This post was sponsored by Link Assistant – SEO Power Suite. Thank you for supporting the sponsors who make SitePoint possible.
I hope you’re not buying into the latest hype that “Search Engine Optimization is dead,” and “social is the new search.” SEO is far from dead. In reality, SEO is evolving into an amalgamation of tried-and-true SEO techniques, content marketing, and social media optimization. It’s grown more complex, but no less valuable. So with all that in mind, here are five SEO trends you need to plan for in 2015.
1. Semantic Search
In September 2013, Google released its “Hummingbird” update. Unlike the previous Panda and Penguin updates, Hummingbird was a complete overhaul of the algorithm, based on semantic search.
Semantics is a sub-discipline of linguistics that focuses on the study of meaning. Semantic search attempts to understand the meaning of the query and searcher’s intent. Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land explains it like this:
Hummingbird is paying more attention to each word in a query, ensuring that the whole query—the whole sentence or conversation or meaning—is taken into account, rather than particular words. The goal is that pages matching the meaning do better, rather than pages matching just a few [key]words.
Growth of Conversational Queries
Over the past decade-and-a-half, Google has trained us to type in keywords that describe what we’re looking for. But now search is becoming conversational. Google Now and Siri are teaching us to ask questions. If I type, “where is the nearest Apple store” into the search bar, Google understands “where” as the location and “nearest” to mean in relation to where I am at that moment. But it also realizes I’m not looking for a store where I can buy fruit.
When I ask Siri the same question, she assumes I may be on the move and offers to call or give me directions.
In 2015, targeting “conversational queries” to capture users’ actual search intent will become crucial if you want to rank well. Your keyword research should identify both long-tail keywords and LSI keywords.
Long-tail keywords are longer, more specific phrases consumers are more likely to use when they’re further along in the buying cycle and closer to making a purchase.
The concept behind long-tail keywords is quality over quantity. I once had a client who sold gift baskets. Ranking well for that term would generate a lot of traffic, but she’d have to compete with some top brands to do so. Ranking for longer, more specific terms like “homemade chocolate chip cookie gift baskets” will be less competitive and generate a smaller amount of higher-quality leads.
LSI stands for “latent semantic indexing,” which is a fancy term for synonyms and plurals of your main keywords. So if I’m a dentist, I also want to use keywords like dental and dentistry.
Latent semantic indexing also tells Google how keywords are related to one another. So when it sees a webpage containing “apple,” along with keywords like “iPhone” or “Tim Cook,” it understands the page to be about Apple, not apples.
You can help search engines better interpret the content of your site by incorporating semantic markup in your on-page optimization.
Semantic or schema markup is microdata inserted in your HTML that uses a common set of properties to describe the contents of your site, such as:
- Place, Local Business
- Product, Offer
Here’s an example of a product offering from the schema.org website:
<div itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/Offer"> <span itemprop="name">Blend-O-Matic</span> <span itemprop="price">$19.95</span> <link itemprop="availability" href="http://schema.org/InStock"/>Available today! </div>
Schema markup isn’t a ranking factor. But using it gives search engines detailed information they can use to display rich snippets (such as price, availability, and review ratings) right on the results pages, which can certainly improve your click-through rate.
Continuing Importance of Keyword Research
SEO continues to evolve, but the advent of semantic search makes keyword research more important than ever.
Rather than focusing on a few words and phrases, look at the broad spectrum of long-tail and LSI keywords, and conversation phrases people would use to look for your product or service. LinkAssistant’s Rank Tracker will help adapt your keyword strategy for conversational queries.
2. Mobile Search Optimization
According to Google, 50% of all mobile searches have local intent, meaning someone is searching for a local business to make an in-store purchase.
But not all mobile search has a local intent:
- 17% of mobile shoppers research in-store, then purchase online (Google/IPSOS OTX MediaCT)
- 44% of mobile shoppers research online, then purchase online (Google/IPSOS OTX MediaCT)
- 77% of mobile searches occur at home or at work; only 17% are conducted on the move (Mobile Search: Creating Moments that Matter, Google/Nielsen)
- 81% of smartphone users have done product research from a smartphone, and 50% have made a purchase via their phone. (Prosper Mobile Insights)
- 66% of time spent with online retail in September 2014 occurred on mobile devices—a 14% increase from the previous March (comScore)
The Growth of Mobile Search
Today’s smartphone has more than 100 times the computing power of the average satellite. They are personal computers carried in the pockets and purses of your potential customers.
- 43% of Americans use mobile devices as their primary search tool (Mobile Marketing Association)
- 46% of adults do not consult their PC as part of the pre-purchase research, relying exclusively on smartphones or tablets (2013 US Mobile Path-to-Purchase Study)
- 33% use their smartphones and tablets throughout the entire purchase process (2013 US Mobile Path-to-Purchase Study)
- 58% of U.S. adults participate in “showrooming”, that is, comparing prices on a smartphone while browsing in-store, then buying online (Parago, June 2013)
- Mobile search is predicted to overtake desktop search by 2015 (BIA/Kelsey)
Google is even making subtle changes to the SERP to improve consistency in design across platforms.
The Rise of the Mobile-Only User
Twenty five per cent of Americans use only a mobile device to access the Internet (GoMoNews.com). And that skews higher among certain demographics. According to Pew Research:
- 50% of adolescents (12-17) and 45% of young adults (18-29) say they use the Internet mostly on their cell phone
- 51% of black Americans and 42% of Hispanic Americans who use a mobile device to access the Internet say it’s the primary way they go online
- 40% of low-income adults say they primarily use their cell phone to go online
Mobile search optimization is important for every demographic, but it becomes even more critical when targeting those more likely to be “mobile-only” users.
How Google’s New “Mobile-Friendly” Labels Affect Search Ranking
For some time, Google has been penalizing sites that don’t provide a good mobile experience. In November, it officially launched mobile-friendly labels and is experimenting with rewarding these sites with a boost in ranking.
The sudden rise of the smartphone was considered a boon for small businesses seeking to draw local consumers to their storefront. But as consumers use mobile devices to extend or replace the desktop, optimizing for mobile search becomes crucial to every business that wants to be found online.
3. The Death of Social Signals
Do social signals (tweets, shares, +1s) impact search rankings? Yes, but not in the way you’ve been led to believe.
Social signals have been touted as definitive way to achieve a top ranking in the search results. This is due, in part, to a 2010 video in which Google web spam head Matt Cutts stated, “we do use Twitter and Facebook links and rankings, as we always have, in our web search ranking.”
In 2014, however, when asked if Facebook and Twitter signals are part of the ranking algorithm, he did an about-face, saying: “… we don’t currently have any signals like that in our web search ranking algorithms.”
He went on to say that, although there’s a strong correlation between social signals and good ranking on Google, it’s not necessarily a causal link:
… there was an SEO that said, ‘OK, we see a lot of links on Facebook and those are the pages the rank well.’ But that’s correlation; that’s not causation. Instead, it’s probably that there’s something really awesome, and because there’s something awesome, then it gets a lot of likes on Facebook and a lot of people decide to link to it. That’s the sort of thing where the better content you make, the more people are [going] to like it not only in Google, but in Twitter and Facebook as well.
SEOs have speculated that this doesn’t apply to Google’s own social network, Google+. But Cutts debunked the idea that “more Google +1s lead to higher Google web rankings,” again citing correlation, not causation.
In spite of these comments, SEOs have continued to insist that Google takes social signal into account as a ranking factor, even conducting in-house studies to prove it. KissMetrics observed that when a site got a hundred Google+ followers, its rankings jumped by 14.63%.
Ironically, this post ranks #1 on Google for social signals 2014, right above the Matt Cutts video debunking the idea.
That not to say these platforms aren’t important. In fact, I’d argue that the correlation between the two makes social media as relevant as ever before.
But social media must be done within the larger context of a content marketing strategy. Shared content (both your own and others) generates backlinks, drives traffic and increases search queries for your brand, all of which influence ranking.
Social Media Pages Rank Well
Here’s another way social media impacts search. To quote Matt Cutts once again:
Facebook and Twitter pages are treated like any other pages in our web index, so if something occurs on Twitter or occurs on Facebook and we’re able to crawl it, then we can return that in our search results.
Social media sites like Facebook are high-authority sites. So your Facebook or Google+ business Page has the potential to rank better than your actual website.
Darren Rowse characterizes your website/blog as being your “home base” and your social media as “outposts”, all of which have the potential to be found in a search. Do you really care if a searcher finds your Facebook page first, so long as they convert?
The death of social signals doesn’t mean abandoning social media. It’s understanding the real reason for being active on social media and how it affects your search engine rankings.
4. Increased Importance of Earned Links
Owned media is anything you have control over, such as your website and social media. (Although, you could make the case that social media is actually “borrowed,” but I digress …)
Paid media is leveraging a third-party’s distribution platform to advertise or gain exposure. This could be advertising via Google AdWords, banners on a display ad network, promoted tweets, or print Yellow Pages.
Earned media is when others share your content or talk about your brand. Which is why paying for links is the surest way to get your site penalized.
Matt Cutts recently admitted that Google didn’t act as fast as they should have on content farms and paid link schemes. But those days are over. The emphasis is creating content that others want to link to.
A successful link strategy depends on both quality and quantity of inbound links. Avoid low-quality links that will get your site penalized. Google’s disavow tool and LinkAssistant’s Anti-Penalty Link Audit will help you find and neutralize harmful links.
Content is (Still) King
So we’ve come full-circle back to content marketing and social media being part of your overall search marketing strategy. Link earning has been described as “higher on the evolution ladder than link building.” As SEO in general has evolved into a different animal, so link building must evolve as well.
Think of it being the same overall strategy, but using different tactics. For instance, knowing where your competitors’ backlinks are coming from is still important. But how you go about obtaining links from those same sources has changed.
LinkAssistant’s SEO SpyGlass lets you analyze your competitors backlinks, gain an understanding of why they rank so well, and create a winning blueprint of your own.
Earning Links from Offline Relationships
Offline relationships, activities and promotions can be turned into online relationships that earn links to your website or blog, such as:
- Hosting a networking event
- Creating a scholarship program
- Sponsoring an industry-related student club at a local university
- Sponsoring a sports team
- Joining a local business association or Chamber of Commerce
- Running a contest or fund-raiser
- Getting involved with the community or a charitable organization
Broken Link Building
Broken link building is an advanced tactic that involves finding broken links on other sites, then contacting the webmaster and offering yours as an alternative. This often-overlooked technique is another way to get high quality links from authoritative sites.
Why is this effective? Because you’ve “earned” the link by letting the webmaster know they have a broken link and giving them a replacement. SEO PowerSuite can you can help you run broken link-building campaign and get hundreds of backlinks in six simple steps.
5. Brand Mentions and Citations
When is a link not a link? When it’s a citation.
A citation is any mention of your business name, address and phone number on a website other than your own. A co-citation is when it appears with other businesses like yours.
Citations (also called brand mentions or implied links) are an important authority factor. Depending on your business, there are three types you should consider obtaining.
Local businesses like dentists, plumbers, and attorneys should get listed on directories, Internet Yellow Page and review sites such as Yelp, YP.com, Google+ Local, and so on.
Local companies with a national footprint should look for industry-specific citations. A structural steel company, for example, competing with similar firms across the country will need citations on manufacturer directory sites like ThomasNet.
As a local search marketing company, we need applications that are beyond the scope of what we could develop in-house—such as a dashboard that allows us to manage our clients’ local listings, or a platform that monitors our clients’ online reputation.
The vendors who develop these platforms serve a very specific niche—providing software as a service (SaaS) to companies who sell local search marketing services to SMBs. Their best tactic is to get brand mentions and co-citation on the trade organization websites that their target market belong to, such as the Local Search Association and the Association of Directory Publishers.
Fragmentation of search requires optimizing brand presence across multiple platforms besides Google. Obtaining citations and brand mentions is an important part of your overall search marketing strategy.
Bonus Tip: Site Structure
The more your site appeals to human visitors, the more search engines like it. Websites with a streamlined URL structure and straightforward navigation win over websites with messy structures and confusing content organization.
Bounce rate and time spent on site are two factors Google takes into account as ranking factors. If users are bouncing away because of confusing navigation, you can be sure the search bots are as well. This causes crawl errors and hurts your ranking.
An XML Sitemap can help search engines find and index your pages more easily, and Google Webmaster Tools and LinkAssistant’s Site Audit Checklist will help you identify and fix crawl errors.
How to Develop a Good Site Structure
Make a Blueprint
Take the time to draw your site structure on paper. Your keyword research should determine how to structure your site. Knowing what keywords you want to target allows you to optimize link structure and navigation.
Categorize Each Section or Page Appropriately
If you have enough content about a subject, give it its own page. Otherwise, group related content on a single page. Keep in mind that search engines index webpages, not websites. Your goal is to get the specific page to rank for the related query. So “one page per product or service” is your best tactic.
Create SEO-friendly URLs
Use SEO-friendly URLs like
Test Your Site’s Usability
There’s no doubt that the SEO game has evolved, with a renewed focus on presenting content in ways that are palatable for humans as well as search engines. The rise of semantic search, the mobile web and the indirect relevance of social networks mean making sure people see your content is more involved and difficult than even before. But while a lot of things change, some stay the same: A focus on relevant high-quality content, well-presented, will always serve you well. And tools like Link Assistant’s SEO Power Suite can help you make the right decisions. To make effective promotion of your site easier give SEO PowerSuite a go today.
What are your top SEO priorities for the new year? How has your SEO strategy changed recently? We’d love to hear what you think.
Former owner and partner of web firm Jenesis Technologies, John is currently Director of Digital Strategy at Haines Local Search, a company providing local search marketing solutions to SMBs, including print and Internet Yellow Pages, web design, and local SEO. When not working or spending time with his family, John offers great sales and marketing advice on his blog, Small Business Marketing Sucks. When not working or spending time with his family, John offers great sales and marketing advice on his blog, Small Business Marketing Sucks.
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