How to: Avoid Word Vector Hysteria & Trend Surfing Idiocy

Ian Lurie

Update: Word vectors are a legitimate thing!!!!! I’m not saying you should ignore them. I’m saying there’s plenty of ways to take word vectors into account in your SEO approach, without diving down into Python and natural language processing. I’m also saying that many industry experts (term used advisedly) are talking about this concept without understanding it, in an attempt to build links and dupe clients. Which pisses me off.

Update 2: I posted angry. I just removed a nasty remark I’d made about ripping off articles. I was not referring to this piece by JR Oakes, which is quite good. Sorry, JR.

There’s suddenly a lot of discussion (aka freaking out) about Rankbrain and word vectors.

Don’t Panic Just Because People Want You To

If you’re learning search engine optimization or work with an agency/consultant, I gotta point out a few things:

  1. Rankbrain has been around the better part of a year. If your expert is just now noticing it, please also inform them that Donald Trump is running for President, the Broncos won the Super Bowl, and you’re a year older
  2. Rankbrain supports word vectors. It makes Google better at them. It is not, in itself, a word vector algorithm
  3. Word vectors were a thing long before Rankbrain
  4. “Word vectors” is a fancy natural language analysis concept that is really cool, but regurgitating academic papers on the subject doesn’t make anyone an expert

Do not panic. If your writing is reasonably solid and your marketing approach is, too, then you’re off to a good start. If they aren’t, you’re screwed anyway.

If You’re Worried About Word Vectors, Here’s Where To Start

This isn’t rocket science. I mean, it is, but you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to account for word vectors in your SEO strategy:

  1. Read the thoughtful stuff, like this presentation by Dr. Pete. Compare page 46 and 52. You now know how to apply word vectors to SEO.
  2. Stop keyword stuffing and start writing like you give a flying crap about your audience
  3. Think—really think—about and use similar words that improve your copy
  4. Then, use common tools (like a dictionary) to find other similarities
  5. Then try something like AlchemyAPI or the Moz Keyword Explorer
  6. Then and only then, start thinking about fancy schmancy tools and programming languages

In other words: Be a good marketer. Don’t go cheap on content. Don’t embarrass yourself with lousy writing.

A Final Rant

And I’ve got some advice for all of us in the pot of trend-surfing idiocy that is often the digital marketing community:

First, if you are going to write about a hot new topic, provide real, useful advice. Don’t send people on wild goose chases after obscure toolsets. Don’t spew useless platitudes. Sure, some of us love to nerd out. And we love to brag about our coding prowess. But that is not good teaching. Provide the whole lesson, or don’t provide it at all.

Second, if you’re going to jump on a buzzword and start excreting content everywhere, answer more questions than you raise.

Now, I’m off to write a keyword-stuffed post about Rankbrain and word vectors.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (that's more than 25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team, training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. To an experienced writer and SEO this sounds like kids stuff. Using synonyms to convery deeper meaning is nothing new. Will “keyword vectors” become the next hollow buzz-word?

    1. Word vectors are a real thing – not a buzz word. See Dr. Pete’s excellent presentation. What’s making me crazy is the number of people leaping on the phrase when they don’t really understand it. THEY will turn it into a hollow buzz-word.

  2. Portent is the only company whose email updates I don’t delete. Two alarms didn’t get me out of bed, but the thought of “Aw yiss, here comes the Portent smackdown” when I saw the email got me moving so I could read it.
    I’ve been pointing people to Google’s search quality rating guidelines for the last year or so. It explains in human language what searchers expect (therefore what Google wants to provide). Only the search nerds read it, but leading the proverbial horse to water and all 🙂

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