What Is Information Gain and Why It Matters for Search

“Information Gain Score” is part of a Google patent that could prove instrumental in the way many SEOs have found themselves tied up in knots during recent algorithm updates. It might be the death knell for the SkyScraper content technique.

This patent was approved in July 2022 to impact how web content is ranked, retrieved, and served to users, and it promises a new future for SEO and content marketing. The information gain patent postulates a way for Google to prioritize helpful, differentiated content that demonstrates EEAT and solves the needs of users.

What is an Information Gain Score?

According to the patent, an information gain score is a measure of new, additional information included in a piece of content, above and beyond the information contained in other articles a searcher has already seen on a topic. 

In the patent, Google explains that when a user makes a search on a topic, e.g., about fixing their computer, two sets of documents may be identified and returned. The first set of documents may include a resource (webpages, articles, PDFs, etc) relating to troubleshooting software application issues, which the searcher may view (or listen to via an AI assistant). This set may also include another document with information on hardware repair, which the searcher may view.

Then, a second set of documents relating to the same topic may be identified but have not yet been presented or viewed by the searcher. The resources in this second set of documents may be applied across a trained machine learning model in conjunction with data from resources in the first set, and documents in the second set containing unique information not found in the first set may receive a score (information gain score). The documents in the second set of documents will then be ranked and presented to the user such that those with higher information gain scores may be ranked higher than those with lower scores. 

Here’s a diagram from Google illustrating how it implements the information gain model. 

Fig 5 in Google Patent US20200349181A1

The late Bill Slawski of Go Fish Digital, the expert on all things Google Patent, analyzed and summarized the patent while it was still in review in 2020. And you can read the entire patent in full here if you have the time.

How Does Information Gain Score Impact SEO?

This patent set out to solve one of the most crucial problems of SEO and content marketing — similar content. In fact, the patent makes it clear that copycat content is a problem that needs solving. It states: 

“… when a set of documents is identified that share a topic, many of the documents may include similar information. For example, a user may submit a search related to resolving a computer issue… and may subsequently be provided with multiple documents that include a similar listing of solutions… Thus, 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 or set of documents.”

This problem affects SEO in two ways:

(i) First, it curtails the user journey. Since reading one article equates to reading them all, there’s no incentive for the searcher to continue looking for ways to solve their problem.

(ii) Consequently, it creates a negative search experience that turns searchers away from the search engine.

Google’s turn to information gain could be a step forward in solving this problem by rewarding pages that bring something new to the table. And as Bill Slawski puts it, the implementation of this patent means – 

“boosting some pages in rankings based on how much information they would add to a searcher and demoting them if they don’t add much information to a searcher.”

Personally, I think that Google could also be more discerning in the way they present information gain results than the way Bill envisioned. They could, for example, combine this technology with their “passage indexing” technologies, and add suggestions by inserting prompts for the user based on drilling into specific new (unread) ideas for the searcher. For example, if a seach result was displayed for “The UK Economy”, then when the search has looked at the Bank of England result then next time it might show a section of a few deeper other results on “The UK Economy and Interest rate decisions” or “The UK Economy and recession”.

The End of SkyScraper SEO?

The “SkyScraper technique” involves looking at all the things discussed in the top results and creating content that combines them all in one super article. 

One interpretation of this information gain patent could mean that the traditional skyscraper content method would no longer suffice because the search engine now has a way of calculating how different your content is from the competition and ranking it accordingly. 

Another interesting thing about the patent is how it would determine the information to be presented to a searcher. It states that a user may receive content pages based on:

  • Identified interests of the user
  • Previously viewed documents of the user
  • Other criteria used to identify and provide documents of interest
  • Continued searching after the user had ended a search query. 

This suggests that the information gain concept may cause a shift from the static SERP for a given search query to a more personalized and customized set of search results that is dynamic to every user and changes based on their previously viewed content. 

From this, it is not wrong to infer that information gain could level the SEO playing field. Because when you think about it, the current ranking on Google follows a static, unvaried approach. If everyone is presented with the same SERPs, websites with the most backlinks and domain authority dominate the top spots, while smaller sites struggle for scraps. But by ranking pages based on how their differentiated information corresponds to previously viewed content of users, smaller websites may win, too, albeit on a smaller scale.

How To Apply Information Gain To Your Content Marketing and SEO

The most important takeaway from all this is that Google wants to see and serve content that provides unique expertise on particular topics. This plays into the Helpful Content Update of 2022 (rolled out after the patent) to prioritize reliable, people-first content over content designed for ranking.

It stands to reason that adapting your SEO content efforts to solve users’ needs by bringing new information to every topic is how you gain higher information scores and rank in the SERPs. 

Here are a few ways to apply the information gain concept to your content efforts. Note: These are suggestions as we have no documentation from Google as to how information gain might play out in the SERPs at the time of writing.

1. Proactively Look for Content Opportunities You Can Explore in Your Market: 

Replicating what’s out there is easy and lazy. Information gain encourages going beyond the status quo to find ideas your competitors aren’t thinking about yet but could be helpful to your audience. 

You can do this by prioritizing topical relevance and digging into semantically related ideas. Don’t just stop at the surface level. Consider every concept in more detail, depth, and nuance. This means prioritizing research: customer research, market research, topic, and keyword research to find pain points, concerns and needs that may not look so apparent. 

Take your research efforts beyond the places you want to rank on — Google and Bing and explore niche communities, social channels and groups, newsletters, forums, review sites, and all other places where you can find ideas that represent what searchers are looking for. Once you find those ideas, the next thing is creating differentiated content.

2. Create Differentiated Content:

Unique, innovative content is the idea behind information gain. What new information, perspective, and approach can you introduce with your content? Are you repeating the same story or offering new solutions based on your expertise, first-hand experience, or in-depth original research? The amount of differing information in your content is what sets it apart from competing pages and nets it a high or low information gain score.

One of the recent innovations in the InLinks platform is its new “Audience finder” tool. This tool looks at the different types of people that might be searching and tries to differentiate what each audience is looking for. Although there is a free version of the tool, the real magic is now baked into our content briefs! Before we start generating ideas, the tool finds potential audiences and asks the writer (you!) to select one. 

This will customize your content, emphasizing content relevant to YOUR audience, not to EVERY audience. This will mean that two people using InLinks around the same term will likely come up with a very different content proposition – whether they use AI to generate the content or Brain 2.0.

Another novelty of the InLinks briefs is the research the tool carries on doing AFTER the initial brief is written. It might seem annoying, but the tool tries to interrogate Google Suggest via your browser to see more ideas the search engine thinks might be interesting to a search. These include Questions as well as extended search themes.

These ideas help to further refine your content, while also extending the ideas beyond the competing SERPs. 

You can also create differentiated content by keeping the following in mind at all times:

  • What are the next logical steps a searcher can take after reading this article?
  • What are some angles/POVs/missing information others have ignored that I can cover?
  • What other questions/search intent will a reasonable person have after reading this? 

As you create content, write authoritatively and aim to be a thought leader. Do not blend into the noise. Instead, take a stand based on your expertise and experience and form strong opinions that Google and people can associate you with. Finally, support your differentiated content with data sources your competitors cannot easily replicate, such as internal data from your product, sales, and customer service teams. 

3. Map Content to the User Journey: 

Mapping your content makes sense, considering that the resources shown to users via information gain would be based on previous search behavior. This means if you create content to cover the entire customer journey, your content could be presented if it contains unique information different from what others are saying on the topic. 

Customer journey mapping can take some time, but it’s usually worth it. How do customers start their search journey and enter your funnel? What questions do they have at each stage, and how do you convince them to take the next step in what you envision is the right direction? 

Answering these questions will help you nail the points mentioned earlier and increase your chances of ranking favorably with information gain. 

Create Different Content, Not Better Content 

Improving on existing content continues the circle of copycat content Google is trying to retire with its information gain. The focus now for content folks is to be different, not better. 

By contributing useful new information that searchers haven’t seen before, we can make search more helpful and interesting while achieving our goal of ranking whether big or small websites. 

This post was researched and drafted by Juliet John and reviewed and edited by Dixon Jones.

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