In the past, organic search was easy. Well, easier.
Add in the right keywords, build the right links to your web pages, and it’s easy to achieve rankings. That’s no longer the case; today, Google has a sophisticated understanding of high-level concepts like context and intent.
It’s bad news for the unprepared.
In 2012, Google launched its Knowledge Graph, a system used to store interconnected descriptions of entities as well as semantics and context used around a specific terminology.
The days of shotgunning keywords onto web pages are over. Now it’s all about topical authority. The representation of your website on the internet is now understood as an entity and its strength is based on not only its content but the relationship it has with other entities throughout the web.
If you want to maintain strong organic performance in search, developing your entity needs to be the foundation, the core of your search strategy.
What are entities?
Remember the definition of a ‘noun,’ the one we learned in school?
I can still hear my first-grade teacher telling us, “a noun is a person, place, or thing.”
Entities are similar to nouns.
An entity is a real-world object; it can be a person, place, product, company, etc., anything (physical or abstract) that can have a proper name. Examples of entities could be Malcolm Gladwell, Cadillac, Harambe, or Wimbledon. Entities can be viewed as entity instances (e.g., Malcolm Gladwell is an instance of an author, Cadillac is an instance of a car, and Wimbledon is an instance of a city/event).
Why do entities matter?
Entities are the building blocks Google uses to build its Knowledge Graph.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
If the Knowledge Graph is the network of ideas, entities are the individual nodes used to build that network. If we look at the image above, Dogs, Cows, Herbs, Plants, Animals, and Living Things, are all entities that can be used to define and contextualize relationships between things.
Source: Math Insight
Here’s how Google describes its Knowledge Graph.
“Our Knowledge Graph, our database of billions of facts about people, places, and things. The Knowledge Graph allows us to answer factual questions such as ‘How tall is the Eiffel Tower?’ or ‘Where were the 2016 Summer Olympics held.’ Our goal with the Knowledge Graph is for our systems to discover and surface publicly known, factual information when it’s determined to be useful.”
What does this mean?
Entities and the Knowledge Graph improve semantic search; these innovations make it easier for Google to accurately assess user intent and contextual meaning using the relationship between entities.
Planning your strategy around entity SEO
Benu Aggarwal shared this image on the evolution of search over time.
Source: Search Engine Land
Her post on creating an entity-first strategy highlights an important change in Google’s priorities.
Did you catch it?
Google’s priorities shifted from identifying popular web pages to identifying quality web pages. In 2016, they made the switch to prioritizing user intent. In 2022, things shifted again, so both the user intent and the user experience are front and center.
There it is.
These recent updates provide us with our marching orders. If we’re going to create an entity-first optimization strategy, we’ll need to focus our attention on the areas that Google feels are most important. So let’s take a closer look at this to see what we need.
- Structured content optimized for semantic search: With semantic search, successful content is now built around topic clusters rather than simply spamming keywords. This is comprehensive, high E-A-T content that’s created around themes and topic clusters. Google wants your content to meet a user’s needs fully.
- Universal results + 1,200+ SEPR features: Google has shifted its paradigm to accommodate users. Rich snippets, Google Lens, Voice search, and more mean they’re meeting customers where they are. Window shopping for the holidays? Take a picture, then do your price shopping later. Driving in your car? Ask Google to find the nearest gas station. If Google takes these measures to accommodate searchers, they expect you to as well.
- Topical coverage via schemas + entities: Google wants strong E-A-T content; they want to see that you provide users with a comprehensive view of the right content at the right time. Structured data gives Google a deeper understanding of the content on your pages; this helps Google to get to know your business better. The easier it is for Google to understand your web pages, the easier it is for them to rank and display your pages where they’re most relevant. Using structured data means you’re eligible for enhanced visual experiences in Google Search and via Google products.
- Core web vitals: Google uses a variety of objective metrics to evaluate the user experience. The main metrics include – Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), First Input Display (FID), and Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS); however, they also pay special attention to Time to First Byte (TTFB) and First Contentful Paint (FCP), citing these as “vital aspects of the loading experience.” They use these metrics to diagnose issues with slow server response times and/or render-blocking resources. What’s their focus here? They want the user experience to be simple and seamless.
Now, let’s convert these into action items we can use to create an entity-first strategy.
Step #1: Plan your content (with a Content Engineering Package)
You’re going to need a plan.
This plan should function as the blueprint for your content marketing and organic search efforts. What’s a content engineering package?
It’s a plan that includes the following data:
Topical clusters, keyword clusters, and groups, the co-occurring terms, the entities searchers expect when they use these keywords, the series of pages needed to satisfy the needs of a particular cluster, etc.
Your content engineering package must treat Google as another persona or audience member you need to satisfy. This is essential as it forces your team to align and harmonize the campaign with three groups and their cohorts:
- Your target audience (e.g., readers, followers, customers, etc.)
- Actual and ideal customers
- Google (e.g., Google News, Maps, Search, etc.)
This sounds tough.
What if there’s a conflict? Where Google wants something that your audience doesn’t?
It’s a nonexistent problem.
Google wants you to align, harmonize, and optimize your content and organic search campaigns around the user. Remember, they want what your users want.
How do I know this?
They make a compelling case for this in their Quality Rater Guidelines. Remember their Needs Met scale? Google asked Raters to evaluate a web page using the following criteria.
- Fully Meets needs
- Highly Meets needs
- Moderately Meets needs
- Slightly Meets needs
- Fails to Meet needs
What’s their ideal scenario?
“Fully Meets (FullyM): All or the vast majority of mobile users would be immediately and fully satisfied by the search result displayed. These users wouldn’t need to view other results. These search results are, according to Google, specific, clear, and unambiguous. Users wouldn’t need to view additional search results. Queries like “Amazon.com” from users in the United States would be a prime example.”
See what I mean?
As a cautionary tale, take the 90s Hip Hop Group Tag Team. Founding member DC Glenn has been obsessed with SEO, structured data, and entities for years now. He’s been on a mission to make his group appear whenever you search ‘Tag Team’ in google. He’s fought to disambiguate the term from the meaning of tag team in wrestling. He joined our Rankable podcast last year and spoke at length about using structured data to grow the authority of his entity:
For a while he was successful, but if more people expect to see wrestling than the 90s hip-hop group, you can imagine what Google’s results will look like:
But ultimately, you can become the entity that shows up in search. As DC implies, Google is always a moving target.
Where does that leave us with Content Engineering?
Remember, a Content Engineering Package means you’ve done the upfront work to identify your users, their needs, and how best to meet them.
This is the foundation.
This upfront legwork is how you create an entity-first strategy for your organic search campaigns.
Step #2: Create your content (Optimizing for search products and features)
You’ll need to complete two steps:
- Create content in a variety of formats, for a variety of channels and
- Format that content, so it’s readily accessible to Google.
What does this mean?
- Planning, structuring, outlining, and producing content (across various production and presentation criteria, e.g., tone, voice, values, etc.)
- Laying out an information plan that outlines the taxonomy, tagging structure, linking structures, information architecture, navigation structure, etc. It’s an information plan that shows technical teams how a site (and content) should be built, structured, and maintained.
- Identifying the formats and channels your target audience needs/wants (e.g., posts, video, slides, images, infographics, voice, mobile, etc.)
- Optimizing content for channels (e.g., transcripts for YouTube, NAP for local), formats (e.g., scripts for video vs. outlines for content), platforms (mobile vs. desktop), and search (on-page/off-page entity-first search, enterprise search, etc.).
- Categorizing content/web pages using schemas and structured data (improving eligibility for enhanced experiences in Google)
These steps are no longer optional. If you’d like to continue to see strong gains in organic search, you’ll need to adapt quickly to this paradigm shift.
Step #3: Optimize the user experience
From page speed, to UI, to disruptive ads, once users make it to the page, it can’t be a frustrating experience. That’s why they’re continuously improving SpamBrain and rolling out Spam Updates (like the one in mid-October 2022). Google describes it like this:
“Optimizing for quality of user experience is key to the long-term success of any site on the web. Whether you’re a business owner, marketer, or developer, Web Vitals can help you quantify the experience of your site and identify opportunities to improve.”
What does this include?
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP): measures the loading performance of your web pages. Google wants LCP to occur within 2.5 seconds from the time your web page begins to load.
- First Input Delay (FID): measures interactivity. This assesses page/site responsiveness when users try to interact with pixels on the page. Google expects that your web pages will have an FID of 100 milliseconds or less.
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): measures visual stability. Google states that this metric “quantifies how often users experience unexpected layout shifts.” The lower the CLS, the better the user experience; Google wants to see a CLS of 0.1. or less.
- Time to First Byte (TTFB): measures load responsiveness. This quantifies the severity of “how non-interactive a page is prior to it becoming reliably interactive—a low TBT helps ensure that the page is usable.”
- First Contentful Paint (FCP): measures perceived load speed. This is the first point in the page load timeline where the users can see something happening on the screen. The faster your FCP, the easier it is to reassure users that the page is loading as expected. This keeps them on-site
- Interaction to Next Paint (INP): This experimental metric measures responsiveness. Do user interactions causes a page to become unresponsive? This is what INP measures. According to Google, “a low INP means the page was consistently able to respond quickly to all—or the vast majority—of user interactions.”
This assumes that you’ve covered the basics with site architecture, ongoing UI/usability/UX design, and testing.
How Google views your business (as an entity)
Keywords aren’t dead.
In fact, they’re more important than ever; keywords are the anchors Google uses to classify and describe entities (obviously). However, their role in organic search has changed. Take a look at the entities Google positively associates with Target.
What about the results in search?
What about content?
Google drops a ton of clues in the results. Did you see it?
The process for evaluating and assessing how Google views your business?
Let’s break it down.
- Keyword research: You should have a clear sense of the keywords, topics, and themes that are important to your customer segments and cohorts. Top, middle, and bottom-of-funnel content should represent the buyer’s journey accurately (e.g., more middle-of-funnel content for technical/sophisticated shoppers).
- Entity research: Use Google products to assess how they view your business (entity) and the positive entity associations Google has made with your business. You can use a variety of search products (e.g., search, images, maps, knowledge panels, etc.). You can also use Google’s NLP API demo to analyze your business or your competitors.
If you’ve done the research, you know how Google views your industry, business, employees, products, and services. You also know how they view your competitors and suppliers.
What if Google got it wrong?
What if it’s only partially correct? Is there any way to change Google’s perception of your business and the type of entity it is?
Yes. But it’s a difficult process that takes time, resources, content, and relationship building.
Steps you can take to guide Google’s perception of your business
First things first, we can’t make Google change anything.
We can ask, incentivize, or encourage, but there’s really no way to force them to change anything we don’t like. I know that you know that, but it’s an important detail that we often forget needs to be shared with the non-marketers in your organization.
Let them know.
Okay then, what are the steps you need to take to guide Google’s perception of your business?
Easier said than done.
How exactly do we go about building authority? Well, there are several ways to do this.
- Achieve status (authority): in a given domain. Winning awards, consistent education, making scientific breakthroughs, working on a high-performance team, becoming newsworthy, and achievements of note are all examples of ways you can improve your organization’s authority. Raising your employee or company profile in a way that produces value for your industry, customers, or the general public is a surefire way to achieve authority.
- Work with high-authority people: who are tangentially related to your topic and focus areas. These people can be internal or external; borrowed trust in the form of publishing content externally on a site with high authority, credibility, and trustworthiness is one example. This can also be achieved using internal resources via content curated or produced by managers, directors, and executives.
- Publish high-quality content: The consistent publication of high-quality content is now the biggest ranking factor (see below). This isn’t as easy as it sounds, as publishing outstanding content requires consistently listening to your audience. This is where content engineering comes into play again.
Step #2: Change Google’s perception if they’ve got you all wrong
Is there a way to do it?
Can you realistically change Google’s mind?
The ranking factors I’ve just shown you above show us how we go about changing Google’s mind. Here’s a three-step process you can use to guide Google in the right direction (again, the keyword here is guide, not coerce).
- Change your organization: Verify your organization, people, and content messaging align. This isn’t rocket science; if you’re stating that your organization is the best at something, provide Google with trustworthy, objective markers they can use to validate that claim (e.g., JD Power awards). If you have comprehensive product listings or detailed expertise in a given domain, be prepared to back up that claim using objective data.
- Change their mind: Work to change the minds of people inside and outside of your organization. Create content, and take actions that meet the needs of your audience and those you serve. If you want Google’s perceptions to change, change your organization to match your expectations. Use keywords and topic clusters that align with your messaging, build inbound links, relying on high-quality, uber-relevant sources. Work to improve the user experience and maximize engagement.
- Change Google’s mind: If you’ve followed through on the first two steps, Google will begin making the appropriate changes. Consistency with the first two steps is essential if you want these changes to stick. The kind of excellence I’ve discussed in this post needs to be business as usual. As you create more valuable content (spread across a variety of channels and formats), you’ll find Google’s perceptions about your organization begin to change.
What does this mean?
Google has sophisticated methods to segment low and high-quality sites. Their perception is much more closely aligned with reality, so your organization will need to become the change it wants.
Step #3: People as entities (in your business)
Look at this picture of Malcolm Gladwell; what do you see?
He’s an entity!
More importantly, Google has correctly determined that Gladwell is:
- A journalist
- Staff writer at the New Yorker
- A New York Times Bestselling author
- An author
- A public speaker
- An avid runner
If you’re familiar with Gladwell, you already know this. What’s so important about these facts? Well, they’re all entities that are directly associated with Gladwell.
The people in your business can play a similar role.
I’m not suggesting that you push your employees to become the next Malcolm Gladwell; what I am saying is that getting key people in your organization to share contextually relevant content plays an important role in entity SEO.
Google does this all the time (remember Matt Cutts and his loyal following of Cutlets?)
They rely on their employees to discuss their products, educate brands about their products, and promote them. Doing this raises your employee’s profile in the industry, increases their authority and the authority of your business, and positions your organization as a thought leader over time.
What makes this significant?
The more your employees share about themselves, the greater the exposure and authoritativeness your organization receives. So what are the takeaways from this? An entity-first approach to SEO means treating your employees as entities as well.
Looking for ways to amplify their voice and boosts your organization’s expertise, authority, and trustworthiness – things Google states they want
Entity-first SEO is the present (the future)
In the past, organic search was easy.
Thanks to the Knowledge Graph and its database of entities, Google has a sophisticated understanding of user intent, context, sophistication, purpose, and value. They know what your target audience, users – your customers want.
It’s bad news for the unprepared but wonderful news for you.
Google’s priorities shifted from identifying popular web pages to identifying quality web pages. They made the switch to prioritizing user intent; then things shifted again. Today, Google prioritizes both the user intent and the user experience.
They expect you to do the same.
Use Google’s innovations, updates, and products as a guide for your organization. Meet people where they are; prioritize their needs, and you’ll reap the rewards entity-first SEO provides.
If you’re curious to learn more about Entity SEO, watch the replay of our webinar Nobody Told You How To Do Entity SEO.
If you need help with developing your own entities, contact us to discuss how iPullRank can help.
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