Search Engine Optimization – a buzzword we’ve all read, heard and possibly discussed about. But despite the importance of SEO, many small businesses overlook this crucial step in guaranteeing they are being found. After all, we live in an uber digital world with 86% of people browsing the internet every day. Do you ever wonder:
Why isn’t my business showing up in searches?
Regardless of your industry, SEO is the one true way of getting found when people don’t know who you are and possibly don’t even know that they even need you. This is true especially for lawyers and small law firms where majority of people end up landing at larger firms. But SEO is tricky. That’s probably not a surprise to hear. But it’s tricky not because you don’t know what to do.
Hello, just Google it.
There are myriad resources, tutorials, checklists, modules, and tools at your disposal. And it’s not because Google’s algorithm is some esoteric concept no one can begin to digest. In fact, if you look at the evolution of search, you can easily predict where it’s going.
No, SEO is tricky because the battlefield and rules of the game is constantly changing. But one thing is definitely constant. To win, you must be of value.
What the heck does that mean? Well the purpose of this article is not to provide you tips and tricks on what keywords to target, where to implement them, how to optimize your images and so on and so forth. You can find that on your own. There’s a bajillion articles on it.
The purpose of this article is threefold:
- Give you a quick history lesson on Google’s search (it’s quick I swear. And not as boring as your 8th grade social studies teacher)
- Hint at the future (because although there’s no greater time than the present, there actually is a greater time and it’s the future)
- Provide a fool proof solution guaranteed to trump any curveballs Google throws at us (because, well, Google can do whatever it wants)
The Evolution of Search
Let’s step into our time machine and go way back to the historic days of Encyclopedia’s, yellow pages and rotary phones.
Maybe not that far back.
Although the internet started in the 1960’s with many different players involved, we only care about Google because 3.5 billion searches are done on Google. In 1996, Larry and Sergey developed BackRub (Google’s nascent phase). It was a search engine that utilized backlinks to rank web pages accordingly as determined by their PageRank Algorithm. In other words, the more backlinks a site had, the more “authoritative” and trustworthy Google rendered it. At that time, the internet was booming and so was the information that was fueling it. As a result, it was challenging getting the right information users wanted. Prior to Google, search engines were basing their rankings on what’s known as “on the page” SEO. In other words, keywords. The more keywords on the page, the more relevant it was for the search.
NOTE: Backlinks were important then and they’re still important today. Learn about how to create a top-notch backlinking strategy here.
But because there are some rotten apples out there that had to ruin it for us all, spamming (“keyword stuffing”) became a growing trend. So with a combination of on the page and off the page (links) SEO, search engines were providing exceptional results for web pages. And in the early 2000’s, as technology got better, people demanded more. Instead of just web pages, users wanted all relevant information. Be that images, news, sporting events, books or other verticals. That’s why image optimization is so incredibly important as well.
Google’s mission is to provide the user with the most relevant answer as quickly as possible. And in a society with information overload syndrome, quick isn’t quick enough.
Introducing Universal Search
A SERP game changer that integrated plain, 10-listing SERPs with features like News, Video, Images, Local, and other verticals. Today, if you were to Google “NBA schedule”, it would show you the current scores (if games were played), upcoming games or past games and scores depending on the time as opposed to just the top 10 links relevant to NBA schedule.
Then Google started becoming a lot smarter and subsequently slightly more creepier. For example, Google Suggest was launched in 2008 so you don’t have to type in your full thought because Google is already in your brain. You can type in something like “gold” and it will automatically show you “golden state warriors” and a few others they know is relevant to you. Then they launched Google Instant in 2010 where you don’t even have to submit a full search query, the SERP will being populating with results in real-time. With the increase in mobile usage, they removed Google Instant to ensure fluidity remains on all devices.
NOTE: This also still applies in “Incognito” tabs because although Incognito stops Chrome from saving your browsing history, websites, your internet service provider and other network players operate differently.
But in reality it really shouldn’t matter. After all, this information helps you in the long run. The more Google knows about you, the better it serves you. Unless of course you want to hide what you’re searching for. In that case, use Tor or other anonymity sites.
Google’s algorithm is constantly updating. The Penguin update in 2012 focused on penalizing those bad apples buying backlinks or spamming networks for acquiring backlinks. And in 2013, Hummingbird was introduced with the ability to parse the internet based on intent rather than just the words. This is predominantly where keyword targeting alone doesn’t work. More on that later.
As consumerism and market changes, Google began focusing on security (HTTPS) and mobile-first beginning in 2015. Recently penalizing interstitials or pop ups that are disruptive to the mobile experience because….again, it’s disruptive and nobody likes it. So stop doing it. Remember, Google is about providing VALUE to the user.
What google values, you should value.
Okay Google, So What Does the Future Look Like?
Along with “search engine optimization”, “machine learning” and “artificial intelligence” are other buzzwords our media channels are flooded with. Rightfully so because it’s a marketing game changer.
Google’s RankBrain, launched in 2015, uses machine learning to process search queries that predicts the “best fit” for search queries that Google doesn’t know. According to Bloomberg,
“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”.
Unknown search queries? Doesn’t Google know everything?
Google knows practically everything but there’s still unknown unknowns. About 15% of queries Google processes every day have never been searched before.
How could there be unknown queries?
It actually makes sense when you think about the evolution of search. In the very beginning, search was simply a depository of web pages. The queries were limited to the words alone. In other words, search results had to match the words in the query. As search engines evolved, the results went far beyond just the words displayed on the web page. It represented the actual meaning of it. That opened the door to different types of search queries. Think about all the different ways we talk about a person, place or thing.
Take New York City as an example. After September 11, many people went to Google to search for Twin Towers only to find a slew of results, none of which covering the event that occurred. Context and meaning play a crucial role. Fast forward to present day and context plays a crucial role.
So you can see how there could be millions of ways to ask even one simple question. This is going to drastically expand as we move more to voice search.
How Does RankBrain Work?
It’s important to note that machine learning and artificial intelligence are concepts that hold a rather variety of definitions. Although RankBrain uses machine learning, it is not a natural language processor. At least not yet. NLP can understand language similar to the way a human does. As a result it can understand the intent of the user.
RankBrain is a step in that direction and can infer meaning from your searches based on language alone. And most likely information about you as the user. Like all machine learning algorithms, it requires a relational database of people, places, things and other “entities”. Words submitted via a query are broken down into word vectors using a mathematical formula that assigns it an “address”. Similar words share a similar “address” and these are all bundled/mapped together. When Google is given a brain teaser of a query, it relies on these mathematically mapped vectors to pull out a related result. Overtime, Google learns from these unknowns and refines the results based on user interaction.
This is a simplified explanation to what’s extremely more complex on the micro-level but it helps generalize the process so we can use it to our advantage.
How To Outthink Google And Optimize for RankBrain
As we’ve stressed already, Google’s algorithm is getting more more intuitive and user-intent focused and projected towards natural language. Knowing where Google is headed tells you what you should do.
If the final destination is Natural Language Processing, the road is… well, natural language. So, write in natural language. Pretty simple. Write like how a human sounds. If it sounds conversational and natural in speech, consider it optimized for RankBrain. If it sounds like a machine wrote it, assume RankBrain will get confused and ignore your page in its entirety.
Bear in mind, RankBrain is only part of Google’s Algorithm. It’s the part that Google is uncertain about. So ranking for the unknown is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Wasting time trying to rank for a query that no one (or rarely anyone) is using is futile at best. Especially because RankBrain is designed to change over time. The best advice: write unparalleled, out of this world, exceptional content.
Content creation isn’t as easy as putting together some words together and waiting for the phone the ring with a surge of leads. That’s because everyone and their mothers have a blog.
So what makes your content stand out?
Creating valuable content takes time, patience and (some) intelligence. As the saying goes, we don’t plan to fail, we fail to plan. So plan an effective content marketing campaign that won’t fail. Remember, Google’s goal is to get the user to the answer they’re looking for as quickly and seamlessly as possible. Anything that is “thin” or lacks originality (aka duplicate content) is seen as a frustrating user experience and therefore not worthy enough to be ranked.
High quality content varies. But fundamentally, all good content provides value. In other words, it helps readers solve a problem or reach a goal. Problem solving comes in all formats:
- Emotionally captivating videos that tell a story listeners can resonate with or learn from is problem solving
- Making a funny meme that makes someone laugh is solving a problem
- Spending 100 hours researching and compiling previously unpublished data is solving a problem
- Writing a 10,000 word tutorial is solving a problem
- Sharing your story and being vulnerable for the entire world to see is definitely solving a problem because chances are, you’re not the only one to experience it but you are the only one brave enough to share
Whatever industry your in, think of your customers buyer journey and develop content catered to that. If you’re B2B or a service oriented industry such as law firms, consider the various content types based on each stage of the buyer’s journey.
If you’re a retailer, tour operator or another local business, remember we’re in the age of context. Context is a highly personalized world that incorporates big data, sensor data, social network data and location data to allow people to do more and live better, faster and easier. Context isn’t simply about the here and now. It goes beyond that to the physical, digital and social structures that surround the point of use. There are many different types of context you need to constantly be evaluating:
- Device context
- Environmental context
- Time context
- Activity context
- Individual context
- Location context
- Social context
Another imperative component of content creation is your branding. Creating a strong brand is beyond the scope of this article but is crucial for the success of your business. Whatever industry it may be. One thing I always see small businesses, startups, law firms and even larger companies fail at is recognizing the cognitive dissonance behind their brand. Cognitive dissonance occurs when your ideas, beliefs or behaviors contradict each other. When I first launched TruleYours, I thought I had strong brand. After all, we provided an easy way for users to accurately get the right size they need when online shopping from the favorite brands they shop for all while helping save the planet by reducing the amount of returns ending in landfills and incinerators. You get to look cute and save the planet. What’s not to love?
Then I realized, our messaging was not in line with our audience (or who I thought our audience should be). While most people want to shop eco-friendly and think fashion brands should provide more sustainable clothing, their actions indicated otherwise. When presented with the option of buying a “sustainable” item of clothing for a slightly higher price vs one that isn’t, they always opted for the cheaper. This was cognitive dissonance at its core. Cognitive dissonance is another topic that is beyond the scope of this article but in a nutshell: a good brand will create a product that makes it easy to change your behavior or a story that makes it easy to change your beliefs. In either situation, your actions will match your words.
Creating a story is also a science and an art that is too complex for the sake of this point. But in short, there are 4 basic traits of a story:
- Opening – introduce the pain. Show how the character led a normal life until a series of event shattered and altered his/her life.
- Conflict – what is the character’s journey look like as he/she is tackling this challenge? How does the problem threaten the life of the main character?
- Dialogue – it’s human nature to be drawn to conversations. Make it sound natural (gee, where have we heard that?)
- Solution – show how your service, product or company comes to the rescue.
Remember, value comes in all different types of formats. Consider adding value by:
- Writing blog posts
- Sharing stories on social media
- Motivating people
- Connecting people
- Sharing useful resources
- Hosting live webinars
- Giving a free consultation
It’s really only limited by your imagination!