In recent years, online search has taken a dramatic shift from former standards. We’ve seen the rise of the mobile web, improvement in algorithms, and a complete re-thinking of Google SERPs (search engine results page) with new features. Heck, just a few weeks ago, Google introduced continuous scrolling. Goodbye, page one. Hello, infinity.
We now live with the standard of “zero-click” searches where Google answers the question directly for simple facts. In addition, we’ve seen a new focus on technical aspects of web design. If a site is lagging behind the times, has a poor user experience (UX), and doesn’t work well on mobile devices, it won’t make it to the top of Google.
There is an old acronym in tech circles that is relevant to the new Google search standard: “DWIM,” for “do what I mean (not what I say).” User intent is the focus of search results, powered by algorithms that attempt to divine what the user wants, not necessarily the exact search strings the user was typing. This makes all the difference to marketers, marketing being the end goal of SEO. You won’t get far in digital marketing by just offering a product on a website and not paying attention to user intent. You have to have what the user wanted and be a genuinely useful destination for Google to serve up as a recommended link.
So, let’s roll out the roadmap for SEO in 2022 and see where the future leads. Several of the concepts we’ll review are actually pieces of a bigger goal: improved artificial intelligence natural language processing. And of course, all of these trends come together to show what it takes to run successful SEO and content marketing strategy in 2022.
Page Experience and UX: Your Digital Storefront
Google brought the Page Experience Update online around the beginning of summer 2021. Its focus is “a set of signals that measure how users perceive the experience of interacting with a web page beyond its pure information value.” The Page Experience Update (effectively a UX update) considers Core Web Vitals metrics, mobile-first design, site security (using HTTPS), and interstitial behavior (regarding pop-ups and ease of use).
If you’ve been putting off your website update to meet mobile-friendliness, you might want to sit down for this. Google now indexes the mobile version of a site only. Of course, even an old static HTML website does render on mobile to varying degrees of success. That doesn’t mean that it will perform well on search results.
On-page UX now affects the ranking signals Google considers when positioning or excluding a website’s link in the SERPs. Where before Google engineers reassured us that site Core Web Vitals would be just a “tie-breaker” in light of two equally relevant results, now we are seeing results impacted by UX more than we expected.
This may spell “trouble” for sites using WordPress—or about 30% of the top-ranked websites. Run your WordPress blog on a speed-test site and watch the dismal numbers. This happens even with stripped-down, fresh installs of WordPress, to say nothing of the menagerie of plugins most web admins feel it necessary to run. However, new updates for WordPress have come out explicitly addressing this issue.
Regardless of your CMS (content management system), the underlying technology of your website needs to be blazing fast. You want that page to fully render for the user and be ready to use in an eyeblink.
Here, we’re going to address the technical aspects of UX rather than on-page content itself. This means that it’s mostly a job for your web-dev team and not necessarily the marketing team, though it is important for the former to pay attention to the latter and fix any issues raised. In fact, we do advocate that the marketing team and the developer team sit down for a group session more often.
As we always point out, keep your website’s software updated to the cutting edge. Check your WordPress theme and make sure that it meets UX metrics, and only keep the plug-ins you absolutely need to survive, perhaps shopping for alternatives if one plug-in is hurting your performance. Apply the same to any website software you run, naturally.
Here’s a goldmine resource for passing your UX tests: a site audit. It’s a top-to-bottom trouble-shooting checklist for all the technical aspects of your website UX. The problem with UX design, though, is that there are so many ways for it to fail. Sometimes it’s not even a technical problem, just misguided intentions.
On the interstitial front… Most users still hate pop-ups, and they hate them even more on mobile. Try not to have your interstitial elements be so aggressive that users feel bombarded or trapped by pop-ups. Have big, finger-friendly buttons to dismiss them.
Information Architecture: Efficient Site Structure
Our SEO Director and Search Engine Journal author John McAlpin expresses this point: “Topic optimization should take precedence over keyword optimization. Websites that built their framework around creating a page for every keyword are starting to decline in performance, while websites with a well-organized content framework are showing continuous improvements.”
So we have this concept of “content framework,” what does that mean? It means organizing your content with a strategy and blueprint in mind, so that your content stays sensible to navigate for both users and Google’s automated page-crawling system.
Jacquelyn Green, Associate Director of SEO, adds: “For example, a doctor’s office offering orthopedics services should have blog content to serve users concerned about knee pain, mid-funnel content that explains how to find an orthopedic doc, locations pages that feature their services for “near me” terms, and a service page that explains what they do, WITH an internal linking strategy that connects the dots. A clear keyword mapping strategy is only getting more important; we can’t just put a keyword on every page and expect Google to figure it out.”
This is important because of semantic search, which Google is using to understand user intent and deliver results matching that intent. The way that Google does that is by reading not just the post body, but its categories, tags, headings, meta-data, and other clues that point out the context of that content.
We can use the grocery store analogy here: You enter the store on a quest for oranges. Where do you find them? There may not be a sign that says “oranges” within view, but there is usually a big sign on the wall saying “produce,” so you head that way. That is a navigational signal to the user. The produce section is usually visible from the store entrance because grocery stores like to use psychological marketing. Showing you fresh-picked produce is a subliminal signal of the store’s quality standards.
So we have two things that came together: The customer was able to follow our signals to find what they wanted, and along the way, we signaled to the customer that they were in good hands shopping with us. Likewise, Google’s search crawlers use the headers, breadcrumbs, and meta-data on our content as road signs to help it guide the user to your content. We also close the sales funnel by placing service descriptions and a CTA (call to action) to help convert the user into a sale.
Asian philosophy has a concept called “feng shui,” which is the art of interior decorating. Beneath the mystical trappings of this traditional practice lies some common sense ideas about creating harmonic spaces that work well with a user’s intent to use that space. For example, you don’t put a couch in front of a door because, according to feng shui, you’ll disrupt the flow of “chi” (mystical energy). You also don’t want a couch in front of the door so you don’t bang into the couch with the door, nor trip over the couch when you enter a room.
We should start thinking about websites as having a “feng shui” as well. Start by asking:
- How did the user get here?
- What is the user seeking?
- How do we best satisfy the user’s desire?
- How do we do that in the most unobtrusive, user-friendly way?
Efficient organization of information begins with website architecture, which is how pages within your site are mapped out for navigation.
Good website architecture ensures that both users and the Google page-crawler bot will find their way around. As we cover in that article, your content should have any number of organizational tools included which help map out the general topics in a helpful way:
- Site search
- Internal links
This isn’t the kind of system you can implement ad-hoc as you go along, but the kind of planning you should do before typing your first word of content to ensure that it follows a master plan. This also helps you adapt to change. You may start out in an industry confident that your categories will cover everything, but then something changes, and you have to insert a new topic – but where does it fit in your present scheme? The more structure you have, the more easily you can adapt it to the changing business landscape.
The rest is just grocery store logistics. Help Google bot figure out the context of your content any way you can, and you will be able to answer user-intent in SERPs which utilize special features.
Semantic Search: Bigger Than Ever!
We’re going to go ahead and send the flowers: Purely keyword-based SEO is just dead.
Nobody really wanted it in the first place. We don’t want to type everything in exact words and deal with a pedantic text-parser engine that won’t connect us to our paleontology homework because we forgot the word for “trilobite.” We want to think less and have Google think for us. So in recent years, Google has invested in AI research such as BERT (bidirectional encoder representations from transformers) to understand “fuzzy” natural language queries better.
If we want an example of the old way search worked, we still have Wikipedia. If you use its internal search and get just one letter wrong, it may have mercy and suggest the correction. Two letters wrong, and it just dumps you. Typing the same query into Google along with the word “Wikipedia” is actually a better way to find a Wikipedia page. All bets on Wikipedia are off when all you can remember is “1800s congress act require treasury buy silver for coins,” but Google will at least know you meant either the Coinage Act of 1873, the Bland–Allison Act of 1878, or the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890.
In cognitive science, this is actually called “the Google effect,” where we no longer bother trying to memorize trivial facts that can be easily searched again. Google recognizes this usage and is going along with it. This is why it provides so many “zero-click” results, where you can just ask Google directly for your local weather, what day of the week Easter falls on this year, or the prime factors of 1,111,111.
Semantic search isn’t new. It’s such an old idea that Sir Tim Berners-Lee proposed it first. Yet, the reason we keep talking about it year after year is because semantic search is still not fully realized.
This is due to the challenges of AI natural language processing. It turns out that the way human brains process language doesn’t map at all to electronic circuits. Our fall-back, machine learning systems, attempts (in layman’s terms) to create a computer “toddler” and then teach it language by example through simulating years of “school.” It is only in recent years that computers have gotten fast enough to do it this way.
So even Google can only implement semantic search in little pieces, and it has kept adding them.
We discussed this in last year’s search trends post, but we wanted to underline it because semantic search is a method Google doubles down on every passing year. To reiterate:
- Write for people, not machines!
- Anticipate questions users will ask and answer them.
- Use schema to structure data in a sensible way.
- Link internally within your site to other, similar topics.
- Optimize content for topics, not just keywords.
Much of this will sound familiar not just from previous articles but also from other points in this article. That’s because semantic search is one part of Google’s holistic new view of indexing Internet data.
John McAlpin tells us: “At Cardinal, we dig through forums and talk to customer support reps and find out actual problems and questions that our target audience has. We want to put ourselves in their shoes and make sure we have content for any possible barrier to entry.”
Google is investing in the user journey and trying to answer user queries on a “do what I mean” basis. We in digital marketing aim to help that process along. When we get through all the acronyms and technical terms, the bottom line always comes down to “write naturally and passionately about your topic.” Then include some more content related to that topic, an overview of that topic, and anything you can think of that will be of interest to the same people researching that topic. Before long, you’ve built a fuzzy cognitive map for Google to work with.
Quality Content Matters More Than Ever: How To Make Google Trust You
Digital marketers will tell you “content is king,” but there’s more to the story. A lot of content on the Internet is garbage.
Google’s top priority is not just to provide you with an answer, but the most correct, highest-quality answer it can find from the most trusted authority. In marketing, we have the acronym “USP” (unique selling proposition). This is a good thing to have when you’re actually closing a sale, but having a “unique content proposition” also works at the top of the sales funnel to draw your user in the first place.
If you have a query involving any specialized government agency, such as the IRS, FTC, or FDA, Google will include a page directly from one of those .gov domains. Now, obviously, the IRS is a branch of the federal government which does not think of marketing at all. They have no private-sector interest there in attracting traffic for profit. But any query related to a tax filing form goes right to the irs.gov website because Google knows from years of tracking user clicks that any user searching for a tax-form-related question will get their answer there.
Google revealed in the 2020 update that it uses a standard called “EAT,” for “expertise, authority, and trust.” EAT doesn’t apply to everything on the web, but it applies to a lot of things. The more important the topic is, the more it applies to EAT. Their standard for important topics is “YMYL,” for “your money of your life,” relating to topics where someone’s well-being is at stake. That includes medical, financial, legal, and political topics, among others.
With that said: Google does not as yet have an automated AI algorithm to determine a topic’s importance on the YMYL scale, nor a way to determine your content’s EAT ranking. Instead, it goes by backlink volume and click patterns (among other signals) to determine that yes, this page is a trusted source of information.
Google publishes a full online ebook about “Google Quality Rating Guidelines,” so you can set aside your next summer vacation to read through that. Well, maybe we can summarize that for you. And just to make it clear, content quality is almost entirely in the hands of your content authors. So take good care of them.
You can learn a lot about Google’s quality standards by learning what it considers a poor quality page. Here are the things that will ding your quality ranking:
- Low-quality content
- Unsatisfying amount of content for the topic
- A sensationalized or misleading page title
- Distracting ads or too many ads
- Lack of info about the site’s owner / creator / author
- Negative reputation of the website based on research
They provide a couple of examples of poor pages, and the notes there tell you even more. To quote: “The writing of this article is unprofessional, including many grammar and punctuation errors. The content also appears to have been paraphrased from a science article found on a different source, but with factual inaccuracies introduced throughout.”
So yes, while we do say “write naturally” and “write for people, not machines,” you should also be careful not to slide into complete sloppiness. When you write on an important topic, write for people still, but make sure your high school English teacher would approve.
EAT and Google quality guidelines aren’t just Google being a snob for no reason. Google is actively fighting disinformation.
We’re not going to soapbox about the topic, but if you pay attention to the news in modern times, you know that bad information infests the web like a nasty rash. Thus, “your money or your life” is an important metric to avoid quack medical advice, fraudulent financial scams, illegal schemes, bad faith meddling in US politics, hate speech and harassing content, fake news, slander, and all kinds of nasty stuff.
Just so as it happens, low-quality standards and bad faith actors tend to go together. We leave speculation as to the correlation between these two items as an exercise for the reader.
Conversational Search and Long-Tail Content: Chatter Away!
At the Google I/O Developer Conference, several new algorithms were announced that would help search query and result processing:
- LaMDA – “Language Model for Dialogue Applications” – Assists with human-like speech modeling
- MUM – “Multitask Unified Model” – Assists in parsing human-level queries
These are, once again, further steps in Google’s ultimate goal to get into our minds and figure out what we really want, even if we were fuzzy on how to phrase the question. Google’s ultimate goal is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible,” and along the way, it has a sub-goal of improving its user experience to the point of human-level conversation.
Google has shown steady improvement over the years, moving from keyword-matching to semantic search, as we’ve covered at a few points within this post. The continued evolution of its processing of queries and results requires it to penetrate deeper into how humans communicate with each other, intuitively.
Google engineers want the search engine experience to be just like talking to a very smart human who knows everything.
As queries become more specialized and complex, we call those “long-tail” queries. “Long-tail” is a familiar search term from basic SEO, indicating a query that is seldom encountered. When a big sporting event like, say, Denver Broncos vs NY Giants is going on, a search like “Broncos Giants game” has a very short tail and high volume. Searches for “Bronco quarterback Teddy Bridgewater” have a smaller volume.
So why do we care about long-tail searches? Because it’s well nigh impossible for a new website to rank high in search engines for popular topics, but it’s much easier to rank for a specialized, narrow query that hasn’t been discussed online. That’s from the business point of view. From Google’s point of view, long-tail queries are important because they comprise 15% of searches daily.
As recently as 2017 (the number likely hasn’t gone down since), 15% of the time, Google is looking at a query that has never been typed into Google before. Considering Google is old enough to buy a beer now, that’s pretty mind-blowing. When Google gets a really popular search query in, it has a long path of past user behavior to fall back on. But when it gets a query like “isopod recipes,” there’s less for it to go on even though several YouTube videos exist for preparing isopod.
With that said, there is more to MUM than just the English language:
- MUM trains on 75 different languages and can adapt patterns from one language to another.
- MUM is multimodal, which means it is training to work with other media formats like images.
- MUM is multitasking, which means it can both serve a useful purpose and absorb some training from completion of that task in one step.
MUM is not designed to be a short-answer engine. Instead, it’s trying to efficiently handle more complex queries and more multilingual queries. Recently it successfully penetrated 50 languages to uncover how people search for COVID-19 vaccines. Google is also attempting to evolve image-based queries and answers to a more advanced level.
There is not too much new here that we can’t also apply to the other search trends we have mentioned. Content should be natural, and we should be comfortable writing our hearts out about a topic, confident that Google will lead the interested user to our door. But outside of “write naturally,” what else can we do to adapt to these evolving algorithms?
- Use descriptive, relevant images: Ideally, we can give the image a meaningful file name and include a caption or alt-text which describes it. Images will become more important to search in the long run.
- Dig into deeper topics: We have quite a bit more liberty in what is considered “relevant” than we used to. While our purpose is still to drive the sales funnel, content marketing can embrace more exotic requests and give them a place to go.
- Take different approaches to keywords and topics: We have some room to experiment a bit, such as including a few posts tangentially related to our main topic to pick up more specific, long-tail queries.
- Examine user queries on a regular basis: Use analytics tools to find out what searches brought visitors to us or to our competitors, then play more to those searches.
Those long-tail searchers are looking for something very specific, but when they find it, they might be more willing to convert to a sale or a sign-up! That’s why we pay attention to this long tail stuff. When we mentioned the example of a doctor’s office offering orthopedics services, that business might look into adding pages to answer queries like:
- Common football injuries
- Car accident whiplash
- Is it dangerous to crack your knuckles?
- Do back braces protect me while lifting heavy objects?
- How do I avoid getting carpal tunnel?
These are all still common queries that all relate to orthopedic (bones and joints) medicine, and indeed might be pages in any orthopedic medical blog right now. In short, we can look forward to niche searches being better served by Google’s evolving algorithms.
CRO: Conversion Rate Optimization Isn’t Optional
We, digital marketers, talk so much about getting more web traffic, but let’s not forget the follow-through! Conversion rate optimization is about converting those website visitors into confirmed conversions. Whatever our business model, be it a sale, a sign-up, a subscription, or whatever action, we want to make that happen as often as possible.
CRO ties right back into some of what we talked about above, particularly the UX part. Remember that we want our website and conversions to work on mobile, too, so our CTA arena has to fit the small screen as well. In our classic marketing sales funnel, the customer is attracted by our helpful content, comes to our site, reads around for a bit, and then considers doing business with us or at least dropping off their contact info for a consultation. That action is directed into a “CTA” (call to action) section, typically a button to click, a form to fill out, a shopping cart to fill, etc.
Now we want to study this behavior by tracking as much visitor data as we can, and analyze what we do right and what can be improved. One significant improvement CRO can make is reducing the number of clicks it takes for someone to convert. If it takes a visitor 10 clicks to schedule an appointment or purchase a product, how likely are they to complete it?
If you can reduce the steps necessary to convert and make it easier for visitors to take your desired action, you’ll make a significant impact on your lead pipeline.
Simple common sense stuff, right? Now here’s where it gets interesting:
CRO can become one more tool we use to improve our overall sales funnel, including SEO’s impact. How does this happen?
- Remember Google’s signal rankings for quality content. A user who made a purchase is presumed to have found what they’re looking for, hence they stopped searching Google, and Google, in turn, reinforces that page as a useful result for the next time that query comes up.
- Satisfied customers leave good reviews, which enhances your digital reputation and gets you higher ranking on Google My Business and other indexes of consumer rating.
- Google ranks sites by UX metrics, so you can use CRO testing to give users what they want, improving the UX
- By tracking which landing page led to the conversion, you have better insight into where to improve content to bring in more conversions. If you have one blog post about a niche topic and that post brings in a wave of conversions, that tells you that the niche is an underserved segment.
Search Engine Journal tells us that, in general, we should be considering a more integrated approach to wielding SEO and CRO together. Rather than focusing on bringing in as much traffic as possible, we can focus more on converting that traffic so it isn’t just wasted.
Obviously, we all do a lot more web surfing than we do web purchasing. Let’s also not forget that visitors may return to the same site repeatedly for the content and eventually convert. So we will always be looking at a conversion rate much lower than our web traffic stats. Nevertheless, we can also study user behavior and try to adapt our user interface to remove as much obstruction as possible.
Google doesn’t fuss around making all these improvements for nothing. As a company, they can relax because they’re obviously the search giant leader, and they’d probably stay that way if all they did were keep the lights on. At least for a while; Bing could theoretically catch up if Google snoozed long enough. (*audience laughter*) But seriously, Google does have competition in other countries: There’s Yandex in Russia and Baidu in China, each respectively with a bigger market share than Google in those countries.
However, the chief focus behind all of this innovation seems to be in simply eliminating the worst side of the web.
Recall back there that Google fights misinformation. They’re also quite dedicated to fighting spam. Along the way, as they point out, cutting out spam also reduces user exposure to scams and fraud. Google is still a business, of course, so this is more about promoting a reputable platform for advertisers rather than raw altruism.
Regardless, the continuous improvement in search parsing and results helps to separate the web’s wheat from the chaff. Adhering to Google’s standards is one way to stand out from the vast waste of botspam that threatens to choke the web.
But perhaps Google is also becoming conscious of its position at the cutting edge of AI research. After all, we all see news of the GPT-3 AI language model and its output. People seem pretty excited to read about it. We are approaching a time when interacting with computers will be close to interacting with a human. Even with all of our long progress in technology, we are aware of how far we still have to go. So if a search engine can help drive progress, that’s an improvement for everyone anyway, no matter who makes money from it.
Perhaps there is a brighter future with technology. Stick with Cardinal Digital Marketing, and we’ll look for it together.