On average, Google makes about 500 adjustments to its search engine algorithm every year. Since the first Panda update in February 2011, though, many of Google's algorithm updates and other changes have been more ambitious and far-reaching in their impact. The net effect, in part, has been to elevate quality content over "thin" content, punish dubious link building practices and spammy sites and push digital marketers away from relying on keyword usage and performance data.
The changes are designed to improve the quality of search results Google delivers its users. For those who practice search engine optimization (SEO). However, the updates' collective impact has been at times confounding, frustrating and game-changing.
"I've been under the hood in this SEO game for over a decade, and I can't recall the last time the SEO community was this panicked," says Casey Halloran, co-founder and CEO of Namu Travel Group in Costa Rica. We dropped from the first page of search results to page 2 for our top keyword phrase, and we've been working to regain that position for about five months now."
Digital marketers in 2013 scrambled to keep up with all the Google changes, which included Hummingbird, a major overhaul of the Google search engine.
"Every time we react and recover from one Google update, there's another," Mike Huber, vice president of client services for content marketing agency Vertical Measures, said in a recent webinar. "It's like a game of Whac-a-Mole."
Given Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird and other big Google updates, are we moving into a post-SEO era? How will SEO in 2014 be different from SEO in 2013? What do digital marketers, businesses of all types and search engine optimizers need to do in the coming year to adapt?
CIO.com asked these questions to the SEO community and received more than 60 responses. The following is a sampling of opinions and tips from a variety of experts.
Are We Moving to a Post-SEO Era All About Content Marketing and Results Tracking?
1. SEO will always be with us. Says Brian Provost, vice president of digital strategy for Define Media Group: "SEO is like tax law. It's a set of compliance issues and strategies to optimize businesses around them. To that end, SEO will always exist as a practice discipline to market content." Smart businesses, he adds, have stopped playing "chase the algorithm," opting instead for metrics-based content creation "in line with market demand."
2. SEO has always been about content marketing. Brian Wood, senior marketing manager of SEO for Wayfair.com, says he thinks the content marketing trend is overblown. "This is what quality SEO has always been about. It only seems like a growing thing to people who were, perhaps, using spammy tactics that Google has since made more difficult.
The same SEO tool that white-hat SEO pros used last year will be used next year, Wood says. "That said, it's true that the quality bar is getting higher as more and more sites focus on producing quality content. It's also getting harder to earn links with good content as bloggers are inundated with great stuff."
3. SEO and content marketing are becoming synonymous. "If you play by the rules, you can't have one without the other, SEO consultant Christian Sculthorp says. But traditional SEO will always have a place, he adds. "People underestimate the work that goes into keyword research, tagging each page [and] website structure. There's much more to SEO than simply spamming links."
4. SEO basics will never go away. Adam Barker, senior inbound marketing manager for SmartBear Software, admits that SEO has changed: "Content is the new way to optimize and drive traffic." But you still have to prepare your site through keyword research and basic on-page SEO, he adds. "This is laying the tracks for the train to come through — and making sure you have the right train coming, through keyword research, is still just as important as it was before."
How Will SEO in 2014 Be Different From SEO in 2013?
5. Search engines will get smarter. "Search engines are rapidly developing the intelligence to discern between websites that provide value from sites that create the illusion of value," says James McDonald, ecommerce analyst for Lyons Consulting Group. "If you [only] think of SEO as a series of HTML, link building, and keyword tactics that enable a site to rank better in a search engine, then yes, we are well on our way to a post-SEO era." Why? The next generation of SEO specialists will eschew those techniques, McDonald says, "and will instead dominate search rankings by consistently creating relevant, engaging and detailed content."
[ Related: 8 Things You Need to Know About SEO ]
6. Social presence will be more important than search. This trend, evident in 2013, will only be more apparent this year, says Ian Aronovich, president and co-founder of GovernmentAuctions.org. "It's not that search rankings and the SEO era are over," he says. "It's still worthwhile to put resources into SEO. But having a strong social presence is becoming more and more reliable in driving traffic and building brand awareness."
That's because people can quickly share content across social media networks, especially Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn, Aronovich says. "If you put out content that people are willing to share, you can get way more eyes on your company and brand in much less time [when] compared to waiting for search engines to update their listings."
7. Determining what ranks, and why, will be more complicated. Copley Broer, CEO of LandlordStation, expects a lot of time and effort devoted to sorting out what type of sharing and content move the needle for Google rankings now and which don't.
Flipboard, the mobile content aggregation app, is a good example, Broer says. Being indexed into Flipboard's bot so your content pops on Flipboard is important — but it's nearly impossible to tell when readers view your content on Flipboard unless they click through to open it in a browser. "How do you know if Google thinks that content is important if you can't tell how many people are seeing it?" Broer asks. "Does Google's Hummingbird search engine overhaul take Flipboard directly into account, or are you only impacted if someone shares your content from Flipboard to Google+?"
8. In 2014, SEO will be all about mobile. David Finkelstein, director of worldwide marketing for KEMP Technologies, notes that more than 40 percent of emails are now viewed on a mobile device. "Email remains the killer digital marketing app that can … create the viral marketing effect like no other app," he says. "SEO and associated content optimized for the mobile platform that connects to other apps via open APIs will continue to be the biggest trend, and challenge, to marketers."
Wood, of Wayfair.com, says mobile search is the big shakeup, as it's growing faster that desktop search (which is also growing). "At some point, we can expect Google to start heavily weighting a proper mobile site … and to weight speed, speed, speed. Ultimately, nonresponsive desktop sites or mobile sites that are only a portion of the site content are a bad user experience, and Google doesn't want to deliver that." Wood doesn't know if the mobile ranking overhaul will come in 2014 — "but when it does, sites without a quality, comprehensive mobile solution are going to be scrambling."
9. Local will continue to be big. Austin Melton, onsite SEO supervisor for SEOSalesPro.com, expects to see Google and Bing continue their trend of localizing search results. "[This] will spell the death of the 'national' search in many verticals," he adds.
10. Natural language queries will be more important. Daniel Laloggia, digital marketing manager for Walker Sands Communications, says the biggest trend for SEO will be trying to take advantage of Hummingbird, which is less a change to Google's algorithm and change to the engine that drives Google.
Google wants people to be able to "talk" with the search engine the same way they would talk with anyone else, Laloggia says. Users, meanwhile, want Google to parse sentences and understand their intent. As a result, the focus on individual keywords should fade in lieu of a more keywordtheme approach to content creation. "In other words," he says, "1,000 keyword variations on a theme should be less important, while great content built around the hub of the keyword theme will become more important."
11. The role of SEO experts will evolve. "There will be a continued rebirth of SEO agencies as content marketing or inbound marketing shops. It's already started to happen," says Chad Pollitt, director of marketing for DigitalRelevance. In addition, the marriage of SEO and traditional public relations will represent another SEO trend, taking the name "digital PR." Finally, Pollitt says, expect marketing communications and PR departments to swallow up SEO departments.
What's Your Best SEO Advice For 2014?
12. Identify your customers' biggest pain points by asking sales and support team members for feedback. "That means those questions aren't being addressed on your site," says SmartBear Software's Barker. "Write your content plan around those pain points and questions."
13. Stay honest. "Focus on generating high-quality content, creating a website that really serves your users and avoiding old link-building tactics entirely," says Namu Travel Group's Halloran. "If you build a 'killer app' of some sort, you'll most likely attract quality links regardless."
14. Be an authority, don't talk about yourself, and be better than your competitors. "Don't just have another company blog using announcements that nobody wants to read. Add value. Educate your target audience," says Adam Connell, marketing manager for U.K. Linkology. "Tap into influencers within your market sector and use them to distribute your content."
[ Related: Does Google Authorship Matter for SEO? ]
Don't worry about being unique, Connell adds; just be better than your competitors. "That's what Social Media Examiner did, and now [it's] one of the biggest marketing/business blogs on the planet."
15. Earn attention and develop your network. Pollitt recommends creating problem-solving and/or entertaining content and getting it featured by the online media and industry influencers. "Brands that can truly earn media will be the biggest SEO winners," he says.
To do this, build a network of writers, bloggers, editors, journalists and industry influencers, Pollitt says, as "these are the folks you'll rely on to write about and share your content." In addition, pitch your firm's executives as possible columnists on popular industry websites. Their expertise is valuable, Pollitt says, and the search engines respect link citations from reputable sources such as those industry sites.
16. Consider link building as another form of business networking. Jason Whitt, the "geek of all trades" at Geek Powered Studios, notes that there's been wide speculation about links becoming obsolete. "While I can understand the reasoning behind this, I don't believe it to be true," he says. "It comes down to the types of links you aim to build for a website and the intent behind acquiring the link."
[ Related: Google Begins Penalizing Search "Over-optimization" ]
Links will become obsolete if your Link-building strategy is limited to paying for inclusions in directories and posting blog comments with spammy links, Whitt says.
"Real link building is hard work, and it is in no way quick. The easiest way to look at legitimate link building is to view each link as a business relationship. The more time and effort you put into that relationship, the more likely that relationship will help you grow into the position you want to be."
17. Focus on quality in all its forms. Yes, your content should be "compelling, descriptive and differentiated," says Joelle Kaufman, head of partnerships and marketing for BloomReach — but quality extends to the technical side of your site, too. Kaufman's tips:
- Identify and reduce or eliminate duplicate pages and content.
- Make sure your "in-linking" helps users and search engines find their way around your site.
- Identify sources of insight from within and beyond your site to guide the content you create, curate and retain.
- Ensure your content is accessible and optimized for mobile searchers, who Kaufman says are already reaching 50 percent of search traffic.
18. Build a single site for mobile and desktop users. As the digital divide evolves and segments Web searches, there's an increased need for adaptable websites that are cleanly viewed on smartphones, tablets and computers, says Jayme Pretzloff, online marketing director for Wixon Jewelers. Instead of developing a site for each device, consider responsive Web design, which adapts to a device's browser size. In addition to improving the user experience, Pretzloff says this boosts SEO thanks to increased visits, reduced bounce rates, better search engine result rankings, more return visits and more social shares.
19. Look for the best long-tail keywords. Kelly Boyer Sagert, content services manager for The Search Guru, says long-tail keywords are expected to become more important Hummingbird era of Google. Long-tail keywords typically contain more words, and are therefore usually less competitive. They are also more laser-targeted. (Examples include bedroom closet organization tips and kitchen pantry organization tips.) When you find one that perfectly fits your intended audience, it's a terrific find, Sagert says.
20. Schema markup will grow in importance. "Since the beginning of the Web, the most important Web coding language has been HTML. As the Web has evolved, so has HTML," Sagert says. The latest version, HTML 5, incorporates sets of HTML tags that help search engines understand structured data. (These tags are cataloged and referenced from Schema.org.) "Structured data helps the search engines quickly and easily understand the different elements of a page, such as articles, events and local address information," she says.
Ultimately, SEO Will Be What It Should've Always Been
"In 2013, the SEO of the last 10 years died — and thank goodness it did," says John Lincoln, co-owner and president of SEO and social at Ignite Visibility. In 2014, he says, SEO will be all about what it always should've been about: "Create a responsive design site, develop a content marketing strategy, engage in social advertising, make sure your website is technically sound and go after as many long-tail keywords as you can, in a responsible way."
James A. Martin is an SEO and social media consultant and writes the CIO.com Martin on Mobile Apps blog. Follow him on Twitter @james_a_martin and on Google+. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.