2017 was a relatively calm year, at least in terms of major Google algorithm updates.
In 2016, we saw the advent of Penguin 4.0, Possum, a major Mobile-Friendliness update, and big changes to AdWords, to name a few.
This year, Google’s been relatively quiet since the “Fred” update dropped in March.
What we have witnessed, however, is a redoubled focus on creating the best user experience possible.
Trends like mobile optimization and machine learning aren’t going away anytime soon, which is why you need to understand these five critical SEO concepts as we gear up for 2018.
1. Mobile-First Indexing
You’re probably keenly aware how important it is to have a mobile-friendly website. Over 55 percent of all web traffic comes from mobile devices, and that number is only expected to increase. What you may not be aware of is that having a mobile-friendly site isn’t enough anymore – now you need to be “mobile-first.”
Google announced late last year that mobile-first indexing is going to be the new norm. This means that your ranking signals are now going to come from the mobile version of your site, not the desktop version.
In other words, it’s time to stop thinking of mobile as an adjunct of your desktop site and start prioritizing your mobile SEO first.
Here are a few practical ways to improve your mobile SEO:
- Take the Mobile-Friendly Test.
- Fix broken links and incorrect redirects.
- Compress any uncompressed images.
- Eliminate intrusive pop-ups and interstitials.
- Improve mobile usability (g., text size, viewport configuration, tap target size).
- Run an audit of your mobile site to find any additional site elements (g., structured data, title tags) you can optimize for mobile.
2. Semantic Search
The goal of Google’s Hummingbird update in 2013 was to improve search accuracy by better understanding searcher intent.
Today, semantic search has evolved even more, and search engines are better than ever at understanding query context and the relationships between words.
The goal of semantic search is for search engines to understand natural language queries better. So if a user asks Google “what’s it rated?” and they’re standing in front of a French bistro, ideally Google would be able to know that in this context “it” refers to the bistro and the searcher wants to know a star rating.
There are many subtle nuances to the mechanics of semantic search, but ultimately what it means for you is that an authoritative page that dives into one specific topic in-depth will usually rank better than dozens of pages built around different keywords.
That’s because one comprehensive resource is better at giving Google (and, by proxy, its users) all the context it needs to satisfy searcher intent.
Here’s how to build content that embraces semantic SEO better:
- Choose a broad topic that’s relevant to your audience. For example, a pet adoption center might create a page about different dog breeds.
- Ask questions that will help you discern searcher intent. For example, the page on dog breeds might aim to answer “temperaments of different dog breeds” or “easiest dog breeds to train.”
- Once you understand searcher intent, create content that matches. Make your resource as rich and in-depth as possible.
- Create additional landing pages to satisfy other searches that match user intent.
- Focus on creating “complete guides” and other comprehensive pieces of evergreen content. Include relevant short- and long-tail keywords wherever appropriate.
- Check Google’s Knowledge Graph for an entity* on your business and products. To do this, enter your brand/product’s name into the Query field, and click Execute.
*There’s no easy solution if no entity is found, but you can try using schema markup for your business and your product, creating a Wikidata entry for your business and product, verifying your social media accounts, and creating a Wikipedia article.
Try to feed Google as much info as you can!
3. Machine Learning
Machine learning is closely related to the topic of semantic search in that it’s a way for search engines to make “educated guesses” about what ambiguous queries mean and to deliver better search results as a whole.
RankBrain and other machine learning systems examine user behavior to deliver the “best” search results possible. Unfortunately, what’s deemed best for one query might not be the best for another, which makes machine learning very difficult to optimize for.
Best practice is to keep creating robust resources optimized for semantic search and user experience.
4. Featured Snippets
A few years back, Google introduced Featured Snippets to their SERPs, which aimed to provide users with “rich answers” – short, fact-based answers to simple queries.
There are many different types of featured snippets, but I’ll be referring to them all as “Featured Snippets” for simplicity’s sake.
Google creates featured snippets by analyzing trillions of pages to answer questions such as “When was the moon landing” or “How do I build a computer.”
Google’s goal is to generate answers in real-time via text, lists, images and even videos so that users can find answers without ever needing to click on a link.
Featured snippets are incredibly powerful because they occupy the coveted “position zero,” which means that they precede top ranked websites in SERPs.
Interestingly, the top-ranked website isn’t always Google’s source for their Featured Snippets. According to research published by STAT, about 30 percent of featured snippet URLs rank in Position 1 organically, while the rest are plucked from websites ranking between Positions 2 through 5.
How to make content that competes for featured snippets:
- Perform keyword research to target relevant questions that you could answer with simple facts to who, what, when, where, and why questions.
- Research featured snippet formats in your niche. See what’s ranking (g., tables, bulleted lists, videos, etc.) and think about how to create a similar resource.
- Create topical resources to answer these questions (e.g., a dealership might make a page to answer “how do I change a tire” while a bakery might address “what’s in red velvet cake”).
- Thoroughly research your topic.
- Provide a clear definition to the query as close to the top of your page as possible.
- Flesh out your answer with additional details. Create the most robust resource you can to answer follow-up questions your users might have on the same topic.
5. Virtual Assistants & Voice Search
The final SEO concept you need know about is the rising trend of voice search and virtual assistants such as Siri, Cortana, and Alexa.
Google reports that 55 percent of teens and 40 percent of adults use voice search every day. And, according to a 2017 study by VoiceLabs, 33 million voice-first devices (e.g., Amazon Echo, Google Home) are now in circulation – up from 8 million in 2016.
The meteoric rise in voice search and virtual assistant usage ties back into the prevalence of mobile devices people’s need for quick answers to queries while on the go.
You can already ask Google simple questions like “what’s playing tonight” when you’re looking for a movie to watch, but it won’t be long before virtual assistants are regularly responsible for booking restaurants and buying concert tickets.
Optimizing for voice search requires understanding how and why it is used.
An estimated 22 percent of all queries are for local content and information (as of 2016), which suggests that local businesses stand to benefit the most from voice search optimization. Discovering immediate answers to simple questions (e.g., featured snippets) is also a common use.
Some ways to optimize your content for voice search:
- Claim your Google My Business listing.
- Prioritize long-tail keywords and optimize for natural language queries.
- Address FAQs using comprehensive FAQ pages or dedicated landing pages that appeal to semantic search.
- Use structured data markup to give virtual assistants more information about your site.
- Use social media listening tools to find mentions of your brand and your products and address customer concerns.
As machine learning plays a bigger role in our industry, the future of SEO looks interesting indeed. We’ve now moved wholly away from stuffing the right keyword into a page description and toward providing bigger and better experiences for our users through our content.
I predict that 2018 holds an even greater shift toward mobile, voice search, and virtual intelligence than we saw in 2017. The best way to meet that rising tide is to double down on high-quality content – and continue pushing for more, better, and deeper content than ever before.
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