Today’s search engines seem almost psychic. Thanks to things like machine learning and sophisticated algorithms, it often feels like Google knows what you’re thinking before you do. It wasn’t always that way. Inefficiencies and frustration were common in the early days of search engines. If you wanted to visit a website, you pretty much had to memorize the entire URL.
Despite early frustrations, the path forward for search companies was clear. They knew they needed to make it as easy as possible for users to find the information they’re seeking. Because it would be impossible for one person to look through every site on the internet to see how relevant it is to a given search query, algorithms became the basis for search engines to provide results. Search engines have constantly changed how they weigh different criteria, attempting to mimic what the brain does when it tries to parse information. When things go right, users get results that don’t feel like the end of some equation but an organic, human response to a question. When things go wrong, users are turned off by the results they get, or they miss out on great content.
But you don’t have to think like a robot to get your content in front of users, and you don’t have to think like a poet to make great content.
Algorithms Didn’t Come Out of the Blue
From WebCrawler, the first web search to index entire pages (which became too popular for most people to even use) to Yahoo! Search, which curated a collection of relevant pages but suffered from long wait times for inclusion, early search engines were far from the well-oiled machines of Google and Bing today.
In 1996, BackRub, a very early Google precursor, began using backlinks as a prominent search criteria, while many other searches utilized a paid inclusion model. Backlinks and the rest of Google’s algorithm eventually would become the gold standard, heavily favoring organic results vs. those clearly tied to monetization. And while the company regularly makes hugely impactful but secretive changes (who could forget the Panda or Penguin updates?), we do know that the algorithm uses more than 200 factors in determining search results. It considers factors from the domain itself to the individual webpage where the content lives, instantly analyzing an incredible amount of data to return only the most relevant content.
Despite processing 3.5 billion searches per day, in the end, Google is attempting to make a real human connection between a person and the information they seek. The delivery method may be all machine, but the end goal is to get information to a person. The trick is marrying an emotional or intellectual appeal to another human being with machine-friendly touches. Search engine algorithms were made by humans, after all, and are meant to find information that appeals to humans. So it’s crucial to keep your audience in mind at all times.
When Gaming the System Goes Too Far
Search engine algorithms are sort of the reason content marketing exists in the first place. Businesses and marketers discovered that consumers are far more interested in content than ads on the web, and as they’ve refined their efforts to appeal to their audience, search providers have refined their tools to weed out low-quality information. So marketers and businesses get savvier and come up with new content marketing tactics, then the search providers tweak and refine their algorithms and the dance continues. Every time that cycle begins again, marketers eventually figure out some key they say will game the algorithms. But often all that ends up doing is making the content seem like it was written by a robot. Here’s a look at some of the most common SEO traps:
Stuff turkeys, not keywords: The best content is well-written and flows naturally, while weaving in keywords in an organic way. Search engine algorithms are looking for and will penalize what’s become known as keyword stuffing — writing content with so many dense keywords and phrases that it’s impossible to understand.
The 1 crazy trick this Florida housewife invented that the IRS doesn’t want you to know about: You see these kinds of clickbait ads constantly, and writing like this is not unheard of by even reputable content producers. Because some tricks are effective attention-grabbers (numbers in headlines, highlighting novelty, provocative phrasing), some marketers have the instinct to throw them all into the same piece of content. But even if the algorithm doesn’t devalue it, readers will, as they sense you simply are trying to sell them something — and remember, they don’t like ads.
Make your personalization efforts actually, ahem, personal: Personalization isn’t just putting someone’s first name in the “Dear Xxx,” spot. If that’s the only part of your message that speaks directly to the recipient, they will rightly interpret it as spam. It’s a good idea to have some automated content marketing efforts, but you can’t employ a “set it and forget it” approach on content that’s meant to be personal because your audience will employ a “set it and forget it” approach to making sure your email goes straight into the trash.
Remember: It’s All About People
So how can you create content that appeals to both man and machine? The easy answer is remember the people, but if you’re not into the brevity thing, here are our favorite tips:
Know your audience: Ensure you truly understand your customer and buyer’s journey, and always keep that top of mind. Ask yourself at every step if what you’re doing is speaking more to that journey or to search engines. You can game search engines to drive traffic to a piece of content and see some short-term gains, but if that content brings no value to your customers, there is no long-term benefit to them or you.
Think mobile-first: Whether it’s considering short-form content or simply optimizing your site for mobile, it’s vital to understand that mobile browsing is browsing today (three-quarters of American adults use smartphones). We won’t be going back to the days of desktop domination, so if you’re not thinking about mobile, you’re not thinking about users.
Show your work: Content development is only half the battle; you also need strategies to earn high-quality links. There is no shortcut or magic wand that can replace the hard work of building relationships and consistently generating dynamic content. But the hard work is well-rewarded, as search engines will take notice of excellent content that also uses excellent link-building techniques.
Answer the question: Creating content that answers questions not only speaks to a deep understanding of your audience, but it is music to the ears (eyes?) of search engines, as it is a natural response to a common search practice. And if you have a strong presence on sites like Quora or Yahoo! Answers as part of your link-building strategy, it boosts your site’s authority as well.
Creating popular, effective content shouldn’t mean trading your audience for the approval of a search engine. But if you don’t have a successful SEO strategy, it won’t matter how great your content is because nobody will see it. This does not have to be a battle if you can remember that people are the reason search engines exist in the first place.