Wednesday, October 28, 2015

RankBrain and the Future of SEO

Last week when Google's parent company, Alphabet, reported a better-than-projected quarterly revenue of $15.1 billion, the company's stock price soared to a new high. As the financial world scrambled to buy, buy, buy, however, the tech world was intrigued by the excitable talk of "machine learning."

On the earnings call, Google’s Chief Executive Officer, Sundar Pichai, seemed downright giddy about the possibilities of the new technology.

“Machine learning is a core transformative way by which we are rethinking everything we are doing," he said.

Perhaps it should have been no surprise, then, when Google announced Monday that the company has been using machine learning for several months.

The new system, nicknamed RankBrain, uses artificial intelligence to sort search queries, including, as Bloomberg reported,"the 15 percent of queries a day it gets which its systems have never seen before."

RankBrain will take these often ambiguous queries and "learn" from them by making connections between the search itself and the websites they lead to--in other words, where the browser finally clicks.

Traditionally, these connections have been coded by humans. Each and every search result, in fact, has been defined and ranked by the most talented coders in the world. As we've written before, this human component can--or, by nature, must--be biased:

"We end to think about algorithms as neutral, but really, although engineers base algorithms on mathematical principles, most of the judgments about those principles are exactly that--judgments, made by biased humans."

Please Read: "On Algorithm Bias and the Important Work of Organic SEO"

RankBrain will seemingly replace the human element, taking the "bias" out of human coding and algorithms.

An A.I. robot from the Will Smith movie, I Robot. Artificial Intelligence is no longer the stuff of science fiction. 

Search Engine Land has written a comprehensive FAQ for RankBrain, including a helpful distinction (or lack of one) between "machine learning" and "artificial intelligence":

"How’s AI different from machine learning? In terms of RankBrain, it seems to us they’re fairly synonymous. You may hear them both used interchangeably, or you may hear machine learning used to describe the type of artificial intelligence approach being employed."

So what does this all mean for your SEO efforts? After all, Bloomberg reported, quite surprisingly, that a Google representative, distinguished RankBrain as the "third-most important signal contributing to the result of a search query."

What are the first two most important signals? We don't know. Google has never before offered this sort of information before. As Search Engine Land notes in its FAQ:

"It’s annoying and arguably a bit misleading that Google won’t explain the top two. The Bloomberg article was no accident. Google wants some PR about what it considers to be its machine-learning breakthrough. But to really assess that breakthrough, it’s helpful to know the other most important factors that Google uses now, as well as was was knocked behind by RankBrain. That’s why Google should explain these."

However you might feel about Google's secretiveness, we embrace the lesson implicit in this latest PR move: artificial intelligence is the future of search.

Amidst the talk of the future, however, what should comfort the everyday website owner is the tried-and-true: as search engines become better at delivering laser-specific results, the most informative, relevant websites will continue to rise to the top. As before, a thoughtful SEO campaign is the key to success.

Remember,  Google and your SEO specialist share the same goal: to connect users with the most relevant information. If you believe your product or service is relevant, then you deserve SEO.

The Renaissance SEO Company: Stempan's PC!

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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

How to Check Your Site's Perfomance

For many people, SEO is a "dark art," at once mysterious and impenetrable, the domain of tech junkies who manipulate codes for higher rankings. In the distant past, the SEO landscape was, indeed, plagued by "black hat" practitioners who practiced coding tricks and spammy link-building. Today, however, the SEO world is a dynamic place, populated by a diversity of talented people who employ time-tested techniques to optimize website performance.

In part, SEO is still about (ethical) coding, but today's SEO specialists are just as likely to focus on the production of great content in any number of mediums: not just text, but images and videos, and interactive applications. More then ever, too, today's SEO landscape is taking cues from traditional marketing. "Optimization" is now about story-telling, the projection of quality images, building relationships.

Still, the false characterization of SEO as "mysterious" (or worse, "dark") endures. One way to dispel this myth is to reveal SEO practices. In part, that is the purpose of this blog. If you were to take the time to read our posts, you would be equipped to optimize your own site.

Of course, most website owners do not have the time or inclination to perform SEO; most just want a simple answer to the question: What can SEO do for my site?

To answer this question, of course, an SEO specialist, will need to understand the current performance of the site. This is a relatively simple practice that can be performed by anyone--however, like SEO itself, it is shrouded in mystery. Below we offer a simple outline for how to check your site's performance.

Believe it or not, SEO is not mysterious.

Test Your Site's Speed 

When analyzing your site, an SEO specialist will look at many factors, including the design (appearance), quality of content, and the website's ability to be crawled (discovered) by the search engines. A fairly simple measure of performance, however, can easily be tested online.

Speed is crucial to your website's success. As we noted a few weeks ago, KISSmetrics reported several years ago that 47% of all browsers expect a page to load in two seconds or less.

If your page is not loading quickly, you are likely not converting your visitors to customers--people who do visit your site, will navigate away quickly.

To test your site's speed, we suggest the Pingdom Website Speed Test. If you do find that your site loads slowly (longer than two seconds) your design could be burdened by any number of factors, including unoptimized images or coding problems.

Test Your Site's Mobile-Friendliness  

The advantages of a mobile-friendly site should be apparent to anyone with a working smart phone. Mobile browsing now exceeds desktop browsing, and more and more consumers are using mobile devices to purchase products and services.

To test the mobile-friendliness of your site, you can take Google's "Mobile-Friendly Test" here. Easier still, you could simply Google your website name from a mobile phone.

Since November, 2014 Google has distinguished mobile-friendly sites with a "Mobile-Friendly" tag in search results. A search for, say, "big pumpkin" reveals two mobile-friendly sites and one not-so-mobile-friendly site.

The middle site here,, is not mobile-friendly.

Check Your Site's Traffic--And Your Competitor's Traffic

You likely know how to check your own site's traffic  but how do you analyze your traffic for meaningful insights? The best way to understand your site's relative effectiveness is to compare your traffic to a competitor's traffic. There are many tools to do this. For a comprehensive overview, try Moz's "Tools to Predict and Monitor Competitor Traffic."

With many of these tools, you can look into the traffic numbers to understand precisely who you and your competition is attracting. If you understand how your competitors beat you, you can begin to plan a counter-attack (that would likely include a targeted SEO campaign to attract a portion of your competitor's visitors).

Check for Broken Links

To Google, a "real" link is a one-way link that points directly from one site to another. In the past, Black Hat SEO specialists created links to a site in exchange for a return link. Google delegitimized this sort of "bad" link-building long ago. No less harmful, however, are broken links that lead nowhere. If your site is riddled with out-of-date, broken links, your compromising not only your SEO, but your user experience and possible conversions.

We like Chrome's extension for checking broken links.

Browse Your Own Site  

We know, this is painfully obvious, but the best way to get a good idea of your site's performance is to browse the site yourself. Do the pages load easily? Is the content accessible? Is the content unique? Do you find the site attractive? If you answered no to any of these questions, your potential customers are likely thinking the same thing. If so, you might think about a site re-design or a new site. Sometimes the best option is starting from scratch.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Advantages of a Text-Heavy Website

After writing about SEO for images last week, we can't help but return to our favored form of content: text. Of course, a great website should contain a mix of content, both images and text. In reality, though, search engines continue to favor text-heavy sites above all others.

The advantages of a text-heavy site are clear.

Load Time - Page Speed

First, in the absence of bulky images, a text-heavy site will load quickly. The SEO world knows from experience that search engines favor sites with simple codes and speedy load times. Google has even developed a tool, PageSpeed, that helps webmasters "identify ways to make your site faster..."

Although load time (or page speed, to use Google-talk) is only one of 90 ranking factors, it tends to receive a lot of attention from SEO specialists. The reasoning is simple: page speed not only effects your page ranking; it influences your browser's perceptions of your site.

As KISSmetrics reported several years ago: 47% of all browsers expect a page to load in two seconds or less. No doubt, in the age of mobile SEO, this number has increased.

Stripping your site of all the unnecessary frills, like excessive images (or worse, Flash), can dramatically improve your load time. If you do use images, of course, make sure you optimize each image for SEO. In the end, though, for browsers and search engines alike, the appeal of a text-heavy is clear. Text is clean, simple, and fast.

As soon as a browser clicks on your site, you're on the watch--for two seconds or less! A text-heavy site can help you reduce your load times.

Voice Search Compatibility

As the value of keyword-based optimization diminished, search engines continued to prefer "long-tail keywords," three or four word phrases that more accurately specify the nature of a certain search. In the distant past, a browser looking for a grey sweatshirt might have typed "grey sweatshirt." Over time, however, most savvy browsers learned to be more specific: "slim-fit grey sweatshirt," for example.

Today, however, voice search is changing SEO. A voice-based search has a different goal than a traditional search. Instead of "browsing," per say, most voice searches attempt ask a question or state a problem. Instead of revealing sites based on keywords, then, today's search engines attempt to answer questions and solve problems.

This is most easily seen in Google's semantic search, introduced at the time of the Hummingbird algorithm, which analyzes the spoken word to attempt to discover the intent behind any given search.

Naturally, a text-heavy site will be more likely to meet the demands of voice search. An image will not necessarily answer a question or solve a problem. The key, of course, is to make sure your text counts. When thinking about your content, try to answer your ideal customer's questions; try to solve a crucial problem.

Answers. Solutions. This is why your built a business in the first place, right?

Mobile Compatibility 

A text-heavy site will also be easily compatible on all devices: a desktop, tablet, and of course, mobile phone. We've reported exhaustively on the necessity of optimizing for mobile. Today we can safely say: of all possible search venues, mobile is the most important.

Since 2014, we know, mobile search has exceeded desktop search. As we wrote earlier this year (on the eve of Mobilegeddon):

"Mobile's ascendancy is likely due to its convenience, a fact that can be observed on any pedestrian street, and, unsettlingly, on any highway in America. One only needs to glance aside to see another person looking down to his or her phone."

If convenience is the name, you want to make sure your playing the right game: simply put, a text-heavy site will be much easier to read on a mobile device.

Read: "9 Things You Need to Know About Google's Mobile-Friendly Update"

Or: "Google is Making "Mobile-Friendliness" a Ranking Signal: Are You Optimized?"


Of course, we're not advocating a total disavowal of images (and other forms of content). Even text itself can be made to look like an "image." Today's programming languages are so sophisticated that a knowledgeable web developer can transform text to look like an image with simple CSS styling rules.

But it is important to remember that most browsers are looking for text-based information, and the clean presentation of text is often the quickest path to a high page ranking.

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