E-A-T Algorithms and the Complexity of Google Search with Lily Ray

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If you’re developing a content strategy, you need to be thinking about “E-A-T:” that is, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. It’s a concept that’s easy to understand in broad strokes but more difficult to understand and execute at a granular level. 

If you want to do that, you might talk to today’s guest, Lily Ray. She’s the SEO Director at Path Interactive and is an expert on the topic. She joins Garrett today on the Agency Ahead podcast to talk all things E-A-T, as well as to dive deep into Google’s algorithms and what they’re doing with all that data they’re collecting.

The highlights:

  • [1:15] E-A-T Overview.
  • [2:57] Why E-A-T is so ambiguous.
  • [4:41] Evaluating Google patents.
  • [7:48] The complexity of Google.
  • [9:53] Why SERPs can change so quickly.
  • [11:54] Google’s efforts to increase authoritative search results. 
  • [13:58] Tracking SEO data.
  • [15:55] Local SEO strategies.
  • [19:13] New ways Google may start measuring authority.
  • [21:58] What to focus on in the new year.
  • [23:16] Lily’s cause.

The insights:

An overview of Google's E-A-T concept

E-A-T first showed up in the 2014 version of the Google Search Quality Guidelines. This is the document that Google uses to train human evaluators who work to provide feedback on how well the SERPs are meeting human expectations.

Lily first points out that E-A-T is evaluated differently depending on the topic you’re reading about or writing about.

“So if you’re writing about health concerns, medical conditions, legal issues, the highest level of E-A-T is expected. But if you have something that’s more like a hobby blog or just kind of a casual topic, E-A-T might not be as important.”

Why does E-A-T seem so ambiguous

Let’s face it: expertise, authority, and trust are kind of ambiguous, subjective terms. Google isn’t all that forthcoming about what they’re supposed to mean.

Lily says that’s intentional.

“When Google’s too forthcoming with ranking factors and with the signals it looks at for ranking purposes, SEOs go and figure out a million different ways to spam it. So with E-A-T, it’s such a delicate evaluation. They don’t want people to try to trick their algorithms by manipulating that in any way.”

For example, she’s seen SEOs create fake experts to try to fool Google’s algorithms.

Google published a video to talk about why they couldn’t disclose ranking factors, rather recently in fact.

Evaluating Google patents with Bill Slawski

Lily recently teamed up with Bill Slawski of Go Fish Digital to write an article for The Search Engine Journal. You can find it here:

Lily and Bill met at PubCon, where he introduced her to the information that could be found in Google’s patents.

“Now they don’t say, this is explicitly being used in our organic search algorithms. And if you look at all the patents Bill and I talk about in the article, there’s a clear push to evaluating those individuals, understanding how much they’re the experts, and doing it not just in the organic search results and doing it in places like YouTube, and podcasts. All the different data points Google has access to.”

Lily says that it’s important for SEOs to understand that Google is growing more sophisticated every day.

“The sky’s the limit in terms of what Google can use for these evaluations. The fact that they have these patents that say they’re analyzing audio to be able to identify a speaker…and to know certain attributes about that speaker. 

I think Bill mentioned that if Google identifies the speaker has an Italian accent, maybe it will change the search results when they’re looking for something Italian. The ways they can use those different attributes? The sky’s really the limit. It got me thinking, too. 

Google’s pushing and all the other big tech companies are pushing, to have these voice search devices in your homes. What for? Why do they need all that data about what we’re talking about at home? There are so many potential uses for it.”

Lily says the algorithm is far more complex and advanced than most people can wrap their heads around. 

“I think the technological advancements and leaps they’ve made in the past several years completely surpass what most SEOs are capable of wrapping our heads around.”

She points out that Google has thousands of the best engineers in the world who have been doing this for 20 years. 

“A lot of times SEOs get hung up on: Google never said that’s a ranking factor. Yeah, they’re way beyond that. There’s a reason they haven’t told us because we’re so simplified in the way we think about SEO. 

We still think having the exact word in the title tag is going to be the single thing we look at. They’re so far ahead of us in terms of NLP and so I think it’s important to look at the future and look at the search quality guidelines where they say: this is where we want the algorithms to go as opposed to getting too hung up on what might currently be a ranking factor.

Why SERPs can change so quickly

Garrett pointed out from Lily’s Traffic Think Tank Live presentation that the pandemic rapidly changed the SERPs page. 

For example, for a little while during the pandemic, ESPN dropped out of the search results for the term “football” in favor of fantasy football and video game football SERPs (they’ve since returned to more conventional results).

Garrett asked how the results change so fast.

“One algorithm update or feature they rolled out in 2007 which was called Query Deserves Freshness; that’s really old at this point but that’s the mechanism Google uses to determine that a keyword deserves fresh results, triggering a top stories panel or something like that.”

traffic think tank live lily ray search intent

“I think QDF manifests itself in the organic search rankings too. I think that was happening in the beginning of Covid hitting the news so much in February and in March. Google’s algorithms picked up on the fact that demand and intent were really changing. They say that because click-through rate is not a ranking factor, but if a million people clicked on Zoom suddenly when they typed meetings, even though they didn’t type virtual meetings – Google’s going to pick up on that. 

Maybe it’s not just the clicks, maybe it’s other factors as well, but on a large scale, with billions of searches happening all the time, Google’s algorithms can pick up on the fact that Google’s intent had changed.”

She says she thinks at the beginning of Covid these same algorithms were naturally playing out to identify different search intent, but that she thinks they’ve also manually rolled out some algorithm updates to tweak things.

Google's efforts to increase authoritative search results

Here, Lily does some speculating, in a way that makes her hope the SEO world won’t get mad at her! 

“I think June 22nd was the day Google specifically launched an algorithm update with the intent of increasing the authoritative search results. If you look at how the FDA and how the CDC and how some very high-authority sites started ranking after that point, it was almost comical.”

For example, drugabuse.gov is ranking 1-10 for any drug query. 

“Can anyone else compete for that keyword? Or do you have to be drugabuse.gov?”

One example she uses is hand sanitizer.

“Before the June update, it was like transactional rankings. After the June update, the first two results were the FDA. Don’t drink hand sanitizer. It’s safety-focused stuff. I think they’ve had to make some changes this year to make sure only the most trustworthy and safety-oriented content ranks for potentially dangerous keywords.”

Tracking SEO data

Lily favors Citrix as a tool for tracking SEO data.

“I actually went to the Citrix office in Germany this year before we couldn’t travel anymore. It feels like a lifetime ago. They got me set up to be able to evaluate SEO visibility changes on a large scale. Any Citrix user can do this, but they helped facilitate it for me.”

She says that’s the tool she uses to measure SEO performance over the course of two different dates. 

“So I can punch January 1st compared to June 1st and just see what’s happened across a large variety of domains.”

She also works with a program called Similar Web

“It has its own method of collecting traffic data. It also has categorization which I really love, so I like to bring together Citrix’s SEO visibility with smaller web categories. Which I did for coronavirus. I started to see which categories were seeing gains and losses in visibility, and trying to pull in as much data as I possibly could.”

E-A-T and the impact on local SEO strategies

Ranking for different city names is difficult, and one thing local SEOs struggle with is trying to do so, “Without having a hundred pages that say the same thing. Even though the product is the same. What should we do?”

Google doesn’t like doorway pages, which means creativity is required.

“Home Depot’s an example of a site that does it tremendously well. Every single Home Depot store location page has a lot of unique content on it. So it’s possible, just  not always easy.”

Home Depot Covid precautions

Garrett then asked how E-A-T applied to local specifically. Do local SEO practitioners have to worry about being authoritative?

“So far as [Google’s] initial communications, I don’t ever remember them saying it’s an evaluation they use for local SEO rankings.” 

Local SEO does use a separate set of algorithms. 

“But I always say there’s never a good reason not to invest in E-A-T best practices. Everything we recommend on the E-A-T side of things is great for users. It’s great for your consumers. 

I do think there are certain aspects of E-A-T that are considered for local SEO. It’s one and the same. Things like the quality of reviews, or your business. How your business is presented on things like Yelp, or third party. They do mention on the Search Quality Guidelines that when you’re evaluating a business you should look at its Yelp reviews and look at its BBB reviews. 

Whether or not these things are direct ranking factors, why wouldn’t you invest in them?”

As for expertise?

“I think it’s transparency for users. Local customers would want to know which dentists work at your dentist business. So have a page about them. And have a page about why they went to school and why you should trust them to be your dentist. 

Why not do these things? Just do these things. It’s good for your users.”

New ways Google may start measuring authority

Lily really stresses that Google is using far more data points than most people imagine.

“The sky is the limit in terms of the data points they have available to them. That’s only growing over time. They’re using data comments, and that’s potentially for entities that aren’t in Google’s knowledge graph. That’s like billions and trillions of new data points they can pull from.”

She points out we don’t know exactly how any of it is being used. 

“We don’t know how they’re using an unliked mention and press release or something like that. I like to assume they’re just capable of way more evaluating. 

There are way more ranking signals than we can even fathom. They’ve said. Millions of algorithms work together to conceptualize E-A-T. That’s millions. If you can dream it, I think it’s fair to assume if they haven’t already actively applied it to algorithms it might be something they do in the future. Just assume they can.”

Lily also points out that Google rolls out new features all the time, things like web stories and optimizing for Google Discover. 

“They’ve been pushing a lot of that pretty hard. The two go hand-in-hand. Now web stories rank at the top of Google Discover. If you’re a brand that’s trying to get a message out there relatively quickly, that might be an avenue to look at.”

What's your right now cause?

Lily asks our listeners to consider supporting the ACLU

“It’s the best catch-all to donate to right now, given all the topics it addresses.”

Connect with Lily Ray

Want to stay on top of E-A-T and get some of Lily’s sweet DJ sets? 

 

Enjoy this podcast?

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Garrett Sussman

Garrett Sussman

Garrett is the head of content at Traject , a suite of digital marketing tools, and host of the Agency Ahead podcast. When he's not crafting content, he's scouting the perfect ice coffee, devouring the newest graphic novels, and concocting a new recipe in the kitchen.

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