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Last Updated: 17th October 2019

There are known to be over 200 search ranking factors in Google’s search engine algorithm, many of which are hotly debated in the internet marketing community. It can often be helpful to analyse the content produced by Google in this regard, although sometimes a small pinch of salt is needed when doing so!

As far as content-related factors for search engines and users are concerned, Google’s Search Quality Rater guidelines can offer some insight into the workings of the search giant in a way that’s ‘from the horse’s mouth’ so to speak.

We thought we’d put this guide together to examine the guidelines from an ecommerce point of view. These are our takeaways on what site owners can do to enhance the quality of their sites.

What are the search quality rater guidelines?

A document prepared by Google to help their human reviewers analyse and mark up search results appropriately. Raters are given a series of tasks to perform, and asked to evaluate the quality of the results. This encompasses both page and site quality, and whether the needs of the user are met or not. However, it’s important to note that they are not assigning positive or negative ratings to individual sites.

Why do they matter for ecommerce?

Ecommerce websites fall under the category of ‘your money or your life’ (YMYL) sites which, according to Google, are sites that may affect the lives of users in an impactful way, more so than normal everyday queries would. (The bold emphasis below is by Agency51)

There are some pages for which PQ is particularly important. We call these pages Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) pages. They are pages that can have an impact on your current or future well being (physical, financial, safety, etc.). YMYL pages should come from reputable websites and the content should be created with a high level of expertise and authority.

Source: Search Engine Watch

YMYL is tied to the concept of E-A-T (expertise, authority, trust) which has been particularly relevant recently with the uproar about fake news. For anyone publishing content now, especially for anyone selling goods or services online, being able to demonstrate clear indicators that the domain in question is worthy of operating within their online marketplace (not just the site with the most links, or the most content, as used to be the case) is an important aspect of the overall puzzle. We’ll go into some of these in this post. Let’s start with the trust aspect – a critical one for ecommerce.

Trust and reputation

Contact information and customer service information

On page 14 of the guidelines, Google state the following:

The types and amount of contact information needed depend on the type of website. Contact information and customer service information are extremely important for websites that handle money, such as stores, banks, credit card companies, etc. Users need a way to ask questions or get help when a problem occurs.
For shopping websites, we’ll ask you to do some special checks. Look for contact information—including the store’s
policies on payment, exchanges, and returns. Sometimes this information is listed under “customer service.”

Source: Search quality guidelines, page 14

Google take the safety of their users especially seriously when there is the possibility of them landing on commercially-driven pages, where transactions will take place. If users land on ecommerce websites that do not provide an adequate level of support when money is changing hands, this can often be the sign of a shady operation. This also extends to information on cookies and how user data is handled, particularly in the age of GDPR.

Reviews and reputation

The online reputation of a domain is critical to success in search. In the past, this used to be based just on the links pointing to the site (it still is up to a point) but now qualitative measures of domain reputation are increasingly important. Let’s take a look at the reputation research section of the guidelines:

Use reputation research to find out what real users, as well as experts, think about a website. Look for reviews,
references, recommendations by experts, news articles, and other credible information created/written by individuals
about the website.

Stores frequently have user ratings, which can help you understand a store’s reputation based on the reports of people
who actually shop there. We consider a large number of positive user reviews as evidence of positive reputation

Look for information written by a person, not statistics or other machine-compiled information. News articles, Wikipedia
articles, blog posts, magazine articles, forum discussions, and ratings from independent organizations can all be sources
of reputation information. Look for independent, credible sources of information

Source: Search quality guidelines, page 15

As a result, it seems reasonable to assume that simply providing a good customer experience can reduce the possibility of negative reputation problems online.There is a caveat to the above for smaller websites:

Frequently, you will find little or no information about the reputation of a website for a small organization. This is not
indicative of positive or negative reputation. 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.

Source: Search quality guidelines, page 17

At Agency51 we often find that sites struggling in search have poor reputations online, this is not entirely a coincidence!

Let's work together

If you want to talk to our specialist team about how we can help you with your digital marketing, talk to our team today.

Takeaways:

A checklist of pages to include from a trust and support perspective on an ecommerce site could be:

  • Contact us, including multiple ways to get in contact if possible and a phone number
  •  Delivery/shipping
  • Returns and refunds
  • Privacy policy/cookie policy (Could be separate pages, or combined)
  • Terms and conditions
  • Depending on industry, additional pages may be required, e.g. information on prescriptions if running a site selling pharmaceutical products.
  • FAQs – not essential, but certainly helpful as a detailed page addressing common customer pain points is often seen favorably by users.
  • Ensure that customer service and positive brand experiences are prioritised to develop a strong online reputation.

High levels of detail on these pages are important-simply having a cookie policy page that has a paragraph of basic text with no information on the cookies involved, for example, doesn’t meet the searcher’s intent of finding out about what cookies are used. For example, The Guardian’s Cookie Policy is very detailed on what information they collect:

Guardian Privacy policy

Security-HTTPS

An important consideration for ecommerce websites in general, as well as in organic search, is the security of their customers-this is backed up on page 31:

Low quality pages often lack an appropriate level of E-A-T for the purpose of the page. Here are some examples:
● The website is not an authoritative source for the topic of the page, e.g. tax information on a cooking website.
The MC is not trustworthy, e.g. a shopping checkout page that has an insecure connection.

Source:Search quality guidelines, page 31

For websites handling financial transactions or any form of sensitive customer data, having the data sent in an encrypted format is essential. Ecommerce websites not using HTTPS will get the dreaded ‘not secure’ warning in Chrome and other browsers:

Source:TheNextweb

Not using HTTPS/SSL has a number of negative effects:

  • User’s data may be intercepted, leading to a data breach.
  • Loss of trust with users – With hacks rife in the current climate, customers want to know their data is safe.
  • There is also a (small) SEO benefit to using HTTPS, which would otherwise be left on the table.

Takeaway:

Given the number of good quality, low cost SSL certificates now available (as well as Let’s Encrypt, which allows the setup of SSL for free) and the ease of setting them up on most systems, using HTTPS on an ecommerce website is a must.

Content quality

The quality of an ecommerce store’s content, both product page content and supplementary (blog content etc.) is crucial to ecommerce success. Particularly that of product pages. Google, rather helpfully, provides  several clues as to what constitutes a good quality product page on page 20 (the brand is Target)

This shopping page on a reputable shopping website has a satisfying amount of high quality MC (Main content) The page
provides the manufacturer’s product specs, as well as original product information, over 90 user reviews,
shipping and returns information, multiple images of the product, etc. Note: Some of the MC is behind links on
the page (“item details,” “item specifications,” “guest reviews,” etc.). Even though you have to click these links
to see the content, it is still considered MC.

Source: Search quality guidelines, page 20

Takeaways:

  • Provide plenty of information about the product, preferably with unique content supplementing the manufacturer’s description (many stores simply use the latter which could case duplicate content problems with other sites)
  • User reviews are beneficial, if it is possible to collect them on the site.
  • UX considerations, such as multiple images to make it easy for the customer to look over the product, and sensible use of drop down sections of text can be useful so as not to overwhelm the user with walls of text!

Functionality

We’ve also picked out a couple of points on functionality, namely shopping cart utility and the handling of 404 pages.

Shopping cart checks

For each page you evaluate, spend a few minutes examining the MC before drawing a conclusion about it. Read the
article, watch the video, examine the pictures, use the calculator, play the online game, etc. Remember that MC also
includes page features and functionality, so test the page out. For example, if the page is a product page on a store
website, put at least one product in the cart to make sure the shopping cart is functioning.

Source: Search quality guidelines, page 20

It’s important that users are able to smoothly complete actions on any given site. With ecommerce, this is obviously going to be adding items to a checkout and then paying for them. If this part of the process breaks down, large amounts of revenue can be left on the table.

Takeaway:

Regularly test the whole ordering process, and check in on analytics to see if there are any anomalies with how users interact with the purchasing funnel.

Let's work together

If you want to talk to our specialist team about how we can help you with your digital marketing, talk to our team today.

404 pages

This is something that we’ve talked about before (specifically with regards to overly creative 404 pages being potentially interpreted as confusing) and we think it’s interesting the Google has a section dedicated to how to interpret pages that show page not found errors.

Some pages are temporarily broken pages on otherwise functioning websites, while some pages have an explicit error (or
custom 404) message. In some cases, pages are missing MC as well. Please think about whether the page offers help
for users—did the webmaster spend time, effort, and care on the page?

Source: Search quality guidelines, page 57

This table goes into some detail about what is considered a good 404 page, with the example below receiving the highest rating:

The New Yorker’s page is listed as the best, which is interesting. Presumably, the detailed search feature along with the artistic design, as implied in the comments, results in this page getting the highest quality score.

Conclusions

There are plenty of facets to successfully optimising an ecommerce store, and there’s no doubt that the marketplace is becoming increasingly crowded for online retailers-in such environments, developing as much of a holistic user and search experience as possible may just give ecommerce store owners the advantage over their competitors that they need to succeed.

We hope you’ve found the above helpful. If you own an ecommerce store and want to find out more about how we can help you improve your online marketing, please get in touch with us!

Ben Henderson

Ben Henderson

Ben Henderson is a SEO specialist at Agency51, and enjoys working on and writing about all aspects of technical SEO for a wide variety of websites and industries.

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