This essay originally was published on August 5, 2021, with the email subject line CT No. 89: "Would I lie to you?"

As teenaged Fiona Apple famously said, "This world is bullshit." She intended to pillory American mass consumption celebrity culture as it rode to its late 90s early 2000s peak, but hey! Maybe she was also talking about internet content in 2021. Because boy, this digital world is also bullshit... which, 24 years after Ms. Apple's declaration, reflects the long tail of American mass consumption celebrity culture along with corporate culture bullshit, mass media rush-and-crush, medieval-era bullshit about how science works, Minnesota's own MyPillow guy, Russian bullshit, Chinese bullshit, British bullshit, every other culture's bullshit, conspiracy theories, bots bots bots, websites and forums and newsletters that are giant steaming piles of poo.

Fiona Apple says, "This world is bullshit." -gif
I have used this gif before and I will use it again.

Of course: your company's website/newsletter/social media account is truthful, full of facts to set the record straight. How do you show your audiences and search engine algorithms that your website is worth believing, quoting, showing up at the top of search results? Through trust signals.

E-A-T and how algorithms read trust

In the U.S., section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act protects digital platforms from libel suits so legally, American tech companies don't actually have to monitor whether the content they distribute is trustworthy. For years they passed that responsibility onto users, leaving them to determine whether content was worthy of trust through links and shares, under the utopian ideal that people know the difference from right and wrong and don't intentionally spread lies. If users intentionally distributed misinformation, they were freely speaking, using their God-given right to make money however they wanted!¹

Major U.S.-based digital content distribution and monetization companies (aka platforms) avoided creating formal, public parameters around trustworthy content for decades, until GDPR/CCPA/January 6.

Google's been transparent about its formal process for determining trustworthy content, aka E-A-T, since November 2015, when the company publicly first released its full Search Quality Raters Guidelines. Google's raters are low-paid contractors who assign numbers to how well search engine results match with user queries, on a variety of "good" and "bad" page criteria. Before they do so, they are given a giant PDF rubric of exactly what they should consider when rating pages.

These ratings inform Google's ideal result, which in-turn trains Google machine learning algorithms on what signals to look for when determining and ranking a "good" page. In the current 190-page version of the guidelines, around 40 pages are devoted to defining and recognizing the factors that contribute to what Google calls "Expertise-Authoritativeness-Trustworthiness" or E-A-T.²

Although Google isn't the only search engine or global authority on website quality, its patents and ideas significantly influence how recommender system evaluation tech is developed. If you follow E-A-T guidelines along with the "study skills" taught in grade school, you'll have a pretty solid foundation for establishing authority with algorithms.

¹I'm a free speech advocate. I think the First Amendment is brilliant. I fundamentally believe that governments should not punish, imprison or make life harder for any opinion one holds. But should you be able to make lots of money from publishing hate speech and misinformation that deliberately hurts people? It certainly shouldn't be easy.

²I usually just call it Expertise-Authority-Trust, but if you're in a business meeting executives might think all the atativenessiness confer more authorititivity on your guidelininess.

Your money, your life, my kingdom for some decent information

Since Google loves coining unnecessary acronyms for relatively straightforward concepts, Search Quality Raters Guidelines also detail requirements for trustworthy YMYL³ content, aka health and finance content. Content about medical conditions, finance, or websites that handle sensitive consumer information about health or financial transactions, are held to a higher quality standard than celebrity gossip, fan content, digital marketing blogs, that sort of thing.

A guy in a leopard print shirt says "trust me" and raises his eyebrows.

If you publish YMYL content, even if only on a few pages of your website, establishing E-A-T is critical to proving your value in Google.

And yet! Last year the U.S. President told the country that injecting bleach to kill COVID might have some merit, so y'know, we're all quite aware that misinformation is a problem. Even the most media literate of us fall for misinfo sometimes, so it's important to support your clients/patients/customers/friends/family in figuring out what's true and what's not.

³Stands for Your Money or Your Life. It's a punchline to an old joke.

The 9 crucial website trust signals for establishing E-A-T

If your brand wants to establish a positive, trustworthy reputation with both your customers and algorithms, I recommend incorporating the following trust signals into your website:

  1. Accurate sourcing and linking information. If you didn't come up with the fact or idea, source and provide a link where possible. Earlier this year I wrote about intentional linking practices, so dive in there if you want to revisit your linking approach.
  2. Clear, accurate authorship for all article/long-form content. "Staff writer" or "all staff" bylines don't cut it anymore, especially if you're not a well-established brand. Ghostwriting is ok, but be sure that someone is taking responsibility for what's published. Readers need to be able to understand where information came from and who supports the facts published. If you wouldn't put your name on it, then don't publish it! If every article is written by the same person, you can include this information on your About page.
  3. Dates. Until recently I advised websites to avoid publishing dates for evergreen content for fear that content may look old or out of date. However, I've changed my mind and now encourage all clients to include dates! Dates are important for readers to assess currency and validity. This week's guidelines for wearing face masks are not the same as those from 2019.

    In the mid-2010s, dates for evergreen content weren't as important for search visibility, but Google has been more up front about surfacing recent dates in search results. If your content looks old or out of date... maybe part of your content strategy should be a well-timed update!

    Make sure that you use structured data to support article publishing dates, modified dates, etc.
  4. Back-end schema markup/structured data that highlights facts about your organization, including authorship, dates, paid/unpaid content, etc. Structured data creates scaffolding for facts about your brand, so algorithms can nail down facts while making meaning from unstructured content in articles and paragraphs. If you're unfamiliar with structured data, start here.
  5. For health and finance orgs especially: if subject matter experts do not write but review your content, include their bios alongside article author information. Mark that up with schema.
  6. A privacy policy, written in plain language, that tells your readers how you use their information. (Or written in legalese and annotated or explained in plain language.)
  7. An editorial policy. Even if you don't consider yourself a media company, if you regularly publish factual, informative content, include an editorial policy on your website. Take responsibility for your content, and let your audience know. On your website, this can be an ethics policy, a publishing policy, a corrections policy, or all of the above—properly marked up with publishing principles schema data types. The presence of an editorial policy is a major trust signal for both algorithms and readers.
  8. Contact information on a contact page. If someone disputes a fact or claim, or if someone just wants to get in touch with you, they should be able to contact a human (and not a chat bot in the corner). Add a phone number or email address and the customer support to go with it.
  9. An About us page. Clearly state what your company is, who the main stakeholders are, and what it does. Avoid overmarketing with ambiguous, foolish language like "our company builds real-time solutions in order to leverage insights that make your business more efficient." What does this company do? No fucken clue but something like that is listed more or less every SaaS and consultancy about page on planet Earth. Specific, clear nouns that people know and use often: always better than vague. (And I know you are innovative, but I assure you that your business is not beyond description.)
A svelte blonde dances in front of a band. [gif]
There are a ton of gifs from "Would I Lie to You" by the Eurythmics on giphy, so I'm going to embrace the abundance.

Other trust signals to consider including on your website

  1. If you must have comments, invest in quality content moderation. Comments can help build engagement and SEO, but must be moderated not only to prevent random Rickrolls and hidden porn, but also for misinformation. If commenters are actively discussing bleach cures on your site, I'd recommend either moderating that comments section or eliminating comments altogether.
  2. Awards. Have you got 'em? Cool! List them on your About page. Awards programs may or may not be a cash grab, but awards confer that someone else has found your work valuable.
  3. If you offer ecommerce or products and services, reviews and/or testimonials are a big help. Even if you haven't invested in UGC review tech (worth it, usually), a page of testimonials gives your site an added boost of validity.

The presence of bylines, dates, contact information, publishing policies and well moderated content keeps your website above board. Even if you're amazing at facts and have the best information in the entire universe, if you don't have trust signals, algorithms won't necessarily know that you're right, and users will begin to question your authority. If you invest resources in making your site appear more trustworthy, algorithms will reward you.

If you try to lie or cheat your way around these algorithms (i.e., automated date changes on articles whose text hasn't actually changed, AI-generated authors), it will likely catch up to you at some point. Google's adept at identifying scams, particularly if they're automated.

A trust fall goes wrong and someone falls on the floor (mean girls gif)
Gretchen Wieners totally became an MLM influencer.

One final tip: For best results, avoid hyperbole. We're all prone to it, and media companies rely on it far too much, but calling something a "war" or a "crisis" for views when it's just one bored man's opinion, well, that's just irresponsible.

Oh and one more! Don't publish lies, half-truths, facts you can't verify, or misinformation. Establishing trust with users and algorithms relies on being truthful.

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