SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization — that much has stayed the same. It refers to techniques that help your website rank higher in organic search results, making your website more visible to people who are looking for your brand, product, or service via search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo.
There are a ton of components to improving the SEO of your site pages. Search engines look for elements including title tags, keywords, image tags, internal link structure, and inbound links — and that’s just to name a few. Search engines also look at site structure and design, visitor behavior and other external, off-site factors to determine how highly-ranked your site should be in the search engine results pages.
We could end the explanation there… but it doesn’t feel sufficient. Even for a quick FAQ, to explain what SEO is today we need to examine it through the lens of how it has changed — and outline exactly what SEO is not:
SEO isn’t about including as many keywords as possible.
Optimizing for keywords doesn’t mean including your keyword as much as you can within your content. In fact, that will actually hurt your SEO because search engines will recognize that as keyword stuffing. That means that you’ve include your keywords too many times simply to attempt to rank for a particular keyword.
Nowadays, you should use the keywords in your content in a way that doesn’t feel unnatural or forced. There’s no particular number, but if you feel like you’re forcing it, a good rule of thumb is to just leave it out.
SEO is more focused around content topics
Before you create a new site page or blog post, you will probably be thinking about how to incorporate your keywords into your post. That’s alright, but it shouldn’t be your only focus — maybe not even your primary focus. Whenever you create content, your focus should be on what matters to your audience, not how many times you can include a keyword or keyword phrase in that content.
If you do that, you’ll usually find yourself naturally optimizing for important keywords. Understanding your target audience (aka buyer personas) and what interests them is key to attracting relevant visitors to your website through search engines.
Social search is an important factor
One of the biggest changes in the last decade is the way social media plays into SEO. Even just a few years ago, it didn’t make a difference who was finding your content through social search. Now, SEO takes into account tweets, retweets, and other social signals.
Social search also prioritizes content and people that are connected to you. That could mean through a Facebook friend, Twitter follower or connection through another social network. Sometimes social search will even prioritize content that has been shared by an influencer. Social search understands that you may be interested in content that your network feels is important to share, and therefore it’ll often get surfaced to you.
It all means when you’re thinking about your SEO strategy, you need to think about how your social strategy fits into the puzzle, too. Your website visitors’ user experience is an important element of SEO.
Search Engine Optimization = Search Experience Optimization.
It isn’t just important for your users to find your website, it’s important for them to stay on your website and interact with your content. SEO actually takes into account whether or not your visitors are staying on your website and engaging with other content. If you rank well for a keyword and attract a visitor who isn’t relevant, that won’t actually help your website. Think about your visitors and the content they are looking for, more than how many people you can attract to your website.
First page ranking doesn’t mean guaranteed success.
In the past, SEO success was measured by whether or not you were ranked high on the first page of Google. Although, even if you ranked well for a term — does that actually mean you’re going to see results? Not always. You may rank REALLY well for a term that isn’t ideal for your business. So, you appear high on search engines, get a ton of traffic… but then your website visitors realize your company is not what they’re looking for. You don’t make any money off of this traffic, and ranking high for this particular keyword is essentially fruitless.
Also, you don’t necessarily need to be in the top three slots to be successful.
In fact, if you rank well on subsequent pages, you may still have a high click-through rate, albeit less traffic. That’s great news for marketers who can’t seem to bring pages into those top slots or off the second page. We said it before and we’ll say it again: The amount of traffic to your page matters less than how qualified that traffic is.
New universes of search are taking shape outside of the browser window.
In many of them, the rules for optimization have yet to be defined — but why does that matter to marketers? Well, in a nutshell, the way people search indicate changes in the way they discover your content. They’re using new keywords and shaping queries in different ways; e.g., what may have once been a query for “Boston restaurant” might now look more like, “Where should I eat tonight?”
It’s still the same thing it was ten years ago
One thing remains the same — SEO is comprised of a bunch of tactics that, if you employ them, will help you rank better in search engines. It’s just that the tactics you should use have changed, because what search engines value has changed. It’s up to us to stay on top of the rapidly changing trends, and remember that ultimately, the goal of search engines is to deliver the best experience possible to their end-user — searchers. If you keep that goal in mind with your SEO strategy, you’ll probably make good choices, even if you’re not totally up to date on every single nuance of search engine algorithms.
As marketers, we’ve gotten quite good at evolving our playbooks when it comes to SEO. But the changes we’ve seen to this point are nothing compared to what’s coming next. We’re no longer in the “early stages” of a new era of search — we’re here, now, witnessing new trends and best practices unfold in real time.
First, it was an era tied closely to patterns such as mobile, social, and voice search, among other things. But many marketers are past the point of being on the cutting-edge of those patterns, and want to know, “What now?”
Now, we also have topic clusters and messaging apps. Make no mistake: Mobile, social, and voice search are still major players in the SEO game. Prior to their entrance onto the landscape, SEO predominantly revolved around browser-based search engines. More precisely, it’s been linked directly to Google. That’s where all the search activity has been. That’s where content consumption has historically started.
Despite these changes, SEO still stands for “search engine optimization” — for marketers, the “optimization” part is what requires agility. Google defines the strategy as “the process of maximizing the number of visitors to a particular website by ensuring that the site appears high on the list of results returned by a search engine.” And while that, to some extent, remains true, we’ve widened the circle around the search engine results page (SERP). Of course, keep your eye on your ranking, but also, look farther out on the horizon.