Understanding how Google has shifted its search ranking, like it recently did for one major U.S. city, is important for your future search-engine strategy.

Recent protests for social justice issues have erupted in cities across the United States. This has led to a flurry of headlines and videos over the past few weeks and months, with tons of media posts being published and populated into search engines every day.

With such an overload of similar content though, we can learn valuable insights into current search engine optimization (SEO) by focusing on one of the protest hotspots: Seattle.

A keyword search for “Seattle” provides a superb example on how Google’s algorithm works right now. Does the most relevant content rank highest? Does the most well-linked-to content? What about the best optimized? Or the most useful?

The answer to each of these questions is no.

Instead, Google is ranking the most engaging content, and “Seattle” has become a trending topic. This is due to news and videos of the protests from clickbait media outlets, such as Fox News, the Wall St. Journal, YouTube, etc. It generates engagement because it is provocative and polarizing.

This surge in interest is validated by looking at the below Google Trends chart, which shows the searches for “Seattle” spiking as (mostly) right-wing media pumped up its content on the city’s uprising.

As you can see, these searches are not seeking tourism information, geography, population or economics. Users are hunting for articles and videos that aligns with the narrative they are hearing and reinforces the bias they came with. They will scroll until they find it and Google’s machine-learning algorithm realizes that.

Putting politics aside, this is how Google’s updated QDF works. The query lists “freshness” not only because of an increase in volume but because new searches are querying the keyword with a different purpose.

Google’s algorithm quickly learns that new purpose and changes the types of content and individual pages it highly ranks. This is one reason why SEO best practices even from the last few years are so different from the SEO strategies of 10 years ago. The algorithm learns what searchers will click and gravitates to that over what is relevant or well optimized in the classic SEO sense.

It does, however, teach us a new kind of SEO. Build the best “Seattle” resource in the world and you will not get very far. But craft a biased, right-wing media page that delivers news and scenes of chaos and you might outrank your competition.

How do you identify when a search term has shifting types of demand? Again, Google Trends can be helpful. Note the “rising” and “related” queries for our “Seattle” example.

Remember, Google is not only using clicks but also sophisticated data that likely combines the following signals:

  • Volume patterns
  • Pogo-sticking
  • Scrolling/Heatmaps
  • Query refinements

New SEO best practices involve, firstly, learning what people want when they perform a search. Next, assuming you’re correct, create strong, unique and relevant content and your chances of ranking improve from slim to not great. This applies to the type of content (news, videos, photos, etc.) as well as its substance.

Right now, amidst all the protests, classic organic search result pages for “Seattle” yields very few clicks. And the same applies to many other focus phrases on the web.

Google Search has learned, but now you’ve learned too.

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