The Future of SEO: 3 Ways to Get Ahead

Google Goes Mobile

Google is in quite the transitional period. The search giant plans to push mobile-first indexing sometime in 2017 (or soon thereafter), and the whole internet is jumping to comply. This move means Google’s mobile index will become the primary index, and exist completely separately from its desktop index.

Since more than half of searches take place on a mobile device, Google wants to ensure websites that have a mobile-friendly setup will rank higher in order to better serve those mobile searchers. This means that if your site isn’t responsive or dynamic serving, you could be falling behind in the SERPs. When we take into consideration mobile-first indexing, the major algorithm updates in the last few years, and Google’s venture into voice-assistants, it seems to indicate  larger trends for SEO–moving toward a more contextual network.

Decoding Semantic Search

It’s no secret that Google is doing its best to create algorithms and machine learning platforms that think like humans in order to better understand what we want. RankBrain, Google’s AI element of the Hummingbird algorithm update, indicates this move toward semantic search.

RankBrain is Google’s attempt to truly understand what a searcher wants when they type or say (in the case of voice assistants) a query. These elements help Google understand if a search for “java” is referring to a programming language, coffee, or an island. And, in terms of local, whether a search for “Chicago pizza” is a user looking for pizza near their Chicago hotel or a place in a city selling Chicago pizza.

Overall, the Hummingbird algorithm update was to help Google provide the most relevant query. In an SEJ article, Jennifer Slegg says, “It is believed that Hummingbird is positively impacting the types of sites that are providing high-quality content that reads well to the searcher and is providing answers to the question the searcher is asking, whether it is implied or not.”

Advent of Featured Answers

This move toward conversational search initially heralded the move toward semantics, perhaps for the sake of upcoming technology like Google Home. Panda also affected sites with low-quality content, serving up sites with higher-quality content that answered users’ questions instead. When users’ questions are answered by a certain type of high-quality site, Google now rewards the site with an answer box. These present the searcher with “the answer” to his or her query. The featured spot is a big deal. Hootesuite’s Zak Ramdani mentioned a third party study at the recent SEJ Summit which indicated that businesses that gained the featured snippet saw a 516% increase in sessions and huge jumps in revenue.

All of these indicate the beginning of a less link-heavy algorithm trend for Google. As Mike Blumenthal of GetFiveStars puts it, “As we move towards a mobile-first index, the lack of linking as a common mobile practice, towards voice search and single-response answers, Google needs to and has been developing ranking factors that are not link-dependent. ”

Penguin was Google’s first major crackdown on shady link building practices. As with any practice in SEO, once the masses discover an important ranking factor, they find the “quick and dirty” ways to achieve top ranking in SERPs. The Penguin update helped Google sort out sites who went after link building for the sake of link building, instead of doing it organically with high-quality shareable content.

Yes, Links are Still Important

Google developed PageRank to count each inbound link as a “vote” for your page’s content. PageRank is still a large part of Hummingbird, and therefore links are still a huge part of SEO. Moz’s 2017 Local Search Ranking Factors named Link Signals as the top localized organic ranking factor. For now, the internet is still a series of tubes: Google’s index is still reliant on links to crawl through sites and determine the best results for users’ search queries.

However, Google’s own John Mueller admits that mobile-first will have some effect on the link graph, though perhaps not a major one. SEO experts are still waiting to see how Google meshes the lack of links in mobile-first sites with how it currently indexes.

How Can Businesses Get Ahead?

Get a Responsive Site

First, get a responsive site (or a dynamic serving site, if your current site is too huge to load quickly on mobile). Not only is a responsive site mobile-friendly, but it carries all the link signals that your desktop site does because it uses the same URLs. You’re already killing two birds with one stone, just in case the link graph stays intact (because it probably will).

A separate mobile site really won’t help you get ahead. People often create their mobile sites in a leaner way than their desktop sites to increase loading speeds. This is good for users; however Johannes Selbach, CEO of SEOprofiler, says, “You have to make sure that your mobile pages contain enough content to rank your pages. If your mobile pages have less content than your desktop pages, your pages might get lower rankings with Google’s new ‘mobile first’ index.”

Similarly, Jenny Halasz recently commented during a presentation on mobile analytics at the SEJ Summit in Chicago, that while Google prefers AMP for fast-loading content, “Google can’t and won’t use AMP to figure out how to rank you.” AMP is more about UX than SEO, so it’s not a standalone fix for mobile-first indexing.

Google says not to worry about only having a separate desktop site: “If you only have a desktop site, we’ll continue to index your desktop site just fine, even if we’re using a mobile user agent to view your site.” But the bottom line is that your site potentially won’t rank as well as sites that are mobile-friendly.

Once you have a responsive site, optimize it for mobile. Optimizing for mobile includes making sure your site loads quickly, is easy to use, breaks elements in the correct places, uses mobile-optimized images, employs conditional loading, and more.

Answer People’s Questions

With even more people using voice search on mobile devices and accelerated adoption of voice assistants like Google Home, the featured snippet gives Google the ability to verbally answer a searcher’s query with the information websites provide. This is your chance to optimize for industry-specific queries and potentially be featured in the coveted “position zero.” Google currently features three types of answers: standard (paragraph answer), ordered lists, and unordered lists.

Believe it or not, not every query has been optimized for yet. Since we’re still at the inception of this contextual and mobile crux of search, there are quite a few answers Google pulls from what seems like the best site–not necessary from a site optimized for that query. This is the time to look at your industry’s FAQs and write detailed posts that help answer users’ questions about those topics.

Search those FAQs in Google as if you were a user and see what comes up as the top result. Look for an existing snippet. See what format Google prefers for that query. Is there a result at all? If so, is it a page that’s truly optimized for that result or one that Google just happened to pick to be the result? Based on the answers to those questions, that’s your chance to structure your content in a way that gets you that featured snippet.

Bill Hunt of Back Azimuth suggests SEOs take the next step and optimize answer lists with JSON-LD markup for even more of a chance at ranking in “position zero.” Hunt believes that even if Google makes changes that alter the landscape of the search industry, optimizing correctly will still help with click through rates, usability, UX, and overall content.

This goes back to the age-old digital marketing adage: Content is king. Ann Handley’s excellent presentation on, “Bigger, Bolder, Braver” content gets to the heart of the matter. But where do marketers get started? Handley suggests looking at your data to determine which content to pursue. Looking at queries in your Search Console or which landing pages drive the most traffic can be a great starting off point for bigger, bolder, braver content. Along the same lines, if you have call recording, listening to your sales and service calls can give you insights beyond what web analytics can provide into what could perform well as content.

By creating engaging content that answers people’s questions (maybe before they know they want to ask it), businesses can drive more traffic to their sites with the help of Google’s new formats. The key is to keep technical SEO in mind during the process. Perform extensive keyword research. Markup your content correctly. The goal is to answer people’s questions, but you need to rank in a position that gets those users to your site first.

Determine Searcher Intent

Even as technology and the search landscape changes, the base of what Google and other search engines are trying to provide remains the same. They want to supply searchers with the most relevant results for their queries. This seems easy enough from the SEO’s point of view. You can just see what keywords and sources of traffic are driving traffic to your site and calls to your business. However, there’s an element of intent that we can’t get from those sources of data.

The hidden element of user intent lies within people who want something that you have to offer–but don’t know they want it or don’t know that your product or service solves their problem. Part of the research delves into understanding why people search online to begin with. Google defines four “micro-moments” that determine user intent online:

  • I want to know…
  • I want to go…
  • I want to do…
  • I want to buy…

Looking into your data, you can determine what micro-moment you’re providing content for and perhaps which intent-driven searches you’re missing out on. Layer context onto those potential micro-moments, and you have the makings of potentially powerful content–not just for SEO but for users and your business, as well. Determine ways to be useful in those micro-moments, and you’ll be rewarded with more impressions, clicks, conversions, and sales.

The Wave of the Future

Mobile is the tsunami that’s happening right now. Google’s own data shows that “When people use mobile search to help make a decision, they are:

  • 57% more likely to visit a store,
  • 40% more likely to make a phone call, and
  • 51% more likely to make a purchase.”

It’s crucial that businesses get responsive sites to keep up with mobile-first indexing and create user-intent-driven content that answers queries in a way that can be verbally answered with voice assistants. As the aphorism goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” And so it goes for SEO, as well. As long as you’re creating high-quality content bent on serving the needs of searchers (with a few technical enhancements), you’ll keep ranking well and keep users delighted with your website. SEOs and digital marketers just need to ensure the medium through which users access their content is on par with Google’s changes.

To learn more about improving your search engine optimization campaigns and the benefits of call tracking for SEO, check out this guide on SEO tracking. To get started with call tracking and analytics, request your no obligation demo of CallRail, or go ahead and start your 14 Day Free Trial, no credit card needed.