If there’s ever been any question that SEO marketers need to put user needs first, 2013 was the year the search engines made it clear.
Nearly every innovation in search — algorithm updates like Google Hummingbird, SERP enhancements, social integrations — was aimed at creating a better experience for the searcher.
These innovations require SEO marketers to think more closely about the value their content creates for users and to take the technical steps that communicate that value to the search engines. Additionally, with an increasing shift toward mobile, it’s even more important that searchers can quickly find what they are looking for.
Google is leading the way in putting more information on the SERP, better organizing results, and adapting to spoken language. At the same time, Bing has been making innovations in its ability to provide accurate results to users, give more information to webmasters, and optimize for the Windows 8.1 environment.
Here are the key innovations in search for 2013 and how to stay ahead of the game as an SEO marketer.
Google Algorithm Updates Promote Better Content
Below is a review of the ways Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird affect SEO and what you can do for better performance.
Panda And Penguin: Fighting Spam For The Greater Good
After 25 tracked encounters with the content-spam-fighting Panda, Google said in March that it would no longer announce Panda updates. Then in May, Google announced the Panda Dance: monthly updates rolled out over a 10-day period. With unannounced updates, it’s harder to tell if you’ve been affected by Panda. Low quality content is no longer worth the trouble, even for short-term gain.
The 4th and 5th rounds of the Penguin update took its penalization of linking schemes deeper into the site, addressing more types of links. With Penguin, Google is saying the same thing for links as it is for content: they need to have value, a reason to exist other than to inflate rankings.
Google’s ever-broadening definition of spam is beneficial not only for searchers looking for information; it’s beneficial for SEO marketers focused on white-hat tactics and quality content, since it means their sites will rank higher as more spam gets filtered out.
Hummingbird: Semantic Search For The Masses
The rise in mobile, the increasing use of voice search, and the arrival of a new generation of young searchers untrained to search in keywords (partly due to the proliferation of tablets) could be some of the factors leading to Google’s most significant algorithm upgrade to date.
While most SEO marketers didn’t see an impact from the Hummingbird updates that were rolled out over a month before the late September announcement, Google’s new ability to effectively address conversational queries and match content based on synonyms further solidified the audience-centric content imperative. Danny Sullivan reported that there’s nothing SEOs need to do differently for Hummingbird: just continue focusing on high-quality content.
Creating high-quality content that meets user needs and optimizing it as you go makes SEO a more integral part of a holistic marketing process. To ensure your site doesn’t get hit by a black and white beast or a tiny bird in search of nectar, try these tactics:
- Think about topics rather than keywords when considering content creation. What questions does the page answer? Are there synonyms for the topic that can be used on the page?
- Seek out high-quality partners for linking. Make sure the link is placed in a context that is congruent with the topic.
- Try to get bad links to your site removed. If that’s not possible, use the Google links disavow tool.
- Hire qualified, capable partners for both writing and SEO. Just because someone is good at SEO doesn’t mean they can write copy that is clear and compelling, and most writers aren’t trained to do SEO. Ideally, content can be optimized as it’s being created from within the CMS.
Foster a teamwork culture for content strategy. Conceptualizing, writing, and placing quality content on Web pages that drive revenue is a team effort.
The SERP Of The Future Is Here: Knowledge Graph
The Knowledge Graph, launched in 2012, takes advantage of the Schema.org alliance formed in 2011 and represents a fundamental shift in how searchers get information. The structured data delivered in results often answers searchers’ questions directly on the SERP or offers them opportunities to better filter the results based on their preferences.
In 2013, Google expanded the scope of Knowledge Graph results, which usually appear on the SERP as an informational box on the right, information below the search box, or a horizontal carousel of results at the top of the SERP.
The outcome is the myriad ways results are now displayed. The Knowledge Graph benefits searchers by allowing them to see the value of a website before they click, or by providing them with the information they need without having to click at all.
The local carousel results with images, reviews, and a map provide a richer experience than the previous local-listings pack. In early October, BrightEdge research showed that a carousel appeared on results for 14% of keywords across all industries. It appeared on 33% of searches in Travel and Hospitality, and 27% of searches in the restaurant category. Research has also shown that Google reviews have an impact on placement in the carousel.
Since the future SERP is already here, the time to start engaging these capabilities is now. Below are two keys to making sure your site appears in Knowledge Graph results.
- Implement structured data and rich snippets. Structured data allows Google to organize the information on your website and deliver it in rich snippets that help you stand out from the competition
- Claim your Google+ and Google Places for Business pages. This gives you greater control over what the search engine reads and displays to users, such as images, hours, current menus, rates and promotions.
Social Signals Matter
The year started off with the release of Facebook Graph Search, which delivers personalized results based on social connections. This personal application for big data blends social, local, content, and business information into search results and offers another opportunity for marketers to engage with their customers.
With the release of Hummingbird, it’s expected that social signals will have more of an impact on Google rankings. It’s already been shown that increasing engagement on Twitter can increase search rankings, and Google Plus profiles and pages have an impact on ranking as well.
Google Plus, whether it’s for personal or business use, is an important source of structured data that Google can easily embed in search results, and it should not be ignored. Social is part of SEO, not separate from it, and the best marketing programs will promote a synergy between search and social for a holistic content strategy. Below are some additional tips for getting the most out of social.
- Participate in Google Plus, Facebook, and Twitter, whether you’re a business or an individual. Here, I offer some specific suggestions for getting the most out of Facebook Graph search.
- If you’re a business, don’t forget about LinkedIn. Here are some tips for optimizing your LinkedIn company page.
The New Direction In SEO: Page-Centric Search
Perhaps the biggest shakeup of the year was Google’s move to 100% secure search in late September. Though most SEOs had been watching the steadily rising percentages next to Keyword (not provided) in their analytics reports, no one expected it to come so soon. Yet, the most forward-thinking marketers were prepared; they had already shifted to page-centric analytics. We actually anticipated the move towards 100% secure search early on and closely tracked its evolution.
The switch to secure search concurrent with the announcement of Hummingbird is no coincidence. Hummingbird asks marketers to think more about the meaning of words on the page, and to create content around topics rather than keywords. After being trained by Panda’s systematic penalizing of low-quality content, marketers are now shown another doorway to quality in the direction Google sees search heading.
Voice queries, question-based queries, and a greater emphasis on the meanings of words rather than the keyword itself — combined with information from rich snippets and social signals — mean Google can do a better job of helping searchers decide which link will provide the information they seek.
With secure search, Google Webmaster Tools takes on new importance as it’s now the only source of keyword data from Google. While exact metrics on keyword traffic to the page are no longer available, integrating keyword impression and click data from Google Webmaster Tools with page-level performance offers a powerful tool for deciding which pages to focus on improving — based not only on their performance, but their potential.
Below are some additional actions to take in the face of secure search that will serve to solidify SEO best practices as you move your analytics focus to the page level.
- Understand your audience. Research who they are, what they are looking for in relation to your company and how they go about getting information. Personas are a great way to bring your audience to life and think about them beyond clicks and revenue.
- Optimize for multiple keywords. I mentioned synonyms above. Users are smart enough to know there’s more than one way to say the same thing, so a little variety in the words on your copy won’t turn them away and could help you rank better.
- Analyze the competitive landscape. Looking at who else ranks for your keywords can give you clues into what users are really looking for. Share of Voice tools help by giving you information about your competitors and showing you all the keywords their pages are ranking for.
Mobile Reaches The Majority
What comScore calls the “multi-platform majority” is now here: as of April 2013, more than half of US Internet users accessed the Web through both a mobile and a desktop device.
Our own MobileShare report tells us that mobile traffic growth is outgrowing desktop traffic growth. In June, Google announced that mobile-friendly sites would be favored in the rankings, and this year it also published guidelines for creating mobile-friendly websites. Google wants searchers to be able to find the information they need on whatever device they happen to be using.
According to a Google study, 81 percent of mobile searches are driven by speed and convenience, and are likely to encourage follow up actions, whether it’s making a purchase, sharing information, or visiting a location. The shift to mobile means that marketers must also consider the needs of the mobile searcher in their content strategy.
- Consider content relevancy. Mobile users want information quickly, at the top of a page. Consider how your pages can deliver information up front.
- Drive transactions. Because mobile users often want something in the moment, consider how you can drive a transaction immediately or facilitate an interaction later, such as emailing a link, sharing on Facebook, or saving to an account.
- Read additional tips on optimizing for mobile here.
It’s easy to forget that Google accounts for only about two-thirds of search volume, and Bing and Yahoo account for most of the remaining third. The pair have been holding steady in search share: in September 2013, they collectively accounted for 29.3 percent of search share, according to comScore, up one point from 28.1 percent in September 2012.
The release of Windows 8 in late 2012 and the adoption of the new Windows mobile devices could help Bing increase its market share, especially after the coming holiday season. The new Bing Smart Search for Windows 8.1 was designed for a touch screen environment, integrating different forms of structured data, maps, video, social results. Bing is also strengthening its voice query capabilities, now in testing on Xbox One.
In support of Smart Search, Bing Webmaster Tools released a Smart Search Preview tool. Bing also strengthened its social offering by adding Connected Pages to its Webmaster Tools, which allows website owners to view keyword referral data to social pages like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. And of course, Bing is currently the best source of keyword referral data now that Google operates in a secure environment. It’s important to account for Bing’s innovations and search volume in your overall SEO program:
- Note any differences in page performance. Click-throughs, conversions and revenue might vary from Google; thus, improving performance on Bing can boost revenue.
- Analyze the competition. Note differences in the competitive set in Share of Voice analyses, and research competitors that might not show up on Google.
- Use the Connected Pages feature to add your social pages to Bing. Track performance of social on Bing and use findings to inform future social campaigns.
Many brands saw these search transformations coming. At the end of last year, we reached out to thousands of marketers to find out what they sought to improve upon in 2013. We found that a whopping majority — 75 percent — highlighted that taking a page-based approach (as opposed to just a keyword-driven approach) is going to be an important factor in their SEO strategy. This year’s outstanding innovations by Facebook, Google, and Bing indicate that marketers were right on track with their intentions.
The search engines are working hard to deliver the best results to users, and marketers must work equally hard to get the right information in front of users in order to encourage them to convert. SEOs with technical and strategic know-how working together in a team environment to create an audience-centric content strategy will be the ones that stay ahead of the game in 2014.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.