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How Google is interpreting content in 2016

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There have been many significant developments in SEO practices in a relatively small number of years and, with each new algorithm update, marketers have looked at ways to adapt to the complex set of rules that Google uses to rank search results.

Rory Long is an SEO executive at Equator.

However, in October last year, Google announced that machine learning had been part of their Hummingbird algorithm for months. This move to incorporate artificial intelligence – nicknamed ‘Rankbrain’ – into search results has been something of a game-changer in Google’s ultimate quest to deliver a brutally efficient user experience. Google is now able to understand a wide range search queries better than ever before and importantly, interpret semantic meaning. So what are the implications for SEO, specifically in terms of creating content?

The end of keyword targeting?

For many years, the main focus for SEO content was selecting the keywords you wanted to target and placing them strategically throughout your site. Although this is still the case to some extent, with the help of Rankbrain, Google is much better at interpreting meaning when it comes to keywords.

For example, if you wanted to rank for ‘Glasgow hotels’ you would need to mention this keyword throughout the copy, and also within your title tag and H1 tag. Google is increasingly able to interpret semantics so if you had ‘luxury hotel experience in Glasgow' in your content, it’s more likely this would also rank for the term ‘Glasgow hotels’. This means that content writers can now focus on creating genuinely descriptive page copy and still rank for generic industry terms without worrying how many times they have shoe-horned certain words into the mix.

Crucially, longer tail search terms are becoming the norm. People are not generally getting the result they want from one or two-word queries. To get quality results they are going up to five words.

Moz has created a new feature aimed at helping content creators understand the way that search engines interpret different topics and phrases. This development will also give prevalence to longer content. It used to be the norm that most shared content was around 300 words long, but articles between 1,200 and 1,500 are actually performing better in search. The changes Google are implementing are ranking longer, more informative pieces highly with the aim of answering the longer tail search queries of users.

Analysis of user interaction

The focus for SEO used to be about getting the initial click from the search results. However, Google is now increasingly able to examine post-click user interaction. How long does the user spend on the site? Are they leaving your site to look back through other results? Google analyses this data to determine whether users are able to find the information they need on a website and using it to assess which sites should be returned for certain queries.

Google has always placed importance on user-friendliness in their search rankings, with a focus on site structure and site speed in particular. With Rankbrain, Google is able to place more of a focus on user interaction and with machine learning they are able to gain a better understanding of human interaction and behaviour which allows them to analyse whether they are satisfying user needs in their search. Accordingly, it’s going to be increasingly important to consider how users will interact with your content and to make sure that the content will satisfy the query of the user.

Increasing role of voice search

Voice search is taking on an increasingly prominent role in search. This has meant that search queries have begun to take on a far more conversational tone. When conducting a voice search, people ask questions such as “where is the nearest cash machine?”, whereas if people were carrying out a text search, they would be more likely to type “cash machines

Glasgow city centre”. This allows Google to focus on the who, what, where, and why that takes place in a normal conversation.

In order to get ‘voice search ready’ it is firstly important to implement long-tail keywords with voice search in mind. Secondly you have to use an FAQ strategy to think of what questions your customers are asking and addressing those answers across your online presence. It’s also crucial to write natural sounding content that reflects the tone of your customers.

The end result of all these changes is that it’s now more important than ever to understand your audience. For example, what kind of questions are they asking and how do they expect them to be answered? And which type of content performs best? For me, one of the most important things to consider for 2016 is to focus on your audience. Fundamentally, it’s vital to promote what your audiences want to see, instead of what you want them to see.

Google is continually raising the bar when it comes to interpreting how websites answer a user’s query. Incorporating artificial intelligence into its Hummingbird algorithm has essentially begun a process whereby their machines can analyse and better understand human behaviour when it comes to search. The longer that artificial intelligence exists, the more it will learn and subsequently, the more it will understand human behaviour and crucially, what content stimulates interest and engagement from users.

So what does this mean for brands and businesses? Those businesses that are able to generate fresh, interesting and focused content for their target audience and queries across a variety of online mediums will be rewarded in the search rankings. Those that do not will eventually be left behind.

Rory Long is an SEO executive at Equator.

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