As time goes on, Google’s search algorithms continue to evolve, perpetually making thousands of improvements. Those tasked with creating or optimizing content need to be aware of these modifications and their effect. To stay competitive in search in 2020, you need an optimization approach that reflects those changes, and I recommend the following five strategies.
1. Pay attention to SERP features.
Search-engine results are no longer confined to a simple list of 10 blue links. Over the years, a number of features have appeared in the search engine results pages (SERP), including top ads, bottom ads, “People also ask” boxes and featured snippets such as lists and recipies, to name a handful. And as baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” SERP features give us clues to mapping user-intent profiles. How you optimize your content depends on the nature of the SERP features. If the SERP contains Image Pack, optimize your images to be as search-friendly as possible. Use file names, image captions and alt text that are highly descriptive. For SERPs with a “People also ask” box, answer those questions thoroughly and format the questions as subheaders on the pages. Use structured data to optimize content for rich snippets. It helps organize information on a page, making it easier for search engines to understand.
2. Properly address search intent.
According to Google, “The intent of the search query is still a very strong signal.” Given the importance of content, it makes sense to address search intent from the very outset, before you begin creating. Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines refer to the three types of search intent as “Know, Do, Go.” “Know” refers to informational searches, “do” deals with transactional searches, while “go” has to do with navigational searches. Those concepts are easy to grasp, but it becomes difficult when you’re targeting ambiguous terms or fractured intent.
Human language is ambiguous, and search engines struggle to deal with that ambiguity. For example, the phrase “ADW” stands for a number of things, including Animal Diversity Web, Archdioscese of Washington and a brand of software. Ranking for ambiguous terms will always be challenging due to these disparate, competing interests. It’s best to avoid targeting them, but if you must, be aware that traffic gains will be far below any keyword-tool projection. Too many people are searching for too many unrelated reasons. Targeting search terms where the results display fractured intent are also challenging, but as long as you know the goals of your audience and what they’re looking to accomplish, this can be overcome.
Sometimes, one piece of content can be used to address all intents, but don’t be surprised if you need multiple pieces of content to accomplish the task. Determining the need of a searcher is no longer enough. You need to anticipate their next search and the one after that.
3. Answer audience questions thoroughly.
Software can help automate this process, but if it’s not in your budget, you can always do this manually. Just type the search term your targeting into Google, and along with the search results, you’ll get the aforementioned SERP feature, “People also ask.” Typically, the feature contains the three most common questions related to the search term. However, you can get the box to expand to more than a dozen items just by clicking on some of the questions. This SERP feature is a gold mine of data intelligence. It reveals what searchers expect to find when they click on a result. If your content doesn’t answer at least some of these questions, they will go elsewhere.
Still, don’t take this list of questions literally. It’s up to you to weave them into your copy so that the page makes sense. If you’re updating an existing page, analyze the content to verify that it addresses queries that are pertinent to the topic. Sometimes, a simple question requires a detailed answer. In this case, you may want to provide a brief response within your post and create another article offering a more complete explanation. Approach a few questions in this manner and you have yourself the beginning of a topical cluster. Just make sure to link all those pages together for extra points. That’s key to building topical authority.
You may also find that there are too many questions to answer in one article. That’s fine. If it leads to a poor narrative, keep those questions for another post. Remember that Google isn’t perfect and that there’s a great deal of competitive insight that you can exploit from the “People also ask” feature.
4. Provide comprehensive coverage.
Brian Dean’s seminal analysis of 1,000,000 Google search results found that “comprehensive content significantly outperformed shallow content.” Which begs the question: How do you objectively define comprehensiveness and then write in a manner that Google considers to be thorough? An SEO content-analysis tool can help with that task. Although it can be done by hand, it’s a time-consuming and complex task that’s best performed using machine learning. The key here is building a robust topic model that’s unique to the focus term. Creating a high-quality model requires analyzing thousands of web pages, making it impractical to perform manually. Use this topic model as an objective guide when creating new content or optimizing existing pages. No one wants to return to the days of keyword stuffing. Not only is excessive repetition bad for ranking, it also doesn’t read well. Skillful writers should also incorporate variants in the story. Another added benefit of using machine learning to create the topic model is that it can grade content as to how well it adheres to the model.
5. Link strategically.
It would be a mistake to assume that one well-written comprehensive piece of content is all that’s necessary to rank on the first page. For instance, an Entrepreneur article titled “32 Proven Ways to Make Money Fast” is in second position for the search term “make money fast.” But did you realize that Entrepreneur.com has more than 11,000 other pages related to that topic? The more well-written content you have on a specific topic, the more likely Google will recognize your site as an expert resource. But there is one caveat. To gain that authority, you must link those pages together using relevant anchor text.
Internal links are helpful for a couple of reasons. First, they spread PageRank to other linked pages, improving their ability to rank. Second, links are how Google examines your website. Linking multiple pages together establishes a relationship, helping the search engine better understand the content of your website. The text that you use in your link, known as anchor text, holds special meaning. Since it identifies the topic of the page being linked, this text deserves special consideration. Avoid using generic phrases like “click here” or “learn more,” as those terms are not descriptive whatsoever. Instead, use keywords in the title of the page being linked as your anchor text. Just don’t use the exact same anchor text all the time. Too much of that, and Google may think you’re trying to manipulate the search engine.
Google’s search algorithms have become more sophisticated as search queries have become more complex. Optimizing content using methods from a few years ago no longer has the same effect. Its impact will only reduce as search engines get smarter. As search changes, so must your optimization methods. Failing to do so puts the performance of your content in organic search at risk.