SEO has always been a process where frequent updates force businesses and individual website owners to monitor the latest changes and adapt in order to rank higher in search. In the past, tracking those changes and understanding the science behind tactics to optimize a site, a page, or a piece of content was enough to rank high on search engines. SEO was a system that could be gamed and optimized through tactics like keyword stuffing and only relied on simple connections between words or concepts. This caused content, websites and links to be designed with basic strategic guidelines and structures which, in many cases, diminished the quality of content and human facets but in return bolstered search result rankings. In that time, it wasn’t the most valuable content at the forefront of search results but content that was best technically optimized for SEO.
Google’s algorithm, Hummingbird, has always strived to deliver the most relevant content with human like understanding of results to best engage the user. The lack of technological advancements put a glass ceiling on accuracy of content per search query but ironically Google’s utilization of its artificial intelligence system, Rankbrain, along with a plethora of algorithm updates, has drastically humanized SEO. Rankbrain itself is not an algorithm but one of the integral parts or signals of the algorithm that helps sort through the billions of web pages and deliver relevant results to search queries. In fact, Google has confirmed that Rankbrain is one of the top 3 signals that inform search results, along with links and content.
Rankbrain uses mathematical processes and language semantics to have the ability to understand the meaning of something rather than just the words used when analyzing queries. In essence, it has the ability to understand the words in a query as an entire concept and learn what causes a user to respond to certain pages in search results over others, rewarding content and experiences that people use and find valuable. Last year, RankBrain was used for less than 15% of queries. Now Google’s confidence has increased enough in the AI that it's used all the time. As the capabilities of Rankbrain advance, the way companies optimize for search engines must change along with it.
Here are 3 ways businesses and website owners can optimize SEO for Google Search:
"Google is no longer looking to interpret and respond to a series of words, but to understand queries as part of a larger context to give users the most relevant results. Rankbrain is a means of humanizing search and responding to users on a conversational level" - Nicole Hagerman, Account Executive at Tiko Digital.
The question for content marketers and website owners is no longer does this piece of content fall under the specific set of guidelines for gratifying an algorithm but is this a valuable piece of content for the target audience? People enjoy quality content which entails natural language, language varying based upon business, industry, audience, with a clear purpose because it’s easier to understand and absorb. Google’s machine learning functionality allows it to decipher content people will most likely engage with based upon their search queries and can learn to more accurately pinpoint engaging content for each individual user search query. In other words, Hummingbird is learning to appreciate content on a human level. This means that what makes a great piece of content to people will also be categorized as valuable to Hummingbird and thus deliver the best content per search query and not just the best optimized for SEO.
Content creation should then be focused on connecting with the audience through utilization of tone and language based upon company persona and industry rhetoric. This can be done through covering the topics that add value to the audience and answering the questions to the specific problems the users may be asking and searching for.
Links are one of the top 3 ranking factors for SEO according to Andrey Lipattsev, a Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google. Including references from reputable sources within content gives people a deeper trust in that piece of content through transparency and external relevancy. Links and excerpts from industry experts support search engines in deducing the objective of content and provide credibility and utility to the target audience. The major factors that should be recognized when using links are as follows; Domain Authority or the level of trust search engines and other websites have in a website, using quality links before quantity, is the link useful to the audience and is the link relevant to the topic.
All in all, placing links simply allows human readers to know that the information is backed by other reputable sources and can be trusted as being factual through showcasing relevancy from a variety of sources. This is yet another way of humanization because trust in essence is a human belief that machine learning now allows Google to interpret.
While utilization of keyword phrases in content does not play as big of a role with more recent algorithm updates like the implementation of Rankbrain, it is still a signal and matters for SEO. Because Rankbrain can better analyze the meaning of phrases as a whole, it is necessary for content writers to think more about the actual concepts to which these keywords apply.
Keyword-centric SEO tools should not be overvalued. While they are a good tool to distinguish current query usage, they are a bad tool for finding synonyms used to refer to concepts an individual business is relevant to. Use the language and take the tone of the internal and external stakeholders around a company and industry experts in a specific field.
The creation of content for SEO purposes has drastically changed from a mathematical robotic system to becoming more human ironically through an algorithm with machine learning capabilities. Content creators, website owners and businesses should no longer solely rely on structured steps to rank higher on SEO due to the presence of Rankbrain and numerous other algorithm updates. Rankbrain’s machine learning functionalities, along with other SEO signals, allow Hummingbird to understand the value of content and how pieces of content correlate to a search query. A shift in focus towards satisfying the audience through valuable, quality content and not simply content that is hyper optimized for Google’s old system is a necessity. If content is created with the proper tone, language and quality to benefit its intended audience and also has reputable links to build trust then Hummingbird will recognize this and push content higher based upon search query. Ultimately, just be human.