The Brave New World of SEO: Beyond Websites
We hear it regularly – the death knell tolling for SEO. In the past several years, we’ve been bombarded by a barrage of change in organic search, from Penguin to Panda to Hummingbird, from inbound link penalties to [not provided]. Let’s face it: the only constant in search is change.
But I propose that SEO isn’t dead by far. In fact, the role of SEOs is expanding rapidly, and the reality is that we now have to look beyond just the company website. Let’s review some of the ways search has changed in 2013 and take a look at how those changes have impacted the role of search marketers.
Just how important did mobile become this year to organic search? The most recent research from Walker Sands indicates that mobile traffic now accounts for 28% of website traffic, up a whopping 67% year-over-year. At his Pubcon keynote in October, Matt Cutts shared the statistic that YouTube’s mobile traffic had grown from 6% of total site traffic in 2011 to 40% in 2013. Clearly, mobile’s importance is growing dramatically.
But what does this mean for SEOs? Mobile presents unique new challenges for us. Google has made several key points about how mobile search will differ from desktop search, indicating that some sites will be essentially “penalized” on mobile SERPs if they are not well configured for mobile:
To improve the search experience for smartphone users and address their pain points, we plan to roll out several ranking changes in the near future that address sites that are misconfigured for smartphone users.
What the growth of mobile means for SEOs is that we can no longer just focus on website optimization from a single angle — now, we must also consider additional criteria (or sometimes an entirely different set of criteria) to ensure that same site ranks in mobile search as well.
Just a few weeks ago, Google also announced that they now have the capability to index information housed within mobile apps just as they do for websites.
To index mobile apps, similar to websites, you must create and submit an XML Sitemap to Google Webmaster Tools.
Google then indexes the pages in the Sitemap and reads and ranks that information appropriately, allowing searchers to deep link directly to that information within the app. Great!
But what that now means is that SEOs need to be involved with the app developers as well, ensuring that the content created is optimized appropriately and that the XML Sitemap is being updated as app data is updated.
In a story last year, Inside Mobile Apps estimated that the iTunes App Store and Google Play each contain nearly 700,000 apps. Apps certainly can be expensive to develop, so once you create one, you’ll want to ensure that mobile device users can find the app and download it.
Mobile app discovery could essentially be considered another area of search engine optimization, both with the addition of app indexing in Google mobile organic search and within the search platforms of the iTunes App Store and Google Play themselves. As apps continue to be developed and added to these platforms, searches get more crowded — how can an app be found in the clutter?
The greatest challenge that mobile app discovery within the app platforms presents to SEOs is that the algorithms work completely differently than the Google and/or Bing search engine algos. It’s something SEOs may need to embrace as app development continues to grow and even expand beyond typical mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets to wearable technology such as Google Glass and smartwatches.
Hummingbird & Conversational Search
When the Hummingbird algorithm was announced back in September, SEOs everywhere were wondering what the algorithm change meant for the future of SEO. Hummingbird’s foundation lies in conversational search, in which searchers ask search engines questions rather than enter short keyword phrases, and Google interprets the query and processes it accordingly (also known as Ask Jeeves circa 1998). Conversational search has long been a goal of search engines, but the rise of mobile in the past year has made conversational search even more important.
In a study from last year from Google, researchers determined that because it is more difficult to type on mobile devices and the keyboards on mobile devices aren’t as easy to use, users won’t spend indefinite time searching for something specific; rather, they would simply try some other means of getting the information they want.
With the addition of voice search to mobile devices, however, searching became faster and easier than typing on the mobile device. Microsoft has also taken up voice search and even applied it to other devices, like the Xbox One, which features voice search for Bing. While the searches are focused on entertainment results such as movies and games, it does open the Xbox up to become a search device, like Google TV.
Hummingbird simply makes better use of conversational search and the relationship between words, which means that SEOs must now think more holistically about how information (and the relationship between pieces of information) is presented for indexing. No longer are we optimizing for a keyword phrase — now we optimize for words and relationships.
The Knowledge Graph
I would be remiss in mentioning the Hummingbird algorithm update without mentioning the Knowledge Graph in the next breath. If there’s anything that might impede SEO, it’s not Hummingbird — it’s the Knowledge Graph. Why?
Google’s mission states:
Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
Notice that nowhere in that mission statement does Google state that its mission is to provide websites with clicks. Google’s mission is “information-based” — not website-based.
For the past three years, every study I could find reported that visitors spend nearly double the time on Facebook as they do on Google. But to be fair, that makes sense. Facebook is designed to be a place of sharing whereas Google has traditionally been a site where you find the information you need and leave. And for years, Google tried to make your searches even faster, through improvements such as Google Suggest/Autocomplete, and Google QuickScroll.
Both improvements were designed to help searchers find an answer faster, in turn ensuring time on site would likely be shortened as searchers found their answers and clicked away from the search engine.
Why does Google care about the time-on-site statistic? The faster that you find an answer in organic results, the less likely you will be to click on an ad in paid search results. Google AdWords is the financial engine that keeps Google alive. In Google’s 3Q2013 SEC filing, Google AdWords accounted for 93% of the company’s total revenue.
But what if Google could provide the information you search for — your answer — directly on Google.com? Would it mean you would stay on Google.com longer? Would you use Google as your “information resource” versus clicking to another site? Knowledge Graph accomplishes this goal.
But what does the Knowledge Graph mean for SEO? On the one hand, there’s a great opportunity to be a resource in the Knowledge Graph — to be the site that the Knowledge Graph links point to.
On the other hand, as in the example above, searchers who queried “Marie Curie” who might have normally visited the Wikipedia entry listed first may find their answer instead in the Knowledge Graph box. This saves the searcher a click but also robs Wikipedia (and the other sites on this results page) from having a potential visitor.
As the Knowledge Graph continues to evolve, SEOs will have to be very strategic about how to incorporate this reality into optimization efforts.
What It All Means If You’re An SEO
All the changes mentioned throughout this column suggest that SEO is becoming a much more holistic practice than ever before.
Now, SEOs will need to have a hand in all things marketing (if they didn’t before) to ensure that all of the hard work and investments a company makes — from websites to apps to content — can be found. Otherwise, what’s the point in creating it?
There’s a brave new SEO world out there. Go grab it.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.
(Some images used under license from Shutterstock.com.)
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