How do you become a thought leader? Despite the Insta-bros on social media, the reality is that behind every great thought leader are years of hard-earned experience in their field.
Thought leaders can provide a map to the future because they've traveled hard miles in the past.
That fact has often been implicitly understood, but it's now in your interest to make sure Google's algorithms can also clearly recognize just how experienced thought leaders are.
Google's latest "helpful content" algorithm update is an extension of Google's E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness) standard. A previous update added "experience" to the existing E-A-T trio, the current update appears to focus on measuring that experience and translating it into search rankings.
Google still says "trustworthiness" remains the most important of the four elements. But, of course, experience also demonstrates and feeds into trust.
So... what does all that mean for content?
Experience vs. AI
If the update is successful, it should make life more difficult for SEOs to game algorithms and achieve rankings by brute-force, volume-led approaches.
It should also begin to address the vast challenge of dealing with a proliferation of cookie-cutter, AI-generated content. The large language models (LLMs) that feed generative AI are a synthesis of massive amounts of existing content. They combine and homogenize experience. AI content tends to read just like so much of what you've seen before because that's what it's made of.
Individual experience, however, is different. It retains its rough edges—sharpened over time by successes and setbacks. It's more relatable and more valuable. It's why case studies that aren't afraid to give a warts-and-all view often outperform those that airbrush the details.
In practical terms, that dichotomy should make life easier for Google's helpful content algorithm. If it finds 20 articles that basically say the same thing—just with variances in vocabulary and phrasing—it will be able to downrank them in usefulness and trustworthiness while upranking content with clear signals of deep experience.
How to Better Demonstrate Experience in Thought Leadership
The jury is out on the precise mechanics involved in demonstrating experience at an algorithmic level. But, if we take Google's stated aims at face value, we can begin to nudge our content in the right direction.
Here are eight things you can try.
1. Don't be afraid to demonstrate experience in the most blatant terms
Your content should feature bylined authors with an author bio and headshot, outlining why they are experts, in practical terms, and why they're qualified to be writing these pieces or talking on these particular subjects.
Don't rely heavily on just one thought leader. If that person quits the brand, you'll need eggs in other baskets.
2. Include real-world applications
How can your thought leadership be applied, or how has it been applied, in the real world? Recall that it's not just expertise, but also experience, that makes a difference here.
Tell us a story or share an anecdote. That could be all you need for creating content that's both genuinely useful and actually unique.
3. Aim to be thought-provoking
Many brands aspire to thought leader status, but the real deal is all too rare. What we do see a lot of is educational content. Sure, it's useful stuff, with some search value. But they are ten a penny and will increasingly be susceptible to AI autogeneration.
Content that sits in the category of "best-practice" isn't likely to demonstrate experience in a way that's going to differentiate. Instead, aim to challenge the status quo beyond trying to fix what's broken.
4. Look within for experts
The best thought leadership starts with ideas from subject-matter experts
(SMEs) within your company. They might be CEOs, analysts, engineers... Look within for those with experience and technical knowledge.
Access to SMEs will help your content creators be contrarian and authoritative. They'll stand on the shoulders of giants.
5. Cross-link content
Make sure content by the same author is cross-linked, regardless of where it was published. Cross-linking will build up a body of work for that name—which, eventually, will constitute an endorsement of their thought-leader status.
6. Don't overlook the power of your customers or clients
Here's Google's take regarding experience: "Does content also demonstrate that it was produced with some degree of experience, such as with actual use of a product, having actually visited a place or communicating what a person experienced? There are some situations where really what you value most is content produced by someone who has first-hand, life experience on the topic at hand."
Don't know about you but, to me that screams case studies, testimonials, and reviews that offer a real-world deep dive into your products and services.
7. Update content
Go back through your older content and update it to reflect the new demands of demonstrating experience. In other words, make sure the content you've already produced continues to work hard for you in search engine land.
8. Don't be afraid to ruffle feathers
One of the fundamentals of great thought leadership is to take a stand. The best thought leadership alienates some so that it can be noticed by others.
Often, that means picking an "enemy." So ask yourself these questions:
- What genuinely annoys you?
- Is there a problem that plagues your customers that everyone seems to have accepted?
- Is there a particular way of working in your industry that irritates you?
- Is there a common myth you want to shatter, or a widespread promise to customers you think rings hollow?
Your experience will help ground your answers to those questions in the everyday world of your customers. These are the things you're seeing day in, day out. They're not the result of an AI blender.
Thought Leadership—Now More Than Ever
Google's latest addition to the E-E-A-T framework means thought leadership carries even more weight than before. Marketers agree that it helps them achieve their goals. And buyers agree it helps them make better decisions. Everyone wins.
In a survey by LinkedIn and Edelman on the buying behaviors of B2B decision-makers and C-suite executives during an economic downturn, 61% of respondents said they thought leadership was more effective than product-oriented marketing in demonstrating the potential value of a product.
That's good news for brands that are genuine thought leaders and have the capabilities to walk the talk.
Done well, thought leadership can help you to stand out against competitors. You'll become known as someone to pay attention to, someone increasingly sought out for industry-related opinions, and someone who clients or customers can turn to for help.
And now you'll get a search boost, too.
More Resources on Thought Leadership and Google's Helpful Content Update
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