There are two ways to try and understand the future. One is to gaze into the misty depths of a magic crystal ball and guess what might happen. The other is to view facts from a coldly logical standpoint and draw verifiable conclusions from them.
To make sense of rapid shifts in the SEO landscape, let’s follow the famous detective of fiction lore, Hercule Poirot — and begin with “the psychology of the individual,” or, in our case, “the psychology of Google!”
Knowing Google’s Mind
Why does Google do what it does? Lying hidden in plain sight are the keys to the mystery behind the shifting sands of online search.
Google’s financial lifeline is ad revenue. The search giant depends upon people using its engine to find answers. If people stop coming to Google, who’ll click on AdWords ads that surround organic search results?
That’s why they must prevent spamming, remove irrelevant search results, and give people what they want, whenever and wherever they want it. It’s a tall order — but Google is stepping up to the plate.
And, at least so far, they are winning!
How Will Google Make Search More Relevant?
By adopting a three-pronged strategy.
Intuit searcher intent, by going beyond search phrases to seek the meaning behind queries
1. Tailor Results to User Needs: Armed with a massive collection of user data that it’s not shy to use, Google is counting on things like semantic search and Trust rank to tailor results to its users’ needs.
Recognizing that Web search queries are often the jumping off point on a voyage of discovery, Google’s semantic search initiative tries to mirror how humans understand the world, seeking to determine what users want from the terms they type into the search box — or speak into their mobile phones (conversational search).
And then, to go further!
2. Provide Fast Results: Deliver answers quickly, even right on the search engine results page (SERP), especially those that are immediately actionable
SERPs are being reconstructed to include more information within them. In combination with ‘real time’ data from social networks, this can transform the way people search for stuff online.
Imagine walking along a street in Paris or Sydney, wondering if there’s a pub or deli you’ll like nearby – and then having directions to one that your best friends recommend pop up on your smart phone within a few seconds after you ask Google for help!
That’s already happening… and it’s set to get better once Google fine tunes its list of sources for reliable data that it can trust.
3. Provide Relevant Results: Minimize SEO gaming of results through encrypting search data and relying on signals that are harder to manipulate
So, What Can Google Trust?
For years and years, Google accumulated humongous gobs of data on its users -
- Who clicks on what
- How long they spend on a page
- What they do next
- What they buy, and where
And it is constantly learning more.
Why do this?
To grow its Knowledge Graph about the world and the people in it — so it can enrich search results and make them more meaningful for you and me. Google help us find people or places, news or events, deals or data instantly.
As it grows, evolves and learns, this programmer-designed algorithm might even be able to understand the world… the way humans do. Maybe better!
Through personalization of services, Google has compiled incredibly insightful (and relational) profiles on millions of users. Those bits and bytes can be assembled into ‘Trust Rank’ scores that are easy to assign to specific users or resources.
Google can now trust
- People it knows
- Data it can mine
- Social platforms it controls
And that’s why Google built a social network!
Not to “beat Facebook at social.” No. People often compare Google+ with Facebook. This is a big mistake. They are two completely different things. Google+ is so much more — but many people haven’t understood how.
Google+ is an identity platform, with potential to deeply impact how we will experience social, local and mobile influences on search marketing.
People debating the importance of social media on search miss the critical point that Google+ is a source of social signals that Google can actually trust! It’s already hard to cheat, manipulate or spam Google+ with low-quality content, and as location data and check-in spam protection kick in, it’ll become almost impossible to game the network.
That’s how Google+1′s will affect rankings. A few years from now, a G+ presence will be indispensable to winning the search game.
And Then Came Hummingbird
Announced in late September 2013, the Hummingbird update is Google’s most radical revamp of its search engine algorithm since 2001. With the goal of making search “precise and fast,” this update affects the way Google processes search-related signals before ranking billions of Web pages in its index.
It’s an innovation designed to integrate hyperlocal search and social signals, mobile search and user intent, trust rank and the knowledge graph, all in a headlong rush to become the ultimate answer engine on the Web.
Were you affected by it?
Probably! I can only tell for sure after analyzing your SEO and data from traffic logs. But if all you’ve done is optimize to rank high for specific keywords, without spending time on deconstructing your site visitors’ intent, then the answer is very likely “Yes.”
The Hummingbird update has revamped the algorithm’s signal processing itself to return better quality and relevance to search results, including spoken “conversational search” queries made from mobile phones and computing devices. Hummingbird goes beyond words or phrases, striving to figure out what they actually mean.
Here’s what happens under the hood. The revised algorithm very likely:
- Orders closely related searches carried out in a session
- Analyzes the terms used during these searches
- Builds rules that try replacing one term or synonym with another
- Evaluates the results that show up for accuracy and relevance
- Finds the best pages that reflect better choices
- Keeps those in the SERPs — and throws out the rest
This means if your page or website is to make the cut with Hummingbird, it should provide the best user experience — which requires a deeper understanding about user intent. In that sense, Hummingbird is more about rewriting queries than indexing pages better or faster.
Ranking is just half the job. You need to go beyond phrase-targeting to retain your rankings. Quick wins and quick fixes are out. Barriers between online and offline have been shattered. Your search strategy must now be integrated with other elements of your business — or you’ll lose big in the years to come.
Strangely enough, even experienced marketers are confused by this shift. Which is why I believe that…
SEO Is Not Dead
The market for search consulting is infinite. What SEO consultants have done so far barely scratches the surface of what’s possible.
Step back and look at the big picture.
We once optimized websites for keywords. Then we started optimizing for long-tail phrases. The emphasis was on ranking content for keywords on Google.
But if the sites that ranked well were not relevant in addressing the question/problem that provoked the user to search, then it it’s not good for:
- The searcher, who doesn’t find what s/he is looking for
- The company that spends money on SEO for low-quality work
- Google, which loses trust and marketshare from dissatisfied users
Something had to change.
- How can businesses “use Hummingbird” and all the other paradigm shifts to achieve short-term and long-term business advantages?
- How important is content marketing and information architecture in this changed landscape?
- How will Hummingbird affect “timeless” tactics like link building and content marketing?
There are many more questions anxious or eager clients are asking. It’s up to SEO experts to give them the right answers. Search marketers must now become hybrid marketers skilled in more than just search or social, PR or communication or analytics.
Technical elements of SEO still matter. But the focus must shift from being business-centric to customer-centric. Move away from thinking about “keywords” and “link building.” Become easier to find online. Get on the screens that your customers are using to seek you out. Address your prospect’s needs.
- Where are my prospective buyers?
- How are they searching for information?
- What will they find on Google?
Find the answers — or prepare to go out of business. Because, in the new SEO:
- Trust is king. SEO is queen. Social media provides soldiers.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.