We’ve covered 2016’s search engine optimization (SEO) trends in depth, but one question remains. What’s next?
With a firm grasp on the broad trajectory of SEO strategies, it’s time to go a bit more granular. That means that if you haven’t already familiarized yourself with some SEO basics, check out the above link. It might be worth perusing some other Adapting Online material, as well. But if you already have some sense of what the SEO world entails, read on. We’ll explore some tactics that are already in play and on the horizon alike.
The inspiration for our latest entry comes from Alameda Internet Marketing’s recent survey of “39 experts” who made predictions for the various paths SEO will take in 2017. Granted, some of those predictions reflect trends that are already fairly widespread. But while you might be inclined to believe there’s nothing new under the SEO sun, it’s worth considering some of the possibilities that lie ahead. Some of the emerging trends (voice search) are likely to become pretty established. And some of the fading realities (keywords) are about to go the way of the dinosaur.
Rather than focusing on trends alone, we’re also taking a more actionable approach with this entry. If you’re a busy manager or budding SEO expert, these are doable things. You could think of it as a checklist for the future—or, at minimum, a guide to what’s on the SEO frontier and already rearing its head in the here and now.
One quick reminder, though: SEO isn’t everything. It’s a bit tempting to treat these kinds of articles as complete digital marketing gospel. They’re a good start, but they also tend to overstate their own importance to at least some degree. Things like sleek web design and conversion rate optimization (CRO) are equally important to a robust online presence and effective brand image. If you aren’t seeing the results you expected from your digital marketing campaign, there’s a good chance that you’re leaving something out (and an even better chance that you could benefit from outside expertise). In short, don’t go it alone unless you already have it all figured out. We hope this is another useful resource, but it’s only the beginning. If your website or social media presence seems to be lagging, it’s probably time to invest in some credible help.
Forgetting About Trends Altogether
Okay, this little tip seems a bit counterintuitive, so we might as well start there. If you’re convinced that the key to your SEO success is capitalizing upon the next big trend, you might want to think again. Much of what separates the web’s haves and have-nots has to do with one of two things: (a) the capital and resources a business has to invest in said endeavor and/or (b) the extent to which a business adopts a basic set of sound, fundamental strategies. You might not have much control over the former, but you’ll invariably have plenty of say over the latter.
HumanProofDesigns founder Dominic Wells put it well—and somewhat anticlimactically—in his response to the Alameda Internet Marketing survey, writing, “Like always, there will probably be SEO ‘trends’ for 2017, but I don’t pay attention to them. In this industry, trends don’t last very long, are usually over-hyped and result in short-term gains at the expense of long-term gains. Look at things like guest-o-graphics and other copy and paste techniques from the last few years. They might have worked initially, but now whenever I receive one of these ‘outreach’ attempts, I ignore it. Instead, I suggest that anybody who wants to do SEO should just carry on with the standard best practices—things that will last no matter what year it is.”
So what does it mean to master the fundamentals (or best practices) of SEO? All the old rules (sans attempts to game the algorithmic system) still apply for the most part. Successful branding, a robust social media presence, engaging content, accessible information and sleek design will all take you a long way toward the SEO Promised Land.
That doesn’t mean the rest of these tips are irrelevant. It just means you shouldn’t get too caught up on the next wave of SEO wisdom until you’ve already mastered the fundamentals.
Death of the Keyword: But What’s Next?
Once upon a time in an SEO galaxy not so far away, websites sought to be discovered via the keywords that Internet users deployed when performing searches. Thanks to the evolving habits of those users and the Google algorithms entrusted to adjust to said habits, things have changed rather quickly. No longer are keywords the principal edifice upon which the consumers performs queries. And that means spamming your online content with attractive keywords is both gratuitous and—thanks to Google’s rules—counterproductive.
As far back as 2014, the transition away from keywords was becoming pretty apparent.
“In the new paradigm of SEO keyword strategy, you still want to focus on relevance, search volume, and competitiveness, but with subtle differences in approach,” Forbes’ Josh Steimle explained at the time. “The reason you need to change your approach is because the Internet has changed, and continues to change, in two fundamental ways; size, and your potential customers or clients using what is called ‘natural language search.’”
Put simply, online queries are less and less resembling the kind of caveman-grunted searches your librarian taught you to perform. Instead, they’ve come to resemble intelligently phrased questions or complex thoughts. In part, people are becoming more sophisticated stewards of the Internet and exacting more stringent demands when attempting to pry information from its omniscient grasp. Moreover, given the infinite noise associated with all that information, people are using more specific, refined and extensive search terminology to sort through the bounty of results invariably coming their ways.
The result? Now web users tend to perform naturally phrased question in the form of “long-tail phrases.”
As Steimle continues, “Within the paradigm of the long tail, relevance, search volume, and competitiveness still matter. In fact, they matter more than ever. But the keyword strategies used to reach searchers have changed. The goal used to be to target a small number of somewhat relevant search terms, each of which would drive high volumes of traffic. Today, a successful keyword strategy targets hundreds or thousands of potential keyword phrases, each of which will only drive a moderate amount of traffic. However, these new keyword phrases, which use natural language, are highly relevant, and therefore more likely to convert.”
And yes, conversion is a very good thing—at least as important as the initial traffic that leads thereto. But relevance (and the conversion rates associated therewith) isn’t the only appeal of catering to the long-tail approach. The other advantage is that—to whatever extent your content reaches a niche audience—long-tail searches are more likely to find your website and the products or services you offer.
So—from an action-oriented perspective—how does one actually meet this increasing long-tail demand? As always, start with quality content. The abdication of keyword-based SEO generally means there’s no overnight solution to being found via search, especially for small businesses or companies that find themselves vying for search rankings in a highly competitive industry. Produce content that genuinely helps or interests people, and you should see results over the long-term.
Next, think about your content more topically. Any given blog post should revolve around the kind of themes and ideas that might address a range of long-tail search phrases. You need not stuff your headers (and the like) with all the imaginable keywords associated with your blog entry. Instead, ensure your entry remains focused and on point. Rather than covering every conceivable issue under the sun, target a set of things (e.g. solutions or products) and craft your content so that it revolves around those things in coherent fashion.
Finally, think about ways to generate cost-effective content that are likely to (organically) address people’s unique needs. Things like discussion forums, Q&A sessions or user-generated content often have precisely that effect—all while alleviating you of the responsibility associated with creating all of that content from scratch.
But there’s more to the death of the keyword to be sure. And long-tail phrases aren’t the only thing that’s replaced it.
Birth of Voice Search
One of the reasons keywords have become a less prevalent metric for search rankings is the use of voice search. Just as web users have eschewed the use of isolated keywords on their keyboards, people have similarly turned to long-tail phraseology when performing a voice query. Suddenly that’s a dynamic with which to be reckoned.
As Search Engine Watch’s Asim Ahmed put it earlier this year, “As of 2014 we know 55 percent of teens and 41 percent of adults use voice search on a daily basis. Now with virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa and voice recognition technology from Shazam and SoundHound, the number of users adopting voice search is only increasing, and the technology for understanding humans is advancing as well.”
The first lesson is that you should make sure any basic information (i.e. the kind people are likely to be asking for via voice search—location, hours of operation, etc.) is featured prominently on your website. While search engines like Google often provide voice users with “instant answers” (direct responses to their questions without a list of search results), those instant answers can sometimes increase your click-through rates anyway—at least if you’re the source from which said instant answer came.
Additionally, it’s wise to make your content at least somewhat conversational. That doesn’t necessarily mean dumbing it down or removing all the big words. But it does mean adopting a style that’s more consistent with the ways in which people actually speak—and less consistent with all that caveman-grunted keyword stuff.
Finally, remember the lessons learned above with respect to long-tail phrasing. Topically oriented content and Q&A sessions (that provide direct answers to the kind of questions people are likely to ask via voice search) are still good ideas.
One quick note, though: Dead as keywords have become in comparative terms, people still use them. And that probably won’t change immediately. To that end, just remember it’s important for your content to say what it means. Attempting to game the keyword search algorithms is unlikely to be very fruitful, but nor should your content be especially mysterious or opaque. Be direct, be engaging and be useful. Everything else will come in time.
Prepare for a More Mobile Kind of Mobile
Unless you’ve spent the last decade under a rock, you’ve probably heard way too much about the rise of mobile devices and their inevitable impact on SEO (and everything else digital). No longer is it enough to have a nice website. Now that website must be conditioned by the fleeting expectations of mobile users on the go (and they’re always on the go). Yes, that means things like shorter sentences, smaller paragraphs, larger font, more accessible basic information, less need for scrolling and so on.
Nothing new here.
But the mobile world now appears to be getting even more mobile—an utterly terrifying thought for those of us who enjoy a sedimentary lifestyle for even a moment. Things like Apple Watch and Google Glass are fundamentally changing what it means to go mobile. And even if they aren’t jumping off the shelves to the satisfaction of shareholders, they’re likely to become more and more prominent in the years ahead. At minimum, some such wearable devices are bound to become a hit sooner or later.
There is any number of extrapolations one could make in terms of digital marketing in general, but much of the SEO relevance occurs on the local front.
As Epic News Media’s Daniel Reilly recently noted, “Apple Watch is looking to change the marketplace by integrating many more functions into a single device—Siri, music, apps and so on. For local firms, the most important feature is mapping. The watch will use a system known as ‘haptic feedback’ to give directions with buzzes, helping people navigate the environment. Couple this with Siri’s relationship with search engine Bing, and you have the potential for a whole new world of local SEO opportunities.
For example, ensuring your listing with Apple Maps is mistake-free has become a no-brainer for any local business looking to capitalize on the relative success of the Apple Watch. People use their smartwatches to find things, and your business presumably wants to be found.
There are two other conclusions worth considering. First, be sure that your local listings are complete and up to date in general. The more prominent mobile devices become, the more important it is to have a presence in all manner of directories and search engines. And the more important it will be to ensure your information is accurate and complete—meaning location, contact info, hours of operation, pricing, etc. Second, this is yet another reminder that voice search (see above section) will become more prominent. Given the size limitations associated with wearable and other small mobile devices, people will likely be talking to small gadgets on or near their bodies from here to eternity. It’s your job to make sure they find what they’re looking for.
Optimizing Your Page Loading Times
As early as 2010, Google began using a page’s loading time as a ranking factor in its algorithms. Efficiency matters to the average web user, and Google has known that for some time. So too have any number of websites that have caught on in the meantime. The premium placed upon loading times has only increased in the wake of the mobile craze. With people on the move and looking for quick answers, the prospect of waiting an eternity for pages to load has become increasingly unattractive. To that end, loading times can and do affect both SEO and CRO alike. Attracting traffic is one thing. Rewarding that traffic with a great (and quick!) user experience is pretty important, too.
To most high-end websites, this shouldn’t be news. The problem for everyone else is that they often must compete with those high-end websites. With users (mobile or otherwise) becoming less and less patient, the importance of loading times isn’t going anywhere. If anything, the value associated with said speeds will continue to grow.
So what can you do to make a difference?
First, beware of too many large or high-definition images. While a visually stimulating approach is integral to an effective user experience, an overabundance of images can have the counterproductive effect of slowing loading times and deterring users from remaining on your page or clicking on the next one. Note that there are a number of online tools that allow you to compress images (and thereby optimize loading times) without jeopardizing the quality of said images.
Similarly, embedding external media (e.g. videos or Tweets) can impact loading times. If you’re a media-heavy website, make sure you have the resources to support smooth and quick page speeds.
Second, avoid advertising schemes that pollute your pages with too many ads. In addition to serving as a general annoyance, the ads will cause pages to load more slowly—resulting in an unmitigated lose-lose experience. Though making adjustments may cause you to lose some revenue, you may well be better off just focusing on providing free content over the long-term.
Third, you’ll get the host you pay for. As ShoutMeLoud.com’s Harsh Agrawal recently explained, “Web hosting also plays a major role in your website loading time. If your server is a slow system, chances are your website will take ages to load—and many other parameters like which type of server they are using (Apache or Nginx). Don’t use underpowered web-hosting, and make sure your hosting is compatible with the web technology you are using.”
Fourth, make sure you aren’t overloading pages with too many widgets (e.g. social media buttons or comments sections). Like images, these kinds of things generally make a profoundly positive impact on a user’s experience. But to whatever extent they’re slowing loading times, there could be a problem. In addition to ensuring that your hosting can accommodate all the stuff you want on each page, distributing goodies across several different pages may be a slightly cheaper solution.
There’s plenty of other technical stuff to consider, so make sure you’re consulting with a quality web designer (or firm that specializes in these things). Whatever the initial investment, you’ll be far better off with a site that remains competitive with the kinds of high-end sites deployed by larger corporations.
Pursuing Alternatives to Content Marketing
According to conventional wisdom, you won’t generate a whole lot of traffic without substantive and regularly-updated content. There’s certainly logic to that edict. Content is often a cost-effective and more sustainable solution than your average marketing campaign. It also generates the kind of engagement that leads to conversions. So what’s not to like?
As Garth O’Brien argued in the Alameda Internet Marketing survey, “Finally, content, content and more content. This will never come off the list of top trends. Hire good writers and publish quality articles, blog posts, guides and more. Publish videos and flock to YouTube. If you are not on YouTube publishing video content, then you are insane. YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world. Over 50 percent of my initial search is conducted in YouTube. I would rather watch the solution than read a treatise that may or may not have any images.”
The big problem is that quality content can also be expensive to produce. Unless you have the staff on-hand to support such an operation, you’ll likely find yourself hiring editors and writers (and/or video producers and actors). And unless you have the budget to attract the cream of the crop, your mileage with such help may well vary. That’s a problem in its own right, but it’s also the more problematic in light of corporate competition that has a significant edge when it comes to producing content. From a quality and quantity perspective, bigger competition almost always has a steep advantage over smaller businesses.
Uncorked Adventures owner Mark Aselstine told Alameda Internet Marketing that, “The rise of content marketing will continue, but that rise will effectively price out most small businesses. For some time small business has been able to produce content that’s effectively good enough, simply by using their personal expertise. As content marketing has started to deliver bigger results, larger businesses have caught on. Executives are now producing content, and big business has the budget to produce memorable content on a daily basis.”
That may make your content endeavor an uphill battle if you’re working on a limited budget. Using content to generate traffic and conversions is great in theory, but it still requires you to be found among rankings. And unless your products or services address something of a niche market, that may become all but impossible—especially in the short-term.
The good news is that—whether you’re committed to a content strategy or not—there are all kinds of alternatives to hiring a stable of writers and editors.
As far as content strategies go, you might look into hosting user-generated content, discussion forums or Q&A sessions with members of your team. Customer reviews are another prime means of creating content that doesn’t require a proper blog. In addition to creating regularly-updated content with SEO advantages, reviews also tell web users something important about your business from a consumer perspective. Other kinds of media (e.g. video, charts, infographics, etc.) can also be useful. If you have some graphics specialists already on your team, that kind of content may be significantly more cost-effective than a written blog.
Beyond content, there are indeed a few other things you can do to attract and engage traffic. Building an online tool or application may seem cost-intensive, but it’s precisely the kind of thing that would yield a lasting audience who understands and cares about your business. Whatever the initial investment, just remember that such an effort could pay huge dividends in the long-run and potentially become far less expensive than an ongoing content campaign. Yes, you’d likely need to happen upon something that doesn’t already exist (or make dramatic improvements upon something that does exist), but that shouldn’t necessarily deter you from embarking upon the brainstorming. Blogs are all too often the easy and unimaginative way out. That doesn’t mean they’re the best solution to your SEO needs every single time.
Is Technical SEO Back (and Here to Stay)?
Once upon a time, the surest way to SEO prominence was simply ensuring that your website was better than all the rest when it came to technical specifications. These on-page indicators were initially viewed as one of the principal means by which search algorithms sorted out the best websites and left others in the dust. The rise of content marketing, local SEO strategies and various off-page considerations has ostensibly detracted from this focus, but that may not be a lasting trend.
As Harris Schachter put it in Alameda Internet Marketing’s recent survey, “The last SEO trend which will happen is a resurgence of technical SEO. As more sites move to advanced technologies like Angular JS and other methods which allow pre-rendering, super fast load times and app-like websites, it will be extremely important to ensure these new implementations are search-friendly.”
Joseph E. Gojo Cruz agreed, contending, “Technical SEO will highly be in demand. Since Google is continuously improving SERPs for desktop/mobile/tablet, SEOs will need to adapt and learn more things to comply with the changes. This may include Java, Knowledge Graph, AMP [Accelerated Mobile Pages] and a lot more.”
Unless you have an in-house team devoted to SEO (and familiar with the evolving technical best practices associated therewith), this may be a good time to reach out to some expert consultants. It may cost you some money, but it’s likely essential in order to remain competitive in the coming years. In an SEO world where nothing is automatic, losing out on traffic because of technical specifications is an especially unfortunate outcome. You may be doing everything else right, but a slow or underpowered website could jeopardize your gains in short order.
Generating More Engagement
Generating new traffic is great, but encouraging returning traffic is even better—especially when that traffic is willing to stick around your website for a while and investigate the various pages contained therein. Put simply, the biggest thing in SEO is going beyond SEO itself. Whether your approach involves content or some kind of alternative, the big idea is keeping people interested or entertained.
That’s just one of the reasons video and other media are becoming such a dominant form of content. We live in an age when the written word is only half the battle. Catching someone’s eye (or ear) can be even more effective, particularly among the younger audiences that so frequently use mobile devices. Even the traditional blog is becoming more dynamic and multifaceted, replete with embedded social media posts, graphics and all manner of images.
Polls and surveys have become increasingly popular, as well. In addition to serving as a voluntary form of engagement, these are the kind of mechanisms by which you can learn even more about your target audience in an especially qualitative way. Analytics software may open the door to increased consumer awareness, but a good survey can do worlds in terms of your business’s ability to craft accurate and meaningful target personas.
Engagement can also yield benefits in terms of relationships and community. Consumers should be aware of your brand, mentioning it on social media, reposting your content and otherwise generating enough buzz that search engines associate your pages with some measure of authority and repute. To that end, traditional brand building techniques can also yield very real SEO advantages. So when SEO experts tell you to embrace tried and true digital marketing best practices, they aren’t lying. Simply building your brand can have a force-multiplying effect on the digital landscape.
Finally, remember that things like customer service responsiveness can make a real difference, too. Engagement isn’t just about crafting a blog entry with endless bells and whistles. It’s also about engaging. Answering questions or responding to customer reviews online establishes you as a more reputable business and begins creating a world in which all the other pieces fall into place. Put simply, doing business the right way is unsurprisingly unparalleled inroad to digital marketing results—especially in the context of increasingly important local SEO efforts.
Embracing Branded Traffic
There’s always been some sense in which generated non-branded traffic seemed like the best thing ever. If someone performs a search without already knowing who you are—and your page shows up among the search results—conventional wisdom suggests you’ve just attracted someone new to the family. While there’s still real merit to that approach, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to solicit this kind of traffic in a highly-competitive SEO landscape that’s heavily dominated by large-scale, corporate competition. But the fact that non-branded traffic has become more difficult to attract shouldn’t deter you from playing the SEO game. One solution is simply popularizing your brand and embarking upon a digital marketing campaign that expands awareness of that brand (via social media, creative advertising, reviews and other word-of-digital-mouth techniques).
As Michael Yurechko explained to Alameda Internet Marketing, “If you’re not building a brand and getting regular searches for your brand, you may be irrelevant come 2017. Branding is more important than ever, and branded search traffic will have a bigger impact on Google’s trust for your domain than links in some instances. Start building branded resources that encourage users to search for ‘brand +
Of course, the traditional means by which businesses promote their brand (whether online ads or highway billboards) can be pricey. The above-mentioned engagement strategies can go a long way toward cultivating a well-known—and liked—brand, but every industry is a bit different. Niche markets may require a bit more direct outreach (e.g. email marketing) while more competitive segments may require unique, outside-the-box forms of content marketing.
The big point is that—going forward—there’s no guarantee you’ll be found online just because you happen to sell a product or service for which web users are looking. Everything associated with SEO is growing far more competitive, so there’s an increased premium in having your brand name show up in that initial search. Much as that may seem like a backwards way of going about SEO, it may soon become the only way for smaller businesses to be found in a digital landscape dominated by anything and everything but small businesses themselves.
None of that is reason to give up. To that contrary, it’s a reason to check off all those SEO to-do lists. The fundamentals matter, and some of the trends matter, too. But covering your eyes and wishing SEO away won’t cut it—and nor will avoiding the digital marketing frontier altogether.