For anyone interested in SEO, it can be easy to get overwhelmed with Google ranking algorithm changes. Google makes thousands of updates a year, and SEO publishers come out with new SEO articles every day. But the truth is, for most people doing SEO, you don’t have to carefully follow every single update; most of these algorithm updates follow patterns, and most SEO articles are noise that you can ignore.
You only need to understand Google’s intent for its search engine and a few recent major SEO developments.
Table of Contents
- Google’s intent for its search engine
- Recent major SEO developments
- Best way to stay updated with Google algorithm changes
I. Google’s intent for its search engine
Google’s revenue last year was 161 billion dollars, 84% of which was from advertising according to Statista. Google needs users to use their tools, and in turn, profits off of advertising. Therefore, it’s in their best interest to have a great tool that people use again and again. For their search engine, that means serving their users great search results that are relevant to their query/keyword.
In theory, that would mean you would just need to create amazing content, and it would rank at the top of the search results. However, the real world is complex. Some people prefer video over text given the choice. Some webpages have amazing content, but also have so many ads, and take forever to load. Also, as sophisticated as Google is, there are still technical limitations it faces when it comes to understanding content.
Therefore, Google is constantly coming up with ways to better serve the user, but each of these updates don’t happen randomly. They are in line with Google’s intent, and also, many of these recent algorithm updates fall into one of the following categories that we’ll get to in this article: the importance of NLP, U/X, E-A-T, detection of black hat tactics, and search adaptation and personalization. For the purposes of doing SEO, you just need to know the overall picture of each of these categories, with the exception of “search adaptation.”
II. Recent major SEO developments
Natural Language Processing (NLP) Capabilities
Buzzwords and industry terms like Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT), the hummingbird update, and RankBrain can sure sound scary, but for the most part, Google’s Natural Language Processing (NLP) updates should not affect how you do SEO. NLP refers to machine processing of the human language.
Unless you’re Gen Z, you may recall you weren’t always comfortable with Googling “what’s the population in the states” or “weather.” Back in the day, you probably searched for “usa total population” and “new york city weather update.”
Since then, technology has advanced quickly (e.g., neural networks and machine learning), and Google has amassed so much data, that it’s much better able to understand search intent and process human languages.
Solution: If you’re interested in linguistics or machine learning, definitely read up on NLP, but for SEO efforts, just know that you can have more confidence in Google to be able to understand and process your content, and write with your users in mind, something that Google has always told SEOs to do.
Detection and Prioritization of User Experience
Any technical and design adjustments you can make for better U/X, you should implement. Faster page speed, HTTPS for better security, not overwhelming users with ads, and good readability and experience for mobile users are all some examples.
Also, the last time I checked, Google said that they didn’t look at user behavior when ranking, but given that they have so much of that data, my bet is that they actually do.
Solution: Provide great user experience, which is also something that Google has always told SEOs to do.
The importance of E-A-T
Anyone can launch a website and publish garbage and lies. Google believes that “search results should provide authoritative and trustworthy information, not lead people astray with misleading content…” (page 6 of Google’s search quality evaluator guidelines).
To detect authority and trustworthiness, Google uses human evaluators, called search quality evaluators, to obtain feedback on search quality, and use that to continuously update their algorithms. By referring to Google’s guidelines for these evaluators (link above), you can optimize your website for their liking.
One major concept from the guidelines is E-A-T, which stands for expertise, authoritativeness, trustworthiness.
For many topics, such as those related to cute animal pictures, you wouldn’t need any sort of E-A-T. However, for many topics, especially the ones that are YMYL (your money or your life, another acronym from the guidelines), such as personal finance, e-commerce, voting, or your children’s health, E-A-T is extremely important. Therefore, if you create content in these topics, provide as many signals as you can to demonstrate that you have E-A-T:
Credentials, testimonials, news mentions, references, clients, reviews and ratings (on your own website, Google Map, Yelp, BBB, TrustPilot), phone number, physical address, clear return policy for stores, and more.
Of course, I should mention that the one way Google has evaluated authority since its inception is links. Obtain links from authoritative sites to enhance the authority of your own site.
Solution: Keep doing link-building, but augment it with other trust signals.
Better detection of black hat tactics
Don’t do anything that is misguiding to users to game the system, also known as black hat tactics. A lot of times, when you see scary forum posts about an SEO traffic dip, it’s from poorly planned site migrations or sites that use black hat tactics, which finally caught up to them.
One of the biggest examples is link schemes. One example is private blogging networks that link to each other just for the sake of linking and boosting each other’s rankings, while adding no value to the user. It’s easy for your competitor to find out who’s linking to you, and then report you to Google. (Read more here)
One other example is doorway pages.
Google took BMW completely off of its index, meaning if you Googled “BMW,” their website didn’t come up in the results. Once BMW removed their doorway pages, Google added their website back to its index. (Read more here)
Solution: Black hat SEO has always been risky. If you’re in it for the long run, stay away from it.
Search Adaptation and Personalization
The way we search is evolving, and Google keeps coming up with new technology to personalize and adapt search results.
For example, what you see when you Google something, and what I see when I Google the same thing may not look the same because Google takes search behavior into consideration. (That’s why it’s important to use a private browser when checking for search rankings.) For example, if I frequent a certain website, Google will predict that I will want to visit it again.
Another example is local search.
If I search for “tacos,” Google will serve me with Google Map results with local taco shops at the top of the SERP.
The really interesting thing to me, at least, is how Google is able to constantly adapt to scenarios outside of traditional searches.
One obvious example of adaptation is voice search. Search via voice assistants like Alexa and Siri and car software often require a quick and definitive result unlike traditional web results, which allow for quick browsing of multiple results.
Another example, although very old, is universal search: Google guesses which type of content a user is looking for, and returns multiple types of search results on a page, such as traditional web results, map results, and image results.
Back in the day, if you searched for “san diego,” you might’ve gotten just traditional web results like a wikipedia article and the homepage from San Diego’s official website.
Now, you still get those results, but you also get recent news articles related to San Diego at the very top, images, videos, and Google’s own travel guide, where they provide information on things to do, weather, and when to visit.
I predict that Google’s Search Engine Results Pages (SERP) will increasingly look like an app, and have interactive features. As SEOs, it’s our job to make it as easy as possible for Google to understand our web content as well as its components so that Google can include them in their search results as well as present them in a useful way.
An important way to do this is through structured data.
“Google uses structured data that it finds on the web to understand the content of the page, as well as to gather information about the web and the world in general.” (Learn more about structured data from Google here)
For example, in the image below, Google knows the different components of the recipes, such as the name, review, rating, time to cook, and ingredients, and they’re able to present them in a more visual and organized way, rather than the traditional title tag and meta description.
In my opinion, this is the topic that you should pay the most attention to when keeping up with Google SEO. All the others shouldn’t impact how you do SEO as much as long as you’re creating great content and providing great user experience on your website.
Best way to stay updated with Google algorithm changes
So you see, Google’s updates are to serve users with better results according to their search intent. Get the SEO basics down, keep yourself informed with SEO, and by all means, check the algorithm update news if you see a big change in your rankings and SEO traffic, but if not, don’t get bogged down by all the details and noise surrounding algorithm updates.
My strategy: Join a few SEO forums to read up on interesting posts and share your insights. There are plenty on Reddit and Facebook. Also, occasionally scan through the following resources:
Finally, as I finish up this article, a word of caution: Google can change their search results all they want. If your primary way of getting traffic is through SEO, remember that you’re putting yourself at the mercy of Google. It’s time to establish a direct relationship with your users through methods like building an email list and/or by making the users develop a habit of going to your website directly.