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What Is Quality Anyway?

Bent quality signWith the entire zoo of updates Google has been releasing over the past year or so, one word that constantly keep popping up is “quality“. Even with the latest “minor weather report about low quality exact domains” that Matt Cutts tweeted about, the prominent keys to one page rankings are said to be relevance and quality.

But what IS quality anyway?!

This is not as simple a question to answer as you may think. As there seems to be a lot of confusion about this in the IM world, I thought I’d try to offer my viewpoint on the matter.

Quality Is Not An Absolute

Quality is a very difficult thing to define. It is one of those things that seems to elude you the more you chase after it. Let me illustrate by telling a short story from my childhood.

When I was about ten years old, there was one of my classmates who on a daily basis wanted to state that “Japanese cars where no good – they weren’t quality“. As our family had a small Japanese car at the time, and my class mate was of course well aware of this fact, this eventually started getting to me. (My classmate’s dad had a Swedish SAAB, in case you where wondering.)

When I complained about this bullying at home my father responded by saying: Ask him to define what he means by quality.

So I tried doing that, but such a reflective question of course went high above his head (and probably mine too, to be honest) and he simply responded by restating his original argument. Japanese cars where “no quality” – and that was that.

As an adult I now of course realize that my classmate was probably only parroting a statement he had heard at home. Neither he or I where mature enough to have a meaningful discussion about the meaning of quality.

But intellectually speaking my dad’s cool response was right on the money.

Still, I am sure many adults could have rather readily agreed to the Japanese cars are no quality statement without further reflection as well. At least if you tend to define quality as high price, leather interior, impressive top speed, built like a tank etc. And if that is what you value the most in a car, I guess you would think that small Japanese cars from the 80s weren’t very impressive.

But what you’re talking about then isn’t quality per se – it is having a personal preference for certain characteristics.

If you prefer to have a car that is affordable, durable, dependable and economical you will favor a completely different set of characteristics. And in both cases you will end up with what is a quality car in your opinion. Our little Japanese car may not have been flashy, but it performed like clockwork for the entire decade our family owned it.

Wasn’t This Supposed To Be A Post About SEO And Google?

Okay, okay – I’ll try to get to the point.

Ask yourself this: on what set of criteria should you determine the quality of a web page when you don’t know exactly what the searcher is looking for, nor what their set of preferable characteristics are?

What is quality to one person will be practically worthless or irrelevant to others.

Google is getting better at factoring in what each individual searcher is looking for, particularly the more they are allowed to spy on our daily lives, preferably getting us all to pour our hearts out directly through Google+.

But there is still a very long way to go.

Meanwhile it is a very fair question to ask who’s sense of quality it is that is going to determine what end up at the top of the search results. The portion of the population who are active social media users? Those who get the most backlinks (natural or artificial)? Google’s own team of reviewers?

I know that a lot of you think that you could pretty confidently point out a “low quality” website when you see one. And in some regards that is probably true, for example with splogs that has nothing but auto-spun gibberish and ads on them.

But when we get into the realm of decent looking and reading sites things get a lot more complicated. For example, according to Josh Spaulding one of his better sites actually dropped in rankings after Googles EMD update, while some of his sites that quite literally are “made for adsense” remained on the front page.

I wanted to illustrate how difficult and multifaceted it can be to determine website quality with some examples from a niche where I am very knowledgeable. But this post is long enough already and I don’t have the time to write any more right now anyway. So I’ll get back in a few days with a followup, where I’ll give you some practical examples of the theoretical things I have mentioned above.

UPDATE November 2014: I later decided not to write this post. Or actually I DID write it, but found it very difficult to word it in a way that couldn’t be interpreted as “bashing” the creators of certain websites. And in the end my findings weren’t that spectacular anyway – you are probably aware of many search phrases where some of the top results in google are there more for their effective SEO-strategy than for their truly original and insightful content. Right of wrong – that’s just how it is.

For now, suffice to say that I think Google’s perception of quality is not much more sophisticated than saying that Japanese cars are “no quality”.

Photo credit: dieselbug2007

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