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The Top 7 Things I’ve Learned About SEO This Year



The Top 7 Things I’ve Learned About SEO This Year

2018 has been an eventful year for the SEO industry.

In this article, I’ll share both things that I’ve learned and important developments that are worth emphasizing.

1. This Year’s Google Updates Were Unparalleled (And No One Really Knows What Changed)

Search engines have been rolling out updates since the early days of the industry — nothing new there.

We’ve seen big updates such as the Panda and Penguin updates, which had a massive impact.

And yet still, the frequency and complexity of the Google algorithm updates we’ve seen this year are unparalleled.

And sometimes, while SEO pros are scrambling to figure out what an update was all about, it’s being rolled back as fast as it was rolled out!

The SEO game has changed for good.

I think AJ Kohn’s recent article “algorithm analysis in the age of embeddings” supports that.

Google’s algorithms have gotten so complex that no one really knows what was changed.

SEO isn’t about those famous “200 factors” anymore. It hasn’t been for a long time now.

There’s a virtually infinite number of factors that can differ for every user, moment, location, query, and vertical.

2. It’s Google’s World – We Just Live in It

Google dictates the kind of SERP we see, and what it contains.

And we have to deal with that.

We’re all just test subjects in Google’s massive, continuously updating tests.

They say their aim is to serve their users the best possible results, but we can’t help but note that coincidentally, we’re seeing Google answering more and more questions directly through SERP features (“zero-click searches”) while also driving up CTRs for paid listings.

So, our content is used to answer questions directly in the SERP, and we get nothing in return (except maybe for a bit of brand value).

Slowly but surely, Google’s eating up the SERP, and decreasing the CTR for organic listings.

I know this has been the trend for a while, but recent developments for the SERP features — as well as the results of a recent Rand Fishkin study on CTRs — are alarming.

3. Google’s Mobile-First Index Hasn’t Had Much of an Impact (Yet)

Over the course of the year, the mobile-first index rolled out, and… actually nothing much happened.

Back in November 2016, Google said they’d roll out the mobile-first index slowly and monitor its impact closely —and that has turned out to be the case.

Even though the mobile-first index shift only changed how they gather their data, not how they rank sites, I still expected to see a lot more fluctuations.

I expected sites that provide a poor user experience for mobile users to get hammered, but so far, the impact has been limited.

4. SEO Pros Are Creatures of Habit & Dislike Change

Even though we’re part of a fast-moving industry, many SEO professionals are creatures of habit who dislike change.

They don’t like to change how they audit websites, the way they report, the tools they use, and so on.

I know, SEO pros are human, too — and humans generally don’t like change.

But if you want to stay ahead of the curve, you need to innovate.

Deep down, we all know this.

You need to embrace change and the fact that people will challenge your existing way of working.

A typical example of this is the old-fashioned 50+ page SEO audit reports that take months to prepare. Kevin Indig’s tweet sparked a vivid discussion on Twitter:

Another example is relying on scheduled crawls to catch SEO issues and changes on sites.

You don’t know what happens on websites in between the scheduled crawls, so you’re missing essential information.

On top of that, you want information to come to you instead of your having to get that information (push instead of pull).

Reinvent the way you work.

Reinvent your processes and reevaluate the tools you’re using to match your new way of working.

5. DuckDuckGo’s Growth Has Picked Up, by a Lot

While they’re still a small player in the world of search engines, DuckDuckGo’s growth has surprisingly picked up by a lot.

As of November 26, they’re processing 33.6 million direct queries per day, compared to 19.1 million a year before.

The reasons for their growth?

The fact that they’re staying true to their word is one — and I’m sure the fact that we’ve seen some massive privacy scandals also plays in their favor.

Growth of DuckDuckGo's Direct Queries

You can follow their growth here.

Google having some real competitors would be really good for the SEO industry!

So let’s hope that alternative search engines such as DuckDuckGo keep growing, so they can one day represent a true challenge for Google.

6. Search Intent Is Extremely Important

I think a lot of the Google updates we’ve seen recently help Google serve the right results for the right search intent.

Google has loads of user data, and they’re continuously testing whether searchers are happy with the results that they’re shown.

Never before has search intent been as important as it is now.

Sure, it’s always been important from a conversion point of view.

But in the old days, you could rank for pages that did not match a user’s search intent.

It looks like those days are over.

When doing keyword research and writing content, pay close attention to satisfying your desired visitor’s intent.

I recommend reading “Optimising for Latent Intent,” as well as the previously mentioned article by AJ Kohn.

7. Google’s Far from Perfect

Google employs the smartest engineers and they’re using the most advanced algorithms to determine:

  • What your content is about.
  • What their users’ search intent is.
  • What results satisfy people’s complicated search queries.
  • And much more.

And yet at the same time, Google’s far from perfect. They often even don’t get the basics right!

Here are some examples:

  • Many people are reporting that the quality of search results has gone down after recent algorithm updates. See here and here.
  • Many old-school spammy link tactics still work, and have actually started to work better, with the introduction of Penguin 4.0.

This video shows a lack of result quality in the notoriously competitive and spammy (and lucrative) viagra niche, following an algorithm update meant to increase result quality:

So, What Does 2019 Have in Store for Us?

Obviously, for the foreseeable future, Google will keep on dominating the lives of us SEOs. They’ll try to become even more dominant, possibly by leveraging AMP and the WordPress partnership.

Google will keep on pitching updates at us at a high pace.

These updates will be ever more exotic, as we’ve seen this year, since they’ll continue to integrate machine learning into their algorithms.

The old saying says “keep your eyes on the ball.” But SEOs need to watch where the ball is going.

They need to be flexible and to adapt quicker than ever before.

More Resources:

Image Credits

Screenshot taken by author, December 2018

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Leaning into SEO as Google shifts from search engine to portal



Leaning into SEO as Google shifts from search engine to portal

Google’s SERP is almost unrecognizable compared to what it looked like just a few years ago. The changes aren’t just on the surface, either: Google is becoming less search engine, more portal, said Jessica Bowman, CEO of SEO In-house  and Search Engine Land editor at large, during her keynote at SMX Advanced this month.

This evolution is fundamentally altering the customer journey from search, with Google owning the process by enabling users to bypass clicks to websites to get information, take action and even transact. This will have repercussions for just about every company. Bowman offered several plans of action for SEOs preparing for these changes and said investments in SEO will be more important than ever.

Build and train your SEO army

“When I evaluate an organization, I find that every role has activities they do that affect SEO, and SEO needs to be integrated into those activities,” Bowman told Search Engine Land, “The SEO team has to figure out what those are and then train people to do that.”

Larger companies should incorporate SEO into their daily vernacular, said Bowman. This way, you can conscript dozens, if not hundreds, of staff members into your “SEO army,” get them advocating for it, quoting best practices, involving the dedicated SEO team and flagging missing requirements on a day-to-day basis.

Although non-SEOs aren’t expected to be authorities on the topic, their 20% of effort stands to make 80% of the impact on your brand’s overall optimization, Bowman said. It will be up to your main SEO team as well as upper management to empower them.

Expand writing competencies

Product information, news stories, how-to guides and various other types of content may receive higher visibility on SERPs if they appear as a knowledge panel, within a carousel or as a featured snippet. Your writers, be they bloggers, copywriters, social media managers or anything in between, need to be creating content that is comprehensive and authoritative enough to compete for organic visibility, said Bowman.

Writers across the company need to master concepts such as SEO-friendly JavaScript, schema, writing for the long tail, rich snippets and the “People also ask” section in the search results. As with any process, regularly reviewing copy and providing feedback can help assure quality and enable you to get the most from your efforts.

Master Schema and JavaScript for SEO

Understanding and correctly implementing schema on your site can help crawlers make sense of your content and, consequently, increase the odds that it gets displayed as a featured snippet. Featured snippets and other rich results, of course, illustrate the double-edged sword nature of Google’s portal-like interface: They increase your content’s visibility and yet users may not click through to your site because the information they need has already been presented to them.

Event, FAQ, speakable content and much more — Google now supports dozens of markups for various content types, making schema a valuable tool for modern SEO. If you’re using WordPress’ CMS, Yoast has revamped its schema implementation to streamline structured data entry, but it’s still important for your development team to be able to verify the quality of your code.

With Googlebot’s latest update, it can now see more of your content than ever. However, limitations still exist and brands should be cognizant of JavaScript issues that may hinder indexing. Before coding JavaScript, your teams need to be discussing what content search engines will and won’t be able to see. It’s also worth keeping in mind that other search engines may not be as equipped to render your content.

“Particularly for large, global companies, they need to think about these smaller search engines that are less sophisticated than Google but still drive a decent amount of traffic in international markets,” Bowman emphasized.

Monitor and study mobile SERPs

“The problem is, a lot of us work on our computers, and so we’re checking things out on the desktop interface,” Bowman pointed out. Beginning on July 1, all new sites will be indexed using Google’s mobile-first indexing, with older sites getting monitored and evaluated for mobile-first indexing readiness. Since the majority of searches now happen on mobile, brands need to closely examine the mobile SERP and account for updates and changes in order to create content that’s optimized for the devices their audiences are using.

“I think the reason that we, as an industry, have not been talking about this is because of that — we’re not really studying the search results on a mobile interface to truly see they’re [Google] taking it over, and as mobile takes over, they’re going to gobble up some of our traffic. I think once they’ve got it [the mobile SERP] mastered and they know it’s a strong user experience, it’s only a matter of time before they do that to desktop as well.”

Take advantage of big data

“Hiring a data scientist is better than hiring an SEO to study the data,” Bowman stated simply. Data scientists are better equipped to identify commonalities and trends that you can use to improve your optimization efforts, inform your content strategy and enhance user experience (UX).

During her keynote, Bowman also recommended that brands make use of the Google Chrome User Experience Report to compare site speed to the competition as well as reference UX metrics from popular destinations across the web. You can then be more proactive.

Google’s search results interface has changed dramatically, but brands and agencies that can shake the inertia, rally their staffs and reorient their processes will be the first to spot new opportunities and novel ways to reach their audiences.

About The Author

George Nguyen is an Associate Editor at Third Door Media. His background is in content marketing, journalism, and storytelling.

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Yoast, Google devs propose XML Sitemaps for WordPress Core



Yoast, Google devs propose XML Sitemaps for WordPress Core

The inclusion of XML Sitemaps as a WordPress Core feature has been proposed by a group of Yoast and Google team members as well as other contributors. In addition to a basic XML Sitemap, the proposal also introduces an XML Sitemaps API that would extend functionality for developers and webmasters.

The proposed XML Sitemaps structure. Image sourced from Make WordPress Core.

What it’ll include. The proposal states that XML Sitemaps will be enabled by default, allowing for indexing of the following content types:

  • Homepage
  • Posts page
  • Core post types (Pages and Posts)
  • Custom post types
  • Core taxonomies (Tags and Categories)
  • Custom taxonomies
  • Users (Authors)

It’s worth keeping in mind that your WordPress site’s automatically generated robots.txt file will also reference your sitemap index.

What it won’t include. Although the proposed feature will include the majority of WordPress content types and meet search engine minimum requirements, the initial integration will not cover image, video or news sitemaps, XML Sitemaps caching mechanisms or user-facing changes such as UI controls that exclude individual posts or pages from the sitemap.

The XML Sitemaps API. Here’s how the API will let you manipulate your XML Sitemaps:

  • Provide a custom XML Stylesheet
  • Add extra sitemaps and sitemap entries
  • Add extra attributes to sitemap entries
  • Exclude a specific post, post type, taxonomy or term from the sitemap
  • Exclude a specific author from the sitemap
  • Exclude specific authors with a specific role from the sitemap

Why we should care. Sitemaps facilitate indexing by providing web crawlers with your site’s URLs. If implemented, this might mean one less third-party plugin that brands and webmasters have to rely on for their SEO efforts. As a WordPress Core feature, we can expect wider compatibility and support than we might get from third-party solutions.

Poorly optimized plugins can also slow down your site, which can have a negative impact on your organic traffic. This default option from WordPress may not replace plugins like Yoast SEO because they often include other features in addition to XML Sitemaps, but its availability has the potential to provide us with more flexibility over which plugins we install.

About The Author

George Nguyen is an Associate Editor at Third Door Media. His background is in content marketing, journalism, and storytelling.

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Yoast SEO 11.4 adds FAQ structured data, UX improvements



Yoast SEO 11.4 adds FAQ structured data, UX improvements

Yoast SEO’s latest update enhances its FAQ blocks by automatically generating structured data to accompany questions and answers. The update also introduces some UX improvements and addresses issues with AMP pages when viewed in Reader mode.

How to use it. Yoast’s FAQ structured data implementation is only compatible with the WordPress block editor (also known as Gutenberg; available on versions 5.0 and newer). Webmasters can get started by selecting the FAQ block, adding a question, inputting the answer and an image (if applicable) and repeating the process for all frequently asked questions.

The Yoast FAQ block.

The corresponding FAQpage structured data will be generated in the background and added to Yoast’s structured data graph, which may help search engines identify your FAQ page and figure out how it fits into the overall scheme of your site.

A new action and filter were also introduced to make this integration more flexible. The wpseo_pre-schema_block-type_<block-type> lets you adjust the graph output based the blocks on the page and the wpseo_schema_block_<block-type> filter enables you to filter graph output on a per-block basis.

Other improvements. Yoast has also linked the SEO and readability scores in the Classic Editor and relocated the Focus keyphrase field to the top of meta box and sidebar to make it easier to find. And, they’ve resolved issues with AMP pages when viewed in Reader mode.

Why we should care. At this year’s I/O conference, Google announced support for FAQ markup, which may mean that searchers will be presented with FAQs as rich results more frequently. Being able to easily and efficiently equip our FAQ sections with structured data can yield better odds of earning prominent placement on SERPs.

For more on Yoast’s structured data implementation, check out our coverage on their 11.0 (general schema implementation), 11.1 (image and video), 11.2 (custom schema) and 11.3 (image and avatar) updates.

About The Author

George Nguyen is an Associate Editor at Third Door Media. His background is in content marketing, journalism, and storytelling.

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