The challenge of how to ‘speak’ search engine and tell it how to surface our content is what Search Engine Optimisation is all about. But are we doing it as well as we could?
Christian J. Ward, partnerships lead at Yext, gave a webinar in partnership with Brighton SEO on ‘How to Speak Search Engine’, in which he looked at the current state of search and the problems inherent in how we produce the content that we expect search engines to find.
Search has changed dramatically since Google first began indexing the web in 1998, both in scale and in nature. Google alone executes more than two trillion searches every year – a scale that we can barely comprehend. Search, said Ward, is not just a process for a brand; it’s becoming the number one way that we interact with information generally.
But the way that we search has changed, too. At a recent CMA Digital Breakfast, digital journalist Adam Tinworth remarked that Google is becoming “much more of an answer engine” than a search engine – searches are increasingly phrased in the form of a question, and innovations like the Knowledge Graph and Featured Snippets aim to answer searchers’ questions without them needing to leave Google.
We all want Google’s ‘answer engine’ to surface our content in response to searcher queries. One way to help ensure this happens is to write content that will satisfy questions that users might have when coming to our websites.
But even once we have, how can we direct Google and other search engines to the content that will provide the best answer?
Feeding baby Google
To illustrate a problem inherent with the way that we approach content online, Ward used an image which has to be the best depiction of ‘peak content’ that I’ve seen so far.
These days, brands and websites are churning out more content than ever before in an effort to keep up with each other: blogs, ad copy, sponsored content, product write-ups, ordinary webpages and lots more.
“We’re trying to feed Google – the baby – great content information that, to some degree, it doesn’t want,” said Ward.
At least, not in a form that it can’t easily interpret.
“We pump out so much content that it is very difficult for Google to analyse it and to know what we’re talking about. And it’s partially because it’s unstructured content.”
As an example of how confusing this can be in practice, Ward looked at the search term “tombstone”, which has a whole array of possible meanings: Tombstone is the name of a popular 90s Western; it’s the name of a town in Arizona (for which the film was also named); a word meaning ‘headstone’ or ‘gravestone’; a brand of pizza; a Marvel comic book, and more. Which of these is going to be most relevant to the searcher?
Of course, part of the game here is trying to guess what the searcher intends when they search for the word “tombstone”. But in our content, as well, we have to make it clear which “tombstone” we’re referring to, so that Google can more easily hone in on the right content and serve it to the user.
If you have a webpage about tombstones, and Google can’t tell whether it’s about headstones or pizzas, it won’t be able to show it to a user who is searching for one or the other.
Search engines want to provide their users with more rich data in search results: useful information like event dates, reviews, menus and other details that can answer their query at a glance, or at least help them decide which result will be the most relevant.
Ward quoted Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, who in his keynote speech at Google I/O, said,
“It’s not just enough to give