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Why Google Shouldn’t Drive Your SEO Strategy

This post was co-written by content strategist and freelance SEO writer, Liam Carnahan.

Why are we chasing the Google algorithm instead of leading it?

That might seem like a weird question. But perhaps our existing presumptions and predictions are part of the chasing problem. As SEO-minded content marketers, we continually ask, “What will Google do next?”

Will Google find a new way to blend ads in with organic search?

Will Google serve audio in search results?

Will Google release a scary new algorithm named Skunk or Flamingo or Ernie?

All the answers are the same: We don’t know. And worrying too much about what Google will do is pointless. We’ll find out when Google tells us.

Worrying about what @Google will do is pointless, say @Robert_Rose and @LiamCarnahan via @CMIContent. #SEO Click To Tweet

But do we have to wait around for Google to give us instructions?

Do we need to sit on our haunches, like dogs begging for treats, waiting for Google to hand us the next update? Inevitably, this leads to us scrambling to please, lest Google swat us with a newspaper for getting it wrong.

Too often, we look at Google as synonymous with the internet. But research and trends show that is not the case. In fact, the world of search may be moving away from Google – and the world we’re living in is changing faster than Google can keep up.

We’ll get to that. For now, let’s look at the practical issues that arise when we treat Google like an omnipotent being that we must follow.

What is SEO really?

We need to be clear: Great people are doing extraordinary work in the field of search engine optimization. When you think about it, it’s amazing that Google’s search product has become so important to business. The majority of an $80 billion industry is built around trying to decipher how to optimize businesses to comply with Google’s complex, sophisticated algorithm.

Companies all over the world have benefited from the consulting, software, and advice these experts provide. But we should recognize that most businesses attempting to decipher Google are not in the elite category. In fact, only 36% of small and medium-sized businesses (SMB) even have an SEO strategy.

Between the two of us, we’ve worked with more than 300 companies over the last decade. One of them, an enormous, well-known technology company, had an all too common SEO strategy. In fact, about seven of 10 companies we visit rely on something similar.

The strategy consists of a lot of smart people focusing on three activities:

  1. Create a list of important keywords and phrases and work diligently to retrofit existing on-site content and create new content to comport with these keywords.
  2. Work on off-page tactics to gain more backlinks that highlight those keywords.
  3. Continue work on technical “errors” on the website to improve their rankings.

They work like heck on all that for nine months.

Then rinse. And repeat.

We have seen clients who literally had to start over when they decided the keywords selected nine months before no longer served their brand or product direction purpose.

Now, by definition, you can never be done with SEO. And smart SEO strategists may complain (and they would be right) that this three-step process is oversimplified. But truly, some version of this process is the limit of what most organizations can do.

Even without the internal disruption of new keyword lists or shifting needs from marketing, we’ve seen changes in Google’s algorithm upend what was (at the time) a sane and smart SEO strategy. One CEO at a mid-sized company threatened to walk Robert out of the office if he recommended an increased budget for SEO keywords. He said, “I’ve invested $150,000 in SEO over two years, only to watch Google obliterate that with two updates.”

Is it any wonder that SEO-minded content marketers monitor the Google search algorithm like a natural phenomenon, and that SEO-leader MOZ actually has something called the Google Algorithm Weather Report?

For most marketing strategies, SEO is a bit like a tax. Paying it theoretically gets us better infrastructure and services to help us deal with things like the weather. But we still look for ways to cheat just enough to beat the system without incurring the wrath of the tax collector.

So, what should we do about SEO?

Future of search engines: The big picture

Before we can nudge search in the right direction, we need to get a good look at where we think Google thinks it is headed. We aren’t talking about things like voice search and mobile optimization – we need to think bigger than that.

Where does Google think OUR search is really headed in the long term? Here’s what we know: Google is focusing more on search journeys, less on queries.

.@Google Is focusing more on search journeys, less on queries, say @LiamCarnahan and @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. #SEO Click To Tweet

Google doesn’t just want to be the place you go for a quick answer. It knows searches have evolved beyond that. (In fact, only 8% of Google searches are questions.)

Sure, people still will turn to Google to find out a celebrity’s age or how many ounces are in a cup. But Google wants to guide them to the next step and the next so they return to Google again and again for guidance in their day-to-day life. (Google has been transparent about this.)

So instead of just helping a searcher find out how old Harrison Ford is, Google wants to be there waiting with answers to inevitable follow-up questions such as what year Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out. When a searcher asks about ounces in a cup, Google will have the best chocolate chip cookie recipes ready to go.

Google reorganized search results, particularly in mobile, to advance this goal. This isn’t exactly new either. Google has offered related searches for years, but it is improving (and will continue to improve) the way it presents this information.

Despite Google’s obvious intentions to keep people on its site (and ideally clicking on ads), this function is useful for users. It puts their searches in context and helps them find the most relevant content.

Google also said it is moving away from query-based searches in favor of personalized feeds. You’ve already seen this if you use the Google app – open the app and before you even search, you see cards related to that video game you’ve been playing or that recipe you made last night.

Again, there are nefarious implications. These cards are often eerily relevant because Google is using your personal data and search history to compile them. That may give you the heebie-jeebies, but hey, it makes for a good search experience.

Beyond this, Google’s new tactics, theoretically, take ranking to another level of difficulty. As our friend Arnie Kuenn once said, “The best place to hide a dead body is on page two of a Google search.” The fight to be a top spot just got way more difficult with personalized pages.

The fight to be in @Google’s top spot just got way more difficult with personalized pages, say @Robert_Rose and @LiamCarnahan via @CMIContent. #SEO Click To Tweet

Why? My search results for “headphones” are going to be different than yours because I’m on an iPhone in California logged in to my Google account and just looked for new microphones. It becomes overwhelming to think about how to strategize for so many variables.

But we shouldn’t just be talking about Google.

Yes, Google still has the lion’s share of searches on the internet now – but remember when AOL was the biggest internet provider and Yahoo was where you went for search? Times change, and it’s naive to think Google will always be the No. 1 place for search. Yes. Really. That may be hard to swallow, but we should be prepared for any kind of new … well … weather.

Every day, Google’s share of the search pie is encroached upon by other search engines that also are becoming more sophisticated (and in some ways, more diabolical). For example, when it comes to product searches, more users (46.7%) turn to Amazon before they get to Google (36.4%). And as privacy becomes a more important issue, Apple maps may give Google a run for its money in the search for where we’re going.

.@Google's share of the search piece Is being encroached upon by other search engines, say @Robert_Rose and @LiamCarnahan via @CMIContent. #SEO Click To Tweet

With social media search, many of the things Google tells us to do are no longer relevant. We know Google prefers longer content for blogs and websites, but LinkedIn limits posts to just 1,300 characters. And Twitter? A mere 280.

It may be that the internet is getting too big and deep for one type of search engine. It’s quite possible vertical searching through the apps we use every day may become the norm.

Remember: SEO stands for search engine optimization – not Google optimization. If you work on SEO and only think about what Google wants, you’re bound to be left in the dust.

#SEO stands for search engine optimization – not Google optimization. If you only think about what @Google wants, you’re bound to be left in the dust, says @LiamCarnahan via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

The future of search drivers: That’s us

We now have an idea of what the search engines want for our future. But though they might want to, Mark Zuckerberg, Satya Nadella, and Jeff Bezos can’t actually control the future.

In fact, if the last few months (years? we stopped counting in March) have taught us anything, it’s that the future is anything but predictable. Things are happening now that impact the way all search works – and more importantly, current events are changing the way search should work.

Rather than being those obedient dogs waiting for a treat, it’s time to take stock of what’s going on in our world and how we need to change search to make our world better, at least marginally.

In 2020, content sometimes moves faster than search. In March 2020, 57% of millennials surveyed said they got their news from social media sites more than any other source.

Think carefully about what that means. It does not mean that more than half of millennials are cruising Facebook every morning, clicking on links to CNN and The Washington Post.

Often, the news is served directly to them (and other social media users) well before any news media site gets its hands on it. The horrific video of George Floyd’s murder was first uploaded to Facebook and spread virally across every major social media platform before it hit MSNBC. In the days that followed, people tuned in to livestreams of protests on Facebook and Instagram, seeing rubber bullets and gas canisters flying in real time.

When it comes to COVID-19, there’s a different problem – misinformation spreads almost as fast as the virus itself. Everyone is hungry for news about the greatest disruption in modern human history and conspiracy theorists can use Twitter as effectively as anyone else.

What does this mean for content and search?

On the one hand, if we want to be cutting-edge thought leaders, we can’t wait for Google to index the news. We must react to what we see on Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and right in front of us as we walk down the street (or gaze out our window, if you’re still in lockdown).

At the same time, we cannot be complicit in the spread of fake news. Google is doing its part; it’s changed its algorithm for COVID-related searches, scrubbing misinformation and presenting resources from trusted health and news organizations (like NPR). Twitter has been censoring misinformation coming from the White House itself, and Mark Zuckerberg has reluctantly put more stringent fact-checking in place on Facebook.

We, as content creators, need to balance both sides of the coin. This means resisting two knee-jerk reactions – one that tells us to post the most viral stuff as quickly as possible and the other that tells us to remain silent on complex and difficult topics. Put simply: The best way to reach more people is to create the thought, not try and be a fast follower of it.

The best way to reach more people is to create the thought, not try and be a fast follower of it, say @Robert_Rose and @LiamCarnahan via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

The future of search isn’t an answer

What does all this mean for content marketers? If we’re going to lead Google, instead of following it, what are we supposed to be doing today?

Well, put simply, we have to go beyond answering queries, to providing solutions.

If we are to lead Google, we must recognize that it’s not about a battle for the best, longest, or even most keyword-rich answer to a frequently asked question. We must present connected content experiences that not only answer the questions but present and enable the entire solution to why the question was asked.

For consideration, let’s assume the future of search is:

  • Voice-driven (Nearly half of consumers are using voice search for “general web searches.”)
  • Complex AI-intent-oriented rather than query or keyword based (Google has plainly stated this.)
  • More personalized (See reasoning above.)

Then it stands to reason that, as content practitioners, our role is to present an enabling solution to a challenge, not just answers to questions.

For example, the query for an enterprise software search may evolve from “What is the best CRM system?” to “Show me a demonstration of what a great CRM system can do.” Or if we are a restaurant, it won’t be “What are the best Mexican restaurants near me,” but will become “Tell me availability at the best Mexican restaurants for two for Monday night.”

The aim of future content-driven experiences will not be to answer questions; it will be to provide solutions to challenges that aren’t even asked yet. Google co-founder Sergey Brin affirmed this in 2013: “My vision was that information would come to you as you need it. You wouldn’t have to search query at all.”

If we are to lead Google and get ahead of the search game, it’s time to provide connected, human experiences that help our customers solve things they don’t know can be solved, to be surprisingly entertained and satisfied with a story, or to be inspired to do something they don’t even know they want to do.

This means much more connection, integration, collaboration, and rethinking of the way we present content today. Content marketers must think less about siloed search pages and sections of optimized content and do more to create connected content experiences.

#Content marketers must think less about siloed search pages and sections of optimized content and do more to create connected content experiences, say @Robert_Rose and @LiamCarnahan via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

We need a new approach to content and SEO – to truly write contextually and integrate rich media content for humans that serves humans – so that we help the newer technologies evolve faster. Then, the search engines can develop around that.

SEO becomes a long-term experiential development strategy, not a game of matching semantics. As content marketers we are ultimately NOT trying to simply understand how people search for content – and are served it via Google – but rather how people are finding and experiencing the solutions to challenges they may not even know they have.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute