Does it strike anyone else as odd that, outside of web browsers, the only other population segment we refer to as “users” are consumers of illegal drugs? It may seem strange, but I would contend this terminology is a fitting artifact of a bygone era of digital marketing, reflecting just how far detached web marketers once became from the human experience.
Nowhere was this truer than organic search engine optimization, where reaching your audience once required brands to subvert an algorithm—rather than actually resonate with and engage those they were trying to reach. Today, it would seem we’re on the precipice of a higher level of SEO practice, one that requires us as marketers to understand the intentions, problems and emotions of the people we’re trying to reach.
We once lived in a reality where organic search engine optimization was a practice that existed entirely outside of traditional marketing initiatives. SEO was a marketing condiment. And like a splash of sriracha, you could add it after the fact to any website or piece of content in a way that made it more accessible to end users, but not able to entirely obscure the general mediocrity of what was ultimately being served.
With so much perceived value in coveted ranking positions, tactical “approaches” to SEO were guarded like the recipe to your grandmother’s homemade sauce. Pop-up SEO companies made sweeping promises of organic search capability to their customers, all the while obfuscating what were clearly black hat tactics with reassurances laden with technical idioms and industry jargon. When they used phrases like “link velocity,” “penalization” and “keyword density,” their clients got the message they intended to convey. They were in over their head. Leave it to the experts.
The new face of Google
Fortunately, this is not the reality we live in today. The scorched earth wasteland that once defined the SEO marketplace has largely been brought to order by way of the evolution and growing sophistication of Google’s organic search algorithm, which has left many wannabe “marketers” in the dust in recent years. But as we look forward, is there a way Google and marketers can coexist now and in the future? Of course there is.
In fairness to Google, they’ve never been coy about proclaiming what they’re trying to achieve with their search product; they are striving to create the best possible experience for those using their search product, allowing them to access quality information quickly and efficiently. In some capacity or another, nearly all changes to their algorithm have been geared toward that end goal. It’s important to note, however, that while this is a seemingly noble effort, it is not altogether altruistic. Satisfied searchers breed brand loyalty. Brand loyalty allowed Google to enjoy a nearly 70% U.S. search market share, which in turn equated to over $59 billion in various advertising revenues in 2014.
So how are they creating more users and more frequent users? Updates of the past few years, including the Panda and Penguin algorithms, have increased the quality of the traditional ten blue links that Google displays, decreasing the amount of low quality content and web spam that once compromised the integrity of their results. The page layout algorithm cleaned up ad-heavy sites capitalizing on their organic positioning at the expense of the people browsing their sites. The trustworthiness of their index is now the industry standard, and users are more satisfied than ever before.
We also see that those brands performing in organic search are those who are resonating well with their audience in other marketing channels and those with truly novel content strategies. For example, travel-booking website, Oyster.com has achieved remarkable organic results for ultra competitive phrases (e.g., hotel reviews), primarily through their use of guest-sourced, unadulterated hotel photography contrasted against the promotional imagery provided by the hotels. More than ever before, great rankings are reserved for those doing great things, and it’s harder than ever to perform well in organic search without actually being compelling.
Where we’re at today…
Google’s next move would seem to be an evolving one, and one whose foundations likely lie in the integration of the Knowledge Graph and later, the Hummingbird algorithm. You’ve likely noticed over the past few years that search results consisting solely of ten blue links are less common than at any point before.
It’s a subconscious behavior, but at the root of nearly all search queries are questions we’re asking ourselves, facts we’re trying to ascertain, and uncertainties we’re trying to resolve. Search algorithms, through their growing understanding of entities, and the tangential concepts related to those entities, are now resolving questions directly in search results rather than sending searchers to third-party content. Indeed, Google has evolved beyond just a content portal to a content provider.
If you want to know who won the ballgame last night, you might search for “mlb results.” In the past, Google would have likely returned the primary Major League Baseball scores page. Today, their results are very different. Where Google’s algorithm at one time simply connected keyword queries to content, it is now connecting queries to connected concepts, and even direct answers to questions that are at the heart of queries.
A brand’s opportunity
As with any update, each evolution of Google’s search product brings its own set of challenges and opportunities for marketers. Some traffic will undoubtedly be diverted away from brands with these changes, but there are ways to bait the beast without giving away your lunch.
Content, like so many differentiators in effective SEO strategy, is at the epicenter of this approach. Are you providing/creating content that answers questions or plays to keywords? What content is your brand, and only your brand, uniquely equipped to deliver? Google may parse this, but will nearly always give linked citation to the publisher, growing brand awareness and sending you valuable traffic. There is a time and a place where it makes sense to optimize for Google’s new features. You may not want to create answer-driven content for landing pages that are already performing well for you, but reaching your customers at the top of the funnel can be effectively executed through the creation of content that connects concepts central to your brand identity.
Success here, of course, relies on an understanding of your end audience and the questions, problems and uncertainties they’re trying to resolve. There is a heartbeat and a pulse behind a search query. And as we’re now optimizing for the people we’re trying to reach, this should force us into long-overdue reconciliation between organic search and traditional human empathy.