A year ago, I wrote in Search Engine Land about how Google is making entities smarter. Since that time, entities have become more important to Google — which means they are more important to businesses that want to be found on Google. It’s time for brands to get better acquainted with entities and why they matter.
What are entities, and how have they shaped Google search?
An entity, as defined by Google in a recent patent, is:
[a] thing or concept that is singular, unique, well-defined and distinguishable. For example, an entity may be a person, place, item, idea, abstract concept, concrete element, other suitable thing, or any combination thereof.
The most visible use of entities by Google is the Knowledge Graph panels that sometimes appear in search results. These panels typically provide a summary of relevant information about an entity — information that is collected from various sources around the web and compiled into a “card” display format.
Google’s focus on understanding entities has impacted the way search results are returned. When a consumer searches for something — let’s say “Find a Starbucks near me” — Google pulls from a wide variety of digital sources to provide the best answer, including the Starbucks store locator, Yelp, and the Target store locator (because Starbucks are also located in other stores).
By contrast, under the old way of doing things, Google would have returned results for that Starbucks query by looking at a smaller set of pages, then ordering them based on the pages’ content. However, Google eventually became more thorough and sophisticated, indexing returns from a wider and wider range of content, including documents such as PDFs, images, and, as Cindy Krum has been speculating, data without any URL associated with it.
In time, Google began to develop the concept of the entity by looking far and wide to deliver the best single answer from disparate sources. Google is continuing to build more sophisticated entities as they get better and better at crawling the web and understanding context — and that includes information about brick-and-mortar locations that people find through search.
Why the focus on entities?
So, why exactly is Google placing increased emphasis on entities? A few reasons stand out.
First, with mobile overtaking desktop searches, people want a single accurate answer to their search query. They don’t have a lot of time or patience to scroll through a half-dozen possible pages about Starbucks nearby. Google needs to draw from a wider variety of sources to answer questions more concisely for people on the go.
At the same time, even as mobile users want precise, fast answers, the rise of voice search makes it common for the same users to ask more complicated questions (often much too complicated). It’s easier to use our voices to ask, “Where is a bank nearby that speaks Spanish and offers mortgage services?” And so we do. Google needs to cast a wider net to provide a concise answer to a question with multiple conditions.
How can local businesses respond to this trend?
The rise of entities means that businesses must do more than optimize location pages to be found. They need to optimize for the entire entity associated with their business. Brands need to think beyond optimizing a single location for search, such as their Google My Business page. To appear in map pack rankings, businesses need to be found on all the places that Google associates with their business.
To succeed in a world of Google entities, businesses should:
- take stock of all your location data, make sure it is accurate, and present your data to all the places where Google looks for you to return a search result. I recommend you focus your listing efforts on data amplifiers, or the principal publishers (such as Google, Apple and Foursquare) and data aggregators (such as Neustar) that share your data wherever people conduct searches. Let the aggregators put your data to work for you so that Google draws from a comprehensive information tool kit to build your entity.
- make sure you provide complete location data through identities and attributes. Identities consist of basic, foundational data about your location, which typically does not change very much (if at all), such as your name, address and phone number. Attributes consist of variable information that may give you a competitive advantage, such as whether your business speaks multiple languages or offers gender-neutral bathrooms (which Yelp is now tracking). Most businesses manage their identities as part of a location data strategy; not enough mind their attributes. Attributes matter because Google mines attributes to provide as complete a picture as possible about your business. Consider identities as table stakes for building an entity. Attributes complete the picture. Attributes are even more important due to the fact that people can conduct more complicated queries with voice search.
I expect entities to become even more important as Google extends its use of artificial intelligence to process more complex queries faster and return answers with more depth. For instance, with AI, Google can crawl the Web more effectively for images to build its Knowledge Graph of your business, thus underscoring the importance of managing your brand assets (such as your logo) carefully.
Bottom line: entities are shaping location marketing. Understand them and incorporate them into your data strategy.
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