Chapter 7: User context signals & search engine rankings

Search results for a given query can vary from user to user. It’s not that everyone sees completely different results. Instead, everyone sees many of the same “generic” listings. But there will also be some listings appearing because of where someone is, who they know or how they surf the web.

Search engines also try to match the results they provide with the intent driving the user’s query. Google’s go-to advice to SEOs has been to design your content with the user in mind, and that goal is reflected in the User elements of the Periodic Table of SEO Factors.

Co: Country

Users see results relevant to the country they’re in. A user in the U.S. searching for “last night’s football scores” will see results from American football games, whereas someone in the U.K. will see results for the type of football games that American’s call soccer.

Taking the geography, language and culture of a region into account will help ensure that your content speaks to users in the areas you serve. If your site isn’t deemed relevant to a particular country, then you’ve got less chance of showing up when country personalization happens. If you feel you should be relevant, then you’ll probably have to work on your international SEO. For example, you’ll likely want to use the appropriate country code top-level domain and apply the hreflang attribute to indicate your site’s language.

If you have content in multiple languages, it’s best to use different URLs for alternate language versions of your pages. You can then use the rel=“alternate” hreflang tag to inform Google about the language and region variants. Doing so will help search engines understand the relationship between your pages so that they may more accurately crawl and index them.

For more, see International SEO and search trends: How does it all work? and International SEO: How to build a global footprint.

Lo: Locality

If you’ve ever searched for “XYZ near me” or even just “local news,” you may have noticed that search engines provide results tailored to the town or metropolitan area you’re currently in. 

If you want to appear in city-specific results, you’ll need to make your site relevant to the areas you service. Adding your business’ address to your site and configuring your Google My Business listing is a good place to start. 

Establishing a presence on industry-specific verticals such as Yelp or TripAdvisor may also help. If your brand has multiple locations, it’s also a good idea to mention those neighborhoods or cities on your site as well.

For more locality information, bookmark our sections on local search:

Hs: History

In addition to location signals, Google may also personalize results based on the immediate context from a recent search. For example, if a user had been searching for rock music-related content, a search engine might use that prior query to contextualize the results for their next search, “queen,” and provide results related to the band and not a monarch.

With regards to history as an SEO factor, this means that there isn’t low-hanging fruit to optimize for. Instead, improve your content and user experience to make a meaningful first impression that fosters brand loyalty. Over time, this may encourage users to seek out your domain in search results even if it isn’t the top result.

Ux: User Experience

Search engines don’t just want to direct users to the most relevant results, they also want to send them to pages where they’ll have a positive experience. After all, how useful is a relevant page if the user is bombarded with ads or has trouble finishing a transaction?

User experience (UX) encompasses everything from your site navigation to the quality of your content to site speed and more. From a structural standpoint, you’ll want to make it intuitive for your visitors to find whatever they’re looking for.

That means easily accessible navigation, a clear hierarchy of pages and content structure that’s easy to follow, whether they’re on desktop or mobile devices.

Satisfying your users’ search intent will also do wonders for your UX. This is where first impressions matter — don’t make site visitors do guesswork. Visitors should be able to quickly discern whether you’re offering what they’re looking for. 

Since audiences’ expectations vary greatly, so too will UX from site to site. Home in on your audience’s preferences and tailor your pages to meet their needs.

If your research indicates that many of your visitors have visual impairments, consider using larger fonts and improving your accessibility for assistive technologies. If your target audience is centralized in one geographic region, make sure your language and content reflect that you service that area.

Watch out for unnecessary widgets or plugins that slow down your page speed. Broken links and even typos and bad grammar all factor into your users’ experience. 

Here are a few additional resources to help you optimize your user experience:

In: Intent

“Search engines continue to become more sophisticated and better at measuring how well a page matches intent, and pages that rank well are pages that best answer the query posed by searchers,” said Search Engine Land columnist and content marketing specialist at Page One Power Andrew Dennis. 

Different pages on your site are likely tailored to various stages of your customers’ journey. Understanding how your target audiences search in different stages of their journey will help you craft content and keyword strategies that ensure you’re addressing their specific needs. 

Search intent can typically be categorized as:

  • Informational: These tend to be upper-funnel queries, meaning users are beginning their research and looking for more information about a topic or solution to a problem.
  • Navigational: These queries usually include brand or company names or specific products or services. Users may be searching for a particular model, product or service or are interested in the latest news about a company or brand.
  • Commercial: Think of these as middle-funnel queries. Users are deeper in their research and consideration process and typically looking for more information, including product or service pages. 
  • Transactional: Now they’re ready to buy. These are bottom of the funnel queries — think [buy], [sale], [pricing].

Words are useful clues, but intent goes beyond what appears in the search box. A user searching for “height tower Paris” is probably conducting an informational query for the length of the Eiffel Tower, and with machine learning advancements, search engines are able to infer such intent without the user explicitly typing in the name of the landmark.

“We are trying to understand very deeply what our users want,” says Frédéric Dubut, web ranking project manager lead for Bing. “That’s where deep learning comes into play: there are many different ways to express the same intent; we don’t want to rely only on keywords to do the matching. So, we’re trying to determine what the intent of the user is with their query, what the purpose of the specific document is, and we’re trying to match the two not only on keywords, but really on the intent.”

That said, keyword research isn’t going away just yet. As Google’s John Mueller recently said, “… even if search engines are trying to understand more than just those words, showing specific words to users can make it a little bit easier for them to understand what your pages are about and can sometimes drive a little bit of that conversion process.”

For more on search intent, see these Search Engine Land articles:

SEO Guide chapters: Home 1: Factors 2: Content 3: Architecture 4: HTML 5: Trust 6: Links 7: User 8: Toxins 9: Emerging

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