Google: Higher Quality Content Not Necessarily More Useful Content

Sep 24, 2013 • 8:33 am | comments (26) by twitter Google+ | Filed Under Google Search Engine Optimization

book smartAll this talk about having the best, most authoritative, most professional, most correct and accurate information on your web site - throw it out the window. Okay, maybe I am being a bit sarcastic but stick with me here.

+Ryan Moulton a software engineer at Google since July 2006, who I believe works in search, was defending Google in a Hacker News thread and said:

MDN might be higher quality, better information, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's more useful to everyone.

To bring this into the context. He was defending why Google ranks w3schools results so highly, despite the content not being all that accurate. He said, while MDN might be much more accurate, it is often way too over the top for most newbies to understand and thus not as useful.

Ryan adds, "there's a balance between popularity and quality that we try to be very careful with. Ranking isn't entirely one or the other. It doesn't help to give people a better page if they aren't going to click on it anyways."

He then gives an example:

Suppose you search for something like [pinched nerve ibuprofen]. The top two results currently are and

Almost anyone would agree that the mayoclinic result is higher quality. It's written by professional physicians at a world renowned institution. However, getting the answer to your question requires reading a lot of text. You have to be comfortable with words like "Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs," which a lot of people aren't. Half of people aren't literate enough to read their prescription drug labels:

The answer on yahoo answers is provided by "auntcookie84." I have no idea who she is, whether she's qualified to provide this information, or whether the information is correct. However, I have no trouble whatsoever reading what she wrote, regardless of how literate I am.

He ends:

That's the balance we have to strike. You could imagine that the most accurate and up to date information would be in the midst of a recent academic paper, but ranking that at 1 wouldn't actually help many people. This is likely what's going on between w3schools and MDN. MDN might be higher quality, better information, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's more useful to everyone.

But is that what Google has been feeding us with Panda? Shouldn't we strive to be perfect and detailed, not just partially accurate and useful?

Forum discussion at Hacker News.

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Durant Imboden

09/24/2013 02:57 pm

This might help to explain why megasites with shallow content do so well in search results, and why so many solid informational sites in my sector have been affected negatively by Panda over the last 2-1/2+ years. In a recent article about Google's new "In-depth article" search results, someone at Google was quoted as saying that about 10 percent of searchers were looking for in-depth information. That leaves 90 percent who prefer, say, The New York Daily News to The New York Times. How successfully will Google manage to serve both audiences if it makes smarter, better-educated, or more demanding searchers dig deeper into the SERPs for answers? Will personalization supply a solution? (I.e., will Google be able to figure out that John Doe is the kind of person who skims Cliff's Notes while Jane Buck is the kind of person who reads the book?)

Chris Beasley

09/24/2013 03:59 pm

The stupid thing would be if google was trying to guess which page is more useful rather than using natural ranking signals on the internet. They've been so busy lately trying to second guess what made google revolutionary in the first place. Alta Vista thought they could use an algorithm to figure out which sites were useful, Google figured out a way to tie human input automatically into the algorithm which is why they became the 800 pound gorilla they are today, now they seem to be wanting to go back to some formula a computer can use to figure it out. Why bother? The thesis behind pagerank still works, let that decide.


09/24/2013 04:12 pm

There is no such thing as "shallow content". Content can be useful or not. Also usefulness can be structured. I don't know why Google started to use terminology like "shallow content" after the Panda, but I'm glad this guy finally said it straightforward and Barry featured it.


09/24/2013 04:16 pm

Good find, Barry. It also supports the idea of how they use social signals (not buttons, but behavior). I bet direct return is among the most heavily weighted.


09/24/2013 04:23 pm

Also it's interesting, that Googlers started to publicly support their latest activity, means they feel that the most of the market participants don't understand them or disagree with them.

Durant Imboden

09/24/2013 04:42 pm

Yes, there is such a thing as "shallow content." But let's put that aside for a moment and focus on the issue of "useful" content, whether it's shallow, deep, or somewhere in between. The challenge for Google is figuring out what's "useful," and for whom. Using a medical example (as the Google engineer did), a person who's been watching House, M.D. and wonders what "chronic pancreatitis" is might be happy with a one-paragraph Yahoo! Answer. But the person who's just been diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis, or who's being tested for chronic pancreatitis, is likely to prefer an article on Or take another example: a search for information on how to reach the Metropolis city center from Metropolis International Airport. Some searchers may want a result that simply says "Take the No. 7 bus," but others will prefer an illustrated page (or possibly even a two- or three-page article) that tells where to catch the bus, when or how often it runs, where to buy tickets for the bus, whether they can pay by credit card, whether the bus has a compartment under the floor for large luggage, and so on. For that matter, some searchers will prefer articles, and others will prefer forum threads. One size doesn't fit all, and what's "useful" is in the eye of the beholder (or the searcher).


09/24/2013 05:07 pm

"One size doesn't fit all, and what's "useful" is in the eye of the beholder (or the searcher)." Exactly. And that's why there is no such thing as "shallow content". It's very dependable and the main question is not in the content by itself, but in the way Google tracks visitor behavior. However, being the private company they can track it as they believe is right. We can just speculate here.

Michael Martinez

09/24/2013 05:32 pm

So the Google engineers would rather serve their visitors anonymously written health advice because it's easier to read. :) Just this morning someone asked me to run some health related queries about foot infections for diabetics. All the top sites appeared to be very authoritative (like Mayo Clinic, National Institutes of Health, et. al.) and all publishing the exact same techno-garble (probably a government-issued bulletin). We finally found an answer in a forum: If you are diabetic and have a small infection on your foot, don't treat it yourself. See a doctor immediately. I think Google is losing the battle in indexing and presenting vital everyday health-related information to its visitors. I have raised this issue several times in the past.


09/24/2013 06:25 pm

"high quality" google not always best choice!!! good is not good, bad is not bad, so middle is not middle. welcome to new chaos! high quality content is low quality now, prize of stupidity to google. When MC tell us one thing, other G workers telling us something very different. So what the type of content we need to create? QA sites???


09/24/2013 06:29 pm

they succeed because they have a quality serp before. Now their serp is crap, i sometimes have cramps when see it. With serp full of webmd, wikipedia, gov sites they not will win, sure 100%. It way how media work now and why people using internet - to find something real and different.


09/24/2013 11:13 pm

All Google is trying to do is make things uncertain for us webmasters - so we are not sure what to do. This will force only to do those things which are really safe - which is exaclty what Google wants us to do. Brilliant in its simplicity


09/25/2013 05:46 am

I don't think even Googlers know how Google works. Doesn't leave much hope for the rest of us.


09/25/2013 06:43 am

As far as I remember your website, this is exactly about it.


09/25/2013 06:59 am

Think you have got me confused with someone else.


09/25/2013 11:21 am

Didn't you write long article related to Panda? Probably a year ago ...

Nikhil Chandra

09/25/2013 11:51 am

Has the job of every Google Evangelist has become confusing search engine marketers? First it was quality, now it is useful. How does Google decide why is quality is not actually useful? I have seen stinking website on top of search result for certain keywords and good "quality" and "useful" sites down at the bottom? All they keep doing these days is issue contradictory statements. Something I believe we could called fallacy just to increase the mayhem and chaos the search engine has become these days. But who cares...Bring it on Google! I loved your Panda update and I loved your Penguin update too. If I am good for that I could take this prevarication and ambiguity and still love you too. Where else could I go :-)

Patti Paz

09/25/2013 11:54 am

Next, Google will be proclaiming that it's not quality OR useful content they are interested in, but rather they want content that is written in color . . . .

Morgan Akchehirlian

09/25/2013 07:40 pm

@pattipaz:disqus Right.They keep on updating and demanding new stuff from webmaster.They realize one thing,World needs Google now and every website owner needs his site on top so keep playing with updates and factors. If Google is so good and they always need quality or popular content "why they still index spam".


09/25/2013 08:59 pm

It hilarious because Google still can't figure out their own algorythm. Especially since spam sites can still blast their way to the top using various linking techniques. They just need to come out and say that it's a popularity contest.

Gracious Store

09/26/2013 03:52 am

Of what use is any content that is erroneous? If the content gives miss leading information. Who will want to read any content that does not provide accurate information, and so why should any site be ranked higher if there are contents in that site that are misleading?


09/26/2013 06:51 am

This is probably down to direct traffic. Someone we know in Google did a search for a specific keyword with their internal debugger turned on and it flagged the site being checked as ranking there, amongst others, for 'not enough direct traffic'. That right there is probably panda in a nutshell. Yeah, Chrome is great...


09/26/2013 07:13 am

Which is exactly why direct traffic takes away all the guesswork for them. The more people that hit up a site/area/page directly, the more certain Google is that that page is 'useful for users', which is the drum they have been beating for a long time now. And note that direct traffic is not the same as social traffic...


09/26/2013 11:56 pm

not me sorry!


11/01/2013 05:08 pm

SERP's have always been crap!


11/01/2013 05:13 pm

At the end of the day, Google really only cares about one thing. More money. Sure they can say 'Its about the user!' till their voice stops working; you'll notice them make changes that result in 1) more time spent on google 2) more time spent on sites that show adsense that don't really answer the question (so you click an ad) 3) More advertisers to AdWords They will make changes that lead to the above whether or not the changes are good for users. Welcome to capitalism.


06/10/2014 04:22 pm

Sickening. Especially the example, I mean people getting their medical info from some random person instead of a real, quality web page.

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