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4 Ways to Avoid Chasing the Algorithm

January 30, 2011

Matt Cutts recently posted a short compelling video on the practice of chasing the algorithm:

This was in answer to a question related to his talk at Pubcon. The question was about specific planned algorithm changes. The interlocutor wanted to know how he could advise his clients on how to tune their pages for future iterations of Google.

Cutts’ advice is: Don’t bother chasing the algorithm by perpetually tuning pages to keep up with the changes. Rather, focus on what your users find valuable. Beyond a few core SEO principles, if you focus on creating relevant experiences for your target audience, you will develop pages optimized for what Google and Bing will be by the time the content is live. It’s like throwing a pass. You don’t throw it where the receiver is, but where he will be when the ball gets there. Google and Bing are perpetually trying to create better user experiences. If that is your aim, you can lead the algorithms and develop content that is optimized for search users.

This advice was a discrete goal of our book. We wanted to give the audience content strategy advice on how to write for search engines that went well beyond mere tactical coding. Writing a book about the algorithm as it is now is particularly pointless. Google changes its algorithm daily. Even if we knew the algorithm well (which nobody outside of Google really does), by the time we published that knowledge in print, the information would be obsolete.

Years down the road, Google might not even be the search leader. But search will be the preferred way to find information for a large and growing majority of users. Sooner than you might think, users will have a Watson in their pockets: A computer that has the best available answer for every question. As search engines approach the Watson ideal, and more users access the web through mobile devices, we think users will ever more prefer to search for information rather than browse or navigate.

To be clear, sometimes users don’t have a clear question in mind as they browse. So search will not be the only experience. But the users you want to attract are those who have a clear question in mind and want a clear answer in response. These are the users who search.

So we wrote a book that transcends the algorithm or even a particular search engine by looking at the use case on which search engines are built. Namely: Returning a list of content for a user query in descending order of relevance. The book answers the following question: How does the writing practice change when the primary way users access content is through search engine results? Read the book to get a detailed answer. Read the rest of this blog post for a quicker (though still long) four-part answer. Sorry, there’s no short answer to this multifaceted question.

Define the Target Audience

One of the ways search changes publishing is you no longer have a captive audience. Rather than doing audience analysis on those who happen to find your work interesting or enjoyable, you need to define the audience you want to attract and write for them. In traditional rhetorical analysis, this is akin to the distinction between addressing a known audience and invoking a fictional audience. The twist is, if you invoke an audience through search, they are no longer fictional. Once you develop a loyal audience, you can begin addressing their known needs.

This is heady stuff, and I don’t expect our audience to grasp rhetorical theory in order to understand the book. So let me make it perfectly clear in a four-step process within a typical corporate environment:

1. Work with market management and market intelligence professionals to define audience psycho graphics. This starts with a known universe of people in the target audience. The audience definition is based on typical or common user personnas of people you want to attract through search.

2. Perform keyword research aligned to the psycho graphics of the target audience.

3. Work with user experience professionals to define the user tasks you want the target audience to do when they arrive on your site through search.

4. Build keyword phrases with nouns and verbs that will tend to give your target audiences the experiences they want to have with the content they’re interested in.

Write Compelling Copy with the Keywords

You can pick the right keywords and still not inspire the target audience to take your calls to action if your copy is bland and passive. In a typical corporate environment, getting compelling copy into the content is challenging because so many different individuals from so many different functional groups affect how the copy is written.

Typically, the market managers write a brief that lays out the conceptual framework of the copy. Then perhaps an agency writer writes some copy for a web page. Then the SEO guru comes in and says the copy is all wrong because it doesn’t use the keyword phrases that the target audience connects with through search. So the copy is hacked and it loses its tour de force.

That’s why I propose that the keyword research precede the briefing process, so the brief itself is infused with the words and phrases that the target audience uses to find relevant information. The copywriter can then write more compelling copy–crisp, active, rich in strong verbs–and this can become the basis of content experiences with which the target audience will want to engage.

Build Content Experiences for the Target Audience

Compelling pieces of copy provide mere clues as to the kind of content experiences you want your target audience to have. They don’t tell you everything. For example, they don’t tell you the preferred content type or delivery vehicle for the information you want to communicate.

Perhaps your target audience prefers to download podcasts onto their mobile devices and listen to them in the car. Perhaps they want to download a white paper and print it out to read offline. Perhaps they want to view an embedded video. Perhaps they want to interact through a blog or chat interface. All of these and many more are possibilities. We recommend blended experiences that use web pages as carriers for rich- and social-media experiences. But if your target audience has a narrow range of preferred content experiences, feel free to serve only those needs.

The challenge is to bake the copy into the various media in a way that maximizes its value. Copy is not typically portable. You can’t extract nuggets of truth deeply embedded into the context of a white paper and tweet it with the same meaning. But if your process involves writing modular chunks of copy, they can be reused, and in some cases gathered together to make longer pieces.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of editors as the arbiters of relevant, compelling experiences for the audience. The role of editors in the digital age is often dismissed. We think it’s ever more important as the experiences we serve to our audiences get more complex and the chances for redundant or conflicting content are increased.The other chief value of editors on the web is their role in helping to build links. Editors are the glue that binds related content efforts together. We expect the value of links to continue to grow as search engines approach the Watson ideal. Apparently, there is a groundswell of support for this claim as the most read blog post on this site is now over 4000 views and 39 comments.

Test and Revise

We wrote a whole chapter of our book on the importance of testing your content experiences and committing to continual improvement. Though the Web gives you a chance to define an audience and attract it through search, the process is organic. Lots of people will find your content outside of the target audience, and many of these prospects will become worthy clients of your content. Responding to their user preferences by improving their content experiences is perhaps the most effective way to cultivate a loyal audience. I won’t belabor the point here.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 18, 2012 11:56 am

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  2. January 24, 2013 1:30 am

    This is exactly the second article, of your blog I read.
    However I actually love this one, “4 Ways to Avoid Chasing the Algorithm « Writing For Digital” the most.

    All the best ,Mitch

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