Information Gain and the Future of SEO

Leah Champagne on September 13, 2022

We live in the Information Age. A time dictated by the far-reaching accessibility of information and humans’ ability to control it. But what hath this wrought?

👂Check out Marketing Tomorrow Ep. 2 where we interviewed Leah about the future of SEO.  

With so many brands vying for the top spot in Google’s search rankings, the search engine results pages (SERPs) have become a sea of similar content. Every article asserts the same points, gives the same answers and takes the same position all in an effort to hit those target keywords and claw their way to the top. (There are some other inherent issues with this model, but we’ll cover those in a bit.)

But recently — on July 6, to be precise — Google received official approval to move toward an end to copycat content with its information gain patent. This patent was filed back in 2020 and outlines how Google wants to change its search engine’s ranking system to utilize information gain, all in an effort to provide better, more competitive search results.

Don’t panic just yet. Your organic traffic won’t tank overnight. We won’t see any major changes to ranking factors right away — those things take time. However, the fundamental process of ranking your content will start playing by new rules. And if you aren’t ready for a brand new ball game, your content is going to get benched.

What Is Information Gain?

First thing’s first, what even is information gain? Google wants to start ranking resources (blogs, web pages, PDFs, anything that appears in search results) based on how different their information is from each other.

A machine learning model is a computer program that finds patterns or makes decisions about a data set. In the case of a search engine, the data set is a series of resources that will be populated in the search results.

The term actually comes from the computer science world and is used in reference to machine learning models. In this instance, the computer is scanning resources and comparing the information presented. It will assign a score to each resource based on how different their information is.

For example, imagine two articles presenting the exact same steps for how to grow cucumbers. But one article adds a section that also teaches you how to pickle cucumbers. That article will receive a higher score because it includes new information.

The score the computer assigns to each resource based on this criteria is the information gain score.

In theory, using an information gain score to help rank search results provides searchers with more useful results because the computer is actively looking for articles that offer unique content. Thus solving the copycat content problem.

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Why Does Google Want to Change?

You’ve probably already noticed that information gain is drastically different than how Google currently ranks content. The prevailing scoring method focuses mostly on keyword density to indicate what the resource is about. With these criteria in place, computers were scanning for certain keywords and analyzing page content to determine its aboutness and not necessarily its value.

Aboutness (n.)

the subject or topic of a resource and its relevance to the user’s information needs

Sounds like a good system, right? Give users content that is about the search term they entered. In reality, however, this system is what’s causing problems with competition because aboutness isn’t the only ranking factor.

In the current SEO environment, one of the biggest ranking factors is domain authority (often measured in backlinks). Google wants to provide reliable resources, so it prioritizes websites that have authority in their space and can be trusted to give accurate information. This leads to mega brands dominating page one and smaller brands fighting for whatever scraps they can grab. (We’ll talk more about this issue in a later section.)

This method was sustainable for a time, but then everyone started jumping on the content marketing bandwagon. (And rightly so!) Smaller brands figured they should emulate content in the top results to rank favorably, and this quickly spiraled out of control into pages and pages of almost the exact same information from dozens of different links.

As we all know, Google touts its main purpose in life is to improve the user experience. And providing countless entries of the same information isn’t particularly helpful to anyone. So the tech giant set out to make the search process rich with valuable results and competitive viewpoints instead of just any resource that matched the user’s search intent.

However, to do this, they needed a new ranking system. A new scoring method. They needed information gain.

Many of the benefits of switching to this model are rooted in how people search for information. I’m going to give you a crash course in the “information search process” (ISP) so you have the context you need to understand why Google is making this change.

ISP Crash Course

Let me preface this section by saying this is a huge field of research that many academic professionals dedicate their careers to. But for the sake of time and general understanding, I’m going to break it down to the bare basics.

The information search process is like a roadmap of how people search for, find and evaluate information that fulfills a need. There are six main steps in this process that most researchers agree on, even if they describe them differently:

There are two things I want to point out from this flow chart. First, note that steps 2, 3 and 4 are cyclical. People will repeat these steps as many times as they need until they feel like they’ve discovered enough information to satisfy their need.

That leads them to the saturation point. This is the point in the process where the user decides they have found all the relevant information that exists about their topic and they stop their search.

With this in mind, here are the three reasons Google’s patent mentions for why they want to include information gain in their search ranking process.

1.) Provide More Valuable Results

Google’s current algorithm focuses heavily on relevance. It’s dedicated to finding material it deems most relevant to the search query — those are the resources that occupy the coveted Top 10 spots.

In an effort to join that elite group, other businesses started basing their content creation on those top links since those brands’ SEO strategy was obviously working. This is how we ended up with so much copycat content.

This phenomenon causes people to reach their saturation point almost immediately. As they read featured snippets and scroll down the page, they figure every article will tell them basically the same thing. So they choose one and move on. (Note: This issue is the foundation of all three reasons for the change.)

Google addressed this behavior in its patent application when it reasoned that “although two documents that share a topic may be relevant to the request or interest of the user, the user may have less interest in viewing a second document after already viewing the same or similar information in a first document.”

So how does the largest search engine on the planet solve this problem? By shifting its focus to value.

The idea of information gain is that SERPs will present a higher value to users because they will each present different or additional information. This encourages users to cycle through the information discovery steps of the ISP to find adequate amounts of information, instead of assuming saturation right away.

2.) Increase SERP Competition

That leads us right into the second reason Google wants to change up its ranking: increase competition.

The current SERP landscape is a “winner take all” environment. This means the resource with the most domain authority (read backlinks), highest keyword density and greatest search relevancy is what gets promoted and enjoys the spoils of position 1.

In theory, this model is competitive. In theory, with the right keywords and some powerful optimization, any brand can make it to the top spot in SERPs. But we’re all friends here, so let’s be honest with each other.

There is no way a local health clinic is going to outrank Healthline or a medium-sized financial advisor will beat out Forbes. It’s just not going to happen. Those two brands are too powerful in the SEO space, they’ve built up a fortress’ worth of domain authority and they’re always going to claim the top spots.

That is, until now.

Information gain scores are intended to help level the playing field. Instead of cut-throat competition, the SERPs will be getting much more collaborative. (I’ll explain why in the next section).

You can see in the below chart from Animalz that Google’s new strategy will divide the “prize” of sitting in the top 10 SERP positions.

The first thing you’ll notice is probably that the right-hand graph is leading all three users to three different SERPs. No, it’s not a mistake. It’s perhaps the biggest shift in SEO that information gain will bring to content marketing — customized results.

3.) Create a Customized Search Experience

What do I mean by “customized?” Google explains in their patent that information gain scoring will be partly determined by a user’s search history. This will ensure users are shown new or additional information instead of the same resources in every search.

Google included this helpful diagram in their patent. The numbers (401, 402, 403) represent a series of searches; the “b” column shows resources the user viewed in the previous search; the “a” column shows documents that were not viewed.

As the user refines their search, each of thesegoogle-patent-flowchart documents will receive an information gain score. The documents that are not viewed and include additional information receive a higher score and thus stay in the search results.

This diagram is great, but I’m more of an examples kind of gal. So let’s paint a picture to better understand this process.

Let’s say your initial search (400) was “how to install new floors.” The search engine returned the top four results from these four major sources:

  • Home Depot
  • Lowe’s
  • Ace Hardware
  • Lumber Liquidators

Let’s say you open the Home Depot article, but it’s not quite what you needed. So you go back to Google and refine your search to: “how to install new floors in my house.”

You might expect to see that same Home Depot article, but with information gain, it would be taken out of rotation. Google would see that you viewed it and it didn’t satisfy your needs, so its score goes down and you’re left with the other three resources.

In the real world, there will be much more than four results and the search engine will fill the gaps with new articles as it eliminates one you’ve already seen. But this is the gist of the process.

It’s important to note that Google isn’t prioritizing this customization only in traditional searches. It’s also optimizing voice search, mobile search and chatbot services to use information gain scoring as those methods of search continue to grow in popularity.

How Do Information Gain Scores Work?

Now that we know what information gain is and why Google is adding it to their search result ranking system, you’re probably wondering how the scoring system works.

Google explains information gain scores this way: “An information gain score for a given document is indicative of additional information that is included in the given document beyond information contained in other documents that were already present to the user.”

Hey, Google. Translate this to English.

It means information gain scores reflect how much additional information a resource has compared to other resources the user has already viewed. So a resource’s score is based on two primary criteria:

  1. Type of information (specifically new or additional)
  2. User search history

To score the type of information, the computer will go through a variety of evaluation functions like scanning the entire contents of the resource, determining its aboutness, looking for patterns in the information and various other semantic analyses. (You can read the full list of functions in the “Description” section of the patent, paragraph 0005.)

Google can use its data about a user’s search history to keep track of what links a user has viewed and which they haven’t. The computer will use this information as it evaluates content to create a single information gain score for each resource.

Here’s the key point: Right now, Google has web crawlers discovering, crawling and indexing websites at all times to assign scores and rank accordingly. But with information gain, the score of any given resource will be subjective to a single user.

We learned in the first section of this article that scores are based on data sets (resources) that have been either viewed or not viewed by a user. The computer then assigns scores to the latter set based on the two primary criteria mentioned above. The resource with the highest score wins the top spot in SERPs.

This makes planning your content marketing a little tricky. It’s not a “shoot for the moon and land among the stars” situation anymore. It’s more like being in a crowd of other 9-year-olds all trying to throw a bouncy ball into a sea of fishbowls at the state fair just to win a goldfish. Some will make it in, some won’t, but it’ll feel like chaos if you all throw at the same bowl.

Lucky for you, I was a 9-year-old who did win a goldfish at a state fair. So I know a thing or two about finding your best opportunity.

How to Shift Content Marketing for Information Gain

Reminder: Information gain isn’t going to sweep the web in a single day. Most likely, you won’t see significant changes in SERPs or your organic search metrics for another six months or so. But all the information you need to gain an edge is right there on the table. So why not start preparing now?

Let’s do a quick recap of what we know about information gain:

  1. It’s designed to complement the current SEO ranking system to provide more valuable results to users.
  2. Its goal is to increase competition in SERPs.
  3. It will create a customized search experience for each user.
  4. Its scores are based on two criteria: type of information, user search history.

I know this list can seem big and feel intangible, so I’ve put together my own list of three ways you can adjust your content creation to rank favorably when information gain picks up steam.

Stand Out

SERP rankings have always been about who could shout a keyword the loudest, but information gain is making things less of a screaming match and more of a beauty pageant.

Instead of trying to match what your top competitors are publishing, you must be brave. Find ways to stand out from the crowd by offering a unique perspective or next steps. You can’t be just another goldfish if you want people to find your content.

The key to standing out in this new era of SEO is to find a new approach to your target keyword. Consider these questions as you start outlining your content:

  • What are the next steps for this topic?
  • What questions do users still have after reading the top articles?
  • Which details is the competition leaving out?

These questions will help you identify content gaps in the market that your brand can fill. You don’t want to just plug and play any old idea, though. With information gain, you must be strategic.

Be Strategic

Change can be scary, but think of this shift as a huge opportunity. Because it is. It’s your chance to bring your brand strategy to life in your content, specifically through your positioning and messaging.

As Google starts placing a higher value on differentiation, it presents opportunities to align your organic content with your brand strategy. Before, we were all somewhat tethered to the information and format of top results. Not anymore.

Think about how you differentiate yourself in the marketplace and how you can carry over those points in your content. Consider the positioning and audience of your brand as a whole and let your content reflect those unique aspects. This is how you’ll subtly inject your brand identity into every piece of content a potential client consumes.

Consider the Whole Journey

This final tip is a product of my personal analysis. The shift to information gain will make Google more of a search facilitator instead of just a search engine. This outcome is fueled by supporting the information search process and extending saturation points, which is why they’re using previous search behavior as a criteria for information gain.

But there’s another process in marketing that operates on a similar continuum to the ISP: the customer journey. These two processes complement each other because as someone moves through each, their information needs change, usually becoming narrower.

Those changes are where you can differentiate your content.

Take the time to do some customer journey mapping and really understand how a potential client moves through their search process and your sales funnel. What information do they need at each stage? What questions are they asking before they take the next step? What information would convince them your solution is the right solution?

As you find these answers, use them to craft your content. There are a plethora of how-tos and listicles out there, but many of them stop short of ushering someone into the next phase of their search.

If you can tailor your content strategy to match people’s evolving information needs, then you should have a better chance of showing up in subsequent searches with new, valuable articles.

It’s Time to Rethink Content

Remember, we aren’t going to see major changes in search results right away. This shift will take some time to implement and get rolling, and that’s good news. It gives you time to create a proactive content strategy instead of reacting to drops in your organic traffic down the line.

It’s time to evaluate your current content and start planning for the future. To help you navigate this process, check out our blog about performing content audits.

Leah Champagne
Leah Champagne
Leah is a professional content specialist with three years of experience writing for a wide array of industries. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism, then pivoted her writing skills to a career in marketing content. Now she is also well versed in completing keyword research and content strategy for our clients. Leah is known for her consistency, creativity and ability to work with clients to create the perfect piece of content.

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