Perfect your ‘virtual’ mind reading skills to work out the Google algorithm

The challenge of optimising for Google search is increasingly coming down to understanding how it is using artificial intelligence to emulate how the human brain works.

Addressing travel industry professionals at a roundtable hosted by Travolution, Kevin Mullaney, Flagship Consulting account director – digital, said it was vital brands cut through at the moments customers need them.

He said this is increasingly not about brands ‘imposing their will’ on customers, but being more consumer-centric, understanding them and the digital channels they use to assist them along their path to purchase.

“Take a step back. Take time to get to know your customers and understand your competitors. By doing that you know who they [customers] consider to be influencers, know who they follow, what they are sharing and what channels they are on. The more you know the more you are going to influence their decisions,” he said. “Carve out your niche and write good content that’s relevant.”

Although the days of technical SEO fixes are long gone, Mullaney said it remains vitally important that brands understand how Google is changing and developing its algorithms to ensure it does not fall foul of the leading search engine.

The most important recent development is Google’s deployment of Rankbrain, its artificial intelligence technology that is attempting to bring natural language understanding of queries and the results that are the most relevant.

“It’s doing this in the same way we use memories ourselves by creating neural pathways,” said Mullaney. “They are trying to create something similar within their algorithm. They are trying to create an artificial brain.”

Behind the scenes Google, which bought online database Freebase in 2010, is using the free community curated online information sources like Wikipedia to structure its understanding of topics like places, subject matter associated with those destinations and the links between.

This means content that references the key topics Google has identified associated with that destination is most likely to me highly valued as a result for a relevant search query.

“To be really relevant it’s about making sure you are referencing specific things relevant to each topic,” said Mullaney. “Giving your content relevancy and associations with other things that you are writing about is very important. It’s important to link your content together – it makes it stronger.”

Mullaney suggested using WikiMindMap which graphically shows the key topics related to a specific destination. A search on Venice suggests things like architecture, the River Po, World Heritage Site and Lagoon. However, failure to mention other obvious associations like Gondolas, romance and St Marks Square suggests a little human intervention still won’t go amiss.

Rankbrain has been running behind the Google algorithm for nine months and the search giant is increasingly confident it is doing a good job they are leaving it play a part in all search results, said Mullaney.

Around 15% of Google searches are unique – they have never been searched for before – so Rankbrain is trying to weed out bad content from good for very niche queries.

This suggests it’s still possible to game Google in a ‘black hat’ SEO manner and that content that is genuinely different but useful will be penalised, but Mullaney said the search engine is becoming too sophisticated for simple tricks to fool it and it is continually assessing fresh content.

“What Google likes is detailed content. If you write a good article Google knows it’s the most shared, most linked to. It knows what the best article on a subject,” added Mullaney. “It expects other things to replicate that if it’s good, it’s not about spam. Google also give new content a shout. It knows it’s not perfect but as long as it meets a certain barrier of decency in terms of worthiness if it gets more clicks it will start to rise to the top.”

Another significant Google change is that Panda, the algorithm update that targets duplicate content, is now running continuously instead of regular major updates. Mullaney said this means sites must focus on quality unique content, devise a strategy and make sure they are answering the common questions users have.

Google’s continuing crackdown on suspicious links with its Penguin updates is also forcing sites to focus on quality and disavow any negative links. Mullaney warned a new roll out of the Penguin algorithm is due soon.

A part of this was Google’s crackdown in March on paid-for reviews from professional journalists or bloggers in return for links, however reviews and third party endorsement remains a hugely powerful tool in the online marketeers armoury, said Mullaney.

It is therefore important for brands to encourage sharing of their experiences and content, particularly as Facebook looks to tone down commercial messaging on its platform in favour of encouraging more personal posting which has declined by a fifth – hence its automated ‘memories’ post, compilation photo slideshows and friends anniversary posts.

Mullaney said organic reach on Facebook has gone down 21% so brands need to “breakdown the organic social firewall”. “It’s getting followers, your audience, to tell your stories for you. Get people to share their experiences by creating things that are helpful, fun and engaging.”

Mobile has past a tipping point over desktop with 60% of people now searching for destinations on mobile and 52% saying they will ditch a site that takes too long to load. “Speed really now is currency in the mobile world,” Mullaney said. “If you are not fast enough Google will push you down the ranking. It gives a warning saying this site is not mobile friendly.”

Sites should exploit Accelerate Mobile Pages, a technical protocol that allows Google to start loading a pre-cached version of the page when the user is still on the search results page meaning pages load faster on mobile when clicked on.

Finally, Mullaney said brands should exploit data and the power of retargeting to create personalised marketing for customers based on their past web browsing and known preferences. “Do this in a subtle way. Start showing them discounts, introduce a motivation to close the deal. Keep users active of you know they are engaged by featuring content you know they are interested in.

“Maybe they are still dreaming, keep them dreaming, keep prepping them , bring them back and maybe move them down that journey to booking. Test everything and actually see what people respond to. Get to know people, try things and refine it. Create content that meets the inspirational and practical needs of your customers. Be mobile, be relevant, be consumer friendly.”

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