“5 Ways to Build a Google Algorithm Update Resistant SEO Strategy - Search Engine Journal” plus 1 more
Posted: 21 Jun 2019 12:00 AM PDT
The decision to pre-announce the update was presumably as much about Google's PR team stopping Gary Illyes from naming another update as it was to save SEO pros from freaking out.
CCN & the Algo Update Fallout
But freak out we did. Most notably, cryptocurrency news website, CCN reported that their organic visibility had dropped by 90% and that they were shutting down as a result.
While no one wants to see others losing their jobs, their "demands from Google" underestimate the complexities of Google's algorithms and completely misjudge how they operate as a business.
A three-month heads up on algorithm updates and what it might impact?
Direct communications to news sites that are about to experience substantial drops in organic visibility?
A global task force reviewing future algorithm updates?
Good luck making that happen!
It later emerged CCN's organic traffic wasn't struck by a random act of Google, but that the site wasn't without its issues.
Let's be clear if your business is that reliant on organic traffic, especially from just two pages, you're playing a dangerous game.
While CCN has since published a subsequent post to say that they are "rising from the dead", there are a number of more general points I want to make around the current state of search.
I also want to put forward several steps that SEO pros can take to become more resistant to algorithm updates.
Google Is Monopolizing the Delivery of the Web
While some of the recent condemnations of Google and how they operate are ill-thought out, they do have an unhealthy monopoly in controlling the delivery of the web, and it's only growing.
Let's look at some examples from recent times:
None of the above will be news to most, but it's worth taking a step back to take in exactly how much control Google has over the delivery of our content.
Taking a purely objective view of these power plays, it makes sense to standardize the delivery of information through the lens of Google's material design. After all, who hasn't benefited from being served a handy featured snippet to answer a quick question?
Google has effectively taken the stance that, on the whole, websites can't be trusted to deliver well-structured, performant websites with reliable signals regarding indexing, internationalization, and the like.
Instead, Google tries to bypass these problems by standardizing a searcher's experience of the web and keeping you in their platform.
The problem is that Google doesn't have any real competition (sorry Bing!) when it comes to search and that doesn't look at all likely to change in the foreseeable future.
For the time being, it's very much a case of Google says jump and we say how high.
How Can You Minimize the Impact of Algorithm Updates?
To save this post from becoming too bleak, I'd like to share some ways that websites can set themselves up to be more resistant to Google's algorithm updates and less dependent on organic traffic from Google.
1. 'Create Great Content'
Google's go-to recommendation following a core algorithm update can feel like a slap with a wet fish, but it isn't advice that should be overlooked. Maybe give that a go if you haven't already. Content is King™ and all that…
But seriously, as important as it is to keep on top of Google's algorithm updates and what they impact, we can get overly fixated on them as a community when focusing on executing on a long-term strategy should take precedence.
In the case of the June algorithm update, yes, we need to be aware that we can expect fluctuations in organic traffic. And yes, we should read authoritative analysis showing the common trends driven by the update.
However, these insights should be factored into a long-term search strategy rather than causing us to pivot and take a number of short-term actions to try and capitalize on new opportunities or claw back lost rankings.
The only way you're going to benefit from a core algorithm update is if you're investing in a well-reasoned long term approach to organic search which is committed to delivering performant websites that deliver quality content and valuable experiences to visitors.
2. Sound Long-Term Strategy, Over Short-Term Tactics
It's easy to preach about how SEO strategies should ideally look but what does that mean if you're facing the harsh realities of being hit by an algorithm update like CCN?
Providing your sites and business haven't been completely toppled by an algorithm update, these sites need to take a long hard look at:
In the case of CCN, scaling the workforce of a site that is reliant on two pages to deliver the bulk of its organic traffic is irresponsible. Google didn't kill CCN, poor planning did.
It might be too late, but CCN should have been and should be planning a strategy to tackle the following issues (credit to Dan Shure for his insights):
This list might only be the tip of the iceberg but the point is that CCN has far bigger issues that they should have been addressing that likely contributed to the drop they saw following the latest core algorithm update.
Yes, Google should be held accountable and should be working to communicate more transparently with the search community, but that does not excuse the publisher's poor foundations on which they had built a business.
3. Be Selective in Who You Work With and For
Looking at things from the perspective of the individual, we need to be more selective about the websites that we chose to work on and the businesses we associate with.
When you come to seek new opportunities, whether that be in-house, agency side, contracting or if you're onboarding new clients you need to assess prospective businesses and their websites by asking questions such as:
We need to be more cognizant of the foundations and longevity of the businesses that we involve ourselves with and do our due diligence.
4. Nurture Returning Visitors & Build a Brand
Speaking from personal experience, I came to work on a site that had historically performed tremendously well in search in a highly competitive niche.
I was successful in building upon the site's existing success and significantly took their organic traffic to new heights, while also diversifying the site's revenue streams.
I was proud of what I'd achieved with optimizing and growing this site, but the problem was that this success was overwhelmingly based on visitors coming from organic search.
Despite the substantial levels of traffic to the site, visitors were only there because it ranked well.
Perhaps it was a failure of my relatively junior status at the time, but I couldn't convince the management to invest time and resource into nurturing returning visitors.
Lacking an understanding of the pace at which Google search evolves they were happy to count on good rankings as a given.
Years on and the site in question still performs well in search, but is (as far as I can tell) failing to capitalize on the phenomenal levels of organic traffic by building something bigger by way of a brand – or even an email list at the very least!
If I were presented with the opportunity to work on a similar site with a business of the same mindset today, I would like to think I would look elsewhere because they wouldn't pass the due diligence questions mentioned above.
5. Collaborate With Other Departments & Take a Broader Perspective
The future of SEO is only going to become further entrenched with other disciplines.
It is ever-more important that SEOs collaborate with and understand the challenges of the other marketing and business functions it is intertwined with.
SEO intersects with paid search, CRO, UX, PR, development and that's not even to mention the broader business impacts.
As such, search teams need to take a wider view of their place in an organization, build strong working relationships with other teams and collaborate with them to build healthier foundations for a business and reduce their dependence on organic traffic and its fluctuations.
One such example of where SEOs could take a broader perspective is with the newly released FAQ rich results:
The above example shows that implementing FAQ schema has seen organic clicks decline, which would typically be seen negatively from the perspective of an SEO.
However, this could be perceived to be a success by other teams as the answer to a problem is getting more visibility and their question is likely being answered faster without the need to click through to the website itself.
For some questions, this might be a better user experience because users can get a faster answer and it could also reduce the number of support queries coming through as the question (and related ones) are getting more visibility.
By taking a broader view of success and adjusting KPIs accordingly to work alongside other business functions we can build more successful websites and cohesive digital businesses that work towards a common goal.
This post is far from an exhaustive list of ways websites and businesses can improve their immunity to algorithm updates and become less dependent on organic traffic, but more of a contribution to an ongoing discussion.
While we need to hold Google accountable in what limited ways we can, we need to direct our efforts towards building digital businesses with long term planning in mind.
Businesses that aren't desperately reliant on the black box of a third party.
Easier said than done, but it's something we should strive for!
Posted: 13 Jul 2019 09:27 AM PDT
Ever since Alexa and Google Assistant first burst onto the scene and started populating people's homes with smart speakers and other gadgets outfitted with always-listening microphones, people have wondered whether anyone other than their AI assistant of choice was listening in.
Well, the answer is yes -- bothand have admitted that they hire contractors to listen to anonymized user audio clips for the purposes of improving their respective assistant's capabilities.
That might have seemed like an obvious assumption to some, but to many, it was a wake-up call. That's true not just for Amazon and Google, but for all of the gadgets and services that need our data to function. What are these companies doing with our data? How are they protecting it? Are they sharing any of it with third parties?
What Amazon and Google say
"We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order improve the customer experience," an Amazon spokesperson. "For example, this information helps us train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems, so Alexa can better understand your requests, and ensure the service works well for everyone."
The spokesperson added that employees can't directly access identifying information about the people or accounts associated with the recordings.
"All information is treated with high confidentiality and we use multi-factor authentication to restrict access, service encryption, and audits of our control environment to protect it," the spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, Google chalks it all up to the complexities of building a fully capable, multilingual voice assistant.
"As part of our work to develop speech technology for more languages, we partner with language experts around the world who understand the nuances and accents of a specific language," David Monsees, product manager for Google Search, said in a blog post Thursday. "These language experts review and transcribe a small set of queries to help us better understand those languages. This is a critical part of the process of building speech technology, and is necessary to creating products like the Google Assistant."
Google adds that the audio samples these contractors listen to amount to about 0.2% of all recordings, and that user account details aren't associated with any of them.
"Reviewers are directed not to transcribe background conversations or other noises, and only to transcribe snippets that are directed to Google," Monsees said.
0.2% -- is that it?
Google's blog post specifically addresses audio that reviewers are listening to for the purpose of helping Google Assistant master a variety of languages, dialects and accents. But are there any other purposes for which Google or its contractors listen to user audio?
I asked a Google spokesperson that exact question, but did not receive an answer. Instead, the company reiterated that language experts review around 0.2 percent of all audio snippets. It did not address whether or not Google has any other purposes for listening to user audio outside of what's described in Monsees' blog post -- details Google only shared after one of those language experts provided Belgium-based VRT NWS with more than a thousand recordings of people using Google Home smart speakers and the Google Assistant app.
"We restrict access to personal information to Google employees, contractors, and agents who need that information in order to process it. Anyone with this access is subject to strict contractual confidentiality obligations and may be disciplined or terminated if they fail to meet these obligations."
As for Amazon, the Alexa FAQ page reads:
"...we use your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems. The more data we use to train these systems, the better Alexa works, and training Alexa with voice recordings from a diverse range of customers helps ensure Alexa works well for everyone."
That said, Amazon claims that the actual percentage of audio recordings the company listens to and transcribes is very small, and similar to what Google pegs it at.
"We annotate a fraction of one percent of interactions from a random set of customers to improve the Alexa experience for customers," the spokesperson tells me.
As with Google, I also asked if there were any other instances outside of these where Amazon employees would listen to a user's audio recordings. Amazon's answer: "No."
What about third parties? Is my voice data being shared?
Good question. Let's start with Google.
The company has a multitude of different posts that talk about its approach to privacy for various Google services, and there's a lot to mine through in order to find clear answers. In some cases, the text is confusing.
One instance occurs on a page for Google Nest services outlining the company's commitment to privacy -- a separate page from the Google or Google Assistant privacy policies. Google explains that the guide is there "to explain as clearly and simply as we can both how our connected home devices and services work, and also how we'll uphold our commitment to respect your privacy."
A few paragraphs later, the page reads:
Read back to back, those sentences seem to contradict each other. Google won't use audio recordings for ad personalization, but when you use the Assistant, Google may use those interactions "to inform your interests for ad personalization." So which is it? Does using the Google Assistant impact the ads you see or doesn't it?
What does that mean for Google Assistant audio recordings, though? If I ask where the nearest flower shop is, am I going to be added to an anonymized list of people who might be interested in buying flowers? Will that list ever be shared with a marketing company for online bouquet deliveries that would then market to me?
"While we may use your interactions to inform your interests for ads personalization, this scenario would not happen," Google tells me. "A third party could not send you a coupon based on your interaction with the Assistant."
"We do not sell your personal information to anyone," the company adds. "This includes your Assistant queries or interests derived from those queries with advertisers."
"User control is very important to us," says Google, "you can always review your Google settings to control the ads you see, including opting out of ad personalization completely."
What about Amazon?
"No audio recordings are shared with third parties," an Amazon spokesperson tells me. "If you use a third party service through Alexa, we will exchange related information with that third party so they may provide the service. For example, if you interact with a third party Alexa skill, we provide the content of your requests (but not the voice recordings) to the skill so the skill can respond accordingly."
Those are two of the most common privacy-related questions facing Alexa today. A post titled "Alexa, Echo Devices, and Your Privacy" ought to address them.
Same goes for Amazon's Alexa FAQ page. Along with not providing any of the same specifics Amazon shared with us in April about when and why contractors or employees might listen to your Alexa audio, the FAQ offers no clear answers about the kind of Alexa data Amazon might be sharing with advertisers.
The only reference to advertisements in the FAQ is the blanket statement, "We also do not sell children's personal information for advertising or other purposes," along with a link to Amazon's Children's Privacy Disclosure.
The overall Amazon privacy page doesn't make much mention of Alexa except for one reference to "Alexa internet" in a long paragraph listing the types of data Amazon collects. However, the page does describe Amazon's approach to sharing the information it collects with third parties. This includes sharing information for the purpose of promotional offers.
"Sometimes we send offers to selected groups of Amazon.com customers on behalf of other businesses. When we do this, we do not give that business your name and address," the page reads.
An Amazon spokesperson offered more of an explanation of how your Alexa usage can impact what ads you see, and what controls you have over that.
"The experience on Alexa is similar to what you'd see on the Amazon website or Amazon app," the spokesperson said. "For example, if you make a purchase via Alexa shopping, that purchase may be used to provide personalized ads, similar to what you'd see if you purchased something on the website. You can opt-out of receiving personalized ads from Amazon at any time."
Should I chuck these things out the window?
That seems excessive. I don't blame anyone who doesn't want to fill their house with cameras and microphones, but I also don't blame anyone who's willing to trade some of their data with a company they feel comfortable with in order to bring some new convenience and utility into their lives. It's nearly impossible to navigate today's age without making trades like that on a daily basis.
In the meantime, I think the correct way to think about this is to assume that anything you say to your digital assistant might very well be heard by someone else in the future. After all, these companies are collecting and retaining voice recordings and transcripts,. That's not for your benefit, it's for theirs.
The real question with all of this is whether or not your privacy is being harmed. Personally, I don't have a problem with an Amazon or Google employee or contractor listening to an anonymized recording of me saying "turn off the dining room" to try and figure out why the assistant thought I said "turn off the dynamo." It's similar to the way an employee at Sony might review my PlayStation usage after a game crashes to figure out what went wrong and help prevent it from happening again.
The difference is that when my video game crashes, my PS4 asks for my permission to take a look at the crash report. Amazon and Google would argue that they do that, too -- but it's a blanket permission that users blindly agree to when they accept the sprawling user agreements during initial device setup. In today's age, I'd argue that's not good enough. At a minimum, clearer language in the app during setup about when, why and how other humans might eventually need to listen to your audio would likely help a lot of users feel better about tapping "accept."
As for data sharing, companies like Amazon and Google also ought to do a better job of describing their practices -- not just in dense legalese buried deep within one of several different privacy statements, but in straightforward, easy-to-find terms that people can actually understand. Perhaps they're worried that doing so might scare potential users away from their platforms. If that's the case, then maybe that wake-up call was long overdue.
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