As 2018 begins, it's appropriate to take some time both to reflect on the previous year and to look ahead into what the new year will bring. In digital marketing, this is especially important, as the rapid pace of change in technology has only increased in recent times.
One specific area of digital marketing that is always in constant flux is that of search engine optimization (SEO). Google's consistent innovation when it comes to its search algorithm, combined with its constant battle against spammers and overaggressive SEOs, means that the sand is always shifting beneath the feet of digital publishers. Thankfully, many smart people have been keeping an eye on these things and can help prepare us for the coming year.
Below, I've listed the main trends that I believe will be the core of industry change in 2018. If you are a CMO or responsible for the marketing of a large online publisher, consider bringing these up at your next strategy meeting:
1. Mobile-First Index
Google has been bantering about the mobile-first index for at least two years. Now, we are finally sort of approaching a rollout — maybe. This indecision is mirrored by Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Gary Illyes, who this past summer said of the mobile-first index, "Our engineers' timeline was initially end of 2017. Right now, we think more 2018."
Google is being cautious about the rollout, which makes sense, given the major ramifications of a system that will affect the entirety of Google's index and ranking algorithm. However, I think we can safely predict that a full rollout is inevitabile, and every company should prepare its online properties, big or small.
How Can We Prepare?
Considering more people are using mobile devices to browse the web, every web property should offer an outstanding mobile experience. If your property does not, consider taking this opportunity to develop such an experience.
The mobile-first index presents several unique challenges that didn't exist during the initial "Mobilegeddon" of 2015. These include:
- On-page ranking factors will be evaluated based on the mobile experience. Make sure to include all the links from your desktop experience and all the content from your desktop experience. It's okay to hide these via tabs and collapsible DIVs. This is a shift away from previous standards, which would not favor content that isn't clearly visible on initial page load.
- Gary Illyes suggests you "Make sure structured data are on your mobile site" (i.e. any Schema.org markup, etc.) and "Make sure rel-annotations are on your mobile site."
Mobile usability is an entirely separate field of expertise, so I won't attempt to give full guidance here. I'm not a designer, but here are a few general tips:
- Keep a keen eye on your KPIs to ensure you aren't shooting yourself in the foot.
- Consider starting a mobile-first design methodology. Start prototypes on a small device and expand out.
- Use this opportunity to take a close look at your performance metrics on mobile. You may even be able to take advantage of redesigns to improve performance.
2. Voice Search
You've probably noticed the massive competing ad campaigns between Google and Amazon for their respective voice-recognition home assistants, Google Home and Amazon Echo. Similarly, Microsoft has introduced Cortana, and we all know about the original voice-recognition assistant, Apple's Siri.
Major tech giants are investing heavily in what they believe is the next incarnation of personal computing, the voice-recognition home assistant. We, as marketing professionals, should take heed.
How Can We Prepare?
Some time ago, Google introduced "featured snippets", originally called "quick answers" and sometimes referred to as the "answer box." This feature grabs the best answer to a question, extracts the text, and presents it at the very top of the first page of search results — even before the very first search result itself.
Unbeknownst to many, this was a harbinger of voice search. If you perform a voice query via the Google app, the app will read back the best answer — that is, the featured snippet.
To prepare for the growing popularity of these voice searches, we should start optimizing for the featured snippet — which is in fact a great way to garner traffic regardless of voice search.
Some factors that help with featured snippet rankings:
- Lots of structured data, like order or unordered lists.
- Use of question text in headers (h1, h2, etc).
- Use of images with relevant alt text.
- Lots of latent semantic indexing (LSI) keywords — i.e., synonyms and related keywords — around the target question text.
Furthermore, you can take this opportunity to consider more discreet content marketing, leverage long-tail keywords that include questions related to your niche.
3. Artificial Intelligence
I know what you're thinking: "What, no mention of Bitcoin?" Well, no. Despite the explosion of interest in cryptocurrency, it has nothing to do with SEO strategy.
But to fulfill your desire for a trending topic, we'll talk about the rise of the machines — that is, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.
You may recall Google launched an AI portion of its ranking algorithm, called "RankBrain", back in 2015. Put simply, RankBrain instructs the algorithm how to utilize its 200+ ranking factors for a given search term. It learns over time what factors are more important for a specific query, and instructs the core algorithm to favor those factors.
While Google's empire was built on using exogenous signals (i.e., backlinks) to determine the quality of content, the future of the algorithm could be the determination of quality without the need for exogenous signals.
Google dipped its foot in this pond when it introduced the Panda algorithm in 2011. That update was largely a discounting of low-quality content. Google has yet to figure out how to differentiate between acceptable content and high-quality content. Just ask anyone who has tried to rank with "great content" alone.
How Can We Prepare?
To prepare for this shift, business owners should set their editorial standards very high. While other publishers may be doing "good enough" to get by, sacrificing quality to increase quantity, you should be doing the opposite.
This is a good guideline regardless of SEO, but we all know the tempting nature of organic traffic and the impact it can have on the bottom line. To set yourself up for future success, think long term and high quality.
The only constant is change, and that is never more apparent then when dealing with digital technologies. SEO has always been a shifting science, with Google zigging while webmasters are zagging, and vice versa. This will only continue in 2018 and beyond.
Taking a critical look at the trends that will likely present themselves in 2018 can help CMOs, business owners, and SEOsset themselves up for long-term success in the digital landscape.
Michael Hayes is founder of Darby Hayes Consulting, an NYC-based internet marketing agency. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.