SEO 101 for 2018
Search Engine Optimization remains the epicenter of internet marketing by crossing all platforms, pitting marketers, writers, PR and search providers against each other in the battle for an audience. Google dominates the search marketplace (for now), based on their erstwhile reputation for providing relevant search results while growing the revenue base of paid search. Google’s highly protected algorithms were once under constant threat from SEO strategists seeking to exploit the system for their own profits. The game has changed significantly with machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI).
AI is a broad term encompassing technology that employs advanced computer intelligence, but it’s Machine Learning (ML) that really gives computers that human-like intellect seen in science fiction. The difference between AI and ML may be subtle but it’s still substantial enough to merit its own classification in the technology field. Whereas AI uses preprogrammed, rule-based information to perform specific actions like IBM Deep Blue defeating chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1996, ML can, instead, use large amounts of data to teach itself how to do a task.
While ML will grow as a means of improving the algorithms and SERPs, the data used as input will mostly reflect publisher efforts that produce the best possible user experience. Current trends that will continue to rise in significance include mobile optimization, personalization, snippets and quick answers, and especially voice and video options.
“Mobilegeddon” marked the beginning of a focused effort around mobile SERPs. These changes will continue to dominate as Google moves closer to launching their “mobile-first index,” according to Aleh Barysevich in 48 Experts Share Their Top SEO Predictions for 2018 [Expert Roundup]. Websites will be rewarded for better adhering to Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) project by serving content that is faster, more mobile-friendly, and provides a great user experience. The ability to integrate voice into the mobile sites will also contribute to a better mobile experience. In How Machine Learning Impacts SEO, I explore the concept that natural language processing (NLP) is an important subset of ML, and will be a substantial factor in mobile SERPs. Sites that can produce content based on more natural spoken entries, rather than simply inserting keywords, will gain the fastest in page ranking. Voice queries could actually lead text in not too long.
Performance is everything.
In 2015, Google made a significant change to their search approach with the advent of “Mobilegeddon.” As described in my book, The SEO Battlefield, this change “shifted the goal post by ranking results based on the mobile-friendliness of the site.” Since that time, the company has continued to make changes to maintain their market leadership, but the changes tend to be slower and more calculated. Changes in 2018 will reflect the drive to provide the best search engine result pages (SERPs) and improve user experience. A significant change in how Google operates will bring about an increased use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to deliver SERPs.
As the internet has evolved, Google has maintained a large group of skilled staff to ensure that their algorithms produce superior results. The nature of the staff will change as a new breed of “data scientists” are employed to tune the AI and ML models. Google’s RankBrain is the most well-known of several ML tools that filter results. In my article How Machine Learning Impacts SEO I talk about how “machines can predict using data models. Data models learn from data. Data is being produced from all sides by the gigabyte.” SEO strategists will recognize the effects of increased ML as keyword-stuffing becomes less effective and Google ranking systems get smarter. I also predicted that ML will result in changes rolling out more gradually as the algorithms are “able to learn and update themselves automatically.” We’ll likely start seeing smaller more constant changes to certain components rather than the grand sweeping ones we’re used to.
Video and interactive elements
Bill Gates’ declaration that “content is king” continues to play a part in delivering an exceptional user experience. Websites that are producing better and more original content will gain in ranking, and Google’s ML capabilities will enhance Google’s skill in filtering out those that are taking shortcuts. But good content won’t win by itself; publishers will also benefit from the adoption of more customized content. These strategies will be more effective at solving individual user needs, through the delivery of quick answers and snippets, personalized SERPs, and content that is more collaborative and interactive, according to Barysevich in 48 Experts Share Their Top SEO Predictions for 2018 [Expert Roundup].
Alternate realities (VR/AR/MR)
Other user experience factors that will become important include video searches, Augmented Reality (AR), and Virtual Reality (VR). In What’s Next in Search?, my post makes the case that “AR is going to soon influence almost every aspect of our lives.” With smartphones already delivering AR capabilities and with the coming release of a variety of AR applications, publishers that can deliver AR-ready content will have a distinct advantage. my post further posits that the VR market is “getting more attention and is predicted to be a massive industry in a matter of a few years.”
Publishers and SEO marketers will have to adapt as they produce a quality user experience while meeting the strategy, security, and technical needs for search providers like Google. Incorporating quality backlinks has long been a significant part of strong SEO strategies, and that will not change soon. The role of SSL certificates will continue to grow, with the penalties for not being secure becoming more severe. Publishers that move to HTTP/2 more quickly will gain in ranking compared to others with similar characteristics. My previous post summarizes the winning strategy for publishers in How Machine Learning Impacts SEO, suggesting that for the better SEO providers, a ML-based search algorithm “will effectively give them a license to continue doing the good work they’ve already started.”
Google generates most of its revenue through AdWords and that will definitely not change. Frederick Vallaeys shares some behind-the-scenes information for the second half of 2017 and into 2018 in The AdWords 2017 roadmap, which is loaded with artificial intelligence. The role of AI will continue to become more important in the years to come, increasing the revenue from pay-per-click (PPC) marketing while improving user experience simultaneously. AI will be revolutionary, as SEO providers will be able to take advantage of concepts such as data-driven attribution and life-event targeting (graduation, baby births, etc.) to produce a flexible bid strategy. AI will also be able to take better advantage of advanced voice capabilities like Google Assistant, Siri, and Alexa.
Hopefully others will continue to emerge, but there’s reason to believe in 2018 that Google will continue to be the vanguard the search engine market and enhance user experience overall. Publishers and SEO marketers alike will benefit from providing the best available content that is customizable and faster for mobile and setup for voice, and by being cognizant of the technical expectations of Google — while those seeking shortcuts will be consistently filtered out of the equation.