PMG Digital Made for Humans

Modern SEO 101 : Don't Make Google Think

4 MINUTE READ | August 28, 2015

Modern SEO 101 : Don't Make Google Think

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John Greer

John Greer has written this article. More details coming soon.

Every once in a while, a news story will come out about how Google’s search capabilities have expanded to include something new (rendering JavaScript, for example). These announcements usually cause some percent of marketers to think, “Ah, now I can make my website without worrying about Google.”

However, the UX adage of “don’t make them think” applies to search engine design as well as actual people. The more you make search engine guess, the more likely you are to drag down your organic search traffic.

While Google’s statements are often a bit ahead of where the day to day realities of ranking sites comes into play, they’ve made tremendous progress over the years. For example:

  • Language and queries:

    • Semantic language comprehension levels to recognize synonyms and related concepts

    • Identifying misspellings and related searches

    • Knowing “answers” and facts around a concept

    • Understanding user intent from history and user patterns

  • Internet technologies:

    • Mobile app indexing and inclusion in search results

    • Reading and ranking PDFs

    • Understanding and rendering JavaScript as a browser would

    • Understanding CSS and layouts to uncover which text is prominent and which is hidden (the oldest of old school spam tricks)

    • Indexing and reading Flash content

    • Capturing speech in videos (kinda – if you’ve ever checked YouTube’s automatic captions, you know why)

    • Image recognition to understand what objects are in a photo (again – kinda)

    • Complicated URLs with many parameters

However, you shouldn’t rely on Google to use their latest and greatest capabilities to fully grasp your site.

The only technology that is truly straightforward for any search engine is plain ol’ HTML and CSS. And the only language that is truly straightforward is the kind of language a third-grader could understand.

Despite the language advances mentioned earlier, Google doesn’t yet possess the same grasp that a person does. So if you never use the word “hat” to describe a hat you are selling, Google probably doesn’t know it’s a hat. And Apple’s language understanding is even further behind for ranking in App Store search.

Additionally, if you don’t use the word “hat” to talk about a hat (“we don’t sell hats, we sell head jackets”), even a person has difficulty understanding. That’s one reason researching keywords and limiting jargon is often an exercise in improving user experience as well as SEO.

“Speak properly, and in as few words as you can, but always plainly; for the end of speech is not ostentation, but to be understood.” – William Penn

You also need consistent language. If half your page is about how the moon landing was faked, and half your page is about caring for juvenile ferrets, search engines don’t know what’s going on.

Despite the advances in reading various internet technologies, relying completely on only cutting edge technologies can be a risky strategy for 2 main reasons:

  1. Computing power

    • Many of Google’s more advanced algorithm elements include processes that take weeks to run, and only run once in a while (Penguin, for example). Many checks into a specific site that could be made would take far too long to be made for every page on the web.

    • For example, if all your text is in images and you hope Google will understand it, you’ll be missing a lot of traffic.

  2. Accuracy

    • Google has 100% clarity around simple technologies like HTML, but each additional layer (like rendering JavaScript), has some degree of inaccuracy. The more you rely on AJAX, PDFs, JQuery, videos, etc., the more guesswork involved.

In the real-world fulfilling all of a brand’s digital needs is a balancing act. No website can satisfy user needs and branding without use of modern technology and copy that isn’t perfectly straightforward.

The trick is to account for search engines. If you want to call it a “head jacket,” OK, call it a head jacket. Just make sure to call it a “hat” somewhere as well.

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For technology, you need to have a fallback. For example, if you have videos on your site, that’s awesome. Even better, make sure you have video transcripts to go with them.

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