When it comes to search results, SEO, stop anthropomorphizing Google
It seems like several times per week there’s some kind of outrage over what surfaces in the Google search results. A terrorist appears in a query for “Canadian Soldiers.” Bad results come up featuring Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Holocaust denial sites can be found to easily amongst more legitimate results.
The natural inclination seems to be to blame Google for its conscious choices and deeply held biases.
That’s idiotic and it betrays a complete lack of knowledge about how Google, SEO and search results, in general, actually work. So, let’s talk about it. And to do that, we’re going to need to come from the perspective of how you create a website with content that ranks for relevant search terms – how you do Search Engine Optimization. That will illuminate this entire conversation.
Let’s hash it out.
Let’s start with how search rankings work
In order to rank in the Google search results, you need to do one thing: show Google you are an authority in your area of expertise.
All of Search Engine Optimization is based on that one, single principle.
But as easy as that sentence was to construct (and deconstruct as we will in a few moments), accomplishing that is a much different story.
And a big part of that is that people misunderstand the very nature of Google, SEO and search engines in general.
So, let’s pull back the curtain and give you insight into what Google is actually looking for and why you’re probably looking at the problem the wrong way.
Pleasing the Google gods
Let’s talk about the nature of SEO and search rankings in general and why it’s so important. The tagline to the famous American baseball movie, Field of Dreams, was ‘if you build it, they will come.’
While it’s not exactly the same, on today’s internet if you can satisfy Google, the traffic will come. Google is the gatekeeper. Let’s go back to the sentence we said we were going to deconstruct in the last section.
“You need to show Google that you’re an authority in your area of expertise.”
There are three concepts in this sentence that we need to dissect:
- “show Google”
- “area of expertise”
Let’s start with what it means to “show Google.”
[For the sake of our discussion we are talking about the search engine portion of that hydra.]
As I mentioned, Google is the gatekeeper—an economic kingmaker. Its search results can literally make or break a business. For all intents and purposes, when people say “SEO” or “Search Engine Optimization,” the search engine they are optimizing for is Google. Try talking to an SEO professional about Bing SEO—you’ll get laughed out of the room.
On some level, these are holistic SEO strategies that should work with any search engine, but Google is the target.
Now, Google couldn’t possibly employ enough people to manually rank ALL of the websites. And that was never the plan. Instead, it crawls the internet and indexes pages, then applies its algorithm to help produce rankings.
This is the very first iteration of the algorithm Google uses to create its search rankings.
Ever since e-Commerce took off and Google became the de facto search king, people have been trying to make sense of that algorithm.
Obviously, the algorithm has evolved substantially since then, too. And Google is deliberately opaque about it, refusing to publish the algorithm or even give much of a hint as to when or what tweaks are being made.
That’s why, by trade, many SEO professionals are strange human beings: much of their job consists of trying to divine the whims of the Google gods from the movements of birds and the seasonal weather patterns.
Seriously though, an entire industry has sprung up around those whims. It’s a huge industry. Very strange professional conventions.
Google has no idea what you’re talking about
One thing any SEO professional can tell you though, is that Google’s algorithm doesn’t actually understand any of the content you’re publishing, it can’t even see the images, it is purely looking for a set of indicators or signals that – coupled with user behavior – tell it that your page is authoritative.
Here’s a great way to think about it, and I’ll borrow from a paper called “Minds, Brains and Programs” written in 1980 by the contemporary philosopher and UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus, John Searle. Specifically, I’m borrowing from what is called the Chinese Room argument. This will help inform the rest of our discussion about Google’s algorithms and what it means to “show Google.”
The premise of the argument is that you (or me or anyone, really) are sitting in a room, picture yourself at a desk with a large book on it and a pair of equally sized slots on either side. Through one slot comes a card with a series of Chinese inputs (characters). You use the book on the desk to find those characters, and then copy the proper Chinese response on to the other side of the card and push it through the other slot as an output.
Now for the sake of this argument, that reference book on your desk has answers to every possible permutation, so all you must do is use the characters to find the correct information, copy it and output it.
Functionally, you are speaking Chinese. You’re giving the correct responses to every piece of input. But you don’t know Chinese, do you? Your responses may be accurate, but you haven’t actually learned Chinese.
Now let’s view “show Google” through that lens. Google is the one at the desk, or more accurately Google’s algorithm. Whenever someone enters a query into the Google search bar (input), Google checks its book. In Google’s case, the book contains every website it’s indexed. It’s going to look at the input, and then try to find the appropriate response in its book, what it will return is a list of the best possible answers (output).
That’s Google’s ultimate goal with its search engine: to return the best possible result.
Google doesn’t really know what it’s looking at, just like you don’t know what the Chinese characters on the card mean, it’s just using those signals to help it find the (most) correct answer in its book.
That’s basically SEO in a nutshell. Google search is an algorithm with some machine learning layered over it—it’s not sentient. It doesn’t reason or understand. These aren’t conscious decisions that can be attributed to Google – so stop anthropomorphizing. All Google is really looking for is the right signals.
Sending the right signals
So, now let’s talk about those signals, and to do that we’ll double back to the other two concepts we mentioned earlier: “authority” and your “area of expertise.”
One of the most important things Google is looking for in its rankings is your authority.
What is Authority? While many words and terms in tech and on the internet have much different definitions than when used colloquially, authority is not one of them. Here’s the appropriate definition for authority:
3. the power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something.
That suits this discussion perfectly. I always found Merriam to be quite eloquent with his definitions, though I hear Webster was an insufferable prick.
There are tools and services that can help you try to quantify your authority on a given topic or keyword, but the actual Google scoring system is one of life’s greatest mysteries.
But let’s not jump the gun. In order to start showing Google you’re an authority, you’re actually going to need to figure out the third concept, first.
What is your area of expertise?
Maybe you’re a plumber. Maybe you sell industrial parts. Maybe you make bug spray. Whatever it is you do, chances are you’ve accumulated a certain level of expertise on that subject. That’s what Google is interested in. What’s your expertise and how authoritative are you about it?
Focus on that.
Figure out what your lane is and stay in it. Then start talking about it. Start writing about it. Start networking with other experts who know about it. Create relevant, quality content that caters to it. All of those strategies on all of those how-to SEO guides and lists – ‘content is king,’ or ‘do your keyword research,’ or ‘longer content performs better’ – don’t amount to a whole lot unless you’re focusing your energy in the right direction.
Now, let’s get back to sending the right signals. I mentioned Google doesn’t understand the content itself, but it does know what to look for. It knows what signals authority.
Granted, no one single signal can show Google that you’re authoritative on a given topic, rather it’s a collection of signals – everything from page speed to word count to keyword density to the clickthrough rate – that all come together to signal authority.
When you study the pages that rank the best across different industries and different keywords, they all check certain boxes, show certain signals, give certain inputs – however you want to phrase it. This will serve as a good starting point. While these things alone won’t guarantee success, they can be considered best practices because the pages that rank best – at a minimum – accomplish them all.
And that’s what websites are aiming for. But you have to know where to aim first. What is your area of expertise and what would I need to show Google to convince its algorithm my website is an authority on it?
Because at the end of the day SEO is less about writing, or how many pictures you used or whether alt tags are still important and more about knowing what signals you need to send to Google to show it you’re an authority.
When you view everything else through that prism, SEO finally starts to make sense.
Now let’s tie it back to search results and Google and try to debunk some of these biases that are ascribed to the company.
You can fool Google
Almost every single high-profile example of Google returning an offensive result for a given search query can be deconstructed and explained when you understand the signals and how they gamed the system. For instance, the noted terrorist that came up when searching for Canadian soldiers had been incarcerated by Canada for a period of time and there was proximity in those keywords.
Other times, the opinion sections of authoritative media outlets can cause wonky effects in the result.
Regardless of the permutations, there isn’t someone at Google sitting around tweaking these rankings to make a political point.
And even if they were, the US has ruled those results protected speech, so there’s not much we could do anyway.
There’s an uplifiting thought.
As always, leave any comments or questions below…