As we head into the month of December, I’d like to look at the biggest, most impactful change the SEO industry has seen this past year and get a feel for what might be ahead for 2016. From what I’ve seen, SEO in 2015 has been centered around rich quality content and the ability of Google to understand more about the intent behind words and phrases being used in searches.
How is Google deciphering searcher intent?
Everyone using the Google search engine wants and expects to see useful pages served up in their search results (SERPs). It has always been in Google’s best interest to provide searchers with the best results possible based on the keywords used in the search bar. But matching up keywords does not always equate to the highest quality webpages available on a particular topic. Google knows that if it can’t consistently answer our questions and serve up the most useful information, we will find other places to get what we are looking for. So, to be even better at finding the perfect match for each query, Google has turned to using entity search and artificial intelligence to help fine tune the process.
What is Entity Search?
Since the release of Google’s Hummingbird update in 2013, search in Google has become smarter than ever with the intent of serving up more entity-based information about things and being less about serving up exact-match strings of keywords. This is good for the SEO world because it means that there is a lower chance of unethical black hats being able to game the system. It also means that Google is diving deeper into the content on a website, trying to understand it better and basing the page’s SERP rank on more than just the number of times the author can repeat a keyword phrase on one page. It also allows content authors a lot more freedom to focus on the overall quality and depth of the content, providing a better experience for the end-user.
Semantics and natural language are things that Google has been focusing heavily on this year for both desktop and mobile searches. The Google voice app on mobile devices is evolving and trying harder than ever to understand the meaning behind what a searcher is asking. The SEO world (thankfully) has said goodbye to the outdated use of things like excessive irrelevant backlinks, map-maker spamming, and heavy keyword regurgitation because those types of tactics will not reward websites using thin content, or content that is made for search engines first, not for people.
All I can say is, hooray - it’s about time! As an optimizer that focuses on white hat tactics, it is sometimes hard to convince clients that they should not be using spammy, outdated optimization methods, especially when the client can cite three or four competitors actively engaging in these questionable strategies and seemingly being rewarded with top spots on page 1 of Google’s SERPs. At Page 1 Solutions, our motto has consistently been: Questionable tactics will catch up to these websites in time. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but eventually they will get penalized for breaking Google’s rules, and it’s better to be on the positive side of a Google penalty rather than the dark side.*
Throughout this year, we have definitely seen good, quality content being rewarded. It is exciting to know that spammers efforts will not continue to work as they have in the past. In the end, if a website is providing useful resources and quality information which people are responding to and actively engaged with, Google will reward the page with higher rankings. By doing this you are building up your brand’s reputation online and Google will see this and respond.
Google has also been hard at work implementing an AI machine learning system to help understand more natural language search queries with RankBrain. This will continue to change the way search and SEO looks in the future, having less focus on individual keyword functionality and more to do with how a brand is presenting its information and resources as a whole.
What is Google’s RankBrain?
According to a recent article in Bloomberg Business:
For the past few months, a “very large fraction” of the millions of queries a second that people type into the company’s search engine have been interpreted by an artificial intelligence system, nicknamed RankBrain, said Greg Corrado, a senior research scientist with the company, outlining for the first time the emerging role of AI in search.
RankBrain uses artificial intelligence to embed vast amounts of written language into mathematical entities -- called vectors -- that the computer can understand. If RankBrain sees a word or phrase it isn’t familiar with, the machine can make a guess as to what words or phrases might have a similar meaning and filter the result accordingly, making it more effective at handling never-before-seen search queries.
Over time, RankBrain will get smarter and better at understanding obscure terminology. It will learn about new entities and understand more about the relationships between them. Search results using the RankBrain AI will only get better and better. With Google’s ability to understand a broader range of queries in order to list high quality pages in SERP results, it will remain important for businesses to creatively serve up a variety of interactive content (like in-depth articles, multi-media presentations, videos, quizzes, infographics and whitepapers), as well as long form educational pieces to tackle their most important topics from many different angles. This means that the performance of an individual keyword on its own may not be an accurate picture of how the SEO campaign as a whole is performing. Instead, we may need to zoom out and consider how that keyword is holding up and substantiating a network of semantic terms and related topics. Consider that keyword as a smaller part of the bigger SEO picture.
It feels promising to know we are moving away from exact match keyword topics, and moving toward a content-rich online experience. I look forward to seeing what entity search, natural language search and RankBrain has in store for 2016. *And yes, I did squeeze a timely Star Wars reference into this work-related blog, in case you missed it. Happy Holidays!
by Tammy Smith, SEO Strategist