The Humanization of Google is the Future of SEO as We Know It
by Travis McGinnis
We all know the internet is in a constant state of change. That’s old news. Search engines are ever-changing and always evolving with new rules and algorithms. Partly to stay ahead of the black hat SEO schemes out there, but also partly – and more importantly in my opinion – they change to serve the needs and wants of the user.
First and foremost, what Google wants is to deliver the perfect results for any search to serve users in the best possible way. It’s the ultimate form of customer service. And I totally dig it.
The thing is, what we as users want has remained relatively unchanged since the golden days of the internet back in the '90’s.
We want our queries answered.
We want them answered quickly.
We want them answered accurately.
We want the pages with those answers to be of high value.
We want those pages to treat our information securely and responsibly.
We want those pages to load fast on the device we’re using.
We want those pages to be accessible regardless of our handicap (if any).
At the end of the day, we want Google to know what we want. To read our minds and give us what we’re looking for even if we don’t know ourselves. Today’s technology has finally allowed Google to do that. I call it the Humanization of Google and it’s going to forever change the way the internet operates.
Google has taken great strides to become more human-like. Every single algorithm update has had one big focus at its core: to solve for the user. And yes, solving for the user also includes changing things up to keep spammers and keyword stuffers at bay. Why? Because users don’t want those results. They’re awkwardly worded, hard to read, and offer zero value.
Remember Lieutenant Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation? He's the android struggling to understand human behavior through logic and machine learning. But humans aren’t machines, nor are we logical. In fact, we’re rather illogical creatures, oftentimes irrational; thinking and reacting from emotion. He’s the Google of 10 years ago.
A decade ago, that’s all Google was capable of doing. It had to use logic and machine learning to try and figure out what humans are trying to search for and which of the millions of possible results should be returned as the top ten. It did the best it could with the technology at the time.
But then, Lieutenant Commander Data was given the Emotion Chip and started to feel just like his human counterparts. It wasn’t perfect, though. That chip didn’t magically transform Data into a human. It just made him more human-like. If you’ve ever seen the episode where Data gets feelings, it’s played off for laughs when he breaks down in tears or starts laughing hysterically at the sudden onset of all the feels.
That’s the Google of today. Still awkward at times, but much more human-like than ever before. Today’s technology has made it possible for Google to almost think like us, which allows it to better serve results tailored just for us.
But what does that look like?
Google has over 200 ranking factors (that we know of) to determine which sites to display first in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages). They’re a mix of on-site, off-site, domain, user interaction, and social influences. While we know what they are, for the most part, nobody knows the specifics on many of them. We have some high-level information, but that’s about it.
It’s not clear if Google can see how many shares an article receives on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Instagram. Google doesn’t own those properties. However, it does own YouTube and Google Plus (along with the tens of people still on the platform). It would be foolish to believe that content shared on either platform is not somehow used as a ranking factor. It is believed, though, that Google considers the number of likes, shares, retweets, pins, and follows along with the authority of those who share as ranking factors.
But social sharing is a two-way street. Sharing from the article itself, or visiting a shared article from your social site of choice. It’s that visit Google can for sure see. Anytime you click on a page from a social networking site, Google sees where you came from and uses that social signal as a vote in favor of the site you visited.
Social media is the single biggest reason for content to go viral online. It gets shared millions of times across all social networks. Have you ever done a Google search for a piece of viral content? It’s almost always the first result.
Remember what I mentioned earlier about users wanting search results to return valuable content? One of the best ways to gauge value is by its length, and the number of visits it gets from social sites. Time and time again, the top results in Google are hefty articles.
According to Moz and BuzzSumo, longer content gets shared more.
“85% of content published (excluding videos and quizzes) is less than 1,000 words long. However, long form content of over 1,000 words consistently receives more shares and links than shorter form content.”
Data from BuzzSumo backs this up too. Here’s their analysis of the “Search Engine Optimization” topic relating to shares by content length:
As you can clearly see, once content reaches the 3,000+ word count, sharing skyrockets.
Search & Browsing History
Unless you obsessive-compulsively clear search history, or you browse the web in private mode all the time, then your search history is up for grabs. Google has tracking codes on most websites in the world. Everything you do online is being monitored and tracked. If you’re clicking through laptop computers on the Best Buy website, and later perform a search for laptop computer prices, what do you think the chances are of Best Buy showing up first in the organic results?
Someone else doing the exact same search may see something entirely different – especially if they’re just starting their buyer’s journey into purchasing a new laptop. For those users, Google may provide a list of reviews for various laptop brands at different price points.
Location, Location, Location
Google knows where you are. Even if you keep location services on your phone turned off, and you block websites on your computer from knowing your location. Your IP address is a dead giveaway as to where you’re physically located.
Google doesn’t just know where you are now. It knows where you’ve been, too. And how often. And how frequently. It knows if you visit some places more often than others, and how long you spend there each time. That’s why my phone shows me estimated drive time to work in the morning, and home in the evening. But, not on weekends. Because I’m not at work on the weekends.
Let’s just pretend you always browse in private mode and use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to hide your IP address so your physical location can’t be seen. Every website you visit will give contextual clues about where you’re located. Maybe it’s the content on the page that talks about Florida vacations, or the best golf courses in Omaha, or the top things to see in Minneapolis. No matter how hard you try, you can’t hide your location from Google.
Time of Day & Day of Week
If you search for food at lunchtime versus search for food at dinner time, you will get different results. Depending on what time you search, Google will tell you if the business is open, closed, opening soon, or closing soon. I’ve even seen it account for travel time when using maps to navigate. “This business may be closed by the time you arrive.”
This is largely in part to Google My Business (formerly Google Places) which allows business to tell Google all about themselves. Companies can provide a phone number for easy click-to-call on mobile phones, address for easy navigating, and hours of operation so Google can let users know when the shop opens for the day.
Mobile, Desktop, or Tablet
Obviously, Google knows which device you’re searching from. What’s not so obvious is the contextual information you tell Google every time you search from that device.
A search from a phone indicates that you can easily move locations, or are actively searching for something near your location.
A search from a tablet could mean the same thing, but I don’t know many people who walk around town looking at their iPad. I use mine from the couch at home while watching Netflix. Google knows this too.
A search from a desktop computer indicates that you’re rather immobile at the moment. Likely at your home or office doing research, reading blogs, or browsing Facebook.
If you login to a Google account, then Google can track your activity regardless of the device you’re using. There are other methods that can be used to track you across devices, too.
Rankings Are Dead
I’m sure that statement just made any SEO fanatic’s blood pressure rise a little. It did for me too even typing it out. We live and die by SEO rankings. Clients want to be on the first page for this and that and the other thing. Our bosses hold rankings over our head if they don’t show up where they think they should.
I’m not saying that search engine optimization no longer matters. Not even remotely. Google is still just a machine and needs to be told what to look for. Both onsite and off-site optimization tactics are still important. In fact, I’d say they’re more important than ever before.
So don't throw away your SEO strategy. Don't stop doing keyword research. Don't stop optimizing website pages and blog posts. Don't stop building back-links. Don't stop sharing articles on social media.
Personalized Results are In
I had each of my co-workers here at the office help out with an experiment. From their phones, they all did a Google search for “food near me.” You’d think that since we’re all downtown, the results would be exactly the same. They were far from it. Take a look:
Keep in mind, that we all are literally within 100 feet of each other in the same building on the same floor, yet each of us saw drastically different results. Only two of us had the same results. Even when the same result showed up for different users, some showed reviews, others showed hours of operation. A couple even showed reviews from CBS News. Why? Because of all the items I listed above. Google knows what we like, what we search for, what sites we’ve visited, and how often we visit certain places. Thus, it tailored each of our results accordingly. Even the various markers on the map were for different local food joints.
I’m not going to disclose which screenshot belongs to which co-worker, but I can tell you right now that I wasn’t the least bit surprised at the results that came up based on what I know about my colleagues.
This is just one search for a small group of people. Imagine this happening for every Google search on the planet.
All of this is rather creepy, but wouldn’t you rather have search results personalized for you rather than be served results of websites that have the best search engine optimization strategy? I sure would.
What Does this Mean for Content Marketers?
The search engine optimization best practices all still apply, even in the era of the humanization of Google. Websites should load quickly, they should be secure, mobile friendly, and accessible. They should answer questions, be easy to use and easy to navigate. The code should follow a semantic structure to guide search engines when they crawl the page.As content creators, we need to focus on crafting valuable content above all else. With every article you write, ask yourself, “Will this be valuable enough to earn a spot on the first page of Google?” I’m not saying that our sole aim should be to rank on the first page. There are plenty of other reasons for great content to exist. Regardless of the reason, though, if the content you’re creating lacks value, then what’s the point?