The search marketing industry has traditionally played catch-up to understanding new technologies deployed by Google and Bing.
Here are six developments in SEO related to how search engines rank that all search professionals must understand in order to work effectively.
1. Understand Content Blocks
A common mistake I see is people trying to write about a list of keyword phrases.
Traditional old-school SEO is to put the keyword phrase in the title element and then put variations of those keywords in the heading elements.
The modern search engine doesn’t understand pages in terms of keywords anymore. Search engines understand webpages in terms of topics, something that has been referred to as a topic taxonomy.
A taxonomy is the organization of topics into topic categories and subtopics of those topics.
Here’s an example of an old-school directory taxonomy that organizes topics like this:
Business > Ecommerce > Technology Vendors
Google has published many research papers about topic taxonomies. A recent research paper about Topic Taxonomy Expansion starts out by referencing how topic taxonomy is useful in web search:
“Topic taxonomies that display hierarchical topic structures of a text corpus have substantially contributed to various knowledge rich applications, including web search and question answering.”
When a search engine looks at a title tag, it does so to understand what the topic of the webpage is.
Similarly, when a search engine looks at headings, it is trying to understand what the blocks of content, as indicated by the headings, are about.
A webpage is about a topic, and that webpage contains relevant subtopics.
Creating a webpage is made easier when you first list the main topic, followed by a list of the relevant subtopics.
Here’s an example:
How to Choose a Fishing Kayak
- Paddle kayak
- Pedal kayak
- Sit on top kayak
- Sit inside kayak
- Stable kayak for standing
- Roomy to fit gear
- Minimal because gear is not an issue
Once you’ve outlined the topic and relevant subtopics, you’re ready to write an on-topic article that’s easy for the search engines (and people) to understand.
2. Comprehensive Is Not Always On Topic
A common mistake I encounter in website audits of low-ranking pages is a tendency to overwrite.
There is nothing wrong with creating comprehensive content. But there’s a point at which the content veers off-topic.
How does this happen? How do you know it’s happening?
Writing the best webpage on a topic often requires being comprehensive.
That phrase, “How to Choose a Fishing Kayak,” encompasses multiple subtopics (as outlined above).
The topic of fishing kayaks contains many other topics.
Some of the broader fishing kayak topics are:
- Kayak paddles.
- Trolling motors.
- Fish finders (sonar units).
- Short handle fishing nets.
- Gear crates.
All of those subtopics are relevant to fishing kayaks. But they are not relevant to the topic of “How to Choose a Fishing Kayak.:
They are relevant for a different topic such as: “What Gear Does a Fishing Kayak Need?:
When writing content or auditing a client’s content, always keep an eye out for topic drift.
Topic drift is when the topic of the article starts to shift and veers into another topic.
Specificity means the quality of belonging to a particular topic.
Specificity became impossible to ignore since Google’s medical update (when Google weeded out sites that were off-topic) and has become increasingly important as Google adds more natural language understanding to the search engine.
3. Featured Image
Google’s new Search Generative Experience (SGE) summarizes a topic’s answer and shows listings from three websites at the top of the page, to the right of the AI-generated response.
The title and meta description are shown in the snippets, and also an image from the webpage’s featured image is scaled down to a thumbnail size.
That image is something you control, so make the best use of the featured image.
It may be useful to use a featured image that’s colorful and draws the eye’s attention.
Screenshot From Google’s Search Generative Experience
Screenshot from Google SGE search results, June 2o23
Image #1 is colorful and centered.
Image #2 is off-center, obscuring the image’s subject when the featured image is cropped.
Image #3 is centered, but it’s dark and muted. Dark colors recede (which means stand back and diminish).
- Create a featured image that is colorful and centered. The main subject of the featured image must be in the center.
- Images with a colorful background draw the eye. It also works if the main subject is colorful.
- Do not use an image where the main subject is to the right or left of the image. Google will display it, but it will look a little off.
- Don’t use an image in darkness or an overall color in a dark tone where the overall image is murky.
4. Be Original
Many people complain about being indexed, but their content doesn’t rank. This is something that many are increasingly complaining about.
One of the reasons can be because there’s nothing different than what’s already out there.
Google’s John Mueller advised:
“You really need to make sure that what you’re providing is unique and compelling and high quality so that our systems and users in general will say, I want to go to this particular website because they offer me something that is unique on the web and I don’t just want to go to any random other website.”
I think part of the reason why this is happening is because the technology that’s supposed to help with ranking relies too heavily on search results and competitor analysis.
So what happens then is that a certain amount of homogeneity begins to creep in, where the same kinds of statements are being put out there, nothing that makes the site better in a useful way.
There are two legitimate reasons for competitor analysis:
- Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of competitors.
- Understanding what the intent of the keyword phrases in the SERPs.
Competitor analysis should never be about copying what competitors are doing.
Google can only rank what publishers put out there. If everyone publishes content with lists, that’s what Google will rank.
In many cases, the person who can figure out how to best serve the reader for a particular topic is the one that will shoot to the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs).
This is why I have never endorsed the practice of 10x writing, where you take what a competitor did and do the same thing but 10 times better.
Ironically, the original 10x strategy was rewritten and renamed as the Skyscraper strategy.
They are both the same thing – and neither, in my opinion, is a good strategy because it’s just repeating what others have already done.
Always start with the user and think about how best to answer their question. Does that mean adding a step-by-step? More illustrations?
As Google and Bing become better at natural language understanding, it becomes more imperative to better serve users in the way that the search query requires.
5. People Also Ask
There’s a trend where people are mining Google’s People Also Ask (PAA) feature to find subtopics to add to their content in order to be complete.
Some of those suggestions are subtopics of the main topic. But some of the suggestions are not.
So it’s super important not to take all the PAA suggestions and add them to your topic.
The reason not to use all of the PAA suggestions is that some are branching out to other topics, making them irrelevant to the main topic.
Logically, adding an irrelevant topic to an article does not make that article more relevant.
The whole purpose of the PAA feature is to help searchers find a different topic.
Google’s documentation says this about the PAA feature:
“Commonly called “People Also Ask”, these visual elements help users broaden their search journeys.
…Exploration features help searchers explore more questions or searches that are related to their original search query (also known as “People also ask”).”
The word broaden means to expand in distance or to widen something. Thus, some of the PAA suggestions are related but broader than the main topic.
Google’s page on PAA also notes:
“While you can’t control what shows up here, it can be helpful to pay attention to the related search queries when you’re thinking about topics you could write about for your site.”
Using PAA for content can be useful but can backfire if the article becomes too broad.
Don’t rely on PAA to understand what you should write about. Find out what people are interested in when they buy a particular product.
If you really want to dig deep, you can ask a salesperson what are the most common questions consumers ask about the product.
Check out what people are talking about on social media in relation to whatever topic you are writing about.
6. Fake It Until You Make It Doesn’t Work Anymore
There are many shortcuts that some publishers take to create the impression of expertise or authority.
However, using AI to catch those shortcuts is becoming increasingly effective.
Google uses AI called SpamBrain to analyze linking patterns to catch fake links between websites. This AI can even learn to identify new tactics that link manipulators use.
An April 2023 Google article about SpamBrain noted:
“We also improved SpamBrain as a robust and versatile platform, launching multiple solutions to improve our coverage of different abuse types. One such example was link spam. As we shared in
December, we trained SpamBrain to detect sites building spammy links, as well as sites created to pass spammy links to other sites.
Thanks to SpamBrain’s learning capability, we detected 50 times more link spam sites compared to the previous link spam update.”
Inauthentic LinkedIn Profiles
Some publishers create fake authors with fake author bios in an attempt to manipulate what they believe is a Google algorithm related to Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness.
But LinkedIn is successfully identifying AI-generated images used to create those fake profiles, blocking and removing millions of fake profiles.
One affiliate marketer stated that LinkedIn caught 100% of their fake profiles used to support the fake author profiles used on their websites.
Read: How LinkedIn Catches Fake Profiles
Fake Google Business Reviews
Google is using machine learning models to catch fake user-contributed reviews before they are published.
Google uses a variety of signals to detect fake content (Read: How Google Catches Fake Business Reviews).
In 2022, it blocked or removed over 115 million fake reviews.
When I recently mentioned this to a local search professional, they told me that they advised their client against purchasing fake reviews, but they went ahead and did it anyway.
The local search professional told me:
“I literally just told a company not to. They went ahead anyway and did fake reviews. I think within 24-48 hours of the reviews being posted, their Google Business Profile was suspended.”
In addition to blocking and removing fake profiles and reviews, Google is also starting to sue businesses that create fake Google Business Profiles.
Google sued a scammer who created multiple fake Business Profiles in a monetization model called Rank and Rent.
What Google took exception to was the creation of fake business profiles, the creation of fake business websites, and the addition of fake reviews in an attempt to make those business profiles appear authentic.
Read: How Google Catches Fake Business Profiles and Reviews
Google and LinkedIn don’t catch all the fake business profiles, reviews, and links. But a LinkedIn engineer told me they catch 99% of them now.
Search Is Evolving In Every Direction
It is important not to stay locked into one way of search engine optimization. It’s wise to remain open to insights based on the latest authoritative information.
Equally important is to learn how to spot SEO misinformation, because there’s a lot of it out there.
For example, one trend I’m seeing is for an SEO pro to cite Bill Slawski as an inspiration and then go on to talk about things Bill never promoted or suggested.
Always check citations. Don’t assume that because someone says Bill Slawski said, or Google says, that what follows is correct. Always check citations.
But don’t let the prevalence of misinformation keep you locked into one way of doing things because search practices are evolving faster today than ever in my 20+ years of experience in this industry.
- How To Focus On What Matters In SEO As AI Accelerates Rapid Change
- 6 PPC Strategies To Focus On Now
- How To Build A Future-Proofed SEO Strategy When AI Is Changing SEO
Featured image by Dean Drobot/Shutterstock