The State of SEO in 2017
What you should know before investing a penny in SEO services
Welcome to SEO Scribe on Medium! While we will have a regular blog on our own website, we thought we’d take advantage of Medium to host a more in-depth blog, covering some advanced topics and current affairs pertinent to our industry. We’re also starting off on Medium because our website is still a work in progress — we think it’s best to do something once and to do it correctly, rather than just push anything out of the door as soon as possible.
We thought we would kick things off with an honest and comprehensive reflection on our much maligned industry. With a billion people online, search engine optimisation is something every business wants to invest some time and money in; this is because a huge proportion of internet users navigate the internet super highway primarily through a search engine. This is especially true of mobile device users, who are growing and according to Google have already overtaken desktop users as the largest group of searchers.
Yet the actual business of search engine optimisation is treated with a degree of caution and suspicion. This is because SEO was once a rather shady business, and bad practices like keyword stuffing and spamming webfora with links were prevalent everywhere. This led to a lot of people ending up having their long established rankings dropping significantly after search engines took steps to counteract the attempts to game the system. The remnants of the ‘black hat’ halcyon days are still visible on the all too frequently empty forums still in operation, whose moderators have long since moved on or given up.
Fortunately, at least for clients, advice for SEO today is reasonably straightforward, and a company can bring the whole thing in-house, certainly while they’re starting out. A large proportion of the recommended steps can be done by your web developer while building or maintaining your website. However, as time goes on, you might find that your website is struggling to reach the top, and at that point you can explore other options, still in-house, using a data-driven approach.
Over the years, many SEO professionals and agencies have built up a treasure trove of information about how search engines work and how best to approach the task of getting a website to the top for a certain keyword. There are many useful blogs on the various aspects of SEO, and how to actually implement strategies and use the latest tools to assess progress, but we’re taking a step back from that to see the bigger picture.
Bottom line: is SEO even a thing in 2017?
The short answer to this is yes, but in quite a different for to what might have been considered the job of an SEO consultant a decade ago. As others have noted, the statement ‘SEO is dead’ is spoken almost every year; what people ought to say is that SEO as we knew it is dead.
Once upon a time, an SEO specialist was a shadier character than who you would want to meet today, probably someone familiar with web development and site administration who was rather keen on terms like ‘keyword stuffing’, ‘backlinks’, and quite heavily focused on ᴍᴇᴛᴀ tags and so on.
These practices are not recommended in the current climate, but that doesn’t mean that optimising for search engines is something you shouldn’t hire someone to handle. However, their role should be largely comprise auditing, consultation, and monitoring of data gathered using tools like Google Analytics, Google Webmaster Tools and possibly other SEO software applications like web crawler simulators.
To fully unpack the idea of SEO and to assure yourself of the continued importance of SEO, we need to look at how search engines work and what the alternatives are before we go further.
Organic search vs paid search
The thing that stands out to most SME owners is the opportunity to pay for premium real estate on the search engine results page through such things as Google Pay-Per-Click, or PPC for short. These offerings enable clients to bid for a privileged (NB: not necessarily better, as we’ll unpack shortly)
The problem with PPC, besides the soaring costs that many have discovered when trying to bid for terms that are, unbeknownst to them, out of their league, is quite simply this: PPC results attract approximately 6% of searchers, with organic results (almost entirely first page results) attracting the rest.
Some blogs/websites may seem to extol the virtues of PPC, but those blogs tend to be those affiliated or otherwise owned by digital marketing agencies who happen to specialise in PPC and who therefore stand to profit by convincing prospective clients of its value. You don’t tend to see many companies bragging about their PPC investments, and for good reason looking at those statistics.
In reality, PPC can become very expensive for little-to-no return on your investment. It’s true that all the big players on the field invest in PPC, but that’s only because their big competitors invest in it. The Nash Equilibrium would involve all of these companies focusing on organic search rather than burning money on PPC advertising, but then Google wouldn’t be earning as much money, and there’d be more than a few people out of a job.
As a rule of thumb, if you must invest in PPC, do not let a consultant or an agency anywhere near your PPC account. Work on it in-house and keep it on the back burner. Focus on long-tail keywords that don’t cost much. Most PPC agencies will expect to have a considerable budget to work with, because they know a small budget will not yield any ROI and a big investment, though it may yield some returns, will not have been worthy of the cost. Agencies will likely inflate their prices for handling PPC anyway, because they will be putting someone in charge of your account, but PPC isn’t that complicated for one to learn on one’s own, and it’s definitely something you could consider handing to an intern/apprentice to learn about.
Organic search is a much more worthwhile investment, but if you’ve the budget for both and you want to give everything a try, our advice is still to prioritise organic search and to let your team steadily learn the ins and outs of PPC whenever they have nothing better to be getting on with. That way, by the time your organic search ranking is getting somewhere, your team will have swatted up on how the software works and what keywords/keyphrases to employ in their search/display ads should they decide that it’s worthwhile.
While the old ways of doing SEO are dead and buried, keywords and links are still crucial for any kind of search ranking bid. You still need to rank for particular keywords and phrases that your customers are likely to use, it’s just how you get there that differs today. As with all things, you need data, both about your own site, the consumers, and regarding your competitors.
Keyword ranking data is available from many vendors, but how valuable is it really? Plenty of agencies provide reports on a website’s keyword ranking positions — from, say, page 35 to 33 — and sell those reports to their clients as reliable evidence of worthwhile and causally-explicable SEO activities. The questions are: does it really matter if your keyword ranking changes incrementally? Are agencies being ethical in charging inflated retainer for delivering white label reports on the minutiae of SEO, like keyword position ranking? And who or what is the authoritative source for such data?
Our argument is no. The vast majority of searchers don’t go any further than the first page of results, and it takes extreme tenacity to go through even 5–10 pages of results on any search engine, let alone through 30, and while reporting after six months with a position change from page 30 to page 5 might provide adequate proof that an agencies activities and recommendations are yielding results, most agencies start reporting from the first month and send a bill for the auditing process — and quite often, these audits are conducting using SEO tools that are readily available and even free to use.
Of course, it’s not simply a case of picking a tool and using it yourself, because there are myriad SEO tools available which display such ranking data, but sometimes when you cross-reference that data with what Google Webmaster Console tells you about your keyword ranking, discrepancies can appear.
This might be because the SEO tool’s data was stale, or because it doesn’t actually work, or even because the information it displays is doctored somehow to persuade you to invest money in someone from the tool’s provider to fix your problem.
Moz is a long established name in the SEO business; they offer some of the most reliable keyword ranking data available, and also provide a well-researched means to estimate what Google itself calls ‘domain authority’. Domain authority is the largest factor in a website’s ranking for a keyword in the complex algorithm that Google Search employs. Compare Moz’s data with its competitors and more discrepancies can appear. Who are you supposed to trust?
The answer is no one but Google, because as good as Moz is, it can only offer approximations of Google’s ranking algorithm based on their research, and even then, SEO is a business where it pays to approach everything with a degree of scepticism. Search for the keywords yourself and see if your own search results corroborate the data displayed in the Webmaster Console.
The key takeaway from this discussion is that the Google Webmaster Console is an essential and oft overlooked tool for managing your website’s SEO. It offers tools for disowning links from spammy or otherwise ‘negative’ sources, as well as tools for validating your structured data markup and making sure there aren’t errors occurring for your website’s pages.
There is also an argument for paying less attention to individual keyword rankings altogether. There are two good justifications behind this line of reasoning: firstly, ranking is very temperamental with algorithm changes made by search engine providers; secondly, there are dozens of factors that could completely distort what you think you know, like whether the user is logged into a Google account or has a different locale.
In any case, you need to focus your attention on which keyword phrases convert to profit (as opposed to keywords which convert at too great a cost or are too broad to result in conversions against competitors) and invest in ranking for those as opposed to just trying to fight for the keywords that seem apt.
Where do the keywords go?
The rules about where your keywords should appear are largely unchanged. Obviously you will want to make it as simple as possible for search crawlers to understand that your content pertains to a keyword without necessarily sprinkling keywords all over your website, so keywords or related words should appear in headings, in the main body of your content (sparingly) and, perhaps most crucially, keywords should be included in your page’s title/meta description. Avoid the meta ‘keywords’ tag, because Google may be inclined to treat this as a negative ranking indicator, and at best it does nothing at all.
Other opportunities to use keywords include your website’s domain itself; your web pages’ individual URLs; and in filenames for images and other media. Regarding domain name choice, it’s not essential that your domain contain keywords for which you wish to rank, but it can help.
It’s generally considered best to keep your domain short and snappy so that it’s easy for visitors to remember should they choose to recommend it to someone else in direct conversation, or if they should neglect to bookmark your website. As for images, don’t overlook the chance for your website to rank highly in Google Image Search, any means to get a visitor to your website at no direct cost is worth using.
One thing to bear in mind these days when considering SEO is personalised search — by that, we mean that since a very large number of people have a Google account, be it for their email, for YouTube, or simply to use their Android device/Play Store, and because many of those people will tend to be logged into Google when they use the search engine, their search results will be fine-tuned to suit their tastes according to Google’s profile of that person, which it builds continuously as the user searches for things and consumes content via Google apps and services.
The fact that the search results studied and measured by your developers/SEO team members and the search results seen by actual people may therefore differ, it can be rather difficult to actually know where you stand in search results, and even harder to know how to improve that standing with certain groups of users. It would seem that, at least after enough time has elapsed since a user started using their Google account, a lot of people may never reach your website because their profiling will have led Google to steer them away from your website and towards another, quite possibly for no negative reason at all.
In practice, the disparities are not usually too severe, but since many words can possess multiple, unrelated definitions, you might want to give it some thought, and certainly to factor it into your SEO assessment of your website.
Local search is another kettle of fish. On mobile devices particularly, search results will be significantly influenced by the location of the searcher if they’re looking for something that would ideally be in close proximity to their home or current location.
This might be the case if a person is searching for a good restaurant or shop. To stand the best chance of appealing to people on the basis of being local to them, make sure your business is set up on Google Maps, a process which is streamlined by using Google MyBusiness, which is available as a handy mobile app so you can get started quickly and from the palm of your hand.
There are many tools available online for finding keywords, ranking for which would increase traffic flow to your website via search engine results pages, but many of them cost money and deliver a keyword pool that might make you scratch your head. If you’re just starting out with SEO, you might find that the best approach is to use Google itself as a keyword research tool.
By that, I don’t necessarily mean jumping on Google AdWords’ keyword planner, but rather just going to Google.com and typing in some keywords you think your potential customers would use to find your website or your competitors. Remember, no matter how experienced or legitimate an SEO consultant might be, the person with the best instincts regarding your customers is you. You know your business, you know your market, and you know your consumers.
Let’s say you have a business involving properties in London — you could expect that at least some if not the vast majority of searchers interested in your business might start by typing ‘london property’ into Google. From there, you can see from Google’s predictions what the most popular related searches are, and you can try different combinations to get more suggestions. This is a great way to start researching keyword combinations that might work for your business.
Obviously, this is a slower process than using an online tool that has been specifically designed for the job, but you can at the same time trust what you’re seeing because it’s from Google search itself.
If you are finding this method a little laborious, there are free tools that can speed up the process available online.
Latent Semantic Indexing
One last point about keywords for now: great care must be taken to avoid overusing keywords across your entire website. While you obviously want to rank highly for particular keywords/phrases, you don’t want your pages to be competing with each other — if they do, it’s likely that you either have duplicate content (why have two pages when one will suffice?) or you’re focusing on too small a word pool.
By employing a broad vocabulary across your website, you’ll avoid such problems and stand to benefit from the ability of search engines like Google to understand the semantics of the keyword/phrase and improve your ranking indirectly through related words/phrases. This branching from keyword to related words is called Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI), one of the things which landed with the Hummingbird update to Google’s algorithm and something our text editor handily includes in its metrics while you compose your content, by querying search engines like Google and Bing.
Finding LSI keywords can be achieved by using your head in tandem with the normal keyword finding methods, but there is a site which purports to generate LSI keywords but the actual efficacy of this tool has not been tested.
Google came to dominate the search engine market largely thanks to the success of its original algorithm, PageRank. PageRank was retained for many years, though it obviously went through many iterations in response to attempts by webmasters to spam their way to number one. PageRank worked like this: the more websites pointing to a particular website, and the better those websites are that point to that particular website, the higher that website should rank for a given keyword phrase that is of relevance to the website’s content. Obviously it was a good deal more complex than that even in its infancy, but you get the gist. Links were important — and they still are today.
Remember, the primary ranking factor is ‘domain authority’ — which means that links are still an important factor, because the greater the number of high quality websites that link to or otherwise cite your website, the more likely it is that your website is an authority on a particular topic pertaining to a searcher’s keyword/phrase. Domain authority also translates to the need to be trusted by Google as a legitimate source of information and not a spam project for someone to quickly fill their pockets at a user’s expense (think ads, scams, etc.)
Obviously, you will want to have a long-term strategy in place for building up links to your website from credible sources, like bloggers, news vendors and so on. However, your domain might be old — don’t think that because you recently acquired it, the domain wasn’t used before. A huge number of domains have been used and abandoned over the years, and they have had ample time to acquire negative links during those years.
The first thing you should do is check your domain’s history using a DNS WHOIS check up. This can be done freely and one of the best examples of a DNS WHOIS checking utility is that provided by DNSimple. The WHOIS report generated might be quite lengthy and much of it meaningless; you need to look for a ‘creation date’ or ‘registration date’ or something along those lines. If you can’t see any evidence suggesting that your domain was registered years prior to your acquisition of it, you’re unlikely to have any negative links pointing your way, but if the creation date says something like ‘2001’ or ‘1998’, you should definitely look into your links.
Again, there are lots of tools to choose from for discovering what websites are linking to your domain. Moz has one, and it looks promising because it also estimates a ‘spam’ score for the links pointing to your website, but you’ll need to pay to use it more than a few times — and sometimes what you see on Moz’s tool doesn’t match what Google Webmaster Tools/Search Console will tell you, so take its findings with a pinch of salt. If you see anything that looks like it is, or could have, an adverse effect on your website’s search ranking, you’ll need to first try to request that the linking website owner remove their linking page or, failing that, tell search engines to ignore that link relation.
Fortunately, Google offers you exactly what you need to do just that: the backlink disavowing tool. Use this to clean up your domain’s backlinks (following Google’s instructions carefully so you don’t lose good links) so you don’t have to worry about your domain’s potentially imperfect past.
Acquiring new links from quality sources is not something you can just pay for. You can try to reach out to bloggers but they’re not cheap; it’s generally a better idea to make sure your website features a well-written and regularly updated blog with strong content that is likely to naturally catch the attention of bloggers and article writers who are themselves looking for a credible source of expertise or research to cite.
To do this, you should try to focus on sharing industry expertise in your website’s blog, something concrete that is worthy of being cited and that has some evidence behind it. Having strong content can only help your website in terms of the other factors search engines take into consideration, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be doing this.
SEO is more technical than ever, now that most popular search engines have figured out how to counteract the black hat practices of the past. Fortunately, that makes it a damned sight easier to do it yourself — or at least, to do it in-house.
Performance, the speed (perceived or otherwise) with which a website’s pages load for a user, is very important for SEO these days. Google penalises slow websites that take too long to load, for whatever reason, be it excessive adverts, excessive images/files downloaded all at once, cheap shared hosting, etc.
There are lots of recommendations about performance, but before you throw your website away and build a new one at considerable expense, remember that this ranking factor, like most, is relative. If your performance sucks according to web developers and professionals who deal in performance optimisation, but your website is faster than those of your competitors, there’s a good chance you’ll still see the most traffic.
However, nobody at the top remains at the top by getting complacent, and in general if you have the personnel and the budget, you should invest time in making sure that your website remains nimble, either through optimisation or, better still, by keeping it simple in the first place, so that your website doesn’t suffer from feature creep that tends to give way to more and more code and assets that slow your website down for your mobile users especially.
Don’t be tempted to rule out mobile users. Research shows that they’re overtaking desktop users, and if the statistics aren’t enough to convince you, you should be convinced by how seriously Google takes mobile. They have the Google app, the mobile-friendly ranking metric, the page speed ranking metric, the Accelerated Mobile Pages initiative, and they also have pioneering ventures like Voice Search and Maps/local search, which are most effective and indeed intended mostly for mobile device users. After all, you don’t tend to talk to your desktop, and neither is your desktop in your hand or on your car’s dashboard when you’re looking for a restaurant or an optician.
That doesn’t mean, that your HTML shouldn’t be kept as simple as possible and at least well-structured so that crawlers can identify your content — your best bet here is to make sure that your content is laid out using semantic HTML tags like h1 and section/article tags, so that crawlers can build up an internal document structure of what your page looks like. This isn’t essential, and hasn’t been classified as a ranking signal in its own right, but it cannot hurt your chances. Well-formed HTML is faster to parse and render, and the speed with which your website renders is factored into your search ranking.
Responsive web design and mobile-friendliness
On mobile devices, Google will treat mobile-friendly, responsive websites preferentially in search results, so it’s very important that your website adapts to suit the screen size of mobile phones and tablets. This is a no-brainer really, because even if users can find your website, in order to get any conversions you’ll need a website that’s easy to use and navigate for your visitors, regardless of what device they’re using to view it. Responsive web design is more or less standard these days, and very easy to do from day one with the help of a front-end CSS framework or even just a grid system.
Of course, if your website has been around for years without a refit, or is just something you’ve whipped up quickly using a website creator tool, you might want to give some thought to hiring a web developer to give your business the website it deserves. It pays to have a good user experience in the long-term, and arguably even the short-term as well. If you’re just starting out, but you’re in need of some good people to work for you, a good website will go a long way to attracting talented people.
Keywords can and should be used in the URL routes/sub-directories that form the link to your content, so make sure you’re naming your HTML documents appropriately, or if you’re using a content management system like Wordpress, make sure you have ‘friendly URLs’ switched on and configured to display an abbreviated form of your web page’s title or first line of content as its web address.
This will not only allow you to take advantage of another place to include your keyword/phrase, but also makes your website easier to use and easier to crawl for search engines than if your web page routes are numeric or use dates/UUIDs instead.
A lot of agencies mislead their clients when it comes to structured data. It’s often implies by experts and agency representatives to be a ranking factor, but all available data would indicate that the presence of structured data is only correlated with highly ranked websites, but is not demonstrably a causally significant factor to the high performance of those websites.
So why is it important? Well, structured data is largely for the purposes of enriching how your website and its pages appear in Google Search results — for instance, if your website is an e-commerce store, structured data offers you the power to display star ratings for your products in the search results entries, and it is suggested by recent research that the richer the appearance of the search result, the more attractive the search result will be, and thus the higher the conversion rate is likely to be.
The other use for structured data is for social media sharing — that is, structured data enables you to customise how your website appears when it is shared from a mobile device or social-sharing button. Again, this is good for conversions or the prevalence of dissemination of your shared content via social channels.
Considering that the information required for structured data is, more often than not, output on the page by your content management system/back-end anyway, it’s a small investment with potentially significant gains. It just shouldn’t be considered essential for a good SEO ranking.
Strategy has always been essential in approaching search engine optimisation, because it’s an ongoing battle against competitors and against algorithm changes in search engines themselves. Today, search engines are really smart. Google purportedly uses machine-learning technology called RankBrain in its search engine, which is engineered to consume and analyse content far more efficiently and effectively than static algorithms which don’t tune themselves. RankBrain is still audited by humans, who use a comprehensive content quality guide to gauge websites, making it a real powerhouse for seeing through your wimpish attempts at keyword stuffing. If you have the time, the content quality guide is freely available and well worth a read for some valuable insights into how Google is likely to perceive your website.
The term ‘blogger’ is now a job title, where it once referred to hobbyists and enthusiasts keeping a diary of their activities and discoveries. Bloggers are not only making a living by being employed as content writers for companies, but also through sponsorship.
Blogging has enjoyed a great deal of attention thanks to the ability of independent bloggers to acquire a vast following of potential customers and for the ample opportunities in a blog to link out to websites. Bloggers can make a handsome living by including links from third parties who could stand to benefit from having their name and link dropped in an article, especially if their website is on topic and has some useful quality worth linking to.
If you do decide to publish a blog of your own, as we’ve recommended in this post, make sure your posts are meaningful. There’s not really much we can say concretely about how long a blog post should be, but it’s generally agreed that 700 words or more is a fair number to aim for. Including images and video will not necessarily improve your SEO ranking directly, but they’re key to catching a consumer’s attention and attracting them to consume your written content.
With written content, take into account some of the rules of thumb which are really just common sense:
- make sure your content is as easy to read as possible without alienating your target audience (if you’re targeting university graduates or lawyers, you won’t necessarily want to avoid polysyllabic words)
- link to external sources as though they were citations in a piece of academic work
- use headings, paragraphs and lists to condense and organise information into easily consumable chunks
- try to avoid allowing your text to span the full width of the page, as this makes reading rather laborious on a widescreen laptop or monitor
- include images and graphs to simplify and expedite the consumption of information — you need to avoid fatiguing your readers so that they will consume as many pages as possible
Even blogs are considered old hat by some of those with unlimited 4G mobile data plans, who are thus in a position to consume video content regularly. The crucial point with video blogs (‘vlogs’) is that it’s very much a socially-oriented approach: the gains come through sharing and re-sharing the video, and through encouraging the consumer to consume further videos. In the video you can link users to some of your website content, but that won’t contribute to your ranking per se.
Many SEO professionals dismiss social media, not because it has no influence on search ranking, but because its role is diminished compared to other factors and because it is a whole industry unto itself, and optimising your social media marketing requires if not a separate team then at least a different set of skills, content and tools.
Social media is considered by some to be something of an exercise in pyramid selling — a Ponzi scheme which has reached such heights that it’d be suspicious to not see a Facebook or Twitter icon in the footer of your website. And yet, many businesses only really use these channels as a means to communicate with customers or to address customer complaints, or to create an image of a healthy business with a constant stream of content.
Social media can prove to be a good way to strike up some intrigue early in your business’ lifespan, but don’t expect huge ROI in the long-term and certainly don’t expect a significant effect on your website’s SEO performance as a result of social media activities.
Understanding and using data
With more means to self-assess your website’s SEO status than ever before, once you or your team have chosen your preferred tools of the trade, you need to know what these tools are trying to tell you with their many graphs and charts.
Using Google Webmaster Tools, you can get access to data regarding visitors to your website and their activity once they arrive. Clicks and click-through-rate (CTR) are useful metrics, as the key to effective SEO is measuring traffic and conversions. Impressions are not as useful as they lack reliability. Social media is notorious for yielding thousands of impressions and a handful of clicks, and many of those impressions can simply be bots or spammers looking for their next mark.
The best thing to do is to use the data available in Google Webmaster Tools in tandem with data collected by an analytics suite, like Google Analytics, in order to keep an eye on your page views in relation to your bounce rate. This will help you identify problems stemming from your website’s UX and also on those pages that are converting successfully. Set up goals and monitor what changes to your website are having positive and negative impacts on those metrics, and take whatever steps to bolster or mitigate those impacts, respectively.
A/B testing is generally advised against, unless you’re willing to take a hit on your ranking for a while. However, there are some exciting startups who are exploring split testing in clever ways to avoid these penalties, like RankScience and DistilledODN, and if you’ve the time and the budget it’s absolutely worth a shot. We said earlier to follow a data-driven approach using data shared among industry professionals, but if you can gather data about your own website, you can’t really do better than that!
Regardless of whether you have the time or not, you should follow a winning formula for page titles and content (like the formulae we use in our free tools for content writers) to give your website the best chance of success, and later when you’re on page one and raking in cash, but you want be the top result, you can explore A/B testing.
SEO is not easy, but because it’s not simply a matter of peppering forums with links to your website and belching out boatloads of keywords in your content, and because there are dozens of tools including an official platform from Google, now more than ever you should empower yourself and your business and take matters into either your own hands or your team’s hands.
Beyond becoming recognised as more than a simple online business card website, and beyond elevating one’s website to a non-spam content vendor, SEO is about the acquisition of domain authority, the most important factor to put your website on that all important first page of search results for terms that your customers will be using to find businesses like yours.
That word ‘authority’ is quite vague, and you might be tempted to question whether any new player has a chance against long established websites on the web, but you only have to search for something like ‘fresh coffee delivered’ and you’ll find a relatively new business like, for example, Pact Coffee.
Pact Coffee, founded 2012, appears at the top for that search query, against big players like Costa Coffee, and older businesses offering the same service like Rave Coffee, founded 2010.
It is still possible to hit the top. There’s no quick fix, but as we’ve discussed above, there’s still plenty to be done in the field of SEO. The trick is to get as much done as possible on your own before burning cash by hiring ‘professionals’ who most likely will not have only your best interests at heart.