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Big Changes at Google

There are several big changes going on (and coming soon) at Google; some of which you need to be aware of and others you need to take action on. There's a lot of chatter right now around them in digital marketing and SEO circles, which is an indication that these changes are substantial and important.

  1. One is the introduction of the new Google Analytics version 4, commonly referred to as GA4, which is significantly better than its predecessor.
  2. Another is the full deployment of Google BERT, which is now applied to 100% of all English searches (and other languages are following suit).
  3. And the third is an upcoming Google Core Update, which may be significant. But some changes have already rolled out.

Google Analytics 4

If you have Google Analytics right now on your properties, you will want to upgrade to the newly released version. Unlike its predecessors, you can't simply let it upgrade passively or update in a single click. You need to add a new piece of code to your website.

If you use Google Tag Manager, which I highly recommend (and it's a lot less painless than simply adding GA to your site), adding the new GA4 is as simple as adding a new tag to GTM.

The importance of this new update is pretty impressive. Now that we are moving towards a privacy-centric, cookieless world, this new GA will track user based on sessions rather than cookies.

Instead of injecting a piece of data into your browser, GA can track you, without identifying you, if you're logged in somewhere.

Usually when someone is logged into your website, such as they registered to access a part of the site, bought a product, or even if they simply visited another one your assets hosted on Google such as a YouTube video, the analytics can track you but without identifying you.

The importance is that Google can provide deeper, more meaningful yet anonymous insights to the business owner, who can make more intelligent marketing decisions. This is particularly helpful if you use Google Ads for your advertising (which, obviously, is what Google wants you to spend more on).

But the previous version of GA would track your movement only. Pages you visited, journeys you've taken through the site, and tangible actions such as using a site search, buying a product, or joining a newsletter.

But with the new GA4, your analytics can share dwell times (in real time), scroll depths, user behaviours (like clicking, scrolling, moving around the site, watching embedded videos, etc), user experience feedback, etc.

An important sidenote:

This upgrade is significant but it's based on the world's growing concerns over privacy, which may the reason why Microsoft, in conjunction with its search engine Bing, have launched a new analytics tool similar to Google GA4.

Called Clarity Analytics, this new tool will track user behavior, on-page events, user paths, conversions, etc, all without user-based tracking, too (i.e., cookies). This is going to be interesting as the added competition will likely push the analytics game to higher levels.

Google BERT Now 100%

Up until recently, BERT was in “beta” and applied to only 5% of all searches. But now, Google has confirmed that BERT has been deployed on all of them.

Google BERT is a machine-learned neural network-based technique for natural language processing (NLP). Basically, it pretrains Google to understand the context of someone's search query.

For us professionals and SEOs, the thing to keep in mind is that it's about being more topical and conversational than it is about being focused on keywords.

In essence, Google wants to better understand your search intent. It does so by looking at the relationships between words, and the language used in the search. And it's getting better at getting to know its users' language.

For example, if someone searches for “how to get out of a traffic ticket,” Google will previously focus on keywords such as “get out” and “traffic” or “traffic ticket.” So results could include nature hikes, camping, and travel (i.e., getting out). Or traffic information, traffic ticket codes, or addresses of courthouses.

But with BERT, as more and more people search the web, Google is learning to understand the context and the usage of those keywords. So that query might now result in a list of tutorials on how to fight a ticket, addresses of nearby legal firms, or steps to get a ticket off one's driving record.

What does that mean to you?

Remember, keywords are becoming less important. It's more about topics, context, and conversations. Because having a piece of content stuffed with keywords may not be appropriate for that searcher's query.

That's why it's always better to:

  • a) create content that answers questions;
  • b) be conversational in your content;
  • c) focus on long-tail keywords rather than short, generic keywords;
  • d) and use stop words where they make sense.

A note about the latter.

In the old days (like, last year), we used to remove “stop words” from our content, such as URLs, filenames, images, tags (such as alt tags), and so forth. Stop words are articles, prepositions, conjunctions, etc (i.e., “in,” “the,” “at,” “from,” “about,” “and,” etc).

Google used to ignore these. But now, with BERT, all that is changing. Because stop words give context and meaning to the keywords. It also helps to reinforce the need to write conversational, natural-sounding content, and not stuffing keywords or forcing awkward text into your content.

Google Core Update

The rumor mill is abuzz about an impending Google Core Update. When this happens, massive ranking shakeups are likely.

Often, Google does this to address an issue (or multiple issues), and the fluctuations can be significant — such as the medic update of 2018, which led to the introduction of E.A.T. (i.e., expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness).

If your content is useful, relevant, and properly optimized, chances are you won't be affected. But here's one thing that is happening right now, which I believe will play a big role in the next update.

You might have noticed that, when conducting a search on Google and clicking a search result, rather than simply loading the web page, it autoscrolls to the place in the content that answers that question and highlights it in yellow.

There's a couple of important reasons for this.

Google has a mission. It's to give users the best possible search experience. This means not only giving people the most relevant search result, but also avoiding making them work for it, searching the result to find the answer to their query.

This is the basis of their introduction of featured snippets at the top of search engines, which has created a lot of debate around clickless searches. Many webmasters, website owners, and SEO experts are crying foul over Google's “attempt to highjack” their content.

In other words, people conduct a search. But rather than clicking a link to visit the resulting web page, Google displays the answer at the top and the user is satisfied — without the need to visit the site.

I'm not sure if this was one of the issues being raised with the latest antitrust lawsuit brought against them by the US government. But Google's mission is to help make searches more efficient and effective.

For example, how often did you visit a search result, like a recipe, and have to scroll, scan, and bypass a litany of ads and tangential content, to finally find the recipe you're looking for?

What about sites with obtrusive popups, paywalls, and password-protected content? Or sites with great content but terrible user experiences?

So to alleviate all this, I believe Google's new “passages Indexing” (that is, they're indexing the passage of the content that answers a specific query rather than the page as a whole) eliminates a lot of this needless digging.

We'll have to wait to see if this is part of it and, if so, how much it will affect us. For now, it is a reality. And you need to optimize your content to put your content in the best possible position, not only for compliance sake but also to take advantage of this trend and use it to grow your business.

Here are some ideas.

Answer Questions

I've mentioned this before and even earlier in this article. The best SEO tactic is to listen to the kinds of questions your market is asking, and to answer them.

The more your content focuses on addressing questions, concerns, and challenges that your audience has, the likelier it will show up in searches and drive people to the section in your content that answers their questions.

Add Headers Throughout

This is becoming more and more important. Writing a piece of content and interspersing headers (i.e, subheads like H2, H3, H4, etc) throughout your content is a great tactic for stopping scanners from scanning and driving the eyes into the content.

But now, with passages indexing, it is important to give Google context and let headers introduce a section that will perfectly answer the user's query. Also, through proximity, it will allow Google (and Google's BERT) to understand the meaning of the content that follows.

(If you want to go all Google-geek, here's a link to the research, infrastructure, and impact of BERT and passage indexing.)

Links to Other Content

Internal linking is going to become valuable if you wish to engage and retain users more. By providing additional context, creating content relationships, and offering suggestions for further reading, links add to the user experience and make your content more palatable.

Also, not only do they reduce bounce rates but also provide Google with more input they can use to rank your content with.

For example, let's say you're a landscaper and your users are looking for front yard landscaping ideas. Perhaps they are do-it-yourselfers and need some inspiration, and your content is happy to oblige.

But once they're there, perhaps you can offer links to content that talks about your interlocking stone services, your inground pool design services, or your retaining wall construction services.

Stick With One Key Question

Your content should help answer one key question. It doesn't mean you shouldn't answer many in the same piece, but trying to keep your content focused will prevent passages deeper in the piece, further down the page, to be indexed, forcing users to skip over all the preceding content.

It's also cleaner as it provides Google with less confusing signals and more direct answers the user is looking for.

Does this mean that FAQ pages are now irrelevant? No. But they may be better at providing a list of links to content that answers questions, rather than offering answers to questions right there on the same page.

In other words, FAQ pages will become more of an index page or a knowledgebase than a piece of content in itself.

Which reminds me of another point: I believe that providing jumplinks throughout your content to other sections on the same page will become more important. I see this right now with content with headers that are anchored, so that links can jump to specific sections of the content.

Once growing trend I'm seeing (and liking) is a synopsis or abstract at the top/beginning of the article (a TL;DR section for you hipsters), which acts much like a “Table of Contents” section.

Take a look at this article (appropriately named TL;DR SEO). There's a TOC at or near the top. Or look at this one from Search Engine Watch, which provides a quick summary of the article at the top.

Capture Your Leads

It goes without saying that, visitors who land on your website are looking for information and they may be oblivious or at least apathetic at this point. So once they get the answer they're looking for, chances are they will leave soon after. And now, you've lost them.

Why not offer something else? A lead magnet, a subscription to a newsletter, a free white paper download, perhaps a free tool such as a checklist or survey.

There are three ways you can do this, which is to offer it within your content (either in the content itself with links, or within boxes and callouts in between paragraphs), in a sidebar, or in a popup window.

On my site, I use a delayed popup with a tool similar to ConvertBox. (I'm not an affiliate but many of my clients have used them with great results.)

A final note.

All of these changes are important. But they shouldn't make you panic or worried about your rankings (unless your rankings were achieved in less than ethical ways). It's too early to know how and how much will this affect things.

But for now, just remember to update your Google Analytics to the latest version, keep your content conversational, answer questions your audience is asking, and focus on providing your users with a great experience consuming your content, and you should be more than fine.

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