It may seem early to be writing about SEO tips for 2017. As I write this, we are only halfway through 2016 perhaps making this topic premature. One thing that we know about search engines is that they are constantly changing. They evolve, update, and improve on almost a daily basis. The SEO industry, as with most in the tech world, moves so quickly that reading a book on the topic is likely a futile endeavor. Almost as soon as the book has been written, published, and distributed, the information contained within is likely horribly out-of-date.
That said, it couldn’t be more clear where search is going in 2017, and while the details of specific algorithm changes may not be known, there are a couple of things of which we can be sure:
1. Audience Targeting will take the place of keyword research
Stop worrying so much about keywords and focus on audience targeting! Granted, this tip could have easily been on the list for 2014 but here we are two years later and what I read on forums and hear from clients is still all about keywords. Don't get me wrong, it’s not that keywords don’t matter at all. Part of knowing your audience is understanding their search patterns and intent. But beyond that, what you want to start doing is really, truly looking at who your audience is- or who you would like them to be- and how to serve their needs. Who are they? Are they generally visiting my site, or more likely to do so, on a mobile device? Are they looking for information? If so, what can we tell them/teach them to engage them as an audience? Are they looking to buy a product? If so, what kind of decision support do they need?
By addressing these questions, and doing so in a thoughtful way using strong content, you will almost always hit upon the proper keywords without even trying.
2. Understanding the Role of Artificial Intelligence will be key
If you haven’t already heard of Google's RankBrain, you should do some reading to start learning how it works and what to expect from artificial intelligence and machine learning with respect to SEO. TechCrunch recently put out a great article on the topic which should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand where the industry is moving (and at lightning speed).
You’ve already been living with these thinking and learning engines- whether you know it or not. As part of our work here at FourFront, we have been utilizing IBM’s Watson (among other learning technologies) to build our own tools which we use to predict Google’s understanding of content. We then use those predictions to guide content strategy- with amazingly accurate results.
Search engines are no longer working with one algorithm as most people imagine. There are hundreds of algorithms and, using machine learning, RankBrain is determining which combination of those to use for any given query.
So forget the algorithms. Stop trying to predict or understand the changes. Make content to satisfy user intent. Google is learning faster and faster how to determine exactly what your users are looking for. You should too.
Not only that, Google is now starting to use these technologies to help SEOs on the back end. Even Google Analytics is using AI to allow natural language processing to help navigate through and find the data you seek. Pretty cool.
3. Link building will be pretty much dead (no, seriously this time)
Ok, so much like keyword research, it’s hard to claim that you should ignore your backlinks altogether, but the effort and expense of “building links” is continuing to show diminishing returns. The entire intent of Googles Page Rank was to determine the trust and authority of any given site based on the number and quality of links pointing to that site. The thinking was, of course, that these links were earned and came in naturally. And while one could argue that going after links that are valid and valuable to users – and with the best of intentions- creates a better user experience, not a worse one, there are plenty of ways to promote your content and earn those links without spending time and effort pushing for links.
Note that Google has stopped updating toolbar PR extensions. Surely this can be seen as a sign that they don’t want webmasters and SEO’s to focus on it. Your time and money would be much better spent on in-depth market analysis, competitor analysis, creating great content, and using social and/or other off-site methods to find your audience and start a “conversation” with them directly.
It’s also interesting to note that in 2012, Google filed a patent for an algorithm that can take into account an “implied link”, so even though a site may not link to you directly, a brand citation will still offer authority to the cited domain in much the same way citations are used in local search. And while I haven’t seen any data implying that this is an enormous ranking factor at the moment, it is just another indication that links are less important than ever.
4. PPC will be more important than ever
In 2016, Google made some huge changes to AdWords and more are on the way. Aside from doing away with ads in the right hand column of search results, text ads were also made longer, desktop and mobile ads are now being handled separately, and fewer organic results are showing in many SERPs (among other changes).
For a while now, PPC has been the only method for really finding out what exact keywords users are entering when making a query. With the advent and increasing use of voice search, particularly on mobile, we are getting new information that can not only drive brand awareness and conversions, but also provide invaluable data for organic SEO strategy.
With more space at the top of results, the minimizing of organic results, and with the continued improvement of AdWords, a smart strategy should always include some budget for PPC.
On some level the above suggestions have been true for a little while, so predicting them for 2017 is no great prognostication. Nonetheless, in the next 6-8 months, I expect to see the same old posts about link building and content length and optimized page titles that are pervasive every year. These may not be altogether horrible points, but understanding the 4 tips outlined here will be much more valuable to digital marketers as we move into 2017.
I have intentionally written this well in advance of the new year because I believe these points to be unquestionable. That said, if I look back 12 months from now and this advice does not hold true, I hereby vow to eat this blog.