When it comes to search, Google is the 500 lb. gorilla in the room. With an estimated 80% of total global search volume being controlled by this behemoth, their positioning at the top of the food chain is likely solidified for the foreseeable future.
With over 74% of all buying decisions first starting with a search engine query, businesses are keenly aware of the importance of their ranking on Google.
With so much on the line, webmasters, marketing teams and businesses are ever watchful for any indications of changes to Google’s algorithm and how this might impact their bottom line. Over the last decade, Google’s algorithm has experienced major transformational change, with Google rolling out every animal in the zoo they could think of.
From Panda, to Penguin and every creature in-between, Google has been on a mission to thwart blackhat SEO, poor quality content and sites, and improve the user experience.
Google Algorithm Updates – What’s the Deal?
According to Moz, Google has confirmed that they update their search algorithm between 500-600 times per year. With so many updates per year, what’s the big deal about this one?
Think of Google’s algo as a living, evolving creature in which incremental changes slowly but steadily improve its search matching capabilities over time. That’s what the majority of those updates represent… minor adjustments over time.
By contrast, every so often Google rolls out what they dub a “major” update. Examples of a major update include both the Penguin and Panda updates. Major updates affect the algorithm, in, well, a major way.
The recent March update has indeed been confirmed by none other than “big G” themselves as a major core update.
March at Google – A “Broad Core” Update
While Google has now taken a tight-lipped stance on notifying the public as to what their updates entail, this time they’ve allowed us a glimpse (albeit small) into what this broad core update involved.
Here are the clues Google has blessed us with:
- Improvements in ranking focused on “content” but NOT “quality” of said content
- The focus was on providing users with “better” search results
- Sites that lost rankings did not do anything “wrong”
- There is no way to “fix” sites that lost rankings, because technically there is nothing “wrong” with them in Google’s eyes
Reading Between the Lines – it’s NOT About Quality
For the last few years, the SEO industry has touted “poor quality” or “low quality” content as the primary target for Google’s zoo animals to attack. Not only has Google denied this claim openly, their public-facing spokespeople actively discourage speculation purely focused on low quality pages and content.
While this approach is based in some truth, it becomes clouded as we begin to layer other aspects of Google’s algorithms (there’s more than one you know).
Taking a practical approach, we can likely agree that Google’s #1 priority is:
- Delivering a world class user experience that beats all others
In order to accomplish this they need to do two things:
- Ensure that the content that ranks is of the highest quality
- Quickly and effectively provide the information that best matches and answers the intent behind the user’s search query
What can we take away from this little lesson?
- Google says if you lost rankings you did nothing wrong
- There is no way to fix your content (implying there is nothing wrong with the content)
So what’s left?
- Search based intent
That’s right folks, this update is NOT about the quality of your content. In fact, your content “as is” has nothing wrong with it. However, your content may not be best suited or matched to the intent behind the keywords for which it used to rank for.
In other words, your content was not the best suited to answer the question or provide the type of information the user behind the search query was looking for.
Let’s say you had a page topically based on the Best Phone Cases that had you ranked for both “Best Android phone cases” and “Best iPhone phone cases”. Let’s also assume that you only sold a few iPhone cases and focused more so on the Android market.
With Google’s new update, they may have determined that your page IS well-suited for those users searching specifically for Android phone cases, but NOT those seeking iPhone cases.
There is nothing “wrong” with your content, it simply doesn’t best serve the user intent behind certain search terms as another site or page.
Intent & Relevancy Make the World go Round
According to a study conducted by Chitika Research, the following stats represent the click distribution on page #1 of any Google search results query:
- 32.5% of clicks go to position #1
- 17.6% of clicks go to position #2
- 11.4% of clicks go to position #3
- 8.1% of clicks go to position #4
- 6.1% of clicks go to position #5
- And so on, slowly diminishing to less than 3% by the time you hit #10
This means that over 75.7% of ALL organic clicks go to the first FIVE positions on any Google search results page, and that around 97% of ALL clicks go to the first page only.
Why does this matter?
The reason we bring this up is because the above stats show just how important it is for Google to “get it right” when it comes to matching a user’s search query with the information that best fits the intent behind it.
Google any keyword and take a look at the sheer volume of results that match your query. Hundreds of thousands or even millions of pages, and Google only has a handful of positions to get it right (remember less than 3% of users scroll past the first page).
Understanding Relevancy – a Search Engine Guide
Trying to cover all there is to know about search engine relevancy in one article is impossible, but we’ll give you a crash course to help get the ball rolling.
Below are the key ways in which Google scores the relevancy of your content to certain topics.
Term Frequency (TF)
In the SEO world, we know this better as “keyword density”. And, largely, this is an outdated metric by which search engines count the number of times a word is mentioned in a document. More mentions generally meant the term was more relevant.
Term frequency is MUCH less important, and, if abused (i.e. keyword stuffing) can do more harm than good.
Again, no rocket science here. Keyword positioning refers to where, within the document, a keyword exists. For example, we’ve seen that utilizing your primary keyword(s) within the first 200 words of text is an indicator to Google that it is of more importance.
If you’re digging into algorithms and search crawlers, you no doubt are familiar with “tags”. But, just in case, here’s a little refresher:
A title tag is a piece of HTML that signifies the title of a web page. Title tags are used (in part) by search engines to help them determine what your page is about and its relevancy to other topics.
While less important, there has been some indication that Google and other search engines may take into account the following as signals of a keyword’s or topic’s importance on your page, thus boosting the relevancy of your page for such topics/keywords:
- All CAPS
Topical Relevancy & Cohesiveness
This is a broad stroke relevancy metric that is largely all-encompassing. Think of topical relevancy as a content pyramid where your primary topic or keyword is at the very pinnacle, then each block of the pyramid leading from that pinnacle downward consists of other sub-topics and subjects that are related to or synergistically supports the primary keyword.
Let’s say your primary keyword is “Building Muscle”. Traditional semantic search strategy would have you adding words like:
- Build muscle fast
- Grow muscle
- Bigger muscles
While many of those may have their uses, they only scratch the surface when it comes to crafting topical relevancy.
When building up the relevancy factor of your content for Google, you’ll want to include topics that would be of relevance to the main keyword, but not necessarily a direct synonym or variation of that keyword. For example, if your page is about widgets, using the term “red” or “metal” widgets isn’t going to cut it.
Coming back to the original example of “Building Muscle”, you will want to discuss sub-topics and include keywords such as:
- Weight machines
- Free weights
- Resistance bands
- Workout routines / plans
- Lean / cut / ripped / bulk / massive
- Concentric lifting
- Eccentric lifting
- Sets / Reps
See what we did there? All of the words and/or topics above are highly relevant to anyone looking to “build muscle”, but are not simple synonyms of the primary keyword.
Inbound and Outbound Anchor Text of Links
Perhaps you’ve seen pages of content rank number one for keywords that don’t even exist on the page itself. This common occurrence happens due to one of three scenarios (or a combination thereof):
- Topical relevancy and cohesiveness
- Anchor text of links pointing to that page from other sites
- Relevancy of the content hosting the backlink pointing to that page
Anchor text simply refers to the HTML <A href=””> tag used when linking to another webpage. If the anchor text for many links pointing to the page use the term “red widgets”, then that page might rank for the term “red widgets” even if those exact keywords are not used in the content of that page.
Syntactic Boosting & Distancing
Syntactic boosting looks at and leverages “how” words are used within a given snippet of text, and where they are used relative to other words in that same snippet. By doing so you can manipulate how Google and other search engines interpret the content of the pages.
Let’s say a user searches for “horses”.
Google, in this example, may not know the context or intent of the search with so little information. So pages related to horses, as in the animal, will likely return but so could pages about “horse” the basketball game, or “Band of Horses” a rock band.
Now, let’s say that same user then searches for “breeds of horses”. Google knows that “breeds” refers to the genetic lineage of animals. That, coupled with “horses” (“of” is an ignored stop-word), lets Google now know that the user wants information about genetic lineages of horses (the animal).
Results tailored to the intent and relevancy of the search will be scored (in part) by how closely the concepts or words on the page relate to the context of the search.
In this way, the page about “Band of Horses” (the music group) would likely have keywords semantically distanced to the word “horses” that were relevant to “music” and not “animals”. As such, this page would no longer be a contender in Google’s eyes.
CLOSING THOUGHTS: What’s a Webmaster to do?
The March core algorithm update from Google was about relevancy and matching search intent to pages that best answered the question behind the query. As such, nothing is overtly wrong with your content or pages if you’re noticing your rankings drop.
However, if you find that specific pages are no longer ranking for keywords or search terms that you feel the page SHOULD be relevant to, consider using the information above to implement tactics you can use to improve your relevancy scoring for those specific search phrases.
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