Google has always sought to connect people and information. It has sought to do so in different ways over the years, employing very smart people to devise, develop, and alter the system over the years. What began with basic keyword searching has evolved into a robust set of algorithms and ranking signals to help identify which sites best answer the questions people have.
The reasons for these variations are myriad, but two primary concerns stick out. First, Google wishes to identify the sites that provide the information its users desire. This is complicated, because people are a diverse group. Well over a billion users log in every day, with millions of unique searches devised every day. The idea that the search results can be meaningful and address the questions and concerns of every one of those people is optimistic at best, but it provides a worthy goal to Google developers.
Second, Google wants to stay ahead of the gaggle of SEO writers chasing their algorithm. If enough of these marketing people were to catch up fully, it would mean sites directed based solely on gimmicks—in more sophisticated and subtle ways than was possible in the early days of Google, but nevertheless in ways the company would find problematic. Thus, every time SEO seems to catch up, Google advances the ball farther.
Every step of the way, SEO experts have worked to understand the algorithm and create content that spoke specifically to what Google “wants.” In a sense, they are right to do so, and 1st in SEO works as hard as any of them to understand the nuances and effects of Google’s system as it develops. Still, focusing solely on the technology proves short-sighted; Google tweaks how it interprets and weighs signals every day. 1st in SEO helps you stay ahead of the curve by not only understanding algorithms, but writing toward Google’s end goal as well.
When Google first started ranking sites, it did so based on an indexing process. While the search engine was revolutionary at the time, by today’s standards it allowed for a great deal of gaming the system. Website owners could increase their site rankings by owning multiple sites that linked between each other for no apparent reason. They could also stuff a site with keywords, making the content itself worthless but garnering a good site ranking and high page views. A website could benefit from an approach that sacrificed readability for these tactics—and sites that provided meaningful, well-written content suffered in comparison.
Over the years, Google worked to address these shortcomings. The linking among sites by a common owner was soon flagged, along with hidden text and hidden links that brought in page views under false pretenses. In late 2003 it also cracked down on keyword stuffing, and started to focus in on page relevance as a key factor. At this point, SEO became a more complicated game, and the importance of expertise with the algorithms rose dramatically. SEO providers came into prominence for companies that wanted to build an online marketing prominence, as a necessary market reaction to a reality companies no longer understand.
In 2007, Google introduced changes that started to allow searches to uncover more than just text and metadata, including identifying images and video files based on search terms. This created incentives to create different kinds of web content. Sites with embedded media files now perform much better on average than sites without such files, because Google can identify them and place additional value on those files.
Google has also come to value recency in web content, while simultaneously placing value on longer-existing domain names. This might seem like an inconsistency, but it in fact makes sense. A longer-running domain name suggests the site is stable, more so than perhaps a website that was put up a week ago. On the other hand, if that same stable site is producing new content, it boosts relevance scores because it looks to the search engine to be current. The search algorithm has become more complex, allowing seemingly conflicting signals to balance against each other and weigh in toward a holistic picture of the site.
In the last decade or so, Google has worked hard to do more to reward content that is unique, relevant, and well-written. Because it has been based in keywords and analytics, there continue to be ways to make the system work for you, and the best SEO companies work hard to stay on top of these tactics. Still, Google has come a long way since its beginnings in helping users find not just the content that site owners want them to find, but the content that they really want.
One of the latest steps Google has taken toward that end is RankBrain, introduced in 2015 and touted by some as a step closer to true artificial intelligence. Google relies on linguistic data and search results collected over time to quickly assimilate and apply contextual clues that help identify what a user might be trying to find. People working for Google still enter and analyze data, but RankBrain uses the input information and processes it faster than a person ever could. It is sophisticated enough to make contextual distinctions, such as using the placement of the word “mercury” to distinguish between instances referring to human space travel, temperatures, and liquid metal. It also breaks down longer, complicated search queries to identify the import despite individual phrases that used to lead search engines elsewhere.
To call this artificial intelligence is a bit of a misnomer. True thinking is a creative process that RankBrain and other programs like IBM’s Watson are not truly capable of doing. It means applying abstract concepts and mingling them with the concrete; understanding metaphors in non-literal terms; and developing ideas that are new rather than mere logical deductions taken from the data available. Thus, we are not yet in a position to fear SkyNet becoming self-aware. The programs can analyze data in exciting and powerful ways, but they cannot form opinions or exert real understanding of abstract concepts.
Nevertheless, the program is capable of “understanding” searches and website results in surprising and powerful ways. Just as Watson annihilated two former Jeopardy! champions, so RankBrain can process linguistic data quickly and accurately, much more so than even the quickest-thinking human mind can. It connects variations on keyword phrases and derives search ranking import from them. It makes search results more meaningful, even if it cannot make them perfect.
At present, Google has identified RankBrain as the third-most important signal in its overall search algorithm, Hummingbird. It has not specified what the first two are, but the fact that a fairly new program is already third gives further evidence that Google eventually wants to operate under a system even closer to real artificial intelligence. More than ever, trying to improve search results by tricking Google seems to be a fool’s errand.
So does understanding algorithms still matter? It does, but not in absolute terms. One aspect that has changed but not disappeared, for example, is the importance of keyword phrases to SEO writing. Keyword stuffing will not get you ranked, but judiciously weaving keyword phrases into a natural style of writing certainly can. Instead of filling a single page with a twenty percent concentration of a keyword, you now do better to research a keyword phrase and include it at closer to a two percent concentration. You do well placing it in certain places in your content as well, including headers and introductory paragraphs. But you still research those terms, find high search volume and low competition, and apply the ones that work the best for your purposes.
In addition, Google uses signals that reward fresher content and region-specific content. SEO companies can thus reap benefits for their clients by developing regular, unique content and by employing local SEO techniques to build the audience around them. In fact there are more than 200 different signals that Google’s algorithm applies, and each of these provides opportunities for a savvy SEO firm.
The signals matter because content that “speaks” to the signals helps a website rank higher in Google’s search rankings. Anyone who ignores them completely does so at his or her peril. Your site should perform well because you have excellent, important content there. But you also need to make sure that content fits in with how Google measures excellent, important content. Otherwise, you are writing great things that no one will ever read.
1st in SEO studies and keeps up with these signals regularly and tenaciously. We do so because over time, our clients will reap the rewards. The signals exist not to give select people who are in the know an opportunity to get ahead, but rather as the best ways Google has identified at present to bring the most relevant information to the right searchers. We use our understanding of these signals to help create not only high-performing content, but content that Google will identify as relevant to your potential customers.
At some point, of course, algorithm-chasing can be counterproductive. Anytime there is a massive shift in an algorithm, some site rankings drop. A factor might fall out of favor, or a new signal may come in and push different sites ahead in the rankings. Anyone who focuses entirely on what will work today risks falling behind tomorrow. If you bank on a certain element of search making all the difference for you, you may be in trouble sooner rather than later.
Instead of pushing out content based on individual elements of an incrementally changing algorithm, the best SEO firms keep an eye on the future, a future that includes Google moving ever closer to the elusive goal of perfect search. What it hopes to achieve, and comes closer to achieving every day, is a search engine that connects people precisely to the information they want, written in a way that they can immediately understand and appreciate. This goal drives Google’s developers every day, and every report of someone taking advantage of a system shortcoming pushes them to work even harder.
To write for that future means taking the time to understand our clients and their customers. We apply local SEO tactics to target Albuquerque-area customers for an Albuquerque-based client, but we also bring in our knowledge of the diverse neighborhoods in and around Albuquerque to help determine what kind of writing will apply best to those in each of them. We create fresh content for our clients because the algorithm rewards fresh content, but we also do so because it gives customers and potential customers a reason to keep coming back to your website.
Google will continue to push on its quixotic quest to identify ways to bring people to the information they want. RankBrain moves it much closer, but the approach will never quite touch a perfect model: one in which signals are replaced by a fully-functional electronic mind that processes creatively and intelligently. It will continue to add new signals and tweak existing ones, but the signals will not go away. All it can do is create an ever more intricate system and continue to change things that move them away from their goals rather than toward them.
With this in mind, as long as search engines exist, SEO firms will have a place in the marketing plans of savvy business owners. The SEO firms track changes in algorithms and identify ways to most effectively apply what they learn to web content and design. This will always provide a benefit to site owners. The clues will become more subtle over time, and understanding the weight of different signals will become more difficult as a result. But all this does is place more of a premium on those who are able to keep up.
SEO writing based on algorithm understanding means playing catch-up every day. Still, most of the basics have rounded into something that should not largely change in the absence of entirely new search technology. Companies running SEO campaigns should provide content that is relevant to their business and their customers; unique to the page on which it is written; and written in a way that is easy and even enjoyable to read. All of these help a page rank well now, and will continue to do so.
At 1st in SEO, we work to straddle the worlds of the present and the future. We start with what we know: ranking signals do matter, and can be applied in meaningful ways that boost your site rankings over time. Google has determined that those site rankings gain meaningful bumps from signals that it presently employs, and we work to stay on top of those signals and ensure your site does not miss potential opportunities to perform better.
Over time, these techniques should serve to keep making content that performs better with search engines, as well as better with your customers. Some of the signals will become less important, and others more, but most should not result in genuine sea changes in how we create content that ranks high. Sites that give meaningful, readable information are now favored over those that do not, and that is as it should be. The trajectory on which the algorithm finds itself is no longer one of volatile change, but rather one of incremental shifts, all geared toward making this kind of writing more meaningful, rather than less.
Our approach, then, and the approach that any solid SEO firm should employ, is grounded in the present with an eye toward the future. Page rankings exist in the present, and one ignores the factors that weigh in on those rankings at one’s own peril. But writing content for an internet marketing plan should also focus on providing meaningful information. RankBrain builds on concepts and context more than specifically on keywords, not because keywords don’t matter, but because the holistic presentation of the content matters more. We build content based on concepts and ideas, not on the words and phrases we research.
We accomplish this for our clients by starting out at a place of learning and understanding. We want to know who you are and what goals you have for yourself and your company. We want to understand who your customers are, and what you have done to most successfully give them what they want. We then apply the understanding we gain to creating content that provides your knowledge to people who will most benefit from your sharing it with them. In short, we generate content that matters to the people who most matter to you.
Understanding algorithms and chasing algorithms may be two sides of the same coin, but the former allows for much better sustained SEO success than the latter. 1st in SEO directs its understanding to do the most to benefit your company.