What is RankBrain why it matters?Google RankBrain is a machine-learning system integrated within a Google algorithm update called Hummingbird. This Google system is able to better serve search results to users based on their intent, rather than just keyword matching. It’s hard to realize how complex and sophisticated is the Google search algorithm just because it works so marvelously well that it seems natural it does so. Yet before we got there, it took almost two decades. And that revolution was evident in 2015. In fact, that year futurist Ray Kurzweil arrived at Google, with one mission: make search engines understand human language. That is how he put it:
My mission at Google is to develop natural language understanding with a team and in collaboration with other researchers at Google. Search has moved beyond just finding keywords, but it still doesn’t read all these billions of web pages and book pages for semantic content. If you write a blog post, you’ve got something to say, you’re not just creating words and synonyms. We’d like the computers to actually pick up on that semantic meaning. If that happens, and I believe that it’s feasible, people could ask more complex questions. Source: Wired.comFrom that quest, Google updated its algorithm in 2013, with Hummingbird and later on in 2015, AI (in the form of Natural Language Processing) became a major factor for search with RankBrain. In other words, a few years back it didn’t make any sense to ask questions to Google because it didn’t know what to do with them. Today the scenario has changed substantially. We can test that right now: When I type in Google’s search box “moon distance,” that is what I get: You may think this is pure keyword matching, but it is not. In fact, if I ask “How far is the moon?” I get the same answer: Google’s ability to understand language goes further. If I search “moon distance in meters” that is what I get: In short, Google knows I’m referring to the same thing and gives me the proper answer. Related: What is SEO Hacking? How to Steal Featured Snippets with These SEO Hacks
What does that mean for SEO? Is traditional SEO dead?The old SEO says that if you want to be successful at ranking your site you got to have backlinks, keywords and optimize for those. Those basic tactics still work. Indeed, the backbone of the web got built upon backlinks. In fact, in a Q&A with Andrey Lipattsev, a Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google, when asked what factors, together with RankBrain affected Google’s rankings, he replied: I can tell you what they are. It is content. And it’s links pointing to your site. (source: searchengineland.com) Therefore, it was confirmed that the three major factors in Google’s rankings are: 1 & 2: Links, Content (hard to say what comes first among the two) 3: RankBrain How do you make your SEO strategy effective in an era where NLP-powered search algorithms can read human language independently from keywords? First, this process is more like a transition. Therefore, even though keywords still matter they are becoming obsolete. When is this happening? Hard to say! That will probably also depend on how fast voice search will take over, which will speed up the process as people will start interacting in natural language rather than keywords with those digital assistants.
What can you do then?As made clear by Google itself there are a few things that still help it understand web pages. One of them is structured data. In fact, not by chance Google has inserted structured data in its Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Starter Guide by making clear that:
Proper structured data in your news, blog, and sports article page can enhance your appearance in Google Search results. Enhanced features include entry in a top stories carousel and rich result features such as headline text and larger-than-thumbnail images. Source: Google DevelopersThis is crucial because this structured data also trigger voice commands ad Google specifies here:
By structuring your content according to this guide, your content may be automatically turned into an action on the Google Assistant. Source: Google DevelopersThere are tremendous implications for that. First, you can’t think any more of SEO as single and isolated “tricks” or tactics. That is something that great SEO experts already knew. But now this needs to be clear to everyone looking to implement advanced SEO strategies today. Second, with structured data; SEO, PASO and editorial strategy become the same thing. If you start building your content Third, you need an entity-based content model based built upon a sort of barbel strategy. On the one hand, short, conversational and voice-ready content. On the other hand, long, detailed content. The short content will be used to address specific questions, to make it ready for voice search. In short, that is how you make your SEO strategy holistic. You also need a rigorous process of SEO Hacking if you want your site to gain traction, quickly.
How does SEO change in this context?We saw how Google changed in the last years. What was relevant just in 2015, it isn’t so anymore. Of course, old strategies might still work in the short term, but they’re slowly losing relevance. This means that a winning SEO strategy has to be more holistic and it has to take into account an entity-based content model built upon three pillars:
- long-form content for the top of the funnel
- short-form, conversational content for the bottom of the funnel
- structured data to make that content better understood by search engines and voice-search ready
- Google’s featured snippet
- Google’s Knowledge panel
- Voice search
SEO copywriting basicsMany who write online believe that Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is something too complicated to handle. That is why they give up before even figuring out what is SEO and how it works. However, I want to show you a practical way to use a few free and simple tools to use right now to master the basics of SEO copywriting.
Enter Google Autocomplete and Google related searchesUnknowingly we’re all search engine experts. By that, I don’t mean to say that we all need to be going around telling others what to do. Instead, that Google is a website we use on a daily basis. Therefore, we know how to deal with it. For instance, you might have noticed that when you type something in the search bar, you get suggestions: Those suggestions you get is called Google autocomplete. That feature is quite useful for a few reasons. First, it helps you complete the search by suggesting you valuable things. Second, it saves you time. Third, it also gives you new ideas about things you might not have thought about. That is from the user standpoint. What about who writes content? Well for those who write content Google autocomplete feature is even more useful. In fact, those suggestions are queries or questions that users frequently ask Google. That is why they are getting featured as autocompleted results. Also, Google also shows related searches at the bottom of the page: Those two tools are all you need to pick a topic, title and the right keywords for your next copy. In fact, that is Big Data Google is giving you about your target audience. That is also all you need to understand the basics of SEO copywriting. Related: What is SEO Hacking? How to Steal Featured Snippets with These SEO Hacks
Pick the right topic by using free Big DataIt is critical to writing about something you’re passionate about. Yet if you’re writing for business, you need to find an audience first. How do you see that? Simple, look at Google’s autocomplete. In fact, those are frequently asked questions, which means there is an audience for that specific topic. In fact, we all use Google mostly to solve practical issues. Therefore, with the autocomplete, you can figure out whether there is an audience for the article you’re about to write. For instance, let’s say you’re writing a piece about SEO for Google. Of course, Google is the most used search engine; we’re so used to it that many users still believe that is the only search engine out there. Also, “why” is a powerful question to be used as a hook for your next piece. Thus, you type into Google search box something like “Why Google” and see what the autocomplete will suggest: The first suggestion “Why is Google the best search engine” seems excellent as the topic of your next piece.
Let your readers pick the right titleJournalists know the title is a crucial component of the whole piece. Therefore, you might want to spend time understanding what title to use for an article. One kind of claim that works pretty well for business content is that title that addresses a specific pain point of the users. Where do people show their pain? On social media, for sure they don’t. Once again, Google is the place, and the autocomplete is the answer. In the previous paragraph, we used the autocomplete to see whether the topic we want to write about has an audience. Now we want to figure out whether the title is good enough. Google told us through the autocomplete that people often ask “Why is Google the best search engine.” All you have to do now is to check if this title has potential. For instance, you could use the Headline Analyzer to check this out: The Headline Analyzer gave a score of 72 out of 100. That is pretty good considering I’ve never had a score higher than 76. I wouldn’t focus too much on the number, but I believe from 70 up the headline shows great potential. We have the title; now we need the right keywords. How do you do that?
Target the right keywords with Google related searchesMost people that write online fear SEO, because they believe that is too hard, or that they need to know sophisticated search engine optimization techniques. That doesn’t make sense at all. First, if you think of SEO is about gaming Google’s algorithm, you got it wrong. SEO is a set of insights that you have about what people look for through Google. In short, you can uncover data about your potential readers, and customers with the utmost simplicity. In fact, SEO doesn’t have to be complex at all. For instance, now that we picked a topic and a title, we can find some keywords users are typing into Google related to the topic we’re about to write. How? Simply by using Google’s suggestions. For instance, I start by typing the autosuggestion that helped me pick the topic:
Once Google gives me the result page I can scroll to the bottom of the page to see the related searches Google gives me:This will be a good list of long-tail keywords, which are merely questions users type into Google search box, which is as popular as the one we just typed in. Use that list like I’m doing below:
- what makes google so popular
- what has made the google search engine so successful
- best search engines
- internet search engines
- search engine definition
- bing search engines
- why google is good for us
- types of search engines
You could pick a few of those and include that in your copy. Of course, you need to do it in a way that doesn’t make your writing worse. In other words, in your text among the questions that you pose there might be “Is Google the best search engine?” or “Why Google is good for us?”These questions even though usually have a way lower volume compared to simple keywords like “SEO” they are also more specific and address an issue the user is having at that moment. Therefore, those are transactions. That is how you get questions users frequently ask, to include in your copy to address real doubts your target customers might have. That’s it.
Key takeaway on SEO copywritingSearch engine optimization is not complicated. That is how we perceive it though. Of course, there are basic to advanced tactics. The advanced tactics are for those people that gained experience in the SEO industry for years. However, if you’re trying to put down a simple piece, which copy is optimized and at the same time useful to your potential users you can do that in four simple steps:
- make sure there is an audience for the topic you’re writing about with Google autocomplete
- pick the right title by looking at questions users frequently ask Google
- find out relevant and related long-tail keywords/ queries users are asking to Google
- include those keywords organically in your text, always focusing on the user needs so that the copy is accessible to readers
An SEO case studyA little caveat: the purpose of this article is to show you the findings of my experiments. I try to test things, not in the sense of gathering data but rather to do simple experiments with a low probability of succeeding. When one of those does succeed; for me the signal is clear. There is something in the experiment that Google liked. I can’t say exactly why and what. But that doesn’t matter. As long as you follow the steps I’ve taken chances are you’ll also get similar results. Related: What is SEO Hacking? How to Steal Featured Snippets with These SEO Hacks
Start with the end in mindOn this blog I published an article about Google’s business model:
Google Business Model Analysis – Updated 2022I intended to target a long-tail keyword with low search volume and competition and see if I could trigger a featured snippet. Once and if the featured snippet would have been triggered. I’d wait a few days and then test whether that also triggered a voice search from my Google assistant. That is what I did, and it worked! In short, the question I targeted was: “what’s a hidden revenue business model?” After 24 hours from publishing the article associated with that query, the featured snippet appeared: After a few days that featured snippet has become a trigger for the voice search answer you get from Google’s assistants: How did that happen?
Dissecting Google’s featured snippetGoing from the featured snippet to voice search is not automatic. Backlinko recently analyzed over 10,000 Google Home search results, and it found that 40.7% of all voice search answers came from a Featured Snippet. Of course, thinking about a fixed percentage might be deceiving as Google continuously updates its search algorithm. Also, voice search is so new that it’s hard to say how it will evolve in the next months. Yet as of now a featured snippet is a powerful way to get into voice search, that is also why I like a strategy based on targeting for the Google’s featured snippet. In a recent post I explained how I triggered the featured snippet and what steps I did take to make that happen: Above you can see a summary and breakdown of five critical aspects.
Google’s search algorithm is smart enough to split text and images: how to optimize for both image and text in the featured snippetIn my editorial strategy, you’ll see that in some cases I divide up the title of an article in two parts. The first part is usually a question. In fact, the purpose of that question is to target a featured snippet. Recently I had written an article on DuckDuckGo business model:
How Does DuckDuckGo Make Money? DuckDuckGo Business Model ExplainedI was targeting the question: “How does DuckDuckGo make money?” However, this one was way more competitive as the featured snippet was already taken by Quora (as you might imagine Google trusts Quora way more than a small blog like mine). However, not all is lost. Thus, I had already an answer to that question on Quora. So I used the infographic I had produced for my article, and I added it to the same question on Quora. My reasoning was simple. First, the question that was ranking first on Quora and that Google was using as featured snippet didn’t have any image inside. So why not try to see whether I could trigger a featured snippet by signaling Google that my answer was more comprehensive as it comprised the infographic. Second, by positioning my content on Quora, I was also trying to signal to Google that the same content coming from my blog could be trusted. In short, I was trying to use Quora as a vehicle to bring credibility toward my blog. Something interesting happened. The day after I had repurposed my content over Quora. When I typed on Google the question “how does DuckDuckGo make money?” it triggered the old featured snippet. This time though, while the text was coming from the old answer; the image was coming from my answer (which includes a graphics I had inserted inside). Even though I didn’t manage to steal the featured snippet; I still managed to position my image inside the featured snippet. In short, I believe since the text answer from Quora didn’t provide any graphics. The search algorithms pulled it out from mine. In other words, Google’s search algorithm is smart enough to split the featured snippet in half: text and image. Remember the purpose of the featured snippet is to give a direct, short answer to users for questions. Further, the goal is to provide relevant content that can quickly answer, be it text or an image. That is also why at times the search algorithm might get the text from a site and the image from another site. Therefore, when you’re planning to trigger a snippet, you have to make sure to do a consistent strategy for both text and image. Both have to be prone to be “snipped!”
Do you want to skip the line? Target the featured snippet!In 2017 ahrefs.com analyzed 2 million featured snippets. From the analysis it turned out that a featured snippet didn’t always come from the first position on Google’s SERP:
Source: ahrefs.comFrom the data above you can see that also search results that are at the 4th or 5th position have chances of getting the featured snippet. This is important because if you do get it, then you’ll steal traffic from the first position.
Source: ahrefs.comAs pointed out by the same study, when a search result is ranked first, and there is no featured snippet, it gets 26% of the traffic for the overall query. When instead, there is a featured snippet on that page the first result only reaches 19.6% of traffic. In other words, the featured snippet steals traffic from the first positions. At times a featured snippet might be triggered by the last results on the first page, just like it happened to me with this query: Even though my result was in the 7th position in the SERP (therefore according to ahrefs.com study it only had 0.7% of chances of getting snipped) it still triggered a featured snippet.
Featured snippet vs. knowledge panel: Who’s the winner?Another SEO experiment I had done was based on personal branding. In short, I was trying to assess whether I could trigger a featured snippet on the query “who’s Gennaro Cuofano?” Thus, control my brand through Google. Therefore, I set up a page for the scope and used a strategy that I explained in this article. This SEO experiment is important because usually a featured snippet of a person is triggered either when there is a Wikipedia page that supports it. Or the site from where it’s coming from has high authority. Yet I wanted to see whether I could do that with my small blog based on the quality of data I provided to Google. It did trigger it: Thus, the featured snippet showed up. Also, something interesting happened! A knowledge panel that before wasn’t there was triggered: In this particular case that is pulling up information about me taken from an author page, I have on Amazon. What is a Google Knowledge Panel? As specified by Google:
When people search for a business on Google, they may see information about that business in a box that appears to the right of their search results. The information in the box, called the Knowledge Panel, can help customers discover and contact your business.How do you get one?
Like search results, whether or not a business’s information will appear in the Knowledge Panel is determined by a variety of factors. Relevance, distance, and the prominence of the business all contribute to its standing in local search results. Verifying a business does not guarantee that it will appear in the Knowledge Panel.In short, it seemed like the work I’ve done for the featured snippet (Schema and Open Linked Data might have been the most significant contributors) had also triggered the knowledge panel. However, as of the time of this writing, the knowledge panel has eaten the featured snippet: Like in a poker game where there are winning hands. If I had to compare featured snippet to knowledge panel; I’d say the featured snippet is like having a four of a kind. Instead, the knowledge panel is like having a straight flush! In fact, today if you look for “Gennaro Cuofano” you’ll only see that box on the right side of the search box (that is the knowledge panel). As we’ve seen the knowledge panel has a different purpose than the featured snippet; while the featured snippet aim is to answer a specific question. The knowledge panel gives relevant information about a business. The featured snippet is way more fluid and based on rankings; the knowledge is based on the ability of the information you’ve provided to enter Google’s knowledge vault. While there is no sure way to trigger a knowledge panel; getting a featured snippet might facilitate it. When the knowledge panel cannibalizes the featured snippet that is a good sign – I argue – as this implies that Google might be trusting more your data. As pointed out by Dr. Peter J. Meyers on Moz, over time featured snippets get cannibalized by knowledge panels:
Why does that happen?
As Dr. Peter J. Meyers pointed out:
It’s likely that Google is trying to standardize answers for common terms, and perhaps they were seeing quality or consistency issues in Featured Snippets. In some cases, like “HDMI cables”, Featured Snippets were often coming from top e-commerce sites, which are trying to sell products. These aren’t always a good fit for unbiased definitions. Its also likely that Google would like to beef up the Knowledge Graph and rely less, where possible, on outside sites for answers.
What’s going on with Google?A debate is going on about what’s happening with Google. In fact, Google introduced a featured snippet with no SERP: In other words, for some queries, Google prefers to give a result in the form of a featured snippet. If users want to see the other search results they have to voluntarily click on “show all results.” This seems to be an important change as for the first time Google is hiding its results page. On the one hand, this isn’t surprising as those queries (like knowing what’s the time) have a clear intent. In short, users just want to get a straight answer. In this case, Google is acting just like Wolfram Alpha. In addition, as pointed out by Bill Slawski this isn’t new as it was since 2005 that Google started to work on “Just the Facts, Fast”:
Yet now the question comes naturally: Will Google cannibalize content from the SERP? Is going getting into the content business? Well, I thought what a better way to solve the impasse than to ask Google itself. If you think about it – I argue – it’s all about its business model. If the business model fails, then the company doesn’t exist anymore. So I asked Google itself, what is its business model: The answer is clear: “Googe is a one-stop shop for helping you find things.” Now, “one-stop shop” means that users can get all they need right there, on that blank page. Thinking about how Google has evolved in the last years. There is no doubt that Google needed third-party websites – it still needs them – to offer relevant content to its users, besides paid ads. Imagine a web filtered through Google where all you got was a bunch of paid ads. Who would have found that interesting at all? Instead, when Google introduced its paid network for publishers (AdSense), this allowed any site to monetize their content quickly. As anyone – that deals with Google – knows, the search engine from Mountain View loves content. This spurred the birth of a content industry on the web, which main aim was to feed as much web pages to Google. The deal – although implicit – seemed to work quite well. Google got “quality content” from third websites. It allowed them to monetize it; while those websites remained the intermediaries between Google’s users and Google itself. This deal made sense for anyone. In fact, Google didn’t have enough power to produce content itself. However, starting 2012 Google has introduced a set of initiatives (Knowledge Graphs, Hummingbird, and RankBrain just to mention a few) that made it way smarter than it was. Those initiatives allowed Google to gather content around the web, converts it into data, which can be easily manipulated to create new data. That data, in turn, can become content, served to its users. Thus, if Google can produce that content itself? Would it still make sense to show search results coming from third-party websites? The question remains open. It’s too early and too hard to say what will the future hold. There are a few considerations to make though. First, if we look at AdSense compared to AdWords. There is no doubt that the former help fuel the latter. However, it is true that Google shares most of its revenues with AdSense partners. That is also why AdSense has such lower margins compared to AdWords. Thinking business, if I were Google, I’d try to focus on the part of the business that has high margins. Second, Google has no control over third-party websites part of AdSense. As a company that wants to be a one-stop shop, it also makes sense to have as much control over its content. Thirds, today for Google might be cheaper to index the visible web and give back search results. But what if it becomes cheaper to create its own content? Imagine how much resources would Google save in terms of crawling budgets, and spamming controls. Another little caveat: featured snippets are volatile as they depend on ranking and other aspects that Google might take into account from time to time. Thus, some snippets that appeared at the time of this writing might have disappeared. However, the overall strategy proved to be successful, at least in the short run. In fact, the objective isn’t just the featured snippet but the knowledge panel, which is usually way more stable over time. Yet, one and the other might often be connected if in you use a Semantic SEO strategy based on structured data and open linked data.
Google started providing answers to questions in 2005, as they described back then in “Just the Facts, Fast”: https://t.co/rZ1aee690V https://t.co/C6K4jy8053— Bill Slawski ⚓ (@bill_slawski) March 15, 2018
Numbers and ResultsLet’s talk numbers now! As you can see even though the number of total impressions deteriorated by 18% (from 31,170 impressions down to 25,525). On the other hand, if we look at total clicks, they went up by 6% (from 521 to 554) in the last 28 days. In addition, the average CTR (click through rate) has increased from 1.52% to 2.17% (this is a staggering 42% increase). Also, the average position of my keywords on the SERP increased from 47.8 up to 45.9. If we look at the numbers in absolute terms, they might seem small. Yet, if we take into account the % increase that is not bad at all! Imagine this kind of metrics improvement for a large site. If you look at the users for this month (in blue) from organic traffic alone, compared to the previous month (in orange) that is clear that the slope is upward. I also noticed that some of that traffic was coming from specific questions: On those keywords the volume is low. Yet as of now they seem to have a good click-through rate. Of course, numbers are still too small to draw any conclusion. However, It will be fun to see how traffic coming from those keywords will evolve over time.
Personal branding and SEOJust a few months back I was curious to understand how Google algorithm was changing in light of the transition toward voice search. That is why together with WordLift Co-founder Andrea Volpini we undertook an SEO experiment to see how I could use SEO for personal branding. In short, I wanted to know whether I could trigger a featured snippet based on the question “who is Gennaro Cuofano?” For me, it was an SEO experiment, but of course, now that it worked it is also a good business card to have. Why? First, I was able to have it based on a web page of my site. That rarely happens. In fact, most times when it comes to people, Google only offers a featured snippet if you have a Wikipedia page or an authority website. In short, Wikipedia has such an authority in Google’s algorithm eyes that it will take it for good and offer it as a snippet. Even so, if you’re a person, unless you’re a public person there is no way Google is going to use that information in a featured snippet. At least that is what I thought before of this experiment! For the sake of this discussion I’m also going to mention how I used WordLift (the company I currently work for) to hack my personal branding.
The Featured Snippet FrameworkYou need a few steps to improve your chances of having the snippet:
- set up a dedicated page
- target a long tail keyword
- transform that page into an entity
- bring link juice to that page
- bring authority to your featured page
Set up a short dedicated pageIf you want to set up your page to make it to the featured snippet you want to make sure to have it set up as a biographical age. Ideally about 58-60 words and avoid storytelling. To have an idea on how to set it up you might want to look at Wikipedia pages for other people. For instance that is how I set that up:
Gennaro is a digital entrepreneur specialized in growing online businesses. He launched and created FourWeekMBA.com. He holds a Law Master’s Degree and an International MBA from LUISS Business School and the University of San Diego. In San Diego, he worked as a financial analyst for a real estate investment firm. Now Gennaro is a Business Developer for WordLift.You might notice how I avoided story-telling, kept it short and biographical. That leads to the second point.
Target a specific long tail keywordTo make the page optimized for the featured snippet make sure to target a particular question. For instance, on my short page, I targeted the question: “who is Gennaro Cuofano?” That will make it easier for Google to understand that you’re targeting that specific question, thus improving your chances to get the snippet.
Use structured data
Google Search works hard to understand the content of a page. You can help us by providing explicit clues about the meaning of a page to Google by including structured data on the page. Structured data is a standardized format for providing information about a page and classifying the page content; for example, on a recipe page, what are the ingredients, the cooking time and temperature, the calories, and so on.Source: developers.google.com Although Google makes a case for using structured data for recipes, we now know that structured data is crucial also to rank any other kind of page. In other words, with structured data, you do Google’s little crawlers job easier to index and rank the page easier. How can you implement structured data? With a vocabulary called Schema.org. What is Schema.org? As explained on their website:
Schema.org is a collaborative, community activity with a mission to create, maintain, and promote schemas for structured data on the Internet, on web pages, in email messages, and beyond.and it continues:
Founded by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Yandex, Schema.org vocabularies are developed by an open community process, using the email@example.com mailing list and through GitHub.In short, Schema is the most efficient way to translate the content on that page as data that Google can quickly process. That is why I used WordLift to create a page and set that up as a schema type “person.” In fact, that is a particular property of Schema.org that allows Google to understand what the web page is about. I then used an additional field to link my page to all the other pages about me on the web. With this setting, you will create an entity, or a defined object now existing on the web. It is almost like Google finally knew I existed.