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How Machine Learning Is Changing SEO & How to Adapt

Learn how artificial intelligence is changing SEO and what you'll need to do to optimize for machine learning and stay ahead of the competition.

How Machine Learning Is Changing SEO & How to Adapt

We’ve been hearing a lot about machine learning for the past couple of years, but do we really know what it is and how it will change the organic search results? What skill sets do SEOs need and what role will we play in the near future?

If you still aren’t sure how machine learning is changing SEO, it’s time to pay close attention. Although machine learning isn’t new (it’s been around and has been used for years), we must learn new skills and adapt to how things are rapidly changing with the rise of this technology.

Soon you could notice a big drop in your client’s search engine visibility, conversions, and traffic. You may think it’s because of an algorithm update, but that may not be the case. It could be purely related to machine learning changing the SERPs and causing your client’s site to slip further down the page where no one will see it.

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What Is Machine Learning?

Before we go into what will change, let’s get a clear definition of what machine learning is.

Machine learning is a subfield of artificial intelligence (AI) concerned with algorithms that allow computers to learn. That’s according to Toby Segaran’s, “Programming Collective Intelligence” book.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is defined as the science of making computers perform tasks that require intelligence that is done by human beings.

Why Are Things Changing?

Google is learning how to better look at things and understand things in a much deeper way than ever before. This will allow them to provide better results to end users that satisfy their intent.

If your content fails to provide users with a positive experience, then you’re going to have a challenging time trying to rank in the top positions of the SERPs as the machines continue to learn and get smarter.

How Is This Going to Change the Role of SEOs?

As SEOs, our new responsibilities will be to make sure we have content that is relevant and useful in the moment across all devices, platforms, and content formats.

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This is how you optimize for RankBrain.

Google wants to connect great content to our clients’ potential customers along the customer journey. Therefore, developing content around intent is the ideal way to go.

Our role is going to change from being a search engine optimizer to a content experience analyst that provides high quality content experiences for our clients through content development and optimization services across the fragmented user journey.

A lot of brands struggle with content development and always ask the following questions:

  • What should I write about?
  • What are the trending topics?
  • What are users saying about my brand?
  • I don’t have the resources to develop content. Can you help?

This is where a strong and useful content strategy, social listening, and new content development becomes critical to finding topics that people are talking about, trends, and content that helps a user with their problem in the moment.

Guiding Customers Through the Buyer’s Journey

For example, a 30-year-old guy named Marvin has been having a sharp pain in his foot for the past two days so he searches for [foot pain] on Google (this is the “see” stage or informational stage) to learn more about foot pain. A great piece of content would have the types of foot pain, areas of the foot pain presented through images or infographics, and a list causes and treatments so Marvin could become more educated about the problem with his foot.

Marvin’s foot pain starts to get worse over the next 24 hours so he knows it is time to go see a podiatrist. The content that Marvin was looking at lists a podiatrist locator with reviews and contact information, he then calls to make an appointment.

The content that Marvin found online provides a good user experience from start to finish. This is a good example of content that can satisfy all users’ intents and what we SEOs should keep on producing.

How Machine Learning Is Changing SEO & How to Adapt

Technical SEO – Will It Still Be Relevant?

As time goes on, technical SEO will be less important and require less human interaction. Many software and platform vendors are building tools and applications that are SEO friendly and follow SEO best practices.

Google Search Console (GSC) will eventually be completely run on machine learning technology which will limit human interaction.

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We see evidence of this now with GSC sending out crawl error messages. Before long, Google will probably fix the issues for you as the machines continue to get smarter and learn new patterns.

With Google potentially fixing technical issues soon, what is left for the human to do from a technical SEO perspective? Not that much!

The time is now to roll up your sleeves and get started on creating high-quality content based on intent!

How Will Structured Data Help?

Having structured data is extremely important to help the search engines better understand your content and return more informative results to end users.

Anytime you can give the search engines data in a way that they can understand, it can help increase your visibility, indexation, and click-through rates. Having high click-through rates is an end user signal that informs Google that your content is popular and users are engaged with it.

Schema is a fantastic way to drive more organic traffic. Structured data isn’t for every brand, but if you have a client that sells things online, schema can enhance the search results by showing users product information, prices, reviews, and other valuable data points. All of this can help convince users to buy more of your client’s products or services.

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On-Page Optimization & Link Quality

On-page optimization is having less and less of an impact on rankings these days.

Even title tags don’t have the same impact on rankings that they used to.

For some search queries, some of the top ranking results don’t even use the keyword anywhere in the body content or other on-page elements. Even though these once vital SEO elements are missing, the pages still rank in top positions for highly competitive keywords.

Links used to be one of the most important ranking factors. Today links are still important, but it’s all about quality rather than quantity.

The more quality links you have from related domains, the higher your search engine rankings will be, especially if you have high quality and useful content to support it. I highly recommend that you conduct a toxic backlink audit to see if any negative links might be hurting your client’s search visibility.

Another important component of any successful SEO campaign: monitoring your link portfolio. Did your site lose any links? Losing links from high authority sites could impact your search engine visibility and traffic.

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Prioritizing User Experience

Speed is a crucial user experience factor. All your web pages should load in two seconds or less.

Users won’t wait for your web page to load. One bad user experience could impact your sales or conversions – and if they tell their friends about it, the impact on your sales and conversions can multiply.

Having slow loading pages can also cause your search visibility to decline because of lack of user engagement.

This is how important end user data is.

SEO Is All About Having a Relevant Content Experience Now

End user data, which has been a strong signal for a long time, will be even more important and could eventually replace links (but not anytime soon).

Intent tells Google about the quality and relevance of your content. If the end user did not find your content useful or relevant, and it did not meet their intent, your site might not rank in the top of the SERPs for related queries.

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Google has a plethora of end user data. This data helps Google understand what users find useful and relevant, which helps the machine understand user interests and preferences, and better sort and rank the search engine results.

As SEOs, we must provide content that:

  • Is high quality.
  • Meets end user intent.
  • Gives end users a positive content experience.
  • Is useful.

Always think and produce content like a publisher. If your content is popular and generates a lot of visits, users stay engaged with the content and interact with the content, your site will dominate the SERPs.

One content format that can’t be ignored is the answer box. As the SERPs continue to change, and more answer boxes are appearing in search results, you can dominate the SERPs and gain more clicks through answer box optimization.

One thing we must remember is that the voice search results are pulled from these snippets, so by ranking for answer box snippets, your brand can be the answer for voice search queries. Voice search is growing by leaps and bounds, especially with the usage of digital assistants.

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Screenshot of Answer Box

Let Social Amplify Your Content

It simply isn’t enough to build out high quality and useful content. Your content needs to get in front of end users who are interested in what your brand must say.

Paid social is the perfect catalyst to get the content seen, shared, and linked.  If you’re unsure if it will work for you, consider a small test to see if it works to amplify your content and generate a good amount of traffic, links, and shares.

Also consider using your own social channels or doing some outreach to get your content seen by the masses.


SEO is rapidly changing with of advances in machine learning. Intent is an important signal for content that is relevant and of high quality.

The SEO community must adapt and help Google connect audiences with the right content at the right time and deliver the best content experience.

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Things don’t stay the same forever. Technology is getting better and will continue to shape every aspect of our lives and how we practice SEO.

Make sure you’re prepared for the future. Don’t limit your SEO efforts on tactics and strategies that don’t work anymore. Focus on what’s important to get your clients the results they are paying you for.

Image Credits:

In-post Image 1: Created by the author, July 2017.

In-post Image 2: Screenshot taken by the author, July 2017.


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Winston Burton

VP, SEO at Acronym

Winston Burton is an SEO and digital marketing expert with over 12 years of experience. Winston is currently the VP, ... [Read full bio]

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