How to write better content as Google becomes more human

If you look at the last 10 years or so as a whole, there is increasing evidence that Google is getting more human in the way that it answers search queries.

In a discipline as fast-moving as SEO, it’s easy to forget to look back over the medium or long-term, but often we can tell more about the future just by looking at the past.

I was at a conference recently where one of the presenters made a really interesting point. He said that if you’d asked Google 10 years ago for the 10 best restaurants in your city, you’d have got a very different set of results compared with the same query today. Back then, you probably would’ve seen the 10 local restaurants that had the best SEO consultant!

Nowadays, you would get a much more nuanced set of results which takes account of the location of the person searching, harnesses third party opinion through reviews, and presents you with results that may include rich media such as photos or even virtual tours of the premises.

In the UK, we have a well-known motoring columnist known as ‘Honest John’. He has built a reputation over many years for answering very specific questions from readers about buying, maintaining and running cars. In doing so, he’s a great metaphor for the way Google has changed.

Back in the early 2000’s, Google operated a lot like C-3PO from Star Wars – it had vast amounts of well-organised information for instant retrieval, but not much recognition of context or the reasons behind a query. In recent years, Google has started to become more like ‘Honest John’, and I predict that this trend will continue.

How is Google becoming more human?

So let’s look back at some of the changes of recent years. Often, we can learn a lot about the future, simply by looking at the past:

  • A human will often know what you mean even if you don’t use the exact words they would. Google now recognises synonyms and linkages between words when used together, far better than it did before. Thankfully, businesses no longer need to create multiple pages with substantially the same content just to target slight variations on a keyword.
  • Google now knows where you are with much greater accuracy and will use that information as part of its mobile SEO ranking index and mobile search results.
  • By tracking your previous searches, Google is now ‘getting to know you’, which can help it second guess what you may be looking for. For example, if you have been to a site before but can’t remember the name or URL, Google will favour it in the search results if you search by category. That is unless you prevent Google from tracking your searches which a growing number of people prefer to do.
  • A human will learn to screen out the opinions of certain untrustworthy people. In the same way, Google continues to get better at ignoring bad links and negative SEO, and PBNs are in their sights next.
  • Google likes to be as objective as possible with the search results it returns. So, rather than just give you results based on links and relevance, it has crowdsourced public opinion by bringing reviews into play.
  • When you talk to a human, if they don’t quite know what you mean, they might ask questions or clarify exactly what you need. Whilst Google can’t talk back to you (yet) – it can suggest alternatives for you. Auto complete makes suggestions before you’ve even finished your query, just like a friend who finishes your sentences! If you still can’t find what you want from those suggestions, there are also ‘related search’ results at the bottom of the SERPs, which can help you further.
  • As part of Google’s ongoing focus on ‘search intent’, they have started to realise that some queries just need a quick, simple ‘checklist’ answer. For many ‘how to’ searches – especially those that relate to mainstream software such as Microsoft – end up with a featured snippet.

So how might it develop in the future?:

Many of the changes I have mentioned above have been made incrementally over the years, in such a way that we just think of them as normal now. However, when you look at them together you see a broad theme towards the humanisation of Google.

So it seems reasonable to expect that Google results might continue to closely resemble the kind of answers you would get by asking a person, So what could happen next?

Voice Search

Whilst voice search is nothing new, it could change things significantly if it reaches a critical mass. Given that we now have products like the Amazon Echo voice-activated in-car entertainment systems, and even Voice ID systems for banking, voice search could start to feel more normal.

One thing is for sure, Google will not be pleased that Bing has increased its market share of search through its integrations with Siri and Cortana . Google Home is part of their response. They will want to go further than that and create the best voice search experience in the market.

Experts believe that voice search will involve into a dialogue, which allows you to refine your query with follow-up questions. For example: “show me some hotels near me” would bring up a map result. Asking “which have rooms available tonight?” and maybe “which have at least a 4-star rating?” would help you refine results to closer meet your needs. There are signs that Google is doing this already, but with often disjointed results.

The growth of schema

Like voice search, schema is also not new. It has been around a while and has long since been picked up by early adopters. It still hasn’t achieved really widespread use by all websites, but it still has great potential.

Let’s imagine you go into a shop to buy a new laptop. If the staff are knowledgeable, they will be able to help you make an informed choice. Even if you say to them “I want a lightweight 13” model, no more than 2kg but it has to have at least an 8 hour battery life”. As it stands, easily finding a product like that online is difficult. Comparing products within a site with faceted search is simple, but comparing similar products across the whole of the web is not.

If product schema becomes the norm – which will happen as CMS providers make it easier to create – granular searches like these will become much easier, allowing Google to become more like that very helpful shop assistant on e-commerce searches, but with a wider range of products from across the whole of the web.

Search Intent

SEO remains totally focused on keywords. The SEO community have been writing for years about digging deeper beyond keywords to uncover the ‘search intent’, but in reality, we are still no less dependent on keywords.

It’s still hard to imagine SEO becoming less dependent on keywords, so how will Google better determine the intent of a searcher, and whether or not a web page matches it? Rank Brain has now been said to be the third biggest factor in their algorithm. It’s also been said by the likes of Rand Fishkin of Moz and Gary Illyes of Google, that optimising directly for Rank Brain isn’t something you can do.

However, it’s believed that what Google will do is take a more-rounded view of your web page. It will get better at automatically assessing images, and also look at linkages between pages. Just like a human reviewer, it will assess the wider context of your web pages much more effectively. All of this raises the importance of on-page and on-site SEO factors, such as rich media, internal linking strategy and anything else that makes for a better on-site experience.

So what can we expect from Google in the future?

Over the years we have seen two types of SEOs:

  • Those who write primarily for Search Engines. Some of these people might even have keyword stuffing still happening on their pages, and the reader is a secondary consideration.
  • Those who write primarily for people, but do what they need to do to make it Google-friendly enough to rank. They’ve always written to appeal to people, and won’t compromise readability just for a small boost in a ranking signal.

If you belong in the second category and write to appeal to humans, rest assured that the SEO pendulum is swinging in your favour. So, the moral of the story is to keep writing clear, informative, readable content to help searchers to satisfy their search intent. If you keep doing this, the Google algorithm will catch up with you, whereas if you keep writing just to please Google, you will fall behind and have to keep updating your site.

About the author

Rob-WatsonRob Watson is an experienced Digital Marketing Consultant. He helps businesses – mainly in the UK – to generate leads and sales from their websites.  Follow Rob on Twitter @clicktosale



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