The In Search SEO Podcast
Summary of Episode 57: How Google Is Google at Offering Nuanced Results?
The wonderfully wonderful Jenny Halasz chats it up about Google’s ability to offer nuanced results on the SERP:
- Is Google living up to the hype? Does it consistently offer clear and nuanced results?
- How’s that whole BERT thing working out at this point?
- Where are the gaps in Google’s interpretation skills and what does that mean for your site?
Plus, we breakdown how Google uses its entity understanding and Story expansions for pure marketing genius!
How Google Stories Reflect Both Its Intent Targeting & Marketing Genius [00:03:09 – 00:14:50]
If you don’t know, Google has a feature called Google Stories. It’s very much like an Instagram Story, but it appears on the Google SERP. Let’s say you Google famed New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. You’ll see an option inside the Knowledge Panel to see his life in images. You click on it and an overlay of story-awesomeness pops up with multiple “cards” showing all of the times Brady has cheated over the years (Mordy’s only kidding… we think). Or you search for Daniel Day-Lewis and you get a bit of background history on the actor and then some career highlights.
And for this feature it all makes sense. When we search on Google for famous people we want to learn more about their background and career.
Google has recently (over the summer) expanded its Stories with continuously updated stories for MLB games…. So the story would continue to be added as the game went on which is absolutely amazing.
That aside, Google has very recently expanded its stories to cover animals and bugs…. like lions, giraffes, and bees. It’s a 5-year-old’s wonderland.
Now, what do you think Google shows here? What content does it have about lions and bees? There are a few ways Google could have gone with this. Let’s take lions, it could be very straight-forward information, like where they live, etc., but it’s not like that. Why? Because it’s boring.
It doesn’t work for the entity and Google knows it! The same type of info that works for sports stars doesn’t work for animals. Sports fans love stats, but that’s not what people are looking for with animals. So instead of straight facts, Google offers 5 “fun” facts like the heaviest lion weighed over 826 pounds!
Google gets the entity right. It knows, and this is important for sites, what sort of content is fit for the entity.
So you might have the most fact-filled site all about every stupid scientific detail about lions and this site might have an amazing backlink profile and it might be super fast and super technically optimized, but it won’t rank on page one because that’s not how Google sees the entity.
There are 9 organic sites for the query “lions animal” (Mordy had to add ‘animal’ so he wouldn’t get the NFL team). Six of them target kids specifically with all sorts of lion info and “fun” facts. Google’s not dumb, it knows exactly what it’s doing. It knows the entity. It knows how it’s meant to be viewed and by whom (because even adults love animal fun facts) so it knows not only what kind of story to create but what kind of sites to show based on how it understands the entity.
It uses its intent analysis to understand the entity and now the story & results have a specific focus. And it all leads to Google being a marketing genius.
Why is Google showing these stories? The most common answer is to keep people inside its own properties, but Mordy believes it’s more than that. To Mordy, these stories are all about the psychological impact. Google is a fun and interactive place to get info. It’s easier to see this with the animals but it works with the celebs as well.
You see this story about lions and you are entertained. It’s like watching a TV show. You feel that warmth of being properly entertained. There’s a reciprocal response of warmth and affection to being properly entertained and this is what sets Google apart from other search engines, it’s all about understanding the psyche and how it can capitalize on it. Where Bing is so focused on getting content right Google is so far past that, so much deeper than that.
Not only that, but Google is targeting kids. It’s brilliant. Get ‘em while they’re young. Build up that association that Google is a fun, interactive source of content and info!
It’s brilliant marketing, it really is. And it’s marketing without marketing which is totally subliminal. Genius.
Does Google Do a Good Job Offering Nuanced Results, Really? A Conversation with Jenny Halasz [00:14:50 – 00:59:15]
[This is a general summary of the interview and not a word for word transcript. You can listen to the podcast for the full interview.]
Mordy: Welcome to another In Search SEO podcast interview exclusive session. Today we have a most familiar face for you. She’s a famed industry speaker and expert author. She is the president of JLH Marketing. She is Jenny Halasz.
Jenny: Hi, Mordy! Thanks for that great introduction.
M: I gotta butter you up a little bit before we get into the heart of the matter. So you’ve been doing SEO forever. I don’t mean that in a bad way, only in a good way. We could also talk about the fact that you have one of the most outspoken social media voices that I’ve ever seen and I love it.
J: Thank you. I get a lot of flak for that, but I believe in being honest and being authentic.
M: That’s cool. Is it hard to be so vulnerable on social media like that? Because I try not to talk about politics or I try to avoid this topic or that topic, but you just kind of go for it, which I’m very much in awe of.
J: Oh, thank you. I’ve actually heard more people say that than I’ve heard people telling me to shut up.
M: That’s good. That says something.
So we’re going to talk about BERT and search results and the nuance of search results, but first let’s get everybody caught up on the same page. What is BERT? How should it be or how do we think it impacts search results?
J: The idea behind BERT is that it makes language more accessible. It makes it easier for a machine to understand language, the bi-directional piece of it is the really significant part. Instead of just looking at the words that surround another word on a page to get the intent, it can go forwards and backwards to try and figure out what it means in that context. The technology itself is completely awesome and very exciting, but the BERT algorithm in Google leaves a little bit to be desired.
M: What do you mean by that?
J: I always tell my clients you want to optimize for where Google wants to be, not where they are and it’s been really true with BERT and these core updates that rolled out. Essentially, I think there are some queries that Google’s doing really well at and those are the ones that Google holds up and says, “Hey, it’s working! This is great!” Then there are other queries that just really don’t get to the intent of the search.
I have a really good example of this. One of my fellow SEOs who is also working freelance, said, “Hey, does anybody know a good collections agency?” So I said, “Yeah, I used one about four years ago and they were really great, but I don’t remember their name.” So I went to Google and typed in “collections agency.” I thought I’ll get something useful and if I see the name of the company or recognize it, then I can tell my friend.
Unfortunately, when I did the search for “collections agency,” it was just an entire page of ads and all of the ads were for brokers where you put in your information of what you need, what type of business you have, what type of collection you need to do, and then they match you with potential collections agencies. That was not what I was looking for.
So I modified my query to “hire a collections agency” which seemed logical. All I got was articles about how to hire a collections agency, when to hire one, whether you should hire one when you’re a small business, what’s the difference between them, etc. Again, not a list of collections agencies.
M: That’s very interesting because with that sort of commerce intent Google loves offering review sites. I always initially think all of that info is a great thing because I want to know about an insurance policy, or whatever it is, until it comes to when I want to actually buy something …then it kind of sucks.
J: Right. When you just want to hire a collections agency and you really don’t care which one it is you’ll want to take the first one you see on Google, but you can’t even do that. What really drove it home for me was a question in the People Also Ask box, “How do I find a collections agency?” So I’m thinking this will answer my question so I click it, open it up, and it’s “How to find which collections agency you owe.”
M: Ooh, that’s good.
J: This is a five-star example of why this is not working.
M: That’s amazing. That’s when intent goes too far.
J: Yeah, and it’s one of those things where I’ve been telling my clients, most of them are enterprise size clients who can handle a little dip in organic, to just hang in there. Google is going to figure this out. We’re not going to change our strategy to become brokers or anything like that. We’re going to keep hanging tight. It will get figured out.
But I’ve had plenty of clients and prospective clients who tell me, “Yeah, but this is my livelihood.” And I’m really sorry, but if you’ve got all of your traffic wrapped up in organic search, you’re already in trouble. It’s the same as if you have a little clothing store and there was a flood. If you don’t have something else coming in, whether it’s wholesalers, social, advertising, or organic search, you’re in trouble.
M: Yeah. I don’t know why that is. Maybe because it’s free or we believe that SEO is great that it’s the panacea of all things. But how could you put your eggs in one basket like that?
J: Yeah, that’s a really bad idea.
I’ve got a hospital client that I work with and they have not lost any positions in terms of where they’re ranking, but because of Featured Snippets and the Knowledge Graph, and all the other things, they’re getting pushed down and so their organic traffic has gone down significantly. But to get those Featured Snippets spots, they would have to basically become a health library like WebMD, but they don’t want to do that. They don’t want to educate people about what cancer is, they just want to treat them.
It’s frustrating for sure because if you’re looking for a great cancer surgeon in this area then you want this hospital as they’re world-renowned for treating certain types of cancer. But if you do a search for specific types of cancer surgery you get all of these sites that tell you what it is and not how to treat it, how to find a surgeon, if your insurance is accepted, or anything like that.
M: If you’re trying to find a cancer surgeon and Google shows you all the information about the cancer and the surgery and maybe there’ll be a spot or two for the actual surgeon themselves, at what point does diversity become a problem with personalization? One person wants to find a surgeon, but another person wants to see surgeon reviews. How is Google able to both do diversity and personalization at the same time, because I feel like we’re heading to a point where it’s going to be stuck.
J: If I could solve that problem, I would create my own search engine. It is a really big problem. When you add in the personalization element you have things like map listings which is ideally where my clients want to be, but what’s happening is so many of these searches don’t have map listings on them anymore. They become these health library searches. It’s frustrating. I have a couple of different autoimmune conditions and if you’ve ever had autoimmune, you know that doctors really don’t know what causes them or how to treat them and you really have to go into the more alternative medicine to try to address it and Google is suppressing all of that content. Although, I shouldn’t say suppressing as they’re not suppressing. Google doesn’t care about any specific site, what they care about is surfacing good, peer-reviewed content. The problem with that in the healthcare industry is that some of the best content and some of the best studies come from observational evidence and if it doesn’t have that FDA approval then we won’t ever grow and improve as a society in terms of our health care.
M: My wife is a nurse who works in mainstream medicine, yet at the same time she likes alternative medicine practices like homeopathic remedies. And she’ll complain to me that she can’t find what she’s looking for on Google. Is that because there are so many problems or issues with some of the content and Google has gone a little bit too extreme, but for good reason, or is Google really in the wrong?
J: That’s a good question. It’s a fine line. I have one client working in alternative medicine. They provide exercises to help you through injuries as opposed to just taking an Aleve every day which is fine unless you have a fracture. One of the things that we talked about was that they need to first tell people, “Don’t do this if you have this type of pain or this type of swelling,” or link them to another page. The guy who offers the exercises is a medical physician, but I don’t think he does a good job of differentiating where the traditional medicine ends and the alternative medicine starts.
M: Where does BERT fit into all of this?
J: It fits into this as the ideal. To get to that point where the search engines can use the technology, the way it’s intended to be used to identify intent.
M: It’s just so funny that Google says only 10% of all queries are influenced by or affected by BERT, but Google looks at every single piece of web content and includes BERT as part of that. I just saw an article today where John Mueller said that they use BERT to look at web content. So while BERT impacts the query itself 10% of the time, it’s also impacting all web content. It’s funny though because at a certain point we didn’t really know what BERT is going to be. We kind of forgot the machine learning part.
J: When we get into the machine learning aspect of things, I do believe that the machines are learning some of the wrong things like inputs that are occurring that are not helping or may even be hurting. People like talking about click-through rate as there have been studies that show that temporarily a very high click-through can push you up a couple of spots, but it’s not something you can sustain that you should go out and hire some company to click on your listings.
Do you remember Mechanical Turk?
J: It was a thing where you could hire people from all over the world to just click on stuff.
M: Brilliant. People think of everything
J: I don’t think people do this anymore, but stuff like that type of gaming is never going to be sustainable.
Back to my point, that click through from Google, a lot of people will click on the first result they see, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was good or bad for the query or that if they bounce back to the search results right away that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad result.
I think that there’s a lot of query refinement that happens. I believe it was Rand Fishkin who did a study where he said 50% of all queries don’t result in a click. My question is, how much of that is due to query refinement? I suspect it’s probably a lot and that’s something that you would never know unless you were actually controlling the search results and looking at those analytics. Studies like that I think can lead us down the wrong path.
M: I agree with you on that, but there’s so much nuance. I was speaking at a conference for technical writers and we were talking about this. And they don’t seem to have a problem with the zero-click because if you’re looking up a complicated set of instructions and it shows up in a Featured Snippet with eight steps you’re still going to click on the full thing. So it really depends on the vertical and the type of query. I’m very curious to know what sort of keywords were included in that data set. Were they very high search volume like “What’s playing at the cinema?” because for that I understand why no one clicks.
J: I think that’s something as an industry we have to get a lot better at. I got raked over the coals because I dared to suggest that Google shouldn’t link directly to SEOs. And then I got told I was attacking all of these other people that had been linked. As an industry, why can’t we have a conversation here? It’s getting worse. I wrote an article about it on my blog and it is the most read blog that I have ever written in my entire career with the highest time on site and it has almost zero social. I am absolutely convinced that everybody has read it, but everybody’s too afraid to talk about it.
One of the things that I wrote in that article is questioning Google is not a new thing for me. I’ve been doing this for at least 10 years. I have dozens of articles out there where I have said, “Google, what the heck are you doing?”
M: Yeah, and there’s nothing wrong with it. No one gets hurt by questioning Google. Obviously, there’s a way to do it and a way not to do it, but that’s neither here nor there.
J: This really is baffling me as to why we would not want to question each other and offer constructive criticism so that we can improve.
M: I think there’s so much jockeying for position (almost no pun intended) where people are trying to make a name for themselves or trying to maintain that name to market themselves as X or Y. I mean come on, at a certain point you have to be a little bit real and why is that a problem?
J: Sorry, but this is gonna segue into politics just a little bit. It’s about privilege. Privilege is when some of us have more ability to talk about things and do things than others because of our race, our sex, our socioeconomic background, or whatever it may be.
I am an independent woman. I work for myself. I’ve made a name for myself and I’ve worked really hard to do that. And at this point in my career, and not just for me but for others who’ve been in the industry a really long time, I think that we have a responsibility to the industry to keep it moving forward. And from my perspective, I have the privilege to be able to say some of these things on social media because I don’t have to worry about getting fired.
And by the way, I’ve seen people say to me that they’re not talking to me anymore. I’ve been blocked, not because I was being mean, but because they didn’t want to hear what I had to say.
M: I’ve never seen you be mean on Twitter before.
J: Thank you.
It’s my privilege and I need to use that privilege in a positive way. Whether it’s getting people to talk about the mental health issues that we have in our industry, talking about getting more women in front of cameras and on stages, and feeling more comfortable to work in the tech area, in particular of SEO. Whatever it may be, I feel a responsibility, a calling, to do what I can.
M: Kudos to you. There’s a lot with mental health issues in the industry and there’s a lot of stress and anxieties in the industry. At least for me, I think a lot of it has to do with coming from backgrounds that don’t have a computer science background. I will admit this is a problem for me as I have this imposter syndrome. I feel like that all the time. But only a few people talk about it. I believe Niki Mosier talked about it in the past. It’s a big deal and people should be talking about it more.
J: Thanks. I think we can begin to break down those barriers.
M: Okay, back to BERT.
J: I was just going to say that one of the ways that we do that is by giving people credit that if you saw something or you experienced something in this industry, we’re gonna listen to you. Obviously, we’re going to form our own opinions about it, but we’re going to consider what you’re seeing. Back to BERT, we’re seeing things that aren’t matching up with intent and we’re trying to say this is a challenge yet it’s very hard to get anybody to engage with you on that.
If people take nothing else away from this podcast, keep in mind that if your organic traffic is dropping, but your ranks are not changing, you are probably getting pushed down by those Featured Snippets, those Knowledge Graphs.
And a little plug for Rank Ranger because I really love how you identify the above the fold where you know exactly where the piece is. The above the fold is priceless.
M: It’s how you know how competitive you really are. Thank you. I appreciate that. Our dev team is awesome.
I wanted to ask you, to wrap up on BERT, what would it look like to you if Google were to get it right? For example, what does SERP health look like?
J: I think it looks different for every person. I think that’s an area where personalization needs to be even deeper than it is today. I think you’ll get some pushback from people who don’t want Google to know all this stuff about them. Newsflash, they already know. So being able to opt in to telling Google that I have certain autoimmune diseases, or if I could opt into telling Google that I get ear infections all the time, some of that stuff would be maybe a little bit better suited for me as the user. I think that’s something that they’re trying to do with the voice search capabilities. I know Microsoft Cortana has been working on this. The ability to really get to know the individual that’s using the system. Once we get to the point where we can connect all those dots, that’s when Search becomes truly useful.
M: Yeah. the idea of inputting makes a lot of sense. I am always advocating for the idea that Google should relinquish a little bit of control of the SERP and let the user input on the SERP. I don’t want review sites, I want product sites, or I want local sites. Give the user some control.
J: Yeah, and connect the dots, Google. I have a Google Home, I have an Android phone, I’m all the time on Google’s search engine, continuously logged in. Connect some of these dots for me.
M: One day.
Optimize It or Disavow It
M: Speaking about BERT, if you had the choice to invest in either optimizing for voice search or optimizing your audio content with the notion that BERT will better understand audio transcriptions or BERT will help Google better understand voice queries. Which one would you favor?
J: I would favor voice queries. I don’t think there’s really anything you can do right this minute to optimize for voice and anybody who tries to sell you that is snake oil.
I would optimize for Voice Search because I think that podcasting is certainly having a moment. We’re seeing so many great podcasts and people are loving them and consuming them like candy. I think voice search has a longer term, a longer life span. I fully expect us to get to the point where we don’t even need to use keyboards.
So definitely I want to optimize for voice. Podcasts are awesome, and not that they’ll go away, but the need for transcriptions won’t stay around.
M: Well, hopefully, podcasts stay at least for a little while because I love this podcast.
Thank you so much, Jenny. I really appreciate you coming on. This was amazingly fun. We should do it again.
J: This was so much fun. Thank you.
SEO News [01:00:19 – 01:09:32]
Featured Snippet URLs Removed From the First Page of Google: Causing chaos throughout the industry, Google has stopped duplicating the URL shown within a Featured Snippet. Instead of the URL showing in the snippet and the organic results… Page one will only show the URL in the Featured Snippet itself.
Google Sunsetting Data-Vocabulary: Say goodbye to Data-Vocabulary.org… As of April 6th, Google will not support structured data markup from data-vocabulary.org. Meaning, if you employ the markup and currently get rich results on the SERP for such pages… you will no longer (as of April 6th).
Google Removing Sponsored Labels From Flight Search Results: Google will be removing its sponsored labels from the Google Flights feature. That’s because Google will no longer take money from the airlines nor promote booking sites.
Google Plans to Experiment More on the Desktop SERP: Google has said that they will continue to experiment with the use of favicons on the desktop SERP. Many users are now seeing the mobile SERP format on desktop save for the favicons.
Fun SEO Send-Off Question [01:09:32 – 01:12:57]
What is Google’s favorite chocolate bar?
Mordy answered with PayDay because Google has changed the desktop SERP so that it becomes Payday when you click on the more organic-looking ads.
Sapir had no answer. Mordy helped her with some on the spot answers like Snickers because Google satisfies your search hunger, or Whatchamacallit because I don’t if I got the right results, or KitKat as Google should give you a break from these results!
Tune in next Tuesday for a new episode of The In Search SEO Podcast.