It’s a cliche, but SEO is among the rare industries where what defines success can change every single day. Whether you’re faced with a dramatic new search algorithm update or the decidedly more boring — but often just as frustrating — whims of user intent that can transform a SERP in days, search engine optimization demands adaptation at all levels. What worked yesterday may not onlynotwork today, but it may even be detrimental — surprise! But, at the slightest fluctuation of a machine learning bot, certain strategies may eventually come back into favor.
As someone who has worked at a premier SEO agency from the ground up over the last 7+ years, I’ve had the rewarding experience of learning and applying strategies in real-time as the tectonic plates of SEO kept moving beneath us. Tactics that were once “best practices” or “rule of thumb” directives soon became obsolete as algorithms changed or our team accumulated enough real-world data to prove that a different approach was better.
There’s nothing more exciting in the world of digital marketing than to discover a new tactic that no one else knows the value of yet, or to be among the first on the proverbial bandwagon of a strategy that is not yet cemented in SEO gospel. We’re always looking for the next big thing — it’s human nature. However, what if I told you that some of the most exciting “new” organic marketing techniques are actually already at your disposal — and that some are as simple as performing a Google search?
I’m lucky in thatGo Fish Digital works with an incredible array of clients and has a world-class teamwith which to share new ideas and priceless industry knowledge. This quick guide is for those who don’t have the luxury of following every blip of the algorithms or to read every new SEO article that defines yet another evolution of the craft. If you’re only catching bits and pieces of SEO news, or are relying on what once were considered SEO best practices breathlessly detailed in a years-old article on the web, it can be helpful to understand tactics that are effective with how organic search works today — not last year. Let’s dive in!
Don’t let the painfully boring title fool you. The idea of hierarchical content structure is a game-changer for a host of topics and industries.
The old way of SEO stressed things like one keyword per article, stuffing your most important content at the top of a page, etc. That can still be the most effective strategy in some cases. However, changes in the way search engines crawl and index web pages mean that there is greater flexibility than ever before in how you structure your content and the topics it can effectively target.
Google’s recentPassage indexing updateis the most public indication of this change. Google has stated that Googlebot can now crawl and index sections of longer web pages, allowing these sections to surface for deeper queries where the entire article may not be able to rank as well. For SEO practitioners, this means ensuring a piece of content describes multiple topics — or using proper headings and including definitional paragraphs to “set the scene” for each topic. And, if you’re targeting multiple keywords that are associated with the same topic, don’t automatically feel you need to create a new page for each. Check search results to determine if a unique page is the better strategy. You may find that leveraging a single piece of long-form content — with clearly defined content sections for each topic — not only serves the purpose for your long-tail keywords but also adds SEO gravitas and support to the main topic/keyword — i.e., if someone is searching for your main topic, they’d probably like to find information on subtopics on the same page.
Below is a great example of a strong content structure that provides value for users and excellent signals for modern search engines.
This is part of a larger article about life insurance, but you can see that the content is broken up into smaller chunks of information about important aspects of the primary topic. In this view, we can see sections for “Life Insurance Terminology” and “Who Needs Life Insurance?” — both of which are highly relevant to the larger topic but also able to stand on their own as a strong match for search queries specifically targeting these sub-topics.
Traditionally, paid search (PPC, SEM, whatever you prefer…) has always been siloed from the organic side of things. That makes sense at the macro level because they are two distinct and often quite dissimilar marketing techniques.
However, one of the more dramatic changes over the years has been how often we use paid search — whether data or actual tactics — to influence SEO strategy. Google AdWords is virtually the only keyword-level data accessible in Google Analytics these days, so that type of information can be critical to understanding how an audience finds your site or which keywords offer the biggest upside if you’re able to begin ranking organically. And, with the number of SERP ads certainly not going down anytime soon, coordinating with your paid search team (even if that’s yourself!) can be vital in tracking down attribution for things like a shift in organic traffic. Seeing fewer organic hits to your homepage? It could be because your paid team dialed up the frequency of paid search ads last quarter, or a competitor bought ad impressions on your brand name for the first time in months.
Finding new keyword targets from paid search can be as simple as browsing the various Google Ads reports that are likely already in your site’s Google Analytics account (if you’re running paid ads on Google and havelinked Google Ads with your Analytics profile, of course).
As shown below, the Search Queries report in the Google Ads dashboard within Google Analytics provides helpful insights on queries that may be ripe for targeting with organic content rather than paying for those visits.
We can see a number of informational keywords that are generating ad clicks in the example shared here, many of which may be lucrative opportunities to create new content in order to rank organically.
If Google existed 30 years ago, and you happened to search for the word “amazon,” plenty of results about a certain South American river would pop up. And, odds are, such content would be exactly what you were looking for. Try the same search today, and… well, things are just a bit different. Not only will the search results look different, but theintentbehind that search is probably different, too. Now, you’re probably searching for a place to buy cheap electronics or paper towels instead of facts about one of the world’s longest rivers.
While this hypothetical scenario is dramatized for effect (it worked, right?), a version of this is occurring every day in search results near you. Search intent can be the single most overlooked factor when it comes to SEO performance and strategy, often because it’s largely out of your hands as a marketer. Intent comes down to what an audience desires — or what Google thinks they desire — and what your company or site can offer them. Things can get ugly once intent changes, unless you know the signs and how to react.
Pay close attention to the entire SERP and not just your own site’s rank position. If your site offers a transactional service, but the SERP gradually begins to show more informational results, you may need to adjust your page or even build new content to support that particular intent. Adapt to search intent instead of fighting it. With Google acknowledging thatthey make updates to their search algorithm “all the time,”the influence of intent on real-world search results has never been more dramatic. Part of the reason for this is because intent itself can change every day alongside the algorithm. While it’s unlikely that every site in a SERP will change their title tag or add huge chunks of new content each day, a slight daily uptick in the percentage of the audience that wants a 1500-word informational deep dive on your target keyword vs a two-paragraph sales page can upend the results and introduce new players that need to be monitored or even emulated. This is why something as simple as a daily search of your most important keyword (in a private browser window, please!) may be one of the most important tactics in your SEO toolbox.
One eye-opening example of how much intent can influence organic search rankings is for the query “mid century modern furniture.” Just one year ago, the top four organic results for this search were associated with product listings from ecommerce retail sites.
However, the same query returns a much different set of results in 2021. You can see that three of the top four organic results for “mid century modern furniture” are now informational articles, with only one traditional product listing page left in this section of the SERP.
That’s not to say that intent may change again and the former top results — or entirely different content — will capture the top of this particular SERP in the weeks or months ahead. However, this example shows the importance of monitoring your top keywords in real-time for evidence of these shifts before it’s too late. This type of early intelligence can allow you to create high-quality new content or adjust existing content to better match what Google perceives as the ideal user experience for each query.
Links were historically one of the most enigmatic aspects of SEO, with the “rules” never seeming to apply to them. A site should never pay for links, guest post for links, acquire links from tangential sites, etc, etc — yet, all of these tactics (and worse…) continued to work for many sites, time and time again. Google’s annual denunciations of the hottest link-building strategies were to be taken with the most extreme skepticism because those grey hat tactics were producing results when the arbiters of organic search were claiming they shouldn’t. SERPs continued to be riddled with half-baked sites that earned a prime organic perch just by throwing a veritable small nation’s worth of questionable links at their top landing page. Or maybe your site offered a better service, but the competitor earned more organic traffic simply because they slipped a dofollow link into a web form widget distributed to their customers. It was truly the wild west of link building, and it perpetuated foryearsafter some in the search community claimed it had been cleaned up for good.
Thankfully, things have (mostly) changed in 2021. One of the greatest SEO breakthroughs to level the playing field has been the slow yet welcome introduction of context into how search engine algorithms evaluate backlinks. Google has continued to say all the right things when it comes toencouraging sites to focus on quality instead of quantity when it comes to backlinks, but the algo has finally caught up to the rhetoric. The preceding 12 months have seemed to usher in a tangible shift towards quality and relevance significantly outweighing sheer volume and freshness when it comes to the value of links and their influence on organic visibility. Sites that had built SEO empires atop a mountain of shady and off-topic links have gradually faded away, while it’s clear that others have been forced to compete the “right way” — by creating high-quality content — and have managed to maintain their SERP presencedespitetheir past link building travesties, and not because of them.
Make no mistake: links are still highly valuable and can make the difference between owning a #1 position and barely being able to crack page one, depending on how competitive your market is. However, the tactics used to build your link profile are now more important than ever when it comes to strategies that work vs those that are a waste of time. Today’s single most effective link-building strategy is to build interesting or valuable pieces of content that other sites relevant to your industry want to link to. The bonus is that these pieces often overlap with organic search, so they can bring in new organic visitors to your site in addition to equity from highly relevant backlinks. We’ve often seen our most successfulcontent marketingcampaigns eventually rank for lucrative organic keywords and bring in new backlinks years after the page was published — simply because the piece is of such high content quality that it’s able to rank #1 for a popular search term.
These are what I consider the most overlooked advancements in SEO over the last few years, but what are yours? And what will the organic search landscape look like over the next five years? Let’s consider these questions as we all look forward to an exciting future of SEO!