The phrase “conversational search” can mean a lot of things. In some of its most popular uses, it refers to a system of semantic understanding first introduced with the Hummingbird update back in 2013; this update allowed Google’s algorithm to analyze and “understand” the intent behind a phrase-like query, rather than breaking it down in terms of keywords and keyword phrases. Now, Google is introducing a subtle, yet highly significant twist on the phrase, and it could be the spark for a new revolution in search technology.
Conversational Search and Digital Assistants
Following the description of “conversational search” as I outlined above, personal digital assistants have helped usher in a new era of casual searching. Siri, OK Google, and Cortana are just a handful examples of artificial intelligence programs that are able to analyze and understand natural human speech, then applying it to an actual search function to find whatever the searcher is looking for. These programs, glitchy when they were first introduced, have undergone an impressive series of evolutions to get to the state they are today—capable of deciphering even muddled human speech with startling accuracy.
The emergence—and subsequent reliance on—these apps has helped to solidify a shift in user search behavior. Back in the early 2000s, the best way to search for something was to think up a handful of keywords that might describe what you’re looking for in Google’s eyes—a form of reverse-engineering to help the tool understand your intent. Today, no such manipulation is necessary—instead, it’s instead more useful to simply talk to these digital assistants (or type a query) as if you were talking to a friend.
Google’s latest experiments are taking this functionality a step further.
Conversational Search Expansion
The source of this expansion is Google’s iOS app, which naturally must compete with Apple’s Siri digital assistant as a search engine of choice for iOS users. In what’s being called “context-aware” searching, the app now allows users to extend a chain of different, interrelated queries without dabbling into different subjects.
For example, let’s take two phrases: “what’s a good restaurant?” and “What’s the best time to visit New York?” Separately, these two phrases would conjure different results (assuming you live somewhere other than New York). But now, if you ask the second query, Google will start to recognize that you might be planning a trip to New York, and upon asking the first query after it, will list New York-based restaurants rather than restaurants in your current area.
The shift is small, but it opens the door to a new, more convenient pattern of expansive searching. After all, when we’re planning trips or doing research, one query is rarely enough to give us all the information we need. Instead, we rely on branching forms of exploration, adding new queries when we get new information and attempting to give ourselves a more thorough view of the topic. In short, Google recognizes that users usually have follow-up questions, and now its digital assistant app is prepared to handle those questions.
Why This Is a Breakthrough
We’re entering an era where “search” isn’t separate from our other digital interactions. Rather than pulling up a web browser, accessing a search engine, plugging in a term, then wading through results to find what we want, we can now use a handful of spoken words to instantly conjure up information. What Google is presenting is the next logical step—enabling the “monologue” of vocal search to become more of a “dialogue,” with branching conversational paths rather than a call-and-response type system.
It’s difficult to say exactly how this will develop in the future, but keep in mind that Google is also expanding its Knowledge Graph functionality to better accommodate follow-up questions and expanded forms of information. Such applications are combinations of artificial intelligence and previous autocomplete types of algorithms. The end result here is more thorough results, and more conversational, natural interactions with machines. Soon, these digital assistants may be able to hold their own end of the conversation, asking clarifying questions and offering suggestions we didn’t even ask for. We’re still a few years away from this, and it may develop differently, but it’s still worth thinking about.
What It Means for SEO
Because this upgrade in functionality is relatively limited, it’s unlikely that it will have a substantial influence on SEO results. The algorithm Google uses to calculate the best results for a given query isn’t changing; instead, Google is transforming queries to better connect logically to previous queries. In the example I listed above, asking Google for restaurants after a New York-related query is equivalent to the search query “New York restaurants.”
Still, it’s worth noting that this upgrade, and the assumed updates to follow, will only increase the average consumer’s tendency to search using spoken phrases rather than conventional keywords. As such, keyword-based SEO strategies are falling even further from modern practical application. Instead, it’s better to cover a wide range of topics related to your industry, focusing on natural, conversational language, and appealing to topics you know people are going to want to read.
Pay close attention to how these conversational and artificial intelligence advancements develop over the next few years. SEO is in no immediate danger of dying, but I imagine it will transform dramatically—perhaps into something almost unrecognizable—as these search functions continue to grow more advanced.
In the stock market, “bulls and bears” refer to trends (or the people that support those trends) as stock prices rise or fall. For example, if the market is on a general rising trend, it is said to be a “bull market,” and if a person is optimistic about the price of a specific stock, he is said to be “bullish” on it. Bearishness, conversely, is the belief or observation of prices going down.
The bulls and bears of the stock market have come to represent a degree of speculative uncertainty, forcing many investors and economists to either rejoice in the bounty of the market or wallow in the nightmare of it. It’s a little extreme in my opinion, but the stock market isn’t alone in these dramatic shifts of consumer opinion. Bulls and bears affect the SEO community almost as heavily.
Why SEO Is Subject to Drama
People regularly shift their opinions on SEO as a strategy; some believe it to be highly cost-efficient, while others think it’s a spammy, temporary strategy that will turn out to be a waste of time once the trend becomes obsolete, and both are subject to switching sides or landing somewhere in between. The same can be said for individual components of SEO, like link building or social media marketing.
SEO is particularly vulnerable to these dramatic reactions for a number of reasons:
SEO doesn’t have much history. Unlike traditional printed advertising, which has been around for more than a century (and even further, depending on your definition of “advertising”), SEO has only been around for around 15 years. It’s poorly understood by anyone outside the community, and is still seen as “just a fad” by many outsiders.
SEO is subject to volatile, sudden shifts. Thanks to updates like Google’s Panda and Penguin, most search marketers are perpetually on their toes for new developments, each of which spurs a temporary overdramatic reaction, such as those proclaiming that it means the “end of SEO.” Furthering these disruptions are new technologies and new consumer trends, which have the potential to derail otherwise solid strategies.
SEO favors the future-minded. When an update hits, it’s not the reactors who win or lose—it’s the people who were proactive in their approach. SEO favors forward thinkers, so people are far more likely to think about the future than they are about the present, naturally aligning people with one side or the other when it comes to opinions about the strategy’s future.
Because of these qualities, SEO is an industry especially vulnerable to sudden shifts in the hopes and fears of its constituents.
Like I mentioned earlier, these opinions do tend to manifest themselves in the form of reactions against individual strategies:
Similarly, the Panda update spawned some bulls who believed that content was suddenly all that mattered for an SEO campaign—forgetting the many other onsite and offsite elements that still factor in.
When Google engineer John Mueller advised against link building, thousands of SEOs claimed that link building was officially dead, and many still believe that link building is a dangerous, non-effective strategy. However, external links still pass all-too-important domain authority to your site, and need to be built (or attracted) if you want any hope of ranking.
Some people profess the wonders of social media activity for increasing a site’s rank, while others claim that all of the data is purely correlative and should be ignored. As new evidence comes and goes about how social signals play into the calculation of domain authority, these people tend to realign themselves one way or another.
The list goes on and on, but the basic story is the same: a new update or piece of information enters the fray for a given strategy (or subset of a strategy), and anyone who reads that information shifts their opinion, if only slightly. Collectively, this results in broad reactionary trends similar to the “bulls and bears” of the stock market—suddenly everyone’s excited or everyone’s worried.
Why the Bulls and Bears Don’t Matter
There are three reasons why you shouldn’t concern yourself with these sudden shifts in trends:
Most of these are temporary. Mobilegeddon was once heralded as the search ranking apocalypse, to define a new era of mobile-only ranking, but it turned out to have only a slight effect on SERPs. Given enough time, most of these reactionary trends reset to more reasonable ground.
The future is unpredictable. You can try to think about how link building will work in 2020, but it won’t do you any good. Instead, it’s better to focus on what you can do, right now, to improve your position and protect yourself against penalties.
SEO data is fuzzy. Some things are very clear in SEO, but most data points are fuzzy and open to multiple interpretations. Even clear experimental data usually suggest only a correlational relationship, rather than a causational one.
Toward More Tempered Expectations
As a member of the SEO community myself, I encourage you, me, and SEO experts everywhere to have more tempered expectations about SEO. SEO will never stay the same—it’s going to grow, and change in ways we never expected, but it isn’t going to up and disappear one night, nor is it going to suddenly skyrocket in value. It’s a reasonable, cost-effective strategy, and will continue to remain as one for the foreseeable future, even as circumstances and strategies surrounding it iteratively evolve.
Some industries favor individualism—renegade thinkers, standalone opinions, and isolated workers climbing up their individual ladders. SEO is not one of those industries.
The SEO community is the driving force responsible for advancing the SEO industry as a whole, and perpetuating it as the cost-effective, long-term beneficial strategy we all know it can be. It’s a thriving, continuously flowing source of knowledge, and every new professional entering the world for the first time is seen as an added resource to our collective power.
I love the SEO community, and even if you’re only dabbling in SEO right now—you should learn to love it to. The SEO community is your best friend, and here’s why:
Experience and Answers to Your Questions
No matter how long you’ve been doing SEO, there’s always someone in the community who’s been doing it longer than you. If you’re just getting started, there are thousands of experienced professionals willing to answer your questions. If you’ve got years of experience and you’re still facing a hard problem, there’s at least one person out there with a few years on you who will probably be willing to help you out. The number of forums out there are ridiculous, and most search marketers peruse more than one. If you ask a question, with enough details and a polite tone, it’s only a matter of time before an experienced professional comes to the rescue with an answer (or possible solution).
Of course, there’s always the possibility that the question you have can’t be answered. If this is the case, and you’ve already tried to find an answer on the web, it’s highly likely that others in the community have a similar question and would be interested in knowing the answer. For example, you might wonder whether a certain strategy could directly or indirectly increase your site’s rank. When you pose this question, you’ll activate a kind of crowdsourced research initiative. Anyone interested in the results will look to other online sources, trying to track down the answer, and some might even help you put together an experiment that puts your question to the test in a live environment.
Each of us only has access to a tiny amount of ranking data, but collectively, we can interpret and piece together that data to form meaningful conclusions. In this way, SEO is a community built from participatory findings; the more people share their experiences, the more likely we are to learn significant details as a community. Thankfully, most people are more than willing to share their experiences and strategies, in an effort to improve all of our strategies to some degree.
What’s also impressive about the SEO community is their ability to conjure up disagreements. Disagreements might seem counterproductive, but in an industry with so much conflicting information and confusing data, disagreements are the only thing that can drive us all forward. For example, if you post a revelation you’ve had about the influence of a particular strategy on your search ranks, it’s entirely possible that another SEO might jump in to disagree with you and point out peripheral factors that could have influenced the jump. This provides a learning opportunity for everyone involved, and can clarify details that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.
Help and Partnerships
You can also look at the SEO community as a pool of potential partners and associates. For example, if you’re an entrepreneur trying to manage the bulk of an SEO campaign all on your own, you might easily grow overwhelmed after a few months of successful scaling. You might find yourself unfamiliar with the technical side of onsite SEO, or weak when it comes to developing content. If you’ve participated in the community long enough, you probably know at least a few people who can help you fill in the gaps as freelancers or agency partners.
SEO seems to transform every day. There’s a new type of mobile device, a new tweak to a Google algorithm, or a new revelation that makes search marketers go nuts. The SEO community keeps up with all this craziness, so you can spend less time worrying about keeping up with the latest news. In addition to hearing about the latest updates, you’ll also be plugged into the chatter around them—notably, whether or not they’re worth taking action on.
Last but not least, the SEO community offers a degree of sympathy for your job as an optimizer. When you get blindsided by a drop in rank and you post about it, you’ll get more than advice on how to take corrective action—you’ll hear stories about how that happened to them once. And believe it or not, it will make you feel better.
The next time you encounter a problem or have a question, consult the SEO community. Talk to someone who’s been there and done that—they’ll either have a solution for you or they’ll be willing to share your pain. All you need to do to remain a part of that community is to give back what you can. You don’t need to come up with any startling new revelations, but you can—and should—share whatever information you can find when appropriate. The more you give, the more you get, and as long as the SEO community continues working together, we’ll continue sharing in the collective benefits.
Note: I submitted this article to Entrepreneur.com as a follow-up to the first article, which this article is in response to, and they felt it wasn’t appropriate for their audience. So, I’ve published it here instead.
First, let me say that I love being a part of the SEO community. The Internet is abuzz with SEO professionals and amateurs alike, voracious to read up on the latest news and passionate enough to start discussions when the subject matter warrants it. Discussions are what drive progress, uncover new insights, and expand on topics that haven’t been thoroughly covered.
One of my most recent articles, “Why Modern SEO Requires Almost No Technical Expertise,” was the subject of one of these discussions, and a particularly heated and far-reaching one at that. After thousands of shares and views, hundreds of comments ranging from placid to aggressive, and even a Whiteboard Friday from Rand Fishkin, one of the SEO industry’s foremost authorities, I thought it was time to jump back into the conversation and set a few things straight.
I’m not here to argue—I appreciate, acknowledge, and agree with most of the criticisms and counterpoints brought up by users and fellow experts alike—nor am I here to rampantly defend myself. I’m not retracting any statements I made and to be honest, I’m thrilled and proud that my original article generated as much interest as it has. I just want to clarify a few points I think were misinterpreted, oversimplified, or flat-out ignored.
A Question of Audience
First, and most importantly, I published the article on Entrepreneur.com. My target audience was not leading SEO experts, advanced developers, or even inbound marketing professionals. My target audience was entrepreneurs with new or small businesses trying to make the most of limited resources with limited experience and limited budgets. I’m generalizing here, but most of these entrepreneurs can’t afford to hire an SEO agency, aren’t in a position to hire a dedicated expert, and don’t have the hundreds of hours necessary to get started with a technical understanding of SEO.
As many commenters pointed out, it’s impossible to reduce the complex technical elements of SEO into a single, 800-word article—and that’s not what I was trying to do, nor was I trying to suggest that learning these technical elements isn’t important. My point was, to this target audience, that it isn’t necessary to become a technical expert in order to reap the benefits of SEO. My goal was to liberate entrepreneurs from the intimidations and misconceptions that sometimes fool them into thinking “there’s no way I can do this for my business.” They can.
When they encounter a problem, grow to a point where the basics are no longer working, or simply want to scale up at a faster rate—that’s when a technical expert becomes necessary. Over the last few years, I’ve done my best to help people understand and address these technical challenges by publishing articles, guides, and walkthroughs on a variety of technical subjects (just to name a few examples: 301 Redirects, Crawl Errors, Onsite Ranking Details, Manual Actions & Penalties, and Poor Results Troubleshooting), but most of these articles are published on other platforms with separate intentions—to help SEO amateurs find answers to their specific problems, rather than to introduce an unfamiliar audience to a fundamental concept.
Stones Left Unturned
Several commenters pointed out that my points were left unelaborated or unexplored, and therefore suggested that my approach was an oversimplification. For example, in point one of my original article, I mention the importance of a “good onsite experience,” which several users criticized for its simplicity, stating that making users happy doesn’t necessarily make a site rank higher. That’s absolutely true—I made reference to “a number of different factors” that constitute a good onsite experience, but I didn’t elaborate on them. An intuitive design that keeps users onsite for longer, a mobile-friendly design that works across multiple devices, a fast site speed, an available site map… the list goes on forever, and I could write an entire book digging into the details. But again, my target audience at Entrepreneur.com isn’t ready for those details. My job in this article was to make things simpler.
Similarly, I caught some heat for my admittedly ambiguous description of “good” content in point two. In his Whiteboard Friday, Rand Fishkin pointed out that the phrase “quality content” offers no real objective description, and that content comes in far more forms than just written (including video, audio, image-based, and so on). This is absolutely right, and in retrospect I should have at least touched on this. But again, this is material for separate, more detailed articles (which I’ve also written or published, including defining what exactly constitutes “high quality” content, and a breakdown of the many different forms of content).
Point three in the article is also boldly simplified. Rather than going on an extended tangent about the benefits and process of building a brand through inbound links, brand mentions, building relationships, columnist opportunities, publication outlets, and an interactive presence on blogs and forums, I tried to make the concept as basic and as easy to understand for a newcomer as possible: becoming an authority.
Unfortunately, a concise article covering the basic concept of SEO doesn’t have room to elaborate on these points. If I had expanded this to a longer, more detailed whitepaper or eBook (which I still may), I would have taken the time to explore some of the finer points that comprise these broader elements.
Social Signals as Ranking Factors
In point four, I admit my simplification could easily be misinterpreted. I state that “if you have 1,000 highly active followers on Twitter, you’ll rank higher than if you have no Twitter account at all.” A handful of users pointed out that this could be taken to mean that more earning followers on social media will make your site rank higher, which isn’t exactly true. As I’ve pointed out in cited correlational studies and even on a guest post on Moz itself, social signals are becoming increasingly important for SEO—top-ranking results consistently show more social signals than low-ranking ones. Just a couple weeks ago, Searchmetrics released a new report on the Top Search Ranking Factors of 2015, which further backs this claim.
I acknowledge that correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, but I do think it’s important to recognize the many peripheral and interrelated benefits of managing an active social following. More active users means more socially shared articles, more visibility for your brand, and more interest in your blog, which can in turn lead to more mentions, more links pointing to your domain, more recurring traffic, and better-performing articles, all of which can help your organic search rankings. I don’t dig into this in my original article for the reasons I outlined above. However, last year I published “The Top 10 Benefits of Social Media Marketing” which takes a thorough look at these factors and more.
In Response to Moz’s Whiteboard Friday
Rand Fishkin and the team at Moz are some of the most amazing SEO and online marketing professionals I know. I look forward to every Whiteboard Friday, and when I saw my article referenced in the most recent edition, I was both surprised and grateful. Surprised because I didn’t imagine my article about fundamental SEO concepts for new entrepreneurs to make such a wide ripple in the SEO community, and grateful because Rand addresses some of the points I already made above while agreeing with some of my original points, such as that HTML and CSS aren’t necessary skills to begin making SEO progress.
Still, this Whiteboard Friday makes a few additional criticisms that I wanted the opportunity to address:
“There’s no acknowledgment that the ability to read and write code, or even HTML and CSS, which I think are the basic place to start, is helpful or can take your SEO efforts to the next level. I think both of those things are true.” This is absolutely true, but my goal here wasn’t to train entrepreneurs to become SEO experts or introduce them to a new career path. The majority of my target audience has no interest in “diving deep” in the SEO world—they’re interested in a DIY approach that can help them cover their bases as they develop into something bigger. As an elaboration on this point, Rand imagines an instance where Google can’t “see” a particular piece of content—but as I referenced above, when a specific technical problem arises, of course entrepreneurs will need some technical help. I don’t believe that should stop them from trying to cover the basics.
“I don’t like that the article overly reduces all of this information that we have about what we’ve learned about Google.” Rand proceeds to point out a number of ambiguous points, simplifications, and ambiguities in a few of my points (which I elaborated on above). I don’t have a counterargument to this; I only want to reiterate that in this specific article in this specific context, I didn’t see the need to go into deep detail. To avoid the risk of alienating my target audience, I kept things limited to the “big picture.”
“The article also makes, in my opinion, the totally inaccurate claim that modern SEO really is reduced to ‘the happier your users are when they visit your site, the higher you’re going to rank. … User happiness and rank is broadly correlated, but it’s not a one to one.” I agree, but for this article, the broad correlation is the “big picture” point. In my introduction, I encourage readers to “Ignore all the technical terms, all the details of execution and all your preconceived notions for a moment.” I’m not trying to pretend those details don’t exist or don’t matter; I just want my readers to understand that Google’s motivation really is simple. It wants to give the best, most accurate, most relevant, most useful results to its users. To say that having happy users is the only thing required to rank high is inaccurate (and a misunderstanding of my original words).
“I feel like this list is super incomplete. Okay, I brainstormed just off the top of my head in the 10 minutes before we filmed this video a list. The list was so long that, as you can see, I filled up the whole whiteboard and then didn’t have any more room.” This is in reference to a brief list I used to name some key elements for increasing organic search rankings. You’ll notice Rand ran into the same problem I did: he ran out of room. It was never my intention to produce a comprehensive list, nor was it my claim that this was one. Rand mentions a handful of other, rather technical elements that can and should be considered by search marketers (though I’d argue that many of these don’t become relevant until later stages of SEO growth or until a problem occurs): content rendering and indexability, crawl structure, crawl disabling, 301 redirects, domain migrations, 404 errors, and downtime procedures. Rand even mentions how Disney recently neglected to implement proper downtime procedures and ended up having all their pages indexed as 404 errors—but remember, we’re not talking about Disney here. My article, published on Entrepreneur.com and limited to 800 words, was not preaching to multinational corporations with gigantic budgets; I was writing to startups, new entrepreneurs without SEO experience or knowledge, and small-time operations.
Rand continues to list a variety of other technical requirements for successful long-term SEO campaigns. If you’re a seasoned SEO expert, you should listen to them (or read them) and nod your head in silent agreement. If you’re an amateur SEO professional, you should learn them. But if you’re just getting started, most of these will only confuse you.
The DIY Approach
I want to close this article with one final acknowledgment. I feel like many members of the SEO community reacted defensively, as if I were trying to argue that their jobs weren’t important or didn’t matter. This wasn’t my intention in the slightest. If anything, introducing more entrepreneurs to the basics of SEO should provide you a richer and more knowledgeable customer base. But I feel it’s important to help entrepreneurs be less intimidated by SEO, and let them know that the DIY approach, at least to start things off, is a viable one.
One commenter on Moz pointed out that “a better title for his article would be: How to Start SEO if You Don’t Have Technical Knowledge.” In retrospect, I agree. My original title was a bit sensationalist and maybe a bit misleading (especially for people who got angry at the title despite not reading the actual material). But as another user pointed out, there’s “Nothing like a great article to set the SEO chicken coop on fire.” I love the discussion my article generated, and I hope this follow-up keeps it going.
As the landscape of national SEO grows more competitive, more expensive, and less penetrable, local SEO grows more important for modern businesses. Because it relies on geographic-specific keywords, local relevance, and a narrower target audience, you can spend less money to achieve more visibility, and cultivate goodwill within your community.
Drawing on the power of local reviews, local publications, and niche demographics, almost any local business owner can take advantage of this strategy. However, there are a handful of industries for whom local SEO is an absolute must.
These five industries stand to benefit most from local SEO:
1. Restaurants and Bars.
Restaurants and bars are service-based, which means they’re especially affected by the quality and frequency of reviews. Since most local SEO campaign live and breathe on reviews, this makes them a natural fit. Plus, restaurants and bars tend to operate on an exclusively local basis—unless you’ve expanded into a major national chain, you probably only serve customers in a tight radius around your home city. It’s also a boon that most restaurants and bars have regular, loyal patrons who can spread the word about the business on review sites and social media. Generally, restaurants have weaker content strategies than other industries that require more extensive education and training, but there’s still a critical opportunity for ongoing content.
2. Doctors and Lawyers.
Doctors and lawyers have a handful of unique qualifications that make them perfect for local SEO. First, like restaurants, they tend to remain stationary with one central location and a dedicated local populace. Second, the quality of their service is very important to patrons; finding a good doctor or specialist is a major concern for anyone in a new city. Finally, they’re highly skilled, trained positions, so they’re in relatively high demand. Because of these characteristics, doctors and lawyers can attract hundreds of reviews in relatively short order, and customize their websites to cater specifically to a local crowd. Also, because these positions are highly trained and educated, they’re perfect opportunities to write original, researched content. Lawyers especially can take advantage of writing on local laws to strengthen their expertise and capture those geographic keywords simultaneously. Doctors and lawyers also have ample opportunities to write and syndicate press releases, which are critical for locally relevant link building and additional brand exposure. That’s not even mentioning the power of personal brands in social media, which reside as a core strategy for most in these professions.
3. Plumbers, Locksmiths, and Skilled Tradesmen.
Skilled workers similarly have a handful of advantages in the local SEO world. It’s rare to see a plumber, electrician, or similar skilled tradesman venture outside their own local “territory,” meaning the business can remain a major competitor in a niche environment, even if they have multiple locations. Also, most people looking for these types of individuals are in immediate need of help; for example, you’ve probably only called a locksmith when you were locked out of your house and in desperate need of assistance. You’ve only called a plumber when something was leaking or broken. This quality means that more people are searching on mobile devices, which means more people are performing frantic local searches. Getting to the top of these results is relatively easy, and you’ll see tons of traffic when you get there. Maintaining high ratings on Yelp and other review sites is critical, however, as even one significant blemish to your record can knock you out of the running for top spot in your niche.
4. Repair Shops.
Repair shops, like skilled tradesmen, are generally searched for only in a time of desperation. For example, your car might be broken down on the side of the highway. In these instances, you’ll be searching quickly for a well-reviewed, reliable service that’s immediately in your area. Thus, repair shops have everything to gain in a local SEO campaign and almost nothing to gain in a national scale campaign (unless they’re operating a chain). Repair shops have a unique edge in the content marketing side of local SEO, since they can draft up how-tos, tutorials, and other helpful documents, but attaining that local relevance is somewhat harder. It’s also more difficult to earn reviews, since fewer people visit repair shops regularly than they would a favorite restaurant, so it’s important to step up your commitment to requesting and cultivating those reviews.
5. Other Local Services.
Almost any service-based industry that serves a local community has the potential for substantial increases in traffic by pursuing a low-cost local SEO campaign. For example, laundromats and dry cleaners can rise above the competition with superior reviews and geographic accessibility. Landscapers can earn more traffic from locally relevant content based around landscaping tips. Car washes and carpet cleaners can earn referrals from happy customers. If you supply customers with a service, rather than a product, and you only have one location, there’s no reason for you not to be involved in local SEO.
With these five industries properly explored, I should point out that almost any business can take advantage of local SEO. Today, local SEO is cheaper, easier, and in many cases flat-out more effective than a national-scale campaign. Even if you don’t want to pursue a long-term strategy focused on geographic keywords, it’s a good idea to at least claim your Yelp and local profiles, and establish a locally relevant context on your site.
As Google’s advancing algorithms make life more complex for search marketers, a host of free and paid “automation” tools gradually make their lives easier. Promising touch-free operations and automatic growth in ranks, many companies have flared into existence by helping exhausted or understaffed inbound marketers accomplish their goals in less time. However, SEO comprises many distinct strategies and operations, and not all of them can be automated safely. Some, by definition, can never be automated, and some can be automated (but might earn you a penalty if you do it!).
To make things simpler, I’ve compiled a list of almost every major facet of a typical SEO campaign, complete with an analysis of why it can (or can’t) be automated:
Short answer: cannot automate.
Onsite optimization is mostly about writing descriptive, accurate titles and descriptions, and implementing a number of structural changes that Google likes to see (such as submitting a sitemap, listing links in the footer, and so on). Many of these changes are one-time applications—so you don’t need to worry about trying to automate them. The key potential automation here lies in the generation of title tags and meta descriptions, which some SEO apps purport to do. Avoid this; any duplication in your meta data can lead to weaker domain authority, and you can never be sure that a machine or algorithm will generate accurate information for your pages.
Short answer: cannot automate.
This is the process of maximizing your visitor retention through design and layout changes. Of course, this will also help your conversion rate, but the longer your visitors stay on your site and the more they engage, the higher your rank will be. There are some “best practices” you can use in this regard, but there’s no possible way to automate this process. It’s an ongoing system of feedback and revision that you’ll have to manually optimize over time.
Ongoing Content Writing
Short answer: cannot automate (yet).
There are a number of apps on the market today that claim to have the ability to generate mass volumes of original content based on content that already exists. Such “content spinners” usually take existing material and rewrite it in a way that looks unique. However, if you use this, Google will catch on quickly, as you’ll have clunky articles and no original material. Your best bet is to develop content on your own, with original, talented writers.
However, there are a number of sophisticated AI programs emerging in the journalism industry, capable of writing truly original content indistinguishable from those of human writers. Should these programs develop to an even greater degree, they may one day be able to automate the process of creating content.
Guest Posts and Brand Mentions
Short answer: cannot automate.
You might be able to come up with a regimented calendar of submissions that you can follow, or an automated way to find publishers to pitch to, but the actual process itself can’t be automated. Brand mentions need to be diverse, and for most publishers, you’ll work with human editors and owners to get your material published. They won’t respond to spam messages or spun content.
Short answer: can automate.
When it comes to syndicating the links of your content to social media, this is a fully automatable process. By using a social scheduling tool, or automated apps that syndicate your content to various channels throughout the web, you can turn an otherwise arduous long-term process into a simple series of clicks. Some tools will even put your content on a cycle, so it continues to show up in newsfeeds and on content aggregators.
Social Media Marketing
Short answer: can (partially) automate.
You can automate some elements of social media marketing. For example, you can schedule your posts far in advance and create a handful of robotic processes to help you manage or build your followers. However, buying followers directly or setting your account on autopilot are bad ideas. It’s called “social” media for a reason—you need a human touch if you want to be successful.
Short answer: cannot automate.
Automated link builders have been around since the dawn of SEO, claiming to be able to build thousands of “quality” links for a low price. These link schemers have never been effective—in fact, they seem to grow less effective by the year. Unless you’re automating your own system by way of advanced scheduling, there’s no safe, efficient way to automate your link building.
Measuring and Tracking
Short answer: can automate.
Measuring and analyzing your results are two of the most important steps of the SEO process. When it comes to tracking your traffic and reviewing the results, automation is key. In Google Analytics, you can easily set up a reliable system of reporting to occur on a regular basis. For example, you can create a traffic behavior report that gets emailed to you on a monthly basis. Once that report is in your hands, however, the automation stops, and you’ll have to manually review and analyze the results.
Automation can be efficient, and it certainly is appealing, but you’ll have to use it judiciously if you want to end up with decent ranks. Failing to automate when it’s possible might cause you to lose a few hours a month, but automating the wrong thing can get you penalized—if you’re ever uncertain about whether or not a certain type of automation is “safe,” it’s better to err on the side of caution. Still, keeping a tight balance between automated and non-automated activities is actively encouraged—and might save you tons of time while maximizing your results.
The scientific method is, appropriately enough, the fundamental philosophy and approach that defines how working scientists approach problems and new discoveries about the world around us. It’s the series of steps that led to the emergence of theories as complex and as marvelous as relativity, evolution, and the big bang model of the universe.
But the scientific method, while most often applied to realms like physics and chemistry, can actually be applied to any problem in the modern world. Because it’s the most objective, logical framework we have, it tends to get the best results. Apply that method to your SEO strategy, and you’re almost guaranteed to start seeing better, more measurable results.
Step One: Ask a Question
The first step is the easiest, as the question in SEO is usually “how can I rank higher?” However, in the SEO community as in the scientific community, the more specific your question is, the more meaningful conclusions you’ll be able to draw. For example, asking “why do things fall?” is much less specific than “why do two objects fall at the same velocity when outside resistance is removed?” Both have scientific answers, but only through multiple rounds of more specific questions are you able to form the broader, more significant conclusions.
Don’t just jump in blindly. Do your due diligence first and start researching the topic. You can find a lot of answers here at AudienceBloom, but there are admittedly a great deal of SEO authorities out there. Eventually, you should find some specific advice related to your question, or if you’re really lucky, a case study. Review multiple sources of information before completing your round of research, and if you’ve experimented with a similar strategy in the past, be sure to look to your own experience for guidance.
Eventually, you should have a short list of information that gives you an educated guess on how your question can be answered, which brings us to the next step of the process.
Step Three: Formulate a Hypothesis
Now, you’ll need to form a hypothesis. Keep in mind that a hypothesis is not a conclusion; the conclusion can only come after the next steps of the process. Right now, all you have is a guess, even if it is an educated one, because it isn’t supported by any data you’ve been able to uncover.
That being said, your hypothesis should directly answer your question. Again, you’ll want to be as specific as possible, because the specificity of your question will help you construct an experiment (in the next step) that leads you to more thorough results. As an example, in the first step we asked “will doubling my number of written articles per week increase my rank?” Assuming you’ve done research that suggests the answer to this question is yes, you can come up with a hypothesis like “Writing two articles per week instead of one will result in a sharp increase in average keyword ranks and organic traffic within two months’ time. The increase over these two months’ time will be greater than the increase from two months ago until now.”
Step Four: Use Experiments to Test the Hypothesis
You have your hypothesis, and now you have to test it. Even if the research suggests that your findings will match your hypothesis, you still have to test it in a live environment for you to be certain of the results.
In a scientific setting, you would usually need a “control group” to serve as the basis for comparison. In some SEO cases, such as testing landing page copy, you can do this with the help of an AB test. However, in our hypothesis, and in many SEO hypotheses, you’ll find establishing a control group impossible (unless you host two different versions of your site, which would be far more complicated than it’s worth).
Instead, make do with what you have. Your previous two months of data can serve as the control group. Run the experiment, being careful to avoid any other changes (extra variables) that might interfere with your conclusion.
Step Five: Form a Conclusion
Once all your data is in, you’ll be able to look back at your original hypothesis and determine whether it is true or false. If it appears to be true, then congratulations—you now have a bona fide strategy you can permanently integrate into your long-term approach to SEO. If it appears to be false, you’ll either have to modify the experiment and try again, or rest confident that the strategy is not an effective one.
(Alternate Step Six): From a New Hypothesis
If you suspect that something went wrong during the process, that your question wasn’t specific enough, or that there’s a related hypothesis that may still be true, you can circle back to step three. Here, you’ll form a new hypothesis, run the appropriate experiments, and hopefully find equally enlightening results.
With these steps defining your approach as a search marketer, you should have no problem finding and keeping the tactics that best suit your quest for higher ranks. Objectively and iteratively, you will eliminate strategies that aren’t worth your effort and acquire strategies that only give you a benefit.
For as long as SEO has been around, it has been divided into two main categories: onsite optimization and offsite optimization. “Onsite optimization” once referred to a process of keyword stuffing and now refers to producing and maintaining high-quality onsite content and great user experiences, while “offsite optimization” has mostly been synonymous with link building. Though Google’s algorithms have gotten better at detecting deliberate attempts to manipulate rank with irrelevant links, link building itself is still a viable—and some would argue, essential—strategy.
On the other side of the fence, you have people who claim that link building is a dead strategy. Google itself has repeated, time and time again, that posting links to your site is not the best way to increase your rank, and that instead, you should only focus on creating a great user experience. Unfortunately, many great sites find themselves climbing ranks at a painfully slow rate without some offsite SEO support.
With the current landscape of search engine algorithms and dense competition, is it even possible to pursue a successful SEO strategy if you ignore link building altogether?
Different Definitions of Link Building
First, it’s important to address the fact that what constitutes “link building” to one person may not match what constitutes it to another. This is responsible for the vast divide you see among SEO experts who periodically attack or defend the strategy.
The first definition is the traditional and most logical one. Under this definition, link building is exactly what it sounds like—it’s the process of tracking down external sites and manually building links that point back to your own in a deliberate effort to increase your rank. For years, this was the accepted way of building authority, but Google’s Penguin update put a serious halt to that. Today, this method of link building is extremely risky, but if done well, can pass significant authority to your site. What’s important is the type of sites you post to, the diversity of sites you use, and the context in which you post links. If you’re staying relevant, helpful, and high in quality, there’s no reason this type of link building can harm you. On the other hand, pursuing this type of link building by buying “packs” of links directly from third party providers can seriously damage your reputation. This is the type of link building that Google would have you avoid.
The second definition is a more modern one, and is more frequently used by experts in the SEO community. Under this definition, link building refers to any strategy you use to attract links to your website. For example, if you produce a piece of high-quality content, which is hosted on your website, and you virally circulate that content on social media, hundreds or even thousands of users might link to you in order to cite your valuable information. In this way, you earn all the natural benefits of external links even though you haven’t formally “built” any. They’ve all come to you as a result of your effort, so you deserve the credit and can call it a strategic acquisition, but ultimately, it’s a hands-off model that doesn’t come with the risk of the first definition.
The final definition of link building is perhaps better represented by the term “relationship building,” as it sometimes features no links whatsoever. These days, Google is able to recognize and measure authority in different spaces without the need to consult links—for example, it can subjectively rank an individual’s association with a given industry or use mentions of a brand name to boost a company’s domain authority. Because of this, search optimizers can use guest posts, brand mentions, social connections, and other forms of soft relationship building to bolster their own authority. No links are involved by default, but because this strategy uses similar channels and operates for the same purpose, it can be called link building.
The Necessity of Offsite Authority
Each of these definitions of link building is useful in some way, though natural link acquisition and relationship building are better, safer, more long-term strategies for building authority than straightforward link building. Without any of them, you will have no verifiable web presence outside your own website, and Google will have no definitive measure of how authoritative you are. Essentially, without any form of link building, Google will have no gauge for your authority, and anything you do onsite will be stuck in an isolated island. There is still a very strong divide between onsite and offsite content, and you’ll need both if you want any chance of succeeding.
The Bottom Line
If you’re defining link building as the cut-and-dry process of constructing individual links on external sites, the answer is yes, it is possible to be successful in SEO without it. However, if you’re using link building as a collective term to refer to any process of building offsite authority, then no, it’s impossible to make any significant progress without it.
If you’re concerned about the risks of penalty associated with old-school link building, pursue softer approaches like naturally attracting links with valuable content or building relationships with well-written guest content. You need to establish your authority in some way offsite, or else Google will have no idea how to rank you and you’ll never be able to make significant progress. How you establish that authority is up to you.
The age of link building is dead. Or at least, that’s what the majority of SEO experts today would have you believe. Link building was once one of the dominant strategies for getting your site to rank in Google, as having lots of links pointing to your site from multiple different external authorities caused your domain authority to rise in turn. Today, it’s frowned upon by Google engineers and is thought to be more risky than valuable, since unnatural link building can earn you a sizable penalty.
But it isn’t exactly true that link building is dead—instead, it’s evolving into newer, more sophisticated forms. Google still bases the majority of your domain authority on which other authoritative sites are linking to you and how they’re doing it, but the measurable correlation between one new link and an increase in authority is no longer relevant.
Instead, “links” are taking a variety of new forms—I put links in quotation marks because many of these reference points don’t have links at all. In fact, the mere mention of your brand name is enough to register as an authoritative boost with Google, and with none of the drawbacks of a potential penalty. There are a few different ways to use this “new” way of calculating online authority, and one of the best are a new strategy known as brand associations.
What Are Brand Associations, Exactly?
Google’s search algorithm has grown to become a sophisticated piece of artificial intelligence, rather than just a mathematical process. Rather than scouring the Internet for numerical bits of information it can pour into a calculation, it seeks to learn things about the world and use those insights to give better search results. With semantic searching in mind, Google is able to understand what a user is requesting in a given query and then provide them with what it believes to be the most relevant answer.
As a result, brands today have a better chance of getting ranked if they simply describe themselves accurately—rather than trying to trick the search engine into ranking them higher. In a way, since Google wants to learn what your brand is, you have to teach it what your brand is.
Brand associations are a way to do this. In pieces of offsite content, you’ll be mentioning your own brand in context with topics that you want your brand to be associated with. For example, if your brand is “Taco Palace” and you want to be associated with “high-end taco restaurants,” you could work a sentence into your content like “Among high-end taco restaurants, Taco Palace stands apart.” With a diversity of these brand mentions across the web, Google will have an easier time associating your name with these subjects, and you’ll become a greater authority in that space.
The Benefits of Brand Associations and Brand Mentions
Brand associations are like a flavored form of brand mentions. You’ll get all the benefits of traditional brand mentions, but the additional industry-specific authority is the real draw for brand associations.
If you’re new to the concept of brand mentions, they work much like link building did in previous eras. However, they’re far less risky and tend to focus on long-term returns rather than short-term boosts. When used in the body of great standalone content, you can expect the following benefits:
Domain authority increase. As long as you’re posting on several different, high-authority sources, you’ll start to see your domain authority climb over time, which will rank you higher in any relevant search.
Additional brand visibility and reputation. As people begin to see your brand name mentioned more often in pieces throughout the web, your brand will gain more exposure and people will begin to think of you as a greater authority overall.
Referral traffic. While direct links can generate more referral traffic than brand mentions, having your brand mentioned in a strong piece can send lots of new visitors your way.
Associative authority. As I’ve already mentioned, the more often your brand is contextually linked to industry-specific terms, the higher relevance you’ll have in the field.
How to Use Them Effectively
Of course, you’ll only be able to see these benefits if you use brand associations correctly. To see the best results, be sure to follow these best practices:
Diversify your sources. Obviously, the more authoritative the sources you use, the higher authority you’ll get when publishing. But the more diverse your range of sources is, the better. Use a variety of different sources at different levels, and make sure many of them belong to your industry directly.
Ground it with great content. If you want your reputation to increase, both with search engines and with the people reading your material, make sure your offsite work is composed of actually great content. Choose unique topics, do your research, and always proofread before sending.
Never stuff brand mentions. Brand mentions have a higher risk associated with them than link building, but you still can’t spam them. Make sure you’re only mentioning your brand when it’s relevant to the greater piece.
Brand associations are one of the most powerful new strategies for SEO. Replacing the nearly-obsolete practice of straightforward link building, brand associations bring you all the authoritative power with virtually none of the risk. If you’re interested in more industry-specific authority, or just higher ranks in general, be sure to add this tactic to your overall campaign.
Online marketing has become so compartmentalized that individual strategies are mere cogs in a giant machine. Unless each cog is performing its specialized role in conjunction with the other, interdependent parts, the greater machine cannot function.
In this analogy, that machine is your generation of new customers and new revenue. You can only be successful in generating new customers and revenue if each piece of that machine is operating efficiently. Take away any one piece, and the entire operation becomes useless.
Search engine optimization (SEO) gets a lot of hype, and for good reason—it’s a highly valuable and cost-efficient marketing strategy—but it often gets more credit than it deserves. Many business owners and some SEO agencies foster a misconception that engaging in SEO can actively increase your sales and revenue; this is true in many cases, but it is not a reliable truth.
Let’s examine the real purpose of SEO. It is not designed to directly generate revenue; instead, its specialist function is merely to generate web traffic to a specific area (usually a landing page or contact page on your website). Increased traffic can then lead to increased sales and revenue, but only if that traffic is predisposed to pay for your products and services; this is the conversion stage.
Part of the burden of conversion comes in targeting the proper audience. If you optimize for search terms unrelated to your industry, or if your meta descriptions attract demographics you aren’t specifically catering to, you may lose out on the majority of your potential conversions and wind up with a broken marketing machine.
However, the larger burden of conversion comes in how you’ve set up the conversion area of your site. In this way, your call-to-action becomes a final gate that is needed to convert raw web traffic into meaningful conversions and sales. Without a successful conversion gate in place, all that traffic you’ve generated with SEO will ultimately be useless.
How to Optimize Your Site for Conversions
Knowing this, you’ll want to optimize your website to generate as many conversions as possible. With a solid SEO strategy in place generating hundreds of people to your brand, your only remaining step is to set up the best possible opportunity for conversion.
Establish a Destination
Your first job will be to establish a final destination for your inbound traffic. For example, it could be your “contact us” page, or a separate landing page designed specifically to convert visitors. Whatever you choose, make sure all your pages eventually point to that final destination. You could also include some kind of callout on every page of your site, such as a banner ad that encourages people to click, so that every page of your site serves as its own final destination.
Create an Obvious Call to Action
The conversion area needs to be obvious. When a user clicks on the page where the conversion site is located, his/her eyes should be immediately drawn to the area. You can do this with careful design, intriguing fonts, distinct coloration, or even obvious visual cues like pointed arrows. It’s also helpful to include powerful action-based words in your copy, as they draw the eye and prime people to take action.
Make It Easy to Convert
Most conversion optimization strategies fall apart when it comes time to get your visitors to actually take action. In theory, the design and placement of the conversion opportunity will lead to more conversions, but if the process is difficult, it will alienate otherwise promising opportunities. If you’re collecting information via a form, limit the number of fields you make your users fill out. Make any submission button clear and easy to use. Make your conversion page fast and mobile-friendly. The easier it is to convert, the more people will do so.
Tie the Conversion to a Value
Most people won’t give up anything unless there’s a clear value for them to do so. They won’t pay money for a product unless that product is worth the money. They won’t give up their personal information unless there’s an obvious motivation to do it. Tie some sort of value to the conversion, such as offering free content in exchange for the act of converting.
While some marketing strategies are built on logic and mathematics—give a certain input and see a corresponding, predictable output—this isn’t the case for conversion optimization. It’s more of an art than it is a science, and in order to be successful with it, you’ll need to commit to some level of ongoing maintenance. Try out a new landing page or call-to-action, and take a careful measurement to determine how effective your change was. Then, make another change and repeat the process. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll see a sudden flood of new conversions, but if you make careful, iterative changes, you should have no problem establishing a healthy ongoing conversion optimization campaign.
SEO is a highly effective marketing strategy, but only when you use it for its true, specific purpose; generating traffic to a website. If you want that traffic to do something specific, like give you money or valuable information, you’ll need an interdependent conversion optimization strategy to do so. While all marketing strategies do work together on some level, keeping SEO and conversion optimization as distinct strategies in your head will help you improve your approach to and understanding of both.
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