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Google Autocomplete: A Complete SEO Guide

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Google Autocomplete: A Complete SEO Guide

Google Autocomplete is a controversial but powerful search feature.

When you type a word, or even a letter, into Google, it populates a list of search suggestions. That’s what autocomplete is.

SEO professionals, paid search marketers, content marketers, and social media managers can all benefit from using Google Autocomplete to help with different keyword-focused and intent-exploring projects.

On the other hand, Google Autocomplete often makes the news for funny, peculiar, or even offensive habits (often in a negative way).

People use autocomplete constantly, saving thousands of seconds per day, but it has also been blamed for political cover-ups and spoiling movies, TV shows, and video games.

Google Autocomplete can also be a powerful marketing tool. SEO professionals and other digital marketers have used it for years to inform strategy, get keywords, and find the important questions customers are asking.

They can use Autocomplete to better optimize clients’ digital properties and the content and messaging that make them up.

This guide will help you understand the real power this simple but super-helpful feature can do for help with your day-to-day tasks.

What Is Google Autocomplete?

Google’s own words, Google Autocomplete is “designed to make it faster to complete searches that you’re beginning to type.”

It’s integrated across Google Search and other Alphabet properties that use Google, including in the “Omnibox” on Chrome.

Google estimates that, cumulatively, it saves over 200 years of typing every day, and on average reduces typing overall by about 25 percent.

The primary purpose of the Autocomplete dropdown is to cut back on time a user spends typing by offering predictions of what a user may be typing — including for websites using the built-in Google Custom Search Engine feature.

While Autocomplete has been a desktop search feature since late 2004, it has become even more useful as a time-saving feature on mobile devices.

Typing on a mobile device is a bit tougher than doing so on the large keyboards we have grown up with and are accustomed to, so it’s a welcomed tool for providing assistance and saving time for many.

There are several other useful ways that the feature can be used to leverage content ideas, keyword suggestions, intent exploration, online reputation management, and other data-driven tasks.

How Does Autocomplete Work?

Ex-Googler Kevin Gibbs created the project, originally called “Google Suggest” by another former Googler Marissa Mayer.

Google has since moved away from the “Suggest” name since it’s not always offering the most thoughtful, caring, or appropriate predictions.

Google calls the completions it offers “predictions”, not “suggestions.” This is because of how Autocomplete works.

Autocomplete is supposed to help people complete a sentence they were intending – not to suggest a search intent, as with “I’m feeling lucky.” They determine predictions by looking at common searches on Google, including looking at trending searches that might be relevant.

This allows Autocomplete to quickly update and adapt to new search trends and news stories.

Much of Autocomplete’s behavior is computer-generated, with data collected from millions of other Google searches and their results, including the content on those pages. It also takes information from your search history, location, and other data points.

Google has also put a lot of work in, so as to avoid inappropriate or offensive autocomplete suggestions. This means there are both automated and manual removal procedures that can influence what autocomplete suggestions are left.

Autocomplete is also related to the Knowledge Graph, and especially on mobile, it can bring Knowledge Graph suggestions into the prediction.

It wasn’t until 2008 that Google built Autocomplete into its default search engine (it was previously an opt-in feature).

Best Ways to Use Google Autocomplete

1. Keyword Research

It’s a long, tedious, and laborious task, but it’s also the foundation of all SEO strategies– and has been for a long time.

While we may no longer explicitly target keywords, keywords and their related ideas are always going to be an important part of search marketing.

Keyword research is one of the first tasks tackled at the start of an engagement — and carried on throughout the engagement — to understand not just a brand and the content it creates, but also its potential shortcomings, website strengths and weaknesses, and content gaps.

Autocomplete doesn’t do all the work for you in terms of keyword research, but it’s a great place to start at or to use early and often when developing content calendars and general organic search strategies.

Using it (along with other keyword resource tools like Google Keyword Planner and other third-party keyword databases) to get an idea of the right keywords you want to target by considering monthly search frequency, competition, and even cost-per-click (CPC) pricing will do your search strategy justice.

One of the shining advantages of Google Autocomplete is its ability to uncover quality long-tail phrases that are commonly searched across the web.

Since the primary measure for Autocomplete is popularity — based on real searches by users in real-time — the value of Autocomplete lies in its plethora of keyword-level data that you can dig up if you work at it hard and long enough.

As always, be sure you are signed out of Google to ensure you limit personalization for an unbiased look at predictions.

Long-tail keywords are incredibly useful when fulfilling content gaps but also offer endless possibilities in terms of high-value blog posts and educational content within a brand’s niche.

2. Intent Exploration

Understanding user intent is important because it guides the goal of the page, its messaging, its layout, and even imagery. We know pages perform best when they fully satisfy the user intent of a search query.

You can use Autocomplete to better understand user intent, but doing so can be involved and laborious. Taking the time to visit many different web pages in the search results tied to specific predictions is going to take some time, focus, and content consumption. But the information you can mine from this method is invaluable.

Keywords overlap various stages of user intent, and without more keyword context, it can be tough to understand the intent.

Autocomplete will help you not just understand different high-value long-tail keywords and the intent surrounding them, but it will also help marketers recognize the volume of content around specific stages of intent, as well as which long-tail phrases and intent stages could be optimized for as a higher priority.

Of course, for high-value keywords — long-tail or traditional one-, two-, and three-word phrases — it’s important to satisfy all stages of intent as they relate to the high-value keywords.

That’s the idea behind an all-encompassing, quality search strategy. And Autocomplete can help get you there.

3. Online Reputation Management

Autocomplete has been significant in the realm of online reputation management, too.

Remember, when a user searches for your name or your brand name, the first thing they see, even before your site on the SERP (search engine results page), is the Autocomplete predictions tied to that name.

If those predictions are negative, or if even just one of them is negative, it can have a real impact on your business’s performance.

Think about it. You search [Dog Washers Inc] and the first prediction finishes with “loses dog,” you probably won’t feel too keen on bringing your dog there for his next bath.

Same for a restaurant; if you search [Ted’s Seaford Spot] and the prediction finishes with “e. Coli,” I have a pretty good idea of what you’re not eating tonight.

Autocomplete makes up an important part of online reputation management (ORM) and cannot be ignored when working to balance all negative connections made with brands.

One must be vigilant, just like most ORM strategies. Several ways brands can work to offset negative Autocomplete predictions are:

  • Take control of your brand’s conversations to ensure the right connections are being made in Google Autocomplete.
  • Social media account optimization reinforces the positive connections that may be overshadowed by negative ones.
  • Social media content, messaging, and engagement are in line with the optimizations above and the brand’s voice and tone.
  • Consistent branding and messaging for profile websites with positive keywords association used elsewhere
  • Starting small and making an impact by searching for positive connections for the brand from different locations. Obviously, the more people, the better. But you’d be surprised at the impact it can have.
  • Building backlinks to Google SERPs for positive keyword associations with your name; things like [sam hollingsworth seo writer] and [sam hollingsworth handicapper] would be great starts for someone like myself. 😊
  • If there are negative autocomplete suggestions, ensure that you have a strategy of how to address them.

4. Content Generation and Exploration

You can also now use Autocomplete for content generation and exploring competitor content for your own content ideas. It’s easy, and interesting, to use Autocomplete alongside other online writing tools, to find out what web users are searching for.

FAQs

Just looking at “who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, and “why” with a few brand-related questions can get you a ton of questions for your FAQ– questions people may already be searching for.

Related keywords

You can do this in many ways, for many reasons. An easy one is “brand name vs.”– Google will autofill with competitors. You can also look at “brand name and” and see what autocomplete finds there– finding ways to expand your brand.

Related topics

If you can find Autocomplete suggestions for related topics, that aren’t covered by your main topic, you might have an edge to grow some content in that niche.

Queries like “how * works” can be invaluable, autocomplete filling in the wildcard space with suggestions. You can also do this to find questions about your brand, questions for content marketing, find problems potential customers are looking for, and even find out if users are looking for certain social media accounts.

Screenshot of Google Search, November 2021

Autocomplete Policies

With a history of backlash due to some of its search predictions, Google does manually work to prevent inappropriate Autocomplete predictions when it comes to:

  • Sexually explicit predictions.
  • Hateful predictions against groups and individuals.
  • Violent predictions.
  • Danger and harmful activities in predictions.

It also may remove predictions that could be considered spam, facilitate or advocate piracy, or if given a legal request to do so.

Google makes it clear that it removes predictions that relate to any of the above-mentioned situations unless they contain medical or scientific terms that are not malicious.

Looking for Feedback

To better control inappropriate Autocomplete predictions, Google launched its feedback tool and uses the data to make improvements consistently.

For instance, there doesn’t have to be a particular demographic that is being targeted by something hateful in nature; and feedback helps get that discovered faster and easier.

google-autocomplete-report-inappropriateScreenshot of Google Search, November 2021

Understanding what people are actually searching for is an essential part of your SEO strategy.

See how you can incorporate Google Autocomplete into your research process. You just might be surprised at the specific keywords and search intent it reveals!

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Keyword Mapping. A Practical Guide for the Curious

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Keyword Mapping. A Practical Guide for the Curious

Deciding whether a keyword should be targeted by a separate page or clustered with other keywords is a common problem in SEO. Keyword mapping is a process aimed at solving this.

Keyword mapping is popularly defined as assigning keywords to pages. But what you really need to solve the problem is assigning topics to content types

In this article, I’ll explain the benefits of this approach and, more importantly, I’ll show you the process. No templates required.

Benefits of keyword mapping (the alternative way) 

Fact 1. Google may see seemingly different keywords as the same topic.

For example, we rank for these keywords in the top 10 with a single page: 

  • seo basics”
  • how to use seo” 
  • beginner’s guide to seo”
  • getting started with seo”
  • seo knowledge”

Fact 2. Conversely, Google may see seemingly similar keywords as different topics. 

For example, let’s compare “digital marketing” with “online marketing.” I’d say those two keywords are pretty close to each other. Google disagrees. 

Low SERP similarity score signals potentially different topics
Everywhere you look, the same story. Top-ranking pages and our SERP similarity score (100-point scale; the more, the higher similarity) say that these are completely different topics SEO-wise.

The above two facts are also reasons why keyword mapping by just relying on keywords is not the optimal way. You won’t know whether you’re wasting your time targeting the same topic with different keywords or just “confusing” Google. 

But why content types instead of pages or even URLs? Because before you decide what page will be used to target the keyword, you’ll need to identify the search intent of the keyword. And a good starting point for that is identifying the dominating type of content on the first page of Google. 

To sum up, the benefits of keyword mapping using topics and content types are: 

  • Seeing keywords the same way Google sees them: as topics and subtopics. 
  • Incorporating search intent into the process. 
  • Keeping an organized list of topics, which also helps to prevent duplicating content.

Note

Keyword mapping can’t substitute keyword research. While keyword mapping is basically a form of organizing keywords, keyword research provides you the keywords and the confidence that: 

  • Your keywords have traffic potential.
  • You can match the search intent behind your keywords.
  • Your keywords will bring valuable traffic. 
  • You can rank for those keywords. 

Learn how to choose the right keywords with our full guide.

Going further, we’ll look at two levels of using this method: the fast lane and the more thorough one. 

Learn more: What Is Semantic Search? How It Impacts SEO 

Level 1 – Fast, reasonable job

You’ll need a keyword research tool that can do keyword grouping based on what’s on the SERP, such as Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer. In the case of this tool: 

  1. Enter your keywords
  2. Open Matching terms report
  3. Go to the Parent topics tab 
Three steps to find Parent Topics via Keywords Explorer

If you click on a Parent Topic, you will find separate topics “distilled” from your keywords. So for example, you will see keywords like “can babies get covid” and “babies and covid” grouped under the same topic. 

Keywords grouped under the same Parent Topic

Sidenote.

To identify the Parent Topic, we take the #1 ranking page for your keyword and find the keyword responsible for sending the most traffic to that page.

At this level of keyword mapping, your target keyword is the Parent Topic (not the keywords inside that Parent Topic). 

The next step is to identify the content type. The easiest way to do this is to see what kind of content dominates the first three to five results in Google. 

Typical content types are:

  • Articles
  • Videos
  • Product pages
  • Product category pages
  • Landing pages 
Top-ranking pages with a dominating content type
For example, the dominating content type for “teething symptoms” is the article.

As a result, assigning topics to content types will give you a super simple yet highly actionable database.

Topic Content type
Teething symptoms Article
When do babies roll over Article
Baby formula Mixed (product pages on top)
When can babies have water Article

Sidenote.

What about secondary keywords or supporting keywords? We recommend picking them in the content creation phase as subtopics needed to cover a topic in full. Learn a few ways you can find them here.

So this is the fast method. The great thing about it is that it automates keyword grouping by using real SERP data (and not just semantics). 

However, it has its downsides too. Sometimes, it “hides” less popular topics that could potentially be targeted with a separate page. Here’s why. 

The parent keyword is derived from the top-ranking page on the SERP. If Google thinks that the best answer to the query is found on a page that is targeting a broader topic, it will still use it. This may result in a confusing SERP like this one: 

Confusing SERP example
The top result is a featured snippet taken from a page with a broader topic. Hence, the Parent Topic (here seen as “Top keyword”) in Ahrefs. But pretty much every other page on the SERP targets the keywords directly.

This kind of situation probably won’t happen too often. But if you want to squeeze everything out of your keyword mapping process, you need to go to level 2. 

Level 2 – Thorough but time consuming

In level 2, we’re going to take a closer look at the Parent Topics to see what’s in them. 

  1. First, you should pick a Parent Topic.
  2. Sort keywords inside the topic by KD (Keyword Difficulty). Big differences in KD will be an indication of a different set of pages on the SERP.
  3. If you see a keyword with a significantly different KD than the Parent Topic, click on the SERP button.
  4. See if the top-ranking pages, excluding the first result, talk about the keyword instead of the Parent Topic. You can use the Compare with feature for a quick overview of the situation. The lower the SERP similarity score, the higher the probability you’re looking at two different topics. 
How to investigate Parent Topics

Let’s look at a couple of examples. 

In the first example, we’ve got a keyword with a KD score that’s 20 higher than the Parent Topic. Upon investigating, we see that we may be dealing with two separate topics: The SERP similarity is quite low. Also, there is only one common result, while other pages target the keyword directly. 

Keywords grouped under the same topic but have dissimilar SERPs

Next example. Here we have “teething symptoms” (KD 65) and “when do babies get molars” (KD 28). Looking at SERP similarity, we see that this, again, may be a case of two topics. 

Low SERP similarity between two keywords

But there’s more. Only the bottom results target the keyword directly. Others talk about teething timelines, stages, charts, etc. This is a hint for yet another way to rank for the keyword. 

Only bottom results target the keyword directly

Generally speaking, when you see that you’re dealing with a separate topic “in disguise,” the decision comes down to:

  1. Targeting the Parent Topic anyway. For example, if the top result is a featured snippet, you may be able to win it with a page on a relevant broader topic. 
  2. Marking the keyword as a separate topic and targeting it directly with a separate page. In this case, add that keyword as a topic to target and note down the content type. 
  3. Turning to SERP analysis in tougher cases (like our example above). 

Final thoughts 

Feel free to customize the process and add your own data points. If you feel like going a step further and assigning URLs, your website folders, or introducing some kind of prioritization (e.g., business potential), this won’t hurt. 

However, keep in mind that keyword mapping is not a good way to design your entire website structure. Most often than not, not all pages on your site should be search-based. 

What are the next steps after keyword mapping? 

Got comments or questions? Ping me on Twitter or Mastodon



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Everything You Need To Know

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Of all the many, many functions available in Google Ads, I have a few that are my favorites. And sitelink assets – previously known as sitelink extensions – are at the top of my list.

Why? Because they’re so versatile. You can do almost anything with them if you think through your strategy carefully.

For example, you can use the mighty sitelink in your advertising to:

  • Promote low search volume themes.
  • Push lagging products out the door.
  • Maximize hot sellers.
  • Highlight certain product categories.
  • Answer common questions.
  • Handle PR problems.

And that’s just a start! Sitelink assets can almost do it all.

Best Practices For Using Sitelink Assets Extensions

If you truly want to get the most out of your sitelinks, you need to think about your intention.

To help you with that, I’m going to lay out a few sitelink guidelines.

1. Get clear on your objectives. Before you start, you need to think about your goals. What are you trying to achieve with these assets? Are you advertising products or services? Will the asset work well with both branded and non-branded keywords? Your answers to these questions will help determine if your sitelinks are versatile and useful to the searcher.

2. Use sitelinks as part of your larger strategy. Don’t think of your sitelinks in isolation. You should also consider the accompanying ad, landing page, and other assets. Make sure they all work together in service to your overarching strategy.

3. Use a mix of sitelinks. Sitelinks can serve multiple purposes, so make sure you’re using a variety. For example, you don’t want to use every sitelink on an ad to promote on-sale products. Instead, use a mix. One could promote an on-sale product, one could generate leads, one could highlight a new product category, and one could direct prospective clients to useful information.

4. Create landing pages for your sitelinks. Ideally, you want to send users to landing pages that tightly correlate with your sitelink instead of just a regular page on your website.

5. Track sitelink performance and adjust. It’s not enough to set up sitelinks. You should also track them to see which links are getting traction and which ones are not. This doesn’t mean that all sitelinks should perform equally (more on this below), but it does mean they should perform well given their type and objectives.

Why it’s Better To Use A Mix Of Sitelink Assets

Let’s dive deeper into this idea of using a mix of sitelinks by looking at an example.

In a new client account, we created four different types of sitelinks:

  • Two sitelinks are product-focused (as requested by the client).
  • One sitelink connects users with an engineer to learn more about the product (“Speak to an Engineer”). It has more of a sales focus.
  • One sitelink allows users to learn more about the products without speaking to an engineer (“What is?”).

The “What is?” sitelink is outperforming the “Speak to an Engineer” sitelink when we measure by CTR. While we need more data before making any changes, I predict we’ll eventually swap out the sales-y “Speak to an Engineer” sitelink for something else.

The fact that the educational link (“What is?”) is performing better than the sales-y link (“Speak to an Engineer”) isn’t too surprising in this case. The product is a new, cutting-edge robot that not many people are aware of, yet. They want more info before talking to someone.

Screenshot by author, January 2023

By using a mix of sitelinks, and assessing the performance of each, we gained a lot of valuable information that is helping to guide our strategy for this account. So going with a mix of sitelinks is always a good idea. You never know what you’ll discover!

Sitelink Assets Examples

Now, let’s look at some specific examples of sitelink assets in Google Ads.

Example 1: Chromatography

Sitelinks extension - Chromatography exampleScreenshot from Google, January 2023

Application Search: This ad is for a highly technical product that can be used in a wide variety of applications. (Chromatography is a laboratory technique for separating mixtures.) So putting “application search” in a sitelink here might make sense. It helps prospective clients find what they’re looking for.

Sign up and Save Big: A good sitelink for lead generation and potential revenue.

Technical Support: I’m not a big fan of putting technical support in sitelinks. Tech support seems more targeted to current users rather than prospective users. But who knows, maybe they really do want to help current users get tech support via their advertising.

Guides and Posters: Again, this sitelink is a bit unusual, but it might be appropriate for this product. Perhaps people are downloading branded posters and posting them in their workplaces. If so, it’s a great way to build brand awareness.

Example 2: Neuroscience Courses

Sitelink Extensions - Nueroscience courses exampleScreenshot from Google, January 2023

I love everything about these sitelinks! The advertising is using them to reach people in all phases of the buyer journey.

For people not ready to commit:

  • Study Neuroscience: This sitelink is broad and informational. It’s helpful to people who have just started to explore their options for studying neuroscience.
  • Get Course Brochure: This sitelink is also great for people in the research phase. And while we mostly live in an online world, some people still prefer to consume hard-copy books, brochures, etc. With this sitelink, the school is covering its bases.

For people getting close to committing:

  • Online Short Course: This is the course the school offers. It’s a great sitelink for those almost ready to sign up.

For people ready to sign up:

  • Register Online Now: This is the strongest call to action for those ready to commit. It takes people directly to the signup page.

Example 3: Neuroscience Degrees

Let’s look at another example from the world of neuroscience education: this time for a neuroscience degree program.

Sitelink extensions - neuroscience degree exampleScreenshot from Google, January 2023

In contrast to the previous two examples, the sitelinks in this ad aren’t as strong.

Academics Overview: This sitelink seems more appropriate for a broad term search, such as a search on the school’s name. If the searcher is looking for a specific degree program (which seems like the intention based on the term and the ad), the sitelinks should be something specific to that particular degree program.

Scholarships: Just as with the above sitelink, “Scholarships” doesn’t seem very helpful either. The topic of scholarships is important—but probably doesn’t need to be addressed until the person determines that this school is a good fit.

Example 4: Code Security

Next, let’s look at two Google search ads for code security products.

Sitelink extensions - code security exampleScreenshot from Google, January 2023

 

The sitelinks in these two ads look like typical assets you’d find for SaaS, cloud-based, or tech companies. They click through to a lot of helpful information, such as product plans and success stories.

I particularly like the Most Common Risks sitelink in the second ad. It leads to a helpful article that would be great for engaging top-of-funnel leads.

On the flip side, I’m not a big fan of the Blog sitelink in the first ad. “Blog” simply isn’t very descriptive or helpful.

Still, there are no right or wrong sitelinks here. And it would be interesting to test my theory that blog content is not a top-performing asset!

Sitelink Assets Are More Than An Afterthought

I hope I’ve convinced you of the usefulness and versatility of sitelinks when created with specific objectives that align with your broader strategy.

So don’t create your sitelink assets as an afterthought.

Because if you give them the careful consideration they deserve, they’ll serve you well.

Note: Google sitelink assets were previously known as sitelink extensions and renamed in September 2022.

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AI Content In Search Results

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AI Content In Search Results

Google has released a statement regarding its approach to AI-generated content in search results.

The company has a long-standing policy of rewarding high-quality content, regardless of whether humans or machines produce it.

Above all, Google’s ranking systems aim to identify content that demonstrates expertise, experience, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-E-A-T).

Google advises creators looking to succeed in search results to produce original, high-quality, people-first content that demonstrates E-E-A-T.

The company has updated its “Creating helpful, reliable, people-first content” help page with guidance on evaluating content in terms of “Who, How, and Why.”

Here’s how AI-generated content fits into Google’s approach to ranking high-quality content in search results.

Quality Over Production Method

Focusing on the quality of content rather than the production method has been a cornerstone of Google’s approach to ranking search results for many years.

A decade ago, there were concerns about the rise in mass-produced human-generated content.

Rather than banning all human-generated content, Google improved its systems to reward quality content.

Google’s focus on rewarding quality content, regardless of production method, continues to this day through its ranking systems and helpful content system introduced last year.

Automation & AI-Generated Content

Using automation, including AI, to generate content with the primary purpose of manipulating ranking in search results violates Google’s spam policies.

Google’s spam-fighting efforts, including its SpamBrain system, will continue to combat such practices.

However, Google realizes not all use of automation and AI-generated content is spam.

For example, publishers automate helpful content such as sports scores, weather forecasts, and transcripts.

Google says it will continue to take a responsible approach toward AI-generated content while maintaining a high bar for information quality and helpfulness in search results.

Google’s Advice For Publishers

For creators considering AI-generated content, here’s what Google advises.

Google’s concept of E-E-A-T is outlined in the “Creating helpful, reliable, people-first content” help page, which has been updated with additional guidance.

The updated help page asks publishers to think about “Who, How, and Why” concerning how content is produced.

“Who” refers to the person who created the content, and it’s important to make this clear by providing a byline or background information about the author.

“How” relates to the method used to create the content, and it’s helpful to readers to know if automation or AI was involved. If AI was involved in the content production process, Google wants you to be transparent and explain why it was used.

“Why” refers to the purpose of creating content, which should be to help people rather than to manipulate search rankings.

Evaluating your content in this way, regardless of whether AI-generated or not, will help you stay in line with what Google’s systems reward.


Featured Image: Alejandro Corral Mena/Shutterstock



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