It seems like just about every month, the SEO community gets into a tizzy because there’s another Google update. Often, it’s a core update, a routine improvement to Google’s algorithms (though “improvement” can be subjective, depending on how the results shake out for your site). And usually, there’s nothing specific that Google can tell us about it, nothing actionable that we need to know. Gone are the days of Panda, Penguin, or even Fred, updates that targeted specific things that we could fix, like spammy links or thin content. But it seems hard for people to break the habit of obsessing over every Google update and looking for the one factor that they need to address to improve their rankings.
The problem is that SEO just isn’t a simple, straightforward world anymore.
For decades, we’ve all been looking for and following very logical, mathematical rules to get our sites to rank. People have been hyper-focused on how many words are on a page, or which exact-match keyword phrases have the highest search volume, or how many backlinks a page has, or outdated metrics like keyword density. But Google’s algorithm isn’t just a math-based formula anymore; it’s not a set of rules that we can suss out and religiously follow. Rather, it’s a lot more like a person — like the users it’s trying to serve.
While we’ve been constantly trying to get to where Google is, trying to figure out the answer to an algorithmic equation that represents how to get a #1 ranking right now, Google just keeps on going, walking right past us toward where it’s going. And where it’s going is a place where numbers don’t matter as much. What matters is satisfying user intent.
At a recent SEO conference, Google Search Liaison Danny Sullivan summed it up this way:
“Our systems are chasing what people like. If you chase the algorithm, you’re behind. If you chase what people like, you’re ahead of the algorithm.”
Sure, some of the numbers we’ve been staring at still matter. Search volume does give us an idea of what people are looking for, after all, and more backlinks, provided that they’re good-quality backlinks, can only be helpful. But Google itself has said many, many times that it’s not just about search engine optimization anymore: It’s about people. As Sullivan says, “Just be the best you can for your readers. For people. Everything we do in ranking is meant to reward that.”
What we need now is not just SEO. We need HCO: human-centered optimization.
The Math-Based Perspective vs. the Human Perspective
When the most recent Helpful Content Update hit, it was met with the inevitable complaints from webmasters who saw their rankings drop. People would rant about how unfair it was on social media, and then experienced SEO minds would weigh in and explain why the site probably deserved what it got. Quickly, a lot of these situations started to sound the same.
First, the webmaster would say, “It’s not fair that my page is now below this other page. Their page is shorter/has a lower domain authority score/doesn’t even use this keyword phrase/etc.!”
And then, an SEO expert would take a look at those two pages and say, “Actually, though, the content of their page is more helpful and unique than yours. Your page is covered with ads/is filled with fluff content/doesn’t show your expertise/doesn’t say anything that everyone else hasn’t already said a thousand times/etc.”
The webmaster was looking only at metrics. The analyst they ranted to, though, was looking at their site as a human being.
So what’s the answer? Perhaps we need to stop spending so much time obsessing over the output of a thousand tools and start using the tools in our own heads.
Be a Person: The Key to Human-Centered Optimization
If we want to create people-first websites, we need to start by looking at things as people. That means putting down the spreadsheets and taking a hard look at the user experience of your site.
Think about the people you want to attract to your website. Imagine yourself as one of those people. Then, consider what might lead them to your site. What are they looking for? What is their goal? What do they want to know?
Take a moment to mull that over. Then, go visit your website. Start on the homepage, or start on whichever page you think that person would have landed on from Google. Now, pretend you’ve never seen your website before and be that person.
Can you easily find what you’re looking for?
Think about your overall experience as you look for the information you want. Is anything annoying you? Maybe you’re confronted by a massive wall of text that doesn’t seem to say much. Maybe you can’t find what you need on this page and you can’t figure out where to go next to find it. Maybe an annoying interstitial keeps popping up while you’re trying to browse the site. Whatever pain points you come across, write them down. And remember, you’re not an SEO expert: You’re just a person, a regular visitor to your website.
If you want to take this exercise to the next level, when you’re done, go do the same thing on your competitor’s website. Would the user be more satisfied with their experience there? If so, why?
It can be hard for some people to do this sort of analysis. It’s hard to put aside your knowledge of your own website and your feelings about what you’ve created and put yourself in the user’s shoes. You may need to have someone else do an in-depth UX analysis for you instead, someone with a fresh set of eyes who can be more objective. But the insights you can glean from viewing your website as a person, as the person you’re trying to reach, can be invaluable.