This month I returned to the University of London to deliver my Understand Google course, following workshops at UCL and Birkbeck earlier in the year. Unexpectedly, my most recent course was significantly better than previous outings. This post explains why and in doing so, provides a useful prism through which you and your teams can understand Search Engine Marketing (SEO and AdWords). 

Teaching context

So why was my most recent workshop way better than the rest? It was partly new content. I had added a glossary of the 35+ concepts to my slides, making it easy for the audience to follow and digest new terminology. But the single biggest improvement came from spending enough time teaching context. Unlike previous workshops, I dedicated the first twenty minutes to setting the scene. As is usually the case with retrospect, this now seems obvious. Without understanding Google’s origins –  Larry and Sergey’s original idea, their motivations, their mission statement – it’s impossible to understand the mechanics behind Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Google AdWords.

It got me thinking more broadly about the importance of context in teaching. I would argue that a teacher should not present an idea or concept without paying attention to its origin. A lesson on the American constitution and the right to bear arms, for instance, would need to review the impact of British colonial rule. An analysis of Apple’s decision to build a closed ecosystem would have to reference, among other things, Steve Jobs attending a calligraphy course at university and his subsequent obsession with controlling product aesthetic.

Google is relevance

So what do you need to know about Google’s origins to make you better at Search Engine Marketing?

One word. Relevance.

Back in 1996, Larry Page and Sergey Brin were PhD students at Stanford University in California. They were interested in how information was retrieved on the internet and developed a search engine called Backrub on Stanford’s servers. Their research paper makes clear that Backrub was focussed on solving one problem: bringing relevance and order to internet search. This meant prioritising what was important in the expanding ocean of the internet.

“Our main goal is to improve the quality of web search engines … Anyone who has used a search engine recently, can readily testify that the completeness of the index is not the only factor in the quality of search results. “Junk results” often wash out any results that a user is interested in. In fact, as of November 1997, only one of the top four commercial search engines finds itself (returns its own search page in response to its name in the top ten results).”

At the heart of their invention, was the notion of citation. In academia, professors become experts in a subject area if their papers are referenced by other academics in industry journals. Daron Acemoglu, an MIT Economics Professor, is relevant to the field of institutional economics, because he is referenced by his peers in their articles in esteemed economic publications.

Larry and Sergey, in essence, lifted this logic of academic citation and dropped it on the internet.

“The citation (link) graph of the web is an important resource that has largely gone unused in existing web search engines. We have created maps containing as many as 518 million of these hyperlinks, a significant sample of the total. These maps allow rapid calculation of a web page’s “PageRank”, an objective measure of its citation importance that corresponds well with people’s subjective idea of importance.”

This laser focus on relevance is also apparent in Google’s mission statement which remains, after all these years, ‘making the world’s information universally accessible and useful’. Not only that, Google’s entire business model is predicated on delivering relevance.

Improved relevance brings more users; more users bring more advertisers; more advertisers bring more revenue; more revenue brings more R&D; more R&D brings improved relevance; ad infinitum. Or ad(vert) infinitum.

Google’s business is a virtuous circle – the holy grail of business models – that generates $60 billion per year. The combustion engine within their circle of cash generation, is the pressure to consistently improve relevance which increases users which increases revenue.

Now that we’ve set the scene and established relevance as the bedrock of Google, we can now understand the theory behind SEO and AdWords. And most importantly, YOU can then put theory into practice. When designing your website structure, choosing your keywords, writing your ads, you’ll have to please Larry and Sergey to pass the ‘Google relevance test’.

How to get relevance in SEO and AdWords?

The key question to ask when you or your marketing teams do anything Google related is: how do we organise our own information to make it universally accessible and useful? Put differently, how do we structure our marketing so that Google deems it relevant?

I’ve selected three examples of Search Engine Marketing that should make more sense having laid down the foundation stone of relevance.

1. Off-page SEO: Quality not quantity of inbound links

As outlined above, Page and Brin’s primary innovation was to lift the logic of academic citation and drop it on the internet. This would make their search engine display the right results in the right order. Successful search was not just about displaying all the results. If a webpage was referenced by many other webpages, it was deemed relevant.  But it was also quality that mattered. In the early days of Search Engine Optimisation, brands would pay agencies to create thousands of bogus sites that would link to a client’s website. This would game the system of citation and improve page rankings. But Google has continually invested in tightening their algorithm that police against inauthentic links. Today, a link from a website with strong domain authority, such as a news outlet like the Economist or the BBC, or a university – is worth infinitely more than 10,000 links from empty sites.

Now that we understand the origins of Google, we know that the manipulation of inbound links (an example of a ‘black hat tactic’) undermines Google’s mission statement of bringing order and relevance to the world’s information. We also know that irrelevance threatens Google’s business model. If users begin to stop using Google as they mistrust its ability to display relevant search results, it will mean less advertising dollars.

2. On-page SEO: A love for original content; a distaste for duplication

In striving to bring order and relevance to the world’s information, Google does not like duplicate content on the internet. This is because it makes it hard to ascertain the true ‘creator’ or source of the content and rank it accordingly. It also compromises user experience. If a website creates 10 pages with identical content, the user’s web experience suffers. Users will navigate through your website, expecting to discover new information but instead, will read the same content over. It’s like a reading a book and coming across a chapter where each page is the same. That’s why Google recommends structuring the information on your website to remove duplication through 301 redirects and canonical tags.

Conversely, Google loves original content as it moves a subject forward. Just like an academic who produces a new theory in her field will progress her subject, Google wants businesses to publish fresh, insightful things that others will find useful. This is why SEO agencies have become specialist content creators, helping brands create compelling content that offers unique and useful information about their respective industries. Kevin Gibbons from Blueglass, a specialist content and SEO agency says “Relevance is everything. Google’s whole experience is built around providing the most relevant result for a given query and in SEO, you have to focus on how you can be that best result for a user, so that you can earn the right to rank at the top.”

3. Google AdWords: Quality Score, Quality Score, Quality Score

Relevance lies at the heart of a successful Google AdWords campaign. Most people believe that to get your ads to display at the top of a Google search, brands just need to give Google more money. Wrong. While a higher bid (Cost Per Click bid) contributes to a higher AdRank, relevance also plays a role. Relevance is wrapped up in a concept that Google calls ‘Quality Score’. If an advertiser has a high Quality Score, they will get a higher Ad Rank without having to bid higher in their CPCs. It’s the in-built meritocracy that rewards advertisers for publishing good ads that ‘answer’ users’ questions. Quality score is based on a number of components:

  • Historical Click Through Rate: If an ad has a high relative CTR, it tells Google that it is deemed ‘relevant’ by users when they search for something. If more people, on average, are clicking an ad, it’s demonstrates quality. You can improve your CTR by making your Ad copy match the search query and by highlighting your company’s Unique Selling Proposition.
  • Display URL CTR: This has the same logic as ad CTR but applies it to the Display URL across a number of ads. If all your ads that use the same display URL (e.g. all have a high CTR, this will impact the Quality Score of individual ads.
  • Landing page experience: You have to make your landing page relevant, transparent, and easy-to-navigate. Google will evaluate the page that you’re sending users to and will decide whether it is relevant against the Keyword you’ve bidding for. It will also run tests for speed and its experience across mobile devices. If your page loads fast and it works well for mobile users, it will give you a higher Quality Score which means you pay less to appear at the top of Google Search.   

Dan Gilbert, MD of Brainlabs, a leading performance marketing agency, sums it up nicely when he says: “the whole ecosystem is built around relevance – serving the most relevant possible ad to a specific query. If you don’t want to make the effort to serve users the right ad then they won’t click on it and you’ll end up paying twice as much as you need to.”

There are countless examples in film when the lead character gets told by another (usually older and wiser) character not to forget their roots. “Don’t forget where you came from, kid” it usually goes. In this post, I have argued that online marketers should never forget Google’s roots when thinking about SEO and AdWords. When you place relevance at the heart of everything you do, you are aligning your strategy with Google’s. There are then three winners: you get quality organic and paid traffic, Google has a happy advertiser and the user gets what they want. So “don’t forget where Google came from, kid” and you’ll be all good.