Mastering Google’s ever-evolving, programmer-designed algorithm can be a time-consuming challenge for even large ventures, let alone bloggers or small business owners. Where you rank on powerful search engines determines page views, traffic flows and eventually any site-based revenue so if you are aiming above invisibility, SEO matters. Ever since Hummingbird, Google’s most radical revamp of its search engine algorithm in September 2013, many marketers, bloggers and businesses have hit panic mode fearing costly strategies have become outdated or obsolete. Thankfully, SEO Strategist Erika Miller of ELM Consulting (also Adobe, Elle.com, Refinery29, and more) took DC’s Open Source Fashion under the hood of the revised algorithm.
Think of all the NOISE and junk that devalues your online experience – essentially Google is trying to minimize that. Many had become adept at manipulative optimization techniques (i.e. link wheels, content networks or content spinning), so the online experience deteriorated since top results were not necessarily related to positive experiences. We will all benefit from Google’s ability to identify and punish websites that spam, manipulate ranking authority and publish low-quality content. Moving forward, this means marketers need to think less quick-fix trickery and more about rank-worthiness. And don’t forget that ultimately, Google’s financial lifeline is ad revenue which will only retain value as long as their experience outperforms alternative engines. They need to constantly evolve so be prepared.
What is Different?
While Google reveals some factors playing into the algorithm, in reality what happens between submitting a query and the display of search results remains a riddle. We know that the update affects the way Google processes search-related signals before ranking billions of Web pages in its index. The signals this innovation integrates are hyperlocal search, mobile search, user intent, social media, trust rank and the knowledge graph. Barriers between online and offline are being shattered. Attempting to intuit searcher intent particularly will make search increasingly more relevant. Search term data is now “100% not provided” which was previously a critical method of understanding traffic flows to your content. Interestingly though, Google will sell you “encrypted” data as premium analytics if you are a client through AdWords. If the motive for data concealment was truly to protect the consumer as some have claimed they wouldn’t allow data to be distributed in paid services. Clearly they have a nice corner on the market for online behavior metrics.
New SEO Strategies:
To make the cut with Hummingbird, you need to focus on the best user experience, which requires a more meaningful understanding of user intent. You need to go beyond phrase targeting to retain rankings. Shortcuts are out. Google is going to continue outsmarting all who randomly strap remotely related tags to content. The new play is semantic search, with emphasis on matching the meanings of phrases with concepts rather than just matching the individual words in a query to documents. Complexity is also key. Many are unaware long-tail queries make up a substantial portion of search queries. Broken phrases often used in titles may do better with conversational tags, for example, changing “peplum shirt” to “how to style black peplum shirts in fall” and adding multiple specifics that will lure in just the right visitors who will be satisfied with the content. Search engines’ ability to process natural language is on the rise making abbreviated phrasing tags less optimal.
Develop your micro content around a macro strategy. Organic search traffic is created by good content that is focused and not trying to be “one size fits all.” Erika noted this means you need to be involved with the conversations happening around your product through various outlets, and cater your content to these conversations. Erika asked us to picture Google Glass requests for “what swimsuits look good for size 14″ or specific queries that meet a need. For bloggers, curate a conversation about your inspiration behind each look on a personal level, be more literal rather than expecting readers to understand what you’re trying to convey so that it is more discoverable. Readers need to connect to the story behind your content to have a satisfying experience (which will lower your bounce rate.) It is worth the time deconstructing your site visitors’ intent instead of simply optimizing to rank high for specific keywords.
Links and Social Media
Links continue to reign supreme as the ultimate SEO authority signal so do not substitute social media for link building. Think of social media for audience building, relationships with content publishers for link building. While many “experts” try to tell you how much social media affects rankings, brand mentions in social media may be overemphasized by many because the amount needed to translate into ranking authority is probably too large for most small creators. Also pay attention to which networks are closed i.e. Instagram which is closed v. Pinterest which shows up in search.
Go into Depth (no more snack-size)
Two really good articles per week is better than the ten posts per week which more outdated strategies encouraged. Still be consistent with frequency as readers will become accustomed to that. There has been ENDLESS publishing of poor content and barely relevant lists as link bait, but nothing gets shared and indexed today like thoughtfully created, in depth articles. You can even see on webmaster tools the ranking preference given to in-depth, high quality content. (See this “Appearing in the “In-depth articles” feature” article from Google’s Webmaster Help Center.)
User personas itemizing characteristics of your site visitors is still as important as ever, but also keeping in touch with how your users evolve over time. Many fail to differentiate between the innovators, early adopters, the early majority, late majority, laggards and other breakdowns of user types which will all behave and interact differently with your content.
Maintain a simple logical architecture. All pages should be accessible within four clicks from the homepage and have unique URLs. Always return to your goals. Everyone measures success differently so narrow in on what the desired behavior is for your users i.e. conversion rates as newsletter subscriptions. Use keyword insights to guide intermittent redesign of your landing page for greater conversions. Make sure to make design decisions based on interface analytics. For example, moving the newsletter button around will generate different percentages of conversions in each place so you need to discover the “sweet spot” for everything while preserving a simple user experience guiding them. Critical conversion points need to be tested.
Your SEO strategy must now be integrated with multiple channels and other elements of your business. Erika reminded us that many have not yet caught on that Google+ is more than Facebook. It is an identity platform that may deeply impact local influences on search marketing. It is a source of social signals increasing in quality with the anti-spam protections Google is developing. Many predictions say Google+ will affect rankings so developing a presence there should be considered indispensable – err on the side of trying it.
While the days of reverse engineering content extracted from search term data are over, clues can come from other sources. New products and apps are making it easier to follow conversations post keyword encryption. Many are hacking together some of the data along with 3rd party tools in an attempt to cross this chasm. First, you can still use Google’s webmaster tools to see how often you show in results, who is linking to you, discover the most successful pages and products on your site and these still indicate where to focus. Use Webmaster Tools Report under content (secondary metric) for additional analysis. For highly advanced marketing projects, Erika will pay for tools like SEM rush or Moz Analytics but you can also read the Moz.com blog for continuous free tips from SEO experts. Also, other search engines do still exist – Yahoo and Bing still reveal valuable keyword ranking and relevant research data. Other interesting tools include the App Knotch which captures opinions and conversations from social media in vibrant, colorful layouts. Gnip aggregates data from social media and you can monitor specified trends, brands, products relevant to your venture. Erika emphasized how close attention to this data will generate actionable marketing insights. Closely monitoring your site analytics and utilizing webmaster tools will enable you to discover where to pivot. Those who pivot regularly based on metric signals will increase influence. A good example of a site who pivoted regularly based on analytics of user behavior is WhoWhatWear.
In the end it seems Hummingbird has brought more personalized, localized data with more emphasis given to social signals. If you are creating quality, engaging, shareable and linkable content providing value to readers and influencers, you will continue to expand your presence. Remember to identify intent, needs and problems and be the provider of answers that people are seeking.
Until the next revision!
FYI – Erika teaches an SEO class on Skillshare that we highly recommend taking, use code $10OFF: http://skl.sh/17A1eHe
Interact with Erika on Twitter: @ELMConsulting
Image from: Possible Perspectives