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Google's advice: Instead of chasing algorithm updates, focus on relevance

Google's advice: Instead of chasing algorithm updates, focus on relevance Blog Feature

March 18th, 2020 min read

The secret to ranking highly on Google and other search engines has always been quality content.

But in a recent Google Webmaster Hangout, Trends Analyst John Mueller's recommendations added some complexity. He stressed a focused on relevance as well. Well-written, engaging, and attractively displayed web content is important, but it's more important for the information to correspond with user intent. 

Instead of reacting to changes in Google's algorithms like the recent BERT updates, Mueller advises that business owners and webmasters should use frequent A/B testing and user studies to determine the future success of their content marketing campaigns.

What's the difference between quality content and relevant content?

For years, SEO organizations have advised online marketers to focus on high-quality content that's easy to read, grammatically correct, and give the answers it promises in the title and headers.

Quality, as the Search Engine Journal posits in its analysis of the Google Webmaster Hangout, has also become associated with comprehensiveness, which isn't always what readers want.

However, a great deal of this quality-first focus was due to the previous generation of content creation. Then, articles relied on exact keyword matches, were vulnerable to blackhat SEO tactics like invisible background font, and were so generally low-quality that a change in quality prompted real results. 

But high-quality writing isn't always relevant.

Searchers are looking for immediate, trustworthy answers to their questions: A combination of relevance — the likelihood that a page has the information searchers need (which Facebook ads, in particular, track) — and authority — the likelihood that the answer is right. 

Why does this matter?

At a certain point, Google doesn't measure the content. It measures how people respond to it.

Factors like the bounce rate, the duration of a searcher's stay on a specific page, and their subsequent engagement with the site through clicking on other links are all controlled by the users, not the content itself.

Algorithms push content towards the top of search results if that content gets positive responses from users with similar queries. 

4 SEO factors that are more nuanced in the age of search intent

This doesn't mean content marketers should lower the bar on quality. Rather, the new BERT changes mean that creators should be focusing on a more nuanced use of language, so the content is engaging and best matches audience needs.

However, these four norms established by quality-first content aren't what works best in a relevance-first context. 

1. Length

'The longer, the better' isn't a universal truth when it comes to well-performing content. If your site's content treats every article like a 'pillar' or a comprehensive overview of a subject — no matter how narrow — it's not going to appeal to readers who need a specific answer.

Short articles can outperform long articles. Even very short forum answers can outrank long-form content, as long as users give indications that they responded positively to it.

2. Authority

In the Search Engine Journal's analysis, they described authority as follows: "Authority is about accuracy and factual truth. A site that acquires links and other signals of affirmation can be said to be authoritative."

Just like the content itself, authority is assessed by how visitors respond.

Backlinks and other positive signs of confidence in a site's information establish authority. While this is not new information, it gains new importance with Mueller's emphasis on relevance.

Aside from overall domain authority, sites and pages may have a relative sense of authority based on the exact nature of a query rather than the domain authority itself.

3. Attractiveness

Much like content quality, attractiveness may only matter in terms of how visitors respond.

Instead of focusing on visual elements (which might actually slow loading times), marketers should focus on visual elements that add functional appeal, like structured data to create visually rich results

4. Quality

Rather than being the primary goal, quality is demoted to a factor. Grammatically correct writing, organized headers, and pop-out elements can provide cues about the value of an article.

Natural writing styles also line up better with Google's BERT changes. But this just makes content more likely to resonate with readers and pick up indicators of relevance, rather than being a direct sign of success, 

Business owners should turn to user studies instead of Google algorithm trends for content strategies

If content can answer a query, it's good content.

According to the same Search Engine Journal analysis, "Google primarily ranks websites for usefulness, which is about relevance to the search query intent."

To fulfill this goal, business owners should take these steps to create high-relevance and, along the way, high-quality content:

  • Conduct user studies: Poll or interview groups to find what your target market wants in regards to style, tone, web design, and content. Find out the answers from them directly, rather than waiting for it to shape SEO results.
  • Conduct frequent A/B tests: Constantly testing formats and different ways of answering searchers' questions helps websites learn what works best.
  • Create specific, user-friendly answers: Content should be relevant to your target market's questions. Businesses should provide those answers in a variety of formats, whether it's short- or long-form content, videos, forum posts, or infographics.
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