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What does Needs Met mean in SEO?

For many years now Google has been using a 'Needs Met' test. Do the search results for any given query meet the needs of the person searching? How does it do it and what does that mean for your SEO?

Let's start with a few of definitions to help understand 'Needs Met'

Click Through Rate, Pogo sticking and dwell time

  • Click through rate (CTR) - what percentage of Internet users, after carrying our a specific search, click through to your page?
  • Pogo sticking - refers to people who carry out a search in a search engine, click on one of the results, click the back button, click another result, click the back button, etc. They are bouncing between the search results and various pages in the search results. A signal that they cannot find what they are looking for.
  • Dwell time - if you click a website in the search results and then click the back button, in other words you are pogo sticking, how long was it before you hit that back button. If your Dwell Time is more than a few seconds this is a signal that, although the person decided to leave your website they may well have found something of value there.

My experience tells me that Google all of these to refine its rankings. That's controversial and it is a view that divides the SEO community. But you know, even if I didn't have the experience I'd still lean towards believing Google uses user behavior signals. I mean they are just too good to ignore. They are a gold mine of data that tells Google when it is not cutting it with real people no matter how fancy and complex its algorithms are.

The argument against Google using this information is that it can be gamed. You could, for example, send bots out onto the web to carry out Google searches and click through onto your own website. Some people have tried this - some say their results prove Google monitors user behavior, some say it doesn't. Google denies it all.

But just because a metric can be gamed doesn't mean Google doesn't use it. Backlinks can be gamed and Google uses them. My feeling here, shared with half of the SEO community but not leaving the other half convinced, is that Google spreads a little disinformation from time to time. Things that throw the Black Hat SEO practitioners, those who like to try and con their way to the top of the rankings, off the scent.

If Google claims they don't use user behavior metrics then the Black Hat community goes off and carries on trying to create backlinks that Google thinks are genuine or poor quality content pages that look like they have high quality when presented to a search engine crawler. Black Hat is a huge topic, no room to discuss it in detail here but you get the picture.

If Google admitted to using user behavior signals they might unleash tens of thousands of Black Hat robots all trying to fake high click through rates and that's just more noise that they would need to cut through.

I'm not wild on SEO conspiracy theories but this is one I buy into. Mainly because in many ways its harmless. Believe the theory or not you should be striving to improve your click through rate and dwell time anyway. I find when you do this rankings often improve. Even if they don't conversion rates improve and that all grows the bottom line revenue of a website.

OK enough of the background

How does 'Needs Met' fit in?

Google does admit to this. It employs thousands of people around the globe to carry out specific searches and report back on how well Google met their needs. I say Google - it may be a website in the search results that met their needs but it was Google's decision to put it there.

These quality evaluators are given guidelines which are publicly available - you can read all 200 pages here.

Needs Met ratings start about halfway through the guide lines and evaluators have several options:

  • FullyM - the search results page fully met the needs of someone searching that word or phrase
  • HM - Highly meets
  • MM - Moderately meets
  • SM - Slightly meets
  • FailsM - Fails to meet the needs

To this extent Google is admitting it does use user behavior but more from an audit point of view. You could argue this may eventually lead to rankings changes and so user behavior is a driving factor. I'd kind of agree with you.

What happens with 'Needs Met' feedback?

It all goes into Google's pot for improving their search results. So if an evaluator says, "I carried out this search and didn't find anything useful until I got to the 15th website" and the 15th website is yours then the engineers at Google have got to think, "How can we change our algorithm so that that website comes up at the top of the search results but without upsetting anything else in the apple cart?"

Now here is something very important to understand. They don't always get this right. Some years back the rankings of this website crashed for phrases related to 'How to SEO your website'. The action I took was this: nothing!

After the crash I carried out a number of searches where I had lost rankings and found the search results for 'How to SEO your website' type phrases were now bringing up 'What is SEO' results. It was like searching 'How do I change a Ford Focus tyre' and getting 'What is a Ford Focus tyre' type results. They, Google, just weren't meeting the needs of the user in this area.

It was my opinion that Google would eventually spot the error and right it. They did. It too five or six months but they did and I got my rankings back. Had I panicked and made all sorts of changes I might not have been so lucky. I could see some of my competitors did and I benefited from their knee jerk reactions to Google's cock up.

'Needs Met' is not a one way street

More recently Google has struggled again to get this right. In late 2019 they introduced what was known as the 'Medic' update. It was an attempt to remove woo from medical related searches. Woo is a slang name qualified medical practitioners give to alternative medicines or cures.

Google's approach was that if you are going to talk about an ailment, and especially a cure for an ailment, then you have to be qualified to do so and of course most who operate in the alternative or complementary medication field aren't.

Some of the websites Google wanted to take aim at were Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) sites. "If you don't buy this you won't get better ... or you will die" type content. Google was trying to expand their E-A-T approach - Expertise, Authority, Trust.

The trouble is the world is subjective and different people define expertise, authority and trust in different ways. Some people believe their government has authority and they trust it, others the absolute opposite.

The Medic update hit a few of my clients hard but again my advice was to hold their nerve when it came to their core content. We could always use other Online Marketing techniques to generate traffic on the short term.

Why was I so sure Google would go into reverse? Because some people want alternative medicines - exactly the things Google was trying to tell people not to trust by not ranking them. These people don't trust prescription drugs, you don't need to look further than the Opioid crisis in the U.S. to understand why and you don't need to look far to find people who rail against 'big pharma'.

That means Google was not meeting the needs of a large chunk of their users. Perhaps larger than they had even estimated. And if you don't meet needs people go elsewhere to search, to Bing or Duck Duck Go.

The vast majority of people know there are alternative medicines and if they are hard to find on Google but plentiful on Bing they'll go there. Perhaps they'll stay there and make Bing their default search engine. If Google banned every page that contained the brand word 'Ford' from its search results it is Google who would suffer long term, not Ford. People don't forget Ford exists just because it gets removed from Google.

Sure enough within four months traffic from Google organic search was starting to rise again on the websites that had been hit so hard. After a year they are not back to where they were but they are far from their lowest points.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on the Medic update see my blog post Google Searches for Trust.

Summing up

Needs Met is a Google concept that it gives to its army of evaluators around the world as a way to grade the quality of search results for given search terms. The opinion of the SEO community is divided on whether or not Google extends this into its core algorithm by monitoring metrics such as click through rate, pogo sticking and dwell time. My experience says it does.

Whatever side of the fence you decide to come down on the key message from Google is that human users are at the core of their mission to provide great search results so if you focus your efforts here its a winning strategy for the long term. Higher click through rates via great page titles and meta descriptions. Longer Dwell Time and less Pogo Sticking via clear calls to action.

Expect and accept that Google will make mistakes along the way. If your rankings crash look at what the new search results contain for the keywords that were giving you good traffic. If you can put your hand on your heart and say "These are worse" then follow the old British saying, "Don't Panic and Carry On".

Tim Hill SEO

I'm Tim Hill, a Search Engine Optimization and Online Marketing specialist. I created this site to help others understand that SEO is not a mysterious black art!.

If your a newbie try the Getting Started in SEO page, otherwise feel free to dig around and learn more.

If you need help simply get in touch.

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