The discussion surrounding credibility and trustworthiness of online content reaches as far back in time as the Internet itself. Last year we witnessed a number of crucial events that took this discussion to a whole new level.
Google’s E-A-T (expertise, authority and trustworthiness) algorithm update was one of them.
On August 1, 2018, Google rolled out a major update of their search algorithm that derailed search rankings for numerous websites around the web. Traffic fluctuations were so severe that many website owners perceived that as a direct attack against their work.
Seven months after that event, we can now safely say that those changes were merely a part of Google’s campaign to battle credibility issues of web content.
Behind The Scenes: Algorithms and Quality Guidelines
In order to understand the nature of the E-A-T update, we should first say a word or two about Google search algorithm and Quality Raters’ Guidelines (QRG).
Without diving into technical jargon, search algorithm is a complex system of logical rules that determine the output you get each time you fire up a query in the search engine.
For instance, when you type in “best cafés in Harrogate”, the algorithm will work its magic to deliver search results listing best cafes in Harrogate, according to Google that is.
Although Google engineers would probably go ballistic on hearing this explanation, it’s more than enough for the purpose of this article. If you want to brush up on algorithms, have a look at the following TED video explaining their nature:
So how do Quality Rater’s Guidelines fit in?
To provide the best (accurate) set of search results, Google constantly refines and updates their algorithm. According to MOZ, that means as many as 500-600 minor updates a year. Once in a while, a more substantial revision comes around (like E-A-T), but we’ll talk more about that in a moment.
Since Google still needs human input to improve their system, there’s a group of quality raters who provide just that.
Raters are people tasked with simulating real-life search scenarios and evaluating their results. The process involves going through popular search queries and marking the results they get according to very specific instructions—the Quality Rater’s Guidelines (or Search Quality Guidelines).
It’s important to know that QRD don’t explicitly define how the search algorithm really works. The document merely deconstructs a set of factors that determine whether a page is of high or low quality according to Google standards.
Once raters are done with marking their search results and submit the feedback to Google, the company uses that information to refine their approach and eventually rolls out an update that tweaks their algorithm accordingly.
And this is exactly where E-A-T enters our story.
What’s E-A-T All About?
Shortly before the August update, the company revised their guidelines and significantly expanded the concept of E-A-T. Once the update was rolled out, some immediately saw the analogy and started suspecting E-A-T to be an important page-ranking factor.
In retrospect, we know those speculations were spot on, but…let’s first see what the acronym actually stands for.
According to QRD, the E-A-T factor breaks down into three key components—Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness. Each of the three is a placeholder for a set of qualities a website must possess to score high when a rater evaluates it.
For example, pages that provide medical advice should produce content that has up-to-date information, good formatting and is created by experts in their field—people with knowledge and credentials to back up what they communicate.
The guidelines extend these requirements to other types of websites as well:
In a nutshell, high E-A-T tells Google that a page is likely to give people valuable and credible advice they are looking for. It’s an indicator that its content is created by experts who adhere to high industry standards and rely on solid resources. Simply put, the page can be trusted.
E-A-T is by no means a fresh concept. A leaked version of QRD from as early as 2014 highlighted its importance in assessing the quality of web pages. (jump over here for a blog post by Jennifer Slegg who analysed the document when it went live).
What this means is that Google had been preparing to turn the screw on the E-A-T factor long before August 2018. According to Marie Haynes, it’s likely that first related changes to the search algorithm happened in February 2017. That was followed by another round of tweaks in March 2018 and noticeable fluctuations in traffic.
So why was the August update so important?
In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t.
Timeline and Observations
When the update hit the web on August 1, 2018, it sparked widespread discontent and plenty of speculation. Many websites, especially those that belong to the YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) category, got hit really hard, some never to recover.
Some website owners even called Google out for trying to strong-arm more revenue from paid ads. Due to lost visibility, they felt coerced into paying more for Google Ads in order to catch up. One look at comment sections of articles announcing the update was enough to see that people weren’t happy about it.
The update was only the final bell announcing that Google was ready to fully act on their revised content philosophy. It was an announcement they now had the means to bring the most credible and trustworthy pages to the front rows of search results.
The only problem is the search-engine colossus has never been too eager to discuss the operating principles behind their system. Here’s a tweet attempting to explain traffic fluctuations after the first rollout in March:
As well-meaning as that tweet was, it still did not explain the nature of the update and failed to specify ranking factors that contributed to traffic fluctuations. There was no mention of E-A-T either.
Ok Google, tell us something we don’t know.
That cryptic advice left people wondering what was wrong. It took five months for another major update to arrive and that’s when the E-A-T theory really caught traction. The refreshed guidelines contributed to widespread speculation that E-A-T was indeed an important player of the August changes.
When the August rollout was followed by even more severe fluctuations in traffic, Danny Sullivan, who’s acting as the company’s Search Liasion, suggested that the best way to cope with the new situation is to look into the Quality Raters Guidelines for, well…some guidance.
Finally, in February 2019, the purpose of last year’s round of updates seemed to be confirmed. Google released a case study “Fighting disinformation across our products” which finally revealed what many had been suspecting for quite some time— it was about expertise, authority and trustworthiness all along.
Here’s what the case study said about E-A-T.
The document finally confirmed E-A-T to be the focal point of Google’s new philosophy and an important ranking factor websites owners should consider when creating that “great content” Sullivan mentioned in his tweet.
So where does this leave us in 2019?
Lessons Learned from the E-A-T Update
Google’s new philosophy and focus on the E-A-T factor is an important voice in the ongoing discussion surrounding credibility, trust and transparency of the Internet. With the upgraded algorithm in place, building trust and creating relevant content has become more important than ever before.
As suggested by the new case study, the E-A-T factor is now an important criterion website owners should consider when designing content strategies.
If you want your website to play according to Google’s rules, you could do worse than to become best mates with their Quality Rater’s Guidelines and use the advice it has to offer.
While the guidelines (let’s repeat that) DO NOT detail the exact operating principles of Google’s search engine, they do offer nuggets of wisdom that can help website owners and SEOs to improve E-A-T score and search ranking in the long run.
Here are a handful of E-A-T tweaks you should start implementing right now:
- Make sure the people who produce content for your page are recognised as authorities in their field. For example, health professionals giving medical advice online should have credentials and expertise to back what they say. Sure, they can sport an MD badge in their author’s BIO, but what works much better is when they are published all around the web, in as many quality publications as possible. Google’s become clever and knows how to follow these breadcrumbs.
- Become associated with authorities in your field. For instance, writing guest posts or articles for an established authority website with high E-A-T can be really beneficial to your own page. While this SEO strategy is not new, it does fit in Google’s new philosophy very well.
- Keep your online reputation up to scratch. Regardless of the nature of your business, genuine, positive reviews and mentions from satisfied customers greatly affect your online reputation and can help elevate your E-A-T. The opposite is even more important so keep your ear to the ground and listen to what people are saying about your biz.
- Lastly but not least, focus on long-term changes rather than ad hoc fixes. High E-A-T is not something you can achieve overnight. Its principles have to be buried deep within your work and the website itself
While this is not an exhaustive list, it should get you started on the way to improve the E-A-T of your page. If you need further guidance, be sure to reach out and we’ll do our best to help you.
Also, be sure to check out our previous piece on 7 Trends Rocking Social Media in 2019. The article picks up on the importance of the “trust” factor in your marketing strategy.