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Understanding and navigating Google Guidelines and Policies

Episode Overview

Understanding the nuances and relationships between Google Guidelines and their supporting policies is a mainstay of the SEO community. In the 111th episode of Voices of Search, Jordan returns to give a crash course on Google Guidelines and Policies, how to interpret them and where source the information you’ll need to stay on top.

Topics covered include:

  • The difference between Google Guidelines and Google Policies
  • How Google adapts its policies over time to support new technologies and changes in consumer preferences
  • Understanding what Google’s guidelines and policies are.
  • How Google communicates what SEO’s need to know and how it relates to the its Search Algorithms


Episode Transcript

Ben:                 Welcome to algorithm month on the Voices of Search podcast. I’m your host Benjamin Shapiro and this month we’re taking a look inside the black box that is the Google search algorithm. Joining us today is Jordan Koene who is the lead SEO strategist and the CEO of Searchmetrics Inc. And today Jordan and I are going to talk about how Google’s policies and guidelines impact their algorithm.

Ben:                 But before we hear from Jordan, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We are an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise-scale businesses, monitor their online presence and make data-driven decisions. To support you our loyal podcast listeners, we’re offering a complimentary consultation. Where a member of our digital strategies group will provide you with a consultation that reviews how your website content and SEO strategies can all be optimized.

Ben:                 To schedule your free consultation, go to Okay, on with the show. Here’s my conversation with Jordan Koene, lead SEO strategist and CEO of Searchmetrics inc Jordan.

Ben:                 Jordan, welcome back to algorithm month on the Voices of Search podcast.

Jordan:             Hey Ben, I’m ready to dive into maybe what would be considered the most boring topic, but I would completely disagree.

Ben:                 I was going to try to make a joke here about time to get excited. We’re going to talk about guidelines and policies. Woo.

Jordan:             Yeah, it’s like reading the dictionary.

Ben:                 All right, well we’re going to try to make this episode a little bit more exciting than dry wheat toast.

Jordan:             Exactly.

Ben:                 So Jordan, so far this month we’ve been talking about what Google’s algorithm is. We’ve been talking about what ranking factors are and how they impact it, and just to catch everyone up, we’ve said that Google doesn’t have a single algorithm, right? They have a collection of technologies that help you evaluate sort and match your content to specific keywords. And they have these systems that crawl and index and figure out what the right experience is for your content within their search experience.

Ben:                 And when we say an algorithm, we really mean multiple algorithms. There’s the core algorithm, freshness, relevance, local, video, imagery, a whole bunch of different algorithms that weave together to make Google’s general search algorithm. And we talked about ranking factors last week as some of the things that we think, as the SEO community, are going to impact how your content is consumed by Google. But Google actually states what their policies and their guidelines are and how they think about your content. So Jordan, with that said, talk to me a little bit about the difference between, well Google says as a policy and what Google says is a guideline.

Jordan:             Yes. So, guidelines are overarching themes that Google’s trying to provide guidance and direction on to webmasters and the SEO community. So Google has things like content guidelines, quality guidelines. Those can be broken down into certain specific guidelines like overarching content topics like amp guidelines.

Jordan:             But within those guidelines there are policies and those policies are the specifics by which you have to apply those guidelines. So in order for you to become relevant in amp, you need to follow certain policies or requirements to have your amp pages visible within Google search.

Jordan:             Or another great example is if you have an international website and you have multiple languages, there are international guidelines. But you then have to apply the policies that are required to have your specific language and page show up in a country or the dominant language that you want it to show up.

Jordan:             And so that’s the difference between a set of guidelines versus the specific policies.

Ben:                 So I’m thinking of this from a political perspective. Obviously another large organization or large organizations that have guidelines and policies. I think of guidelines being similar to the law. These are things that do not change or are very difficult to change and policies or things that are implemented more in the short term that are kind of evolving over time. Am I getting that right?

Jordan:             Absolutely. Policies change quite frequently for Google. Guidelines usually don’t. I mean it’s been nearly now over a decade of Google pushing hard on content guidelines and I would find it very hard to believe that tomorrow or even in the foreseeable next eight to 10 years, Google’s suddenly going to say we no longer care about content guidelines.

Ben:                 So using the political metaphor again, the guideline is the currency of the United States of America is the dollar and the policy is that the current interest rate is 2.5%.

Ben:                 And that’s something that could change over time.

Jordan:             Exactly.

Ben:                 Okay. Give me an example of how a policy… Without me talking in metaphors of a guideline, one that you know has not changed but a policy that is nested within that guideline that’s changed a bunch.

Jordan:             Yeah. So mobile guidelines is something that Google’s touted for quite a while now. They’ve talked about mobile first and ensuring that you have a mobile friendly website. And so that’s a set of guidelines that won’t change. A policy though that has evolved over time is the different technologies that we have accessible to us to make your website mobile friendly.

Jordan:             So, Google has adapted policies around static versus responsive and now they’re applying new types of policies around web-based applications so that people can produce mobile friendly websites that can be crawled, indexed and available to users searching in Google.

Ben:                 So basically, Google’s guideline is, “Hey, mobile is going to be something that is a priority. You should make all of your pages mobile responsive.” The policy is here’s how you should make your pages mobile responsive.

Jordan:             Right. And what has evolved over time and Google’s adapted those policies to reflect the new technology that’s available to webmasters. And I think it’s something that we should all the conscientious of is that, especially for folks that are on the receiving end of getting SEO advice. A lot of SEOs will talk about guidelines and harp about guidelines. “Oh, you need to be mobile first.” Well we don’t spend enough time on is often describing how the policies have changed.

Ben:                 So, let’s talk about how you can understand what the guidelines and policies are. How is Google actually communicating what SEOs need to know and how is it going to relate to the algorithm?

Jordan:             You just opened the Pandora’s box there. I mean that’s a, that’s a huge topic and it’s evolved a lot over the years. So maybe we start from kind of like the beginning. From the onset, Google published a lot of their recommendations on their blog. So this was the webmaster central blog. It’s still available today. They still publish on it frequently. But this was kind of like the first vehicle by which you could access news and information as well as changes that were going on within Google’s policies and requirements for webmasters.

Jordan:             That has grown quite substantial. I mean now we have a variety of different outlets by which Google’s communicating with the SEO community, including a more informal areas like communities within Console, which we’ll talk about more specifically in a little bit as well as John Mueller and other representatives through Twitter or YouTube communicating directly with the SEO community.

Jordan:             But these resources were kind of the starting place by which most of the guidelines were revealed and then ultimately these were the resources that Google use to inform the community about the policy changes.

Ben:                 So Google had this blog where they were starting to communicate what their policies and their guidelines are. And how are people interpreting what Google was saying?

Jordan:             And simultaneously there’s another resource that webmasters were always using and this was Google Search Console. That’s what it’s called today. For those of you who are relatively new to the industry, you may or may not know this. I still use the names interchangeably, but this was originally called Google webmaster tools. It since now called Google Search Console. I still have a hard time saying that sometimes.

Jordan:             But ultimately Google Search Console is kind of the main stay where Google has the official publication of their guidelines and they break these guidelines down into kind of two different sections. They talk about content guidelines, they talk about quality guidelines, and then they have kind of a general overview within the Search Console help center. But this is now kind of where the backbone of the information that you may want to gather around their guidelines and policies. That’s kind of where they, where they keep it now today.

Ben:                 So we’ve gone from the Google webmaster blog to now we have webmaster tools, which we’re calling Search Console today. Which is where you can go to get all of your official guidelines and policy statements from Google and that is the only place where people are talking about how to interpret Google’s policies and guidelines, right Jordan?

Jordan:             Not entirely. There’ve been a variety of different situations over the years. I think one of the most notable ones in the history of how webmasters discovered information about Google’s guidelines and policies was when there was a leak of Google’s raters guidelines.

Jordan:             So not to confuse folks, but the raters guidelines is a massive document. I think it’s probably almost 200 pages of very specific criteria by which Google would inform human raters to evaluate websites. So it was a way for Google to produce data for their machine learning models to evaluate different criteria is that their own algorithm couldn’t determine.

Jordan:             But this set of Raider guidelines was a huge unveiling and allowed webmasters in the SEO community to understand verb, a variety of expectations that Google has for websites.

Ben:                 So just to clarify, when Jordan says the Google Rater guidelines, it is not rater like the Oakland Raider football teams. It is the people that are actually rating the content. So there are a collection of people that Google employs to evaluate content performance and how it should be ranked.

Jordan:             Correct. A.

Ben:                 And somebody spilled the beans and talked about what the quality standards for their content are. On the scales, some of the factors for ranking for page quality.

Jordan:             Yeah. And you’re right. So they have this broken down into a variety of different parts, including a page quality ratings, mobile ratings, and then there’s a variety of other evaluation criteria that they use. Well, one of the reasons this is super important document is that it allowed us to understand how Google is looking at quality and the various scales by which they want to look at quality.

Jordan:             It was the first place where we kind of were exposed to seems like your money, your life, so YMYL or EAT, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. These concepts, these quality rating concepts allowed SEOs to better interpret and understand what Google’s expectations were. And it was leaked at first, but then Google started publishing this publicly so they started like releasing it publicly and I think that their latest one was still in 2019 they published it. I know that there was some squirmish about a month ago that it all of a sudden disappeared, but I believe that was an error and they republished it back on the website. But it is an accessible document to the public to learn more about how Google rates websites.

Ben:                 So Google has been a little bit more forthcoming with the way that they ranked their content, but there’s still other places and communities where SEOs are getting together to discuss how to interpret Google’s policies and their guidelines. Talk to me about some of the community resources, whether it be on Google or outside of it that SEOs can go to understand how to think about the policies and guidelines.

Jordan:             Yeah, and I think this is super important. So going back to Ben’s analogy of the political and government analogies of laws. You know you read a lot of these guidelines that Google publishes officially and it’s quite dry. And it’s sometimes very hard to understand how this might apply to my industry, how this might apply to my use case.

Jordan:             And I believe that the community is really where the true understanding of Google’s guidelines and policies takes place. These can happen in new official places like Google Search Console’s community. They have a community section where you can post questions and folks can reply. Industry experts can reply as well as Google members can reply.

Jordan:             But also GitHub has an SEO optimization topic that you can get technical questions answered. And one of my favorites is Reddit. Reddit has an SEO stream where you can actually get community information, feedback and comments on different guidelines and policies. And I really encourage folks once they read some of these Google guidelines to go and do some searches inside of these communities because you start to really see how this applies in the real world. And you’d be surprised that it can vary tremendously by industry, by content type, by country. And so I really encourage you to leverage not just the official documentation and read it as the letter of the law, but see how this hasn’t been applied in real life.

Ben:                 Going back to the political metaphor, sometimes there are laws that are passed which require interpretation and not everything is going to be black and white. And so being a community member in GitHub when with Google on Reddit and seeing how other SEOs are going to interpret Google’s policy changes or what their guidelines are is something that’s going to help you understand and make some decisions on how to adjust your content and website strategies.

Jordan:             Ben, it’s kind of funny because it’s one of the main reasons why we have courts. I mean we have why we have a Supreme court, the United States, and it’s why they interpret the law.

Ben:                 Let’s just not confuse get hub and Reddit with the courts from the United States.

Jordan:             Fair enough. Even though it might seem like it.

Ben:                 There’s stuff Wikipedia. Let’s bring it back to the algorithm… We originally started off, this is algorithm month. We’re talking about how different factors can impact how your content and website is interpreted by the algorithm. How do these policies and guidelines actually impact how Google thinks about your content? How does it impact what the algorithm does with your website?

Jordan:             It’s absolutely foundational. If you don’t understand how to leverage these guidelines, you’re often dead in the water. And I’m really thankful that Google started using these channels and they continue to develop these channels of communication and these requirements for webmasters because it enables a more competitive and more vibrant ecosystem within search.

Jordan:             And so using these policies and guidelines is the foundation to generating success in Google search. And it’s remarkable. It’s truly remarkable, having been in this industry now for nearly 20 years to see how often businesses, webmasters and technical folks and companies just completely missed the mark on Google’s guidelines. And I think that it is really the most critical dial that you can leverage when it comes to influencing your success in Google search.

Ben:                 So, my takeaway here is that Google goes out of its way to publish guidelines. And for the most part state what their policies are, even though they change relatively quickly. And this is the best way that the SEO community can understand how to interpret Google’s algorithm. This is the statement from Google saying, “This is how we want you to operate and optimize for search. Jordan, essentially these policies and guidelines as Google’s most accurate or public facing way for them to say, “Here’s what our algorithm does.” Am I right?

Jordan:             That’s right. That’s exactly right. I mean it is the manual to understand Google search.

Ben:                 So Jordan, are there any other places or is there anything else that Google is doing to communicate how they’re thinking about their search or just trying to communicate with the SEO community?

Jordan:             Yeah, there’s one resource that I think is really unique and not a lot of folks in the SEO community leverage it as much as I believe they should and it’s called Google AI. So This is a resource where Google publicly publishes all of their research studies, both their third party and internal publications about their technology, about algorithms, about different tests that they’ve experimented with.

Jordan:             And this is a super valuable resource because it unlocks the keys to understanding many of these guidelines. It unlocks the knowledge by which Google went about making this guideline a requirement for the community. And I really encourage folks to browse through this. There’s tons of information in here. I’m not exactly sure how big the publication database is, but there’s far more than just SEO and search related elements in here.

Jordan:             But you can do some quick searches on themes, whether it be content quality, whether it be link building, external ranking factors, all these different aspects that you might be curious about. And you can do a keyword search and they will show you all the publications that are relevant to that. And you’d be remarkably surprised what you can learn by reading some of these documents and what Google has done to better understand how to educate the community and create these guidelines and policies.

Jordan:             There are 5,379 publications, which are essentially the notes that Google was referencing when they made up the test. So if you’re looking for some light summer reading, by all means ai.Google/research Is the place for you to go. Jordan, any other last comments on understanding Google’s policies? Understanding Google’s guidelines as they relate to the algorithm?

Ben:                 No, that’s all I got for you guys. And I think that this is a great foundation to the rest of our algorithm a month.

Ben:                 All right, and that wraps up this episode of the voices of search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Jordan Koene, the lead SEO strategist and CEO of Searchmetrics Inc. we’d love to continue the conversation with you. So if you’re interested in contacting Jordan, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can contact him on Twitter. His handle is jtkoene, J T K O E N E. Or you can visit his company’s website, searchmetrics.Com.

Ben:                 If you have general marketing questions or if you’d like to talk to me about this podcast, you can find my contact information in our show notes or you could send me a tweet at benjshap, B E N J S H A P.

 Ben:                And if you’re interested in learning more about how to use search data to boost your organic traffic, online visibility, or to gain competitive insights, head over to Searchmetrics com slash diagnostic for a complimentary advisory session with our digital strategies team.

Ben:                 And if you like this podcast and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app, and we’ll be back in your feed next week.

Ben:                 Lastly, if you’ve enjoyed the show and you’re feeling generous, we’d love for you to leave us a review in the Apple iTunes store or wherever you listen to your podcasts. All right, that’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.

Jordan Koene

Jordan Koene

Jordan Koene is the CEO of Searchmetrics Inc. a wholly owned subsidiary of Searchmetrics. Previously, Jordan was the Head of SEO and Content Development at eBay. During his time at eBay, Jordan focused on utilizing eBay content to improve user experience and natural search traffic.

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