Digital marketing is anything but a static enterprise, and that’s thanks in large part to the ever-evolving world of search engine optimization (SEO). Just when you’d thought you’d mastered every trick of the trade, SEO trends have continued to take new shape. While that may make your marketing efforts a bit more challenging in the near-term, it also means savvy businesses can gain a competitive edge by taking these changes seriously and developing strategies accordingly. Here is part one of our 3-part series on 2016 SEO trends and how your business can effectively leverage these changes.
For many businesses this will mean working closely with a digital marketing firm or SEO consultants who can show them the way. Nevertheless, you’re in better position to navigate all the advice and ask the right questions if you’re familiar with the latest trends dominating the SEO environment.
That’s what we’re here for.
We previewed five of 2016’s SEO trends earlier this year, but it’s time to take a deeper dive into what’s working for businesses looking to improve their search rankings and build a more prominent online presence. The rules are changing, and many will be left behind as a result. The more you know, the more prepared you’ll be to adapt.
At minimum, it’s already become more difficult for SEO experts to react to changes in Google’s search algorithms. Once announced and released manually, these new “real-time” algorithmic updates are now being pushed out more frequently—thereby complicating the lives of those who study and react to these things.
As Search Engine Land’s Patrick Stox explained in March, “Algorithmic penalties are a lot more difficult to troubleshoot than manual actions. With a manual action, Google informs you of the penalty via the Google Search Console, giving webmasters the ability to address the issues that are negatively impacting their sites. With an algorithmic penalty, they may not even be aware that a problem exists. The easiest way to determine if your website has suffered from an algorithmic penalty is to match a drop in your traffic with the dates of known algorithm updates (using a tool like Panguin).”
Unfortunately, attempting to match traffic flux with penalties isn’t an entirely straightforward endeavor.
“One of the biggest problems with the real-time algorithm updates is the fact that Google’s crawlers don’t crawl pages at the same frequency,” Stox continues. “After a website change or an influx of backlinks, for example, it could take weeks or months for the site to be crawled and a penalty applied. So even if you’re keeping a detailed a timeline of website changes or actions, these may not match up with when a penalty occurs. There could be other issues with the server or website changes that you may not be aware of that could cause a lot of misdiagnosis of penalties.”
Of course, the brave new world of SEO isn’t all bad news. The point, however, is that things are changing in important ways. The tried and true wisdom of yesteryear may not be entirely obsolete, but nor is it a reliable guide for any business looking to stay ahead of the competition when it comes to search rankings and related marketing efforts.
So here’s what you need to know about the SEO of tomorrow—even as it becomes increasingly essential today.
The Local SEO Movement Is in Full Swing
Larger corporations may be able to get away with overlooking local SEO, but that’s a luxury most smaller businesses can ill-afford. Getting found matters, and that’s never been truer for companies competing for local business. Consumers want to know where you’re located, what you sell, how much it costs and what how other customers feel about your products or services. Whether you’re a restaurant, law firm, medical practice or any other business that primarily caters to local clientele, your SEO campaign absolutely must adopt a more specialized set of strategies.
The numbers are particularly revealing in this case.
Advice Local has noted that while 85 percent of online queries aren’t clicking on paid advertisements, a full 77 percent of online searches wind up preferring organic results to paid listings. That may seem strange to any company that’s accustomed to paying for ads (e.g. in a phonebook or on a billboard), but it reflects the changing marketplace—and the need to be represented in that marketplace with a concerted local SEO strategy.
Among other benefits, local SEO campaigns can increase the likelihood that you appear front and center of search engine results pages (SERPs), namely in the form of the Google Map Pack—a set of local business listings that match the user’s query.
On face, the barriers to pursuing such a strategy are fairly minimal. A good local SEO campaign can be far less expensive than traditional marketing efforts. Nevertheless, a great many small businesses utterly fail to take advantage of this emerging environment.
“Even when a small business owner is aware of the need for local SEO, there are some serious obstacles that stand between the average business owner and the successful implementation of a local SEO strategy,” Aim One Marketing’s Tristan Hoag wrote earlier this year. “One serious obstacle is the mass of confusion and misinformation about the subject. Even among SEO experts, there is a lack of understanding of the importance of local SEO. Marketing agencies that don’t keep up with the constant change in their field often fail to distinguish the difference between global and local SEO, for example.”
That’s unfortunate for the businesses that get left behind, but it’s also a golden opportunity for those that are paying attention. And those that are paying attention may wish to overcome confusion by working with a competent and highly-reviewed digital marketing agency.
Short of that, there are a few things you should know.
Your business should take full advantage of any online listings and directories that are consistent with the kinds of goods or services it provides—especially generalized listings like Google My Business, Yelp or Foursquare. Creating (or claiming) listings is generally pretty straightforward and user-friendly. The trick is taking the added care to make sure those listings are optimally representing and promoting your brand.
The first step is ensuring that your listings are actually consistent. That means that—among other information—your name, address and phone number (sometimes abbreviated as NAP) should match across all listings. There are a number of available tools that will allow you to actually track down listings around the web in a bid to assure that all of your information is accurate.
The next priority is making each of your listings as complete as possible. Remember that things like Facebook pages are important, too. Consumers want to know your price points, menus, popular hours and so on. If you’re only giving them minimal information, don’t be surprised if they turn to a competitor that appears to be more of a known quantity. Don’t forget to add logos or photographs when appropriate. These are the kind of additions that draw people in and leave a lasting impression.
You’ll also want to encourage—and potentially respond to—reviews whenever possible. If you’re doing business the right way, these reviews will reflect as much and instantly become an incredibly powerful (and free) form of advertising.
Also, just as you’d incorporate keywords into your global SEO strategy, so should local descriptions use the kind of search terms that consumers are likely to use. While local listings are principally about putting information in the hands of current and potential customers, it’s also about helping those customers locate said information in the first place. That’s another reason to feature your location and contact information prominently in any content associated with your website or listings. Consumers will often perform searches for products or services associated with specific neighborhoods or regions, and it’s crucial that you capture that kind of traffic.
Finally, remember that many of these listings will become just as important as your website, if not more so. Web users are increasingly turning to third party sites that are rich with reviews, photos and the kind of “objective” perspective that a company website may omit. So while it’s always a good idea to invest in your own website, that’s no excuse to let these kind of listings slip through the cracks.
Needless to say, there’s a whole lot more to building a truly effective local SEO strategy (especially things like citation building). While you can—and should—attempt to get a head start and cover all the fundamentals, there’s certainly nothing wrong with seeking out some additional expert help. Just be sure that anyone with whom you work is well-versed in local SEO in addition to other global strategies.
The Status of Backlinks
Once upon a time, SEO was all about generating backlinks. Things have—to some degree—changed, though.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of a backlink or inbound link (IBL), it’s pretty simple. These are links to your website generate by other websites or social networking platforms. Broadly speaking, it’s still good to have these—especially if they originate with reputable sources (e.g. high-quality websites or news outlets rather than random blogs).
As Buuteeq’s Rich Xu put it last year, “Think of backlinks as a type of endorsement. These kind of endorsements from other webmasters vouch for the content on your website. The more quality endorsements you have, the more positive signals this sends to search engines about your content. With these signals, search engines then can prioritize which websites are endorsed by the community and when they should be in the search engine results pages.”
There are, however, some important caveats. In addition to prioritizing more credible backlinks, search engines like Google will also penalize sites that appear to have “spammy” backlinks. So if you’re trying to game the system by having countless affiliate blogs link back to your website, odds are this will actually backfire and hurt your site’s rankings. You may also be penalized if your backlinks frequently originate with low-quality or unrelated content.
Apart from the best (and worst) practices associated with backlinks, there’s an ongoing question as to their actual value when it comes to determining search rankings.
Back in 2014, Google’s Matt Cutts indicated that backlinks would eventually have reduced important in the search giant’s algorithms. Even then, however, he admitted that they would remain an important factor for the “next few years,” per Search Engine Land’s Barry Schwartz.
In other words, there may be change on the horizon—but don’t buy into any hyped narrative about the immediate irrelevance of backlinks. Reports of their demise have been thoroughly exaggerated in some circles.
Indeed, digital marketing giant Moz conducted a study in 2015 and took a closer look at the extent to which backlinks were associated with higher search rankings. The study looked at the 50 highest search results for around 15,000 different keywords in a bid to determine which variables correlated most strongly high search rankings.
The findings were pretty remarkable.
“The correlation between higher rankings and the number of linking websites (root domains) sits at .30,” writes Moz’s Cyrus Shepard. “This number seems small, but it’s actually one of the highest correlations the study found. (Smaller correlations are also not surprising—with over 200 ranking signals, Google specifically designed their algorithm so that one factor doesn’t dominate the others.)
“Even more telling is the number of websites we found in the top results that had external backlinks, or rather, the lack thereof.
“Out of the top results, a full 99.2% of all websites had at least one external link. (The remaining .8% is well within the margin of error expected between Mozscape and Google’s own link index.) The study found almost no websites ranking for competitive search phrases that didn’t have at least a single external link pointing at them, and most had significantly more links.”
The numbers probably don’t lie. And even if the status quo isn’t a perfect indication of Google’s long-term algorithmic plans, the bottom line remains that backlinks remain a vital factor for any website attempting to prove its search rankings.
Fortunately, there are still a number of legitimate ways to build backlinks, and it’s probably worth checking out Moz’s comprehensive tutorial “The Beginner’s Guide to Link Building” for a more in-depth look into strategies that work.
It’s also worth discussing the subject with a digital marketing firm like Adapting Online. If you want a tailored approach that works best for your business, it never hurts to solicit some extra help.
At minimum, know that a long-term, quality-based approach will produce far better results than any overnight gimmicks. That often means that one of your surest paths to generating backlinks is producing content that others will want to share.
Content at the Heart of It All
Keywords alone are an underwhelming solution to improving your search rankings. Even in a hypothetical world where they singularly determined those rankings, they wouldn’t be an effective means of bringing users back to your website for repeated visits. Nor would they be an especially useful way to convert those users into customers.
Content has increasingly become a multipurpose driver that improves search rankings, generates backlinks (that—in turn—also improve rankings), encourages returning traffic and hopefully persuades that traffic to think seriously about purchasing your product or service. Put simply, content can accomplish all kinds of important things—including things that go well beyond the basics of an effective SEO campaign.
In and of itself, producing effective content really isn’t the domain of specialized techies. But nor should it be entrusted to overly cerebral writers who prioritize academic curiosity over your company’s bottom line. The key is twofold. Your content should be good, and it should be purposeful. The dual priorities could otherwise be described as quality and strategy. One without the other will leave your content woefully incomplete.
In order to qualify as good content, your blog or web copy should be substantive, fairly lengthy, useful and engaging. That can mean a lot of different things and look a lot of different ways. Ultimately, your content should also represent your brand and incorporate a consistent voice. Better yet, it should establish your expertise and credibility within your industry. This is your opportunity to go beyond pithy advertising language and blatant marketing gimmicks. If you really want to reach consumers and built a long-term relationship with them, content is an absolutely indispensable starting point. It sends a message, namely that you care about people enough to provide them information (or entertainment, commentary, etc.) without expecting anything in return. And it also gives them serious insight into what you do, how you think and why you’re in business.
Remember that the most engaging content is often multidimensional and includes graphics, interactive elements, charts, videos and the like. The written word is still pretty powerful, but busy consumers are increasingly looking for experiences that convey information in more efficient and dynamic ways.
For your content to be purposeful or strategic, you should produce material that at least indirectly promotes your brand (or the specific goods or services represented thereby). At minimum, that means your content should actually be consistent with whatever it is you do. Write about the things that inspired your business in the first place and the things that have kept you competitive over the years. Write about what you know. You also want to keep visitors on your site, ideally returning with some measure of consistency and investigating other pages to unearth material they deem useful. The longer someone spends on your site, the more likely it is he or she will be converted into a customer—ideally one of the lifetime variety. Finally, your content should serve as a prompt to do business with you, a concept now widely known as “content marketing.” Without overtly telling people to “buy this,” you should nevertheless convince them that they have a need and that you’re in prime position to meet that need.
Clearly, the power of content goes way beyond SEO. But the better your content, the more likely you’ll see improvement in your search rankings over the longterm. Google cares about the quality of your material, and so do the websites that might consider linking to that material.
Hiring a competent writer (or writing staff) is only the beginning. Evaluating and revising your content strategy is an ongoing process, and should be taken just as seriously as other marketing campaigns. This is no hobby.
One way of sustaining the viability of your content is by attempting to link it with the interests of the average consumer—even if not especially before that consumer is prepared to actually make a purchasing decision.
“Determine where you need to develop useful content by conducting a gap analysis,” explains Search Engine Land’s Winston Burton. “All brands need to develop content around each stage of the buyer’s journey, as this allows you to capture search queries for many different kinds of user intent.
“While many businesses understand the need to appear in search results for high-converting keywords (i.e., queries that signal intent to purchase), they often overlook the value of being visible in SERPs during the research phases of the buyer’s journey. In the digital era, this journey is not linear, but is a fragmented path to purchase—so you’ll want to be present at all stages in order to keep your brand top of mind.
“Review your existing content and segment it based on intent—in other words, what stage of the buyer’s journey does it map to? From there, figure out where gaps exist, and build out content to fill in those gaps.”
In addition to assuring quality and strategic content, you’ll also want to think about different ways in which you can promote it. Sharing your material via social networks and encouraging others to do the same is all but essential. You may even wish to consider promoting your content with paid advertising, either through social networks or services that create links to your articles on other websites. One way or another, there’s no point in your hard work going to waste and gathering dust. If you’re making the investment, make sure someone actually sees it.
It’s an ever-more social world, and the distribution of content should be treated no differently.
Stay tuned for part 2 of our in-depth look at 2016 SEO Trends.