Google co-founder Larry Page once said that the ideal search engine was a machine that ‘understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want’.
But Google, along with all the other internet search engines you’d care to name, hasn’t always quite managed to do that.
Go back a few years and search engine optimisation (SEO) – the art and science of making a web page rank prominently in search results – ‘used to be all about clickbait, keywords and backlinks,’ says Matt Tomkin of TAO Digital Marketing (external link).
There was a time when it was possible to game the algorithms and improve a page’s ranking in search results by filling it with the same keyword over and over, by using ‘ghost text’ (often white text on a white background) or ‘link farms’ (a set of pages created just to link back to a particular page). ‘It was a bit of a Wild West back then,’ says Tomkin.
Now, however, things are different. Google’s search technology has become more sophisticated and it continues to evolve as the company aims to achieve Page’s vision.
At the heart of this shift has been an effort to improve Google’s ability to understand ‘natural language’, treating searches as sentences with context and meaning, rather than just a series of separate keywords. This focus on meaning has given rise to what’s known as ‘the semantic web’.
Partly, this has been made possible by Google’s Neural Matching algorithm; AI technology which allows the tech giant to better understand what users are looking for and, therefore, to display more appropriate results. For example, type in ‘Why does my TV look strange?’ and Google is now able to ‘understand’ the context of the query and deduce that you may have been having trouble with a phenomenon that has recently affected the way that modern televisions display images. As a result, the top stories are those documenting ‘the soap opera effect’.
There have also been changes to the way that Google displays information, says Hannah Thorpe, business director at digital performance agency Found (external link). Thorpe explains that, through Google Discovery, potentially useful information can now be pushed to users based on their interests and context, even if they haven’t specifically searched for it. The addition of the Topic Layer makes several types of relevant information visible on results pages and helps to guide further searches.
With these changes already having a profound effect on how web pages rank, Thorpe warns that businesses that ‘remain stuck in their old ways of optimising for queries,’ face an uncertain future.
So what’s the answer? How can businesses climb up the rankings in the age of the semantic web? According to Thorpe, there are three things to do.
Strategy and tactics
The first is to make sure websites include ‘structured data’ in a manner that is rewarded by Google’s algorithm. This involves using the programming language Scheme to flag snippets of information that Google can then use as a signpost.
The second thing for businesses to do, says Thorpe, is to ‘concentrate on future-proofing their strategy by creating content which is solving a user’s problem. One method for this is to mine popular Q&A forums for common questions relating to your sector and provide solutions to these on your own site.’ Matt Tomkin advises creating content and pages with a simple abbreviation in mind: DITTSI – ‘does it target the searcher’s intent?’
‘The final way to protect your business during these changes,’ says Thorpe, ‘is to invest in traditional marketing to build a brand.’ This should improve organic performance, thereby encouraging Google to ‘understand the close association between your brand and product, and therefore classify you as a key source in your sector.’
What’s at stake?
Acclimatising to the semantic web and the new normal in SEO is crucial, says Tomkin. ‘Even five years ago, a lot of B2B purchases would begin with a contact, or word of mouth. Now, though, you generally find millennials are the ones looking for suppliers and making – or at least starting – purchasing decisions. If someone in their early 30s has been tasked with finding a new phone system, for example, they’re going to go to Google first.’
The latest data from the Office for National Statistics (external link) says that, as of 2019, virtually all adults in the UK aged 16 to 44 years are recent internet users (99%). Even after bringing the 44 to 74 age bracket into the equation, 95% still fit the bill, more than in all but two EU nations.
The consequences are clear, Tomkin adds: ‘If companies aren’t ranking well or getting their search optimised, then they’re going to suffer.’