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Write for humans, not search engines.

'SEO experts are put on this Earth to make astrologers look good.'

That's a little saying I like to cheer myself up with from time to time. It's flippant and dismissive, I know, and unfair to the genuinely knowledgable professionals. But it makes me smile and takes the edge off the occasional irritation I have with some practitioners.

It almost goes without saying that at the heart of understanding SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) there must be an understanding of search engines and how their technology is applied. For better or worse, that means understanding Google. And understanding Google's algorithm.

And therein lies my tongue-in-cheek amusement with the astrology analogy – the company fiercely protects its technology, and why wouldn't it? While they have latterly been helpful in providing some structured guidance, so much 'expert' SEO input previously seemed to involve applying what could be deduced, looking for patterns in what works and what doesn't, and predicting a strategy and methodology from that.

But the Google search algorithm is not a static technology. It is constantly learning, constantly evolving - getting smarter. In fact, Google updates its algorithm about twice every day. And, a handful of times a year, it makes what it calls a 'broad core algorithm update'. The latest and most significant of these took place in March this year - and it's a game-changer.

Well, if not exactly a game-changer, then a significant development in the game. And interestingly and unusually, this time Google has announced its purpose:

This update is all about understanding both user intent and related site content.

The human touch

I've been creating bespoke websites for clients in different sectors for many years. While my focus is on design and user experience, I obviously recognise the need to consider SEO – the importance of semantic mark-up, properly coded structure, site/server performance, the quality of inbound links, device-responsiveness, submission for indexing and so on. I've also developed a pragmatic view of what is and what isn't realistic and necessary for individual clients to achieve with SEO. But above all that, I've been consistently telling clients one very important thing – author your site's content for humans (your target audience), not for search engines.

It sometimes goes against what a client feels (or is told) they should be doing, but it has always been wise and sensible to create the best content you can for the audience – the people – you want to engage. And even more so in recent years as search engines are aspiring to be more human and less mechanical in how they return search results.

Getting personal

We've seen over the last few years how Google, in common with other tech companies, has 'got personal'. It has switched its focus towards understanding the 'person' doing the searching rather than mechanically returning search results based on the 'best optimised' pages that meet the search criteria used. With information it derives from a user's previous search history, general online activity, their location, and their activity and interactions in the real world, such as which shops they visit, their daily commute (and listening to their conversations at home), Google has been aspiring to provide the search results it thinks a particular person is looking for. Just like a human might do. Just like a friend might do in making a recommendation. Which means that different people using the same search string will likely receive different results, or at least, differently ranked results.

That's not news, although some of the 'cold-calling' SEO companies that repeatedly hassle our clients with promises of dramatic results in return for a sizeable monthly retainer, will neatly sidestep this actualité whilst ramping up the worry tactics.

Understanding and rewarding good content

So, it should be no surprise that Google's latest broad core algorithm update is a development of its aspiration to understand the intent of the user. But it's also implementing a further major development: in order to better understand user intent, Google has got smarter and is aiming to better understand and make judgements about the quality of a website's content in how it meets and satisfies a user's intent. Yep, with this algorithm update, the quality of a web page's content actually matters more than the number of keywords you've awkwardly shoehorned in or how many inbound links you've managed to generate from wherever.

That's why, in announcing the update, Google has acknowledged that some websites will have seen the rankings they have worked so hard to engineer decline almost overnight, some of them significantly. On the other hand, it cheerfully points out that other sites will have seen their rankings improve.

This isn't about Google penalising 'poorly optimised websites' as the SEO industry has consistently speculated with previous core updates. In Google's own words,

"There's nothing wrong with pages that may now perform less well. Instead, it's that changes to our systems are benefiting pages that were previously under-rewarded. There's no 'fix' for pages that may perform less well other than to remain focused on building great content. Over time, it may be that your content may rise relative to other pages."

Looking ahead

So, what should your ongoing SEO strategy be? Well, I say precisely what it should always have been – write for humans. More specifically, focus on understanding and engaging the people for whom your site is intended with the well-considered, well-written, relevant and informative content they are looking for.

And thou shalt be rewarded.

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