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.”