What Project Owl Really Means For SEOs – And 6 Tips For Capitalizing On It

In April, Google detailed plans to pro­vide users with “access to rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion from the most reli­able sources avail­able” in its so-called Project Owl, which includes changes in rank­ing and feed­back, as well as addi­tion­al trans­paren­cy about Google prod­ucts. In...

Lisa Lacy By Lisa Lacy. Join the discussion » 0 comments

In April, Google detailed plans to pro­vide users with “access to rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion from the most reli­able sources avail­able” in its so-called Project Owl, which includes changes in rank­ing and feed­back, as well as addi­tion­al trans­paren­cy about Google prod­ucts.

In par­tic­u­lar, Google said it has improved its eval­u­a­tion meth­ods and made algo­rith­mic updates to sur­face more author­i­ta­tive con­tent and it has also imple­ment­ed new search qual­i­ty rater guide­lines to pro­vide “more detailed exam­ples of low-qual­i­ty web­pages for [human] raters to appro­pri­ate­ly flag”. It has also adjust­ed its sig­nals to “help sur­face more author­i­ta­tive pages and demote low-qual­i­ty con­tent” and imple­ment­ed direct feed­back tools for fea­tures like Auto­com­plete and Fea­tured Snip­pets that allow users to flag sen­si­tive or unhelp­ful con­tent.

We plan to use this feed­back to help improve our algo­rithms,” Google said.

On one hand, focus on author­i­ta­tive con­tent and best-serv­ing user needs is noth­ing new – par­tic­u­lar­ly for SEOs that have been play­ing by the book all along. How­ev­er, upon clos­er inspec­tion, Project Owl cre­ates both oppor­tu­ni­ties and chal­lenges for brands and mar­keters as Google itself tries to pro­tect its own rep­u­ta­tion.

Accord­ing to Scott Lit­vack, direc­tor of organ­ic search at SEO and PPC firm Wpro­mote, the move is “part PR and part SEO”.

As a way to com­bat fake news, it has to appear that Google is tak­ing action,” he said.

Jen Van Ider­styne, senior strate­gist at dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing agency Over­it, agreed, call­ing Project Owl a “pub­lic dis­play” that sup­ports exist­ing prin­ci­ples of qual­i­ty SEO, which include build­ing sig­nals of author­i­ty via links and cita­tions and using con­tent and tech­ni­cal SEO to cre­ate sig­nals of rel­e­vance and com­pre­hen­sive­ness.

But there’s a lit­tle more to it than that.

Per Van Ider­styne, Project Owl opens oppor­tu­ni­ties in Fea­tured Snip­pets, as well as in long tail and obscure queries that often return results from forums, Q&A sites and oth­er sources where answers may be less vet­ted.

But on both counts, author­i­ta­tive sites that have been craft­ing con­tent to direct­ly and clear­ly answer com­mon­ly searched ques­tions had a chance of suc­cess with these strate­gies pri­or to this change,” she said.

Here are six oth­er tips for brands and mar­keters in light of Google’s changes:

1. Focus on authority.

That’s because author­i­ty is more impor­tant now than ever.

Pre­vi­ous­ly Google had a trend of giv­ing weight to results that were pop­u­lar regard­less of the valid­i­ty of the infor­ma­tion,” said Paul O’Byrne, head of dig­i­tal strat­e­gy at dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing agency Tin­der­Point. “While this could still hap­pen, the focus is shift­ing more to authority…means cred­i­bil­i­ty of sites is now an even more impor­tant fac­tor than before in order to increase rank­ing.”

Lit­vack agreed Google will empha­size the author­i­ta­tive­ness of con­tent over exact match­es in con­tent and tags when rank­ing results, which is some­thing it has been dri­ving toward for some time.

It will be inter­est­ing to see how Google gives weight to more author­i­ta­tive infor­ma­tion that may not be as pop­u­lar,” added Anto­nio John­son, head of SEO at online mar­ket­ing agency Pow­er Dig­i­tal Mar­ket­ing.

On a relat­ed note, Jon Clark, founder of mar­ket­ing agency Fuze SEO, said the devel­op­ments could prove chal­leng­ing for small­er, less author­i­ta­tive sites.

With the change, my guess is that Google is boost­ing the abil­i­ty for author­i­ta­tive con­tent to rank bet­ter against con­tex­tu­al­ly explic­it con­tent. This means unless you’re a trust­ed site in Google’s eyes – think Wikipedia, the NY Times, etc. – your con­tent might not per­form as well,” Clark said. “Google will be giv­ing pref­er­ence to these trust­ed sites.”

2. Beware abuse via new reporting tools.

The feed­back tools may also open oppor­tu­ni­ties for abuse, said John Caioz­zo, SEO ana­lyst at SEO firm SEO Inc.

There won’t be much change with the new [Project] Owl update for most sites, how­ev­er, I expect it will have some impact on the qual­i­ty of Fea­tured Snip­pets,” he said. “Although Google has good inten­tions with this update, I see the oppor­tu­ni­ty for ram­pant abuse with the feed­back forms that could be used to take down com­peti­tor Fea­tured Snip­pets by label­ing them as offen­sive.”

What’s more, Michael Berti­ni, search strat­e­gy senior man­ag­er at dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing firm iQuan­ti, said it may be awhile before we notice a mean­ing­ful change in part because Google is rely­ing on users for feed­back.

Now think to yourself…when was the last time you went in and changed any of your Google search set­tings? Heck, I know SEOs who did­n’t even know they could do that,” he said. “Google said…‘We plan to use this feed­back to help improve our algo­rithms.’ That is what they told us years ago about link dis­avow and they still don’t have that right. My take is that it will be sev­er­al years before Google is able to fil­ter out fake news.”

Berti­ni also not­ed if Google man­ages to accom­plish this, it may come off as biased to spe­cif­ic sources.

I…personally feel TMZ.com spreads lots of fake news, yet they rank for 2,133,648 key­words on Google and I don’t think Google is going to start tak­ing their key­words away any­time soon,” Berti­ni added.

3. Appeal to human raters.

If Google is rely­ing on human feed­back to deter­mine whether con­tent is offen­sive with its team of 10,000 or so Search Qual­i­ty Raters – as well as every­day users via feed­back forms, Michael Quoc, CEO of e‑commerce incu­ba­tor Zipf­Works, said SEOs need to pre­pare for a world in which human edi­to­r­i­al review will play a larg­er role in rank­ings.

So beyond more tech­ni­cal fac­tors dri­ving SEO, such as link author­i­ty and on-page met­rics, your web­site must fea­ture con­tent that will pass muster with a human rater,” Quoc added.

And John­son not­ed these qual­i­ty raters will be vital in giv­ing a true human per­spec­tive on obscure search­es in par­tic­u­lar.

Over­all the three most impor­tant rank­ing fac­tors – con­tent, links [and] RankBrain – have not changed, but the increased empha­sis on writ­ing style – does the con­tent seem pro­fes­sion­al­ly writ­ten – and [the] look and feel of the site when rank­ing con­tent is some­thing that SEOs and brands should con­sid­er,” Lit­vack said. “Mak­ing sure that any con­tent that is being put on your web­site reads pro­fes­sion­al­ly and is infor­ma­tive as well as the aes­thet­ics of the web­site is key to SEO suc­cess.”

4. Think like a journalist.

David James, founder of dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing agency Busi­ness Growth Dig­i­tal Mar­ket­ing, said Google is improv­ing the qual­i­ty sig­nals asso­ci­at­ed with web con­tent, but he also not­ed SEOs have been work­ing towards this for a while.

So it is an evo­lu­tion from just cre­at­ing con­tent that will get shared to share­able con­tent that can also ver­i­fy its sources,” James said. “Men­tion­ing quotes, sourc­ing exter­nal links or being linked to from author­i­ta­tive sources might be a few of the sig­nals that Google will start pay­ing atten­tion to.

5. Mine Google’s own content to better inform keywords.

What’s more, Ria Fisci­na, SEO depart­ment man­ag­er at SEO firm Active Web Group, said by explain­ing the role qual­i­ty raters play on its How Search Works site, Google is also pro­vid­ing insight into its rank­ing sys­tem.

While it is way too soon to be cer­tain, this peek into the rank­ing whys and hows could assist savvy SEMs to make more author­i­ta­tive key­word selec­tions and pro­vide more finite con­tent to improve rank­ings and to achieve greater leads, con­ver­sions and rev­enue,” she said. “Time will tell.”

6. Suggest your own content.

SEO con­sul­tant Ryan Ander­son said brands and mar­keters should also use the feed­back option to their advan­tage.

These search results these days often return a top answer direct­ly in the Google results,” he said. “Being able to sub­mit feed­back will give an avenue to sub­mit a bet­ter arti­cle. Being able to sub­mit your own con­tent as a bet­ter option will be a huge win for SEOs and the busi­ness­es they help.”

Lisa Lacy

Written by Lisa Lacy

Lisa is a senior features writer for Inked. She also previously covered digital marketing for Incisive Media. Her background includes editorial positions at Dow Jones, the Financial Times, the Huffington Post, AOL, Amazon, Hearst, Martha Stewart Living and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

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