What’s The Changing SEO Landscape in 2016?

Editor note: This is a section of SEJ’s soon to be completely redone SEO Guide. Enjoy!

If you haven’t noticed, we dig SEO in a big way here at Search Engine Journal. And while we love spiders and all things that crawl (no, we’re not talking about prepping for our Halloween party), we get especially jazzed when sharing our insights with SEO beginners.

SEO is great. We love SEO.

You might say we’re a little obsessed with improving the way people, brands, and strategists (whoever!) do SEO. And while there are many awesome ways to learn SEO as a beginner — keyword research, competitive analysis, and site audit — right now, we’re going to cover the changing landscape of SEO to catch you up to speed.

If you’re going to begin your path in SEO, knowing what you do and how you do it is important, but knowing what changes have been made and staying in-the-know will be ever more meaningful in your ongoing efforts.

For example, whenever you begin an SEO audit, there are prerequisites that need to be completed such as crawling the site’s HTML, checking robots.txt for blocked pages, and measuring PageRank of your competitors. But, if you don’t have a basic understanding of SEO history or changes being made over time, how would you know that Google turned off its Toolbar PageRank from its browser in March 2016? And, how does that affect your SEO audit process? AND, how will you know the authority of your website going forward?

For a long time, I viewed my SEO audit process as a task that needed to be done rather than a craft that gives my forthcoming strategies a fighting chance to win new clients or improve organic traffic for my current clients.

Because of the changing SEO landscape and with a little help from the SEJ news Slack channel, the idea of “This is a boring audit that needs to get done” turned into an opportunity to be one of the first to try new SEO tactics or prepare for Panda algorithm update.

After years of working in SEO, I’ve accepted that it’s hard to keep up with every new algorithm change and the hottest trends conference goers chat about. So, in hopes to spare you, all SEO beginners can check out the latest SEO changes below. Huzzah!

Misconceptions Around SEO

As agencies, consultants, and freelancers we see common misconceptions with SEO, it’s likely because context, personal preference, experiences, and lack of knowledge often muddy the effects SEO have on our websites. So, to clients, the idea that SEO strategies such as building high-quality backlinks or updating your local listings with accurate information are able to evoke some sort of large increase of traffic to your website seems about as realistic as having a psychic predict your future.

There’s still a lot to learn and consider if we look for practical ways to begin our SEO strategy. First, let’s start with the basics.

Ummm SEO, What Does That Mean?

It’s human nature to change. From I Am Jackie Robinson to A Christmas Carol, the characters in these narratives (whether truth or fable) help represent the lifeblood of how it’s human condition to change. With that, technology changes. From Pong to MacBooks, technology adapts just as humans do.

The same goes for search engines: at the end of the day, SEO evolves with humans and technology, but what you do with those changes rely on your ability to adapt.

Before we enter down the rabbit hole of the recent revolutions of SEO, it’s important to know how search engines work. Look at it like this: Last month I needed to find a pair of shoes for a wedding. So, I typed the Google search box “Where to find black shoes for a wedding?” and received over 80 million results.

Google, a search engine, is the middle man for searchers (like me!) and the content on the internet. As search engines become more sophisticated, these 80 million results become tailored to my search history and preferences to serve up more high-quality content that I’ll most likely be interested in clicking.

SEO, SEM, PPC, (and other triple-lettered iterations) serve as a driving force of getting your content to perform well in the search engines.

If you’re curious about looking deeper into the secret inner workings of Google’s algorithm, the new Search Quality Ratings Guidelines Google announced at the end of March 2016 is about as close as you’re going to get. This document was originally released in November 2015. The guidelines emphasize local and mobile and reduce the supplementary content. You can view the full PDF format here.

The Transformation of Organic SEO

I still regret not saying anything when I heard this SEO guru, the person signing my paycheck, promise page 1 in the search engines for a highly competitive keyword by month three of signing the contract.

As an SEO consultant in training (years before my role at SEJ), I should have stopped my colleague before the client signed, but being too inexperienced, I didn’t say anything.

The result: We landed a new client, my colleague got a chunky payday, and I was stuck explaining to the client on month three why they weren’t ranking on page 1 for the keywords we promised.

Keywords are one of the most talked about misconceptions in SEO. Keywords are vital to beginning every SEO campaign as you’ll learn further in this guide. Back in the ole’ days, you could “stuff” your meta titles and meta descriptions with keywords to manipulate ranking positions.

Now, choosing the type of keywords based on conversational search (also known as Hummingbird), transactional use, or informational structure is more aligned with search these days than a goal fixated on ranking page 1. For example. Google’s Rich Answer Box has become a prominent aspect of Google’s result pages. Have you seen their introduction of

For example. Google’s Rich Answer Box has become a prominent aspect of Google’s result pages. Have you seen their introduction of symptom-related answers? As Pete Meyers from Moz said, SEO in 2016 is about “being the answer.” We’re going to continue to see brands shift their keyword strategy to achieve Answer Box status.

With changes like Google’s Answer Box, SEOs cannot depend on keywords to target and optimize their content. There’s not doubt about it: structuring your content around keywords or topics can influence the SERPs. But, with Google performing over a trillion searches per year, how does Google organize this all?

Well, inside Google, the old model of using engineers to process search results has progressed to having a machine-learning artificial intelligence system called RankBrain. Google uses RankBrain to sort and manage relevant search queries. Google Search Quality Senior Strategist, Andrey Lipattsev, announced in March 2016 at Google Q&A that RankBrain was the third ranking signal. The other two? Links and content. Andrey went on to say these rank in no particular order.

Another potential ranking signal in 2016? Structured data.

John Mueller, Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst, mentioned on a Google+ Hangout that search results with rich snippets might start to rank higher. Rich snippets make sense because they add a degree of relevance to your content and helps RankBrain categorize your content in its correct entity.

RankBrain is a part of Google’s overall search algorithm Hummingbird. For those who aren’t living in SEO day-to-day may see this as confusing. Hummingbird proves to us that Google’s algorithm (whatever it’s called these days) is understanding the meaning of words and phrases.

These search engine algorithms are learning to adapt to the way the human brain works and functions. They are becoming more complex and accurate when identifying relevant, quality content. (Have your heard of Panda yet? More than once? Okay. Moving on.) These changes to the algorithm allow us and search engines to connect the dots between keywords and search queries for a better overall organic search experience.

The Hidden Revisions of PPC

The remarkable benefit of learning organic search is that you have an easy entryway into discovering paid search. While many paid search analysts would like me to hypothesize how exactly PPC works, I’d rather explain to you the recent changes that will affect your overall SEO strategy. Meaning how changes to paid search are affecting organic search.

For example, what would happen if the right-hand PPC ads were removed from the search results? Well, at the end of February 2016 Google rolled out a new search result page and surprise, surprise…no ads on the right panel.

At the same time, Google also introduced a fourth ad position above the fold on top of the organic listings. While industry experts below this had a low impact on click-through rates, it’s still a pretty big update.

Next, let’s talk about Google switching their ad label from yellow to green in mid-April. Google stated they researched if the color change impacted the way users determine paid versus organic listings, and they found none. This was Google’s goal. PPC analysts over at Wordstream confirmed Google’s theory when they detected click-through rate with the new green URL went up 15% in their controlled group study. The green ad label doesn’t stand out as much compared to the organic results.

Google also unveiled the “next generation” of local search ads which appear in Google Maps (desktop and mobile). The ads include brand logos and offers that surface directly on the map vs. the side of the map. Also, taking a cue from other search engine rival, Pinterest, Google is launching promotional pins on the Maps as well. With more than billion users and 1.5 billion destinations being visited based on their searches, Google Maps is something you’re going to want to become very familiar with as a newbie.

Improving Mobile Optimization for SEO

Successfully optimizing your website for mobile search is a must for any business looking to provide users with what they need on the SERPs. Plus, with Google’s constant updates to mobile algorithm (also known as Mobilegeddon) it’s vital to understand the basics.

Mobile page speed, app indexing, and AMP pages are factors that help inform the search engines of your mobile-friendly and influences your mobile search roadmap. It’s also essential for measuring mobile traffic and the user journey across multiple devices.

Getting a handle on how customers view your website on desktop and mobile is invaluable. This is why we see most big publishers (and recipes!) taking advantage of Google AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) pages. AMP pages were created as a slimmed version of a content page to make it load fast on mobile. And, we’re also seeing Google roll out updates to their mobile algorithm.

Gary Illyes, Standup Trends Analyst at Google, mentioned at the Search Marketing Summit in June 2016 that the page speed ranking signal will begin to look at the speed of your mobile website pages. This new update could potentially hurt your mobile rankings if your site isn’t up to speed.

Mobile is also shifting with rising technologies like voice search. During Sundar Pichai’s, Google CEO, Google I/O keynote he announced that 20% of queries on its mobile app are voice searches. This announcement comes at the same time Google is prepping for its in-home speaker and Amazon Echo competitor, Google Home.

Another win on mobile is if your brand or client has invested in an app, take the extra time to get your app indexed. Indexing your app can help driving more traffic, interaction, and therefore conversions. And, could potentially appear higher up in the SERPs.

Once you begin to the behaviors and differences of mobile and desktop, you will develop habits that become routine when working with a client for the first time.

The Search Engines are Your Friend

You launched. You celebrated. You waited. It’s now six months later, and you realized you may not have spent enough time on optimizing your website. Sound familiar? Creating an SEO-friendly website may seem like a daunting task, but it will change the way you do business digitally.

Once you’ve converted your biggest SEO fears into strengths or confirmed or stomped all those myths based on your actual real-life experiences, you’ll arrive at the hard part: implementing your SEO strategy and explaining it to your clients or stakeholders at your company.

Start by asking yourself, “How does SEO add value for you, your customers, and the organization’s bottom line?” Use data and your knowledge of the changing landscape to show the impact SEO can have on your website and online presence.

Go into your analytics archives. Dig into the algorithm’s history. Find the answer and use it to increase traffic to your website. Yes, you might have to go back to the drawing board; you might not know the answer right away. This is OK.

The idea is to create value for the consumer before asking anything from the search engines in return. When all parts of your SEO strategy work together smoothly, you’ll have an awesome synergy where it really counts — helping your consumers convert.

This SEO guide will give you the foundation and resources you need to discover trends to fix technical SEO issues and improve user experience. With an understanding of SEO best practices, there are plenty of opportunities for you to rank your site. And, we are on it.

FYI: This article was originally published on Search Engine Journal.

Thanks for reading! :) If you enjoyed it, hit that 💚 below.

BIG thanks to my editors, Danielle & Kelsey, at SEJ for allowing me to test this experiment. ✌️

Image Credits

Featured Image: Image by Paulo Bobita.
All screenshots by Anna Crowe. Taken June 2016.