Written by

Head of Search

SEO Webinar: A timeless framework for ranking in Search.

A fundamental approach to search for those who want to cut through the SEO-hype to design, implement and measure a search strategy that outlives algorithm updates and unlocks the search-potential of their brand.

On Friday 26th March, we hosted a webinar during which our Head of Search Melissa Byleveld, shared a timeless (and intuitive) framework for creating content that will endure algorithm updates because it’s based on the four things Google values more than anything. 

Check out the recording below along with our key notes to find out what those four pillars of search are and how you can work with your teams to integrate and measure them. 

Key notes from this talk

Introduction

At MOF we believe that search is a lot more than just a marketing tool. We uphold it as a key performance criteria for our websites—if websites need to work in search, then we must build websites that can do that, out of the box. We also see search as a powerful research tool to help shape decisions we make around strategy, user experience, and conversion.  

In this webinar, we’ll be sharing our timeless framework for ranking in Google. 

Let’s begin by setting some expectations

SEO is Hard. You might think SEO is super technical. It can be.

Also, SEO is EASY! But it really depends on who you ask. 

Wrapping your head around the basics is actually quite straightforward—if you have a solid mental model. 

Our chat today is in this spirit of this simplicity and with the view of shaping a mental model that will help to break it down into bitesize components. 

What Google wants

Let’s start with a question everyone who works in digital asks themselves as some stage or another: What does Google want?

Ad revenue. All the ad revenue.

Google is in the business of selling ads. Google's model is an incredibly lucrative one. It has minimal overheads, and is raking in maximum revenue. It  hasn’t taken a slice of the existing pie so much as it’s made an entirely new pie—a pie shop even. 

But in order to generate that revenue, it needs an audience. Guess what? We are all that audience. You might have seen this quote before: “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” In the case of Google search, it’s especially relevant.  

When you do a Google search, you get the answers you want, the articles, and the insights, but you get them with a side of advertisements. They used to be clearly marked as ads, but they’ve become increasingly subtle. But this is not a new idea. It's just a new medium. 

This is NOT new

Editorial copy is the flypaper that appeals to a specific demographic. That demographic is then sold to a company with a product or a range of products that might be particularly appealing to that audience. 

Editorial attracts the audience. Advertising sustains the business and pays the content creators. But as you probably know, there are issues with the older versions of this model.

Print can be quite hit and miss

In many ways, print advertising is like pouring oil over an engine hoping some gets in the right place. That’s because print takes a broad sweep at a demographic, making a lot of assumptions about audiences. We don't get a lot of data to help us fill out the specifics. 

Content creators on the other hand, have an easier time. Magazines and newspapers only had to get your attention once—with the cover and you're hooked. Then they give you just the right blend of insight, intrigue, gossip, aspiration, inferiority complex, to keep you coming back for the next issue. 

Digital is granular, targeted, instant

Digital is quite different. It's highly specific. Every search query is like a single-topic magazine. We get granular, great data and it’s instant. 

For content creators on the other hand, it’s a lot tougher. Each article has to fight for its readership anew. It's a war for attention with every piece. The stakes are higher. But so too are the gains. Bottom line though:The principles are relatable.

This is the first piece of context to our mental model for ranking in Google: Google’s profit motive is to sell its audience for ad revenue.

But just how is it keeping its audience loyal? Unlike magazines and newspapers, it doesn’t have control over the editorial content. Or does it? That’s the second part of key context for our model. To know how Google attracts its audience we need to understand (at least at a top level) how Google works.

How Google Works

This is the part we get to take a look under the hood. So we know Google is in the attention industry. And it's doing a really good job at it. 

But did you realise just how good? Google has a 85% share of search engine audiences in the UK, 95% in India, 82% in the US…and on it goes. Google really reigns supreme in the attention industry. It’s not the only search engine, but it's winning by a long shot. 

Why? Here is where it gets interesting. In a stark departure from the first theme, it's not its commercial cunning. 

A genuine commitment to quality

To get a better picture of how Google is attracting such a significant market share, we have to go further back, To the late 90s (1998) when two students at Stanford were working out the best way to organise and rate the world's rapidly growing inventory of information. 

The World Wide Web was in its infancy, though rapidly growing. Other search engines like Alta Vista and Yahoo were trying to categorise web pages and create catalogues of them. It’s a great way of making sense of a limited set of information and it gives you a really curated feel. 

But the approach is not sustainable for large and growing volumes of data. ??So two Stanford students Larry Page and Sergey Brin proposed a different approach—a formula or set of formulas for calculating the relative value of a web page. Google was born. 

The principles that inform that formula are heavily borrowed from the implicit frameworks academics use to assess the quality and value of research literature. The point is that Google has, at its heart, a true commitment to delivering quality search results, founded on a real desire to assess and organise the world's information. 

So what exactly is it that makes Google good? 

A conveniently evasive answer and one that’s popular in the world of search is that it’s a closely guarded series of algorithms and ranking factors. That’s not untrue. SEO is all about trying to divine those inner workings of Google, because we don’t know exactly how the algorithms work. And trying to figure them out, decipher, replicate results is extremely complex. This conundrum has given rise to an entire industry. 

But there is also a less complex answer: Google has figured out a machine-driven, scalable way of rating content that is aligned with our own values for quality, useful content. To make money, Google has to satisfy its content audience first and foremost. If the magazine of search results gets trashy, unreliable, just no fun to read, they lose the audience they need to sell to their advertisers. It all comes tumbling down. ?

Google’s formula works so well because it works for any content. And that helps to give a bit of colour to the mental model of search I want to share with you now. 

A mental model for understanding search

Picture a library containing the world's knowledge. Google is the librarian. You need information and go to the front desk with a question like: “I’d like some information about how tides work.”

If they’re doing their job right, the librarian will want to give you content that satisfies your need for information so expertly, that you never use any other library again. In fact, you’re so pleased, so pumped full of dopamine that you start to turn to the library to answer all questions, convert feet to meters, explain religion, nothing is too big or small. 

Succeeding in this objective necessitates that the librarian finds a book with a title that’s clear, descriptive and matches your initial request. Ideally the chapters are also well described, listed in the table of contents, easy to navigate and interpret. The response has to be relevant.
They’ll also want to give you a book that isn’t usually instantly returned. Maybe it shows signs of being read all the way through—pages are thumbed, spines cracked. The answer must retain interest in a tangible way. 

They’ll take care to give you a book that can withstand heavy use and that’s a joy to hold and read, not a flimsy pamphlet held together with a paperclip. The experience has to be seamless. 

And finally, they’d have weighed all the available information on that topic and prioritised the seminal works, giving you the most reputable of the lot.

This is the basis for a mental model that, against the background of what we’ve covered around Google’s commitment to its advertisers, really helps to demystify search and gives a top-level recipe or framework into which all of the additional complexity of search slots quite logically. 

With one key difference. 

Web Page = Book

Website = Author

Before we go any further we need to pause and readjust a bit from the library to the world wide web. The Google librarian issues books. The Google search engine returns pages. So we need to think about a web page as a book and a website as an author. 

That’s actually a very useful extension of the mental model. The more prolific the author (or website), the more volumes, the more authoritative, the more recognised, the more likely the librarian is to suggest books by that author. 

Nice story, but let’s get practical… 

The mental model applied

Relevance

In search, a relevant result tends to be one that has a title tag and a meta description (so that's the blue clickable link and the dark grey description underneath) that contains keywords that echo back that initial search query to the searcher—really making it clear that this is the result  that answers your questions. Looking inside the result—we need headings, content and images that all incorporate that vocabulary and again reflect it back to the user. 

It needs to share the insights of an expert but in the language of a layperson, like pop science—not too technical, but just technical enough. 

And finally, the content needs to be distinct and deliver a unique point of view—both compared to the wider corpus of content on that subject and within the works of the author (or in our case the website). It wouldn’t make sense for an author to repeatedly churn out very similar books. Even if the theme or area of expertise is the same (which it often will be), it makes sense that every work (or page) brings a different point of view and makes a new contribution.

Retention

In the digital world retention translates to content that is comprehensive enough to keep the user on the page for a fair amount of time as they scroll through it, engage with it, take it in and visit another part of the site or make an enquiry. 

If they bounce out quickly, without getting to the end of the page, that reflects negatively on retention. It usually also means some thought has been put into the user journey so the options for next clicks—where we want the user to go next, have been considered.

Experience

From a user point of view, experience is often more about what content doesn't do than what it does do. If we’re not really thinking about how slowly the content loads, we are not annoyed having to chase shifting elements around as they display, and our journey isn't obscured by intrusive interstitial pop ups, then that tends to be a sign of good user experience. 

Google will improve the sophistication with which it assesses experience in May this year with a significant and much anticipated core algorithm update. But fundamentally, pages that rank are pages that don’t make you think about the user experience because it’s so smooth. 

Reputation

Last of the four fundamentals of search is reputation. This is a graphic from the Opte project, an initiative to map the world wide web. Every line represents a link, every dot or node a page. You’ll see nodes that are bright and large because of the many links pointing to them and smaller, less bright ones because they are less linked to. 

This is part of the real genius of Google’s algorithm. They’ve worked out how to measure content value by the value of the links pointing to it. The larger and brighter the node, the more relevant the page.

This is networking, a concept that’s very familiar to us on a human level, abstracted into an algorithm. More links means more prominence.

A short version of the recipe to rank

If you look at it this way, it's fairly straightforward to meet Google's criteria: 

  • Figure out what people are searching for. Create rich content using that vocabulary, add images and video. 
  • Plan the user journey from key entry points in search. 
  • Put it on a good site.  
  • Get others excited about it and talking about it.

Great fundamentals. Tricky implementation. 

These are great principles for assessing content because they reflect our inner gauge of quality. But it's not easy to turn that into a formula computers can apply. It’s taken Google a long time to get to today’s ability to discern trash from treasure. 

It’s not easy for content creators either. Creating quality content and attracting the right kind of online endorsement for it, is hard work and resource intensive. 

Cheating is easier. At least, it used to be. 

Enter SPAM

Whilst Google was busy working out a machine-driven way of enforcing its ideals for content quality standards, SEO’s were exploiting loopholes that got results fast. This helps us formulate a good definition of spam: Spam is any attempt to get to the top without actually deserving to. It’s also known as black hat SEO—a nod to the black and white Westerners when the baddie wore a black hat and the goodie a white one. 

Taking shortcuts to the top

Spammy tactics that characterised SEO practice during the naughties included: 

  • Cloaking
  • Keyword stuffing 
  • Link farms

It’s a really creative way of taking shortcuts to the top, but it really compromised content quality. But it didn’t take Google that long to catch up and the search engine has gotten increasingly good at reigning all of these tactics.

On the “shifting goalposts” myth

This has given rise to a popular saying in SEO, that: “Google is shifting goalposts” as it rolls out changes to its algorithm, which can shake up rankings—especially if you’ve been “cheating” your way to the top.  

But Google hasn’t really changed its original objective of ranking quality content. Calling “shifting goalposts” feels a bit like doing steroids and blaming improved detection methods. 

Google wants us to have the rulebook

Another story we like to tell ourselves in SEO is that Google is a black box. It’s partially true. We don't know exactly how Google works. Those patents are highly protected. But we get a lot of support to follow the right path. 

It’s clear that Google wants us to make good content and measure the things that matter, from all the search and traffic tools, guidelines and training resources they share for free that give us a kind of playbook for search. They are committed to quality content because they need to provide great results or they’ll lose their most valuable commodity—their audience. 

To recap

How does Google get the audience it makes billions of selling to advertisers? It earns it with every query… because it’s providing a truly useful service. Albeit with a side of ads. 

OK, we’ve got the framework to rank. We know where to find the instructions. Now we just have to create great pages.

How to be found

This brings us to the last section of this discussion: How do we put this all together to be found? So far, we know we need to make quality pages and we need to do that better than our competitors. Except, they’re not just “pages”. A page can be a manual, shopfront, a trip itinerary…

Search result formatting changes to reflect searcher intent

If you look at them in total, search results are dynamic, colourful, engaging and their layout changes with the query type. It’s the result of Google constantly working out new ways to satisfy our short attention spans and mounting expectations. 

Google needs to keep winning us over with compelling, engaging results whilst including maximum ads. It’s doing that by making those ads less conspicuous—blending them in with the organic results. And making the organic results so much more magazine-like, so much more clickable, than they used to be.

That has implications for how we plan our content. Here are just some examples of how differently information can be displayed in search. The plain vanilla title tag and meta description show up for most content types and searcher intents. But as queries change from informational to transactional, so does the formatting and presentation of the results.

  • For branded queries or searches for other entities (personalities) we might get a knowledge graph panel to the right of the results. 
  • Home page results could come with site links—a selection of different snippets of popular pages from that site. 
  • Local results—or queries with local intent—usually include a map pack of three or four results. 
  • A detailed question could be met with an excerpt from the page in this type of answer box or rich result format, often with a list or sometimes a table. 
  • Some results might include FAQs below the meta description.
  • Others pull through additional information like price, rating or availability.

We must map searcher intent to plan content

So different types of informational needs, as expressed through search, trigger different formats and therefore slightly alter the way in which we package up that information on a page. 

This is a really useful reminder that our audience usually has a range of informational needs at every stage of the conversion journey. This is especially the case with higher value products or products or services with greater complexity. A longer research phase, a need for followup or an ongoing relationship with the business all bring with them a greater need for information. 

To make effective content, we need to be part of every conversation our audience might have about our brand or our wider offering.Creating a fleshed-out map a bit like this helps ensure that we use that framework for ranking in search that we are creating full coverage—a complete content footprint in our area of expertise. This becomes the “what” to the “why” of the framework that we’ve discussed earlier.

How to rank step 1: 

To win in search we must make quality pages that solve needs at all points in the conversion journey.

You might think this is it, we’re done. We can wait to be found. But there is a crucial second step.

How to rank step 2: 

We need to get everyone to think “Search”. Who is everyone? Because Google evaluates web content on every level, we must think search in every specialism. If we revisit the framework and start to think about different specialisms across digital, we can start to see just how shared the responsibility of search really is. 

Relevance is usually the domain of the content team sometimes working with the client (and their content teams) to create great content. But retention has a lot to do with good UX and design. You can’t satisfy the experience criteria without having your technology and development teams 100% on board. And if you’re trying to build reputation with just an SEO team, you’re missing a trick. 

Of course we can still have an SEO team that is ultimately accountable for all of this, but you’re going to get much better results if everyone starts to think about and take some responsibility for search to a greater or a lesser degree. Here are examples of the kinds of questions you can ask your teams — and that we use within our teams — that can start to get that thinking going.

How to talk to your teams about Search

Content and Search

Working with our content teams, we should be asking: 

  • Does our content answer all our audience's questions and respond to their needs? 
  • Is it using the same language searchers do?
  • Can we use customer insights to make that coverage better (real FAQs, client support insights etc.?)
  • Could our content have been over-optimised to the extent that our audience is alienated?

And we can measure: 

  • Greater keyword visibility (through SEO tools)
  • Increased organic traffic to optimised pages (Google Analytics)

UX, Design and Search

Working with our UX, design teams we should be asking: 

  • Is there a single clear point of entry for each key need or question, or are there multiple ones that could indicate duplicate content concerns? 
  • Is the expectation that is being set up in search met by the experience on the page?
  • Are we including enough content on key pages to compete with other top results? 
  • Is the content hierarchy clear?

And we can measure: 

  • Reduced bounce rate from search
  • Increased number of pages per session
  • Improved dwell time and scroll depth

Development, Technology and Search

Working with our technology teams we can ask: 

  • Do our key pages meet the criteria of Google’s upcoming vitals update?
  • Have we set up the CMS to make it easy to add search elements? 
  • Are we making the most of structured data?
  • Have we been adequately mapping redirects from old to new sites?

And we can measure:

  • Performance against key metrics (LCP, FID, CLS etc.) 
  • Indexing & crawl errors
  • Accessibility

PR, Social and PPC and Search

And finally, working with our PR, social and PPC teams, we could be asking: 

  • How easy is it to pick up a journey in search that started with a social media campaign? 
  • Where are we building PPC campaigns to? Are we setting up new landing pages that could compete with key search pages? 
  • Are you writing blogs and articles that support key pages or are they off topic or else, competing with key content? 
  • Is all content online?
  • Is the PR team thinking about getting links alongside mentions?

And we can measure: 

  • Referral traffic
  • Backlinks
  • Entries via supplemental content 

Search is an awareness, not a discipline

Because Google determines the value of a site by looking at it from every angle, it makes sense that we consider search at every juncture. Search thinking can be a secret weapon. 

And we might also say that if we’re not sure how something is impacting search, or what role it has to play, it's probably hurting it. That sounds dramatic. And quite negative. But the reverse is also true: If you know how everything you’re doing is impacting search, you’re building equity into your domain and its pages in ways you may not fully realise until later. 

There’s more to Search than SEO

Search is the study of how we express our needs and seek to meet them. When we plan for search, we plan for human needs. In closing, I want to leave you with a final thought and a reflection. 

We talk about SEO as a discipline. A marketing intervention in silo. But I hope I’ve given you a useful mental model today to help you see that it’s so much more than that. Google called 2020 the year the world asked “Why”. Apparently searchers typed queries beginning with “why” more last year than ever before. It’s kind of easy to see why.  

But it’s proof to me that as a society we’ve arrived at a point where we believe that the web, as a pooling our collective consciousness, can answer anything from the mundane to the terrifically complex issues we’ve dealt with last year and continue to do now. 

As a brand I hope you can see two sides of this: First, that search offers a unique and exciting opportunity to respond to the questions and needs of your customers in a way that builds trust through generosity of information and wins loyalty as a result; and second, as the other side of the coin, the immense responsibility that comes with creating content in a space where people increasingly go to make sense of their world and find meaning in it.

How MOF can help

A few words about how we think about search at MOF. 

Our websites have search fundamentals baked-in. From site architecture through to design, everyone on our team is thinking about setting your website up in a way that meets search engine criteria.

You can choose to fully optimise the site by then working with our SEO team or your own to optimise content without having to worry about things like adapting the content and the design, or upgrading the CMS. 

And after launch we have search as part of the basic post-launch support. 

But to really get your site in a position where you are having a dialogue with your audience, where you fill every space in that conversion journey, we offer a range of search consultancy options for further optimising content for launch and aligning content strategy to your commercial objectives after.

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Published by Melissa Byleveld

Head of Search

Combining her experience in journalism, research, design and digital marketing, Melissa works with brands to create content strategies that work as well for website audiences as they do for search engines.