2014 was a volatile year for search engine optimization. It bore witness to the release of the Pigeon Update, which almost completely overhauled Google’s local ranking structure, as well as major updates to both Panda and Penguin, the commanding powerhouses in terms of algorithm packages. Steady rollouts, including the Google Knowledge Graph, and upcoming technological and cultural developments like wearable devices will dictate the course of events in 2015 and beyond.
If you’re going to survive in the radically changing landscape of SEO, both in response to the massive updates that came in 2014 and in anticipation of the updates to come in the future, you’ll need to do some tweaking to your existing set of strategies. Notably, there are three popular strategies you’ll have to part with as soon as possible:
Most optimizers already have a shaky, love-hate relationship with keywords; they love it when they can dominate the rank for a given keyword phrase, but loathe the futility of chasing after those high-competition phrases. Still, up until the last couple of years, most optimizers believed that keywords would always be one of the most important components of an SEO strategy—after all, you can’t perform a search without keywords, and you can’t rank unless you’re ranking for a specifically entered phrase, right?
2014 continued a trend of sophistication in Google’s algorithm, perhaps most importantly centered on an element known as “semantic search,” which was first introduced to the search world via the Hummingbird Update of 2013. Semantic search is a new algorithmic process that supersedes the traditional keyword-based approach. While an older search query would simply be disassembled into its keyword and keyword phrase components in order to find those components as they read verbatim on the web, semantic search offers a more complex and more precise methodology. User queries are analyzed in terms of their intent, rather than their content, and Google scours the web interpreting the function of different websites to find the most appropriate results, rather than the most mathematically correct ones.
Since the shift toward semantic search is only going to grow in prevalence and sophistication, that means only one thing for traditional keyword-based optimization strategies: certain death. The process of writing title tags and meta tags with carefully selected keywords and stuffing your articles full of just the right number of keyword phrases you want to optimize for is already dying, and will probably be long gone by the end of the year.
Instead of focusing on keyword research and keyword-based optimization strategies, shift your focus to topics. Use research to find out what topics people are talking about, and what topics your audience might be interested in reading. Write articles about those topics, and be as detailed as possible so Google robots can learn the purpose of your article and fetch it for appropriate inbound queries. Your goal here is to present your company—and your content—as accurately and as detailed as possible, without getting lost in a strategy that’s too focused on keyword inclusion.
Speaking of content, moving into 2015, you’ll want to abandon any tenets of your content strategy that focus on providing general information on broad topics, or overviews on subjects that have existed for years. Instead, you’ll want to focus on niche topics and highly specific topics that people will want to read about. There are several reasons for this.
The first reason is likely obvious. The Internet has been around for a long time, and people have been writing material on general topics for just as long. There are hundreds, if not thousands of sites, who have covered your topic of choice in far greater detail, and they likely carry more authority than your site will ever could. It’s an unfortunate fact in the SEO world, but for some, highly generalized topics, the competition is simply too dense to challenge.
The second reason is attributable to a budding Google product known as the Knowledge Graph. In an effort to improve the ease and convenience of finding information online, Google is now attempting to forgo the old process of performing a search in order to find a site that can provide that information in favor of providing that information directly. The company is doing this by providing a helpful summary of certain broad topics (such as people, places, and things) in a box to the right of the screen for certain queries. The Knowledge Graph advanced significantly in 2014, and 2015 will likely see further expansion. Because of this, even if you do somehow manage to rank for a generalized topic, you might get significantly less traffic because users are getting their answers immediately upon searching.
As a result, your best bet is to write content that’s as specialized and focused as possible, such as advanced how-to topics or focused opinion articles. These types of content will have a lower search volume, but you’ll have a much easier time getting visibility for them—and the Knowledge Graph can’t threaten to steal away any of your traffic, either.
Stick with us on this one. Google still uses external links as a major indication of web authority, and link building itself is still a relevant practice. But the process of manually going out solely to build links pointing back to your site is not just outdated—it’s downright dangerous thanks to the new Penguin updates, which can now detect “manipulative link building” in more sophisticated ways than ever.
Instead of trying to weasel your way into conversations or systematically meet link quantity quotas on external sites, accept a more natural approach. Your first key is to start generating the types of content that tend to naturally attract hundreds—if not thousands—of links, all on their own. These pieces, like whitepapers, infographics, and entertaining videos can virally spread on their own, giving you a bit of upfront work but automatic benefits as soon as they’re syndicated. These links are all-natural, and Google can’t possibly touch you for getting them.
Beyond that, use more natural means of attracting and supplying links to your site. Link building should no longer be your main priority in any action. For example, you can post an external guest blog with a link pointing back to your site—the main goal here is getting additional brand exposure and authority building, not providing a link. Or, you can provide advice to a requester in a forum and provide a link that’s genuinely valuable—here your main goal is helping someone out, not simply throwing your link into the mix. Opportunities for link building should be circumstantial—any links determined to be built with the sole intention of increasing rank could earn you a penalty.
The fundamental basis of quality SEO is still the same as it’s always been: the sites that provide the best user experience will always rank toward the top. What constitutes a great user experience and what Google is able to analyze are the elements that are always changing. If you can provide your users an ideal experience, and offer them the information they seek, you should have no trouble achieving visibility through search—keep that in mind as you refine your strategies for the coming year and beyond.