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Search Engine Optimization Outlook: Trends for 2014

I have a confession to make: I almost always skip over articles that claim to offer the latest advice on improving SEO. It’s not that I don’t believe in the importance of SEO best practices, it’s just that advice around this topic so often feels — forgive me, all you noble SEO professionals — borderline gimmicky. And, given the secrecy around Google’s (and other search engines’) algorithms, even the most reliable SEO guidelines can tend to be a bit fuzzy.

And then there’s my belief in the power of regularly creating relevant content that speaks to the overlap between your areas of expertise and your target audience’s needs. Do that, and you’re already doing quite a lot to ensure you’ll do well in search results.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. While some folks get so caught up in SEO framing mechanisms that they let the content itself languish, it’s still crucial that you take the time to understand current SEO best practices. With that in mind, I thought now would be a good time to review some of those best practices in the context of projected SEO-related developments for 2014.


The Trends

1. Search engines continue to reward fresh, relevant content. As you might expect, I love this one. While it’s true that we can’t know the exact details of the algorithms used by search engines to architect search results, we do know that, over the years, search engines have increasingly rewarded fresh, relevant, quality content and penalized cheap tricks like keyword-stuffing and link-farming. (Keep in mind that just a few years ago, so-called content farms were a potential billion-dollar segment that looked at first like they might revolutionize the production of content for the web. That is, before changes in Google’s algorithm completely gutted the burgeoning industry. While I’m not at all sorry to see content farming go, it’s a good reminder of just how captive we all are to Google’s evolving, secret algorithm.)

What that means is — as I hinted at above, and as you’ve probably heard us say before — having a solid content strategy is the single most important thing you can do to ensure your site has the best possible SEO. That’s why the silo-ing off of content marketing and SEO is artificial at best and damaging at worst.

Regularly adding fresh, indexable, expertise-based content to your site — we recommend 3,000 words per month — not only gives you the opportunity to demonstrate your thought leadership to others in your industry (always a good thing for business), but it also makes your site look more current and relevant to Google — because it is.

2. Social matters — but we don’t really know the full story. Over the past few years, plenty of SEO consultants have reported that search engine algorithms are starting to take into account how content is (or isn’t) shared on social networks and by whom as a way of measuring relevance and authorial clout. As an extension of measuring content’s relevance, this metric makes intuitive sense, but the truth is that we don’t yet have the hard data needed to back up the claim that it actually impacts search results.

It’s yet another example of the many ways Google’s secrecy leads to conjecture and confusion where SEO is concerned. But it also tells us something about the role of social media in the distribution and consumption of content. Across the board, social networks are increasingly the main source of incoming and outgoing information, and that means they’re a major threat to search engines. Why ask a robot when you can ask a friend? This is something we (and Chris Butler, in particular) have been saying for years. It certainly helps to explain why search engines are so interested in social networks — and why Google would go to the trouble of creating one of their own (in addition to the data goldmine it represents).

But, OK, let’s say search engines really do begin weighting social signals. If that happens, it will mean a subtle shift in focus from true relevance to perceived relevance. And in that scenario lies a frustrating little catch-22: if your content isn’t getting much play socially, then you’re not going to rank as well in search results, which means less traffic, which means — fewer social shares, of course!

Regardless of whether that happens, the fact that social channels are increasing in importance as information channels means that you need to be proactive. It’s not enough to just produce great content and wait for Google’s little bots to index it; you also have to provide that content in a way that makes sharing easy (by always including on-page social share buttons, for example), and you need to promote that content on your own social networks, too. Which means your business needs to have a meaningful presence and network of professional contacts on social sites. Inactive “vanity” accounts aren’t going to cut it. And that leads me to my third point……

3. Google+ may feel irrelevant, but you can’t afford to ignore it. Google+ can sometimes feel like a bad joke, like bringing your embarrassing dad to a cool-kid high school party. But in this case, your embarrassing dad happens to be…..Google. Which means, your opinion really doesn’t matter; if Google likes sweater vests and socks with Birkenstocks, then you should, too. In all seriousness, according to Moz’s 2013 search engine ranking factors study, Google+ is the one social network that we know actually does influence search results (making it the exception to the rule we just established in my last point). Many of the people and businesses I know maintain “vanity” Google+ accounts; they’re set up, but they aren’t all that active. That’s because the real action, in terms of “foot-traffic” and conversations, tends to take place on Facebook and Twitter. But the real SEO action? Google+. Because again, Google.

4. Links and keywords still matter…. Moz’s study indicates that external (inbound) link authority and keyword relevance (especially as these terms appear in the title tag, body copy, meta-description, and H1 tags) continue to matter a great deal. So you still need to be thoughtful in terms of identifying and using keywords that make sense for your industry and area(s) of expertise. It’s just that these keyword-related elements, while by no means vestigial, will likely take on less importance if Google continues to emphasize evidence of perceived value.

5. …but good luck getting the keyword data. 2013 marked a major shift in the way Google shares search data. Since 2011, the search engine has encrypted all keyword searches made by users who are logged into Google accounts. As of this year, however, Google has encrypted all search queries, for all users, using SSL encryption. Privacy: 1, Keyword Data: 0.What this means is that your keyword strategy will necessarily be more guesswork than data-driven. Unless you’re willing to pay, that is. You see, there is one exception to the rule, and that’s pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns through Google, for which keyword data is still made available. Tricky, Google. Verrrrrrrrrry tricky. (We hate to say “we told you so,” but, well, we did — way back in 2011).


What The Trends Mean For You

There are a couple of interesting takeaways coming out of these trends.

First, it’s important to reiterate that Google’s algorithm is steadily getting more opaque, not less. So, all that stuff I said about SEO strategy being a bit fuzzy? Well, that fuzziness is growing, and in many ways it’s also spelling the imminent death of SEO as a distinct, discrete consultative industry. You can’t consult on how the Wizard of Oz works, can you?

Despite all the uncertainty about the details, however, we do know that Google generally rewards recent, relevant, authoritative content, and that meta-tags are a key (and controllable) part of that equation. What this means is that the “old” advice still stands: regularly generate fresh, relevant, expertise-based content and frame that content for SEO. Specifically, you’ll want to think strategically about the language you use for each page’s title tag, meta description, friendly URL, and H1 tags.

The other thing we know with reasonable confidence is, as I mentioned earlier, social will likely eclipse (or really, replace) SEO as we now know it. That means that you need to promote your content across social channels in order to reach your audience. When it comes to the content on our site, anyway, we’ve seen a pretty seismic shift over the past three years from search to social; today, referrals from social channels tend to far outweigh organic search-driven traffic. If that doesn’t motivate you, I don’t know what will.

So, how does this advice compare to your current SEO strategy, and what (if anything) are you doing differently? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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