The days of using underhand tactics like hidden text and keyword stuffed title tags to influence search rankings may be rapidly retreating into the mists of time, but as much as search engine optimisation (SEO) is coming to reflect time-honoured good marketing practices, there is still a considerable amount to be aware of if you want your website to be in Google’s good graces.
Since 2011, when Google launched their first Panda update, designed to penalise sites that offered readers little or no useful content, the SEO landscape has been dominated by discussions of Google’s core algorithm and their additional filters designed to discourage spam.
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With Penguin, which targets unnatural linking patterns, soon to be a continuously updating piece of the puzzle and Panda now part of the main algorithm, the focus is beginning to shift away from what can cause Google to take a dim view of a site and toward what the search giant wants to reward.
Here are five SEO trends to be aware of and how best to take advantage of them.
Mobile first remains first priority
While optimizing for mobile search has been a fixture of SEO trend roundups for several years, its importance has never been greater, so much so that it bares repeating again as arguably the most important thing to be aware of.
Google’s blog post on the introduction of their Accelerated Mobile Pages Project notes that “smartphones and tablets have revolutionized the way we access information” but despite this, the upheaval in how we consume content hasn’t been reciprocated quite as emphatically in the content itself.
A remarkable number of websites – big and small – are still offering users clunky, often downright unusable mobile browsing experiences, and search engines’ patience is wearing thin. Last year saw Google go so far as to incentivise mobile-friendly pages with improved rankings, and the trend is only going to become more marked.
Google’s preferred mobile solution is a responsive site, which allows webmasters to focus on building from the mobile design upwards instead of worrying about creating two separate versions, as is the case with an “m site”. A responsive design is also advantageous in that it utilizes only one domain and avoids siloing SEO equity on one of the versions of the sites.
The knowledge graph will continue to expand
As paid adverts continue to encroach upon space formerly reserved for organic listings (more about this in our final trend), SEOs are constantly looking for new avenues to explore.
Google’s local listings offer some prime, above-the-fold positions to well-optimised brick and mortar businesses, using a slightly different algorithm to determine the ranking order. While only businesses with physical locations can leverage these opportunities, the knowledge graph, which most frequently takes the form of an answer box at the top of a search engine results page (SERP), is open to all.
While the answer box has been the cause of some controversy, as it can negate the need to access a publisher’s site at all, it’s unlikely to go anywhere in 2016 – in fact, quite the opposite.
The key to leveraging the opportunity presented by the knowledge graph is by offering a concise answer within a more comprehensive post regarding the topic to a question which which has yet to be assigned a box. Organizing the post in an easy to understand fashion, both in terms of structure and use of semantic markup, is also vitally important if Google is to take a shine to your page.
User metrics will see their importance continue to grow
With over 200 different ranking signals, Google’s algorithm is an immense mass of moving parts. The biggest of these over the years has been backlinks. Google’s PageRank system was built on the principle of counting links as votes for a page’s strength, with links from larger sites being given more weight than those from newly created ones.
While links are still arguably the most critical part of any website’s SEO, they are now one of several major factors rather than the be all and end all. With a recent update apparently putting a lot of emphasis upon user experience metrics such as bounce rate and time spent on page, Google is striving to reward pages that answer searcher’s queries in one go.
This makes sense from both ends of the spectrum. User metrics are much harder to game and manipulate than signals such as links, which helps Google eliminate sites that have got to the top via “black hat” techniques. For webmasters, it means less time worrying about finding new, novel ways to attract links to their site and more time spent optimising their content and improving their user experience.
There’s no “one size fits all” method for improving user metrics, but a good starting point is to use a keyword checker such as SEMRush that enables you to see which keywords are driving traffic to a certain page. This then enables you to optimize the page with the user’s intent in mind.
Voice search will trigger a change in query styles
Conversational search has added a new layer of complexity to search queries, with the rising usage of virtual assistants such as Siri meaning that we’re addressing search engines in a manner they’re not accustomed to.
The upshot of this is it’s becoming even harder to predict what form medium- and long-tail keywords will take.
Thankfully, as the ways in which we search have become more natural, Google and Bing alike have been gradually devaluing the power of things such as exact match URLs, title tags and anchor text and their ability to understand search queries phrased in different ways has improved.
This means that the days of creating five virtually identical pages to serve a narrow group of keywords are over. Instead, focus the effort that would have gone into making five alternatives into one, highly authoritative page.
Increasing AdWords presence and the need for diversification
As Google continue their drive to monetise their search results pages, SEO isn’t just about fighting competitors – it’s also about the greater battle for results page real estate.
Google are constantly testing innovations designed to offer advertisers more and more options, such as a drop down menu for their paid Product Listing Ads or adding another in-line AdWords result, which make the already scant presence of organic above-the-fold listings all but extinct.
This gradual encroachment of paid ads into the space once held by organic listings has meant that even the top positions for highly competitive search terms are nowhere near as lucrative as they once were.
While reports of SEO’s death have been greatly exaggerated – it’s hard to envisage Google ever doing away with organic results, particularly given the sheer quantity of work that’s gone into developing and refining their algorithm – it’s certainly becoming harder to achieve a significant payoff from organic traffic alone. Moz’s Rand Fishkin currently estimates that organic listings receive fewer than 70 percent of overall clicks from SERPs, and that number is only going to continue to fall.
With this in mind, it’s a relief that as Google have squeezed organic listings more and more, they’ve also tweaked their ranking criteria to better reflect user experience and time-honored marketing techniques, meaning that the work you put into your site’s SEO will also tend to directly benefit other aspects, be it PR, content, or user experience.