Google: If I Only Had a RankBrain

Image courtesy of: Keegan Berry
  When you and I are shopping or looking for something on the internet, usually there’s a specific purpose behind it. Some of these could be “where can I find X” or “how do I find out more about X”, or even “I want to purchase X”. And it would be in everyone’s best interest if we could get to our desired location, or target information in as few steps as possible, because let’s face it: we’re all in a really big hurry! The problem with this is that people aren’t always sure about the best way to reach their desired information on the internet, and the search queries that they use when browsing the web become extremely ubiquitous because of this. The Need for improved Semantic Search To address this, Google and other search partners have been working on better ways to bring the desired information to us, instead of vice-versa. This effort is known as Semantic Search. The Wikipedia definition is this: “Seeking to improve search accuracy by understanding searcher intent and the contextual meaning of terms as they appear in the searchable dataspace, whether on the Web or within a closed system, to generate more relevant results.” This concept is exactly what Google (now under Alphabet) has been striving for since they joined the search game. And they have been able to stay at the top of the search totem pole for quite a while now by coming up with new algorithms, carousels, penquins, and new gadgets that help their users get there quicker and easier. Along Comes a RankBrain A year ago, we were talking in a BrightHaus blog post about where Google’s A.I. interests would be going in the future, and we have recently been getting a slight glimpse of this. Google has recently unveiled their latest toy in the mission to improve semantic search, and it is a form of A.I. software known currently as RankBrain. Greg Corrado, a senior research scientist at Google spilled the “artificial beans” in a Bloomberg article recently about RankBrain, and provided all of us SEO’s some insight about what the new phenomenon is all about. Similar to the concept from terrifying Will Smith sci-fi movies and Isaac Asimov novels, RankBrain is a form of A.I., or artificial intelligence, that utilizes a basic form of machine learning and helps Google and their teams define, measure and implement their precious ranking factors. Previous to this, humans have been solely behind Google’s ever-changing functions of processing all of the information on the internet, determining the relevance to possible search terms that people might use, recognizing patterns and connectors, and then relaying that information back to all of us “Googlers”. These humans have been doing a fairly good job at recognizing and predicting trends for Google’s algorithms, but the problem is that it takes humans a long time to do this effectively, the results end up inconsistent, and are by no means perfect. And they have rolled RankBrain out to help them analyze this information not only quicker, but with better accuracy. RankBrain Put to the Test! According to the Bloomberg report, some of the top Google Search Engineers collectively went head-to-head with RankBrain in order to determine exactly how accurate it really was. They were all given a bunch of information from the internet and were tasked with ranking it based on relevance and search intent. The end results were even better than Google had even anticipated! Not only did RankBrain process the information a lot quicker, but it even predicted the information search relevance about 10% better than the human Search Engineers! So, RankBrain has been considered a big success for Google, and has already been working feverishly for them. In fact, Greg Corrado admitted that RankBrain is now possibly the #3 ranking factor for Google SERP’s. According to a recent article in Moz, There are currently hundreds of ranking factors that Google uses to determine search relevance. And being revealed as the #3 Factor is a big deal because Google won’t even share what their #2 and #1 top ranking factors are at all. They are Top Secret. Even though the phrase “ranking factor” has been used for RankBrain in many publications so far, there are some skeptics, such as in this article on SearchEngineLand where they speculate that it’s more of a query processor than a ranking factor. Only time will tell exactly what RankBrain truly does, but what we do know right now is that it’s a pretty major part of the Google system. How Will RankBrain Affect Search Engine Optimization? So SEO’s and online marketers alike are scratching their heads and trying to think what this will mean for the future of SEO? One can only speculate at this point, but I tend to agree with the assessment that it’s heading SEO into a great direction, and that Google will reward those SEO’s that have adopted good, white-hat SEO practices that revolve around the creation of great content and excellent user experience. For example, an article on Kissmetrics’s Blog, similarly mentioned that SEO will depend more on high-quality content, engaging writing and usefulness, and less on freshness, link-building, and technical SEO. Because with the aid of RankBrain and some miraculous intel, the Google systems are becoming collectively smarter, and are beginning to understand the connections between keyword variations and definitions. For example, the Google algorithm is starting to better understand not only that the queries “shoe” and “shoes” go together, but also that synonyms like “shoes” and “sneakers” should be paired together as well. And you can assume that they are going to take this one step further and preemptively fill in keyword gaps, and even link sequential searches together, so if the first search query is “green shoes”, and the second query after this is “green ones in size 11”, Google will soon begin to understand that the user is talking about “shoes”. So one can assume that the practice of pulling endless lists of keyword variations, pluralizations, misspellings and synonyms and stuffing them all numerous times over each page of a website are soon coming to an end. And we can instead be focused on creating some great content, and display it in an extremely pleasing way for users. Not only is this more fun to create, but if done well, Google will reward marketers with better “relevance” and better exposure within the search positions. This will, in turn, force SEO’s to finally hang up their Black Hats for good. Looking to the Future… It is safe to assume that RankBrain is only the beginning, as computers utilizing machine learning, or A.I., will become smarter and more efficient at predicting semantic search, and SEO will evolve based on this. So as long as RankBrain doesn’t one day decide to stop it’s focus on semantic search and revert instead on conquering the world, I think we can look forward to some cool advances in SEO – even in the near future.    

Google releases Professional Service Ads

In San Francisco, Google is rolling out its new ad program which is targeted towards connecting homeowners with professional skilled services. Its aim is to recapture the market of other review or service sites like Craigslist, Yelp, and Angie’s List. Are you ready to give up your favorite go to site for Google? Consider this first.

Speed of Information versus Cleaner Search Results

Google has always made it clear that it wants to dominate the information gathering and providing world. It has evolved over the years to provide information as quickly as possible. Ideally, Google wants whatever information exists out there to be obtained through advertisements because that’s how Google makes their money. While this is reasonable, the question is: how many ads can the consumer handle before they are turned off by the thought of searching for something in Google? With the addition of Google Professional Service Ads, you may be seeing more of the search results overrun with ads. They are starting with three ads, but that could always change. The trade-off is the speed of contact with your potential contractor versus having Google overrun with ads.

Ads Based on Individuals and the Growing Gig Economy

One thing Google has enabled for millions of people is the ability to reach a market they could never have done on their own. This has given rise to what is called the “gig economy”; where an individual providing a niche service as their main source of income, using the Internet to connect to potential customers. Sites like Thumbtack and Fiverr allow someone with a unique set of skills to easily provide that skill to those who need it. The google professional service ads taps into this market by providing an individual’s picture and contact information as an advertisement at the top of the search results. Is it a good thing? Certainly, the individuals who are making their living off of it may think so. Websites currently providing services like this may not like it because it impinges on their business model.

Squeezing out the SEO Crowd

The search engine optimization (SEO) industry has been around as long as the Internet has. It originated when people realized they could manipulate Google’s search results by stuffing keywords and links into their sites. In a way, SEO has been the reason that Google has continued to evolve because they have to continually tweak their algorithms to ensure no one abuses the system and ensures there is a reason to continue to run Adwords. With the new professional ads, there are no websites or URLs to worry about as the individual contractor signs up to the service directly through Google. Of course, they could create their own websites which could eventually pop up through the search results, but with the real estate on the page being taken up by the other ads, will people continue to click on organic results?

The Existence of Organic Results May Be Waning

The last point begs the question: is Google getting rid of organic ads? It is something that has been widely discussed over the years. If you look back to what the results looked like when Google started versus today, you would see that more and more of the page is being taken up by advertisements, and the organic results are being pushed further down the page. With the addition of these ads, one may find that they won’t even see an organic search result unless they scroll down the page. And, in that case, is Google going to continue to offer organic search? The answer is, yes, they probably will. But it may change in unknown ways. The SEO industry has proved that with today’s organic results, a power curve represents the click through rate (CTR) that websites get for their ranking. With those results being less visible, will that affect overall CTR? If organic results are affected, many websites will be forced to pay to play in Google. Paying for advertisements to ensure the success of their business may squeeze their margins and render their service unprofitable. Businesses should prepare for the impact this could have.

The Effects on Your Favorite Review and Rating Sites

Finding the gap in the market, websites like Yelp and Angie’s List have made a living by providing in-depth reviews to customers so that they know their potential service providers will be of the highest quality. With the rise of these types of sites, businesses and individuals have been forced to up their game and provide the highest quality service to compete in the marketplace. Most of these review sites have made extensive use of organic traffic to improve the visibility of their sites. With Google squeezing in more of its own ads, these sites could very well suffer reduced traffic and, if Google is successful, it could essentially render these old businesses extinct. While that may be an extreme case, it certainly wouldn’t be the first companies Google squelched in their rise to dominance.

Only Time Will Tell

The truth is, things will likely happen more slowly but, over time, the above postures could come true. In the meantime, many people will benefit from these advertisements by being easily connected with new customers. Only time will tell what the effect this roll out will have.

What’s the Scoop about Spam Referral Traffic?

Image courtesy of Christian Barmala
 

What’s the Scoop about Referral Spam Traffic?

In the world of SEO and online marketing, there is something out there that haunts us day and night, and keeps attacking and slashing like a villain from those terribly great horror movies from the 80’s. This culprit is Spam Referral Traffic. It is the talk of the town mainly because it keeps multiplying, there currently isn’t a cure-all solution for it, and the major search engines, like Google, haven’t made any major progress to put a stop to it. I know that a lot of people have discussed this topic, and there are many sources out on tips and tricks on how to get rid of (some) of it. However, I wanted to discuss exactly WHAT spam referral traffic is, WHY it is, and then provide the latest tips and tricks on HOW to get rid of it.

WHAT is this Referral Spam?

Spam referral traffic is essentially “fake traffic” that shows up within a website’s analytics metrics. They show up as URLs in the referral section of your reporting and because referral traffic is one of the major source categories within analytics, having this data showing up within the data can severely compromise the data for that website. This is especially the case if it’s a younger or smaller website that doesn’t get a lot of traffic on an average per month basis. There are “good bots” and “bad bots” that crawl websites throughout the internet. An example of a “good bot” is Googlebot. And we have to be very nice to this “good bot,” especially knowing that it determines your rankings on Google. But there are “bad bots” out there as well, and many of them are the source of this Spam Referral Traffic. This traffic comes from “bad bots” that people create for spamming purposes. The majority of spam referral traffic is known as “Ghost Referrers.” And they are called this because they never actually visit your website, but in fact go after your Google Analytics directly. The way that they accomplish this is through Google’s own Measurement Protocol, and by utilizing this, the spammers submit their data directly to the Google Analytics data. Ohow featured a pretty cool infographic that shows how Ghost Spam Works. I have included a shot of this below:  

WHY is there Spam Referral traffic?

Ultimately, the spammers are trying to get traffic back to their websites. So when people see these URLs within their site’s Google Analytics data, more often than not, curiosity will take over, people will navigate to that website in order to see what it is, and then they got you! Mission accomplished. These spammers are sending their “bad bots” to thousands of websites a day, and even if a small number of the website owners are navigating to these sites on a daily basis, that is a consistent flow of traffic to their sites! These people use the enticement of the steady flow of traffic as a selling point, and try to sell their services, or ad placements locations on their sites to potential customers. How do they sleep at night? 😉

HOW to tell if you have a Spam Referral Traffic Problem?

If there is a mystery URL showing up in your analytics data, and you suspect that it might be spam referral traffic, there are a couple of ways to identify if it is in fact spam traffic.
  1. First is the name of the site. If the URL says something suspicious like “free-seo.com” or one of my favorites, “googlsucks.com” then chances are, it’s a spam site. Ohow provided a list of some of the most common spam referral sources here.
  2. Second is the Bounce Rate. Each and every one of these spam referrals will show a 100% bounce rate within the data.
  3. Third would be the Time On Site metrics, which will usually show up as a “0.00.”

HOW can I get rid of this Spam referral traffic?

One thing to point out is that there currently isn’t a simple one-step solution to get rid of this traffic. However, people have come up with a variety of solutions that have helped get rid of the spam, and get their analytics data back to “purity”. I will briefly cover some of the ways to do this. I wont go into too much detail, but I have included some good sources, so you can research each of these methods at your leisure.
Image courtesy of: Bruce Clay, Inc.
 

Option #1. Block Spam Traffic through the htaccess File

Moz provided an explanation of this process, and you can check this out here. To quote the article: “The best way to block referrers from accessing your site at all is to block them in your .htaccess file in the root directory of your domain. You can copy and paste the following code into your .htaccess file, assuming you’re on an Apache server.” This is a proven way to remove some of the spam traffic, however as more spam referral sites are created, you do have to keep updating your htaccess file. So if your website is only getting infiltrated by a handful of spam referral sites, this is a good way to do this.

Option #2. Remove Bots with Special Filters within Google Analytics

Within Analytics itself, you can use filters to filter out a lot of things from your analytics data. Some of these include IP addresses, specific country traffic, and more. You can also use these to weed out the spam referral traffic. Blog.analytics-toolkit.com provided a good step-by-step process for implementing this here. And our friends at Moz provided a good source for this about halfway down their article here. One important step that you need to take before setting any filters like above is to always keep a view of your website data that is raw and untampered data. This way, you can always go back to the pure data if you need to extract information.

Option #3. Utilize a WordPress Application

If your website is built with WordPress, there are special applications or widgets out there that you can use to filter out the spam referral traffic. These widgets are fairly easy to use, and you can quickly add in spam referral sources without having to go into the htaccess file directly. Here’s an example of one of these application, provided by Lesterchan.net.

Option #4. Implement Meta Referrer Tags

This is one of the newest methods of filtering out the spam referral traffic, and truth be told, I am still trying to wrap my head around this method. However it has been proven affective, and there is a good breakdown of it provided by the great people at Moz. You can view this article about adding Meta Referrer Tags here.

How to talk to your Clients about Spam Referral Traffic?

One of the challenges that SEOs face currently is explaining exactly what spam referral traffic is to their clients, and setting the right expectations about them. I have several points that I feel are important to convey to them.
  • First is that this is happening across the board, and is affecting websites big and small.
  • Second, the referral spam traffic does not affect organic search traffic. In fact these are not affecting a website’s search volume at all. As TheSEMPost concluded in their post, Google doesn’t include this into their ranking factors, which is good.
  • Third, that this is an on-going initiative. As more spam referral sources keep showing up in the analytic data, continuous action needs to be taken in order to keep the spam referral traffic removal updated.

In Conclusion

Spam referral traffic is here to stay and will continue to affect all of our websites as long as Google and the major search engines continue to allow them. So I think that we should all collectively send very strongly worded letters to Google and ask them to finally do something about it. Until this day comes, however, it is important to be educated about the enemy itself, know steps on how you can remedy the situation, and how your can achieve traffic success for yourself, as well as for your clients. Happy SEO-ing folks!
Image courtesy of: Vassilis