Google has closed out the year with some major SERP layout changes that have further added to its incredible shrinking SERP. Not only are rich snippets becoming longer and more dynamic, but Google has also expanded its featured snippets and knowledge panel to become more primary elements of its user experience. Tie this to the rise of voice search and acquiring first page organic presence in broad keyword searches has become incredibly competitive and narrow, especially on mobile.
Does this spell the end to SEO? The supply of available first page links has shrunk and the demand (or SEO marketers) has risen considerably in the past decade, but this only reinforces the need to follow SEO’s best practices.
A better question is: does this actually matter? With a shift toward an omnichannel, personalized user experience, digital marketing has become more robust. Businesses now employ different, multi-layered marketing strategies across multiple digital platforms to reach customers and attract leads. With this said, we’d like to analyze how some of the most salient elements of SEO are changing and how this will affect your digital marketing campaigns in 2019.
User Experience is Zero-Sum
Machine learning technology shaped the SEO landscape in 2018, introducing more dynamic search results. Google’s RankBrain serves the best search results based on the historical user data of contextually similar searches. This means that user signals, such as CTR, dwell time, and bounce rate have an indirect effect on which search results get displayed toward the top, where all other ranking factors are equal.
A 2016 Searchmetrics study found that top 3 SERP results among its cross-sectional study had an average CTR of 36%. An SEMRush study also found that direct traffic and strong user signals correlated with high organic rank more than any other factor. Among these results, the study found that bounce rate significantly increased for results past the top 3.
While user and social signals may not have direct impact on your website, they are certainly indicative your landing page’s content quality and relevance. If Google sends a user to the same number one result only to see 95% of its users leave the page after 10 seconds and click on a seperate listing then it will have to adjust its results to reflect user intent.
While the tools Google has to evaluate content quality and landing page experience remain limited, optimizing your UX, even for seemingly arbitrary kpis, is important for retaining high organic rank. In the era of RankBrain, user experience determines rank.
Content Marketing Adapts to Voice Search
According to one source, 40% of adults use voice search once a day. Customers primarily use voice search for product research and informational queries. According to comscore, the number of voice searches over Google is expected to rise to 50% of its total English searches by 2020.
Google’s voice recognition technology holds a 95% accuracy rate and other similar products are reporting the same. Voice search is expected to continue to rise through 2020 and this presents a few implications for content marketers:
- Keywords within content are being evaluated using Natural Language Processing to determine appropriate queries.
- Voice assistants read answers to informational queries from Google’s knowledge panel, featured snippet, or the most relevant block of content from the first result’s landing page.
- Voice assistants will also provide product descriptions from the same sources, as well as the landing page product description.
For content marketers, the importance of writing for the consumer and not search engines becomes paramount. It’s key to implement LSI keywords (contextually relevant keywords) within appropriate H2 tags for easy scanning. Optimize structured data to communicate the questions you are seeking to answer to search engines.
Along this line, it’s important to cover as much information as possible in your page copy to answer as many questions related to your main topic as possible. This helps you land in Google’s featured snippet for both broad and niche related questions.
Ensure your content is thorough and reads naturally. In general, voice search adds to an already occurring trend in SEO: the lengthening of content. We gladly welcome the return of the traditional writer.
It’s also important to register for Google’s knowledge panel. Major updates to Google’s algorithm have shown greater reliance on the knowledge panel to serve relevant user results, as opposed to its featured snippet. More than likely, the featured snippet will be used for niche queries.
Hyperlocal is a Discipline of its Own
Hyperlocal SEO was born out of the the sharp increase of mobile searches, which included “near me.” Google’s Hawk and Possum update have been aimed at eliminating duplicate listings from Google’s local search results and making them more like its broad organic search.
Today, local search has become a discipline and strategy of its own, thanks to the rise of mobile searches. According to HubSpot’s local search statistics, 50% of local searches are inquiring about business NAP information (name, address, and phone number) and 50% of mobile local searches result in an instore visit that day.
Aided by the mobile revolution and voice search, local SEO has become a field of its own. Recent changes to Google My Business including, the ability to post, message, book, and even donate to local businesses and charities have made GMB a unique platform for businesses to interact with local customers. For SME’s, using geolocation to serve content relatable to local customers and target ads toward them make hyperlocal search an advantageous avenue to explore.
Mobile First and AMP: Will we get Closure?
Mobile searches have exceeded desktop searches for the past 2 years now and its volume is expected to plateau atop desktop. One way Google is taking advantage of this trend is by introducing the mobile first index, which takes precedence and refreshes faster than its current index. Using many of the same ranking factors, the mobile index will serve content differently than its current index based on mobile friendliness and a webpage’s ability to meet mobile user intent.
Unfortunately, we’ll never truly know when the mobile first index will be fully implemented. It’s already being used in a beta stage to test specific keyword searches. A cross-sectional study by Brightedge found that mobile and desktop results differed approximately 79% of the time for the same keyword search terms.
Here’s what you need to optimize for mobile and the mobile first index:
- Improve mobile page friendliness (e.g. implement responsive web design, AMP, or serve under a PWA).
- Improve mobile page speed (perhaps the most important factor).
- Optimize content length and make more concise to account for mobile screen sizes
- Never use Flash and consider using HTML5- also easier to implement AMP with HTML.
- Optimize for local SEO
Perhaps the best strategy to optimize for mobile search is inserting AMP code into your mobile web design. While AMP may strip away many of the design and interactive elements of your page, it’s faster and can still be optimized with a CTA to create mobile conversions.
It’s important to note that Google will direct search traffic to your AMP before your native webpage. Right now, the AMP has just completed phase 2 with its fast fetch rendering and is expected to be updated early next year to smooth out its imperfections.
Digital Marketing Continues to Evolve
SEO is a dynamic field that continues to evolve. Technical SEO, content marketing, social media marketing, and link building all play a part of a larger ecosystem that seeks to achieve brand alignment across an omni channel marketing experience. As automation is slowly embraced by webmasters, the future of SEO is exciting and full of potential for small businesses and local shops.