It’s Time to Update Your SEO Strategy for 2018

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First, Mobile-First

Assuming your organization has mastered the basics of high-quality content and technically proficient page design and coding, there are still some ways to increase the odds of success for SEO marketers. At the top of the list in 2018 is mobile optimization.

In 2017, research from eMarketer found that U.S. adults now spend 3 hours and 23 minutes each day on mobile devices, and Google confirmed, back in 2015, that more of its searches were conducted on mobile devices than on desktops. Capitalizing on this shift, Google rolled out AMP, an open standard to have pages load quickly on mobile devices, and in 2016, it officially integrated AMP into its mobile search results. “We are starting to see Google reward sites that have converted over to AMP,” Kelser confirms. And yet, he says, “You still visit so many sites on a phone or tablet and can’t see anything because they’re not designed for the mobile user.”

Colburn concurs, noting that a team at Forrester recently did a small study on the landing pages of companies that were using paid search ads, and it uncovered a bit of hypocrisy in the process. “Twenty-three percent of those landing pages weren’t mobile optimized,” he says, meaning that users may not have been able to find what they were looking for once they got there. “Google is happy to take ad dollars from marketers even if the experience is bad, but tells them they’ll get dinged in search for non-mobile-optimized sites.” SEO marketers have no time to waste in removing obstacles for searchers who seek answers from their iPhones, Android devices, or tablets.

Listen Up

Another aspect to consider in 2018 is the impact of voice search, thanks to the rapid adoption of virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google Home. Research firm Gartner predicts that 20% of all interactions with smartphones will take place via virtual assistants by 2019; Google’s voice recognition accuracy has hit 95%, a sign that those interactions are getting more accurate and less frustrating. The rapid rise of virtual assistants and the voice commands that activate them presents challenges for marketers to figure out how to leverage them and incentive to experiment to see what works.

“We know customers are increasingly using voice search, but we don’t yet know what to do about it,” says Colburn. “Does it make SEO go away? It certainly adds complexity and confusion to marketers’ jobs.” Richards believes that the “good content” rule applies here, pointing out that if content is written in an informative, conversational style that engages customers, it is likely to play well with voice search anyway.

Colburn says, “My initial advice with voice search is that you don’t need to add anything new to the arsenal.” But SEO marketers may want to consider the different ways a person would articulate a search to a friend—“what’s a good coffee shop near Uptown?” versus “coffee shops Oakland” in typed search—and make sure those phrases appear within their content.

Artificial intelligence (AI) such as Google’s RankBrain, which has underpinned Google search since 2015, continues to become more sophisticated. The use of AI in search is intended to understand the user’s query in context and serve up appropriate pages for that specific user and question. “The search algorithms are so much more sophisticated about the user than they used to be that search results will start to become much more personal,” says Colburn. The key for brands to leverage AI in search harkens back to the basics of high-quality content: Make sure your content is dense, providing comprehensive treatment of a subject to answer the questions of multiple users who may have differing intent.

Image search is another place for brands to get experimental in 2018. Products such as Google Lens, announced at Google I/O in May 2017, will allow smartphone cameras to understand the context of what they’re seeing. Think of a search starting not with a keyword or a voice command, but with a mobile phone user taking a photograph of a sweater worn by someone passing by on the sidewalk. Google’s AI engine could knit together enough information about that user’s location and preferences, as well as attributes of the photograph, to direct him or her to a nearby store stocking the item. While it’s a tad premature to identify best practices in image search, SEO marketers will certainly want to keep an eye on how image search could be leveraged for their products.

International considerations continue to loom large for companies operating on a global scale, especially those with activities in China, where both internet usage and market opportunities are heating up. “There are some countries where Google is a second thought or prohibited altogether,” says Kesler, with China being a key market in which Google takes a backseat to Chinese search engine provider Baidu. Colburn says that there are also a number of questions around how marketers can monetize local search in China. “It’s more complex there than in the U.S., because there aren’t very many technologies to leverage for search,” he says. For companies with plans for Chinese expansion, it’s incumbent to understand the nuances of Baidu’s search and perhaps partner with experts in local search optimization.

Search Steps Up

In the end, what may make 2018 a standout year for SEO is the opportunity it represents for search experts to take a place at the strategy table alongside other corporate stakeholders. Colburn mentions a large manufacturer of hand sanitizer that leverages search far beyond the search results page. “They look at the search traffic related to flu season to figure out when it will spike by region, and sure, they use that information to figure out when and where to buy ads. But they also use it to figure out when to increase product inventory in different regions and when to ship it there.”

Kesler says, “People talk about SEO and site usability like they’re separate, but it’s converging.” As search engines recognize and reward sites in which users linger over content and make purchases, the interaction of search, usability, and conversion rates becomes critically important, making a holistic view the best way forward. “You can have the best content out there, but if it’s not set up for usability, you won’t convert search to sales,” he says. 

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