Over the past few years, Google has repeatedly rocked the world of search engine optimization (SEO). In its efforts to provide people the most relevant, spam-free results, the search engine giant has made several major upgrades to its search algorithm. The changes have been dubbed Panda (which punishes low-quality sites), Penguin (which demotes sites that engage in shady link building), and Hummingbird (which pays more attention to the context of queries, among other things).
Most recently, on May 20, Google released an update to its Payday Loan Algorithm (aimed at spammy queries), which was originally released in 2013.
10 Tips for the New SEO Reality
Those who practice SEO have struggled to keep up with all the changes. If you're a small business owner or online marketer, here's what you need to know to succeed in SEO today.
1. SEO is all about content
White-hat SEO—the type you should practice by following Google's guidelines for a "Google-friendly site"—has always been about creating high-quality content. Over the years, however, many marketers and small businesses have drifted into "gray-hat" or "black-hat" SEO tactics to try and get a leg up on competitors. Such tactics often involved publishing spammy, low-quality content stuffed with keywords, buying links from questionable sources, and so on.
To win at SEO today, and for the foreseeable future, focus instead on producing high-quality content, period. In fact, the Google algorithm changes in recent years give a big push to content marketing—the practice of using content as a marketing tool to attract new customers. (See Content Marketing Tips for Small Businesses for more information.)
What does high-quality content mean, exactly? You don't need to hire a Pulitzer-prize winning author. Just create useful, interesting, topical, insightful content for your target audience and make that content easy to share on social media.
2. If you're not blogging, you should start now
As a way of marketing themselves, many consultants and other small businesses often rely on a static website to act as an online brochure. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But when you add a blog, suddenly you have a much more dynamic website—one that's refreshed regularly with new content.
Google makes an assumption that its users typically look for the freshest content on a topic. As a result, the search engine often ranks regularly updated websites over static ones. Regularly posting to a blog can help the blog (or the website where it lives) rank well in Google search results.
3. Keywords still matter—but less so
Optimizing your blog posts and website pages with relevant keywords has always been the easiest part of SEO, because it's directly within your control. And keywords are still important to SEO. They help Google understand the subject matter of a page or a piece of content.
But keyword phrases are becoming less important to search ranking success. With its big Hummingbird update, Google moves more toward an environment in which its users "talk" to its search engine using natural language queries. Speaking a search query into Google on your Android smartphone is but one example of this trend.
Over the years, search engine users have gravitated toward posing questions or commands, such as "convert 100 dollars into British pounds," as search queries. Increasingly, Google serves the answer to the question or command at the top of the search results page, eliminating the need for users to scroll and click through sites looking for the information they seek.
What does this mean for your SEO practices? Try to think more in terms of keyword themes for your content. Instead of worrying about getting the best keyword phrase and making sure to use it in the content title, headline, and copy, pick a theme and use keywords that support it.
Also, take time to learn about Structured Data Markup—which will help display your content in a more detailed, compelling way in search results.
4. Develop a strong social media presence
Maintaining a strong presence on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Google+ will only become more important for SEO. There's still debate within the SEO community about how much a heavily shared and liked social media status update affects the search engine ranking for the content linked within the update.
But even if social media shares, likes, and retweets aren't playing a role in search rankings now, there's no doubt that they will. And while some people often dismiss Google+ as a digital ghost town, don't forget: it's the one social media network whose data Google can fully access. If you're not sharing your content on Google+, you could be missing an opportunity for great search engine rankings.
5. Optimize your site for mobile search
Mobile search continues to grow in popularity, aided by tools such as Siri and Google Now. SEO experts believe websites that are dynamically optimized for display on mobile devices as well as for computer screens—known as responsive web design—have a better shot at ranking above sites that don't display well on mobile devices. This is especially true when people conduct searches on mobile devices.
6. Speed up your site
Does your website take a long time to load? If so, do whatever you can to speed it up. In line with Google's efforts to deliver the most-relevant, best-quality sites in its search results, many SEO experts say we can expect Google to heavily favor sites that load quickly over those that don't. Pingdom offers a free tool for testing your website speed.
7. Claim your Google Places page
A lot of small businesses never think to claim their free Google Places page. Having a Google Places page for your business can help it show up in local search engine results, which is especially important for businesses that cater to local customers (such as mom-and-pop shops). Go to Google's Places for Business to get started.
8. Keep your eyes on your Yelp reviews
Google views Yelp as an authoritative website—the kind of site Google is likely to rank highly for relevant searches. So if someone googles the name of your business and you have a Yelp profile, chances are, Yelp will show up toward the top of the results—if not at the very top. For this reason alone, you should pay close attention to what people are saying about you on Yelp and what your overall star rating is.
9. Don't buy links, earn them
The only trustworthy link, in the eyes of Google, is one that your content has legitimately earned from another site. Anything else—paid links, links in dubious directories, and so on—can do your site more harm than good.
Again, it comes down to posting great content that will cause other people to link to it and share it over social media. These links are pure SEO gold. It's one reason why media attention can pay off. You'll get the word out about your product or service, and you'll likely earn links from media outlets that report on you. It's a double win.
10. Don't forget about the technical aspects of SEO
This topic alone could be the topic of another article, if not an entire book. At a high level, though, make sure you have Google Webmaster Tools set up for your site. Check your Webmaster account regularly, to ensure Google doesn't have problems indexing your content.
SEO: It's Easier Than You Think
Winning at SEO today and in the future is actually quite simple, at least in theory. Produce unique, interesting, high-quality content on a regular basis: blog posts, articles, videos, slideshows, infographics, photos, and such. Use relevant keywords or groups of keyword phrases. Make sure your content is easy to share on social media.
Keep doing this, and you'll do exactly what Google wants you to do: create content its users will want to find.
James A. Martin is an SEO copywriter and content marketing consultant based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter, @james_a_martin.
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