A few days back, Google released an update to its search quality rater guidelines regarding controversial content. While not new, this particular section is a bit troubling.
I think this can have potentially sinister implications. It instructs search raters to flag content that “may be unpleasant or uncomfortable”. With a special focus on users in that locale. Now we’re not sure what “flagging” implies here, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s not a good thing. No one’s site ever benefited from being flagged! It indicates that controversial content might have trouble ranking – particularly if those in your locale find it so.
How Search Rater Guidelines Work
A lot of people think that Google is just algorithms. And it mostly is. However, when it comes to search, Google cross-checks changes to its algorithm by hiring a large group of people to test websites according to certain guidelines. If we believe them, Google hired more than 10,000 people across the globe to do this work continually.
Google then uses the website ratings from these individuals to feed its AI, which then learns whether or not it did something good or bad. And so the cycle continues.
To rate these websites, Google provides a set of publicly available quality guidelines. It’s a massive 170-page document that covers a wide variety of website factors. You can find all the information regarding seemingly obscure terms like “EAT” here. These guidelines are constantly changing, and the SEO community likes to keep a tab on what’s happening so we can get some insights into how Google thinks. In general, the quality guidelines are a pretty useful tool to read up on.
Search Quality Ratings on “Upsetting Content”
With that background, we can see how Google’s instructions in the rating guidelines could be problematic. We all know that controversial content gets a lot of views. And we also know that people take to the Internet to both create and listen to controversial opinions. Controversial articles and discussions are frequently the most interesting!
The worrying part about this statement is the focus on the “typical user in your locale”. Consider certain areas which have different worldviews, or a divergent set of values from what most people in the west consider “normal”. Will people from such parts of the world find controversial content “upsetting” or offensive? I say yes! Many discussions on ethics, morals, religion, and politics could be considered offensive for people in different parts of the world. So would the raters in these places want to mark such content as offensive? What if a news article criticizes a country’s leader that has a cult-like status?
Hypothetically, someone in Thailand could find an article on Thailand’s king as “blasphemy”. I don’t know if they have free access to the Internet in North Korea, or if Google has search quality raters there (unlikely), but I’m pretty certain most content about their dictator would be flagged as “upsetting”. And the same holds for any criticism of Xi – the Chinese dictator.
The main question is whether or not search engines should expose users to controversial or upsetting content whether they like it or not. At least Google modified the part of its search rater guidelines that instructed the raters to flag upsetting content “even if the result satisfies user intent”. This was a pretty huge leap, and I’m glad Google removed that part.
So Take Care with Controversial Stuff
I enjoy writing stuff that generates a lot of debate. I usually feel strongly about these things, and so it’s worth it. But if SERPs in certain locales are important to you, you might want to temper your language and the structure of your article to not trigger people who might find that content too upsetting.
I don’t agree with this, but that’s what the official Google guidelines are!
I’m a NameHero team member, and an expert on WordPress and web hosting. I’ve been in this industry since 2008. I’ve also developed apps on Android and have written extensive tutorials on managing Linux servers. You can contact me on my website WP-Tweaks.com!