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Featured Snippets and how Google understands News; Clarification from Google

Posted by Owen Powis on 30 Sep, 2020
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Google is getting better at understanding the content of information. Not just the context of a word within content, but the content of a search within the world around us.

Danny Sullivan, the former SEO turned Google Public Liason, has posted a new blog post about how Google understands the content of a search. Although he uses featured snippets as the example, really it's about much more than that.

It's about how Google understands what you are asking for when the meaning of those words changes depending on the environment, or as he puts it, in the critical context those words are used.

The example of featured snippets he uses is easy to grasp, but it is just that, an example of what Google is doing with far wider implications than this one type of result.

Danny uses the California wildfires as the example within his post, stating:

"On the morning of September 10, millions of people in Northern California woke up to an orange sky after wildfire smoke spread like a thick layer across the West Coast. It persisted for days, and it was the first time lots of people had ever seen something like this. 

To understand what was happening, many people turned to Search. According to Google Trends, searches for “why is the sky orange” hit an all-time high this month in the United States."

So he's picking an example that is specifically not a new query. Google has seen it before and there is existing material on the topic. But for the people asking it, the content of that query had dramatically shifted.

"On the morning of September 10, millions of people in Northern California woke up to an orange sky after wildfire smoke spread like a thick layer across the West Coast. It persisted for days, and it was the first time lots of people had ever seen something like this. 

To understand what was happening, many people turned to Search. According to Google Trends, searches for “why is the sky orange” hit an all-time high this month in the United States.

Danny then mentions language understanding, linking to a previous post on Google Bert, which we covered in our own article here.

But then he says:

"it’s not just about the words. Critical context, like time and place, also helps us understand what you’re really looking for."

So there are two separate mechanisms at work here: both the understanding of the words that are said, and the understanding of the context.

He goes on to say that they now better understand when "fresh or local information - or both - is key". In other words, what's happening in the specific time and place that might change the meaning of that search.

Interestingly they identified this from the content side as well:

"Our freshness indicators identified a rush of new content was being produced on this topic that was both locally relevant and different from the more evergreen content that existed."

So they saw that news stories on this topic were being produced at the same time as the spike in searches and this was in itself meaningful. There had been a change in context.

"This signaled to our systems to ignore most of the specifics that they previously understood about the topic of “orange sky”--like the relation to a sunset--but to retain broad associations like “air” and “ocean” that were still relevant."

So where the searches were coming from indicated that this was a local event. Having understood this, they looked for new content surrounding that query, deliberately seperating out fresh from evergreen content. Meaning that the Query Deserves Freshness algorithm kicks in at this point on a local level only.

"Put simply, instead of surfacing general information on what causes a sunset, when people searched for “why is the sky orange” during this time period, our systems automatically pulled in current, location-based information to help people find the timely results they were searching for."

Content that makes Google happy

So what can we learn from this regarding the content we produce?

Google is all about choice. It wants to give users choice. Even if it's on a single topic, the user still should be able to to view mutlitple different ways of covering it.

Asking "what does this add to the coversation?" is a good starting point for any piece you may be writing. But where it's covering a local change or news event, it can be difficult not to say the same as everyone else. Developing a unique voice and style of covering content allows you to stand out from the crowd.

Most of us do not have the luxury of being a large organisation that can brute force their way into the search results or have a team of professional writers on standby. So we need to think about how to present information in a way that makes it worth including alongside that from larger, better known organisations. Especially in cases where niching down may not work as there is a limit to the granularity which will trigger these types of mechanisms. Issues which are too local may not see a large enough spike in interest to trigger these effects.

Danny specifies in his post:

"Our freshness indicators identified a rush of new content was being produced on this topic that was both locally relevant and different from the more evergreen content that existed"

So it's not just about the content being new, it's also about being different from what's there already. Taking advantage of this means looking at the type of information people will be searching for in Google when something happens.

This often takes the form of questions. Like in this example, people asking "why is the sky orange?".  Looking for the questions in both local and national events then creating content that answers them, is a great way of feeding Google content it loves.

People turn to Google for answers when their critical context changes. So if you look for questions that people might be asking when the context changes and create unique, informative content that answers those questions, you'll be on the right path.

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