What Google’s content guidelines mean for plain language content creators

Posted on Jan 28, 2016 in Digital

If you’re reading this, you already know what plain language is. Simple vocabulary. Short paragraphs. Short sentences. And you know your customers want you to speak in plain language, because it’s the best way you can communicate what your organization does for them.

But do you know that mastering your plain language skills will help your website get more traffic through Google and other search engines?

Last September, I wrote about why you should use natural, everyday language on your website. If you still need to know where to get started cutting jargon and using natural language on the web, Google has made it even easier.

Google has long focused on helping searchers find quality content — the most relevant, useful information available through a search. And a few weeks ago, Google released its content guidelines for search quality to the public. This document outlines the specific criteria Google uses to quality check search results. When you understand how Google reviews and prioritizes content, you’ll have the insider information you need to create better, more meaningful content for your customers.

Here’s how Google describes their reasons for publishing these guidelines:

In 2013, we published our human rating guidelines to provide transparency on how Google works and to help webmasters understand what Google looks for in web pages. Since that time, a lot has changed: notably, more people have smartphones than ever before and more searches are done on mobile devices today than on computers.

We often make changes to the guidelines as our understanding of what users wants evolves, but we haven’t shared an update publicly since then. However, we recently completed a major revision of our rater guidelines to adapt to this mobile world, recognizing that people use search differently when they carry internet-connected devices with them all the time.

So while the changes to these guidelines are being driven by the explosion of mobile devices and mobile web traffic, there are a few takeaways for content strategists, writers, and editors who want better results on the web.

1) Don’t make your users work to find key information. Google’s quality reviewers use a scale from “fails” to “fully met” user needs. When you look through the guidelines and review some of the listings that almost got a “fully met,” you’ll notice that even well-regarded organizations such as Trader Joe’s and The Museum of Modern Art nearly missed being classified as “fully met” because essential information was somewhat hard to find.

trader joes

Trader Joe’s and MOMA are close, but not quite at the “fully met” level.

2) Focus. Some topics are so broad, it’s almost impossible to capture everything about them in one website. Google uses knitting as an example. Other examples of exceptionally broad topics could be finance or literature.

When you’re thinking about what your site’s users need, also think about scope. Create just enough information for your readers to fully understand a topic. And make sure you can deliver on that promise.

So instead of knitting, consider creating a site about “50’s knitting patterns.” Instead of finance, consider “personal finance for millenialls.” And instead of literature, consider “Contemporary Native American Non-Fiction.”

3) Quality matters. This is where plain language pays off. When you provide quality, meaningful content written in plain language, it makes it easier for your customers — and Google’s quality raters — to see the value of your content. “Clearly written” is a strong message from Google that its quality raters are looking at the quality of your website’s content.

High quality

Note the references to “high quality” content.

4) Make sure your website works in mobile devices. Google’s guidelines have an entire section dedicated to mobile, “Understanding Mobile User Needs.” As a content creator, make sure your content scales and is easy to read on a mobile device. Even if your site isn’t fully adaptive or responsive to mobile devices, a hyper-focus on plain language best practices will make your content easier to read on smartphones. Think about reducing the amount of text on your page and use shorter paragraphs to chunk your content. Three paragraphs with two sentences each will almost fill the screen of some smartphone browsers.

HealthCare.gov screenshot

50 words, three sentences and two related items. This screenshot from HealthCare.gov has much less content than you’d see on a desktop browser.

I encourage you to take the time and read through these guidelines. You’ll see how applying basic plain language principles can improve your website and the effectiveness of your content.

And when Google sees evidence that your site is meeting your customers’ needs, you’ll see a corresponding increase in your search rankings. And when you rank higher in the search engine results, you’ll find yourself getting more traffic and more new customers.

Jeff GreerAbout the author: Jeff Greer is a Digital Content Strategist and a board member of the Center. Over the past 17 years, he’s helped major brands such as Disney, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Kellogg make better experiences for their customers on the web. He earned his Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing from Western Michigan University. He also holds an M.F.A. and B.A. in English from the University of Maryland at College Park. He lives near Detroit with his wife and two children.