In Search [Episode 37]: Creating Content in the Age of Google as a Discovery Engine
July 30, 2019 |
The In Search SEO Podcast
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The In Search SEO Podcast Community Question of the Week!
With Google altering its approach to search, how have you altered your content strategy?
Summary of Episode 37: The In Search SEO Podcast
This week, we have one of our all-time favorites! VP of Content Strategy at AimClear
, the great Mark Traphagen
will join us to talk about how Google’s shift to being a discovery engine changes the content landscape:
- How does ‘search as a journey’ impact your content creation?
- How can you develop a content strategy that aligns to Google’s tendency to guide users to a greater extent?
- Why having a ‘content mindset’ is more important than ever & how to prioritize your content efforts in this new world of Google!
Plus, we pick apart the latest Google algorithm update, the unconfirmed July 2019 update
, which as you shall see was quite… weird.
The Impact of the July 2019 Google Algorithm Update [00:02:55 - 00:20:02]
Let’s talk about one of the most volatile days in search history. The dark day of July 18th, 2019, the day rank went crazy. On that day, our rank weather tool, the Rank Risk Index
, recorded rank fluctuations of 113! The index almost never jumps past 100.
Was it a Core Update? Well, no. Google promised they would confirm and even name those and yet here they haven’t said a word. Either way, we don’t think it’s a core update. In our estimation, this was a very weird, odd, bizarre, peculiar update.
Let us first explain these crazy levels of fluctuations a bit by starting with a bit of context by looking at the June 2019 Core Update. There, for the most part, the YMYL (Your Money Your Life) niches showed greater levels of rank fluctuations. For example, the Health niche showed an 84% increase in rank fluctuations over the top 10 results during the June update. In simple terms, when you look at the top 10 results on page one there’s always some movement in the rankings from day to day and that "normal” rate of fluctuations shot up by 84% for health-related sites during the June 2019 Core Update
On the other hand, the Travel niche only saw a rank volatility increase of 24%.
All of this was not the case with the unconfirmed July 2019 update. For that update, it was a bit more complicated.
Let’s take a look at the top 3 results on the SERP. When you look at your typical update, like the June 2019 update, and you look at rank fluctuation levels at the 1st position, or the 2nd position, or even the 3rd position, you will see some decent levels of increased rank volatility even at the top of the SERP. The same happened here with the unconfirmed July 2019 update. In fact, there was not much of a difference between the level of rank fluctuations typically seen at the top 3 results during an update and what we saw during this July 2019 update. Meaning, the crazy high levels of rank fluctuations could not have been driven by changes at the first, second, and third positions on the SERP.
But as you moved down the SERP, the 5th, 6th, 7, and 8th ranking positions, things got hot and heavy.
When looking at the SERP overall, the top 10 positions, rank volatility was much higher here in July than back in June. It goes to show that just because it’s an official core algorithm update doesn’t mean it’s more impactful than the unconfirmed updates.
Now, we already said that the top 3 positions were not any more volatile than usual during the July update. Thus, the crazy volatility increase essentially came from positions 5 - 10.
Remember when we said that during the June update YMYL niches saw higher levels of rank fluctuations for the top 10 results overall and that other niches like Travel were bit more muted in comparison?
Well, those other niches really caught up here. Whereas the Travel niche saw a 24% increase in volatility across the top 10 results back in June, the niche saw a 65% volatility increase in July. This was the general pattern across all the niches, far more volatility at the bottom of the SERP.
Think about it like this… for most niches the June update saw a 25% - 35% volatility increase (outside of YMYL niches) whereas the July update presented us with a 65% increase! Now you can see why the index spiked to 113!
So why was this update weird?
For starters, there was no clear site-level pattern at all (outside of two peculiar trends that we’ll get to in a moment). Everything was kind of all over the place. For example, traditionally during these recent core updates, you’ll see sites with poor or conflicting profiles get slammed. That happened here, though some of those sites went up in the rankings which was weird. Either way, there wasn’t a real pattern that popped out.
Now take the update’s timeline. The update kicked off on July 16th with moderate levels of rank fluctuations, it got a bit heavier the next day on the 17th, and then went nuts on the 18th. Going nuts is one thing, but then it just stopped as the next day, the 19th, saw super-low levels of fluctuations. Usually an update sort of tapers off. After we reach the pinnacle of a Google update we usually get some moderate levels of rank fluctuations before we finally see normal levels. Here, it’s like Google freaked out and turned the faucet off before the house got flooded.
Also, there were two odd side patterns (or semi-patterns). The first pattern applies to sites that saw slow ranking gains from around July 1st and on. Why? Because these sites saw their gains disappear with the July update. This didn’t happen for every site but it happened to enough sites that we could tell it was definitely a pattern of sorts. The second pattern was that there were a lot of sites that saw increases in the first two days of the update who saw those gains disappear on the third day of the update (the day the rank went nuts). It feels like Google was saying, in both instances, "Whoops… didn’t mean to do that… let’s ratchet this thing back a bit, yeah?”
We can’t qualify it all, but for what’s worth our SEO intuition is telling us that something didn’t go right, either before the update such that the update was needed or during the update itself or both, something was just off about this one!
Creating Content in the Era of Google as a Discovery Engine: A Conversation with Mark Traphagen [00:20:02 - 00:57:22]
[This is a general summary of the interview and not a word for word transcript. You can listen to the podcast for the full interview.]
Welcome to another In Search SEO Podcast interview! Today we are fortunate to have with us one of my favorites from the SEO community. You’ve seen him here, there, and everywhere (and often in a nifty bowtie). He is the VP of Content Strategy at AimClear so put your hands together for Mark Traphagen!
Welcome! How are you?
I am great. I am really thrilled to chat with you and your audience.
I’m really thrilled that you’re here. So I heard a rumor that you used to teach?
Yes, I was a classroom teacher for over 15 years.
Wow. I used to be a teacher for 3 years. It’s great how we can take what we learned as teachers to the SEO world.
Let’s get into some of the implications of Google as a discovery engine. Just to make sure everyone is on the same page when we refer to Google as a "discovery engine,” or as I like to call it a "resource center,” what does that mean?
Google is always trying to innovate and is constantly trying to evolve search in terms of its usefulness. There’s a famous quote from one of the founders of Google, Amit Singhal, that the goal of Google was to eventually make something like the Star Trek computer where you just ask for something and the information you need is right there. The evolution that we’re seeing more recently in Google is moving even beyond the Star Trek computer in some ways because it’s moving beyond responding to the information you’re requesting to even anticipating what you might want to know, what you need to know next. Of course, this is all integrating with their Google assistant project which is meant to know your patterns, the things you need to do, and what you might need to do ahead of time.
Yeah, and I’m okay with all of this until the point that Google can replicate food like the Star Trek computer.
I want to talk about search as a journey since you brought it up. I think in the SEO industry we sort of have Google’s "search as a journey” a bit backwards. I could be wrong, but we tend to think of it as Google coming along and saying we’re going to change how/what search is by trying to help the user along their "search path/journey.” It’s as if to say Google is the instigator trying to reshape search and how users engage with search.
Rather, what I think is the reality is that people have changed how they think of search
and because of that, how they relate to search. With Google being able to use machine learning to better target multiple user intents, Search became something that it wasn’t before. Simply put, people were able to use Search in all-new ways that resulted in new search behaviors. All Google did was notice this and try to help nudge that process along by creating this mantra of "search as a journey” - but really Google didn’t create it, users did (in a way).
To what extent do you think SEOs and content creators are or are not in touch with how users really see search and how they really engage with it? That is, to what extent has "search as a journey” become another buzz-word?
I agree with you that search as a journey wasn’t a great discovery or new concept. I think we’ve always known Google doing that. Even when search was as relatively unsophisticated compared to the way it is today Google would still give the users the best set of results albeit on a more simplistic level. They saw people crafting their searches which was Google’s first step in asking how could machine learning help users along their journey and anticipate things ahead of time. Google is trying to gather the right information to get them quicker along the journey to where they want to go.
With that, I want to go into content a bit.
The way I believe search as a journey impacts content is in one of two ways. When targeting intent it could either go broader into more topics or it could go deeper into one specific topic.
Just by way of a horrible example, say you did a search for Janis Joplin. Google could target users by offering all sorts of info on the other members of the "27 club” - Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, etc. Similarly, Google could offer you all sorts of info on other musicians who are similar to Janis Joplin and so forth - which it does.
Google could also target intent by digging deeper into the life of Janis Joplin. Her songs, her quotes, her family life, and history) - which it also does.
It seems to me that there are two possible content strategies that emerge. One that attempts to cover the expanse of a given topic/entity and one that aims to drill down into the topic/entity and comprehensively cover it from that angle.
How do you go about creating a content strategy that heavily considers search in such a scenario? It seems to be you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t!
Let’s start this off with the intent of Google and business owners. We both have this common goal to make our audience users happy, but how we go about it is different.
For Google, happiness is their end goal. That’s not entirely true as their true end goal as to get users to click on ads, but they do that by keeping you happy. Their whole goal is to create an experience where you are getting more and more things that keep you happy, keep you satisfied, and keep you wanting to come back for more. The more you’re on their platform, the more you’re exposed to their ads, and the more money they’ll make.
This is all on the simple level which is why the whole search discovery thing is so important as it’s a new avenue to their goal. In the old days, Google would simply satisfy your search requests so that you'll come back tomorrow and do another search for something else. Now, the discovery journey is taking that to a deeper level by creating experiences where you want to hang out on Google. It’s similar to the YouTube experience where you’re always shown more things that might interest you.
For us business owners, we do have the same goal, we want happy users who want to see our brand in the search and come back to us. However, we have a much more specific goal, to get them interested in our product or service and become customers.
So to answer your question, I'll say that for Google, they’ll want to be as broad as possible in displaying content as you’ll want your users to find anything that will make them happy and keep coming back. And if they're doing that, you've done your job.
As a business owner with business concerns, however, you can't just do that. I feel like people make the mistake of keeping them interested but not always linking to the business goal. I think the trick is you got to be more specific, that you’re taking them through this particular journey. You got to take them from the broad, the general interest, that familiarity with your brand and narrow it down into where they connect with you. Where your products or services meet specific needs in their life and can create something for them.
Wow, there are so many points I want to jump on. First off, the idea of looking at your content writing from that perspective, where do you think that starts? Did it start with brand identity, product identity, service identity? We often view content, at least in the SEO world, from the SEO perspective. But to talk about where you are going with the content that you just mentioned Where do you think that starts from?
It's obviously not from a search perspective as a content strategy goes way beyond search. So where does that originate? Does it originate in brand identity, is it originating from how you see your product, how do you see your service or the pain point you're trying to target with your audience? Where do you begin to create that strategy?
You have to have in mind from the beginning that you're creating things at all different levels because the truth is people find you, come to you, and enter you for the first time at all different levels. We like to think of it in terms of this simple funnel where we're building this one level with the brand identity that makes the user stop in their feet and say, "I want to see that. I want to read that. I want to do that.” But depending on what you do, in most cases, a lot of users are going to come from all different levels. They're searching for a very specific thing, a very specific need or product.
So in your content strategy right from the beginning, you've got to be thinking at all those different levels of the traditional funnel, because any of them could be entry points where you got to have your best foot forward when people come in that way.
I want to jump on the other thing you said that Google is like a YouTube experience which I very much agree with. Based on knowing that, can you offer some insight into how your content strategy may or may not have changed over the past year or so because of that?
I think the biggest thing to think about is that all levels of content are possible entry points. You have to view everything as a first impression. Your product page, for example, is a first impression. You have to consider for somebody who’s arriving at your site for the first time through the product page, what's the experience they're having on that page at that moment?
This bridges over to something that I've been talking about a lot and just thinking about a lot. I call it the content mindset. When you're a content marketer, when that's your focus, you begin to see that content teaches you things about every aspect of marketing. I'm not trying to say content is everything, but rather that understanding what content is, how it works, how it functions with your audience at every level gives you insights into how you do all of your marketing and then to come into every aspect of your marketing with that content mindset. A good example is seeing a product page as primarily a piece of content for the user and not just a product description with a buy now button.
With a lot of the more foundational "stuff” out of the way, and considering that Google is a "Discovery Engine” means considering where the user is and where they want to go…. How do you go about getting into the user’s head? This is all the more complicated since different users will use the same keywords for different reasons to get to different places. What do you find works when trying to create order out of what seems to be an overwhelming mess? Can you really be expected to predict the varied ways users "engage” with or relate to a certain keyword?
Yeah, it’s a continuous project that I don’t think you could do all at once, but you have to visit it all the time. I learned from my former boss, Eric Enge, this concept of any page on your site your user might arrive and begin from that page, you must satisfy all the possible needs that user might have. A user might have 1000 questions now and you can’t answer them all on that first page because it’s too cumbersome.
Do you find that content creators are starting to get a little bit befuddled trying to deal with this search as a journey concept? Are they a little bit all over the place in how they're dealing with it? I mean, there's definitely a risk that if you're trying to cater to multiple intents and multiple journeys that you get a little bit unfocused. Do you see that happening? Or are people not tuned in enough to realize?
Yeah, it's often when working with clients that it comes down to a matter of resources as you can only do so much. It's not so much that they don't understand, or that they won't accept it, it's a simple education process to talk about this search as a journey and what Google calls micro-moments. Micro-moments is Google’s discovery and research that it's no longer the case, if it ever was, that people just move from step one, step two, step three through a funnel, but that typically in the stages between when they first become aware of a need for something and where they actually buy there are these micro-moments which they are doing in all different kinds of venues, getting little pieces of information, gathering things that will influence their eventual purchase. And Google puts an emphasis on how you should be there in all those moments. It's a great aspiration, but it comes down to resources and the ability to produce all that.
So a large part of my job when working with clients is helping them to prioritize. Yes, our aspirational goal is to have it all, be everything to everybody, be the best possible source of information and help lead people to these buying decisions, but we're not going to do that upfront. We just can't. So where are the priorities? What's the most important information to build out first? And then you just keep adding to it and keep building over time. You need to have that patience. And if we've been in the SEO world, we should have learned that because that was the game there. You make a few fixes and then you hope, you wait, and you watch for, like, four or five months and, phew, it started to go up. That worked.
That’s a great point. I often forget these sort of things, but yeah, if there are more intents being targeted, when Google is getting more diverse in what it’s trying to show, when there are more avenues of content, and all these sorts of things, it does mean that you need to prioritize your resources in all-new ways.
Yeah, and it’s really job #1 for us to prioritize. It’s easy to forget as a consultant as we tend to throw to a client all of these ideas and they’ll look at this massive list thinking we can’t do this, we don’t have the budget or the people. You need to let them know that they should be doing all these things eventually, but we gotta take this one step at a time. So help them prioritize, show them the big fish, catch those first, and then we can just keep moving down the list and building out more and more of the details that that's going to make it really extraordinary down the road.
Because of Google’s search as a journey model, there is so much talk about content in terms of topic. Perhaps too much, and I’m guilty of this myself, as most of the questions in this very interview are about content from a topical perspective. But part of catering to user intent or a specific user profile has to do with tone. For example, there are folk who would love to learn more about poodles who have a sense of humor and there are folk who would love to learn about poodles who have no sense of humor.
How does the tone factor in when trying to not only meet user intent but in considering where that intent will ultimately take the user on their "search journey’?
That’s a great question. I think it's something that you got to make a very conscious decision about and decide from your standpoint what is your tone going to be
and be consistent with it. It does not work to be all things to all people as people will see that and be confused by it or feel you're disingenuous.
I have talked about this concept in the past. It's like two islands, and we've got to build a bridge between them. There's the Brand Island, and then there's the Prospect Island. Each island has its own wants, needs, and desires, and the constant job of the marketer in general, but particularly the content marketer, is to build that bridge. The brands that I see being the most successful with their content are the bold ones. They've made a decision. They know the kind of user they want to connect with and this is the tone they're looking for.
To what extent do you believe that Google can or cannot understand tone from the larger syntax within a piece of content?
I want to start this with a caution. We see Google doing amazing things. We see Google innovating all the time and getting better at user intent, and we tend to think of Google as being one of the wealthiest companies in the world. And so we tend to think that Google has unlimited resources, they can just do anything, and they probably are doing anything that they can do.
But the reality is, if you talk with Google engineers or just watch Google, that while they could do a lot more than you or I can do, they're still limited and they still make choices. And there are a lot of things that they'd like to do that they can't.
So regarding understanding tone, my guess is that it’s got to be on their radar. It's got to be something that they aspire to. I'm not assuming that they have that down yet or even have done anything with it. The one thing we do know about Google is they’re continuously experimenting. We see examples of them experimenting as Google is not afraid to do that in public, that’s how they learn.
My advice is to assume that if it's good for the user, if it works for the user, then it will eventually be important for search because of that goal we talked about at the beginning. Google wants its users to be happy, and they don't want that serious poodle person to arrive at a happy-go-lucky, fun, poodles are cute page even if that page has good information on it that they might be looking for. You should anyways be thinking about tone so if Google will really measure or look at it, you're all set.
John Mueller says this all the time, people make fun of it, get tired of it, and it sounds like a generic thing to say, but it's really true. Do what's right for your user and we'll catch up with you. If we’re not doing it right now, do it for the good of the user, and if it’s good for the user it will be good for Google at some point.
Optimize It or Disavow It
Imagine you could only do one or the other…. Would you choose to target a very small group of users with some incredibly focused and all-around awesome content… or would you try to nab as wide a range of users as possible with some content that can only be described as ‘meh - it’s alright’?
I would choose to do the best possible thing you can for small segments that you’re hyper-targeting and doing better than anybody else. I think that's where the best wins are now because there's so much competition out there in the content world and just trying to scattershot and just covering the bases to hit everybody will not make you stand out. Google is not going to care, your users aren't going to care. So find those people that you can connect with who are going to care, win them over, and build from there. I think that's the starting point.
Thank you so much, Mark, for coming on. I really do appreciate you coming on and taking the time.
Thank you for having me, Mordy.
SEO News [00:59:49 - 01:03:40]
New Scholar Knowledge Panel:
Google is running a new Knowledge Panel for "scholars”
- Scholarly authors now get a panel that is based off their Google Scholar "metrics” if you will. As such, you will see their number of citations and so forth.
All Your Google Bug News:
More bugs resolved! Google says the bug that made Google reviews disappear is fixed
, for real this time. It also turns out that the bug that had local listings removed was in fact due to the shortnames
Also, the bug that prevented business owners from answering questions in the Local Panel's Q&A feature is fixed
Also, there was a bug that prevented the search results from fully loading
Also, there was a bug that gave some news publishers a hard time getting new content indexed
Recent Study Shows Google Ad Growth Has Slowed:
A Merkle study shows that Google’s ad growth has slowed
thanks to Microsoft's partnership with Verizon. As a result, Microsoft's shopping ads grew 54% in Q2.
The Swipe Up Image Search Feature Is Here:
The feature that allows you to swipe an article up from an image search result
is live! The feature applies only to AMP pages since Google uses its page caching as the basis for the feature.
It also looks like Search Console is going to be getting some data related to pageviews
that will align to this specific feature.
Fun SEO Send-off Question [01:03:40 - 01:07:21]
If Google was invited to a wedding, what gift would it bring?
To Sapir, it’s obvious that Google would know what you want and just give it to you. And if anyone from Google is listening, Sapir would like a villa when she gets married!
Mordy compares weddings to lyrics when Google is involved. You go, you eat, you drink, and you give nothing back. And if that’s not a good enough answer then Google will buy a blender, most likely bought off Amazon as it couldn’t find a good deal with its Shopping partners! (Mordy’s joking, of course!)
Tune in next Tuesday for a new episode of The In Search SEO Podcast