Never Mind the Algorithms: Play the Google Game to Win With Consumers
Google’s messing around with its algorithm again, but there’s no need to panic. You can still get the deeper insights that help you create delightful content experiences. These approaches will show you the way.
By Jodi Harris
Over the years, Google has tweaked its ranking algorithms. They aren’t always forthcoming about the specifics. But when they discuss these updates in detail, it usually means big changes are coming – and that can cause a ripple of panic across the marketing world.
Google has announced two detailed changes this year:
- The upcoming page experience update, in which it will add a new set of ranking signals – Core Web Vitals – to more accurately measure how users perceive the experience of interacting with web pages.
- Its plans to block third-party cookies on the Chrome browser as part of its Privacy Sandbox initiatives (other companies like Apple and Mozilla are taking similar steps to protect user privacy).
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 aren’t a problem – they’re just a call to take a fresh look at the power of data.
Content marketers may think that they “work” for Google and 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.
In a recent conversation with CCO, Paxton explains what Google’s latest moves are all about and outlined an approach that will help you deliver the kinds of content experiences consumers want when they click on a search result.
Google’s page experience update is a non-issue (for most of us, anyway)
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) measures how long it takes the biggest element or piece of content on your page to load. Google set the standard at less than 2.5 seconds. So, if your website doesn’t load quickly, you could see a decrease in rankings.
Input delay tracks 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. Again, a fast, responsive website is key.
Cumulative layout shift is the distance that buttons and links move as the website loads. Ideally, you want no movement, so users don’t mistakenly click on something but 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.Some marketers think they need to respond to every single detail of Google’s updates when they should focus on how to use Google to understand their 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.
“How the algorithms work is one important factor. But 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.”
We don’t have a tracking problem – we have a focus problem
Your audience research conducted through search won’t be affected much by the loss of cookies, Paxton says. But tracking the behaviors and personality characteristics your audience reveals at different touchpoints of your content experience will get more challenging.
There are tools that use other methods to track those critical customer insights. And they can be used to create correlations among those insights that deepen your understanding of who your customers really are as people. Paxton says this is an area where content marketers stand to realize a big competitive advantage. But, he says, a cognitive shift needs to take place first:
“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,” he says.
When you think of who your audience is, they 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 detail and make your content more competitive, Paxton recommends focusing on three key research techniques: keyword research, social media monitoring, and semantic analysis. While you already may analyze the data that results from some (or all) of these techniques, his approaches focus on the context of your audience’s inquiries – learning about how they search, not just what they search for – so you can optimize your content to create more meaningful connections with them.
Keyword research is a standard for digital marketers and should already be a core component of your content strategy. But the real trick is to find ways 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. However, Paxton says that when mining social media data, don’t look only for brand-related conversations but for opportunities to deliver on your audiences’ needs in a way that distinguishes your content from that of your competitors.
Consider what fintech company Acorns has done. The company specializes in micro-investing, though they compete with companies like Betterment that are geared toward customers who want to make big 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.
But to get to this level of audience insight, you need to be able to look at your social and search data through a different kind of lens – one that doesn’t stop at what topics your audience is talking about; it also considers how they talk about those topics.
This leads us to the third technique: semantic analysis.
A big reason behind Google’s Page Experience updates is that they want 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 you may be missing, related concepts you aren’t referencing, or core knowledge or areas of expertise you’ve failed to incorporate in your content conversations.
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 for your chosen keywords than your content. It surfaces semantically related terms that your audience expects to see when they’re 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,” says Paxton.Including semantically related terms in your content will bring more weight and authority to your conversations – in the eyes of both Google and your audience, says @PaxtonMGray via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet
Paxton shares a personal example of the kinds of customer benefits that can result when marketers use the 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.”
As search shifts, so must marketers’ philosophy
Google wants to provide a good experience for users, and they need great content to do that. So, instead of trying to plan your content around conforming to 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.
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