Optimizing for Searcher Intent Explained in 7 Visuals

Posted by randfish

Ever get that spooky feeling that Google somehow knows exactly what you mean, even when you put a barely-coherent set of words in the search box? You’re not alone. The search giant has an uncanny ability to un-focus on the keywords in the search query and apply behavioral, content, context, and temporal/historical signals to give you exactly the answer you want.

For marketers and SEOs, this poses a frustrating challenge. Do we still optimize for keywords? The answer is “sort of.” But I think I can show you how to best think about this in a few quick visuals, using a single search query.

First… A short story.

I sent a tweet over the weekend about an old Whiteboard Friday video. Emily Grossman, longtime friend, all-around marketing genius, and official-introducer-of-millenial-speak-to-GenXers-like-me replied.

Emily makes fun of Rand's mustache on Twitter

Ha ha Emily. I already made fun of my own mustache so…

Anywho, I searched Google for “soz.” Not because I didn’t know what it means. I can read between lines. I’m hip. But, you know, sometimes a Gen-Xer wants to make sure.

The results confirm my guess, but they also helped illustrate a point of frequent frustration I have when trying to explain modern vs. classic SEO. I threw together these seven visuals to illustrate.

There you have it friends. Classic SEO ranking inputs still matter. They can still help. They’re often the difference between making it to the top 10 vs. having no shot. But too many SEOs get locked into the idea that rankings are made up of a combination of the “Old School Five”:

  1. Keyword use
  2. Links to the page
  3. Domain authority
  4. Anchor text
  5. Freshness

Don’t get me wrong — sometimes, these signals in a powerful enough combination can overwhelm Google’s other inputs. But those examples are getting harder to find.

The three big takeaways for every marketer should be:

  1. Google is working hard to keep searchers on Google. If you help them do that, they’ll often help you rank (whether this is a worthwhile endeavor or a Prisoner’s Dilemma is another matter)
  2. When trying to reverse why something ranks in Google, add the element of “how well does this solve the searcher’s query”
  3. If you’re trying to outrank a competitor, how you align your title, meta description, first few sentences of text, and content around what the searcher truly wants can make the difference… even if you don’t win on links 😉

Related: if you want to see how hard Google’s working to keep searchers on their site vs. clicking results, I’ve got some research on SparkToro showing precisely that.

P.S. I don’t actually believe in arbitrary birth year ranges for segmenting cohorts of people. The differences between two individuals born in 1981 can be vastly wider than for two people born in 1979 and 1985. Boomer vs. Gen X vs. Millenial vs. Gen Z is crappy pseudoscience rooted in our unhealthy desire to categorize and pigeonhole others. Reject that ish.

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A new app to map and monitor the world’s freshwater supplyA new app to map and monitor the world’s freshwater supply

Today, on World Water Day, we’re proud to showcase a new platform enabling all countries to freely measure and monitor when and where water is changing: UN’s Water-Related Ecosystems, or sdg661.app. Released last week in Nairobi at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), the app provides statistics for every country’s annual surface water (like lakes and rivers). It also shows changes from 1984 through 2018 through interactive maps, graphs and full-data downloads.

This project is only possible because of the unique partnerships between three very different organizations. In 2016, European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and Google released the Global Surface Water Explorer in tandem with a publication in “Nature.” An algorithm developed by the JRC to map water was run on Google Earth Engine. The process took more than 10 million hours of computing time, spread across more than 10,000 computers in parallel, a feat that would have taken 600 years if run on a modern desktop computer. But the sheer magnitude of the high resolution global data product tended to limit analysis to only the most tech savvy users and countries.

The new app, created in partnership with United Nations Environment, aims to make this water data available to everyone. Working with member countries to understand their needs, it features smaller, more easily manageable tables and maps at national and water body levels. Countries can compare data with one another, and for the first time gain greater understanding of the effects of water policy, and infrastructure like dams, diversions, and irrigation practices on water bodies that are shared across borders.

Ask a Techspert: Why am I getting so many spam calls?Ask a Techspert: Why am I getting so many spam calls?

Editor’s Note: Do you ever feel like a fish out of water? Try being a tech novice and talking to an engineer at a place like Google. Ask a Techspert is a new series on the Keyword asking Googler experts to explain complicated technology for the rest of us. This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but just enough to make you sound smart at a dinner party.

Growing up, I was taught to say “Schottenfels residence” when answering the phone. It was the polite way of doing things. When the phone rang, it was usually family, friends and, yes, the occasional telemarketer on the other side of the line. Then things changed. Personal calls moved to mobile phones, and the landline became the domain of robocalls. My cell was a sanctuary, free of the pesky automated dialers that plague the landlines of yore. Until recently.

Today, it feels like the only phone calls I get are spam calls. And I know I’m not alone. According to a recent Google survey, half of respondents received at least one spam call per day, and one third received two or more per day.

And people are answering those calls. More than one third of respondents worry that a call from an unknown number is a call about a loved one, and another third think it could be a call from a potential loved one, so they pick up. And almost everyone agrees: Spam calls are the worst. In fact, 75 percent of those surveyed think spam calls are more annoying than spam texts or emails.

So what’s the deal with spam calls? And how can we stop them from happening? For the latest edition of Ask a Techspert, I spoke to Paul Dunlop, the product manager for the Google Phone App, to better understand why, all of the sudden, spam calls are happening so frequently, and what tools, like Pixel’s Call Screen feature, you can use  to avoid the headache.

Why spam calls are more common lately

According to Paul, voice-over IP (VoIP) is the culprit. These are phone calls made using the web instead of a traditional telephone line, and today they’re cheaper and easier than ever to use. “Using VoIP technology, spammers place phone calls over the Internet and imitate a different phone number,” Paul says. “It used to be that they had a fixed number, and you could block that number. Now with VoIP, spammers have the ability to imitate any phone number.” Paul says this became possible when companies, which wanted to call customers from call centers, made it so one general 1-800 number for a business showed up on caller IDs. So what started as a common-sense solution ended up becoming an easy loophole for spammers.

This is called spoofing, and there’s nothing in phone systems—the infrastructure of telephones—that can prevent spam callers from imitating numbers. “You can actually be spammed by your own phone number,” Paul says. “But the most common is neighborhood spam, using your area code and the first three digits of your phone number, which increases the likelihood you’ll answer.”

How Pixel can help you avoid picking up spam calls

Hot off the press: Talking media with Google News Lab’s directorHot off the press: Talking media with Google News Lab’s director

When I was growing up, reading the news meant thumbing through the local paper every week on my way to the Sunday comics section. These days, staying up-to-date on world events looks a little different: I skim email newsletters, scroll through social media feeds, occasionally pick up a magazine, and of course, read Google News.

As newsrooms around the world keep up with these changes, there’s one team at Google thinking about how technology can help build the future of media: the News Lab. To mark the one-year anniversary of the Google News Initiative, I sat down with News Lab’s director and cofounder, Olivia Ma, for today’s She Word interview. Here’s what I learned—straight from the source—about why Olivia set out on this career path, how she stays focused in a world where the news never sleeps and what she’s reading outside of the office.

How do you explain your job at a dinner party?

As the mother of two young kids, I don’t make it to that many dinner parties these days. But if I find myself at a table filled with adults, I’d tell them this: I lead a team at Google called News Lab that works with newsrooms across the globe to help them navigate the transition to a digital future. 

In the early days of News Lab, we focused on training journalists to use our products that helped them tell stories, such as Google Trends and Google Earth. Now, we immerse ourselves in the needs of journalists, publishers and news consumers so that our engineering teams can build better products. Every day we work to answer the question: How can technology play a role in helping newsrooms grow their audiences and build sustainable businesses?

What initially drew you to journalism?  

My dad spent his career working as a journalist at publications like Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report and The Washington Post. As a kid, my class would visit my his office to learn about how magazines and newspapers were printed—the old fashioned way, with ink and paper.

It wasn’t until college that I also caught the journalism bug, and I decided to dedicate my career to tackling the tricky challenges facing the news industry. By that time, my dad had started working at The Washington Post where he helped transition the newspaper online. Up until he passed away in 2011 we’d talk about what we thought journalism would look like in the digital age. I’m honored to continue his legacy—albeit from a different vantage point.

The One-Hour Guide to SEO, Part 2: Keyword Research – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

Before doing any SEO work, it’s important to get a handle on your keyword research. Aside from helping to inform your strategy and structure your content, you’ll get to know the needs of your searchers, the search demand landscape of the SERPs, and what kind of competition you’re up against.

In the second part of the One-Hour Guide to SEO, the inimitable Rand Fishkin covers what you need to know about the keyword research process, from understanding its goals to building your own keyword universe map. Enjoy!

Click on the whiteboard image above to open a high resolution version in a new tab!

Video Transcription

Howdy, Moz fans. Welcome to another portion of our special edition of Whiteboard Friday, the One-Hour Guide to SEO. This is Part II – Keyword Research. Hopefully you’ve already seen our SEO strategy session from last week. What we want to do in keyword research is talk about why keyword research is required. Why do I have to do this task prior to doing any SEO work?

The answer is fairly simple. If you don’t know which words and phrases people type into Google or YouTube or Amazon or Bing, whatever search engine you’re optimizing for, you’re not going to be able to know how to structure your content. You won’t be able to get into the searcher’s brain, into their head to imagine and empathize with them what they actually want from your content. You probably won’t do correct targeting, which will mean your competitors, who are doing keyword research, are choosing wise search phrases, wise words and terms and phrases that searchers are actually looking for, and you might be unfortunately optimizing for words and phrases that no one is actually looking for or not as many people are looking for or that are much more difficult than what you can actually rank for.

The goals of keyword research

So let’s talk about some of the big-picture goals of keyword research. 

Understand the search demand landscape so you can craft more optimal SEO strategies

First off, we are trying to understand the search demand landscape so we can craft better SEO strategies. Let me just paint a picture for you.

I was helping a startup here in Seattle, Washington, a number of years ago — this was probably a couple of years ago — called Crowd Cow. Crowd Cow is an awesome company. They basically will deliver beef from small ranchers and small farms straight to your doorstep. I personally am a big fan of steak, and I don’t really love the quality of the stuff that I can get from the store. I don’t love the mass-produced sort of industry around beef. I think there are a lot of Americans who feel that way. So working with small ranchers directly, where they’re sending it straight from their farms, is kind of an awesome thing.

But when we looked at the SEO picture for Crowd Cow, for this company, what we saw was that there was more search demand for competitors of theirs, people like Omaha Steaks, which you might have heard of. There was more search demand for them than there was for “buy steak online,” “buy beef online,” and “buy rib eye online.” Even things like just “shop for steak” or “steak online,” these broad keyword phrases, the branded terms of their competition had more search demand than all of the specific keywords, the unbranded generic keywords put together.

That is a very different picture from a world like “soccer jerseys,” where I spent a little bit of keyword research time today looking, and basically the brand names in that field do not have nearly as much search volume as the generic terms for soccer jerseys and custom soccer jerseys and football clubs’ particular jerseys. Those generic terms have much more volume, which is a totally different kind of SEO that you’re doing. One is very, “Oh, we need to build our brand. We need to go out into this marketplace and create demand.” The other one is, “Hey, we need to serve existing demand already.”

So you’ve got to understand your search demand landscape so that you can present to your executive team and your marketing team or your client or whoever it is, hey, this is what the search demand landscape looks like, and here’s what we can actually do for you. Here’s how much demand there is. Here’s what we can serve today versus we need to grow our brand.

Create a list of terms and phrases that match your marketing goals and are achievable in rankings

The next goal of keyword research, we want to create a list of terms and phrases that we can then use to match our marketing goals and achieve rankings. We want to make sure that the rankings that we promise, the keywords that we say we’re going to try and rank for actually have real demand and we can actually optimize for them and potentially rank for them. Or in the case where that’s not true, they’re too difficult or they’re too hard to rank for. Or organic results don’t really show up in those types of searches, and we should go after paid or maps or images or videos or some other type of search result.

Prioritize keyword investments so you do the most important, high-ROI work first

We also want to prioritize those keyword investments so we’re doing the most important work, the highest ROI work in our SEO universe first. There’s no point spending hours and months going after a bunch of keywords that if we had just chosen these other ones, we could have achieved much better results in a shorter period of time.

Match keywords to pages on your site to find the gaps

Finally, we want to take all the keywords that matter to us and match them to the pages on our site. If we don’t have matches, we need to create that content. If we do have matches but they are suboptimal, not doing a great job of answering that searcher’s query, well, we need to do that work as well. If we have a page that matches but we haven’t done our keyword optimization, which we’ll talk a little bit more about in a future video, we’ve got to do that too.

Understand the different varieties of search results

So an important part of understanding how search engines work — we’re going to start down here and then we’ll come back up — is to have this understanding that when you perform a query on a mobile device or a desktop device, Google shows you a vast variety of results. Ten or fifteen years ago this was not the case. We searched 15 years ago for “soccer jerseys,” what did we get? Ten blue links. I think, unfortunately, in the minds of many search marketers and many people who are unfamiliar with SEO, they still think of it that way. How do I rank number one? The answer is, well, there are a lot of things “number one” can mean today, and we need to be careful about what we’re optimizing for.

So if I search for “soccer jersey,” I get these shopping results from Macy’s and soccer.com and all these other places. Google sort has this sliding box of sponsored shopping results. Then they’ve got advertisements below that, notated with this tiny green ad box. Then below that, there are couple of organic results, what we would call classic SEO, 10 blue links-style organic results. There are two of those. Then there’s a box of maps results that show me local soccer stores in my region, which is a totally different kind of optimization, local SEO. So you need to make sure that you understand and that you can convey that understanding to everyone on your team that these different kinds of results mean different types of SEO.

Now I’ve done some work recently over the last few years with a company called Jumpshot. They collect clickstream data from millions of browsers around the world and millions of browsers here in the United States. So they are able to provide some broad overview numbers collectively across the billions of searches that are performed on Google every day in the United States.

Click-through rates differ between mobile and desktop

The click-through rates look something like this. For mobile devices, on average, paid results get 8.7% of all clicks, organic results get about 40%, a little under 40% of all clicks, and zero-click searches, where a searcher performs a query but doesn’t click anything, Google essentially either answers the results in there or the searcher is so unhappy with the potential results that they don’t bother taking anything, that is 62%. So the vast majority of searches on mobile are no-click searches.

On desktop, it’s a very different story. It’s sort of inverted. So paid is 5.6%. I think people are a little savvier about which result they should be clicking on desktop. Organic is 65%, so much, much higher than mobile. Zero-click searches is 34%, so considerably lower.

There are a lot more clicks happening on a desktop device. That being said, right now we think it’s around 60–40, meaning 60% of queries on Google, at least, happen on mobile and 40% happen on desktop, somewhere in those ranges. It might be a little higher or a little lower.

The search demand curve

Another important and critical thing to understand about the keyword research universe and how we do keyword research is that there’s a sort of search demand curve. So for any given universe of keywords, there is essentially a small number, maybe a few to a few dozen keywords that have millions or hundreds of thousands of searches every month. Something like “soccer” or “Seattle Sounders,” those have tens or hundreds of thousands, even millions of searches every month in the United States.

But people searching for “Sounders FC away jersey customizable,” there are very, very few searches per month, but there are millions, even billions of keywords like this. 

The long-tail: millions of keyword terms and phrases, low number of monthly searches

When Sundar Pichai, Google’s current CEO, was testifying before Congress just a few months ago, he told Congress that around 20% of all searches that Google receives each day they have never seen before. No one has ever performed them in the history of the search engines. I think maybe that number is closer to 18%. But that is just a remarkable sum, and it tells you about what we call the long tail of search demand, essentially tons and tons of keywords, millions or billions of keywords that are only searched for 1 time per month, 5 times per month, 10 times per month.

The chunky middle: thousands or tens of thousands of keywords with ~50–100 searches per month

If you want to get into this next layer, what we call the chunky middle in the SEO world, this is where there are thousands or tens of thousands of keywords potentially in your universe, but they only have between say 50 and a few hundred searches per month.

The fat head: a very few keywords with hundreds of thousands or millions of searches

Then this fat head has only a few keywords. There’s only one keyword like “soccer” or “soccer jersey,” which is actually probably more like the chunky middle, but it has hundreds of thousands or millions of searches. The fat head is higher competition and broader intent.

Searcher intent and keyword competition

What do I mean by broader intent? That means when someone performs a search for “soccer,” you don’t know what they’re looking for. The likelihood that they want a customizable soccer jersey right that moment is very, very small. They’re probably looking for something much broader, and it’s hard to know exactly their intent.

However, as you drift down into the chunky middle and into the long tail, where there are more keywords but fewer searches for each keyword, your competition gets much lower. There are fewer people trying to compete and rank for those, because they don’t know to optimize for them, and there’s more specific intent. “Customizable Sounders FC away jersey” is very clear. I know exactly what I want. I want to order a customizable jersey from the Seattle Sounders away, the particular colors that the away jersey has, and I want to be able to put my logo on there or my name on the back of it, what have you. So super specific intent.

Build a map of your own keyword universe

As a result, you need to figure out what the map of your universe looks like so that you can present that, and you need to be able to build a list that looks something like this. You should at the end of the keyword research process — we featured a screenshot from Moz’s Keyword Explorer, which is a tool that I really like to use and I find super helpful whenever I’m helping companies, even now that I have left Moz and been gone for a year, I still sort of use Keyword Explorer because the volume data is so good and it puts all the stuff together. However, there are two or three other tools that a lot of people like, one from Ahrefs, which I think also has the name Keyword Explorer, and one from SEMrush, which I like although some of the volume numbers, at least in the United States, are not as good as what I might hope for. There are a number of other tools that you could check out as well. A lot of people like Google Trends, which is totally free and interesting for some of that broad volume data.



So I might have terms like “soccer jersey,” “Sounders FC jersey”, and “custom soccer jersey Seattle Sounders.” Then I’ll have these columns: 

  • Volume, because I want to know how many people search for it; 
  • Difficulty, how hard will it be to rank. If it’s super difficult to rank and I have a brand-new website and I don’t have a lot of authority, well, maybe I should target some of these other ones first that are lower difficulty. 
  • Organic Click-through Rate, just like we talked about back here, there are different levels of click-through rate, and the tools, at least Moz’s Keyword Explorer tool uses Jumpshot data on a per keyword basis to estimate what percent of people are going to click the organic results. Should you optimize for it? Well, if the click-through rate is only 60%, pretend that instead of 100 searches, this only has 60 or 60 available searches for your organic clicks. Ninety-five percent, though, great, awesome. All four of those monthly searches are available to you.
  • Business Value, how useful is this to your business? 
  • Then set some type of priority to determine. So I might look at this list and say, “Hey, for my new soccer jersey website, this is the most important keyword. I want to go after “custom soccer jersey” for each team in the U.S., and then I’ll go after team jersey, and then I’ll go after “customizable away jerseys.” Then maybe I’ll go after “soccer jerseys,” because it’s just so competitive and so difficult to rank for. There’s a lot of volume, but the search intent is not as great. The business value to me is not as good, all those kinds of things.
  • Last, but not least, I want to know the types of searches that appear — organic, paid. Do images show up? Does shopping show up? Does video show up? Do maps results show up? If those other types of search results, like we talked about here, show up in there, I can do SEO to appear in those places too. That could yield, in certain keyword universes, a strategy that is very image centric or very video centric, which means I’ve got to do a lot of work on YouTube, or very map centric, which means I’ve got to do a lot of local SEO, or other kinds like this.

Once you build a keyword research list like this, you can begin the prioritization process and the true work of creating pages, mapping the pages you already have to the keywords that you’ve got, and optimizing in order to rank. We’ll talk about that in Part III next week. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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Managed Google Play earns key certifications for security and privacyManaged Google Play earns key certifications for security and privacy

With managed Google Play, organizations can build a customized and secure mobile application storefront for their teams, featuring public and private applications. Organizations’ employees can take advantage of the familiarity of a mobile app store to browse and download company-approved apps.

As with any enterprise-grade platform, it’s critical that the managed Google Play Store operates with the highest standards of privacy and security. Managed Google Play has been awarded three important industry designations that are marks of meeting the strict requirements for information security management practices.

Granted by the International Organization for Standardization, achieving ISO 27001 certification demonstrates that a company meets stringent privacy and security standards when operating an Information Security Management System (ISMS). Additionally, managed Google Play received SOC 2 and 3 reports, which are benchmarks of strict data management and privacy controls. These designations and auditing procedures are developed by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).

Meeting a high bar of security management standards

To earn the ISO 27001 certification, auditors from Ernst & Young performed a thorough audit of managed Google Play based on established privacy principles. The entire methodology of documentation and procedures for managing other companies’ data are reviewed during an audit, and must be made available for regular compliance review. Companies that use managed Google Play are assured their data is managed in compliance with this industry standard. Additionally, ISO 27001 certification is in line with GDPR compliance.

Secure data management

With SOC 2 and SOC 3 reports, the focus is on controls relevant to data security, availability, processing integrity, confidentiality and privacy, which are verified through auditing reports. In managed Google Play, the data and private applications that enter Google’s systems are administered according to strict protocols, including determinations for who can view them and under what conditions. Enterprises require and receive the assurance that their information is handled with the utmost confidentiality and that the integrity of their data is preserved. For many companies, the presence of an SOC 2 and 3 report is a requirement when selecting a specific service. These reports prove that a service company has met and is abiding by best practices set forth by AICPA to ensure data security.

Our ongoing commitment to enterprise security

With managed Google Play, companies’ private apps for internal use are protected with a set of verified information security management processes and policies to ensure intellectual property is secure. This framework includes managed Google Play accounts that are used by enterprise mobility management (EMM) partners to manage devices.

Our commitment is that Android will continue to be a leader in enterprise security. As your team works across devices and shares mission-critical data through applications hosted in managed Google Play, you have the assurance of a commitment to providing your enterprise the highest standards of security and privacy.

Build your next iOS and Android app with FlutterBuild your next iOS and Android app with Flutter

And Supernova, a design-to-code tool, recently announced support for exporting Sketch designs directly to Flutter, allowing users of this popular design and wire-framing tool to turn their ideas directly into code.

Fast apps on each platform

Rather than introducing a layer of abstraction between your code and the underlying operating system, Flutter apps are native apps—meaning they compile directly to both iOS and Android devices.

Flutter’s programming language, Dart, is designed around the needs of apps that are created for global audiences. It’s easy to learn, contains a comprehensive set of libraries and packages that reduce the amount of code you have to write and is built for developer performance. When you’re ready to release your app, you can compile your code directly to the ARM machine code of your phone—meaning what you write is exactly what appears on the device—so you can harness the full power of your phone, rather than using a language like JavaScript that needs a separate engine to run.

Russia wants to cut itself off from the global internet. Here’s what that really means.

In the next two weeks, Russia is planning to attempt something no other country has tried before. It’s going to test whether it can disconnect from the rest of the world electronically while keeping the internet running for its citizens. This means it will have to reroute all its data internally, rather than relying on servers abroad.

The test is key to a proposed “sovereign internet” law currently working its way through Russia’s government. It looks likely to be eventually voted through and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin, though it has stalled in parliament for now.

Pulling an iron curtain down over the internet is a simple idea, but don’t be fooled: it’s a fiendishly difficult technical challenge to get right. It is also going to be very expensive. The project’s initial cost has been set at $38 million by Russia’s financial watchdog, but it’s likely to require far more funding than that. One of the authors of the plan has said it’ll be more like $304 million, Bloomberg reports, but even that figure, industry experts say, won’t be enough to get the system up and running, let alone maintain it.

Not only that, but it has already proved deeply unpopular with the general public. An estimated 15,000 people took to the streets in Moscow earlier this month to protest the law, one of the biggest demonstrations in years.

Operation disconnect

So how will Russia actually disconnect itself from the global internet? “It is unclear what the ‘disconnect test’ might entail,” says Andrew Sullivan, president and CEO of the Internet Society. All we know is that if it passes, the new law will require the nation’s internet service providers (ISPs) to use only exchange points inside the country that are approved by Russia’s telecoms regulator, Roskomnadzor.

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These exchange points are where internet service providers connect with each other. It’s where their cabling meets at physical locations to exchange traffic. These locations are overseen by organizations known as internet exchange providers (IXPs). Russia’s largest IXP is in Moscow, connecting cities in Russia’s east but also Riga in neighboring Latvia.

MSK-IX, as this exchange point is known, is one of the world’s largest. It connects over 500 different ISPs and handles over 140 gigabits of throughput during peak hours on weekdays. There are six other internet exchange points in Russia, spanning most of its 11 time zones. Many ISPs also use exchanges that are physically located in neighboring countries or that are owned by foreign companies. These would now be off limits. Once this stage is completed, it would provide Russia with a literal, physical “on/off switch” to decide whether its internet is shielded from the outside world or kept open.

What’s in a name?

As well as rerouting its ISPs, Russia will also have to unplug from the global domain name system (DNS) so traffic cannot be rerouted through any exchange points that are not inside Russia.

The DNS is basically a phone book for the internet: when you type, for example, “google.com” into your browser, your computer uses the DNS to translate this domain name into an IP address, which identifies the correct server on the internet to send the request. If one server won’t respond to a request, another will step in. Traffic behaves rather like water—it will seek any gap it can to flow through.

“The creators of the DNS wanted to create a system able to work even when bits of it stopped working, regardless of whether the decision to break parts of it was deliberate or accidental,” says Brad Karp, a computer scientist at University College London. This in-built resilience in the underlying structure of the internet will make Russia’s plan even harder to carry out.

The actual mechanics of the DNS are operated by a wide variety of organizations, but a majority of the “root servers,” which are its foundational layer, are run by groups in the US. Russia sees this as a strategic weakness and wants to create its own alternative, setting up an entire new network of its own root servers.

“An alternate DNS can be used to create an alternate reality for the majority of Russian internet users,” says Ameet Naik, an expert on internet monitoring for the software company ThousandEyes. “Whoever controls this directory controls the internet.” Thus, if Russia can create its own DNS, it will have at least a semblance of control over the internet within its borders.

This won’t be easy, says Sullivan. It will involve configuring tens of thousands of systems, and it will be difficult, if not impossible, to identify all the different access points citizens use to get online (their laptops, smartphones, iPads, and so on). Some of them will be using servers abroad, such as Google’s Public DNS, which Russia simply won’t be able to replicate—so the connection will fail when a Russian user tries to access them.

If Russia can successfully set up its own DNS infrastructure across the country and compel its ISPs to use it, then Russian users are likely not to notice, unless they try to access a website that’s censored. For example, a user trying to connect to facebook.com could be redirected to vk.com, which is a Russian social-media service with an uncanny resemblance to Facebook. 

This coming test—no official date has been given— will show us whether the necessary preparation has been done. For the West, it’s important not to underestimate the Russian state’s will, or ability, to make sure it happens.

Resilience and control

The purpose, the Kremlin says, is to make Russia’s internet independent and easier to defend against attacks from abroad. To begin with, it could help Russia resist existing sanctions from the US and the EU, and any potential future measures. It also makes sense to make the internet inside your country accessible in the event it gets physically severed from the rest of the world. For example, in 2008 there were three separate instances of major damage to the internet’s physical cabling under the sea (blamed on ships’ anchors), which cut off access for users in the Middle East, India, and Singapore. If the affected countries had been able to reroute traffic, this disruption might have been avoided.

Many observers see the move as part of Russia’s long tradition of trying to control the flow of information between citizens. Russia has already passed legislation requiring search engines to delete some results, and in 2014 it obliged social networks to store Russian users’ data on servers inside the country. It has also banned encrypted messaging apps like Telegram. Just this week, Russia’s government signed into law two new vaguely worded bills that make it a crime to “disrespect the state” or spread “fake news” online. The new plan to reroute Russian traffic is an “escalation,” says Sergey Sanovich, a Russian researcher at Stanford who specializes in online censorship. “I’d say it’s a dangerous escalation,” he adds.

Photo of demonstrators shouting and hold signs during the Free Internet rally

ASSOCIATED PRESS

If so, it’s an escalation that has been a long time coming. The conversation between ISPs and the security services has been going on for more than two decades, according to Keir Giles, an expert on Russian security who works for the think tank Chatham House. Security officials in Russia have always seen the internet as more of a threat than an opportunity.

“Russia wants to be able to do this while insulating itself from the consequences, by preemptively cutting itself off from global infrastructure,” Giles says.

If Russia is seeking inspiration, it need just look east. China has been terrifically successful in shaping the online experience for its citizens to its advantage. However, China decided to exert a high degree of control over the development of the internet while it was at a nascent stage. Russia was preoccupied at that time with the collapse of the Soviet Union, so it is quite late to the party. China embedded the homegrown ISP and DNS infrastructure that Russia hopes to construct way back in the early 2000s. Trying to impose this architecture retrospectively is an awful lot harder. “China took control very early on, and decided that all traffic in and out must be controlled and regulated,” says Naik.

The fallout

In contrast, Russian businesses and citizens are firmly enmeshed in the global internet and use a lot more foreign services, such as Microsoft cloud tools, than Chinese people do. It’s not yet clear what impact the disconnection will have on these, but it’s possible that if the plug is pulled on external traffic routes, Russian citizens may lose access to them. While many cloud services can “mirror” their content in different regions, none of the major cloud services (Microsoft, Google or Amazon Web Services) have data centers based in Russia. Replicating these services within Russia’s borders is not trivial and would require significant investment and time, says Naik. The coming test might be intended to address this issue, according to Sullivan.

Another potential problem is that many Russian ISPs carry traffic on behalf of other companies or ISPs, with reciprocal arrangements that they carry traffic for Russian ISPs too. If it’s done incorrectly, Russia’s plan means a “whole bunch of the traffic going in and out of Russia will just fall into a black hole,” says Naik.

If the experiment goes wrong and large parts of the internet go down in Russia, it could cost the nation’s economy dearly (disconnecting from the internet has been incredibly costly for countries that have experienced it, deliberately or otherwise). That doesn’t mean the Kremlin won’t go ahead with it anyway, Giles believes.

If it happens, don’t expect Russians to hand over their internet rights freely: as in China, it’s likely that determined, tech-savvy citizens will be able to exploit any weaknesses in the system and circumvent it. For example, during protests in Turkey, people shared ways to access the global DNS directly, thus thwarting their government’s block on social-media websites.

One recent event that may have given Russia more impetus to push forward with the plan is the hacking by the US Cyber Command of the Internet Research Agency, the infamous Russian “troll factory” that allegedly used social media to sow division in the US during the 2016 election.

“The threat is real. The number of people who access antigovernment internet content is growing,” says Kirill Gusov, a journalist and political expert in Moscow. The government controls the media and television, but the internet remains beyond its grasp. “I’d not be surprised if the FSB [the successor to the KGB] approached Putin and reported on this attack, which coincided with their desire to suppress internet freedom because they are losing control over society,” he says.

Though it’s still not clear when if ever the law will become a reality, the Russian government isn’t known for being flexible or responsive to public pressure. It’s far more likely to be delayed than dead.

How to Clearly Articulate What You or Your Brand Do: Clarity Consultant Steve Woodruff on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]

“You can’t read the label of the jar you’re in.” (Or, for that matter, write that label from the inside). Those words of wisdom come courtesy of Steve Woodruff, a “clarity consultant” at Clarity Fuel.

Listen to it later:

People don’t buy what they don’t understand, which is why Steve’s work is so important: He specializes in connecting people with their purpose, their message, and with other people—in order to create new business opportunities.

I invited Steve to Marketing Smarts to talk about his book Clarity Wins: Get Heard. Get Referred, and to share tips on how you can let go off the jargon and make it easy for people to understand what you do, which audiences you serve, and what makes you different.

Essentially, I wanted to ask Steve how you can proactively write the label that appears on the jar you’re in!

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

Clearly articulating what you do (and for whom you do it) is a differentiator, because so few companies can communicate that simply (01:02): “Many companies have a vision and a mission statement. That’s way up there at the 30,000-foot level. And then, often, they have the sales messaging, the marketing messaging, the various playbooks. But there’s this missing layer—what I call the ‘keystone layer’—the Articles of Clarity, where anybody from the top of the organization down and anybody on the outside can see in clear, plain, human speech exactly what the company stands for, what their audience is, what their offerings are, and what the message is. The vast majority of companies do not have a good, clear, simple way of articulating themselves.”

Create a “verbal business card,” a 15-second explanation of what you do (01:55): “It often comes down to the first ‘moment of truth,’ when somebody asks you in a networking meeting, ‘Hey, what do you do?’ Everybody’s been asked that question. What often comes out of people’s mouths is a bunch of jargon or something that really gives no clear idea of exactly what we do and who we do it for.

“What that means is, number 1, we lose the audience if, in 15 seconds, they don’t have a clue what we do. But that also undercuts what I call ‘the second moment of truth,’ which is, If that person understands me, I can refer them to the next person. But you’ve got to give me a verbal business card, a word package, so I can have in my mind a picture.

“Then, when I run into somebody and they say, ‘We’re real worried about the legal issues of social media,’ I go, ‘Ah, that’s Kerry Gorgone; let me make a referral.’ And as we all know, referrals are the best way to get business. So the point of this book is, How do we make people and businesses ‘referral-ready?’ How do we make that first ‘moment of truth’ so effective that the second ‘moment of truth’ can happen.”

To create a “verbal business card,” simplify your message using snippets, stories, and symbols (04:05): “There’s three ways to boil down our message. You use snippets, which are very short, succinct, plain statements. You use stories, because the brain is hard-wired to absorb stories, so we have to tell people stories. People will remember them. And then: symbols.

“Symbols is when we talk about…Mercedes, Walmart—all the different things that use an existing memory hook. Because if I can get a concept in your head on an existing memory hook, you’re much more inclined to remember me and be able to pass on my name then if I say ‘here are the five different bullet points.’ Nobody’s going to remember five bullet points.”

For more information, visit SteveWoodruff.com or follow Steve on Twitter: @swoodruff, and be sure to get your copy of Clarity Wins: Get Heard. Get Referred.

Steve and I talked about much more, so be sure to listen to the entire show, which you can do above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!

This episode brought to you by GoToWebinar:

GoToWebinar makes it easy to produce engaging online events. Whether you want to connect with your prospects, customers or employees, GoToWebinar has the tools and analytics you need. Start creating interactive and educational webinars your audience will love.

Music credit: Noam Weinstein.

How El País used AI to make their comments section less toxicHow El País used AI to make their comments section less toxic

At El País, our vision for the perfect comments section was a place where readers would provide input, insight and tips on an investigative story, add knowledge about niche topics, double check facts and elevate the conversation to a different level. While the internet has brought amazing benefits, it didn’t deliver the utopia we—and others—had hoped for within the comments section. Around 2015, trolls, toxic comments, spam, insults and even threats took over, causing publishers to re-evaluate investing in this section of the online paper. No one seemed able to fix this broken system and several several sites either limited the amount of articles opened to comment, or shut them down completely.

We also thought about closing down comments at El País, but ultimately let them be. That was until last year, when the Google News Initiative contacted us to talk about Perspective API,  a free tool developed by Jigsaw that uses a machine learning model trained by human-generated comments labeled as toxic by human moderators. At that point Perspective API was available in English, but the aim was to use the more than 300,000 comments our readers write every month to train the model in Spanish. Earlier this year, we  partnered with Jigsaw to analyze our vast trove of public comments to understand how to spot toxicity in Spanish. We worked closely with the Jigsaw team to test the models and provided feedback in order to improve overall accuracy of the tool.

Now, when someone tries to post a toxic comment on our site we’ll show them a message in real time suggesting they make changes or rewrite it so that it’ll pass our moderation system. Since we put this system in place, the average toxicity of the comments has gone down seven percent and the number of comments has gone up 19%—leading us to suspect that the comments section is a nicer place and one our readers want to engage in. We’ve also improved the moderation process by sending the more toxic comments to experienced moderators and the less toxic to the less experienced ones.