In-Scope: The Death of the Brand? How Google’s Algorithm is Designed for Good Content

Hannah Wright is an SEO Manager, turning search trends and insights into content-lead solutions for a range of client challenges.

In 1967, literary critic Roland Barthes penned a now-famous essay that declared the death of the author. Such a bold act gave birth to the text as a multi-dimensional space which had meaning only once applied to its destination: the reader. In many ways, I feel Barthes’ base concept can be applied to content marketing. The content and delivery of the blog article, or video, or podcast is often more important to the consumer, and provides the meaning that enriches the brand. That is, after all, why we do content marketing. So, is the brand dead – long live the content that resonates with consumers?

If, as Matilda McMaster says, just 5% of online content accounts for 90% of engagement, how do you reach the upper echelons of glory? For this, I look to Google. In part, because it’s part of my job. But also because 71% of consumers begin their journeys by using a search engine, and Google’s entire organic search model is predicated on providing a good user experience for searchers, and subsequently is more likely to rank content that sits in those upper echelons.

In 2018, Google has made a series of changes that further solidifies the position of the user at the apex of the content pyramid and provides insight into the current state of content marketing.

June 2018: The Speed Update for Mobile Search

In January 2018, the Speed Update was publicly announced 6 months prior to it’s actual rollout. The update specifically made page speed a ranking factor for mobile results. Google claimed that this only affected the slowest mobile sites, and there was no evidence of major mobile rankings shifts. In truth, Google has had a series of mobile-specific algorithm updates that started with Mobilegeddon in 2015 (where Google gave priority to websites that display well on smartphones and other mobile devices) in recognition of a user shift towards more mobile-based searches, and will no doubt continue to evolve as users become more mobile. At this point, mobile is so integrated into consumer behaviour and user journeys that to not ensure content is appropriately tailored in format and delivery to the device would be foolish. This technical component of content performance shouldn’t be undermined either – consumers bounce when content takes too long to load, resulting in a lost opportunity for your brand to talk to consumers.

July 2018: The update to Google Quality Rater Guidelines

Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines were updated in July to better define “low” and “lowest quality” pages, which gives a great indication into what content needs to not do. These guidelines are the instructions that Google’s quality raters follow when manually evaluating pages to assist with adjusting Google’s algorithms. It has three core concepts that rings true for any form of content, digital or otherwise:

  • User Intent – when a user types or speaks a query, or seeks out specific content, with a specific goal in mind, be it informational, doing, branded (not dead!), visiting a physical location, or otherwise.
  • Quality – how well the content achieves its purpose for the end user. As long as the content is created to help users, no particular purpose or media type has higher quality.
  • Needs Met – When the user’s search query or content needs has resulted in content that’s quality matches the intent of the user and results in a satisfying user experience.

Barthes and Google’s approach – the death of the author or brand considering the birth of the user – divide at this intersection, made perhaps more explicit with the recent revisions. The guideline update focused on the Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness (E-A-T) criterion with Google highlighting that their raters needed to not only look at the reputation of the website itself, but also the content creators themselves in the assessment of the page.

Google’s focus with this addition is on ensuring content that is created by creators with great reputations is ranking well, especially in a world of fake news and conspiracy theories. For Google at least, the author isn’t dead. In fact, the popularity and relevance factors that comes from certain authorship might well be what it takes to drive content to the top of SERPs.

August 2018: The Medic Core Algorithm Update

It’s unsurprising then that off the back of releasing the latest rater reviewing guidelines, an algorithm update rolled out from August 1st 2018, specifically addressing quality. Google typically makes these updates several times per year and often with minor volatility to websites and no easy fix available for pages that have dropped in rank. However, the Medic update saw rankings adjusted accordingly and many sites saw significant volatility across industry verticals and countries.

The consensus of SEO specialists was that the focus was on showing better results for the intent of a user’s search query in their buyer’s journey, and demoting pages with low content quality and E-A-T specifically. The importance of creating good quality content was reaffirmed by Google, with the only feedback being to remain focused on making your site, content and user experience better overall and keep working at small changes that can have a big impact on your rankings.

And herein is perhaps the best rebuttal of Barthes’ concept. Both the user intent and the authoritativeness of the content creator are equally as important to the ability of the content to rank. Only those that have authority and do content well survive the algorithm updates.

The Verdict

I agree with Matilda McMaster when she says it’s up to us as marketers to ensure we are implementing a perfect ratio of art and science. It needs to create a deep and meaningful connection with our audiences by tapping into those initial intents of the user, whilst also being data-led to recognise gaps and opportunities, the right platforms and right time. You need the data to measure progress and performance but also to optimise.

I don’t think the brand is dead. Absolutisms on either side doesn’t really work, as both the brand and the consumer are important to the content and giving it meaning. Some content can only be consumed when it comes from certain brands, either because of their authority or because of the consumer’s loyalty to them. I don’t think Google thinks the brand is dead, clearly evidenced above. But it is a content battlefield out there, and I do think we need to consider a fourth entity in the relationship: the algorithms which help separate the valuable content from the less valuable content, and dictates which content sits in those upper echelons of visibility. Instagram, Youtube, Pinterest, and other content platforms all do this same task. Optimising needs to occur both at a consumer level and an algorithm level, to ensure both production and media spend is driving engagement to the right people, and to ensure content is even reaching that top echelon of longevity.

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