It never fails. You can even set your watch to it.
Every 12 months, some two-bit, hack journalist pens the brilliant headline:
“SEO IS DEAD!”
What follows, is usually some nonsensical drivel-inspired post written by someone who:
- Has never actually worked in search before (which means, no one has actually paid them money in exchange for their search expertise),
- Has no overall business acumen to speak of (because if they did, they wouldn’t be working in a dying industry for a dying company), and
- Sadly, literally has no idea what they’re talking about.
But here’s the thing:
Search-driven marketing isn’t dead.
In fact, it’s thriving. Here’s why.
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Think about it:
How do you find something today? It can be literally anything. You ask someone you know. Or you Google it.
(Sure, there’s a tiny, remote chance you once saw a TV spot, radio ad, or God forbid – billboard – that you miraculously remembered at the exact time you needed. But for the sake of argument, let’s focus on places people actively look for stuff.)
Before anyone buys from you, they will actively research your company online. This is the beginning stage where people are beginning to become problem-aware, and want to know about possible solutions (like your product, service, and business).
Google calls this the “Zero Moment of Truth.” How self-servingly convenient – I know – but it’s a crucial piece in today’s marketing environment.
And what’s interesting about this proactive research period, is the type of people who typically do it.
A few years ago serial tech entrepreneur Jason Calacanis wrote an article called “The Age of Excellence,” where he described how business markets have never been more connected, open, and transparent.
His basic premise, which I wholeheartedly buy into, is that with new options that provide “radical transparency” — like Yelp, the Apple App Store, Amazon reviews, Google’s Zagat ratings — there’s nowhere to hide for products and companies today.
Consumers instantly know if they should buy, pass and not purchase, or delay and wait for more information.
These hyperactive, influential consumers are the ones who care deeply, who don’t buy on price, and who will refer or stay loyal to you for years.
To win this step, and these profitable customers, you need to make it easy for people to discover you… which typically happens through some form of search.
What about the biggest forms of discovery? If you’re looking at something vertical-specific, like diapers or a hotel, then you go to Amazon, Expedia, TripAdvisor, et al. Otherwise, you’ll probably head over to Twitter & Facebook, which has had search baked in their technology since day one. Even Apple is getting into the search game with the evolution of Spotlight on OSX (when Mac users tap Command + Spacebar), which is beginning to surface real-time results and answers from the internet.
Guess what folks? Whether we’re talking about Google, Amazon, Facebook, or Spotlight, you’re still searching. The same mechanics are used to:
- Find information
- Classify that information
- Retrieve that information
All by using some key phrase or topic-based query.
So not only is search-driven marketing bigger than ever before, but at this rate, it’s NEVER going away.
That’s not to say it hasn’t changed. Or that your own search strategy needs to evolve accordingly.
But the way people find new stuff to purchase hasn’t really changed all that much.
What follows isn’t necessarily earth-shattering, but more a natural extension of this evolution we’re all experiencing and trying to adapt to. First, we’ll tackle five trends that have been developing over the past few years which have changed the way traditional SEO works. Then we’ll go over five principles (which are mostly opinions) about what you should do in response in order to adapt.
So buckle up, because pretty much the only thing that can be guaranteed for all of us is that we have no idea where this train is going, and the best we can hope for is to hang on tight.
Trend #1. Personalization
One of the most prominent trends in the evolution of search engines is personalization.
For example, your past browsing history dictates which results (and websites) move up or down in the Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs) you’re seeing.
That means the reason your own company’s website is now showing up on the first page — sorry to say — probably has more to do with personalization and the fact that you visit it every single day than it does for your SEO or marketing efforts.
The impact of this one trend is staggering because things we used to prioritize — like keyword rankings — now mean much less.
When everyone’s search results are personalized to their unique tastes and preferences, the idea of a standardized, uniform “keyword ranking” becomes absurd.
Besides your past browsing history, another key driver behind personalization is your physical location when searching.
Because now Google knows when you type in a generic, informative query like “Pizza,” you’re most likely looking for local pizza places (and not just a Wikipedia entry about the origins of pizza).
Google is increasingly using this contextual data to infer what you’re looking for (and almost more importantly, what you’re NOT looking for).
The other piece of contextual information that Google uses to tailor your results is through your social graph.
That means they use direct relationships (i.e., who you follow, like, and circle) as well as indirect relationships (i.e., the likes, mentions, and +1’s from the people who your friends may follow) to add another layer of filtering to the ever-increasingly complex SERP.
Unfortunately for consumers (but fortunately for companies), privacy online is a thing of the past. Every single thing you put on a free service, like Facebook, will be used against you by advertisers, corporations, and discovery platforms to improve the way people find what they want.
That means instead of just showing you local pizza places that you may have tried before, they’re going to recommend new pizza joints to try based on your (or your friend’s) interests.
Prediction is like the holy grail of search because they know what you want before you even want it. Believe it or not, THAT is valuable to you as a consumer because it makes your life simpler, easier, and less stressful (unless of course, the knowledge that technology companies know more about you than you think gives you stress). For them, it’s incredibly sticky, meaning you’ll come back and use their service because it’s the best possible solution. Which ultimately translates into the most long-term profit.
Trend #2. Qualitative Feelings, Emotions & Opinions
Historically, search engines mostly used quantitative data to determine relevance through the number of backlinks, quality of those backlinks, PageRank, and more.
The problem is that a lot of this information is one dimensional. Sure, it gives you a rough idea of relevance or popularity, but it doesn’t give you a complete picture of value.
So Google decided to do something blasphemous with the Panda update way back when… incorporate the opinions of real live human beings.
(They probably should have adopted this same approach when developing Google+, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Imagine real people physically looking at different websites and jotting down their thoughts, experiences, and feelings. They then answer a series of questions like, “Would you feel comfortable giving this website your credit card information?”, or “Would you trust medical advice from this website?”, that would provide a way to value intangible assets.
Why? Credibility. (Wait, you mean things like trust should be important in a transaction? Gasp!)
If we go back to the original purpose of how search works, to provide the best possible answer to a question, then it makes perfect sense. There needs to be something that provides additional insight into raw data collected.
While PageRank was a nice initial model, it was too static. Today, PageRank is virtually useless as a measuring tool because it can’t incorporate many of the latest evolutions from the past few years.
Trend #3. Real On-Site User Behavior
When AdWords was in its infancy, it was a pure auction where the highest ranks went to the highest bidders.
The problem is that the system became bastardized when clever (or manipulative) people began monopolizing popular search terms to hawk their wares to anyone who would listen.
Unfortunately for them, this violated the #1 tenant of search – providing the best answer – and was quickly eliminated by incorporating the AdWords Quality Score.
By incorporating a simple 1 – 10 ranking system, the Quality Score effectively dictates success by layering in extra information like the “expected clickthrough rate (CTR), ad relevance, and landing page experience.” (Fun Fact: That means while AdWords is still auction-based, people ranking ahead of you can actually pay less if they have a better Quality Score.)
Many of these examples also apply to search now, where a website’s usage data is used to influence overall value. One example is a combination of a page’s Bounce Rate, Exit Rate, and overall Time on Site which can tell you if users are finding what they’re looking for (or not).
There is also nuance at play. For example, a high Bounce Rate and low time on site for a lead generation page isn’t a bad thing (because you WANT people to convert quickly).
Trend #4. Disappearing Keywords
Starting a few years ago, Google began eliminating keyword referral data from Google Analytics (and other various analytics platforms).
That means most webmasters and website owners can no longer see which individual keywords are sending them traffic. Unless… people pay for that data in AdWords.
Gee, thanks, Google!
Conspiracy theories aside, it’s now virtually impossible to plan our SEO strategies and tactics around keywords alone. When you log into Google Analytics (or any other popular analytics program), your organic keyword data is getting lumped under a [not provided] label.
Coincidentally (or not), Google is also stripping away the ability to target very specific key phrases in their own AdWords platform — instead, forcing you to target a broader group of related phrases (and thus paying more for less targeted results).
Technically, there are a few ways you can be clever to infer what’s going on or hack together an ass-backward method of returning some of that data. But it’s not perfect, and the fly is on the wall either way. It’s only going to get MORE difficult to get our hands on keyword data.
To make life even more complicated, Google is using semantic-based search and machine learning to begin inferring what you’re asking.
Even though you’re asking for one thing, they’ll know you might mean another thing (and show you that instead). So how do we, as marketers, know how the person originally looked for our products or services? We don’t.
Therefore, instead of over-prioritizing individual keyphrase data, we should transition to focus more on the overall landing page and content performance. That includes:
- Researching groups of relevant, related keyphrase topics
- Figuring out where these might apply to potential customers in the buying cycle
- Setting up and tracking relevant business or marketing KPI’s (like revenue, leads, or page views) for these pages – instead of “leading indicators” like keyword rankings.
It’s not perfect. But it will have to do for now.
Trend #5. Mobilegeddon
At the end of April 2015, Google “officially” released an algorithm designed to reward sites that provide good mobile experiences, and effectively punish those that don’t.
Affectionately dubbed “Mobilegeddon” by some uber-SEO-nerds, this trend means someone using the same exact search query (i.e., “funny pug gifs”) will receive different results depending on what device they’re searching from.
I can already hear what you’re thinking… “MY customers don’t use mobile to search for MY products.” “That doesn’t apply to MY industry.”
Because your business is like a special snowflake, right?
In the last ~12-18 months, mobile has officially passed desktops for the number of global users accessing the internet. In addition, people on mobile devices are spending MORE time connected, searching, and consuming digital content than desktops.
Even before that, mobile usage has already influenced the latest contemporary design trends like flat, symmetrical, full-width websites. The roots of this are owed to the original iPhone.
Mobile devices have tiny screens, limited processing power (comparatively), and maybe one button. That forced designers to re-engineer and re-architect how people would navigate various web pages, and thus – how to put together the collapsible navigation schemes you see today. Responsive sites are built on top of a grid system that allows for more flexibility in adapting to various browsers, devices, and screen sizes.
That means good mobile experiences include sites that collapse and expand to remove the all-too-popular, but the all-too-terrible issue of having to horizontally scroll in and out like a madman (or madwoman – you can’t accuse ME of gender discrimination!) with your thumb and index finger.
Besides other positionally-related issues (like how buttons or links are spaced), mobile SEO also has a lot to do with what’s under the hood. This is why having a mobile-optimized site built from the ground-up is so important. Because if your site doesn’t take into account things like load times on small, less powerful devices, then it will wreak havoc for users who probably don’t want to hear your terrible auto-play videos crash their browser (I’m talking to you, ESPN).
We’re just in the first few innings of sophisticated mobile marketing (don’t you hate when people use sports references in business?). But seeing as the entire world basically has the same smartphone addiction of a preteen adolescent on Snapchat, then we should probably get on board and shell out a few bucks (or pence, depending on where you’re reading this) and make it a priority.
Phew, you’ve made it this far!
You deserve something nice. Please accept this gif:
Once you’re ready to begin again, let’s start connecting the dots.
If Google (and other search platforms – they’re just usually the most advanced technically) is bringing together personalized search, qualitative factors, on-site behavior, contextual topics, and now layering in mobile device information, that means we can’t just stuff some keywords and throw up some blog comment spam like it’s 2005.
Search is becoming more fluid and dynamic at a faster clip.
That can be a good thing or a bad thing.
It’s a good thing if you’re ready (and willing) to accept reality and try something new. It’s a bad thing if you want to keep your head in the sand and feign ignorance (or worse, you “know-it-all”).
Unfortunately for you and me both, it’s not the Wild Wild West of search anymore. Thank God, because that movie was terrible.
(After that Wild Wild West reference, I was looking for a clever Will Smith / Fresh Prince joke to add here for a nice little transition, but my brain is failing me. Maybe in Version 2.)
Principle #1. 80/20 Search Strategy
“SEO” is a nerdy industry. Insiders are completely obsessive, and oftentimes spend an exorbitant amount of time poring over Excel and doing other strange things that don’t make a lot of sense on face value.
However, many of them (the good ones, anyway) are very, very smart. And very good at what they do.
But guess what? You don’t have to be.
The first step is to STOP. Breathe. And relax.
Seriously… stop worrying so much.
80% of SEO best practices are overkill. If you try to go down that rabbit hole, you’ll hit a point of diminishing returns, get caught spinning your wheels, quickly exhausting the few precious resources you have. Instead, you need to get the simple things – the 20% – absolutely right, and then get back to what makes you so special.
Obviously, this advice is primarily geared toward business owners and top-level marketing executives, not the search insiders who have the time (and mind-numbing willingness) to spend 95% of their time obsessing over best practices.
If you’re dedicating upwards of $100,000 / year only on SEO, then yes, you and your team need to dig a bit deeper. But realistically, only ~1% of companies in the world are at that level.
This sounds like strange advice, but after the next few chapters, it will make a little more sense.
So what makes up the 20%?
- Proper index-ability (I’m not sure that’s a word)
- Scaling new relevant content
- Seamless promotion integration
That’s pretty much it.
The reason XYZ competitor is outranking you isn’t because they use keywords in their H2’s or they have proper “link profile distribution” – whatever the hell that means.
It’s probably because your site sucks in comparison. (Sorry, but the truth hurts sometimes.) Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees.
Yes, it gets more complicated. But that’s why you hire one of the aforementioned nerds internally, or a breathtakingly brilliant and beautiful team of experts to sweat the details.
Principle #2. Brand, First
There’s long been a quiet rumor about how Google gives big brands preferential treatment.
That’s because, well, they do.
But that’s not to say they don’t deserve it a lot of the time. Large brands have a lot of good things going for them (besides just money) that helps them (unintentionally) rank higher than new-ish, or small-ish competitors.
One of the biggest things is that they spend a significant amount of time, energy, man (or woman) power, and yes – money, on brand building, first.
Now don’t get me wrong, many large companies have terrible SEO presences. It’s almost like they’re intentionally trying to suck.
But guess what? The first thing you think of when you need new tires is Goodyear or Firestone. Why? Because they’ve been around (seemingly) forever. They’ve built great brands. Even if you personally don’t like their products, you at least know who they are.
So yes, it’s safe to say that Goodyear and Firestone are the best options for most people when it comes to tires. And because we’re living in the aforementioned Age of Excellence, “brand equity” or value matters. A lot.
Which brings us to the other thing large, successful brands do well – storytelling. Victoria’s Secret does NOT have the best products (don’t ask me how I know that). But they have freaking Angels!
Flawless, statuesque women who literally must be the epitome of what real Angels look like (I hope – otherwise all those years in Catholic School was a total waste) parade around in one of the most popular annual events (regularly bringing in around 10 million viewers).
Call it what you want, but it’s undoubtedly great storytelling.
So all those “soft,” “intangible” things we spoke about earlier, like branding, is a big deal. And this is why small brands continue to struggle – because they’re too focused on what they do, instead of what they solve for who they help.
That means if you have the word “my” in your domain, in most cases, you’re going to struggle. That means if you have a hyphen in your domain, you’re going to struggle. That means even if you have an exact match domain name (i.e., “SexiestSEOinCalifornia.com”) and you’ve killed it the past 10+ years, in the long-term, you’re still going to struggle.
Principle #3. SEO, Last
Back in the golden days of SEO, brand new companies with little-to-no brand recognition could start with SEO first, and make it big.
They could keyword stuff and purchase links until their little hearts were content. And eventually, make enough money to then diversify into other promotional channels.
Today, this strategy is no longer viable.
Not only does it not work, but the entire process has become inverted!
That means you have to start with other “Earned” and “Paid” channels (like partnerships, Public Relations, and Advertising) to funnel into your “Owned” ones (like email databases or social platforms) before eventually increasing your organic search presence.
This doesn’t mean you should prioritize search any less. To the contrary, the whole point of wasting the last 20 minutes of your life was to convince you otherwise. But it means that you need to start promotion with your brand and those other channels first, before worrying about classic SEO leading indicators.
While great SEO hasn’t changed all that much in the past few years… Bad SEO has.
Search marketing shouldn’t exist on its own in a silo or vacuum from the rest of your organization. The SEO process is dynamic and interrelated with other various inbound marketing methods (as we’ll see). And it’s not something you ‘set and forget.’ There’s a constant need to research, analyze, create, optimize, and promote. And then do it all over again.
So even though Google’s changes make it a little harder to figure out the minutiae of search engine optimization, it also forces you to be more holistic and focus on the big picture…
Forget PageRank. Forget backlinks. And forget keyword rankings for a minute.
Because none of that stuff really matters.
What matters at the end of the day is whether (a) you’re bringing in new, targeted people to your website on a consistent basis, (b) if these people are having happy first experiences, and (c) if — and how many of these people — are becoming a lead or customer.
Ultimately, improving those three simple things are what separates most companies from profitable growth and stagnating sales.
Not PageRank. Or backlinks. And definitely not keyword rankings.
Principle #4. Blended Strategy
One of my favorite recent SEO marketing mantras has been “RCS” — or Real Company Shit, originally coined by the brilliant Wil Reynolds of Seer Interactive.
Which basically means, the best SEO tactics… are always camouflaged behind the best marketing strategies.
Forget about links for a minute, and think about how big brands approach marketing.
Stop looking for loopholes, and start doing the work. Go back to the basics. Return to the 4-Ps. Run campaigns that coordinate publicity, outreach, advertising, and distribution or placement.
Focus on driving real business goals (like leads), build brand equity around your products and services (like loyalty and community), and the little things like “more links” will take care of themselves.
Because you can’t manufacture word-of-mouth. It happens, or it doesn’t. Depends on your brand equity (as discussed).
And if you don’t have millions in the bank to splash on flashy mass-media advertising, then brand equity will come as a byproduct of your operations and customer satisfaction.
Once those things are working properly, then SEO becomes 1000x easier.
Principle #5. Campaigns & Continuity Trump Tactics
Traditional advertising folks are going to roll their eyes at this one.
Because it sounds so stupid and obvious. But like most seemingly simple things, if it’s so easy, then why doesn’t everyone do it?
There’s been a growing trend over the last few chapters that should (hopefully) culminate here where the rubber meets the road.
When it comes time to implement, you need total buy-in across all various customer touchpoints.
That means a single campaign will combine strategic, creative, and technical expertise. It’s going to take content, social, advertising, PR, email marketing, and more to work together. Lastly (but hopefully not least), rooted by your business goals and objectives.
These days, the jargon du jour can be best illustrated through an “inbound” marketing campaign, where you blend:
- Offer (i.e., What)
- Channel (i.e., Where)
- Audience (i.e., Who)
- Creative (i.e., Why)
- Destination (i.e., When)
When executed properly, that means your Twitter updates or new blog post for a particular period of time relates back to that month’s campaign which was created directly to solve this quarter’s business objective.
(Opposed to what normally happens, where Tweets and posts are sent out haphazardly at the last minute to hit some artificial deadline or inane metric the HiPPO’s decided on this week.)
Once you commit something to writing today, you run the risk of looking like a hypocritical idiot tomorrow when new developments contradict everything you just typed.
That’s OK though because this short exercise you just read (or skimmed) is more of a working theory that will continue to adapt and evolve over time.
However, in the case that I am, in fact, made to look like an idiot (and haven’t had the chance to update this document yet), then here’s where you can get the good stuff:
Yes, there are countless other sources. A lot of them are very good. But chances are, you’ll find the first or best version of what you’re looking for in one of those places.
So despite the inevitability of me looking stupid (which seems to be the only sure-bet here), I hope that small errors are overlooked with respect to the main premise.
In today’s oversaturated world, the biggest problem (and thus, need) for businesses is discovery – which today (and in the near future) primarily manifests through a search-based platform or ecosystem.
And as long as that’s true, then the most successful businesses of tomorrow will have to stay at the forefront of those places today.
No matter how much, or how many times, they change or evolve again and again and again.
SEO is dead. Long live SEO.