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Organic Search – Understanding the Big Picture

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As a business owner/manager with a website you probably realize that search is not the only way your site gets traffic.

Repeat customers visit your site directly. Their positive word of mouth and the wonderful reviews they post on sites like yelp.com, urbanspoon.com, angie’slist.com, manta.com, etc. get you some traffic as well. Your followers on social media, readers of your blog if you have one, and email subscribers click on the links you provide. Occasionally, other websites send you traffic by linking to your content. And your Marketing Department does an excellent job of getting your business listed on various online directories which not only send you web traffic, but also phone calls and foot traffic!

Have you ever wondered why search still drives a significant portion of your web traffic despite all these other avenues?

The answer is simple – search is the only way for potential customers you do not know (and hence cannot reach) to discover your business. This is how they find you. It is like having the ability to selectively target people who need what you have to offer when they need it, without advertising, sending out emails and post cards, or making any phone calls! Think of the sheer efficiency in terms of the money and effort saved!

In fact, search is the single largest source of new traffic to most websites. A good search rank translates to better visibility among a wide, relevant and otherwise unreachable audience.

Search is communication that is relevant. Unlike advertising and direct mail, it is not unsolicited communication. People search when they need information. They are therefore more likely to act on their findings in the not-too-distant future. The likelihood of customer action from search leading to conversions is high.

The relevance of search is not only due to its self-selected, self-initiated nature, but also due to search technology. In order to show clients the most relevant results, search engines typically geolocate them and display results that ensure the right content is shown to the right person at the right time. People see results that are not only semantically relevant, but also relevant to them as individuals- their country, region, city and zip code.They see websites in their preferred language (often with local dialect adaptations).

Relevance in search can be further fine-tuned based on time of day, and the need for certain types of information during those times. For example information on food during meal times, cab services during rush hour, or emergency repair services during inclement weather conditions. More on this in a forthcoming post.

How Organic Search Works

Organic Search

Organic Search

People search when they need information. They navigate to their favorite search engine, type in their search phrase or question, also known as a keyword or query.

A response is returned in seconds in the form of a recommended list of websites. This is a search engine results page (SERP). SERPs can vary in length from a few pages to several hundred pages. If using conversational search, you will receive a spoken response in addition to SERPs. Each listing on a SERP comprises two lines of descriptive text and the address of the website. The results are ranked in order of decreasing importance.

Here is an example: Organic Search-how it worksThe results displayed below are Google’s organic results for the keyword “best sandy beaches northeast” done in New York State. By “organic” we mean these results are not paid for, but have been determined by Google based on many different criteria. They are ranked in order of decreasing importance from top to bottom and from page 1 through n as determined by Google.

Search engines display results  by determining the relevance of a webpage to the query. Relevance is calculated from a number of parameters. The parameters that search engines use to display and rank results make up their search algorithm. How your website stacks up against other websites for the different parameters in Google’s search algorithm, determines whether and where it will show up when a search is conducted on Google. Search algorithms are updated from time to time as people’s web browsing behavior and search technology evolves.

Organic search ranks are not instantly attainable, nor are they static. They must be earned over time, and need continuous work and attention. Your website’s rank is affected not only by what you do on your site, but also by what your competitors do on theirs.

The steps taken by websites to improve their organic search rank and visibility are collectively called Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

Before a search engine can locate and display a website, it must become aware of the site’s existence and the nature of its content. This happens through a process known as indexing.

Indexing is a process by which software programs known as “bots” or “spiders” belonging to search engine companies scan the internet at regular intervals looking for new content. This is known as crawling or spidering. The bots pick out chunks of information from the sites they visit. This information is then sorted and stored in the search engine’s data centers all over the world.

When we search online, search engines do not go through the entire web to find results. They search only within their index. Unless your site has been indexed it cannot be retrieved and will not show up when someone searches on that search engine.

An important thing to remember about indexing is that search engine bots can see and read only the parts of your website that are in HTML text format. They cannot read or see content in any other format. That includes images, audio, video files, animations, and other rich media. Websites that have important content in non-HTML formats should provide transcripts or descriptions in HTML text so that they can be indexed and can show up in search results.

Search engine indexes are subdivided into smaller databases or groups organized around keywords. These are called keyword groups. A keyword group contains contextual variations and synonyms of the same keyword and stands for an idea, or concept. The keyword you type in tells the search engine where to look within its index, and what to look for. That is why search engines are able to return results really fast.

In order for your website to be found when someone types in a particular keyword, not only is it important for it to be associated with that keyword (done as part of optimization by your SEO strategist), it is also important that search engines see it as belonging under that specific keyword/keyword group. Unless your site is associated with a keyword group in a search engine’s index, it will not show up when people search for that keyword on that search engine.

It may take a long time for new material on websites to get indexed if left to the natural cycle of web crawling by bots. As a business owner, you should not wait around for search engines to “discover” your website and any new content as that could take weeks or months. Every time fresh content such as a blog post or a video is added to your site or existing content is significantly changed, your webmaster or SEO strategist should submit that for indexing to search engines. There are a number of tools available to help you do that. Doing this will not only boost your visibility on organic search, but also on YouTube, local listings, image and video searches.

Adding an XML sitemap is another important step you should take to make sure all of your pages, especially the ones that are buried deep within your site are crawled and indexed.

It should be obvious by now that keywords are at the very core of search. There can be no search without keywords. The manner in which search engines interpret keywords however, has changed over time. Until recently, keywords were literally one word or short phrase. In the last one year, search engines have become more sophisticated in how they interpret keywords. Keywords today convey a specific contextual meaning (object, entity, place, concept), and search intent (how the information is likely to be used).

 Search Ranks and their Basis

Search rankingSearch ranks are subjective. They are based on search algorithms that are unique to every search engine.  A website that shows up in the number 1 position for a search done on Google by someone located in New York, NY may be ranked differently by Yahoo or Bing.

Further, search criteria are dynamic; e.g, the searcher’s geographic location (country, region, zip code, etc.), and type of device or technology used (mobile or desktop). The same search conducted on any given search engine would yield different results when conducted on a laptop, as opposed to on a mobile device.

Search results would also be different for individuals based on their unique browsing habits and search history. The reason for this is to increase relevance and maximize conversions. Remember search engines always try to show results that are the most relevant to their clients so that we spend the least amount of time searching on them, and to maximize our chances of taking action (clicking on them).

It is important to understand that your search rank is a search engine’s opinion on

  • The overall relevance of a page to the keyword or query
  • The popularity of a page among others who searched for the same keyword

Businesses invest a lot of time and effort to establish their site’s relevance to keywords they wish to be found for. If many people searching for a keyword visit a page and find it useful, search engines conclude that the page must be highly relevant to that keyword.

Content is an important determinant of relevance. That includes not only text, but also to graphics, animations, photographs and images, videos, illustrations and outbound links. The keywords used throughout your website, including their variations and synonyms, and the outbound links on your site help search engines figure out the meaning of your content and its contextual relevance to other pages with similar or related content. Keywords and outbound links help you establish your web page’s “relevance” to a topic.

Two very important metrics that search engines use to gauge page relevance are

  • Bounce rate (the percentage of visitors who arrive at your site and then leave without spending much time on the page or engaging with it in any way), and
  • Time on site (number of minutes spent on the site)

Relevance is also determined through Geo-location and Geo-targeting clients by their country, region, city and zip code, language preference, time of day, device or technology used to browse the web, and local weather conditions.

Here are some additional factors that influence your site’s rank:

User experience (UX) or usability of website – How easy and intuitive it is it for users to navigate around your website. Do they usually find what they come for? Is your content original and easy to understand? Is it well-written? Does it add value?

Trustworthiness of siteDoes your site engage in any deceptive and misleading practice to attract visitors? Are there reasons why other websites would not want to link to it?

Page authorityDo other websites link to your content (inbound links)? Do you have lots of engaged visitors including a significant number of repeat visitors spending time on it regularly.

As a business owner, you probably have a team of functional experts to help you with the day-to-day operations and marketing of your website. No matter how good they are and how up-to-speed your website is, as the owner and chief strategist of your business it is always wise to get a bird’s-eye view and understanding of the larger search landscape. This way, you can stay in the loop and nudge your team in the right direction when its members appear to lose sight of the forest among the trees.

Please share your experiences and thoughts by clicking on the “comment” link (you may need to scroll up to the top of this post). Happy searching!

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The Good, Bad and Ugly about Google Hummingbird

Named for its accuracy and speed, Google’s latest algorithm “Hummingbird” redefines organic search on the internet. Its two key features – conversational  search and semantic search differentiate it from its predecessors making  it the search engine of choice for hands free mobile devices of the present and future.

Although reintroduced in its new avatar, conversational search (or searching by asking Google a question as you would in a conversation, as opposed to typing your search phrase into the search box) really began in 2011 as voice search. Widely adopted on mobile devices for its obvious convenience, it lead to Google adopting semantic search as Hummingbird’s search logic in 2013.

Semantic search is the ability to search by understanding  language or the meaning of spoken words based on context and the searcher’s intent. In semantic search, words alone are less important. They are symbols for what they convey and derive significance from their meaning. In choosing conversational search, Google somewhat pre-committed to semantic search.

Hummingbird searches differently from its predecessors that used keyword matching to find results regardless of their meaning or context. When we ask  Google a question, Hummingbird tries to first  figure out what we mean and what we might be looking  for rather than simply “chase the phrase”. It then finds web pages whose content conceptually matches the meaning of our question. This increases the relevance of its search results.

In order to help the Hummingbird figure out meanings, Google has compiled a proprietary database called the “knowledge graph”. The knowledge graph contains “entities” which are keywords, synonyms, and their variations based on 15 years of Google’s own search history,  and drawn from various other external sources such as the CIA World FactbookFreebase and Wikipedia.  It shows the relationships between millions of  entities and how they are interrelated. It is a dynamic tool that evolves and improves as it learns from the web,  drawing on the web’s “collective consciousness” so to speak.

Hummingbird accesses the knowledge graph to understand  what our queries mean and to find conceptually and contextually matching results. If you were to ask Google a question such as “Where can I find a Ben and Jerry’s?”,  Hummingbird would be able to figure out that “Ben and Jerry’s” is the name of a business that sells ice cream. It would then speak back to you, providing you with a list of all Ben and Jerry’s locations near you. This is a huge improvement over Google’s earlier search that would have shown you matches for  “Ben”,  “Jerry” and “Ben and Jerry’s”.

Now, if you were to ask  Google “When are they open?”  Hummingbird would understand based on your previous question that “they” refers to Ben and Jerry’s. It would show you the business hours for the locations it had pulled up earlier. Pretty cool, right?  Hummingbird makes search easy by making a contextual connection between your first question and the next. It is Google’s best attempt yet to design an intelligent search that flows like a conversation.

Search engines as a rule want us to spend as little time searching  on them as possible. To make search easier and quick , Google sometimes displays short answers containing just the  bare facts. These answers or “knowledge cards” are based on the information contained in Google’s knowledge graph. These are displayed right on top of the search results page, often eliminating the need to scroll down the page or click on any of the links displayed further down.

If  knowledge cards were to become the norm  in the future,  it might help Google improve search, but it would reduce organic traffic to websites and click-through rates (CTR) for paid search.

knowledge card, information card

Knowledge card or Information card

Would information cards become the nemesis of SEO in the future? Would Google be willing to sacrifice a huge chunk of its revenue currently derived from clicks on Adwords, in order to improve search? What are your thoughts? Let’s hear from you now.