Quantifying the Subjective

You’ve heard Google rewards the best content with a high search engine ranking.

Yet “best” is subjective. Different people have different ideas about what is best.

How does Google determine what content is best in order to create their search rankings?

Would you believe Google does this with people? These people are referred to as Human Raters. Google pays them to provide their subjective judgement of the quality of a webpage based on very detailed criteria Google provides to them.

The document is titled the Google Search Quality Rating Guidelines and they publish a summary for anyone to download. The summary is 43 pages. I’ve heard the full document is around 700 pages but I’ve never personally seen a copy.

This post summarizes the most important ideas from that document that you as someone working to rank a website need to know.

Understanding and Classifying of User Intent

In order to rate the quality of a webpage it is necessary to know what the user is trying to accomplish. Are they looking for information? Are they looking for a specific product? Are they trying to complete a task?

Google calls this the User Intent.

A search query is a reflection of the users intent. In order to evaluate the quality of a web page, the human rater judges how well it satisfied the user intent, which means the rater has to understand the user intent.

Google identifies three classifications of user intent.

Action: An intention to complete a goal or engage in an activity. There are called “do” queries.

Information: An intention to find information. There are called “know” queries.

Navigation: An intention to find a website or webpage. These are called “go” queries.

Understanding user intent is not as simple a task as it might sound, for a variety of reasons. To illustrate this point the query “rules of football” have different intents in the USA vs in the UK. The users have the same intent in regards to wanting rules to a game, but different intents as they’re looking for rules to two completely different games.

How Well Does the Landing Page Satisfy the User Intent?

To me, this is where it gets really interesting.

The main point here is the rating of the page is relative to how well it satisfies the user intent.

Google has a six point rating system, four of which are quality ratings.

The full rating system is:

Vital: This is not a quality rating per se, but an identification that the page is “official” in some way. This is used when the dominate interpretation of the query is an entity such as a person, a place, a business, a restaurant, a product, and organization, etc.

When you query for “The White House” the top result is www.whitehouse.gov. Although I can’t see these quality ratings I’m certain that website has been labeled vital for that query.

Useful: This is the highest quality rating and the word chosen gives a strong sense of what Google is looking for. For a webpage and/or website that you publish to rank high for a given search query, it should be very useful to people for the given search term.

When you query for “Inbound Marketing University” the top results is academy.hubspot.com. This makes sense since HubSpot coined the phrase Inbound Marketing University and their website has provided content on that topic longer than any other.

Relevant: This quality rating means the webpage in question is helpful  to many or some users.

Slightly Relevant: This quality rating means the webpage in question is not very helpful to most users.

Useless of Off-Topic: This quality rating means the webpage in question is helpful to very few users and possibly to no one.

Unratable: Like Vital this is not a quality rating per se, but is used when the page can not be rated for whatever reason. Examples could be that the page didn’t load or you did a query in English and received a search result in Japanese.


To rank your website, publish content that is useful.

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