Additional reporting by Jon Simmons
In the cold winter of 2016 we sensed an ominous change in the lives of search marketers. They were not involved in many of the content marketing conversations that Skyword was having with marketing teams. Where had all the SEOs gone—were they excluded from our calls? Or were they declining our meeting invitations?
For a simple and elegant explanation to our question about SEO and search marketing priorities, we reached out to the leaders in the space. The story arc that unfolded told of major consumer trends reshaping the old world of search marketing.
It’s taken over a year to synthesize our knowledge into a fable worth telling. We hope you enjoy it, and we welcome your comments.
Black magic is in the air.
Backlink building and keyword stuffing galore—these are the SEO’s tools. With the power to lift content rankings on Google’s search engine results page, the SEO is driving exposure and—most importantly—revenue for his brand.
Sure, the way he’s getting results might be a little shady, but can you blame him? Google has held its ranking algorithm behind closed doors, and he’s just trying to figure out what will drive clicks. He’s revered by his peers in the marketing industry and among brands across the world for his success in cracking the code. He’s buoyed by a sense of self-worth.
It’s February 2011 and Google, whose mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” is none too pleased—because, well, much of the content that SEOs are elevating in Google’s search engine results page is blatantly self-promotional and useless.
Repeat content, low-quality pages, and non-authoritative sources run rampant, and content feels irrelevant—like it was written by a robot. People are getting sick of finding terrible content through the search engine they’ve grown to love over the past decade, and the search world is growing increasingly complex, with major market competitors like less-than-two-year-old Microsoft Bing slowly but steadily stealing more of users’ attention, striking a deal with Yahoo! Search. Perhaps most importantly, social media consumption is on the rise; Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have become everyday destinations by 2010, and upstart channels like Pinterest and Instagram are reinforcing a major shift in the way people discover information.
Google wants to take back control of its kingdom.
So it does.
Imagine: You’ve spent your entire life in marketing achieving results through a set of practices that work, and then—practically overnight—the rules change. Google has introduced Panda 1.0, the major algorithmic update that algorithmically (and manually) isolates and penalizes weak content; even popular websites like Cult of Mac and brands like Mahalo and Suite101 begin to sink in rankings. Two years later, and after numerous smaller algorithmic updates, Google will introduce yet another core ranking update: Penguin—this time aimed at punishing SEOs for unnatural linking practices—buying links, keyword-heavy linking, and links on overly-optimized anchor text.
Suddenly, the power of getting discovered through Google’s SERP has shifted. Quality, relevant content floats to the top—weak, gamed content is identified, scraped, and drowned. The tools the SEO has built his career on are no longer guaranteed to work.
As Ian Lurie, CEO of digital marketing agency Portent, says: “Are we hoping for a magic formula? Because there isn’t one.”
The witch hunt had started.
Go to Google and search “Google in 1998.” What do you see?
Mostly, a list of blue links that comprise the original search engine results page. To this very day, this composition of links has been the heart of Google, the place where people find what they’re looking for, and the place where SEOs have worked their magic.
Over the years, Google has added features to the SERP to enhance the user experience—to make the searcher’s search for information quicker and more relevant. Among the changes to its ranking algorithms, the changing SERP has allowed the SEO to gain back some of what he lost when cheap tactics to drive pageviews stopped working.
Really, Google’s SERP has never stopped evolving, though marketers tend to think of it as a static page of blue links. In 2000, the year it became the world’s largest search engine, Google introduced ten new languages versions (today you can search in over 150). Since then, they’ve introduced many of the features we take for granted today, such as images, videos, maps, sponsored links, and the Knowledge Graph. When the company purchased YouTube for $1.65 billion in 2006, it signaled to the world a trend that continues in full force today: online video.
Most recently, Google’s removal of right-hand-side ads, placing a fourth sponsored link on the top of the SERP, has shifted an even greater responsibility on SEOs to drive organic clicks.
With all of these changes, it’s no wonder why Noah Lemas, VP of client development at Distilled, thinks the ever-evolving SERP is the largest challenge for search marketers. “If it is reasonable to presume that a fundamental shift in search is ongoing, then the single most important SEO trend today certainly involves the necessary adjustment to growing traffic and/or conversions without the traditional SERP front of mind,” Lemas says.
The good news is, as Google has improved its user experience year after year, the volume of search queries has exploded, resulting in huge opportunity for the SEO. Today, it maintains over 100 billion searches per month.
But where are those searches coming from? In 2015, Google announced that mobile searches had surpassed desktop searches, a date SEOs knew was coming but many had put off preparing for.
“The percentages of mobile vs. desktop audiences have been so historically low that we didn’t prioritize mobile for a long time, and it’s just changed that much more since,” says Derek Edmond, managing partner and director of marketing strategy at KoMarketing. “Now, a lot of our clients are in that 15 to 20 percent [mobile audience] range, some even higher, so it’s becoming more of a priority. They’re not thinking about images; they’re not thinking about the context, navigation, usability—all of these things and how it works with respect to link building, sharing, all of that stuff.”
What’s more, apps, social media, and voice search have all caught fire as people rely on their mobile devices for every part of their digital lives—content being the common thread between all channels. Of course, this means the SEO must think beyond the traditional SERP and become an expert in content marketing.
“Search marketers need to broaden their charter beyond just optimizing for search engines, and optimize for the places their customers are most likely finding them in,” says Collin Colburn, a researcher on Forrester’s B2C Marketing team who focuses on search and discovery marketing.
And with mobile the new standard, SEOs saw the perfect opportunity to make the transition from search marketer to content marketer.
The rise of mobile search happened both slowly and suddenly.
For the industry outsider, it might seem like smartphones became ubiquitous overnight. One day their morning commute was filled with newspapers on the train, the next, people staring down at their smartphones.
But search marketers had been dialed into this trend for years. In February 2011, the same month that Google released Panda 1.0, it unveiled its first guide to making mobile web pages faster. From here, Google began cranking out mobile SEO updates—the iPhone, after all, was four years old at this point, Android three, and users were searching on their phones more than ever. From 2011 to 2015, the year mobile searches surpassed desktop, desktop search volume grew 53 percent. In the same timeframe, mobile search volume grew by a whopping 336 percent.
Clearly, the opportunity for search marketers had been getting bigger for years. So why did many fail to capitalize on this growing trend? In large part, it comes down to another major digital marketing trend that dovetailed the rise of mobile search: social media.
“Mobile search results are dominated by social signals, and for good reason,” says Noah Lemas of Distilled. “We are increasingly communicating via social apps (with such apps beginning to replace SMS and VOIP), meaning that more of mobile use is centered on social.”
For a group of marketers who for years seldomly prioritized content creation, much less on social channels and apps, it’s no surprise that social’s profound impact on SEO would stand as a huge challenge for search professionals. Sure, Google contradicted itself as to whether social content affects search ranking, but the impact on the percentage of referral traffic coming from social and how much people were engaging with and sharing content via social media was clear.
To get ahead of this trend, brands began hiring social media marketers and content marketers well-versed in multiple digital marketing disciplines: social media, SEO, and writing skills. In fact, there was a 1357 percent increase in social media positions posted on LinkedIn between 2010 and 2013.
Since 2011, the number of content marketing jobs has risen by 350 percent.
At the same time, according to a 2016 study by Blue Nile Research and SEO management company Conductor, SEO job postings dipped 7 percent.
To complicate matters even more for the SEO, the Google “Mobile Friendly” algorithm update drastically impacted mobile search presence for many. Suddenly in April 2015, search marketers had to optimize all web pages for mobile with responsive design, or risk major search penalties. In a matter of months, half of the US top 100 domains by SEO visibility that failed at the time of Google’s update made the leap to mobile optimization.
In October 2015, Google introduced its Accelerated Mobile Pages Project (AMP), once again confirming the company’s reinforcement of fast-loading mobile pages. “Google has defined AMP as a ‘joint mission to improve the web for everyone.’ If they believe that AMP improves the web, then it only stands to reason that it will be increasingly impactful . . . and a necessary component of effective mobile search strategies going forward,” says Lemas.
The good news? SEOs have caught on. According to a new study by SEO PowerSuite, which surveyed nearly 400 SEOs across North America and Europe, “23 percent have already begun to implement AMP on their mobile sites today, while an additional one-third of those surveyed plan to implement AMP in the next six months.”
For search marketers, mobile was not just another channel. It signaled a shift in the way people were living—a more social, instant, and on-the-go world. It was the device that illuminated what people wanted through their digital lives.
Midway through our tale, and nearly to the present day, our SEO has hit a turning point. From his perch at the top of the world before the introduction of Google Panda, he’s been battered by forces outside of their control: the ever-changing SERP, the rise of social, and the increasing prevalance of mobile search. Now a new breed of digital marketers—the content creators and the social media mavericks—is stealing his spotlight.
Will our embattled hero rise again? The story will continue in Part Two.
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Featured image attribution: Trevor Cole