The last few years have seen turbulent change in the world of search engine optimization (SEO), and Internet marketing as a whole. Google’s Penguin and Panda updates changed the meaning of content and links within the search algorithm. The use of schema emerged as an important search visibility topic, disappeared, and then (almost secretly) came back again. Things like content recency and site authority became search signals, while old-school topics such as keyword density and anchor text faded into the background.
With all of this change going on, it’s no wonder that business owners have been left feeling almost dizzy. They know they have to keep doing what they can to attract visits from Google, but many aren’t sure which supposedly “best practices” they should follow. It doesn’t help that a lot of SEO gurus no longer agree with one another about the present, much less the future.
In the midst of all of this confusion, however, there is one thing that’s easy to say with certainty: 2017 is going to be a game-changer when it comes to establishing and maintaining search visibility for your small business. The owners and managers who are prepared are going to get a bigger slice of Google’s 2 billion daily searches than ever before. The ones who can’t seem to understand or keep up with the changes are going to fall farther behind.
To make sure your company lands on the right side of things, let’s take a look at the five reasons this is going to be a huge year for search engine optimization, and what you can do to prepare…
#1 Competition for the Top Search Spots is Intense
No, it’s not exactly news to say that search engine optimization is a competitive sport. But, many business owners don’t realize just how intense things have gotten.
Some estimates suggest that the Internet doubles in size every few months. There are literally billions of new pages going online every day. Many of them won’t pertain to your business or industry, of course, but some will. And given that Google likes current search results better than older ones, that flow of fresh content could be a threat to your bottom line.
The best way for a small business owner to stay ahead of the competition on Google is to reduce the size of their market. That is, don’t compete with all the websites out there that are related to your industry. Instead, focus in on a certain type of buyer, geography, or niche section of your market. There, you’ll likely find that you only have a handful of real competitors, and that you can separate your company from theirs with some targeted branding and offers.
If you don’t know what your business is about, or what kind of individual would prefer your products and services over someone else’s, that you don’t have the basis for a successful search engine optimization campaign. It’s only when you understand your target audience inside and out that you can put together a set of keywords, landing pages, and content updates that are bound to resonate with them.
By shrinking the size of your market, you aren’t cutting yourself off from new sales. Instead, you are differentiating your company, and marketing plan, from all the rest. Once you do that, it’s easier to figure out where your sales are going to come from, what kinds of actions prospects are going to take, which search terms matter to you, and why your offers will be compelling.
Competition for the top spots on Google isn’t going away. It’s only going to get more intense, and require you to invest more time and money into keeping ahead of the game. That’s only going to work if you’re playing in the right field, though. To do that, you have to narrow things down and know where it makes sense to compete in the first place.
#2 Artificial Intelligence and Semantic Search are Overtaking Algorithms
Every time Google announces a major change to its search algorithm, the online marketing community goes crazy. However, the company is currently in the process of re-imagining the way searches are conducted from the ground up and very few business owners have taken notice.
The biggest reason has to do with the fact that this particular change doesn’t have a cute zoo animal name. It doesn’t even change the search formula in a predictable way. Instead, it’s more of an abstract re-tooling of Google search algorithms that will have far-reaching aspects.
This huge groundbreaking shift we are referencing has to do with the introduction of artificial intelligence and semantic search technology. These changes are already being integrated into Google search mix – through RankBrain and other tools – but they are taking a bigger role that is leading us in unexpected directions.
When Google first launched, the search engine had to rely on a set of fixed indicators (such as keywords and inbound links) that determined page content and relevance. In essence, it was a scoring system that determined whether one page was more relevant than another based on set criteria. That scoring system could be altered through algorithm updates, but it was always an equation that could be manipulated.
With the rise of search engine optimization as a science, though, and the growth of the web at such a rapid pace, there was never going to be a formula that would keep up. It was only a matter of time before marketers figured out how to put less relevant or useful pages at the top of the search results for given queries. That might have been good for them, but it wasn’t good for Google or its users.
The answer to this conundrum has come in the form of supercomputing power. Now, instead of relying simply on formulaic scoring, Google can use artificial intelligence to determine the intent behind a search, watch the way users interact with specific search results, and then re-shuffle future queries based on what it has learned. All of this has the effect of making the world’s largest search engine smarter, while also reducing the importance of keywords, links, and other search signals.
In addition, Google’s artificial intelligence is evaluating web content on a semantic level. That means it can crawl an entire site, looking for language patterns, synonyms, and other clues to derive context and authority. In that way, it can determine whether one search result might be superior to another, even if exact phrase matches aren’t present. This is once again great news for searchers, but presents challenges to small business owners who have typically relied on a focused attempt to promote certain keywords to their content and internal link structure.
How can marketers adjust to a semantically-driven and artificially intelligent search platform? They can start by incorporating a more organic content strategy. Longer articles using natural language phrasing (instead of keyword-based writing) are going to fare better in the future, especially if they are coming on a weekly basis. This will tell searchers and search engine spiders alike that the site is relevant, authoritative, and has lots of great information around a given topic area.
We’ve already seen that Google will punish websites that are over-optimized with too many links or too many repetitive keywords. Going forward, it’s safe to assume that pages with great content that attract lots of viewership and engagement are going to outperform those that are geared narrowly towards a particular search term.
#3 Usability and Hosting are Major Search Signals
Web hosting, page speed, and related factors have been minor search signals in recent years, similar to meta descriptions or keyword matches and domain names. However, a focus on user engagement and mobile technology has changed all of that.
Now, it’s become clear that in 2017, Google is doing more to promote websites that load quickly and cleanly. Moreover, it’s search spiders are showing a clear preference for “shallow” content that doesn’t require users to click through several different menus or navigation bars to find the information they are looking for. Spokespersons for the company have even admitted that SSL connections (which used to be used almost exclusively by banks and online merchants) are now considered as a search factor, as well.
What can we make of all of this? The obvious answer is that Google is showing the need for speed based on the fact that more than half of all web users now go online through phones and tablets. To those customers, speed and reliability are important. That makes those traits important to Google, as well.
Looking a little deeper, though, we can see that engagement and usability are all part of the experience a searcher encounters when they click through to a result. With so many choices, someone who is looking for information or answers is going to prefer a web destination that offers them convenience. Security, pages that load quickly, and ease of navigation all feed into that.
The implications for small business owners who want to improve their usability are going to vary depending on specific circumstances. For some, it might mean redesigning a website altogether to make it easier to dig through. For others, an upgrade might be needed so that the design is responsive and displays beautifully on smaller screens. We’ve worked with many companies lately who have realized they needed to upgrade their hosting package, both to add SSL connections and to make their websites faster.
Depending on the current state of your web presence, you might choose to take all of these actions or none of them. What truly matters, though, is that you stop thinking of usability as a buzzword, or set of best practices, and start to evaluate the flow of traffic through your website. The better your pages perform, and the easier it is to get from one place to another quickly, the more your search engine visibility is going to improve.
#4 Local and Mobile Searches Have Gone Independent
In the past few years, we’ve seen local search engine optimization take off, and mobile compatibility become a much bigger factor in determining the results a particular query will deliver. Specifically, we’ve seen that companies without responsive and mobile-friendly websites are disappearing from searches that originate with phones and tablets altogether.
These two shifts have special significance because they are related to one another, but also because they represent almost entirely new search markets. To understand what that means, and why it matters, let’s take each of those points one-by- one…
Local and mobile search are related because they gained importance at the same time. Once it became possible for people of all ages to carry around an Internet connection in their pocket, there was no longer much of a need for the Yellow Pages and other printed directories. No one needed to look up the phone number for a friend when they could simply tap it on a screen. And why look up local businesses by the size of their ads when you could go online to find current hours, driving directions, and even customer reviews?
It’s also fair to say that both local and mobile search have almost completely broken away from Google’s “traditional” desktop search model. In the case of searches with geographical keywords, or for queries that suggest a preference for a local vendor that’s obvious. If you pull out your phone now and search for a chiropractor, or ask Google’s voice app to show you the closest bagel shop, you aren’t going to get anything like Google’s normal search page. Instead, you can find local companies, complete with locations on a map, reviews from buyers, operating hours, and other details.
The separate nature of mobile search is a little more insidious. Google won’t tell you that it’s excluding non-responsive websites from its search results if you look something up from your iPad (for example), but that’s exactly what is going to happen. Or to put it another way, the businesses that are excluded aren’t being given notice that they're missing out, they just aren’t being presented within the search results.
While these represent some of the most profound shifts to come to search engine optimization, they are also the easiest to deal with. As already mentioned, it’s imperative that any small business that wants to market itself through the Internet in 2017 have a responsive, mobile-friendly website. Otherwise, you’re going to miss out on half or more of all the search traffic that could be coming your way.
To target local buyers, you need to make sure the right geography-based keywords can be found on your website. These might include city and state names, or neighborhoods in which you operate. You should also incorporate driving directions, ZIP Codes, phone numbers, and other details about your address. These will help to further enhance your local search visibility, not to mention bring customers to the front door of your business.
#5 Online Reviews Are Affecting SEO Twice
Typically, people think of online reviews for their business as something that affects their reputation, but not necessarily their search engine optimization campaigns. That view isn’t just wrong, it’s a little bit shortsighted.
To help understand why online profiles and reviews directly affect your SEO campaigns, you only have to search for a popular business in your neighborhood on Google. What you’ll find, along with their website, will likely be listings for the company on Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other forums where customers can share their impressions. In many cases, there will be star ratings and previews of customer feedback displayed within the search listings themselves. In other words, buyers will see these even if they don’t click on the result.
This is important because it means that the more websites your company has profiles on, the more search engine positions you can take up. If your business can be seen on 4 different platforms that all have a high PageRank, for instance, you might show up in five different places (counting your own website) in the first page of Google’s search results. That’s a great way to shut out your competitors and keep more traffic coming to your website.
It also matters because each of these profiles is going to provide a back link to your website, and corroborating details that Google can further reference to determine your location. As long as your address, phone number, and other contact details are consistent, you’ll be easier for customers to find. More important, though, is the effect that online reviews have on clicks and conversions. If potential buyers read good things about your company all over the web, they are far more likely to click through to your website, regardless of where you appear in Google’s listings. And naturally, they are also more likely to contact you or make a purchase if independent third parties have nothing but great things to say about your products, service, or pricing.
Search engine optimization isn’t about getting more clicks from Google – it’s about having customers find you online and then deciding to do business with you. Having positive reviews posted on multiple different websites helps you achieve that goal, both by boosting your visibility and making your campaigns more efficient. If you really want to help your search positioning and your bottom line in 2017, set up profiles on every website that’s relevant to your business and then get your best customers to say good things.
It’s a New Era for SEO
Search engine optimization is always changing, and the top spots on Google represent moving targets. Not only do the formulas and best practices for gaining a new visibility shift from month-to- month and year-to- year, but competitors are always trying to get ahead of you at the same time.
If there’s one thing that’s already clear about 2017, it’s that these trends are only accelerating. It takes a lot of work to get out in front of the other marketers out there, get buyers to visit your website, and convince them to take action. But, if you can stop relying on old ideas and embrace what works today, the rewards are well worth it. There’s more search traffic than ever to be had, and the opportunities are endless.
If you’d like to work with a creative team that can help you take your website and Internet marketing plan to the next level, contact us for free consultation today and see how we can help!