Search engine optimization evolves and changes all the time.
Every year, certain methods are embraced by the SEO community as “must-have tactics,” while others get pushed to the brink of history thanks to Google’s algorithm updates.
In light of this, SEO is perceived by many as a never-ending battle between search engines and SEO professionals who continue to puzzle out updates to gain more traffic and increase SERP visibility for a short while.
But is that really the case? How exactly does SEO work?
In this article, I will provide my perspective on the SEO landscape today, list several fundamental principles that search engines adhere to, and share my understanding about the inner workings of SEO, and why combining multiple tactics through trial and error is the only way to successfully drive your campaign.
Today’s SEO Landscape
Before I get down to the nitty-gritty, let’s get a broader perspective of what is going on in SEO right now.
If we search for [income lawyer new york] on Google, here is what we see first:
And then this:
We only see actual search results halfway down the first page. Then, even more ads and more related search terms.
What it comes down is this: Google and other search engines suppress organic results from search.
Although Google still displays 10 organic results per page, they are designed to draw attention to ads, answer boxes, “People also ask” sections and other widgets.
It is hardly surprising that organic CTR has dropped by 37 percent since 2015 and will apparently continue to drop heading forward.
While the competition to get listed organically keeps heating up, SEO professionals need to up their game in 2018 in order to survive.
Here is where learning which principles are working right now may help you out — provided you can figure out how to combine them to your website’s benefit.
Fundamental Principles of SEO Today
1. Links Still Rule
Links have been important from the earliest days of SEO and are still one of the strongest indicators of a website’s superb performance to Google.
The more high-quality, relevant links you acquire, the higher your website’s SERPs will potentially become.
In short, links are still fundamental to SEO.
It makes sense to invest in link building as part of your SEO efforts.
2. Relevant, Optimized Content Wins
The links vs. content problem is somewhat like a chicken-or-egg dilemma.
You need content to attract links, but your content needs links to boost your site’s ranking in search results and to help drive traffic to a content piece.
Eventually, what it comes down to is this: Links and content are the backbone of SEO.
If you want to crack the first page on Google, you need links to your relevant, well-optimized content.
Here are some things to bear in mind when crafting and optimizing your content:
- Keywords matter in context.Keywords are still of strong relevance to Google, but instead of scanning the page for “keyword appearance,” its crawlers now analyze the context and related secondary keywords that share the searcher’s intent.
- Titles, meta descriptions, ALT attributes, H1 tags, and URLs are still important. Include targeted and relevant keywords in these elements.
- Increase your expertise, authority, and trust (E-A-T). Read Google’s search quality guidelines for guidance on content quality. Google states, in part, that “the amount of content necessary for the page to be satisfying depends on the topic and purpose of the page.”
In short, establish a process to produce and share high-quality, optimized content. Ensure that all content is written for humans, yet optimized to feed data to search engines.
3. UX Signals Have an Impact on SERPs
User experience (UX) plays a substantial role in how your website does with the search engines.
Unfortunately, user experience depends on too many factors (e.g., site infrastructure and layout, content, etc.), and is often too hard to measure.
Figuring out where your site lacks from a UX perspective can be a painful experience. Thus, some SEO pros choose not to deal with it whatsoever.
Yet, if you want to win your SEO game in 2018, mastering UX is what you need. You can partially outsource the design and layout parts of the process, but you will still have to:
- Ensure that dwell time and CTR are high, and bounce rate is low. While these signals have been around for some time, and Google does not use them as direct ranking factors, optimizing your site for high engagement can’t hurt and could even help indirectly.
- Improve site architecture. The key part here is to improve a website’s navigation and make sure that search engines can crawl all the pages, and users can easily find a page that they are looking for. “The simpler, the better” approach works perfectly here.
- Optimize for speed. Regardless of the platform, your site has to load in 2 seconds or less. Image compression, code and structure optimizations, and faster servers will help.
- Attract a UX professional to optimize customer journey in line with user intent. Since SEO has evolved to become more user-focused, you should work together with UX people to provide great digital experiences at each stage of a customer’s journey. In other words, your goal is conversions and sales, not just traffic and leads.
In short, UX optimization has already become a fundamental part of SEO.
Focusing on the visitor will likely play even more important role in the future (since Google becomes smarter and clearly improves for a user’s sake), and you need to learn at least the basics of it.
4. Mobile SEO Can Make or Break It
As Google is determined to use its mobile-first index to rank and display search results on all devices, it is time to finally polish your website, mobile-wise.
Unfortunately, although Google’s move makes sense (with more than 50 percent of traffic worldwide generated on mobile), making your site perform smoothly on both mobile and desktop is not simple.
You will also have to make your content consistent across desktop and mobile devices, and ensure your website is fast and easy to use.
What it all means:
- Optimize your content for mobile users.
- Accelerate your page speed.
- Enhance mobile-friendliness.
In short, you will need to up your mobile game or you’ll find yourself ranking poorly on Google.
5. Voice Search Is Already a Thing
Although I do not believe that voice search will revolutionize SEO in the near future, customers seem to love it.
Northstar Research reports that 55 percent of U.S. teens and 41 percent of U.S. adults use voice search.
According to Google, more than 20 percent of all mobile searches are voice searches.
With that said, it makes sense to start optimizing for voice search now.
Specifically, you can start with these steps:
- Optimize content by using natural language (i.e., more long-tail keywords aligned with searcher intent) and answering questions.
- Optimize for featured snippets.
- Create and markup FAQ page (use Question and Answer schemas).
In short, while voice search optimization is not a must-have right now, related optimizations make sense and can help you own more Google real estate.
Combine and Experiment Through Trial-and-Error
SEO success most often comes from best practices plus some trial and error.
Nowadays, the fundamental principles described above are for you to combine and experiment.
Unfortunately, SEO rules are not carved in stone. The rules and tactics change and evolve all the time.
There is no universal SEO formula; only trial and error can help you determine which SEO methods work and which do not for your particular website in your particular niche, at a particular moment in time.
The secret of SEO is simple:
You must learn how to combine and experiment with multiple methods, and then analyze the results, bearing in mind that all your work may go to waste due to Google’s latest algorithm update or what your competitors are doing.
In the process, you sift out well-performing tactics, while cutting out those that do not work anymore. Then, rinse and repeat.
In doing so, you will never end up with a linear SEO strategy which, however successful for a short period of time, can prove dangerous in a matter of days. Google is usually pretty quick to figure out when someone discovers a way to cheat their algorithms.
SEO is a never-ending, ever-evolving, multidimensional science. Every SEO would love to find the magic formula that could once and for all explain how SEO works, with specific rules and concrete equations on the table.
Unfortunately, SEO is too complex to fit into a template. Although it does evolve around principles and certain rules, its inner workings are all about analyzing and applying tactics that work and sifting out tactics that do not.
Bear this in mind, and keep a close eye on your competitors, and you will definitely succeed in search results. This is how SEO works, and will continue to work, until the process is completely outsourced to AI.
More SEO Resources:
Screenshots taken by Sergey Grybniak, March 2018