crisis, as in the above store of a disaster remediation company who did free work for a resident when her apartment was flooded, or from being a participant in or sponsor of events, teams, conferences, and movements, a local business can build a substantial reputation for good though its support of its neighbors. Sometimes, local stories are even of such considerable human interest that they become syndicated. Actively seek opportunities to become a business that’s known for helping others.
Local business owners may sometimes wonder whether fora are too old school to be relevant. Google says no, and instructs its raters to check them for discussions of brand quality. If the community you serve has a forum, like the forum of the West Seattle Blog, where neighbors are asking one another about a restaurant, it’s a good thing to be mentioned there. Nextdoor would be another obvious option for local talk about your business. Most fora prohibit self-promotion, but if you become a member of a community hub like these, there may be opportunities for you to increase the visibility of your participation in your town or city and to respond when your company is mentioned and you’ll be offering a very positive impression for Google’s raters to consider.
I’ve served local business owners who are humble and shy of blowing their own horn, but in the quest for a glowing reputation, there is nothing to stop you from applying for prestigious awards or vying for local ones issued on a smaller scale, like the “best of the county” honors offered by this publication. Not only will it provide a strong signal of public trust on your website, Google Business Profile, and other online assets if you can say “voted best dentist in X in 2022” but the quality raters will encounter these awards and go further along their journey of believing your brand is truly earning a great reputation.
One last tip for reputation growth
Google’s QRG is quite clear about wanting raters to rely mainly on independent sources to evaluate reputation. This is why it’s so important to get bloggers, columnists, reporters, communities, and organizations talking about the local businesses you market. You want your brands on their domains.
But don’t let a mention earned exist in one place only. When you earn press, reviews, awards, and other fame, repurpose that content on your website, local business listings, and social media profiles. Write some Google posts, shoot a video, craft a blog post, or an Instagram story. This will not only provide multiple paths for a Google search quality evaluator to discover your fame, but it will be remarketing positive messaging to the audience that matters more than any other: your customers!
The ancient Greek playwright Euripides said, “Along with success comes a reputation for wisdom.” Local business owners have already built up an impressive store of sagacity simply by running their operations; taking the next step of learning to see reputation as Google does is a habit of success they can easily adopt. Always continue to think customer-first, but thinking search engine-second when it comes to building online renown is surely a tactic for the wise.
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