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How marketers should respond to Google's new search bots

24th Jan 2017
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In late 2015, Google revealed a little about how it is using sophisticated Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning techniques to help improve its search results. Systems such as its RankBrain technology are helping the search engine better understand the meaning of ‒ and intentions behind ‒ the words that searchers enter into the search box.       

Research conducted at Searchmetrics indicates that these efforts are paying off: the content presented in search results is more relevant and does a better job of answering searchers’ questions than ever before.    

This means not only do digital marketers need to focus on creating good quality content, but also to make it highly relevant to the specific search intent of their target audiences.

At the same time the study underlined that many simplistic techniques that marketers use to artificially help their pages rank higher ‒ such as collecting backlinks and increasing the number of times keywords are mentioned in text – are becoming less effective.

The findings come from our annual study of Google Ranking Factors.  Based on analysis of the top 20 search results for 10,000 keywords on, in this research we try to identify the main factors that high ranking web pages have in common in order to provide insights and guidance for digital marketers.

The latest study includes an analysis of a new factor, the Content Relevance* score, which helps measure the semantic relationship between the words entered in search queries and the content shown in results: the higher the score, the more relevant the results. And the analysis shows that content displayed in higher ranking search results is significantly more related (has a higher score) to the searchers’ queries than those positioned lower down.

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Content relevance

In other words RankBrain and other tools that are part of Google’s armoury are helping the search engine make sense of what searchers’ are looking for, and rewarding content that is more relevant.  And importantly, relevance here is not just about tracking keyword matches: the Content Relevance calculation excludes the simple instances in which the same keywords appear in search queries and search results.

Given this and the wider findings of the study, here are seven considerations you should embrace if you want to be more visible in Google searches this year. 

1. Don’t get so caught up on keywords  

In the old days SEO was heavily focused on keywords. If the words you put in your web copy matched those that searchers entered into search queries, you increased your chances of ranking highly in search results.

But Google is no longer simply rewarding pages that use more matching keywords with higher rankings. 

In fact the importance of keywords has been falling for a number of years. This year’s data suggests that we’re at a point where focusing too heavily on keyword is no longer bringing rewards. The top 20 results include 20% fewer matching keywords (on average) in the copy than in 2015. And just 53% of the top 20 results have the keyword in the title (compared with 75% in 2015).   

2. Get a better handle on search intent

Instead of keywords, put your efforts into creating content around whole topics that seeks to best answer the intent behind searchers’ questions.

To take some simple examples, if a searcher types ‘Pesto Ingredients’ into the search box, his intent is probably best served by a bulleted or numbered list of ingredients for making a pesto sauce. While a query like ‘halloween costume ideas’ might be most effectively answered by a series of relevant images.  And a ‘how to tie a Windsor knot’ query might be best addressed with video content.

Not only do digital marketers need to focus on creating good quality content, but also to make it highly relevant to the specific search intent of their target audiences.

Try to learn about the kinds of search queries that your target audiences are using at different stages of the buyer journey. What are they asking and what is their intention? And what content will provide the best answers?  Look at what is appearing in search results to analyse how competitors are answering questions? How can you build on these results by adding additional value?  Are there questions – about new trends or aspects of your industry ‒ that are not yet being answered effectively?

Focus on producing content that genuinely answers searchers’ questions using natural easy-to-understand language (and appropriate images, video etc.).  As a by-product some of your text may include keywords, but there’s no need to push this.

3. Make your content longer and more comprehensive

The number of words on higher ranked pages has been increasing for several years now and the trend is continuing. Generally this is because top performing results are more detailed, more holistic (cover more of the important- and relevant ‒ aspects of a topic) and are hence better able to answer search queries. 

For example analysis of high ranking pages indicates that the main topic covered is usually combined with certain other related topics that searchers are also likely to be interested in.  So if you were to analyse the top articles on the topic “Mexico Holidays”, you might see related proof terms (which are very closely connected to the main topic) such as “Mexico hotels” or “Mexico flights”.  And that relevant terms (slightly more distant but still relevant) such as “Riviera Maya” or “Cancun sights” are also important.   

In general aim to make content more comprehensive by exploring the proof and relevant themes related to your topic and covering them in sufficient depth.  But as we’ve already highlighted, intent is all important: for some searches people are just looking for quick facts or a short bullet point list, so presenting too much additional background won’t help you rank higher.      

4. Ease off a little on link building

The number and quality of backlinks coming into a page from other sites has long been felt to be one of the primary factors for helping pages rank highly. Today, while links are still strongly correlated with rankings, they are on a downward trend and are thought to be just one of many contributory factors for ranking well.  Part of the reason is that many searches now happen on mobile devices ‒ and mobile users ‘like’ or share pages, but very seldom link to them.  

So while link building programmes were once a core part of SEO and content optimisation, you can ease off on it now.  Your strategy for generating links should be geared more towards ‘earning’ links by creating good content that bloggers and other websites in your industry are happy to link to.  Definitely avoid ‘old school’ techniques such as link exchanges, paid for links or links generated from irrelevant or low value sites because Google is much better at identifying and punishing sites that use them.

5. Getting the technical stuff right is a basic must

Technical factors such as page load time, file size and page architecture are a pre-requisite for good rankings as they help to make web pages accessible and easy to consume for both humans and search engines.  Getting these right lays the foundation for helping your pages break into the top 20 search results. From there, factors such as content quality and relevance can help you improve your rankings further.

6.  Start thinking mobile-first

Currently Google tends to base its rankings on the desktop versions of sites, adjusting these for mobile results based on issues such as the mobile-friendliness of pages and other factors. And our data shows there are still significant differences between high ranking content on desktop devices and that which appears on mobile devices.

But Google revealed last November that it is planning to switch to a mobile-first index ‒ basing what it shows in search results primarily on the mobile versions of pages.  When this happens, if you only have a desktop site or your pages do not have a mobile-friendly design, you will potentially not rank well on any device (desktops or mobiles).

So you need to think mobile-first to ensure your site continues to rank well.  For example our analysis shows that high ranking mobile results tend to better address mobile-friendliness by having faster page load speeds, smaller file sizes, shorter word counts and fewer interactive elements such as menus and buttons. 

7. Get an intimate understanding what’s important to rank in your particular industry

RankBrain and the growing sophistication of Google’s search technology means the factors that the search engine uses to determine rankings depend much more on the context of individual searches.  In other words ranking factors themselves are more fluid and will vary according to the industry you work in. Different factors may be important for a travel search compared with a financial services search for example. 

So going forward digital marketers will need to have a much more granular understanding of what’s important in their industry rather than relying on generalised universally applicable benchmarks.  This is an area which the search and digital marketing community will need to get used to.

In fact, increasing granularity and a laser-focus on what searchers are looking for are probably among the key takeaways from the whole ranking factors study.  If you want your site to perform well in searches, there are really no tricks or short cuts.  Develop an intimate knowledge of search queries in your sector and the intentions behind those queries - and create relevant, good quality content that specifically answers those intentions.  And do it better than the competition.

*Content Relevance is based on measurement methods which use linguistic corpora and the conceptualisation of semantic relationships between words as distances in the form of vectors. For the semantic evaluation of a text, this makes it possible to analyse the keyword and the content separately from one another. Searchmetrics can calculate a content relevance score for a complete text on a certain keyword or topic. The higher the relevance score, the more relevant the content of the analysed landing page for the given search query.


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