Google went longer than usual without sharing its normally monthly lists of algorithm changes and "search quality highlights," but finally, at the end of last week, the company put up one giant list covering changes it made in June and July. In all, there were 86 changes (not counting the ones Google blogged about separately), and we've been analyzing them since.
As usual, "quality" continues to be a major focus for Google, but I see three major themes in Google's latest batch of changes, that give us an idea of what Google has really been focusing on: natural language understanding, quick answers and a decreased dependence on keywords. Really, these all go together hand in hand. All in all, this means Google is giving users less reasons to click through to other sites and reducing the value of keyword-driven search engine optimization, which could make things more difficult for your SEO strategy.
Is Google moving in the right direction? Let us know what you think in the comments.
Getting Better At Natural Language
Make no mistake. Google is getting better at understanding natural language, and this summer, Google has made a lot of changes (improvements, according to Google) in supporting and detecting it. There were ten items on the big list directly related to natural language, and others a little more indirectly related.
Google has improved support and/or detection for natural language for its dictionary feature, its time feature, its movie showtimes feature, its currency conversion feature, its flight status feature, its unit conversion feature, its sunrise/sunset feature, and its baseball scores/schedules feature. It's now better at answering questions like: "What time is it in India?" or "What is $500 in Euros?" or "What is 5 miles in kilometers?"
Decreased Dependence on Keywords
Directly related to natural language, are Google's improvements in how it treats synonyms of words. Five additional changes from the list had to do with synonyms specifically. Google says it has improved the use of query synonyms in ranking.
"Now we’re less likely to show documents where the synonym has a different meaning than the original search term," the company said.
Google says it has also improved synonyms inside concepts, improved efficiency by not computing synonyms in certain cases, changed how its using synonyms to better generate accurate titles for web results, and updated its synonym systems to make it less likely it will return adult content when users aren't looking for it.
The point is that Google is further distancing itself from having to rely on keywords to give you relevant results. This has been a key goal of Google's throughout the years, and is why Google is so proud of its Knowledge Graph offering.
It's worth noting, however, that as Google understands natural language more and more, it is able to give you the information you seek more and more, meaning you'll have less of a reason to click through to a third-party site. That scares some webmasters, who rely on Google for traffic.
If you peruse the list of natural language-related changes, you'll see that they're all related to features where Google gives you direct (or quick) answers right from the search results page.
Giving Users The Answers
That brings us to the next major theme of Google's recent changes: Answers. A whopping 23 of the changes from the list were related to Google's project "Answers," which consists of these types of results. If Google is giving users the answers they are seeking without making users take an extra step (of clicking through to another site), it's doing its job right, as far as the user is concerned. Users just want to find info, and the quicker the better.
On the webmasters' side of things, it's a little more complicated than that, however. The better Google gets at this, and the more topics Google can cover with these answers, the more sites will potentially lose Google traffic.
Then There are Acquisitions
Of course, Google isn't only facilitating this kind of thing with algorithm updates, but also with acquisitions. Google now has a wealth of restaurant reviews, courtesy of its acquisition of Zagat, for example. Now, Google is adding Frommer's to the acquisition pile. Frommer's is a travel guide brand, which gives Google a lot more travel content.
Some are saying this will cause antitrust issues for Google, and the company was certainly scrutinized plenty the last time it made a major travel-related acquisition in ITA Software. Ultimately, that acquisition was approved, as was the Zagat acquisition. Still, Google has been met with considerably more antitrust scrutiny since then (now there's a new probe in India).
All of this stuff, combined with the Knowledge Graph, Search Plus Your World (Google's largely Google+-based personalization features), and now Gmail in search results (only in limited trial at this point) points to more of user's time spent on Google's products, and less on third-parties'. It also means it's going to get harder to get into Google's traditional, organic search results for many types of queries.
As a user, do you want to see Google give you less reasons to click through to other sites? As a webmaster or business owner, are you concerned? What impact will this have on your SEO strategy? Let us know in the comments.
For more coverage of Google's latest list of changes, read: