I recently moved to Boston from Kansas, where I was working as a web developer and SEO specialist. Little did I know this move would turn my professional life upside down.
Last October, I was hired to analyze a website redesign for a prominent establishment in Massachusetts. The client had made a significant investment in the redesign and wanted to know if the project was yielding results. Armed with full access to their Google Analytics, Google Webmaster, YouTube channel, and Kaltura accounts, I was able to present them with a thorough report on their website. The web redesign had paid off, and almost all of their KPIs were trending up compared to the old site, but what surprised me the most was their SEO strategy. It was nonexistent—by design! They were not optimizing their website for search, and yet referrals from search engines represented more than 50 percent of their traffic.
How was that even possible?
Image attribution: Zoltan Kovacs
I discovered SEO in 2012, when I was building an online electronics store and wanted to find an affordable way to send relevant traffic to the website. Two years later, I was doing keyword research, backlink building, onsite and offsite SEO, and web development for a digital marketing agency in Kansas. My SEO war chest was packed with resources like Raven Tools, Screaming Frog, Google Search Console, Google Keyword Planner, and Google PageSpeed. The work was intense, repetitive, and time-consuming, but I always had the feeling that all of it was necessary—after all, the marketing gurus I followed said they were doing it too.
Suddenly, there were complaints about algorithm changes and penalties. SEO as we knew it did not yield the same results it once had. What if this method has plateaued?
I recently stumbled upon an article on Kissmetrics that suggested over-optimization of your website can hurt your SEO. I agree, but when does optimization become over-optimization? Is over-optimization even a thing? Surely you either optimize or you don’t, right?
According to Search Engine Journal, Bruce Clay coined the term “search engine optimization” in 1997. The article also suggests that SEO had many names in the past—website promotion, search engine placement, search engine ranking, search engine submission, search engine registration, search engine positioning—that make clear that the goal was to help websites rank higher on search engines. To be cynical, it meant tricking search engines into believing that a website had great content.
Twenty years later the search landscape has changed. Search engine companies have armies of software engineers, academic researchers, and editors; petabytes of search data and powerful data centers; billions in revenue; years of experience. In short, Google no longer needs all this optimization to understand your website; Google just needs the website with the most relevant content for their users’ information needs.
Image attribution: Priscilla Du Preez
Traditional SEO tactics simply don’t deliver the results they used to. Why? It’s simple: The web is a wildly different place today than it was even a few short years ago. In the early days of SEO, you could game the system. Today, it’s a lot more complicated.
We tend to see Google as a search engine, but it’s also the most popular browser (Chrome), the most popular email web client (Gmail), and the largest video platform (YouTube)—and for many of us, it’s also our smartphone, GPS, calendar, translator, file storage system, and more. As a result, Google has a large pool of data on every user, and this data feeds a machine-learning algorithm called RankBrain that determines ranking factors for individual users. Search engine results are personalized, which makes optimizing for all of your users much harder. Google engineers supposedly joke that no one can optimize for RankBrain.
Today’s web is all about multimedia; images, video, and audio are more important than ever.
During Google’s last I/O conference, they introduced Google Lens, which will allow anyone to search with their phone cameras. For example, you could take a picture of a restaurant and use Google to find relevant information about it. Google Lens can be integrated with Google Assistant for a more holistic approach. Whether Google Lens will catch on remains to be seen, since the technology is yet to be released, but other technologies that affect traditional SEO tactics, like voice-based digital assistants, are already widely used.
In the beginning, SEO ranking was very clear. A page that had a lot of others pages linking back to it signaled relevancy to Google. It was the Wild West of search—multiple links with strong anchor texts and you were good to go.
Not so today. In their book How Google Works, Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg explain that Google upgrades its searches algorithms as many as 500 times a year. On top of that, according to SEO RoundTable, Google employees provide search feedback up to 50 times a day.
Google is in it to provide useful information to its users (see: their manifesto). As Google continues to evolve their offerings, you have to compete with their internal products—like the Knowledge Graph, the Image Carousel, Google Maps, Google for Jobs, Google Shopping, and YouTube—that push organic search results further down the page.
If that’s not enough, you’re also competing with other apps and online platforms that offer specialized search. I recently asked a friend how he found his new apartment in Boston; instead of Google, he used Zillow’s mobile app.
Search engine algorithms are deliberately opaque. You can take advice from SEO gurus, but it’s often conflicting. One expert will say that you can have as many H1 tags you want; another will say it’s better to have only one. The point is that without knowing what’s in the black box, you don’t know what’s really working. Instead, you’re just measuring correlation. It’s a bit like the famous quip, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”
Mobile search has surpassed desktop search, and for people in many countries, a mobile phone was their first window to the internet. Mobile phones have less screen real estate than computers, so the text query becomes smaller, search engines return fewer results per page, and on top of that, voice search is changing query syntax—and the voice assistant will very likely return only one search result.
Image attribution: Jace Grandinetti
With all these trends changing traditional SEO, what should brands do? If you can’t game the system and trick search engines into thinking your site has great content, you actually have to (surprise!) create a site with great content.
It’s more important to build an authoritative brand around certain topics than it is to rank for keywords. Relevant, quality content and a good content distribution strategy matter, particularly at a time when users are increasingly directed to content through non-search channels like social media. For search engines, the time that users spend engaging with your content is an indication of its quality. Users will thank you for great content, and search engines will reward you in turn for your strong engagement metrics.
In that same line of thought, the user experience of your website affects engagement. Is the website loading fast enough? Is it mobile responsive? Have you been recently hacked? Don’t forget to look at your search analytics using Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster tools.
Brands can also influence the search queries themselves by focusing on branding. A great branding strategy that builds name, product, and service recognition will influence search users to include your name in queries.
Last but not least, basic SEO work is still necessary. Marketers are so focused on keyword rankings that we forget that before Google can establish a ranking, it must crawl and index a website. Make sure your site is crawlable; SEO Roundtable and the Google Webmaster Guide are both great resources.
Traditional SEO may be dying, but the SEO mindset is not. SEO professionals are optimizers with one goal: to get their pages better rankings on search engines. They’re always on the lookout for new trends in their field and are not afraid to try emerging tactics as long as it improves their ranking. Their obsession with UX and quality content is proof, and while they may not be writers or front-end developers, they’re willing to branch out to achieve their desired result. They will patiently research content ideas and responsibly audit their websites.
SEO professionals are creative in their search for loopholes. Yes, search engines have gotten smarter and most techniques no longer work, but SEO practitioners understand that as long as the search engine is not an omniscient AI machine, there will always be a way to exploit it. The rise of fake news is a good example. How could articles from such disreputable sources rank so high? It’s in part because user engagement signals quality.
As SEO continues to change, there are questions that must be addressed. How is possible to rank for a keyword when you don’t optimize for it? How is it possible for a website to achieve a good ranking without an SEO strategy? The answer is simple, if not always easy. Build a reputable brand, earn the trust of the search engine, satisfy search users, and create a great user experience. SEO no longer has a rulebook. Instead, it offers a choice: help search engines help their users or become a better spammer.
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Featured image attribution: Silvestri Matteo