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How Machine Learning is Changing Search

Interview with Ryan Jones

Ryan Jones is a well-known SEO and Manager of Search Strategy & Analytics at SapientNitro. (He’s also the brilliant mind behind WTFSEO, which I highly recommend.) Ryan Jones is a veteran of SEJ Summit Chicago, having spoken there last year. This year, I’m so excited for Ryan’s presentation on machine learning and how it affects search, which is a topic I’m sure most of you want to learn more about.

Check out Ryan’s insight below and feel free to ask questions in the comment section!

Want to see Ryan and other speakers from The Home Depot, Grainger, Google, and more? Chicago Early Bird tickets are on sale now!

Interview with Ryan Jones

1. Your presentation at SEJ Summit Chicago is titled The Future is Today: How Machine Learning is Changing Search, which seems particularly timely with Google recently stating that RankBrain is one of the top three ranking factors. How do you think machines, and possibly even artificial intelligence, is going to change how SEOs do SEO?

I hate to spoil the presentation here, but the short answer is: if you’ve been doing SEO properly RankBrain doesn’t change anything.

In fact, since it deals with understanding query terms and relevance, it may actually help some websites who haven’t done the best keyword research. And that’s the goal, right? To surface the most relevant result to the searcher—even if the copywriter didn’t use the right variation of the keyword phrase, and put it in an H1 tag that matches the title tag, and have the proper keyword density by including it once in the first paragraph and once in bold and once near the end. SEO hasn’t been about that for a long time now, and this is just one more iteration of that paradigm shift.

2. There are always going to be shifts in SEO, and I think that is part of what keeps it interesting. What do you think brands can do today to prepare for changes in the future (which we often can’t predict).

We’ll never be able to fully predict the future of search engines or algorithms or even devices. If you told me 5 years ago that my fridge would be capable of doing a search, I’d have laughed at you. Now, I’m looking forward to when my fridge can realize I’m out breakfast shakes, find me the lowest price on them, and has them shipped to my house before I even close the door after drinking the last one.

The words we type into search engines are going to change. The devices we type (or talk) those words into will definitely change, the algorithms that rank the results will continue to change, and the search engines themselves might even change—but the one constant here is the user.

What we search for is evolving, but why we search will always be the same. We search because we want a solution. More so, we search because we want to accomplish something. Search is about verbs. In the 90’s and early 2000’s search was about words on the page. That hasn’t been true for a long time now. The goal of search now is to accomplish a task. It’s to win an argument, to finish a research paper, to book a flight, to buy something, to figure out who Taylor Swift is mad at now, or sometimes to just waste time watching funny videos. Users don’t want words on pages—they want solutions. That’s what we as marketers need to focus on.

Instead of asking “How do I rank for this term?” we need to ask “What are people searching for this term trying to do?” and then build something that helps them do that. The beauty of search is that the user is literally telling us what they want. It’s our job to listen, and then give it to them.

3. You have been involved in SEO for a long time—since 2005 at least. What mistake do you see brands even some SEOs still making after all these years?

One of the biggest mistakes is at the strategic level. When brands say “This isn’t an SEO initiative.” at the start of a project. Sure, SEO might not be its main goal—but it’s still a page on the web, why wouldn’t you try to get SEO value out of it too?

4. Once upon a time, you were one of Google’s human Quality Raters. How do you think the year you spent as a Quality Rater there has affected the way you view the SEO landscape?

This was back in the days before the quality rater guidelines were leaked to the public and before Google said screw it, here it is.

If you haven’t read that document yet I suggest you study it. It’s the best guide to SEO there is. Having access to that document early taught me to think like Google. It taught me to understand quality in the same way they do, so when I do SEO for clients I try to help them achieve what Google says they’re looking for in those documents.

It’s funny. Many people thought human quality raters were negatively impacting sites. Having a computer science background my immediate impression of the program was “Ooh, this feels like a training set.” My talk will go more into detail around that.

5. You seem to really be into futurism, at least in relation to the tech world. What is the most exciting ‘futuristic’ idea or invention you have seen lately?

I’m going to mention this in my talk too, but right now I’m following a startup called Viv. It’s like SIRI on steroids. You can say stuff like “Viv, order me a large pizza with pepperoni and mushrooms—and some chicken wings too.” and it’ll just go do it and the pizza will show up at your door. When you break that down into steps for a machine, it’s basically still a search—but now there isn’t a human doing it. To me that’s interesting, and it will definitely have an impact on SEO. The Smart home is another area. I don’t think we’re too far away from technology like the Star Trek computer, or JARVIS, or the one in the movie HER. Those things are all technically search. If you want a good idea of where we’re heading, pick up the books Daemon and Ready Player One.

I LOVED Ready Player One! Can’t wait for the movie. See you in Chicago!

Don’t forget, you can buy your ticket for our SEJ Summit Chicago search conference, taking place June 23 at the Navy Pier. Or, come see us in NYC Nov. 2nd!

Image Credits

Featured Image: Bloomua/
In-post Photo: Image by Paulo Bobita

Category SEO
Kelsey Jones Marketing Consultant, Owner at Six Stories & StoryShout

Kelsey Jones is a marketing consultant, writer, and owner of and Kelsey has been in digital marketing since ...

How Machine Learning is Changing Search

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