Artificial intelligence is powering the world's most powerful learning machine: Google. As the search engine gets deeper insight into what makes people tick, it's adjusting search engine rankings to bring the most relevant, engaging content to the top of the search rankings.

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AI, voice, user engagement... the search engine optimization industry is seeing some seismic shifts, and marketers need to find their footing on a whole new landscape.

Jeremiah Smith has been in search for 12+ years, helping companies like JotForm get the No. 1 page rank and increase traffic 598% in just two months. He keeps his eye on emerging trends, and uses his observations to benefit clients of SimpleTiger, a boutique digital marketing agency specializing in SEO for entrepreneurs.

I invited Jeremiah to Marketing Smarts to share his expertise on search marketing and conversion rate optimization, and how some of the industry's most significant changes in years are happening right now.

Here are just a few highlights from our conversation:

Focus on providing value to your audience, and Google will take notice (09:32): "Google is evolving into a learning machine. It's going to use machine-learning and metrics. It's going to take metrics in, analyze them, and determine what's the best output from those metrics, then make a decision from that on what results are better. The metrics it's going to measure are definitely going to be aimed at human intent, not the machine's intent. That's something that we really have to keep in mind. The artificial intelligence is not meant to serve itself, it's meant to serve us. We don't build machines so they can go enjoy themselves. We build machines so we can enjoy using them.

"The idea behind Google's artificial intelligence is summed up really well in their mission statement: 'to organize the world's information and make it freely accessible.' That's what Google wants to do en masse, then their machinery is built to do that. How do you and I want to access information? How are you and I going to value the information that we're reading or consuming or accessing? Google wants to know that, and Google wants to provide that experience.

"Now, if Google's going to be the bridge to provide that experience, all you and I have to do is think, 'How can I give Kerry the best experience on my website when she is looking for how to build a marketing agency' or something along those lines. And then Google will bridge the gap for me. Google's going to try and figure out how to make that happen for me. All I have to do is make sure I'm providing Kerry the value that she's looking for when she's looking for the content."

Links still matter, but user engagement with your content has more impact on your search ranking (15:34): "A year ago, links were the single most important thing that you could do in regards to SEO. If you wanted to rank well in Google in 2017, you had to have really good links pointing to your website. That's been the case for years now. There were things that fell underneath that that were also extremely important (and there still are), but that was the one thing that if you did that right, everything else could kind of not be as good and you would still perform well. That's changed this year: 2018's different. For the first time, something has officially leapfrogged over links as the top-ranking factor and as the most influential factor, and that is user engagement.

"This is where I see artificial intelligence being fantastic. The whole idea behind better user engagement is if people come into your website and they are scrolling down and they're pausing and they're clearly reading something and they're clicking on buttons and they're engaging with pages on your website and they're getting involved in your website, those metrics Google is watching through clickstream data, Google Chrome, they're monitoring all that kind of stuff. When they see that kind of activity, that's going to help influence the way site ranks. If you get better user engagement for keywords in your industry than any other competitor, you're going to outrank them, despite the fact that they may have more links than you do.

To rack up sales, shift your focus to voice search. (19:00): "The shopping cart has driven the search engine revolution in regards to competition against Google. For the longest time, Google's competitors were Bing and  Yahoo, and it was a joke because Google was 70% search market share. Bing and Yahoo combined were like 20% and the rest was Ask Jeeves and Duck Duck Go...and Google was clearly dominant....

"Very recently, with the advent of [Alexa], that device alone has helped massively changed the way search operates and how has stolen market share from Google in a big way. Amazon is now the top competitor against Google. Google still outranks Amazon in overall search queries and search volume, but Amazon has just kicked Bing and Yahoo right out of the way and stolen market share. And a very key, important part of market share. I don't want to just focus on volume. Amazon goes a step further and focuses on transactional search, which is the key. Jeff Bezos knew right away: 'I don't want all the search volume, I want all the search volume that leads to a sale.' That's brilliant."

To increase user engagement with your content, take a qualitative approach to market research (24:54): "Taking a qualitative approach to the content you produce is a very powerful thing you can do. I see big names in search doing that. Wil Reynolds is a great example at Seer interactive. He talks a lot about how much they use qualitative analytics to determine what content clients should produce. 

"They were working with a company that has a product in Home Depot, a lawnmower blade or something, and they had a couple of their employees go to a couple of different Home Depots in their town and hang out near the section where those items are sold. When customers came by that started looking at them, they would step in and ask a couple of questions. 'Hey, we're doing a little big of market research on this product you're looking for in this, what is the biggest problem you're having in cutting your lawn,' things like that.

"They collected that data and they went back and said, 'Here's what we gathered through our market research.' That's literally boots-on-the-ground market research for a digital marketing company to perform. I love that guerrilla approach. Through doing that, they were able to quickly determine and prioritize (that's key) what content to focus their efforts around so they could begin producing that [content]. And they immediately started seeing an increase in user engagement and conversion rates and things like that because they were producing content that actually speaks to the pain points of the target user." 

To learn more, visit or follow Jeremiah on Twitter: @jeremiahcsmith.

Jeremiah and I talked about much more, including tools for qualitative analytics, tips for conversion rate optimization (CRO), and how local businesses are getting a boost from voice search, so be sure to listen to the entire show, which you can do above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!

This episode brought to you by GoToWebinar:

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Music credit: Noam Weinstein.

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