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When AI Meets SEO

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Artificial intelligence is slowly gaining traction within the marketing industry and this is particularly true when it comes to SEO. But what does it mean for marketers and their brands operating in the digital space, asks John Ring.

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is evolving! That isn’t really news as there have always been changes for content creators to get to grips with. Every time Google changed the emphasis they placed on each element, there would need to be some tweaking, or an adjustment to how a piece of content was written or presented, but this time we are seeing less of an evolution and more of a revolution.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become the area of growth for technology companies in recent times with Google, Facebook, and other big players like Amazon etc all developing AI tools for sentiment analysis, precision product recommendations, and image and voice recognition techniques. AI is also finding a role in predictive customer service, and accurate advert targeting.

What does this mean for SEO?

For SEO the growth of AI means a significant change to the way marketers think about their content. In the early days of SEO it was all about the keywords. Google would scan pages and identify individual words and phrases, and the arrangement and frequency of these words on the page was largely what determined where a paged ranked in a Google search. This began to change in 2015 when Google introduced RankBrain, a machine learning tool that can actually determine what words or phrases mean, and which other phrases might have a similar meaning.

Learning without humans

Over recent months we have started to gain a clearer idea of how AI is going to impact search engine rankings and how SEO will need to adapt to accommodate these changes.

The development of algorithms that enable machines to “learn” to process data, and apply what they learn to future tasks takes SEO to a new level.

Search engines are effectively becoming smarter, and their ability to process natural language is making them more human friendly, while humans are increasingly sidelined in the process. It appears that the ultimate aim of Google is to ensure that its search algorithms are able to learn and update themselves automatically, without human interference.

For SEO one of the most noticeable features of this ‘auto-updating’ by Google is likely to be the way future updates are handled. Over many years SEO people have become used to sudden changes in Google rankings as each new update brings changes to the way websites are ranked. With less direct human involvement it is probable that there will be far fewer of these sudden ‘all-at-once’ changes. AI involves a gradual evolution process as the machine learning-based search algorithm gains experience and starts to make more and more connections over time.

The end of keywords?

As AI develops we will begin to see less focus on individual keywords, and a shift towards in-depth content that provides detailed, valuable information on a subject. Long-tailed keywords will thrive in this environment. Articles being written around a specific keyword will become a thing of the past as Google reads the natural language content and understands the relevance of the topic even if the specific keyword is not mentioned explicitly.

Aside from the changes to the way written content is handled by Google, there will also be significant changes to the way visual content will be optimised in the future. Visual content used to be a problem to optimise to achieve good rankings but Google is getting better at analysing what visual content is about, and this means that marketers will need to pay close attention to optimising their videos and pictures including their related descriptions, length, tags, etc.

Natural language search

Voice search is another area that AI is starting to revolutionise. In part, this is being driven by the rise in searches on mobile devices. We have become comfortable with Siri, Google Now, and Cortana acting as virtual assistants, always on hand to answer any questions at a moments notice. What marketers are only just starting to wake up to is the changes this type of searching brings to SEO. When typing a search query into a box most of us will abbreviate the search to one or two keywords. When using voice search we tend to act differently often using full sentences to ask our question. As AI enables voice search to develop further we will see it become even more conversational.

For SEO the implications of this trend are obvious. Marketers must start to actively research keywords for conversational queries and create quality content that includes appropriate phraseology.

All about value

While AI will revolutionise the way people search, if you are already doing best practice SEO it may make almost no difference to your business. It has long been understood that what Google looks for in a website is “value for the reader”. They like websites that provide high quality information, great resources in specific niches that are both relevant and informative. If you are creating content like this already then you have a great head-start in this new AI world. It is the websites that employ decade-old techniques and poorly written content that are going to struggle as Google begins to understand that their material offers little real value to the reader. Those sites where readers tend to bounce away quickly, without stopping to read that are going to suffer most from improvements in AI.

Conversely, websites that AI recognises as being authoritative, and useful will see their rankings and thus visibility soar. One of the clearest ways to mark your website as being authoritative is through link relevance. The days of making your website appear important simply by having a large number of links pointing towards it are dying. In the very near future, it is backlinks from other relevant websites in the same niche that will help to determine how Google ranks your website. If all your backlinks come from the same niche or industry as your website you will achieve a higher ranking than if you acquire many links from random websites across a range of industries. By restricting the content of your website to one niche and becoming an authority on it, and then seeking out backlinks just from that niche is going to be the way forward for successful SEO.

As AI becomes even better at identifying content, attempts to game the system are going to become increasingly futile as it becomes impossible to out-smart the ever-learning algorithm.

Invest in best practice

In the future the way to get your content in front of the biggest audience will be through taking the time to invest your resources in industry best practices. Creating great content, and engaging with your audience and other influencers in your niche will work out much better than any short-term gain from dubious practices. As AI becomes better as determining the value of each piece of content SEO will become more natural and intuitive and we will witness the death of “SEO-friendly articles”. Content written which offers no real value to the reader is not going to survive in the AI world.

We are on the cusp of seeing an Internet in which long-form, detailed, articles become the norm rather than the exception. Over the coming months and years, even more than today, it is going to be quality, and value to the reader which determines the ranking and thus brand visibility of any piece of online content.

John Ring is managing director of Tinderpoint

First published in Irish Marketing Journal (IMJ May 2017)© to order back issues please call 016611660