Written by Loren Baker –
The march of time is inevitable. And every year, some new technology pounds the nail into the coffin on something older.
Whether the horse and buggy are replaced by the automobile or the slide rule is replaced by the calculator, everything eventually becomes obsolete.
And if you listen to the rumors, this time around, it’s search engine optimization. Rest in peace, SEO: 1997-2022.
There’s just one tiny little problem.
SEO is still alive and kicking. It’s just as relevant today as it has ever been. If anything, it may even be more important.
Today, 53% of all website traffic comes from organic search.
In fact, the first search result in Google averages 26.9% of click-throughs on mobile devices and 32% on desktops.
And what’s helping Google determine which results belong at the top of search engine results pages (SERPs)? SEO, of course.
Need more proof? We have more statistics to back it up.
Thanks to consistent updates to the Google search algorithm, the entire SEO field is undergoing rapid evolution.
Completely ignoring the many small changes the search engine’s algorithm has undergone, we’ve seen several major updates in the last decade. Some of the more important ones are:
- Panda – First put into place in February 2011, Panda was focused on quality and user experience. It was designed to eliminate black hat SEO tactics and web spam.
- Hummingbird – Unveiled in August 2013, Hummingbird made the search engine’s core algorithm faster and more precise in anticipation of the growth of mobile search.
- RankBrain – Rolled out in spring 2015, this update was announced in October of that year. Integrating artificial intelligence (AI) into all queries, RankBrain uses machine learning to provide better answers to ambiguous queries.
- BERT – Initially released in November 2018 and updated in December 2019, this update helps Google understand natural language better.
- Vicinity – Put into place in December 2021, Vicinity was Google’s biggest local search update in five years. Using proximity targeting as a ranking factor, local businesses are weighted more heavily in query results.
Each of these updates changed the way Google works, so each required SEO professionals to rethink their approach and tweak their strategy to ensure they get the results needed. But the need for their services remained.
Now that it’s been established that SEO is not dead, it raises the question: Where did all this death talk come from in the first place?
Most of it is based on unfounded conjecture and wild speculation. The truth is that SEO is in a state of transition, which can be scary.
And that transition is driven by three things:
- Artificial intelligence and machine learning, particularly Google RankBrain.
- Shrinking organic space on SERPs.
- Digital personal assistants and voice search.
The Rise Of Machine Learning
You’ve probably already recognized the impact AI has had on the world.
This exciting new technology has started to appear everywhere, from voice assistants to predictive healthcare to self-driving automobiles.
And it has been a trending topic in SEO for quite a while.
Unfortunately, most of what’s out there is incomplete information gathered from reading patents, analyzing search engine behavior, and flat-out guessing.
And part of the reason it’s so difficult to get a handle on what’s happening in AI concerning search engines is its constant evolution.
However, we will examine two identifiable trends: machine learning and natural language.
Machine learning is just what it sounds like: machines that are learning.
For a more sophisticated definition, it can be described as “a method of data analysis that automates analytical model building… a branch of artificial intelligence based on the idea that systems can learn from data, identify patterns and make decisions with minimal human intervention.”
For SEO purposes, this means gathering and analyzing information on content, user behaviors, citations, and patterns, and then using that information to create new rankings factors that are more likely to answer user queries accurately.
You will want to read this article for a more in-depth explanation of how that will work.
One of the most important factors machine learning uses when determining how to rank websites is our other trend – natural language.
From their earliest days, computers have used unique languages. And because it was very unlike the language humans don’t use, there was always a disconnect between user intent and what search engines delivered.
However, as technology has grown increasingly more advanced, Google has made great strides in this field.
The most important one for SEO professionals is RankBrain, Google’s machine learning system built upon the rewrite of Google’s core algorithm that we mentioned earlier, Hummingbird.
Nearly a decade ago, Google had the foresight to recognize that mobile devices were the future wave. Anticipating what this would mean for search, Hummingbird focused on understanding conversational speech.
RankBrain builds upon this, moving Google away from a search engine that follows the links between concepts to seeing the concepts they represent.
It moved the search engine away from matching keywords in a query to more precisely identifying user intent and delivering results that more accurately matched the search.
This meant identifying which words were important to the search and disregarding those that were not.
It also developed an understanding of synonyms, so if a webpage matches a query, it may appear in the results, even if it doesn’t include the searched-for keyword.
The biggest impact of RankBrain and machine learning has been on long-tail keywords.
In the past, websites would often jam in specific but rarely search-for keywords into their content. This allowed them to show up in queries for those topics.
RankBrain changed how Google handled these, which meant primarily focusing on long-tail keywords was no longer a good strategy. It also helped eliminate content from spammers who sought rankings for these terms.
Honey, I Shrunk The Organic Search Space
Search engines are big business, no one can deny that.
And since 2016, Google has slowly encroached on organic search results in favor of paid advertising. That was when sponsored ads were removed from the sidebar and put at the top of SERPs.
As a result, organic results were pushed further down the page, or “below the fold,” to borrow an anachronistic idiom.
From Google’s business perspective, this makes sense. The internet has become a huge part of the global economy, which means an ever-increasing number of companies are willing to pay for ad placement.
As a result of this seeming de-prioritization, organic SEO professionals are forced to develop innovative new strategies for not only showing up on the first page but also competing with paid ads.
Changes to local search have also affected SERPs. In its never-ending quest to provide more relevant results to users, Google added a local pack to search results. This group of three nearby businesses appears to satisfy the query. They are listed at the top of the first page of results, along with a map showing their location.
This was good news for local businesses who compete with national brands. For SEO professionals, however, it threw a new wrinkle into their work.
In addition to creating competition for local search results, this also opened the door for, you guessed it, local paid search ads.
And these are not the only things pushing organic results down the page. Depending on the search, your link may also have to compete with:
- Shopping ads.
- Automated extensions.
- Featured snippets.
- Video or image carousels.
- News stories.
Additionally, Google has begun directly answering questions (and suggested related questions and answers). This has given birth to a phenomenon known as “zero-click searches,” which are searches that end on the SERP without a click-through to another site.
In 2020, nearly 65% of all searches received no clicks, which is troubling for anyone who makes their living by generating them.
With this in mind, and as organic results sink lower and lower, it’s easy to see why some SEO professionals are becoming frustrated. But savvy web marketers see these as more than challenges – they see them as opportunities.
For example, if you can’t get your link at the top of a SERP, you can use structured data markup to grab a featured snippet. While this isn’t technically an SEO tactic, it is a way to generate clicks and traffic, which is the ultimate goal.
Use Your Voice
Not long ago, taking a note or making out your grocery list meant locating some paper and writing on it with a pen. Like a caveman.
Thankfully, those days are gone, or at least on their way out, having been replaced by technology.
Whether you’re using Siri to play your favorite song, asking Cortana how much the moon weighs, or having Alexa check the price of Apple stock, much of the internet is now available just by using your voice.
In 2020, 4.2 million digital personal assistant devices were being used worldwide. And that’s a number expected to double by 2024 as more and more people adopt the Amazon Echo, Sonos One, Google Nest Hub, and the like.
With the advent of these virtual helpers, we’ve seen a big increase in voice searching. Here are some interesting facts about voice search:
Isn’t technology grand?
It depends on who you are. If you work in SEO (and because you’re reading this, we’re going to assume you do), this creates some problems.
After all, how do you generate clicks to your website if no clicks are involved?
The answer is quite obvious: You need to optimize for voice search.
Voice-controlled devices don’t operate like a manual search, so your SEO content needs to consider this.
The best way to do this again is to improve the quality of your information. Your content needs to be the best answer to a person’s question, ensuring it ranks at the very top and gets the verbal click-throughs (is that a term?) you need.
And because people have figured out that more specific queries generate more specific responses, it’s important that your content fills that niche.
In general, specificity seems to be a growing trend in SEO, so it’s no longer enough to just have a web copy that says, “t-shirts for sale.”
Instead, you need to drill down to exactly what your target is searching for, e.g., “medium Garfield t-shirts + yellow + long-sleeve.”
What Does All This Mean For SEO?
Now that we’ve looked at the major reasons why pessimists and cynics are falsely proclaiming the demise of SEO, let’s review what we’ve learned along the way:
- Google will never be satisfied with its algorithms. It will always feel there is room to grow and improve its ability to precisely answer a search query. And far from being the death knell for SEO, this ensures its importance moving forward.
- Machine learning, especially regarding natural language, allows Google to better understand the intent behind a search and as a result, present more relevant options. Your content should focus on answering queries instead of just including keywords.
- Long-tail keywords are important for answering specific questions, particularly in featured answer sections, but focusing solely on them is an outdated and ineffective strategy.
- Organic search results lose real estate to paid ads and other features. However, this presents opportunities for clever SEO professionals to shoot to the top via things like local search.
- Zero-click searches constitute nearly two-thirds of all searches, which hurts SEO numbers but allows you to claim a spot of prominence as a featured snippet using structured data.
- The use of voice search and personal digital assistants is on the rise. This calls for rethinking SEO strategies and optimizing content to be found and used by voice search.
Have you noticed a theme running through this entire piece? It’s evolution, survival of the fittest.
To ensure you don’t lose out on important web traffic, you must constantly monitor the SEO situation and adapt to changes, just like you always have.
Your strategy needs to become more sophisticated as new opportunities present themselves. It needs to be ready to pivot quickly.
And above all, you need to remember that your content is still the most important thing.
If you can best answer a query, your site will get the traffic you seek. If it can’t, you need to rework it until it does.
Just remember, like rock and roll, SEO will never die.
Featured Image: sitthiphong/Shutterstock