If this sounds like a familiar question, it’s because you’ve probably heard it before. The debate over SEO tactics and viability in general has been around almost as long as SEO itself.
The question is relevant again because advances in technology are changing the way we interact with the internet. Search is no longer limited to typing something in Google on your home computer.
Instead, increased connectivity, better search engines, and a spectrum of new smart devices are expanding and transforming the way we shop, learn, and entertain ourselves.
At the heart of all this is a transformation in how search engines answer questions, direct traffic, and understand information. Search engine optimization, therefore, isn’t going anywhere - it’s just going to change.
SEO will have to adapt around several evolutions in search engine development and in user behavior:
Three Google updates between 2011 and 2013 set the direction of development and change in both search and SEO. A quick look at these updates explains where we are now and how the industry will continue to change.
The Google Panda Update in 2011 signalled a move to quality control. Instead of looking for the presence of keywords, content, and links, Google’s search algorithm was now analyzing the quality of these features.
Soon after the Panda update, Google published a list of 23 questions that help outline its perspective on what makes a site high quality.
The Penguin Update in 2012 advanced Google’s ability to grade a site’s links. Just as Panda penalized sites deemed to have low quality content, Penguin hit sites that appeared to be spamming their search results with unnatural links.
Whereas Panda and Penguin were add-ons to the existing Google search algorithm, the Hummingbird Update in 2013 was an overhaul of the algorithm.
Hummingbird represented a move to semantic search, where the goal is understanding the intent and contextual meaning of a search query.
In 2015, Hummingbird was updated with RankBrain, a machine learning system designed to understand the meaning behind search language and how users interact with search results. RankBrain looks beyond a query and into a range of contextual markers including location and time.
Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird shifted the question from “Does this site have links and keywords that match the query?” to “Does this site answer the user’s question in the best and most satisfying way?”.
The SEO landscape has shifted to focus on quality over quantity. User intent, satisfaction, and perceived value are not just vague goals, they are now measurable factors in a website’s rankings.
In order to stay relevant, SEO strategies must evolve along with Google - and the development trend that’s been at the core of each update is on relevance and quality.
If you want to continue to rank well, look at how you can better serve your users.
From Keywords to Topical Optimization
Keyword research is sometimes dismissed as being irrelevant in the era of semantic search. Since some sites can rank for a term without using the keyword, keywords must be old news, right?
The Google search algorithm sees user intent as something that is based around topics and concepts, not just single words. Sites that build around ideas that are organically connected and optimized will be ranked more highly than sites that simply blast a wide range of keywords onto their pages.
Brian Dean offers a great example of this in his comprehensive RankBrain Guide. On the left, you can see the former method of optimizing based on keywords and how it affected search. On the right is Google more modern method of building content around a theme or idea.
Google’s RankBrain is the evolution SEO needed. It’s taken content focus away from optimizing for long tail keywords and placed it firmly on value.
Achieving high ranking content isn’t just about content marketing or traditional keyword research. It’s a blend of the two.
You’ve got to research the keywords users are searching to understand their needs. However, the key to success is on then providing high-quality, non keyword stuffed content that addresses their questions and problems.
The Shift to Mobile-First
Google’s planned shift to a mobile-first index signals the growing dominance of mobile over other platforms. In 2017, 51% of digital media time in the US was spent on mobile devices compared to 42% on desktops.
Several major Google updates in the years since Hummingbird was released point to the increasing importance of mobile-oriented SEO factors. Google Pigeon focuses on analyzing on-site and off-site SEO in order to better rank local results. The Mobile Update, meanwhile, rates how well optimized a site is for mobile devices.
Mobile search is only going to grow. As it does, Google will inevitably continue to find ways to improve its search algorithm to better serve mobile users.
Established SEO practices like improving page speed and implementing responsive design are even more important now than they have been in the past.
Accelerated Mobile Pages is an open source project backed by the major search engine companies. AMP is specifically aimed at improving a site’s mobile ranking, and is therefore yet another SEO tool. The only way a site can rank as one of the top results on mobile search is if it implements AMP.
As we’ve already discussed, Google’s main aim is to improve the user experience. With an ever increasing number of users favouring mobile, Google is in turn going to focus more of their attention on mobile.
To rank well with mobile you’re going to have to build upon your existing SEO strategy to ensure that your mobile site is well optimized for smaller displays, and that there are no speed issues.
Voice search isn’t mainstream yet, but it is getting close - already 20% of mobile search is voice. And just as Google responded to growing mobile search numbers in the past few years, optimizing for voice searches will get specialized attention.
SEO for voice is likely going to borrow from mobile SEO, with importance placed on local results and speed.
Page 1 rankings, and especially the top ranking, will become even more important than it currently is. This is because voice search is designed to return a specific, relevant answer to the user immediately, rather than an entire search engine results page.
In addition to current SEO best practices and reaching Page 1, voice optimization may include building longtail keywords into question and answer format within a site’s content. Voice search also seems to value Answer Boxes that appear at the top of SERPs without necessarily coming from a site in the top spot.
So while voice search feels very new and will bring unique SEO processes to the forefront, it is not an entire paradigm shift.
Voice search is already closely associated with mobile search, so it’s no surprise SEO strategies for both are similar - prioritizing for speed and location context.
Since voice search is machine to machine, and usually in the form of a question, Voice SEO strategies may extend to building question-answer format into site content.
How exactly this will develop is unclear. What is clear is how voice search will make that #1 position in the SERPs even more important.
Deliver Good Content - Not Keyword Optimized Content
User satisfaction and content quality are now SEO ranking factors. Along with smarter search engines, site owners have access to a wide and deep range of traffic analytics.
The combination of better analytics with an understanding of what search engines want allows site owners to also see into the relevant behaviour of their visitors, and optimize around certain metrics.
For example, RankBrain uses several factors to determine a site’s user satisfaction, which in turn affects your site’s ranking in the SERPs.
All these factors can be optimized for by keeping visitors engaged once they click on a search engine result. Engagement is closely tied to topical content development, but it can be extended with the addition different media, like video.
Site owners of all types can and should dig into what their audience actually wants and how they want to consume information.
Being able to track an audience’s preferences and behaviour can also key a site owner into being well placed for future developments.
No one can really predict how Google is going to continue to develop their ranking algorithms. With developments including vocal search and perhaps even VR related content, it’s anyone’s guess on what tomorrow might bring.
However, user satisfaction is already a core consideration in Google’s ranking factors. By making user satisfaction a key consideration in your SEO strategy, you should be positioning yourself well for any future developments.
These changes can feel a little overwhelming. With these changes in tech and search, certain SEO strategies and tactics are probably not going to be relevant anymore.
However, the fundamental approach to search engines isn’t going anywhere. High quality content that provides value to a specific audience remains the fundamental objective.
Businesses and site owners can adapt to a changing technology landscape by building around deeper insights into their audiences and providing intelligently developed content on appropriate channels.
If the future of the internet in general is a more integrated experience, it’s especially important to understand where a site’s audience spends its time and what they are looking for.
As sophisticated as Google’s search algorithm is becoming, it still depends on websites and webmasters to present information in a manner that the search engine understands.
This starts with having a basic sitemap. A sitemap makes a site crawlable, indexable, and therefore rankable.
Without a sitemap, search engines can still crawl a site but will do so without direction - not a good idea, especially when there’s a premium placed on having context.
While sitemaps organize a site’s information for search engines, Schema markups give the data meaning and extra context.
Schema.org is a collaborative initiative between Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Yandex, and although it’s been around since 2011 the overwhelming majority of sites fail to take advantage of this tool.
As Google increasingly features answer boxes and rich snippets, Schema will become an important SEO tool. It is already clear that Google values Schema marked up sites.
In addition to structured data, basic on-site SEO is still essential. Title and description tags, along with image ALT text, are opportunities to present information in a search engine friendly manner.
Off-site SEO is also still relevant. Listing with Google My Business and other directories is a basic SEO step for small businesses and will only become more important as mobile and voice search grow.
Just because these best practices have been around for a long time does not mean they have lost their relevance.
You need to adapt your content strategy to focus more on quality, but the key tenets of SEO are still going to form the bedrock of your campaign. Don’t overlook the long established basics.
Going back to the original question - Is SEO dying?
Some SEO strategies are clearly now outdated, irrelevant, and possibly even harmful to a site’s rankings.
But the general idea of optimizing websites for search engine rankings is very much alive.
The more sophisticated search engines become, the more difficult it is to artificially catapult an undeserving site into a high ranking. Keyword stuffing, duplicate content, and artificial link building tactics are no longer viable SEO strategies.
SEO already shares some common elements with aspects of content marketing, design, and U/X. This does not mean SEO is somehow disappearing, but rather that SEO strategies are getting more nuanced. Sophisticated search engines demand sophisticated SEO.
As platforms develop, the way we use the internet will inevitably evolve as well. This almost certainly points to more conversational search, continued growth of mobile search, and more machine to machine search.
Despite these shifts, the fundamental building blocks of SEO remain the same - create valuable, shareable content that is well-matched to an audience and their questions.