Search engines evolve faster than the SEO industry. The SEO industry is in a constant state of catching up. A good example is the 2005 announcement of the role statistical analysis played in ranking (quality websites) and demoting (spam) websites.
Statistical Analysis – 2005
Statistical analysis was a major evolution in search engine algorithms. The ranking factors associated with SEO evolved along with it. Link ranking factors now focused on statistically relevant quantities of anchor text and so on. Quantity of links remained an important ranking factor.
Penguin Algorithm – 2012
The Penguin algorithm, which is arguably about Link Ranking, also took the SEO community by surprise. Nobody saw it coming. There were lots of guesses as to what it was.
Link ranking algorithms was a milestone that changed how the SEO industry thought about ranking factors related to links. SEO was no longer about obtaining loads of links and loads of anchor text. Ranking factors evolve in response to how search engines rank websites.
Ranking Factors for AI
Now we’re in an era where AI answers 30% of search queries. Search Engine Journal published the first article that discussed Neural Matching that named a specific research paper. Google has been using AI in search for almost the entire year of 2018. It was only recently announced, months and months later.
So how does AI ranking affect ranking factors?
Reviewing these AI type algorithms, it’s clear that they tend to come into play after the ranking algorithm has already done it’s thing. So we’re safe in assuming that traditional type ranking factors like links and headings still play a role for weeding out spam and less relevant search results candidates.
The search engines rank websites for a search query in what’s called a Ranking Engine. After that the results are passed over to the Neural Matching algorithm to then choose a search result with factors other than traditional ranking factors. Links don’t play a role in this part of search ranking.
That’s a simplification of the process, of course. There are other algorithms in the ranking engine that introduce synonyms and stemming in order to broaden the amount of pages and not limit the results to pages that contain all the keywords.
What I think is key to keep in mind is that these AI based algorithms tend to work after the ranking algorithms have done their thing. And it’s at this point that traditional ranking factors like headings, title tags, alt attributes and links take on less importance.
AI Search Aspires to Answer Like a Human
When you look at a web page for an answer to a question, do you examine the title tag and the headings? Of course not. You look for your answer.
Google’s AI can be said to do the same thing.
In simple terms, AI can be said to have two functions:
To precisely understand what a person really means when they type a search query
To find a web page that precisely answers the real question hidden within any given search query
Just like a real person would, AI is not counting how many times a keyword appears on the page anymore. Nor is it looking for synonyms. It’s looking to answer a question, to solve a problem.
So, rather than focus exclusively on traditional ranking factors, it kind of makes sense to also think in terms of answers (even for eCommerce).
In eCommerce someone is looking to buy. So does it make sense to have informational content on that page? As always, check what Google is ranking for confirmation.
Content Factors for Ranking
Content Factors is where I’m headed to in this article. I am not advocating a move away from ranking factors. I am suggesting that it may be useful to add a deeper consideration of Content Factors to the mix of considerations for SEO.
Images are content.
Topic is content.
Search query meanings are the focus of content.
Images as Content
Carefully chosen images can influence the ranking of a web page and help it pop into featured snippets, in additon to ranking in Google image search.
Topic as Content
Outlining your topic is content in itself. It provides the focus for your web page. Lack of a focused topic is, in my opinion, a leading cause of an inability to rank. I conduct many site audits and this is something quite common to today’s search algorithm.
Inability to rank is not always about “page quality” and “being spammy.” Increasingly, what causes a site to rank less well, particularly for informational sites, is an issue with the page topic.
Search Query Meanings
We’re no longer in the Keyword Era. Keyword research is just the beginning. Understanding what users mean is the next evolution of SEO, which follows how search engines rank sites.