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How to Make the Google Algorithm Work for You

Over the years, Google hasn’t always been forthcoming about tweaks to its algorithm. But when it is, it usually causes a ripple of panic across the marketing world.

Google detailed two changes this year:

  • A new set of ranking signals – Core Web Vitals – to more accurately measure how users perceive the experience of interacting with web pages as part of its page experience update
  • The block of third-party cookies on the Chrome browser as part of its Privacy Sandbox initiatives

Will these decisions be destabilizing forces that send your search traffic spiraling out of your brand’s control?

Paxton Gray, CEO of marketing agency 97th Floor and 2020 Content Marketing World speaker, says no. In his view, these shifts are just a call to take a fresh look at the power of data.

Content marketers may think they need to appease Google’s algorithm to achieve success. But Paxton contends that there’s a more powerful way to view the search equation: Make Google work for you.

“The more personally resonant and deeply satisfying your content experiences are, the more motivated Google will be to serve them up for users to find and engage with,” he says.

The more personally resonant your #content experiences are, the more motivated @Google will be to serve them up for users, says @PaxtonMGray via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

In a recent conversation with CCO magazine, Paxton explains Google’s latest moves and outlines an approach to help you deliver the kinds of content experiences searchers want to click.

Google’s page experience update is a non-issue

Google will measure a set of three additional ranking signals (i.e., its Core Web Vitals) as part of its latest page experience update:

  • Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) – how long it takes the biggest element or piece of content on your page to load. Google sets the standard at 2.5 seconds or less. If your website doesn’t load quickly, you could see a decrease in rankings.
  • Input delay – how long a site takes to respond to a visitor’s tap or click on an element. It needs to be less than 100 milliseconds.
  • Cumulative layout shift – the distance that buttons and links move as the website loads. Ideally, you want no movement, so users don’t click on a button but mistakenly get taken to a different destination because the button moved as other page features finished loading.

“If you’re already managing these elements of the website experience (and you should be), these updates won’t affect you too much,” says Paxton.

But some marketers think they need to respond to every single detail of Google’s updates, when they should be focusing on how to use Google to understand their customers better, overall.

You don’t need to respond to every Google update. Use @Google to understand your customers better, says @PaxtonMGray via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

“As marketers, all of our decisions should revolve around the experience our users have when engaging with our assets – from the first ad they see to the landing page, the call to action, the thank-you email, and to whatever else happens after they purchase and beyond. That should be the center of our universe, not necessarily just optimizing content for leads and conversions, which is often where we end up focusing all of our attention,” he says.

“If you focus on the bigger picture of what your consumers want to experience when engaging with content found on search, the small things will usually take care of themselves.”

Focus, not tracking, is the problem

Audience research conducted through search won’t be affected much by the loss of cookies, Paxton says. But tracking your audience’s behaviors and personality characteristics at touchpoints of your content experience will get more challenging. Tools that use other methods to track those critical customer insights can be used to create correlations among those insights that deepen your understanding of who your customers really are.

Content marketers can realize a big competitive advantage in this area. But, Paxton says, a cognitive shift needs to happen:

Marketers commonly view consumers as markets – entities that match a particular persona or profile description – so that’s how they speak to them. But these are people with personal lives and life experiences that run far deeper than what their buying habits or consumption behaviors may reveal.

Your audience may be similar in ways that have nothing to do with their profession or the persona they most closely resemble. Paxton contends that if you use data to reveal what those similarities might be – like the kinds of bands they love or their favorite vacation destinations, for example – you can engage them in more personally resonant ways. “That’s how we cut through all of the noise and deliver the complete, desirable content experiences Google plans to favor,” he says.

3 ways to mine for more powerful insights

To reach this level of personal detail, Paxton recommends focusing on three research techniques: keyword research, social media monitoring, and semantic analysis. His approach focuses on the context of your audience’s inquiries – learning about how, not just what, they search.

Focus on three research techniques to mine insights: keyword research, social media monitoring, and semantic analysis, says @PaxtonMGray via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Keyword research should already be a core component of your content strategy. The real trick is to go beyond targeting the most popular keywords and examine the larger behavior patterns happening behind those searches (more on that in a minute).

Monitoring and analyzing social media conversations is another rich source of useful audience insights. Don’t look only for brand-related conversations but also for opportunities to deliver on your audiences’ needs and distinguish your content from that of your competitors, Paxton says.

Consider what fintech company Acorns has done. The company specializes in micro-investing, though it competes with companies like Betterment geared to bigger investments.

“If you break down the social media activities of their community members, you can find some key differences between the two groups,” says Paxton. “Betterment’s users are likely to follow Wall Street, big traders, and high-profile advisors like Jim Cramer … but the people on Acorns, they’re following Etsy. They follow WordPress, they follow YouTube creators – people with side hustles or those who are just starting their own small businesses and are looking for a different kind of financial advice.

“Acorns’ content isn’t going to be competitive against the high-finance topics Betterment can dominate, like estate tax laws or economic trend forecasts. But it can win with content geared toward side hustlers, small businesses, and micro-investors – such as how to hire your first employee or set up a shop on Etsy,” he says.

To get to this level of audience insight, look at your social and search data through a different lens – one that considers how they talk about those topics.

This leads us to the third technique: semantic analysis.

A big reason for Google’s page experience updates is to provide the most complete content possible so someone can search, click, and be done. Semantic analysis can bring you closer to this ideal by uncovering areas where your existing body of content may be incomplete – topics and considerations, related concepts, or core knowledge or areas of expertise.

Google’s algorithms know what subjects are associated with the keywords you already found. Paxton says you can take your keyword research to the next logical step by performing a TF-IDF analysis.

TF-IDF analysis is a process for identifying, analyzing, and reverse-engineering the conditions that may cause Google to rank competing content higher than your content for your chosen keywords. It surfaces semantically related terms that your audience expects to see when researching a topic of interest. “Including those terms in the content you create around that subject will bring more weight and authority to your conversations – in the eyes of both Google and your audience,” Paxton says.

Semantically related terms in your #content bring more weight and authority in the eyes of @Google and your audience, says @PaxtonMGray via @CMIContent. #SEO Click To Tweet

Paxton shares a personal example of the impact of this technique: “I’m about to go backpacking, and I’m looking for a jacket that provides the durability I need for my trip. As I sort through the top articles listed on my keyword search for ‘jackets for backpacking,’ I see the first one talks about the warmth of the jacket, but not its durability. So, I have to go back and sort through multiple results until I find one that talks about durability.

“If the first article had covered everything about the jacket that I care about, such as its materials, the climates and terrains it’s best suited for, etc., I would immediately have been more satisfied with my search experience – and more interested in engaging with the brand that made that possible.”

Quick-start guide to semantic analysis

While software tools can be used to expedite the semantic analysis process, Paxton asserts that it can also be done manually – though you’ll still need to use a word counter (here’s one for free) and some spreadsheet software.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Pull up the top 10 results on Google for a keyword you want to rank for.
  2. Copy/paste all the words in the first result into a text editor or Word document. Count how often each word appears (you can exclude words like “the,” “and,” “but,” etc.) and how many words appear in total on that page.
  3. Repeat the second step for the remaining pages.

See which terms are used in the highest concentrations – not just how often they’re used, but their percentage of the entire body of content. These are topics semantically related to your keyword term. Explore them for your content experience to be considered complete in the eyes of Google.

Now, run the same analysis on your brand’s body of content that would likely rank for that keyword and compare your results, looking for any terms that may be missing from your brand’s content conversations. Create content on those topics and your rankings should start to go up like clockwork.

Give Google no choice

Google wants to provide a good experience for users and needs great content to do that. Instead of planning your content around Google’s algorithmic expectations, use the power of search to find hidden opportunities to write for your audience in more personally resonant ways. Create content that’s so great Google has no choice but to rank it as a complete, unique, and highly desirable experience.

The original version of this article appeared in the October issue of CCO magazine. To subscribe for free to the digital publication, sign up here.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute