Historically, getting content to reach the top of a search engine results page usually hinged on your team’s ability to fulfill the rules of Google’s algorithm – no matter how complex, obscure, and sometimes unwritten.
However, that picture is changing now that AI has arrived behind the scenes of the top search engine, says Dale Bertrand, Fire and Spark’s content and SEO strategist. Its machine learning delivers more precise, adaptive, and contextual search results. It also gives marketers another approach to search result success – a purpose-driven strategy.
At the 2022 ContentTECH Summit and a recent Ask the CMWorld Community interview, Dale discussed what Google’s heavier reliance on an AI-controlled algorithm means and how a purpose-driven approach can help your brand compete with – and even beat – bigger fish in the SEO sea.
Search for greater SEO intelligence
In the early days of digital search, Google’s founders used the web’s link structure to rank the most relevant page results. “Basically, if you had the right links to your website and the right keywords on your pages, you would rank well,” Dale says.
But now, it’s more important to understand how that AI engine gets trained than to follow technical SEO rules. Dale says making this mindset change can help set your content on a path to increased visibility on search and stronger marketing performance overall.
Engineers set the technical quality guidelines
Human engineers are still involved in ranking content relevance. But instead of programming the algorithm, their role is to rate a site’s trustworthiness, content accuracy, authoritativeness, and connection to other relevant content providers on the topic at hand.
“That quality information is collected as a big dataset from websites that have been graded, which is part of what they feed into Google’s algorithm to train the AI,” says Dale. “There’s a big, long document out there – the web quality raters guide. Any marketer can read it to see what the raters look for when building the training dataset for Google’s AI.”
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AI adds behavioral signals
From that point, Google’s AI engine takes over, tracking search behaviors, analyzing signals of intent, and correlating those insights with the quality rating data to determine the most relevant content to a search query.
But, Dale says, keep in mind: “Google’s AI engine doesn’t care about your content – it only cares about its own performance.” It’s looking for confirmation that the content it selects will deliver a satisfying experience for searchers. Your job is to make sure it sees your brand’s content as a likely win.
Shared purpose promotes multifactor authority
Dale discusses two ways brands can prove that their content has what it takes to deliver the AI’s desired results:
- Build momentum through community. A community behind your brand frequently visits, engages with, and links to your website. They recommend your products and services and amplify your site. Dale says these actions demonstrate a high level of customer intimacy. Google’s AI uses the artifacts of success from this content – high engagement, low bounce rate, and a high click-through rate – to confirm your site and content are loved.
- Demonstrate multifactor authority. Part of AI’s investigation of brands that resonate with online consumers is the company you keep, Dale says. Authoritative individuals, organizations, and influencers can contribute to your brand’s authority by linking to, citing, and amplifying your content across their channels and platforms.
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How to use purpose to build SEO power
Dale describes an SEO strategy that can help build authority and momentum by focusing on a purpose your brand believes in: “Hopefully, your brand stands for something. But [for SEO], it’s even better if your brand is actively promoting a change that you want to see in your industry.”
By using your content to build valuable conversations around that change, you give the tools to those with an established interest to spread your brand messages. This data around this reciprocal relationship demonstrates the brand traction Google’s AI sees as proof your content is a solid search bet.
Dale shares a client example:
I worked with one brand that was selling handmade children’s products. The US government was about to pass a law that would have made it so [small businesses like this] would have had to do $100,000 worth of testing before being allowed to sell a single product. We were able to lead the movement against that law and turn that into an SEO campaign that generated authority, backlinks, and website engagement – all the things that Google’s AI is looking for.
He explains the process he used to achieve those results:
Step 1: Find high-profile groups and learn about the causes they support
Find potential partners – influencers, non-profits, advocacy organizations, and others who are working towards a purpose in which your business might have a stake. It could be an organization that’s written about helping previously incarcerated people find jobs, influencers promoting veteran-run businesses, or an event that supports disadvantaged youth in your local community.
When you’ve identified viable candidates, research their positions and how they communicate about them in their online conversations. “You need to understand what issues these influencers care about, what they’re writing about, what’s going on in their social conversations. All of those things are targets for your purpose-driven SEO campaign,” Dale says.
Step 2: Choose a mission your content will support
Once you find an area with enough grassroots supporters, craft a mission statement around it for your brand’s SEO campaign. It should be something your brand can speak to authentically; otherwise, audiences will see right through it. “It has to be based on your organization’s values because you’re going to get behind it. At the end of the day, if you don’t care about feeding hungry children, that just can’t be the mission,” Dale says.
If you’re on the B2B side or operate in a crowded market, it may be worthwhile to adopt a unique or even slightly controversial mission to differentiate your brand. “[You might think] sustainability is a good [purpose to build on], but so many companies have taken this topic on that it doesn’t move the needle from a search marketing perspective,” Dale says.
Rather than just choosing a hot topic, he suggests looking for a niche, such as a critical change affecting the supply chain for your industry or a regulatory issue that impacts product costs, to rally around. Doing so can help insert your brand name into relevant conversations that your bigger, higher-profile competitors may not be associated with.
Step 3: Create “citable” content aligned with your mission
The goal isn’t to promote your brand’s involvement with the chosen cause; it’s to create content your partner organizations can cite when making their case for the cause. “The content is fuel for their advocacy – it gives them credible, authoritative information they can use in their arguments,” Dale says.
For example, Dale says, interview someone personally affected by the mission, write an opinion piece about the change your business is advocating, or publish an original research report. “This is the type of content that [they] would organically mention and link to while trying to get their point across in their own content conversations. That’s how you’re going to get the deeper engagement and increased backlinks that Google’s AI can see,” says Dale.
Step 4: Reach out to other like-minded influencers
With a body of purpose-focused content cited and linked to, you can increase your content’s authority and reach by sharing the outcomes with other influencers who care about the topic. But rather than conducting a blast email campaign, contact them individually by email or personal message on social channels.
In this outreach, focus your messages on furthering the mission. “We’re not promoting our business, our products, and services, or our content. We’re saying, ‘Hey, I saw that you’re a big advocate for helping previously incarcerated youth find jobs. We’ve got an interview your audience would be interested in … would you help us promote it?’” Dale explains.
Not only are influencers more likely to respond to this type of outreach, but they may be more willing to promote your content without compensation because it helps them create content in an area that they’re passionate about, Dale says.
Fuel a shared purpose and find greater search success
In a crowded landscape, where reaching a top spot on SERPs is harder to achieve than ever, it’s time for marketers to stop trying to outsmart the search algorithm. By putting a shared human purpose at the center of your SEO strategy, your content will broadcast all the signals of authority, relevance, and value Google’s AI is looking for.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute