The web has seen explosive growth in the last few years. Billions of new websites and blog posts are going online every day, and the trend towards a bigger web is accelerating at a dizzying pace.
This proliferation of content has made search engine optimization – which was already the cornerstone of most profitable Internet marketing campaigns – even more important than it was in the past. That’s partly because competition throughout every corner of the web has intensified. There are so many more websites than there were in the past, but only a fixed number of top search spots for any specific query. It takes more to stand out than it did before.
At the same time, search users themselves are becoming more exacting and demanding. They don’t just want relevant search results, they expect a perfect answer to their question, and one that’s personalized and up-to-date.
Unfortunately, a lot of the old models around search engine optimization simply haven’t adjusted to this new paradigm. Marketers are holding on to strategies that worked perfectly in years past, but don’t account for the complexity of today’s market. Add to that the fact that Google and the other search engines have changed the way they scour the web and tabulate results, and you have a much different set of needs and skills than the ones business owners and executives have become accustomed to.
To help you cut through all the noise and confusion that is out there, stop you from pursuing the wrong tactics, and give you a leg up on your competitors (both down the street and around the world), we are going to provide you with some concrete answers. In this short guide, will introduce you to seven realities of search engine optimization you have to contend with and 2018 and beyond.
Let’s start with what is arguably the biggest shift…
#1 Semantic Search is Using Context-Based Algorithms
Semantic search is a somewhat technical sounding name for a relatively simple idea: that you can better understand the content of a website by looking at the totality of its pages and posts.
In the early days of search engine optimization, Google didn’t even try to analyze the actual meaning of a webpage. Instead, it looked at the prevalence of certain frequently-search terms (keywords), along with the number of links pointed at the page in question. If a keyword showed up pretty often, and there were lots of links, the search software could effectively figure out what the content was all about and match it to the right user queries.
Of course, the world of search engine optimization was created as a result, and soon you had lots of low-quality search results and non-relevant pages showing up in search listings where they didn’t belong. After years of tweaking with their algorithm to take out over-optimized results, Google’s engineers are now taking a different approach.
Instead of looking solely at keywords and links, they are using semantic search formulas to derive meaning from context. For example, one page with lots of text around “Google rankings” could fall well behind another with multiple in-depth pages and posts that explain “search engine systems,” “Google best practices,” “search visibility for small businesses,” and so on. Semantically, it’s easy to see why the second result is likely to be more valuable than the first, despite the presence of traditional keywords and links.
It’s important to understand this diminished relationship between strict keyword matches and resulting search listings. That isn’t just because it diminishes the value of some old-school SEO tactics, but also because it bleeds over into other parts of search visibility. For example, natural-language searches (for instance, users typing direct questions to Google) are on the rise. The resulting listings are heavily influenced by semantic factors. So, too, are the search results that come from long tail queries and voice -assisted searches.
In a way, the overuse of old search engine optimization practices made them less relevant. Now, Google uses semantic search to look at a website in its entirety to figure out its meaning from contextual clues.
#2 Mobile Compatibility is a Major Search Signal
You’ve probably already read or heard that Internet traffic from mobile devices (mainly smart phones and tablets, although watches are now getting in on the act) now account for more than half of all web page views. Or in simpler terms, people coming to your website by tapping on a small screen with their finger make up the majority.
This was a trend Google’s designers saw coming for years. It’s not surprising that they have changed their search algorithm to conform to the needs of this huge and still growing market.
The first major adjustment – for both business owners and Google’s engineers – came in the form of “Mobilegeddon.” That was the nickname given to the date in 2015 when Google announced that it would begin filtering out nonmobile-compliant websites from searches that originated from phones and tablets. At the time, Google had a very simple set of criteria that could be used to determine whether a website was mobile-friendly or not.
Since then, things have become more nuanced and severe at the same time. There are some indications that the search engine now goes beyond simple visibility tests to determine mobile functionality. It wants real mobile compatibility, not just the most basic responsive designs. And, for those businesses that fail to meet the right criteria, the consequences are harsh: they can be removed from Google’s search listings altogether.
There are two important reasons this shift took place, and that we can expect it to continue. The first has to do a simple customer demand. Google wants its users to have a great experience. Given that many of them are using mobile devices and native apps, it needs the search results it provides to be conformant with those technologies.
In a more abstract sense, there may be another factor at play here. Google knows that, with billions of new pages going online every day, it’s customers only want the most current search results. Having an outdated website with no mobile functionality is a sure sign that the business isn’t staying up with the times. So in that way, a lack of mobile compatibility could also suggest a low-quality search result that users won’t appreciate.
#3 Local Search Offers a Major Marketing Opportunity
A little more than a decade ago, the Yellow Pages was still considered the gold standard (literally and figuratively) for small businesses that wanted to attract local customers. You put in a listing, description of your services, and a phone number, and soon enough calls would begin to come in.
All of that changed as Google and the other search engines went mainstream. Seemingly overnight, buyers started to ask themselves why they would look in a printed book to find businesses to work with when they could go online to find more choices, up-to-date listings, and even online reviews. What could they get from a printed directory that wasn’t offered on the web?
Around this time, executives at Google noticed that searches with the geographic component (i.e., “Charlotte web design”) accounted for one out of every five user queries. Since then, the proportion has gone up to about one out of every three. The result was a tweak to the algorithm that aims to better match searchers with companies in their own area, particularly for businesses like restaurants, retailers, and professionals.
This has been great news for small and medium-sized businesses that have decided to take advantage of this feature. Rather than having to compete with every other company in their category – including overseas firms and large, well-funded national firms – they could add some geographic clues to their website and climb to the top of the search listings.
It does take more than you think to gain local search visibility. Using city or state-based keywords is a good start. You could also post maps, telephone numbers, ZIP Codes, and driving directions on your business website. Each of these tells Google where you’re located in the real world, but also makes it easier for real-life customers to find you and contact you.
Local search engine optimization is closely tied to mobile compatibility and online reviews. Many buyers will visit your website from a smart phone or tablet while they’re on the go, or check out what other customers in the neighborhood say about your company before stopping in. It’s important to know that and view your local marketing as being something more than a simple search strategy.
All in all, getting local traffic is one of the easiest and most profitable ways to help your bottom line by drawing more buyers in from Google. And, it’s probably going to matter even more going forward.
#4 Online Reviews Affect Your SEO Effectiveness
Before the age of Google, the most common way to find the perfect product, vendor, or solution to your problem was to simply phone a friend or meet them for coffee. After all, you couldn’t necessarily trust an advertiser to put your interests above theirs, so third-party opinions mattered to a great deal.
And guess what? The same thing isn’t just true today, it’s more true than ever before.
Customers love the Internet for the convenience it offers, but they are very skeptical of the marketing they see online. When in doubt, they turn to online reviews to help steer them in the right direction. For that reason, online reviews affect not just your surge of visibility, but the effectiveness of your campaigns as a whole.
Looking at things from a strictly search-focused point of view, every online review that’s left about your business is a new piece of content that comes with the appropriate location and keywords. Every profile you have on a website like Yelp is a new place a customer could meet you. In fact, those pages often rank highly on Google, meaning you can earn a “bonus” search listing simply by appearing on them. Additionally star ratings and customer comments often show up as previews within Google’s listings. So, customers can see the good things people are saying about you even without clicking on a particular result.
Get good reviews on four or five websites, show up in the local search listings, and have your own pages and content that rank highly, and you could almost completely dominate a single page of search results for your market. Moreover, a potential customer who saw all of those listings would come away with the overwhelming impression that your business is a great one to work with, provided that the reviews in question were strong.
That brings us back to the question of effectiveness. Search visibility is one thing, but having customers see that other people know, like, and trust your business adds a whole new dimension to your SEO campaigns. If they find your company and don’t take any action, you haven’t gained anything; but if all the good reviews about your company persuade them to move forward, then you’re going to see more online visits, more phone calls and retail sales, and (most importantly) big improvements in your company’s bottom line.
#5 Google’s AI is Always Watching
One of the biggest (and unnoticed) changes to Google’s search operations has been the introduction of supercomputers. Specifically, the company is using artificial intelligence in new and interesting ways that affect searches on a one-by-one basis.
You may not have read a great deal about this, because there isn’t any specific piece of the puzzle that’s easy to decode. Unlike the Penguin and Panda updates, for example, that targeted areas of search engine optimization like link quality directly, the effect of AI on searches is more subtle.
As best as industry observers can tell, Google’s artificial intelligence platform has focused (so far) on analyzing searches and then watching results. So, when a user types a given string into Google’s homepage, the supercomputer tries to analyze language, location, and even search history to figure out what the query is actually about. Then, using semantic models, it will provide a list of recommendations that it finds appropriate.
The truly interesting thing is what happens next. After the searcher has selected a result, the supercomputer uses tracking code to determine whether the individual stays on the provided website, clicks through to more links, and otherwise engages with the search result. If they take these actions, then the listing was probably a good one; if the user moves on with little interaction, then the search result could be deemed unsuccessful.
In this way, Google can use modern processing technology to “learn” two things: which results are providing quality information for a given search, and which factors make for the right match between a searcher and a website. Then, it can alter future searches and results to accommodate the knowledge that has been gained.
What should be encouraging or discouraging to marketers is that these types of patterns are based on artificial intelligence but will ultimately be user-driven. So, there isn’t any specific change that can be made that will conform to a new algorithmic standard. Instead, businesses will have to think about what it is their customers want most and deliver it to them.
It’s ironic that artificial intelligence is making it more important for marketers to provide humans with a good user experience, but that seems to be the immediate future of SEO as supercomputers become involved.
#6 Hosting and Usability are the New Search Signals
Web hosting is often considered an afterthought within the process of web design and development. More often than not, businesses will choose the cheapest hosting package they can find unless they are talked into something better by the creative team they work with. However, that’s all changing as hosting power and usability are becoming major search signals.
This is perhaps the easiest of all the 2018 search engine optimization trends to understand. In this day and age, no one wants to wait for a website to load, or to dig through multiple menus to find the information they’re looking for. That’s particularly true if they happen to be using a smart phone or tablet, which you might remember a majority of your customers are.
It’s not surprising that people will leave a website that takes too long to appear on their screen, or one that happens to be off-line when they want to visit. That’s the opposite of a “good result” for Google, so it’s being more proactive about filtering out sites that suffer performance problems due to low-quality bargain-basement web hosting.
Two additional factors have to be weighed in, as well. The first is that shared hosting plans can be had for a few dollars per month. That encourages people with spammy websites to use those services. So, while one business owner might be running a completely ethical company, their virtual “neighbor” could be posting links to adult websites and online casinos. That could lead to an entire IP or server being blocked. In such a situation, a website might disappear from the search engine listings altogether (not to mention have problems of security, email delivery, etc.) because of something they didn’t do.
The second mitigating factor is that Google recently admitted SSL connections – which used to be the domain of banks and online retailers – are now being used as search signals for reasons of security and performance. So, if you want to encrypt connections to your website, improving your surge of visibility and making your business safer in the process, you’re probably going to have to improve your hosting subscription.
Search benefits aside, using better web hosting is one of the best ways to improve your website for a very low financial cost. It just happens to be in increasingly-important factor in SEO, as well.
#7 Marketers are Being Penalized for Over-Optimization
To this point, we have focused our attention on emerging trends and new technologies that are changing the way Google works. These are especially relevant because more than three-quarters of all North American searches start there, and because when Google sets a certain standard the other engines (like Bing and Yahoo) almost always follow suit.
However, there is a flip side to all of this progress. It’s not just that traditional search engine optimization techniques are losing some of their effectiveness, but that marketers are being actively punished for trying too hard to promote their websites.
This isn’t because Google has anything against businesses, small or otherwise. Instead, it has to do with the fact that actual searchers consider pages with repetitive keywords, low usability, and copied text to have little value. They don’t like seeing the same phrases used again and again, and aren’t swayed by thousands of links that originate from an obscure website somewhere.
To put it another way, there have been too many people trying to game the system. To help put a stop to that – and to keep their position as a leader in the search industry – Google designers have been tweaking their formulas to remove low-quality sites from their listings. These days, having too high a keyword density, copied or scraped content, and other red flags will cut off the flow of traffic to your website in a hurry.
Finding success in search engine optimization in 2018 and beyond is all about knowing your customers, giving them original and relevant ideas, and providing all in as useful a format as you can. Some of the old-school SEO techniques that used to be so popular (like keyword stuffing) run directly counter to that. They were also overused. Who can really be surprised they stopped working?
You can optimize your website for search, but you have to be smart about it. Simply having more SEO won’t do the job anymore – you need better.
Are You Ready for Search Engine Optimization in 2018?
Search engine optimization and marketing are changing in 2018. And for the business owners who are ready for the shifts taking place, that’s a good thing. They are getting more relevant traffic, higher conversion rates, and bottom-line efficiency. The marketers who are lagging behind are the ones who are getting hurt.
Traditional search engine optimization still matters, and there is both an art and a science when it comes to appealing to Google’s algorithm. Ultimately, your best weapon is a creative partner who knows not only how to finesse your site for visibility on search engines, but also what you can do to turn visits into leads or sales.
If you’re tired of struggling with SEO and online marketing – and want to start getting more from the time and money you put in your website – we encourage you to reach out to an SEO consultant at MicroD today. In just an hour, we can help you to review your current site and strategy and find a practical way forward. Contact us today to see how we can help!