91% of B2B marketers use content marketing as a tactic, spending $118 billion in 2013 on content marketing, social media, and video.
If you don’t understand some key aspects of Google’s new search algorithm, you may be flushing your content marketing dollars down the drain. True, talking about search algorithms tends to make eyes glaze over. But, if you’re like the millions of other businesses that have identified content marketing as a key channel for educating prospective customers and getting them into the sales funnel, you need to know how the game has changed, and what that means for your business.
In the past 2 months, Google has made some significant changes. First, they completely replaced their core web search algorithm. Then, they hid the keywords that visitors use to find websites in organic search.
1. Google Hummingbird
In August 2013, Google completed the change-over to their new search algorithm, Hummingbird. A complete algorithm change is a BIG event for Google.
If the algorithm is the “recipe” that Google uses for ranking and retrieving results, then individual ranking factors within the recipe (such as using keywords in your title tags) are “ingredients” in the recipe, and Google has stated that there are over 200 ingredients.
All the early evidence indicates that Hummingbird still uses the vast majority of the same ingredients, in the same way. So, doing good on-page and off-page SEO is just as important as always – more than ever, it’s table stakes for effective web marketing.
The big change with Hummingbird is in how it understands natural-language queries and processes them. Hummingbird allows Google to understand the intent of queries in a much more intelligent way. Now, Google may return results that may not contain the exact keywords you used in your query, in that exact order, but the results will match the intent of what you asked for. For example, you may have Googled “the best French Cajun food in Baton Rouge” and get a website returned that only talks about Acadian cuisine, and doesn’t use the words “French” or “Cajun” anywhere on the page. It matches your intent, but not the exact words.
Google is now much better at understanding “entities” or “things” and not just keywords or “strings”.
2. Google Hides Your Organic Keyword Data
Next, in September, Google announced they’re encrypting all searches performed on Google. That doesn’t mean anything to the average user of Google, but it means a foundational shift for companies that care about the organic search traffic that their site gets. Anyone with access to web analytics for any site they work on will notice that a huge percentage of organic search traffic is now being lumped into the black box of “(not provided)”. What this means is that most companies that get 80% or more of their organic search traffic from Google will no longer be able to see what terms visitors typed in to find their sites.
There are ways to work around this new limitation, and your resident SEO should be able to speak to them. But those are tactical fixes, and what you should be looking for is a strategic solution.
1+2 = 4
So, let’s do a quick summary of what we know:
- Hummingbird allows Google to understand the intent of queries much better
- Google applies this refined query knowledge to entities (“things, not strings”) which allows them to consider a larger set of documents as potential results
- Google no longer lets you see exactly what keywords visitors used to find your site
If Google is now very good at understanding the intent of a searcher’s query, but no longer lets me, as the site owner, see exactly what that query was, where does that leave us?
We are now in a place where the burden is on you, as an organization, to really understand your customers, identify each facet of the business problems that they face, and provide solutions to those problems, or at least being able to describe how your product fits into the landscape.
Absent query data is actually a big problem for lots of organizations. Query data allowed us, at a tactical level, to see exactly how users were finding our sites, and then use standard web engagement and conversion metrics to attempt to rationalize how well our content matched that user’s needs. If we didn’t have the right content, we could create new content, or re-write existing content to do give us context-appropriate coverage for that keyword. It was a very tactical fix.
That approach resulted in SEOs feeding keyword “opportunities” back up the funnel to content writers to plug obvious gaps. Often, the result was creating a shallow piece of content that contained the keywords, but didn’t address the end users’ needs in a substantive way.
What is required, now more than ever, is a top-down approach to understanding customer needs and developing comprehensive content sets that service those needs. User personas need to be a driving force behind your content creation. Are your editorial team and SEO team able to articulate all of the major points along the customer journey for each of your main user personas? Do you have user personas that you update? Do you regularly interview your sales staff to integrate feedback from the front lines into your personas?
More than ever, Hummingbird underscores the important of writing content that addresses real customer needs, not just specific keywords. Conceptually, your content needs to be substantive and solve problems, not just fill “keyword opportunities”.