SEO changes constantly. Even I find it hard to keep up, and I consider myself an aficionado.
In the early days, SEO practitioners tried all sorts of tactics to appease the search engine algorithms – mainly Google’s, for obvious reasons. One assumed one would get search brownie points for what essentially amounted to a game of one-upmanship; more links and more keywords equals better rank, regardless of how good your site was.
Back in those dark times, the gold rush for top rankings in a rocky online landscape was an unwieldy free-for-all. The ‘www’ might as well have stood for ‘wild, wild west’. Some would scour the web for any backlinks – some more relevant than others – in whatever two-bit site they may hide, or concealed reams of keywords in website metadata like it was buried treasure.
Thankfully, those days are long gone.
In the last couple of years, the impetus of search algorithms has heavily favoured quality over quantity. Your backlinks and your content is expected to be useful and relevant, not just present. They need to tell search engines, and by proxy the person that is doing the searching, who you are, what you do, and in what circles you tend to hang around. Indeed, ideally these signals should be unique, marking yours as a website that is trying to provide something of individual value, rather than regurgitating what’s already out there.
The gold rush for top rankings in a rocky online landscape was an unwieldy free-for-all
Well, this time, it’s personal. The internet of 2017 is an individual’s internet. Personalisation of content is the next step up in quality control. To exemplify this, one need only look at the current dominant trends that dictate a good strategy for SEO in 2017:
Search is now mobile-first, as opposed to desktop-first. This is thanks in no small part to the ubiquity of the Google-backed Accelerated Mobile Pages project (AMP), an online publishing format that makes it easy for publishers to create mobile-friendly content (much the same idea as Facebook Instant Articles, which easily load up on your smartphone). Not only is this enormously embroiled in promoting better user experiences, it also favours the individual’s needs. This isn’t a call to dismiss desktop, but a quick reminder to ensure that all your content is mobile-friendly.
Don’t just tell your story – think about what your customers want from that story
A mobile-first web also means a local search-first web. Reinforcing local signals in your content will serve you better for the person that is right there, right then. It is, after all, of little benefit to a hungry user in central London to have the best rated café in Istanbul show up first in their search results.
In March 2017, a new Google algorithm update, eventually confirmed by Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst Gary Illyes, effectively was another nail in the coffin of those wild west types out to seek revenue, rather than on a mission to help users. According to research by Search Engine Land’s Barry Schwartz, it appeared that over nine out of ten sites hit by the update were built specifically to get a good ranking.
To put that in the context of what not to do, these sites seemed to offer no added value – no unique content – and had often irrelevant ads and affiliated links dotted about the place. They were built for the builder, not for the user.
Reinforce local signals in your content
Incidentally, Illyes unofficially named it ‘Fred’, bucking the Google Webmaster trend for referencing cute animals like Pandas, Penguins and Hummingbirds in their updates. This was the name he would apply to all updates henceforth, given that updates would be done on a real-time, rolling basis, following the final Penguin 4.0 update last September. Fred is effectively a refined version of Penguin 4.0. Penguin Fred.O, if you will.
If you’re unsure about whether you were hit by Fred, the simple thing to do is check your organic traffic around the beginning of March. If there wasn’t a big dip, you’re fine. If there was, you may need to make changes to your content so that it actually provides your audience with value, and caters to their needs. Don’t overload your site with links and ads, but if there are ads, make sure that it’s obvious that they are indeed adverts and not a spurious part of your content. Look for spammy links – it should be obvious which these are – and get rid of them.
Remember the machine works on behalf of the user, so what the user wants, the machine must learn to obtain. Machine learning has been a major part of search ranking factors for a couple of years now, since Google released TensorFlow in 2015, an open source, machine learning software library that powers most of the things you use in search daily, such as Gmail and RankBrain.
Promoting better user experiences
Basically, it’s had some time to go to school and learn stuff, like what we really want, how we search for it, and what we tend to ask in order to find it. It’s why voice search like Amazon’s Alexa, Echo, chatbots and the like are going up in the world; where once voice search seemed a strange, otherworldly concept that was little more than a nice-to-have, now those machines know much better how we talk, ask and make conversation.
So, rather than waste your time on the little tweaks and screws that refine your technical SEO, like your word counts and your title lengths, pixel counts and your meta descriptions (although you shouldn’t dismiss these), employ a more holistic approach to your content SEO. Use your marketing personas and your analytics to drive your content decisions; don’t just tell your story – think about what your customers want from that story. What are they responding to? What will inspire them to engage further? Answer their question before they’ve even asked it.
What this all tells you is that, like everything in content these days, it is the user and the customer that come first.
We are no longer in the wild west. If you’re rushing to find SEO gold, stop thinking about yourself and ask, ‘What would my customer want?’