Chapter 7: SEO Trust Signals— For Google’s Eyes Only

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Scott Baradell
Published: Dec 26, 2022
Last Updated: Dec 26, 2022

In scholarly circles, academics have long relied on citations of their work by others in their field as trust signals. Having your research cited is the currency of academia. It can lead to prestigious awards, better jobs, and higher salaries.

This is what gave Stanford PhD students Larry Page and Sergey Brin the idea for Google in 1996.

The search engine’s founders reasoned that the best way to rank websites was to measure the number and quality of citations—in the form of hyperlinks—to these sites. They assumed the most important sites were likely to receive more inbound links, in the same way the most important academic papers were referenced more often by peers.

If something sounds familiar about this approach, it’s because it’s been a core theme of this book. Google was founded as a third-party endorsement algorithm. It used, and continues to use, third-party validation to determine the sites it trusts and how much it trusts them to deliver the best results for any given search.

A THIRD-PARTY ENDORSEMENT ALGORITHM

In the same way that you are more likely to trust a brand that has received positive reviews, social media buzz, or media coverage, Google sees links from other sites as endorsements.

And just as an endorsement from a top publication or influencer carries more weight than that of a single review, links from top sites have a bigger impact on search than links from sites with little influence or traffic.

In the early days, Google could only comprehend the basics of language and could only differentiate one website from another based on the number of links coming and going from each site. The gaps in Google’s algorithm were exploited by the fledgling SEO industry, which developed sketchy tactics such as link farms, link spam, and keyword stuffing to trick Google into ranking content higher than it deserved to be.

Google realized that this kind of deception was a threat to its very existence. Brin said in an interview that the company couldn’t survive “if people didn’t trust us” (Eadicicco 2014).

FIGHTING SPAMMERS WITH ALGORITHM UPDATES

Google fought back against the bad actors with what became known as the “Google Florida Update” of its algorithm in 2003, which punished spammy sites in search results. It has been issuing regular algorithm updates to improve the quality of users’ search experience ever since.

Today, Google’s algorithm is very close to reading text as well as a human being. It is as annoyed as you are by keyword stuffing —the practice where the same keywords are used over and over again on a page to catch Google’s attention. Just as you respond to keyword stuffing by leaving the page, Google responds by making the page less visible in search results.

Since Google’s improvements have made its algorithm more humanlike in how it rates and responds to content, it should come as no surprise that most of Google’s trust signals are the same as those that humans use to determine which websites to trust. They’re the kinds of trust signals we’ve been discussing throughout this book.

Google looks for websites that provide a good user experience —for example, sites with loads of well-organized content that is relevant for your users. And it looks for references (ideally with links) to your site in established sources, such as respected media outlets, industry blogs, and directories. It even takes your Google reviews and star ratings, as well as reviews on other sites, into account in its rankings.

GOOGLE’S HIDDEN TRUST SIGNALS

While many of the specific signals Google looks for in determining its level of trust in your brand are also seen by your visitors, others are more hidden. Google sees them, but users likely don’t.

These SEO trust signals fall into three primary categories: domain characteristics, website characteristics, and engagement characteristics.

Domain Characteristics

While users may look at domain signals such as the credibility of your top-level domain (.com versus .info, for example), Google can also look at signs that aren’t so visible, such as your domain’s age and length of registration.

Website Characteristics

Google looks at your site’s architecture, mobile friendliness, and, of course, backlink profile. Google also considers your site’s reputation history—whether your brand has ever been penalized for SEO misdeeds in the past.

Engagement Characteristics

While links remain a critical measure of the popularity of your site, Google now incorporates actual traffic data for a fuller view. The more engagement and interest in your site, the better.

I should add that Google is often pretty cagey about acknowledging the importance of these hidden signals—or even whether they use them at all. Google’s algorithm has been gamed by the SEO industry for so long, the search giant is cautious about sharing information that can be exploited to diminish the quality of results.

TOP TWELVE SEO TRUST SIGNALS

Based on the empirical research of SEO experts, here are a dozen of the most important hidden trust signals:

#1: Backlink Quality

Backlinks (also called inbound links) are links from other websites to yours. Just as customers are influenced by news media coverage of your brand, Google trusts you more when authoritative sources link to your site.

#2: Backlink Quantity and Diversity

The more quality backlinks you earn, the better. Google also prefers the links to come from a diverse range of sites. This suggests you accumulated the links organically rather than through nefarious means, such as buying them.

#3: Domain Age

Google figures you are not a fly-by-night operation if your domain has been around a long time.

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SIDEBAR: GOOGLE LIKES DOMAINS THAT WEREN’T BORN YESTERDAY

A controversial Google ranking factor that is little-known to most marketers, but hotly debated among SEO geeks, is domain age— the length of time your website’s domain has been registered.

Some claim domain age is extremely important to how much Google trusts your site and to how well it ranks. Others cite Google executive John Mueller (2019), who has stated that “domain age helps nothing” in search results.

Somewhere in the middle is former Google search-quality guru Matt Cutts (2010), who has said that newly registered domains generally have to establish themselves for at least a couple months before being on equal footing with older domains.

Cutts’ recommendation is that as soon as you buy a domain, it’s best to launch a “coming soon” landing page so that by the time you have your website built and ready to publish, your site will be in a better position to rank.

Of course, Google’s algorithm is notorious for being a black box—and Google likes it that way. Google’s engineers don’t want it to be gamed or reverse engineered, so it’s not unusual to receive less-than-crystal-clear responses to seemingly straightforward questions like, “Does domain age matter?”

Based on my own research and applying a little common sense, here’s my advice as it relates to domain age:

  •  Your domain’s age is a factor for Google and for your brand equity; the longer your domain is established, the better.
  • If you are a new business, it may be useful to buy an aged domain for your business rather than registering a new one, but research shows it’s really only helpful if relevant links are already pointing to the domain.
  • If you are interested in a rebrand and new domain, simply redirecting your previous brand domain to the new domain should be sufficient to recoup any credit Google gives for domain age.

Early in 2021, Google seemed to finally confirm the importance of domain age when it introduced “About this result,” a popup feature next to individual search results that is designed to provide users more context about a site or company they haven’t heard of before.

In an environment where visitors have become less trusting of the content they find online, Google’s stated purpose for adding “About this result” was to empower users to vet the sites they are considering visiting before they click.

The “About this result” box typically contains four pieces of information:

  1. The domain or website’s age, as measured by Google’s date of first indexation
  2. Whether or not the site is secure, as measured by the presence of an SSL certificate
  3. Google’s basic reasoning for displaying the result (“the website matches one or more of your search terms”) 
  4. A note that the result is organic and not a paid ad

For brands or websites that have their own Wikipedia pages, the first couple of sentences of the Wikipedia entry will typically replace the information on domain age. Google’s point of view, it would seem, is that in the absence of a Wikipedia entry, the date of first indexation is a pretty good substitute for establishing trust.

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#4: Length of Registration

When you register your domain not for one year, but for five or ten, that tells Google you plan on sticking around.

#5: Reputation History

If your site has been penalized for violating Google’s webmaster guidelines, consider yourself on probation when it comes to earning the search giant’s trust. Stay on your best behavior.

#6: Mobile Friendliness

Google now uses the mobile version of your site for most indexing and ranking, so making sure your site works well for smartphone users is critical.

#7: HTML and Architecture Signals

Google trusts sites with concise, relevant titles, descriptions, and headings. Google also looks at site speed, accessibility, clean URL structure, 404 errors, and the presence of an HTML or XML sitemap.

#8: Branded Searches

In determining your site’s authority, Google factors in the number of times people search for your brand by name. The more branded searches, the more trusted the brand.

#9: Brand-Plus-Keyword Searches

Google looks at searches that combine your brand name with keywords to assess the topics and industries in which you have the most authority.

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SIDEBAR: GOOGLE TRUSTS YOUR BRAND MORE WHEN USERS SEARCH FOR YOU BY NAME

In Google’s early days, its algorithm had little visibility into how visitors found a website or what they did when they got there. Beginning with the introduction of Google Analytics in 2005 and capped by the unveiling of Google Search Console in 2018, Google now analyzes more information about web traffic than any other company. And it does this in real time, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

All this information is fed into Google’s algorithm to improve search experience.

The more engagement and interest in your site, the more Google trusts your brand. One key measure of this engagement is the number of visitors who search for your website by name.

A branded search is a Google query that includes the name of your company, product, or brand. It can be a simple search for your brand name (“Idea Grove,” in the case of my agency) or a brand-plus-keyword query that combines a brand name with a generic keyword or phrase (such as, “Idea Grove PR agency”).

Ninety of the Top One Hundred Google Searches Are Branded

Would you be surprised if I told you that ninety of the top one hundred US Google search queries in June 2022 were branded searches? Led by “facebook,” “youtube,” and “amazon,” branded searches also accounted for nine of the top ten Google queries, with only the non-branded keyword “weather” breaking in at #4, according to Ahrefs.

For every “restaurants near me” (ranked #20), there’s a “mcdonalds” (#33), “chick fil a” (#48), “pizza hut” (#66), “taco bell” (#71), and “chipotle” (#86). And those branded searches deliver a strong trust signal to Google’s algorithm. The more visitors a website gets from branded searches, the more SEO authority Google bestows on the brand.

Brand-plus-keyword searches may be even more powerful because Google looks at searches that combine your brand name with keywords to assess the topics and industries in which you have the most authority. According to research by Backlinko, Google may give your website a rankings boost for that keyword as a result—even when your brand name is not included in the search (Dean 2021).

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#10: Click-Through Rate (CTR)

Google analyzes the percentage of people who click on a link to your website after seeing it in search results. The higher the CTR, the higher the trust.

#11: Website Visitor Engagement

Individual visitors are influenced by the quality of your site’s content and navigation. Google factors in their collective experience by monitoring the average time visitors spend on your site before leaving, along with other engagement metrics.

#12: Social Media Engagement

Individual visitors will be more likely to trust you if you have recent activity on social channels. Google goes deeper, analyzing how much engagement you receive on sites ranging from LinkedIn to Twitter to Glassdoor.

THE ULTIMATE ARBITER OF TRUST

It’s probably fair to say that Google’s relentlessly expanding algorithm will one day be smarter than all of us. Maybe it already is, given that, over the past quarter century, it has graduated from analyzing fewer than ten million web pages to hundreds of billions today.

That’s not quite the googol (10oo) of pages that Larry Page and Sergey Brin had in mind when they named their company, but it’s heading in that direction. And it has indexed all this information to create an ever-improving formula for determining how, and what, we trust on the web.

That’s why I describe Google as the world’s ultimate arbiter of trust.

TURNING SIGNALS INTO SOLUTIONS

Over the past four chapters, we have discussed and provided examples of each of the primary kinds of trust signals.

Specifically, we’ve outlined:

  • twenty-nine types of website trust signals, ranging from third-party trust seals to professional design and quality content;
  • twenty types of inbound trust signals, including the major forms of third-party validation to be found online; and
  • twelve types of SEO trust signals, the hidden clues Google uses to determine where to rank you in search results.

This overview has covered only a portion of the many trust signals your buyers and other audiences use to determine whether to do business with your brand. On my website at TrustSignals. com, I’ve shared advice on over one hundred trust signals, and I’m adding more all the time.

After a recent presentation on trust signals for Texas Security Bank, I was asked by a member of the audience: “There are so many trust signals. Where should I put my focus? Where should I start?”

While I’ve tried to include the most important trust signals in the previous chapters, the best way to integrate these signals into your PR and marketing strategy is not as a checklist to be completed. It should be part of a plan. Trust signals should be deployed strategically to help you achieve a business goal.

That’s why I developed the Grow With TRUST system. It’s designed to put trust signals to work for you in the most focused and effective way possible. We’ll be walking through this framework and its components in the latter half of this book.

But first, let’s take a closer look at the impact trust signals can have on building your brand and growing your business when used successfully. 

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