How to Prepare as AI Battles AI for Control of the SERP

Posted on Thursday, May 23, 2019

While still in its relative infancy, artificial intelligence (AI) is successfully aiding search engine giants with scanning, organizing, and prioritizing billions of pages on the web and helping those giants serve up content in milliseconds to all of us every second of every day. At the same time, AI is enabling digital media companies to automatically generate enormous amounts of content aimed at dominating the top slots on search engine result pages (SERPs). It's even starting to auto-generate advertising copy. (Gasp.) In a counter response, Google and other search engines have recently launched next-generation AI-powered algorithms to recognize and lower the quality scores of this machine-generated content by recognizing the actual context of a page instead of just the characters on it.

While this battle is currently human inspired at each turn, it makes me wonder if AI, and it's cousin machine learning, will soon truly learn the search engine optimization (SEO) game they're playing and start competing against each either in real-time. Left unfettered, how might the battle end? Will there be an apocalyptic explosion of the internet? And will SEOs like us end up relegated to simply watching the game and running reports?

All this may sound like the trailer for a new sci-fi movie, but the SEO-related AI vs. AI battle is on. Stay calm though, you won't have to hire an army of AI experts of your own to work your way onto page one SERPs tomorrow. You simply need to double-down on the SEO fundamentals leading experts like Search Engine Land continue to preach.

Yesterday's SEO and the origin of “black hat” vs. “white hat” SEO

Remember when a sound SEO strategy focused on getting numerous backlinks to your site to demonstrate perceived global “popularity” and ensuring your pages were properly full of the keywords you wanted to be ranked high for? If you put keywords in the URL (or page address) of your pages and wrote a decent meta description, search engine robots (aka “search bots”) would find your pages and reward them with high ranks. Publish and link a few related blogs and you'd inch your way even further towards the top of page one. You might have even hired an SEO team to overtly create a bunch of backlinks and stuff your pages with keywords for you. But search engine giants got smart. Over the last decade, Google—with its “Panda”, “Penguin”, and “Hummingbird” algorithms—has been hyper-focused on improving the user experience (UX). When a web user performs a search, Google avoids website pages that have been intentionally designed to get high rankings with little dedication to the payoff they'll provide to the user who clicks on such a link listed on a SERP. The term “black hat” (sometimes spelled blackhat) was coined to categorize this aggressive strategy. But as leading SEO expert, Neil Patel, points out, we actually can learn from these black hat techniques. He says,

“For years, SEO experts have looked down on so-called black hat strategies. Even today, marketers see black hat SEO as the dark side of search engine marketing. Mostly, that stereotype is correct. Black hat strategies involve everything from keyword stuffing and PBNs [private blog networks] to content automation and tiered linking. Most of those strategies get a bad rap for a good reason. But there is one thing you should keep in mind. A black hat SEO is simply a good strategy gone wrong.”

 

SEO in the Age of AI

AI experts continue to become exponentially savvier at auto-generating massive amounts of search-related content in human-like forms, and in many cases they've been effective. But in response, Google has added “RankBrain”, a machine-learning system, to their Hummingbird search algorithm. It has given their search bots an evolving understanding of the actual meaning of the query each person is making. Now, instead of using simple keyword matching, the algorithm can infer what a person is thinking when they search. The same algorithm knows how to match the content on a company's web pages based on all the words on these pages with this inference in mind. In addition, the algorithm can measure how a person truly communicates intellectually and will most effectively deliver a positive payoff to a person's search. In so doing, Google has not only created the ideal user experience by serving up pages that most closely relate to a user's real desire, they've also made it easier for the average B-to-B marketer without an army of AI experts, to produce high quality content that can openly compete for page one rankings using “white hat” techniques that are of higher moral standards and are solution oriented.

Setting Your Website up for SEO Success Today

There are many pundits of SEO strategy, all with varying opinions and formulas for success. At Strand, we study the leaders specializing in B-to-B SEO and apply our 25 years of experience marketing to engineers to uncover and apply the most fundamentally sound foundation for our client's SEO success.

Here are 4 core components we feel any B-to-B high-tech or industrial marketer should establish first before moving on to next-level SEO strategies.

1)

Produce quality content rooted in search engine research.
Figure out the long tail searches your prospects are searching for and deliver a steady diet of tutorial information on those subjects. In your keyword research add in the things that connect to yours in whatever block diagram your products live in. Your customers are likely looking to optimize them together and are looking to undestand "tradeoffs..." and "how to optimize"... . Also include “who”, “what”, “why”, “how”, and “when” in your long tail research (i.e., “How to design a microwave signal chain with positive bias voltage”) and produce Tech Briefs (like this one we produced for our client Custom MMIC) that deliver payoffs to these questions.

Custom MMIC Tech Brief

Think of every Tech Brief as a short course in the subject matter and you'll woo your prospects and search engines alike. Then carve up these longer forms of content and publish two to three blogs that hit key points, and place a link to download the whole Tech Brief at the end of each blog.

Helpful Hint #1:
Long tail search is your friend. If you sell “microwave filters” but your customers are smart enough to search for “low profile microwave filters for radar”, focus on the latter in both your SEO and Google AdWords or other search engine marketing (SEM) strategies. It's logically what they'll be searching for and will isolate you from the competition. When investing in a Google AdWords pay-per-click (PPC) campaign, the same rule applies. You'll see fewer impressions, but they'll be specific to your key prospect, and they'll also cost you less per click due to the lower search volume.

2)

Create a URL structure that pays off to search bots and users alike.
There are only two things that affect SEO results:

  • Your ability to get a page or URL to rank high on a page one SERP.
  • Your ability to get prospects to click on your links instead of someone else's links.

Search bots care less lately about the words in a URL. But it's still better to use a few keywords in a URL than it is for the URL to make little sense to the search algorithm. But the advantage to maintaining keyword-inclusive URLs comes when a user is scanning a SERP for the best possible result. That's when the user passes over this page:

wwwacme.com/products/html.?!2y_m_9

for this page:

www.acme.com/products/jet-engine-fan-blades

every time.

3)

Integrate your PR, social, content, and SEO strategies

As an agency with a long history of architecting and executing fully integrated marketing campaigns, we've always operated under the principle that each tactic is interconnected systematically with another rather than operating as single-function components. Over the years we've seen the rise of specialty agencies focused on PR, social media, inbound, SEO, web design, content, etc., but we're now witnessing the trend of those silo-oriented agencies tacking on additional services. It's a natural progression. The same trend is happening inside companies with large internal marketing teams. And the reason is simple: If you're measuring your SEO success, PR and social media, and content are all your best friends.

Let's start with the pure value of your content being indexed on both your site and dozens of other reputable places on the web via PR. Your chances of being indexed on page one of a Google SERP are logically greater when others publish it, too. Second, let's talk backlinks again. They're still a demonstration of popularity, despite the bad taste the black hat world has put on them. But what's critical is to put on your “white hat”. This means ensuring your backlinks come from reputable websites with a long history of complying with Google's E-A-T (expertise, authority, and trustworthiness) factors. Since most every vertical high-tech and industrial market has a handful of dedicated print publications, each with its own website, digital version of their magazine, blogs, forums, storefronts, video libraries, and directories, building PR and social media related relationships with the handful of editors and bloggers at each of these publications has to be a core part of your SEO strategy, too. Build relationships with the ones that matter most, including getting them to follow you and vice versa on social media, and watch your quality backlinks grow incrementally over time with each new press release and Twitter and LinkedIn post.

Helpful Hint #2:
Include more than one link within each release you distribute to the press (your main URL and a product page, or press release page, for instance) to take full advantage of the opportunity to build backlinks. And when you post your releases to your own site, take the time to change over to the first-person writing style and edit your post to remove impersonal PR style-guide-derived jargon. Include additional helpful links within your own posts that will both help readers get around your website and gain you even more backlink points with search bots.

Helpful Hint #3:
Learn about and use content clusters (also called keyword and topic clusters). Here's an example by a manufacturer of portable and programmable wireless test instruments, our client, Vaunix:

Vaunix Technologies Web Updates screenshot

On this one “pillar” page they've aggregated all their news, Tech Briefs, blogs, events, and video posts and built an SEO-optimized page like no other that connects through and around all their keyword-rich posts and landing pages and internal product pages. The value to search engines in seeing one deep page with subcategories, as opposed to a few disjointed pages of such content, is extremely high. (This is especially advantageous to companies with limited product lines where natural keywords are organically posted with much repetition within this single page.)

4)

Responsiveness and Load Speed
One blow Google will deliver to your website's organic results (and paid search, or PPC, for that matter) occurs when your site neither loads fast nor responds properly to a visitor using a tablet or smart phone. Plain and simple: you may have some nice content for their users, but if your site has oversized images and bandwidth hogging scripts, like carousels and auto-loading multi-media experiences, and it's not responsive, Google will knock you down a notch on the SERP in favor of others who comply with these SEO standards of compliance. In short, rethink your site so it loads like an Energizer Bunny ready for rapid surfing on any device.

Conclusion
 

If you Google the question: “What is the definition of AI?” you'll find there is no one definition. (For what it's worth, I found Amazon's definition of AI the easiest to understand and appreciate. They define it as: “The field of computer science dedicated to solving cognitive problems commonly associated with human intelligence, such as learning, problem solving, and pattern recognition.”) Add “SEO” into the long tail and you'll probably be even be more confused. But here's the thing, you can just let the AI gurus fight it out in the SEO game. If you stick to creating quality, educational content and a handful of the best practices like those we've outlined above, you'll build a website destined for long term SEO success that won't be denied in your own quest for numerous page one SERPs.

References:

“The rise of robot reporters.” Jaclyn Peiser, New York Times, Feb. 2, 2019.
“How People Search: Understanding User Intent.” Dan Taylor, Search Engine Journal, January 14, 2018
“How does RankBrain work and what does it mean for search marketers?” Yulia Khansvyarova, Search Engine Watch, September 13, 2016.

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