What it means to SEO and what is the QDF, Google’s query deserves freshness

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Google SERPs favour fresh content. For many years this statement has been repeated, as a mantra, referring to the so-called Google QDF algorithm, the Query deserves Freshness rule for which, in fact, the novelty and freshness are criteria that are worth a priority in the ranking. But is it still so? And how much do these factors weigh? We try to take stock of the situation, in the light of the constant evolution of the systems of interpretation of the contents of the search engine.

What Quality Deserves Freshness means

Query Deserves Freshness, or QDF, is not a new concept but is often interpreted improperly in the planning of SEO campaigns, especially when it comes to content: extremising the concept, according to some theories changing the date of articles and the frequency of publication of new content would have an impact on ranking, precisely because it determines the “freshness” of the site in Google’s eyes, but in reality even former Googler Kaspar Szymanski already spoke of it as a “false myth” a few years ago.

This expression intuitively means that in some queries the search engines reorder the search results so that the most recent contents will be placed higher, rewarding indeed the “freshness”.

Why Google considers freshness

Evaluating the “time factor” is a very logical and practically inevitable choice, for the search engine but also for those who produce and publish content. In general, the “Query Meanings Can Change Over Time” rule applies, which is also, not coincidentally, the title of a special paragraph in Google’s Guidelines for Quality Raters-which reminds us that the digital context moves at high speed and interpretations of the same words can evolve rapidly.

To put it another way, the meaning of a query can change over time due to a variety of factors, including linguistic changes, social changes, and technological developments, which also cause people’s search intent (and the one prioritized by Google in ranking results) to change.The SERPs for business intent easily show us the effects of this speed, because there are always newer products, and in some cases technological advances can cause real revolutions.

Think of searches for “best smartphone,” “best TV,” or even product names: in a very short time, sometimes as little as months, SERP intent can provide completely different interpretations of the query.

But in reality, this mutability also applies to informational intent: for example, searching today for “president of the Italian council,” the mayor of a city, and so on might yield different outcomes than the same search performed two years ago or two years from now. In a sense, Google monitors and follows the “trend” and changes the priority search intent accordingly.

In the aforementioned guidelines, therefore, the search engine spurs its quality raters (and more generally anyone operating on the Web) to think about the query and its current meaning, meaning by this adjective both the sense of “real” and “present”-and this also applies to our keyword analysis from a strategic perspective. We must therefore always assume that users are looking for up-to-date information on a topic, whether it is the most recent model of a product, the latest edition of a recurring event, and so on, unless the search indicates otherwise (e.g., by explicitly adding the relevant year, such as [Sanremo 2017]).

As Google explains, it is easy to notice this volatility of meaning: the interpretation of the [iphone] search has changed over time with the release of new models of this product; the first apple phone was released in 2007, and users searching for [iphone] at that time were interested in what was (at the time) the first and new iPhone model. Today, most users are looking for the newest iPhone model or news about the upcoming one, and it is easy to assume that new models will be released in the future and the dominant interpretation will change again.

esempi di query che cambiano nel tempo

Similarly, if in 1994 the most likely answer to the query [George Bush] brought back information about the 41st president of the U.S. (recently “replaced” by Clinton at the time), ten years later the priority interpretation was about the other George Bush, the son of the previous one, who was then the incumbent U.S. president (43rd president, to be precise).

All of this serves to shed light on an important aspect for SEO as well: it is crucial to analyze the entire search process of users-from the moment the need “arises” to the point at which they find the solution-and always check what Google has already deemed relevant and shown in SERPs, because this will be the focus chosen by the search engine at that moment, the path we must stick to if we want to publish effective and competitive content, with the awareness that “there is nothing that is forever” (to quote Afterhours) and that any content is in danger of becoming obsolete and losing sight of the current search intent.

History of the Google QDF algorithm

The algorithm called Query Deserves Freshness was actually launched by Google in 2007 and then updated in 2011 (as part of the evolution of the new search index Caffeine) to identify topics and search queries for which users need up-to-date content, so as to benefit them in search results pages.

It is a mathematical model that can determine if and when users want up-to-date and current information, or “fresh”, and is based on the popularity of a topic, examining the flow of billions of queries on Google and the number of new content published on the subject.

How the QDF algorithm works

In a nutshell, the QDF algorithm analyzes user search patterns to detect when it is trying to access current information (and when it is not), and is activated when Google records an unusual increase in search volumes or quotes of a given topic mainly in three environments: magazines and blogs, multimedia pages and direct queries on the search engine.

However, not all queries are the same and, above all, not all topics are: the research for “president of the United States” generate results that change more often than those for those looking for “biography of Catherine the Great”, because it is only in the first case that – basically – users need to read “fresh” content.

Query deserves freshness, clarifications and explanations

So, it is only partially true that Google rewards Freshness: this happens only if the freshness responds to the search intent and really corresponds to a changed or growing interest of people. Then there is another type of freshness – the one at site level – that “requires” to constantly update the published content (even the evergreens!) to avoid that they may be “expired” or too old, and therefore lose positions and visibility in SERP.

On a topic level, current events mainly apply “to sites such as newspapers, magazines or portals that operate with frequent and fast news, for which vertical freshness can result in a competitive advantage“, as Szymanski explained, while for the vast majority of websites the Freshness “is not important as an SEO factor”.

In fact, the QDF algorithm does not apply to all types of queries and only seeks to serve the broader mission of returning relevant content and results to meet the user’s intent, and may affect the placement of content related to specific recurring events (music festivals, events, annual fairs, political events such as elections etc.), but also content that require frequent updates and recent information (technologies – such as the query “the best smartphones” – sports, gadgets, job offers and more).

The algorithm is more relevant for queries of the informative type, such as news or trending themes; therefore, generally does not “affect” content and transactional queries, for which however always applies the rule of respect for the research intent, that can change in line with real world events, as we saw at the time of the pandemic with the Covid-19 impact on searches and SERPs.

Examples of freshness

The evolution of Google and the increasing ability to understand what users really want – thanks to systems such as BERT – has made giant strides even the algorithm QDF, as seen in the event of sudden events and, in particular, the evolution of Serps for new research on the Coronavirus or the “revolutions” caused by the orange sky seen by millions of people in northern California in September.

As we wrote in our article, many of those people searched for answers on the search engine to understand what was happening, and Google responded by changing its SERPs in real time, also exploiting features such as featured snippets: The previous responses indexed by the engine, in fact, offered only “general scientific explanations of what can turn the sky orange”, but the Californians wanted to know why the sky was orange at that time and where they were.

For this reason, Google has provided fresher results, adapting the answers according to the local context and also using time and location to help algorithms understand what the user is really looking for.

SEO and freshness, what we need to know

The freshness update has enabled Google to bring out trending, regular or frequently updated content, introducing the time factor as an indicator of relevance to make search results more responsive to user intent, as Kayle Larkin noted.

However, people (and SEOs no less) often misunderstand freshness, thinking that it prioritizes recent publication dates in evaluating results: this is clearly an oversimplification, but one that has fueled multiple viral “hacks” such as massive content creation or simply updating publication dates as supposedly good SEO strategies.

The difference between freshness and publication frequency

The first misunderstanding concerns the difference between freshness and frequency: in SEO (and, more importantly, according to what Google means) freshness is the date when a page was originally published or significantly changed. Frequency, on the other hand, refers to the rate at which content is published, and thus the rate at which articles appear on the site.

As of Google Caffeine, as mentioned, Google’s bots scan more often for sites that publish content more frequently (Martin Splitt also talked about this in regard to the false myths about crawl budget and crawl demand), but this activity is not immediately related to ranking: put another way, it is the difference between indexing and ranking, which follow different criteria-and Google has officially clarified that its ranking algorithms do not take publication frequency into account, which is therefore not a ranking factor.

How much publication date matters (and how it is understood by Google)

Many sites show the publication date of the article, and there are also specific markups that allow the search engine to be told of the original date and any subsequent updates, but Google prefers to look at several factors (and, more importantly, not just the dates visible online), to determine when a page has been published or significantly updated.

The very adjective is a crucial factor, because Google clearly urges against artificially updating a page (expressly a news item, because news is the topic most concerned with timeliness and freshness) without adding meaningful information or compelling reasons to assign it a new date and time.

Picking up on the previous discussion, we can realize how much freshness (and thus publication date) is worth by looking directly at the SERPs and analyze the type of topic and user intent: for generalist content, such as guides or “established” information, it is not uncommon to see links appearing on the first page with rather old dates, dating back even several years.

In contrast, for queries related to current events, especially for commercial or transactional intent-but also simply containing terms that refer in some way to a temporal aspect, such as “trend”-freshness is much more important, because information is volatile and subject to rapid change.

Esempio della query [seo]

In the images we see two practical examples: in the Italian SERP for [SEO] the Wikipedia page appears in first position (which is certainly not new) and the date stamp is not present except in one case (by the way, our article on SEO!); another curiosity, the result for StudioSamo that also has good rankings even dates back to 2012 (just check it by opening the page, which shows the original publication date), a sign of relevance that has remained unchanged over time according to Google.

esempio della query [seo trend]

In contrast, the query [SEO trend] only gives us results from 2023, even without adding the date in the query, because Google understands that the user is interested in getting current information that is valid in the contemporary context – and in fact the publication date of the article is added for many results. In short, if in the first SERP the dates do not appear next to the pages perhaps because the user does not “care” that the information is recent, only that it is comprehensive, in the second SERP the results must be fresh and up-to-date to satisfy the intent.

In this case, Google considers freshness important to the user experience.

Freshness, frequency and content update: what to do?

Ultimately, we can summarize by saying that Google doesn’t care how often we publish articles or if we keep changing the date if it doesn’t tie in with a real strategy.

Updating content and especially refreshing evergreens is a great SEO practice, but only if we do it consciously and sensibly, that is, if we really change the information, quality, and relevance of the content to align with renewed user intentions and industry advancements.

Thus, when we consider putting our hands on an old article, we must first check to see if “anything” has changed from the information that was valid at the time of writing, and then take action by revising it. Similarly, it is useful to check Google’s responses for the target query and keyword, for example, to see if it starts displaying images, videos or multimedia results in the SERP and also orient our page accordingly, making it really “fresh.”

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