The end of ‘top of Google’ 

The challenge: people are used to the notion of trying to get to the ‘top of Google’ – where search results are a linear list. But this is no longer the case. To provide the most relevant answers on an individual basis, search results pages differ enormously depending on who is searching, what they previously searched for, from where they are searching and other factors. There is no longer a single ‘top of Google’ spot.

The fix: where companies previously focused optimisation efforts on the volume of traffic, they need to shift towards quality of traffic. This means higher quality content that’s focused on what visitors want, promoted in engaging and relevant ways. This is a good thing, it’s targeted marketing that’s less wasteful in terms of time, money and effort. 

The rise of search results page ‘features’

The challenge: where someone searches for something which is relatively unambiguous (an extreme example is, say, ‘Adobe’) Google will give over most of the higher search results to aggregated/featured results for that search. In our example, this could be top tweets from Adobe, Adobe’s social media profiles, company information, common customer questions, associated searches (such as competitors) – and so on. While this provides a highly relevant set of results for the user, it pushes others down the search results.

The fix: focus on creating unique content that supports your business goals. Understand what your potential visitors search for, so that you can create content that’s relevant to those searches. Let go of vanity search goals such as a brand name for which you are a distributor, or highly competitive short-trail searches. Where you need to do this, use relevant, unique content. Create something the other brand doesn’t offer – because where you can’t compete, you can still always add real value. It’s also vital to ensure that Google can create aggregated content for your company – which it does using structured data.

Structured data

The challenge: search engines are doing more than ‘finding a bit of text’ – they want to understand your company, its products and services in order to make that information available and discoverable in different ways. One way is the search results page features above, another is for people to find things via voice search. More importantly, Google wants to understand what something is so it can provide the information at the right time. For example, if someone is job-hunting, Google wants to show that person pages which it’s sure are jobs.

The fix: ‘structured data’ is the name given to information that is organised into elements which Google can understand. Without it, every page is just a page. With it, the page could be a product, a job, a service, a special offer, a meal, a person… and so on. In order for Google to do the best with your content, it must understand what the content is. As well as providing structured data for items such as products and services, you can provide structured data so that Google can build search results page features for your company: your social media channels, your people, your products and so on. 

Preparing for a Web without websites

The challenge: the Web is moving beyond being a collection of pages and websites that we think of in the traditional sense. More than half of Internet users access websites using mobile devices and increasingly information is requested via other devices – especially voice search (using Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant and Siri), where users won’t even be aware of a ‘website’ as such.

The fix: websites need to be ‘mobile first’ in terms of design and incorporate the structured data (yes, that stuff above) that’s needed to support voice search. In terms of mobile devices, this has a significant impact on how websites are designed/created, because the desktop version of the website is now of secondary importance. Many websites are ‘mobile friendly’ but far fewer are ‘mobile first’. In terms of other devices, while this is a new frontier, it’s not one which is going away. It’s foolish to wait until it’s established, websites need to embrace other forms of access now and then adapt as things evolve. Think this isn’t big? Amazon has already sold over 100 million Alexa devices.

Linkless backlinks

The challenge: while website popularity was (broadly) based on the number and value of links to that website, it was relatively easy to measure and understand. But now Google is starting to count ‘mentions’ of a brand/product/service as if it was an inbound link, even if there is no link. Indeed, this is part of a deeper strategy to assess popularity and activity from the broadest range of real-world measures, using increasingly sophisticated AI. 

The fix: an increasing percentage of successful search optimisation comes from being active online, engaging with people, not just broadcasting. You need their mentions, their likes, their retweets and comments. You can drive social activity with great content and responsible interaction – and also with smart publicity campaigns, advertising, promotions and more. Google’s drive towards linkless backlinks is part of a larger strategy to get companies to shift their efforts away from search optimisation as a separate, often technical (and sometimes tricksy), activity, to focus on great content, marketing and engagement.

Original, unique content

The challenge: the same as it ever was: to attract website visitors, get them to engage and get them to buy. Lots of companies are competing for attention. 

The fix: same as it ever was: Google has always consistently said that content is the most important part of search optimisation. They say, “Your site’s content should be unique, specific and high quality. It should not be mass-produced or outsourced on a large number of other sites. Keep in mind that your content should be created primarily to give visitors a good user experience, not to rank well in search engines.” It couldn’t be clearer. This isn’t just great search optimisation advice, it’s great marketing advice. True, it’s a challenge that more companies than ever before are producing content; there’s a sea of content out there. But the really good stuff – the funny stuff, the educational stuff, the informative stuff, the unique stuff – that’s what really works. That’s what creates engagement. That’s what gets shared. Indeed, more than anything else, great content is the single most important provider of strong search optimisation.

Casting a wider net

The challenge: customers who are looking for either your content, or content related to your company, its products, services or solutions, are looking elsewhere. 

The fix: Go to where the party is. Customers look for content which either solves a problem they have or feeds their passion. For example, if they are comparing products or want to get something done, they might go to YouTube. You can create all kinds of useful content, but it will generally be more successful if you take it out to where people are, rather than trying to get them to come to your website. This shift in thinking from ‘getting your website to the top of Google’ to ‘getting your content in front of people’ acknowledges the reality that Google isn’t the only search engine. While people might search for ‘How do I…?’ videos on Google, they are also very likely to search on YouTube (the second largest search engine in the world). So that’s where you also need to place content, build an audience and engage with people. Don’t put your website first, put potential customers first. And, if you’re selling physical products, recognise that the world’s leading search engine for products is… Amazon. So, you may not just have to switch your marketing strategy, but also your sales strategy.

The explosion of video content

The challenge: getting a larger number of people to find out more about your company, its products and services.

The fix: provide the kind of content that people like. In 2017, according to Cisco, video accounted for 69% of consumer Internet traffic – and Cisco predicts that, by 2021, 82% of all Internet traffic will be videos. Videos are the most popular kind of online content by far. Anyone who is serious about search optimisation needs to invest in video, period – if you’re not investing in it, your competitors are. The calibre of the content is vital: it needs to be information people want: product reviews, case studies told as interesting stories, how-to tutorials – and even funny sketches. Production values are also important, as professionalism and polish create greater trust – and it’s important not just to ‘have videos’ but also to have content and production values that outstrips those of your competitors.

Tighter technical prerequisites 

The challenge: Google is getting pretty good at assessing the technical quality of a website – and is getting firm at upgrading or downgrading websites in search results based on this.

The fix: ensure that your website is as technically sound, in terms of Google’s current demands, as it possibly can be – especially in terms of the most important ranking factors. These include (but aren’t by any means limited to) having clean, well-written, modern HTML which validates using testing tools; fast page loading speeds – this comes from the kind of good, clean HTML that automatic website generation tools/website builders simply don’t provide, as well as good-quality hosting, having an SSL (secure socket layer) certificate so that your website traffic is encrypted and ensuring that your website is mobile friendly.

Longer content to draw organic traffic

The challenge: shorter, more succinct text has limited search optimisation potential – and social media content tends to wax and wane rather than be evergreen. 

The fix: create high-quality, keyword-rich, long-form content. In an age of shortening attention spans and video content, long-form content seems counter-intuitive – but it still has a valuable place in any search optimisation strategy. While there is always going to be debate between the value of short and long content, such a debate is meaningless – there is simply no reason why you can’t create both. In terms of upside, it’s worth noting that Google has a separate ranking mechanism for long-form content and that such content not only keeps people on a website for longer, it can increase engagement. Longer content tends to attract higher quality backlinks, especially when the topic has longevity. It can help establish you as a thought leader and builds credibility and provides an opportunity to explore a topic with the depth it deserves (such as this article does). 

Each and every one of these topics should be at the front of any organisation’s search optimisation, content-creation and marketing strategies.