Entities – When SEO and Business Strategy Collide

Image showing Google logo and a magnifying glass.

After looking at what might happen next year in paid and organic search for the last few weeks, this article will attempt something a little bit different. 

Sometimes the micro informs the macro. Small esoteric business topics can be expanded into much broader subjects that can touch on how we see the world around us and how we then operate within it. Entities are one of those subjects. They are of vital importance in SEO and content. But there is also something about entities and how they work in search that can inform wider business and organizational strategy.

This post will break down what entities are, why you need to think about them in a business context with a little bit of a discussion about Roland Barthes’ work by way of Elon Musk.

It’s quite a heady mix, so let’s get started!

Entities - Image of the google app in an app store.
Photo by Souvik Banerjee on Unsplash

What Is An Entity In Google Search? How Does It Work?

Google in it’s “Question answering using entity references in unstructured data” patent defines an entity as –

“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 language used in Google patents can be impenetrable at the best of times. But in basic terms an entity in Google Search can represent a person, place or thing that is related to other people, places or things. 
For example, “Joe Biden” is an entity, so is “President of the U.S.A.”. These two entities are co-related in the context of Google search, but they are very different. To Google, its main job is trying to serve a user query and fulfill the user’s needs. The user who is googling “Joe Biden” might be looking for his record as Senator of Delaware. This is why another patent, “Ranking Search Results Based On Entity Metrics” operates on four key metrics.

Google’s Entity Metrics

Relatedness Metric – The Googlebot determines this using the co-occurrence of entities. Using the “Joe Biden” and “President of the USA” example, those two entities are referenced together often enough on authoritative sites on the web to even yield a single result. If you googled “presidents of the USA” it would place the entity “Joe Biden” within a pluralized set of results.

Notability (or notable) Metric – Google uses a formula in it’s patent to discover how notable an entity is. It uses things like links, mentions and relevance to find this out. There is something that Google does here that may seem odd but the lower the value of the category the entity is in, the higher it’s notability score is. Without going into loads of jargon a big entity in a smaller category is more notable. So using our example again, “Joe Biden” in “Senator of Delaware” is a more notable entity than “Tom Carper”. 

Contribution Metric – The contribution metric is determined by external signals like links and citations and it measures the entity’s contribution to a topic. This is why a review of a very well-known critic from the New York Times means more in this context than a random blog post. You could say notable contributions from other notable entities is what is evaluated here.

Prize Metric – This is the easiest one! The prize metric is exactly what it says. It’s the awards or prizes an entity may have received.

A Google logo outside one of Google's buildings.
Photo by Greg Bulla on Unsplash

How Entities Changed Google

Google’s “knowledge graph” is an entity graph and it was one of the first steps (with the Hummingbird algorithm change) it took back in 2013 to evolve from a list of text links to a search engine that can answer any question. 

Google adopted semantic search, on top of their existing algorithms like PageRank, to focus more on user intent rather than keywords. This eventually changed how we all use search engines and our expectations of what they can do. Which put Google closer to the customer and beat the competition.

That shift to understanding intent is key. Entities are the prism through which we can better understand what users/customers really want.

Image of a street crossing in Tokyo.
Photo by Daryan Shamkhali on Unsplash

Entities Are How We View The World

If you really think about it, this is all not so different to how we view the world around us. Now more than ever in human history we absorb a ton of information on a daily basis. We then mentally establish relationships with things we have already seen or experienced for context. In our daily lives we connect things we have seen with other things without even thinking about it. Just crossing a road can involve unconscious decisions we are not even aware of.

So relationships between entities are how we search for information and also how we make decisions, both big and small.

This is not a shocking revelation, we all know it is the case. But why do we then make illogical decisions…especially when buying something we might not really need.

Entities image using brands - Image of a New York Street with a lot of brand advertising.
Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

Roland Barthes Was Onto Something (Nothing Is New)

Roland Barthes was a leading French literary theorist primarily known for his work in semiotics, which is the study of signs and how we interpret them.

Without going too far into semiotics, Roland Barthes work is required reading for anyone interested in the psychology of marketing. Without going too far down the rabbit hole, Barthes and semiotics more generally, explains why we attach certain meanings to signs. Semiotics (and specifically de Saussure) breaks things down into two categories:

Signifier – A sign’s physical form distinct from it’s meaning

Signified – The meaning or idea expressed by the sign, distinct from its physical form.

A brand is a signifier. The sentiment we might have towards a brand is the signified, it’s the context and experience we have of a brand. Positive or negative.

It is the connections we make within our own context and experience that determines a brand, not the symbol by itself. There is a reason why the best known brands have simple symbols. Think of Apple or Coca Cola…They are simple brands by design so it’s easier for our brains to form complex emotional connections to them.

It may be something of a stretch but Semiology, with its study of signs and how we interpret them is tangentially related to connections between entities in search, how businesses operate and how customers connect with them; not just in marketing terms but everything from strategy to organizational structure.

And it all comes down to relevance.

Image of an iPad with the word connect visible on screen.
Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

Entities, Search, Brands & Business Strategy – Stay In Your Lane?

In Google Search it is almost impossible to get a website to appear in the knowledge graph for a notable entity.

This is due to relevance.

We have described how Google’s shift towards entities changed their search engine to focus more on user intent. There is a wider business lesson just in this move but the specifics of it also offer a warning.

As a business, looking at the world with an “entity” viewpoint will enable you to better serve customer intent. It does not matter if you are B2B, B2C or B2G. Customers will search around for hundreds of things when they are in the purchase funnel. If you think more about entities then keywords there is a better chance that your business will appear where the customer is searching. But you cannot forget relevance here, which is where the wider implications set in.

How can a business differentiate and stand for something and also retain relevance? How can a business branch out without straying too far from it’s core “entity”?

Organization and strategy come into play. It’s also where Elon Musk makes his appearance..

Entities, Devolved Organizations & Connectors

Love him or loathe him Elon Musk understands the value of different business entities. Tesla, for example, is not The Boring Company. This can sometimes cause hilarious results, such as when he announced he invented bus stops. But he understands that he cannot serve all the customer intent he wants to serve with one corporate entity. However, he can be the public connector between several corporate entities. 

Organizations that can rapidly devolve can make themselves different entities to serve different customer needs. Take Haier for example. Haier’s Rendanheyi organizational structure allows them to spin off different micro-enterprises to serve wildly different customer needs (and intent). Their core “entity” is a consumer electronics company. But Rendanheyi allows them to spin off new businesses whenever there is a customer need, that may only be tangentially related to their core “entity” as an electronics firm.

Entities - A coffee shop with customers to illustrate customer intent.
Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

It Is ALL About Serving Customer Intent

While this post has gotten very philosophical at times, there is only one takeaway; it is all about serving customer intent. The approach you may take with getting your brands’ content to appear in organic search, by focusing on entities, has a wider application. The core “entity” that is your business is made up of hundreds of connected entities, some of which could be entirely new business opportunities you can explore. With new customers, with new needs who will make new connections to your new brands. And they could be blissfully unaware of your “core” entity.

But you have to balance this with retaining your relevance. You can do this by relating new entities to your “core” entity. Think about what you specialize in and where that could lead if you could devolve your organization to seize new opportunities.

Come back next week for part 2 where we will be talking about the changes we are making at MAQE with mOS, our organizational operating system, plus how entities in search and job roles in decentralized organizations might just be related…

Contact us via hello@maqe.com.

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If you need help with business strategy or Google Search strategy (they are closely linked!) then talk to us via [email protected]