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Here is part two of our 3-part series on 2016 SEO trends.
2016 SEO Trends – Part 1 can be read here.
2016 SEO Trends – Part 3 can be read here.

Social Networks More Important Than Ever

Yes, in many respects, the use of social networks is an end in and of itself. Building presences on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is an especially cost-effective way to spread your business gospel. Whereas one might have once relied on billboards, Yellow Pages, mail-outs and word of mouth, an increasingly social digital environment has made the world much smaller. In turn, communicating with that world has also gotten substantially easier.

But social media is more than an efficient channel through which you can share content and advertising. It’s also inextricably linked to any comprehensive SEO campaign.

As Forbes’ Jayson DeMers explained last year, “Social media marketing and SEO are two tightly interwoven strategies. Both are organic, inbound strategies that focus on building an appealing identity that naturally attracts visitors. Since social media relies on high-quality content and a visible, strong brand presence, the efforts you spend on SEO can doubly improve your social media reach, and as most search marketers will tell you, your social media presence can greatly increase your search rankings.”

So how can social media improve those rankings? There are a few tactics that can contribute mightily to your SEO goals.

First, building a significant number of followers or connections on social media can actually enhance your search rankings. This kind of social prominence operates as a signal that your company is in fact a major player that search users are likely interested in finding online. This doesn’t mean you should “buy” social media connections, as those kind of gimmicks are easily detected. But a sustained and robust attempt to attract a large social media following will pay off when search engines calculate their rankings.

Second, social media posts and pages can themselves become search results found by web users. It’s always worth remembering that SEO isn’t about your website alone. Indeed, some social media pages may well become even more visible than that website. And some consumers will invariably prefer to interact with your company via those social media pages. Taking full advantage of SEO means maintaining a social presence that can be ranked as well. When it comes to promoting specific posts, remember that the same rules for engaging content still apply: Links or visually stimulating material are generally a strong basis for attracting eyes (and clicks).

Third, social media can encourage others to link to your website—especially if your content warrants the added attention. This is just one of the ways that content and backlinks converge, and social networks are prime candidates to facilitate their synergistic relationship.

Fourth, shares (or likes, favorites, retweets, etc.) can themselves improve your authority and ranking position. That means that—regardless of whether others create new links to your website or associated content—social media interactions alone will improve your SEO. There are certainly ways to explicitly encourage others to share your posts, but the best policy is to be interesting, unique and creative.

Fifth, expanding your brand’s online presence is always a good thing—especially in SEO terms. The more you’re mentioned or promoted on social media, the more likely consumers will be to perform branded searches. In turn, a greater volume of those branded searches will improve your ranking when it comes to non-branded queries. There’s no silver bullet when it comes to growing your brand socially, but a high-quality campaign will inevitably generate exposure and interest. That’s a start.

Sixth, listening to social media users can speak volumes about consumer interests and priorities—factors that can and should inform your attempts to target their online searches. There’s little doubt social media listening is broadly advantageous to a wide range of digital marketing efforts, and that includes SEO. Data obtained from social media users can serve as a basis for building consumer profiles and better understanding their search behavior. If you want to be found online, you first have to understand what your target audience is actually looking for.

Remember that local businesses can also benefit from social media messaging that involves the community, nearby events and anything else that might interest people in your city or neighborhood. If local SEO is part of your strategy, savvy use of a few social networks can be an important component thereof.

Mobile-Friendliness Is Everything

The importance of mobile-optimized websites isn’t particularly new. But that importance has certainly continued its meteoric growth, making it increasingly imperative for SEO-minded businesses to adjust.

In mid-2015, Google rolled out an algorithm updates that explicitly rewards mobile-friendly websites when users are conducting searches on mobile devices. That means your ranking among mobile searches will improve in the event your website is mobile-responsive and designed to fully accommodate mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.

As Digital Current’s Brian Honigman put it last year, “Google’s latest focus on mobile-friendly search should really come as no surprise, as every year people spend more and more time glued to their smartphones, tablets, and now their wearable devices. What’s more of a surprise, is that many businesses waited until now to begin optimizing their online practices, content, and websites for the mobile explosion.”

Indeed, Google’s new strategy is no coincidence.

Search Engine Watch reported in 2014 that—for the first time ever—Internet traffic on mobile devices had outpaced web usage on PC. That trend isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, especially when it comes to search traffic among those looking to buy.

Late last year, Search Engine Land’s Jim Yu noted that, “Mobile commerce is increasing 300 times faster than e-commerce and is expected to show growth of 42 percent between 2013 and 2016. Customers are using their devices to make purchases whenever and wherever they might be.

“The incredible mobile revolution has also begun to be reflected in ad spend. Mobile ad spending is projected to top $100 billion in 2016, accounting for more than 50 percent of all digital ads for the first time. Many brands have begun to recognize the importance of mobile when it comes to connecting with customers.”

Busy consumers interested in convenience have every reason to rely heavily on their mobile devices. When they need information (from reviews to directions) or wish to make a quick purchase, the ease of using mobile devices has fundamentally changed how customers do business.

And it should change how you do business, too.

In addition to capturing more search traffic, a mobile-friendly website is also likely to increase the amount of time users spend on your site and the probability that those users become customers. Keep in mind that consumers aren’t just using your site to directly make purchases. They may well be performing important research that serves as a prerequisite to such purchases.

As Yu put it, “Customers are using their mobile internet activity for different things. For example, shoppers who use their smartphones before or during a shopping experience in a brick-and-mortar store are actually 40 percent more likely to buy than those who did not use these devices.”

In other words, taking full advantage of mobile users means adopting a comprehensive understanding of their behavior.

There’s something to be said for market share, too. If mobile users find your site overly cumbersome, they’ll quickly visit a competitor’s site instead. Keeping your edge doesn’t just mean offering the best product or service—it also means delivering the most convenient user experience you can.

So where to start?

First, familiarize yourself with the available options. eReach’s Michael George Keating outlined the primary alternatives last year.

“Your website can either be responsive, dynamic serving, or a completely separate HTML website,” he writes. “A responsive site is one that follows the same HTML and CSS as your browser ready website but through media queries it is able to render the same on all devices no matter [the] screen size. A dynamic serving site uses a setup where the server responds with different HTML (and CSS) on the same URL depending on the user agent requesting the page. The last option is to make an entirely different HTML website (i.e. domain, sub-domain, of sub-folder) that is a modified version of your site that is only served to mobile and tablet users.”

Though responsive designs are generally the best all-round solution, much depends on the exact nature of your site and the kind of dynamic you’re attempting to create. As ClickSeed’s Jim Robinson concluded last year, “The best mobile configuration is the one that best fits your situation and provides the best user experience.”

That will mean doing some research and likely consulting with web design professionals who have extensive experience optimizing sites for mobile use.

In general, you want to make sure you’re designing (or overhauling) a site with the mobile user in mind. Remember that they’re typically using smaller screens and slower Internet connections. Throwing tons of images, high-quality videos and interactive content can make users’ lives more difficult. Accordingly, Honigman notes that, “The key to designing your website for performance is minimizing the stress that your site places on the user’s mobile network while also improving the user’s chances of finding what they need quickly.”

Beyond the more technical considerations, your site should also be easy to use. Text shouldn’t be difficult to read, and it shouldn’t require users to zoom in. No one should have to scroll horizontally in order to find content. Buttons should be large, and they shouldn’t be crammed together. Putting yourself in a visitor’s shoes can go a long way here.

To that end, you probably don’t want to build a site and throw away the key. Audit the site and revisit any ongoing issues that could be turning mobile consumers away. Two helpful resources include the Google Mobile-Friendly Test and the Varvy Mobile SEO Test.

Google’s rankings will reward you for the effort, and—ideally—so too will customers.

Conversions Are the New Benchmark for Success

It might be fair to say that one of the most radical developments in the last five years of SEO evolution really isn’t directly related to SEO.

Back in 2010, Search Engine Land’s Scott Brinker declared that, “Conversion optimization is the new SEO.”

While conceding that, “SEO is still important and still evolving,” Brinker ultimately argued that search traffic wasn’t the ultimate metric for businesses attempting to create a formidable online presence.

“Conversion optimization, like SEO, isn’t a one-shot project,” he writes. “It’s an integral part of the new marketing. The most valuable players will do more than optimize a landing page or run a good A/B test themselves. They will help organizations absorb conversion optimization into their culture and operational rhythm.”

So what exactly is a conversion rate anyway? Put simply, it’s the percentage of visitors (associated with some kind of marketing or ad campaign) who actually perform a preferred task on your site. For many companies, that task entails making a purchase—but that’s not always the case. If you’re interested in acquiring information about your real or potential customers, your version of conversion may simply mean filling out a survey.

Conversion rate optimization (CRO) has increasingly become the central metric by which websites assess their effectiveness. That means that, in a way, CRO is the reason we care so much about SEO in the first place. They represent different stages of the web user’s journey—SEO representing their arrival and CRO measuring how well your site does its job once they arrive.

Volume 9 SEO’s Daniel Threlfall explained the SEO-CRO relationship aptly last year.

“The goal of SEO is to improve the quantity and quality of organic traffic to a given website,” he explained. “But what happens next? I can optimize a website until my limbs grow feeble and my breath wanes—tweaking every line of the robots.txt, disavowing every stray spam link, adjusting every meta title, and organizing every URL—but so what? I can ramp up traffic to my client’s website until it is purring with traffic to compete with ViralNova and Buzzfeed, but what does it matter? Here’s what this grand pursuit of search optimization truly comes down to: conversions.”

The big point here is that all the search traffic in the world won’t count for much unless you’re turning that traffic into something that’s meaningful in the context of your bottom line. And the actionable takeaway is that CRO strategy should in many ways be an extension of your SEO campaign. One isn’t complete without the other.

As Threlfall suggests, “If digital marketing were a spear, then CRO would be the tip. SEOs, don’t feel bad. You’re the muscle that propelled that spear to begin with. Conversion optimization is the end goal of a digital marketing endeavor. And SEO is a huge part of that.”

Just as SEO campaigns require you to think about search behavior, CRO implies going one step further in a bid to better understand visitor behavior. And as Threlfall suggests, those two things aren’t unrelated. Users’ search intent (e.g. to find information or make a purchase) should inform the website experience you deliver once they arrive. The more you know about who’s looking for your brand, product or service (and they they’re looking), the better you can tailor their visitor experience accordingly.

It’s also worth remembering that well-orchestrated SEO will invariably improve your conversion rates. Basic math will tell you that the more traffic you have, the more visitors there are to be converted in the first place. And basic logic will tell you that attracting the right traffic will also increase conversions.

Of course, closing the deal and successfully converting visitors certainly requires more than SEO alone. This is where things like engaging content and mobile-friendliness can make a huge difference. In addition to generating more traffic, they’re also likely to keep that traffic on your website and potentially persuade it to make a purchase (or otherwise achieve whatever goals you have in mind). Note that a wide variety of other variables can also have a discernible effect on your visitors’ experiences. Everything from layout to how you frame calls to action can substantially influence how people make decisions.

Before you dive into adjusting your web design accordingly (and long before you deem it a finished product), research is absolutely essential. Mining and analyzing consumer data will equip you with the resources to shape your design in an informed and calculated manner. Assessing competitor websites may also give you a sense of what’s working (and what isn’t).

From there, many websites will also perform somewhat extensive testing (e.g. A/B split testing or multivariate testing) in order to better determine what’s working. Some of your efforts will almost certainly depend on available resources, but—one way or another—you should be taking CRO just as seriously as SEO.

In the big picture, they’re both irreplaceable pieces of the puzzle.

Find Your Niche

Why let massive corporations have all the fun? They often have the SEO market cornered when it comes to general keywords, and that makes it difficult for smaller businesses to be found online—at least on face. But that’s no reason to give up. There’s room for businesses of all sizes online, especially if you play your cards right.

CyberMark International recently described “niche keywords” as one of its “Five Local SEO Trends for Small Businesses in 2016.”

“While everyone wants to rank for broad, generic keywords, those top spots in the search rankings are usually filled by massive competitors that make it hard for small businesses to gain exposure,” the site writes. “When you have your company’s website designed for the first time, or redesigned to keep up with the times, you will need to pay close attention to the specific terms your audience will use when searching for you.”

At minimum, be sure that you’ve covered your local SEO bases as previously discussed. Whereas larger companies can invest extensive resources in their national web presences, you’ll likely find at least some space in the local search rankings. And given the frequency with which web users perform location-sensitive queries (e.g. “legal services in Santa Monica”), the first niche you can conquer is a geographical one.

Your next objective is rethinking how you go about targeting keywords. If broad, generalized keywords generally yield search results that include large, national brands, then you’ll have to go about things a bit differently. Differentiation and detail are real virtues in this case.

“Keywords and niche marketing go hand in hand, because both are about one thing if nothing else: specificity,” argues the Micro-Niche Method Blog. “The point of having a niche is that your customers aren’t just looking for ‘sweaters,’ they’re looking for ‘undyed natural sweaters.’ Without being contrived, try to populate your text content with targeted keywords that your clientele is likely to be searching for.”

Resources like the Google AdWords Keyword Planner can be valuable starting points. So too can consultation with digital marketing professionals who have a clear view of the online landscape. If you’re going to be different and uniquely branded, you should have an accurate perception of that from which you’re differentiating yourself.

Chances are you’ve already given a lot of these things some thought—at least from a more conventional, brick-and-mortar perspective. If you’ve opened a new restaurant, you probably took some care not to duplicate other establishments just down the street. You hopefully performed some market research and determined what your area needed (and what kind of businesses had already overly-saturated it). And the way you define(d) your brand is generally an extension of these considerations.

The things that make you distinctive in your community (or, perhaps, national market) should also make you distinctive online. Failure to seize upon uniqueness robs your company of a potentially key competitive advantage.

Finally—and this isn’t entirely unique to niche online presences—don’t forget to develop relationships with others in your market, even if they ostensibly seem like direct competition.

Search Engine People’s Dennis Miedema explains the potential upside.

“Let’s say you own a mail-order peanut butter and jelly sandwich shop and Bob down the street does too,” he writes. “You hate that guy. He’s taking money out of your pocket and you’re losing customers to this nimrod. Well, maybe not. If you start networking with Bob, you might find out that he only offers strawberry jelly, while you only offer grape. What if he sent you customers that want grape jelly and you sent him ones that want strawberry? The two of you might just become best friends and both businesses receive benefits in this bromance from heaven.”

This dynamic is all the more valuable online. Developing digital ties (e.g. cross-posting on blogs, creating mutual citations, etc.) can seriously enhance your respective presences on the web. These kind of tactics can generate valuable backlinks and mentions that ultimately improve search rankings.

Put simply, partnering with the competition can amplify your niche standing and help your business reach its targeted audience.

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