Search engine algorithms are constantly evolving. New ranking factors emerge, old ones drop off, and the ones in between shift in importance. As Google, Bing and the rest attempt to improve their search results and drive ad revenue, here are 8 trends – and predictions thereof – that you can expect to see over the next year in Search. Presented complete with tips on how to prepare for and capitalize on them, all of these should dictate your SEO and digital marketing strategies.
1. Mobile can no longer be ignored.
Google’s “mobile-first index” will necessitate mobile-focused design more than ever before, with desktop design becoming secondary. Website owners can no longer ignore mobile-friendly website design as it relates to SEO. Moreover, as people increasingly access websites and applications from smartphones and tablets, and as more of those websites and apps become more accessible, desktop traffic will continue to decline. Thankfully, content management systems like WordPress and e-commerce platforms like Shopify make responsive design relatively easy.
2. Good user experience (UX) will mean good SEO.
Google has made it abundantly clear that its focus is on the user. Good UX obviously helps delight visitors and improve conversions, but good UX will begin to unequivocally mean good SEO as the Hummingbird algorithm and specifically the machine-learning piece called RankBrain get better at reading “user signals” like bounce rate and time on page. SEO specialists and website owners should be tracking these “signals” in Google Analytics both sitewide and for individual landing pages.
Content, design, landing page relevance and load speed will all fall under this user experience umbrella. Landing Page Quality Score, the oft-forgotten piece of a good AdWords campaign and a measure of what Google terms “experience,” also relates to this. In a general sense, it is imperative that SEO specialists work closely with web developers to improve these things and enhance UX as much as possible. Website owners should do regular usability testing, website speed testing and user behavior tracking to ensure they’re accomplishing that goal. Similarly, business owners should only hire developers who have verifiable knowledge of these SEO and UX concepts.
3. Content will continue to be king.
As Google’s Hummingbird algorithm increasingly places a higher value on good user experience, relevant, well-researched, high-quality, long-form content will be crucial to SEO and SEM success, and will be the cornerstone of a solid 2018 SEO strategy. The aforementioned user signals like bounce rate and time on page further emphasize the need for good content. I would even guess that these user signals will likely be weighted more on mobile views.
We’re already seeing indications that traditional factors like keyword density and keywords in title tags, header tags, etc. will become less important than they have been in the past. The chart below from SEMrush’s study illustrates the fact that user-signal importance is on the rise. Website owners must take every opportunity to offer the visitor truly valuable content in as many forms as possible, from actual written copy to images to videos to interactive tools.
4. Voice search will grow as digital assistants become more accessible.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve definitely heard about the rise of voice search. As more people utilize Alexa, Cortana, Siri and other digital assistants, more queries will be asked by voice rather than with typed words. I think search queries will mostly be actual specific questions, e.g. “How do I pay my phone bill?” or “Which airline offers the cheapest direct flight from NYC to LA?” (Note that Google already has a rich result for the latter!)
This means SEO specialists need to hone in on long-tail keywords and create custom informative landing pages to handle these types of queries. Extending that argument, I suspect as digital assistants and the search engines they utilize are better able to parse and deliver relevant results for more of these voice queries, the length and types of voice queries will evolve as users realize they can use increasingly complex and detailed queries, assuming the results provided are satisfactory (i.e. that they effectively “answer” the user’s query). And since machine learning will be increasingly incorporated into the technologies of both the assistants and the search engines, it may not take long for that to happen.
I’m very much hoping that Analytics and Search Console will separate out voice queries and “traditional” typed queries in the near future, but Google may hold onto that data for a while before releasing it to website owners. Keyword research tools will hopefully begin to incorporate suggested voice queries that people are more likely to use, which should drive content and landing page strategy. This again relates to creating high-quality content in that these landing pages should be relevant to the user’s query and should match the user’s intent.
5. “SERP Features” / “Featured Snippets” / “Rich Results” will grow in scope.
The SERP landscape is changing. While there seems to be a new name every week for “rich” data, we’ll see more of Google’s “rich results” in 2018. Google wants to feed you more information directly (think local pack, knowledge graph, featured snippets, etc.) in the SERP and do away with – or at least diminish the presence of – third-party data aggregators.
Nearly 30% of all search queries on Google now have featured snippets, and that figure is expected to increase rapidly, so structured data markup and Google’s ability to parse it will be more important going forward, especially in regard to personalized SERPs. SERP features should also inform content strategy, such as FAQ pages with answers to specific questions. This also means the structure and format of content is now just as important as its substance.
Similarly, local SEO via creating location pages, optimizing your local business listings/citations and maintaining consistent NAP data across platforms will be imperative to achieving top placement in the local pack.
6. Page load speed will be an increasingly important factor.
Again, good UX will equal good SEO as Google pushes for improved user experience. People hate waiting. It’s 2018; users demand and expect a fast-loading web page, and the search engines realize this. I imagine every fraction of a second slower than Google’s benchmark for any particular page will result in a penalty factor, albeit small, being applied to that page’s rank, relative to the speeds of competing pages for any given query.
Speed will also become more important for conversions, with visitors bouncing if a page is too slow. When Walmart realized its e-commerce website wasn’t the fastest, it employed a dedicated team to tackle speed optimization. The illustrations below speak for themselves and are a compelling case for load speed optimization. Namely, speed drastically affects conversion rate, and speed and bounce rate are strongly correlated.
GTmetrix is a good tool to use to examine the speed of your website; it provides speed scores and tips on how to improve them.
7. Website security will be more significant.
Similarly, Google is also looking at website security as a ranking factor. Websites must get an SSL certificate and deliver content over a secure protocol (HTTPS). The Chrome browser has already implemented a warning label in the address bar for sites serving content or transmitting/receiving data over an insecure connection. This label will also appear when a user begins typing data into a field on an HTTP page (see screenshots below). For secure sites, Chrome displays a green lock icon and a “Secure” message. Thankfully, hosting platforms are making it easier and cheaper than ever to install and configure SSL certificates to achieve this goal.
8. Links are still a major ranking factor.
Backlinks are and will continue to be a major ranking factor, even though Google likes to deny that fact. I think “implied links” – brand mentions without an actual hyperlink – will become a ranking factor. Business owners must utilize PR and Social Media efforts to reach out and engage consumers to both build brand authority/trust and ascertain links. Ideally, those links would come from a relevant, authoritative page and would be contextual and anchored.
2018 will be an interesting year for SEO. While traditional techniques are still effective, SEO specialists must embrace new ranking factors and subsequent new technologies in order to increase traffic and conversions. With the rise of structured data presentation, user signals and other CTR-influencing items, ranking well per se is no longer the only goal.