What Works for Organic Search in 2017
Wow, has this post been dogging me.
I’ve been wanting to write about 2017 Search Marketing trends and the potential impact of Google changes since, oh, Christmas, but I just haven’t been able to connect brain to keyboard. And it finally dawned on me that the reason I’m struggling so much is….
…. I have no idea.
Ok, that’s not totally true, but these days, Google has invested in, pre-announced, confirmed, and dumped so many search-related initiatives that every lawyer digital marketer has an opinion but no real way of gauging future impact. Those of us in the day-to-day latch on to occasional Google tweets like stockbrokers trying to divine minutes from a Federal Reserve meeting. To whit, Gary Illyes from Google, (channeling E.F. Hutton):
Thank you for that tidbit, Google.
OK, so now that I’ve whined about it, let’s break down 2017 into what we know, and what’s worth watching but still speculative:
What We Know:
1. Optimizing search is still incredibly important. In some categories that we work in such as Hospitality, its emerging that search is statistically the most important source of traffic. The worst thing that can happen when you do search is you’ll end up with a much better understanding of where your traffic comes from, what your visitors care about, and what your brand’s competitors are doing to win, or lose. A regular review of search terms can inform your marketing team about the language your customers use to describe your product and the benefits that they expect it can deliver.
2. Content should be written for users and search engines. Yes, Google’s algorithm changes are moving in the direction of semantic (contextual) content and less keyword dependence. However, more than 50% of search queries still have keywords in their title tags. The days of ‘just be yourself’ and create content for the user are coming but keywords and how they are used are still a factor. And while keyword density is no longer a factor, having long-form, relevant text content is (See Google Panda).
3. Back-linking remains an SEO staple. High-quality inbound links trigger important ranking signals including number of backlinks and link authority.
There are industry people who believe that link building is no longer important, which we don’t understand given Google’s recent Penguin 4.0 algorithm update, which is all about links. In virtually all of our campaigns, more and better inbound links lead to higher rankings.
4. A good mobile experience is now table stakes in the SEO game. If your site is part of the dwindling 15% of sites that get a poor Google Mobile-Friendly Test score, stop everything else and fix it. If you’re already in the good bucket, you’ll get some extra credit by improving mobile site loading speed, since that is now the defining speed ranking factor.
5. Secure sites (https) rank better. Google is out to make security a priority and has stated that security is a ranking factor. This may seem unnecessary for your average brand site. However, it’s a good trend to jump on (you may have noticed that Chrome flags all http sites as ‘site not secure’).
In short, today, do the basics well and you should be just fine.
Worth Watching But Still Speculative:
1. Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMPs).
In its quest to dominate mobile web-based searches, Google has rolled out AMP, an open-source platform that enables the creation of super-fast loading mobile pages (4X faster, 8X lighter). Google favors sites that use this protocol and is giving them some extra visibility. However, the tradeoff for speed is flat, boring pages – part of the reason it still remains to be seen as to whether AMP has staying power and becomes a mobile platform standard. Nonetheless, there is enough there that we are testing it.
2. Voice Search.
According to Google more than 10% of all searches are voice searches and 50% of teens use voice search daily (which tells you where that’s going). Clearly, voice is a good thing for the mobile age and certainly has lots of potential, including in your house (Google Home, Amazon Echo). It also makes sense that the way searchers speak (“where can I rent a large, blue bicycle?”) is different from the way they type (“rent blue bicycle”). However, its unclear how much and how SEO approaches need to change to address this. Google introduced conversational and context-based search in 2013 (Hummingbird). How to specifically address SEO opportunities for web and mobile as this aspect of search grows remains to be seen. Keep it high on your watch list, though.
With the 2015 introduction of RankBrain, Google moved to incorporate artificial intelligence and machine learning into its algorithm in an effort to improve search context. As users introduce new conversational searches, RankBrain learns them and make subtle, continuous changes to the algorithm. With these changes Google is more accurately able to handle the millions of permutations of searches for a particular topic and to better understand context. There is more to RankBrain but the details will give you a headache. Google is expected to provide an update and on it sometime in 2017.
There are many other initiatives that we are tracking such as structured data (arguably could have gone in the do-right-now list), changes to local search, video and more. In the end, the only trend we know will continue is the blistering page of change set by the company that owns 80% of the search market, an incentive to remain king, and the money to invest in multiple trial-and-error initiatives.
More from the front lines later.