You may have heard the scandalous word on the search marketing grapevine that SEO is dead, but, fortunately for us SEO copywriters, the rumours of its death have been greatly exaggerated!
The recent and radical developments in search engine technology, headed, naturally, by Google and deemed by some to be the beginnings of Artificial Intelligence, are not only challenging the established rules of Search Engine Optimisation, but are set to completely revolutionise the way we search and the results we are presented with. For both sides of the internet realm, those who create the websites and those who browse them, the World Wide Web is undoubtedly shifting forever.
However, far from heralding the demise of SEO, these innovations actually open up a whole new world of possibilities and, certainly from an SEO copywriter’s position, might just be the best thing yet to happen to search marketing.
Keywords Were Key
Having only been brought into existence approximately 15 years ago, with the birth of the search engine, SEO is a very young industry that was born primarily out of a need to manipulate the search engine algorithms, or, put more simply, the need of businesses to get their website to the top of the search engine results page. In these early heady days, SEO involved selecting likely search terms and embedding these ‘keywords’ within the text or content of a web page.
So for example, if I wished to rank my SEO website, I would need to ensure that the content on the website repeatedly mentioned very specific terms such as SEO Copywriter and SEO Copywriting or Freelance SEO Copywriter and Freelance SEO Copywriting. Needless to say, having to insert such specific keywords over and over again made the content repetitive, forced and unnatural and well written, easy to read content was sacrificed in favour of the almighty keywords.
What compounded this problem was the fact that search engines, with Google at the vanguard, would only look for exact word matches in a text and return only pages with these exact terms in them; hence the need for every possible permutation of a certain phrase to be considered and embedded within the content.
Simpler Search Terms
It’s undeniable that in these earlier, embryonic times, we all searched the internet in minimal terminology, typing into our search engines phrases with only two or three crucial words. Having done a bit of research on this, however, the motives behind this seems to me to be analogous to the chicken and egg scenario.
Did search engines return results based on several exact word matches because that was what we were typing into our browsers or did we strategically pick the main words we wanted results on because we knew that was all the search engine could produce? Here, as all good SEOs should, I turn to the almighty Google for the answer.
Google To The Rescue
According to Google, the latter statement in my chicken and egg scenario is the truth; we searched in basic key words because we were having to guess what the search engine would return and were restricted by the limits of their algorithms. In Google’s ever striving goal to return the best possible results for the question asked, they determined that users should search for, and that Google would supply, what they actually wanted rather than what they thought the search engine could present.
Hence, Google evolved and began to get smarter. They began with baby steps, initially recognising synonyms and then beginning to identify similar content that may also be of relevance. So for example, going back to the marketing of my SEO website, if someone had typed Freelance SEO Marketer into Google, it would recognise the similarity between that and my Freelance SEO Copywriter keywords and return the page.
Admittedly, from a copywriter’s standpoint, this progression didn’t have a massive impact on the way we structured our text; those keywords still needed to be scattered throughout the content of a website and the writing could still read as stilted and peculiar. However, these changes were a massive step forward for SEO in general, as the net for catching new visitors to a website was now much bigger.
Several infrastructure and algorithm updates later, in September 2013, Google launched their latest algorithm update, Hummingbird. There are much better blogs than mine that can explain to you the intricate processes and implications of Hummingbird but my purpose here is to determine its effect on our copy and content so, if you will forgive me, I will give you the no frills version.
Hummingbird, like its predecessors, recognises synonyms and returns similar relevant content but it also goes one step further than this by analysing search queries semantically and even extracting searcher sentiment in some cases. Hummingbird’s purpose is to divine the real intent of the searcher and that is something that goes way beyond anything that your average search engine has ever done before.
Google’s rationale behind this development is that the way we now search is rapidly evolving and Google needs to respond to this if it wants to stay on top. Whereas once we would have searched for something using the two or three well chosen keywords, people are now searching using much more detailed ‘long tail’ searches, averaging seven or eight words per search term.
So, going back to my SEO website analogy, if you were looking for someone to help get your new website to the top of the rankings two years ago, you might have typed Freelance SEO into your browser and then trawled through the results until you found one suitable for your business. Today, we are more savvy in our searching, so you might instead type Cheap Freelance SEO Consultant Based In Lancashire into your browser and it is likely that you will be returned a page of websites for SEO Consultants, Marketers and Copywriters in Lancashire. This is because of Hummingbird.
The most significant evolution in the way we search, however, is the verbal search. Admittedly not everyone is utilising this yet, but increasingly more and more people are now searching verbally via their smartphones and the Chrome browser. You may not have noticed this change, but if you open your Chrome browser and look in the left hand corner of the search box, you’ll see a small microphone; provided your computer has a microphone you will be able to click that and speak your search term rather than type it.
In one respect, verbal search has made it much harder for Google to fully understand the search term, let alone identify the searcher’s intent, as people tend to speak their search term as though they were speaking to another person; put another way, people are searching using full sentences and complete questions, rather than using a specific few words. On the other hand, the more information the search engine is given, and the more questions it is asked, the more the algorithm has the ability to learn and to build connections that will rapidly improve its performance.
This is where Hummingbird comes into its own, as it can take these complex search criteria and not only return a page of relevant results, but also learn and improve whilst it is doing it. Moreover, Hummingbird is able to make connections between different searches; so, if you asked it “I need an online copywriter for my website”, you would hopefully get a relevant return. If you then went on to ask “where are they based”, Google would make the connection between the two questions and understand that the second search term related to the results of the first search term. Clever, eh?
Unfortunately, Google does not yet seem able to make these same connections when the searches are typed into the search box, but I have no doubt that it will only be a matter of time before they can. This capability poses one question, however; if Google can already make connections between questions asked of it, surely it will only be a matter of time before it can predict what the next question will be following any given search? Knowing Google, this will undoubtedly be what they are working towards.
Is This Artificial Intelligence?
Obviously, the answer is no, not really; if you asked a Computer Scientist boffin, they would tell you that this barely scratches the surface of AI. It’s true that the new Hummingbird algorithm has the ability to collect data, make connections and learn as it progresses but these things are still mathematical based solutions, rather than an organic understanding of human behaviour and thought processes.
When Google predicts what your next question will be, it is because millions of other searchers have already made that connection before you. Computers, as brilliant as they are, are still a long way off fully comprehending the illogical behaviour of humans. Sarcasm, for example, either in a search query or in the content of a website, will still confuse a computer and identifying the real intent of a searcher when this is unclear from the query is still beyond them. Let’s face it, it is almost impossible for humans to fully comprehend or articulate the many and varied nuances in our speech and behaviour, so computers don’t stand a chance yet.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t detract from the fact that Hummingbird is a huge step forward in the way search engines work and has significant implications for SEOs and users of the internet in general. It may not be AI yet, but this is certainly what Google is working towards.
Does It Change Our Copy?
As I said at the beginning, far from heralding the end of SEO, this march into a brave new world opens up countless and exciting new possibilities for SEO marketers and copywriters. For copywriters in particular, rather than restricting us within the confines of keywords, the advance towards AI actually sets us free and allows our creativity to shine. Our writing will be affected in three key ways;
Hummingbird is able to identify and return websites that contain not only the keywords but also synonyms and similar content to the search term. As it evolves, Hummingbird will become better at identifying such relevant content and SEOs will be able to rank web pages for search terms that don’t appear in the text, meaning that keywords will lose the majority of their potency.
Without having to insert keywords here, there and everywhere, our writing will become more fluid and readable; we will be able to make it more emotive and more engaging for the reader and will be able to tailor it more to the needs and wishes of the client.
Additionally, good, well written content will be paramount and thus quality copywriters will be promoted whilst cheap, penny-per-page copywriters will be sidelined.
As Hummingbird starts to predict what a searcher’s next query will be, websites will also need to predict these moves and shape their content to foresee this. Hence, the reasons behind the search, rather than the actual words in the search term, will need to be approximated and the following thought process mapped to create content that fits accordingly.
For example, someone searching for an SEO consultant might follow the following thought process;
- Identify possible SEO consultant
- Where are they based?
- What sort of businesses have they worked with before?
- Are there any testimonials?
- How much do they cost?
- How can I contact them?
Thus it is essential that my website must provide all that information clearly and in a logical format, otherwise the searcher will disregard it and move on to the next.
This means that websites must have more content that provides the information in an easy to follow sequence; there should be more pages, each with engaging and informed content, there should be related articles that provide supplementary information that may be required and there should be a regularly updated blog that attracts the potential customer and allies them to your particular business.
Content That Teaches
Hummingbird is an algorithm that learns, and to learn it needs information. Again, there are much better blogs than this that can explain the intricate details of how this works, but basically, as the quality of the writing and the volume of the content increases, the algorithm has better and more data to work with and thus ‘learns’.
Our content will be contributing to the improvement of the search engine as the improvement of the search engine contributes to our content. Therefore, the symbiotic relationship between Google and SEO continues and thrives.
A Word Of Warning
Unfortunately, there is one blight on this beautiful horizon that poses a far greater threat to our brilliant content and that is Google’s Knowledge Graph. For years now, Google has been collecting all the literature, music and information available and now has possibly the largest bank of data in the world. You may or may not have noticed this, but when a page of results is returned, Google now provides an ‘information card’ at the top of the results page, supplying searchers with a synopsis of information relevant to their search.
As a searcher, this is a useful tool, as it gives a very quick snapshot of the answer or facts requested. It is this very aspect that is the danger for websites however, as that searcher may now have sufficient information and will have no need to visit the website that has worked so hard to reach the top ranking in Google. This is something that our erudite and profuse content must compete with and which must be watched with caution.
Will Everything Change?
In truth, the Hummingbird update and the developments in AI do not yet fundamentally change what we do as SEOs; high quality content is still paramount, keywords will still be required periodically, backlinks will still be needed and the same social media signals that worked before will still bring rankings. For now at least, the role of the SEO is secure.
Yet, in terms of the way we as copywriters compose and construct our text then yes, things will change. Not altogether; content must still be good and there must be lots of it, but it must be more interesting, answer more questions and be more clairvoyant.
Most importantly, we must remember that change is not a negative; things needed to change to eliminate the poorly written, stilted and often forced content on websites of late. Change is a power for good and, if it forces us all to raise our game and eliminates the weak and the inadequate then it is no bad thing. Google’s aim throughout is to provide its users with the best websites available for their needs so it is our job to create and promote those great websites.
Artificial Intelligence may not have been achieved yet however we are moving closer towards it with every upgrade; ignore it at your peril.