The Way We Search Is Changing. Here’s How Your SEO Can Keep Up

Published on October 6, 2017

SEO is not dead, and never will be. You heard it here first, folks!

While every few years some thinkpiece or another tries to decry the art of search engine optimization as passé, securing your content a high rank on Google will always be a vital component of any comprehensive digital marketing strategy.

But, with that said, SEO is ever-changing, and it seems like, more than ever, it’s adapting and evolving at an accelerated pace. Will your content marketing efforts be able to keep up?

Here’s what you need to know about the major cultural, behavioral, and technological shifts that are underway – and influencing your SEO success – right now:

1.) Searches Have Become More Specific

The Shift: When users query search engines today, they are using longer, more specific phrasing than ever before. In fact, a 2017 study of keywords from Ahrefs revealed that the majority of searches (41.7%) use five words or more; 22.8% of searches use four words, yet just 10.8% use two words.

What this tells us is that users are getting more conversational with their searches, and, as a result, are expecting more specific and detailed answers to come up on their search engine results page (or SERP).

Users aren’t searching for the broadest possible keyword and calling it a day anymore; instead, they’re going deep and hitting the queries that they know will get them the results they want – think “best seo firms Chicago” rather than “digital marketing,” or “can I eat a green potato” rather than “is potato safe.”

In addition to the rise of mobile devices and voice search (more on that subject in a moment), this search behavior has been aided and abetted by the mac daddy of search itself, Google. As this search giant continually updates its algorithm, it allows for better, more sophisticated searches from its users; one of the biggest leaps in the history of keywords, for instance, came in 2015, when Google unveiled RankBrain, which allowed for a greater understanding of synonyms and an emphasis on topic-focused content.

In other words, Google is now better able to understand what a user is really searching for and why they’re searching for it; as a result, it will now present pages that will be relevant and helpful to the searcher, even if they don’t necessarily feature the exact keyword used. A user who searches for “pop tax,” for instance, may get results about a “soda tax,” as it’s fundamentally the same topic, just using different language.

The Solution: While many read about Google’s algorithmic changes and claim that keywords are dead, we know that’s not the case. Instead, keywords just need to be considered with more sophistication and nuance, to keep up with the increasingly complex systems that Google uses to recognize and rank content.

While keywords aren’t dead, however, blackhat SEO techniques that rely on gaming keywords have passed their expiration date – which means that getting caught keyword stuffing, using duplicate content, or relying on questionable backlinks will all do more harm than good for your SERP standings today.

Instead of playing to outdated ideas of what machines want to see, the most important thing that you can do to improve your search rankings and increase your organic traffic rates is to write high quality content, optimized for real, human audiences. For one thing, making sure that your content is readable and engaging will lower your bounce rate and increase the likelihood of users clicking around to other parts of your site, increasing your value in the eyes of the search engine.

What’s more, writing with your audience in mind will, necessarily, lead to more specific, targeted content, which in turn allows you to capture traffic from more “long-tail” searches (the five or six word, conversational search terms described above). Over time, the traffic you accrue from these highly specific searches adds up, and can result in increased conversions and leads, all while increasing user confidence and trust in your brand’s identity.

2.) Search Is Happening Across More Platforms Than Ever

The Shift: Remember above, when we were discussing a behavioral shift toward longer, chattier searches? In some ways, we can attribute this rise in conversational, detail-oriented searches to changes in technology, specifically the rise of mobile devices and voice search.

Before the rise of mobile devices, for instance, users were more likely to search for things proactively and retroactively; with a phone or smartwatch on-hand, users can now search in real time. In other words, travelers don’t have to search for a Boston coffee shop before they take their trip; they can just whip out their phone and find that perfect latte spot while they’re on their trip.

And that makes a big difference! Location-specific searches have increased dramatically in recent years, as users employ their smartphones to search for results “nearby,” “near me,” or “within x miles.”

It should also be noted that, often enough, users aren’t even typing their queries into their mobile devices, but asking them out loud; in fact, Google’s CEO once estimated that up to 20% of mobile searches were conducted by voice as recently as 2016. The rise of voice assistant devices, such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home, have also made voice search a viable option in homes and offices, as well; to cater to voice searchers, Google has revamped its SERPs, employing “Featured Snippets” and “Knowledge Graph” results to answer quick queries. As has been reported elsewhere, the presence of this sort of pop-out content has massively impacted SEO results for some companies – for better, and, certainly, for worse.

The Solution: Recognizing the vital importance of mobile as part of the search ecosystem, Google has made the speed and utility of mobile sites key pieces of ranking criteria.

In other words, when deciding whether to rank your content highly on SERPs, Google now factors in how responsive and easy-to-use your site is on mobile devices. If your site is not mobile-optimized, your pages will not rank. For more on making sure that your site is up to snuff across all devices, be sure to check out our guide to the five “golden rules” of mobile web design.

Another way to approach this cultural shift to mobile? Change your way of thinking about how users can get to your content. Of course, we realize this is a huge thing to say, and it’s certainly easier said than done. To help, let’s narrow our focus to one keyword: “decentralization.”

In other words?  One of the ways to cope with these massive changes in search behavior is to change the ways in which your content is made available, by making it accessible through as many different channels as possible.

When it comes to location-specific searches, for instance, users are just as likely to click through to a recommendation or review site (such as Yelp or TripAdvisor) as they are to a branded webpage. With this in mind, it’s vital that you concentrate on reputation management – making sure that the content on these review, aggregation, and ranking sites is accurate and up-to-date, and that any testimonials or user comments reflect positively on your brand.

Another major thing to consider is the rise of social search, which is increasingly competing with – and, in some ways, supplanting – conventional search for consumers. Consider, for instance, that users spend more than half of their time on mobile devices on some sort of social media service, and that Facebook’s internal search engine handles 1.5 billion queries every day (not hugely far off from Google’s 3.5 billion).

The end goal of digital marketing is to make sure that your content reaches the right consumers at the right time – and today, that may mean renewing your focus on the many facets of social media marketing, in addition to SEO. Indeed, in many ways, these two vital online services are actually two sides of the same coin, and the success of one strategy can reinforce and inform the success of the other.

3.) Searchers Have Shorter Attention Spans

The Shift: In addition to providing fodder for voice search results, Featured Snippets serve as an instant response, an immediate answer that can be consumed and processed in seconds, without a searcher even having to leave the SERP.

For a lot of searchers, this is an ideal scenario – they get the details they were searching for, without having to consume any additional or extraneous content.

Part of the reason for this is that, culturally, we have shorter attention spans than we did even a few years ago. So, even when searchers do click through to your landing page from a SERP, they’re probably not going to grace you with several minutes of their undivided attention; instead, research shows that about 55% of pageviews are less than 15 seconds long, that only 20% of readers will pay attention to the second half of your content, and that users tend to skip over about 75% of two- to three-letter words in a given piece of content.

The Solution: While there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever be able to secure your content a place as a Featured Snippet on SERPs, there are a number of things you can do to improve your chances – namely, formatting your content as a Q&A, giving a direct (and accurate, and well-researched) answer, and ensuring that it’s primed on the back-end for easy crawling by Google’s bots.

For all the rest of your content, there are a few fundamental rules you can put in place to capture users’ attention while you have it. For instance, you can focus on concentrate the meat of your article in the first third of the text, using the “inverted pyramid” style of writing; you can also work to concentrate any vital talking points or block quotes on the left-side of the page, where 69% of your audience will be focusing their attention.

You may also want to consider adopting a more multifaceted, multimedia-focused approach to content creation. Diversifying your content with infographics, videos, audio, and high quality images won’t just help users digest your information more quickly, but will also actually encourage your audience to scroll through the entire page, according to a study from Slate.

Have any more questions about SEO and the state of modern search? Are you looking to generate high quality content – and organic traffic – for your brand, but not sure where to start? The Geek team is here and ready to help! Drop us a line today with any questions or concerns; we’d be happy to set you down the right path to long-term SEO success.