When you stop and take a look back at where search engine optimization (SEO) started, it’s pretty incredible how far it’s come in the past couple of years — even the past couple of months. And just like every year, all of us here at Blue Compass are looking at Google predictions, search trends and algorithm updates that can help us stay ahead of the ever-changing search game moving into 2018.
As we look ahead to SEO in 2018, discover our predictions for what we think will be one of Google’s biggest years yet for search.
Introducing Google’s Third Most Important Ranking Factor
Though in place for a few years, Google recently announced that RankBrain is the third most important ranking signal. That’s probably why you’ve heard so much buzz around it lately. Before we jump into how it could affect sites, let's first understand how RankBrain works.
What is RankBrain?
RankBrain is Google’s machine-learning artificial intelligence engine that sorts search results. It processes and understands search queries, the relationship between terms and then quantifies them into mathematical equations.
It then tweaks the algorithm and provides results based on assumption. If behavior metrics come back saying the change produced better results, it stays. If not, it rolls back to the old algorithm. Pretty advanced, right? It’s these quick, small tweaks that have led to RankBrain gaining more traction from Google and why we think it will only grow in it’s importance moving forward.
So how does RankBrain really work?
RankBrain serves two main functions:
- Understand queries and the relationship between words (keywords and language)
- Measure user satisfaction with the results (behavior metrics)
Google used to try and match your queries to words on a page. They would use inlinks, anchor text and keywords to give searchers the best result. While this worked, it meant you could fill your content with keywords and Google didn’t know the best results to serve for new queries.
For example, if you were to search “beer that has mountains on it,” the old Google would have trouble serving you the correct result (Coors). Unless “mountains” was anchor text or a keyword used throughout the website copy, we would never get the result we were looking for.
Today, RankBrain interprets what you actually mean with your query — like a human. Rankbrain takes your keyword, understands the intent behind your search and shows you a webpage covering that topic. Take the query above and throw it into your search bar — we think you’ll find that RankBrain has done its job.
The example above shows how RankBrain fulfills its first function of understanding search queries, but there’s also the part of RankBrain that measures user satisfaction. The second function is all about behavior metrics. Things like:
- Dwell Time (Time on Page)
- Organic CTR
Also known as user experience (UX) signals, these metrics help the search engine and RankBrain identify how people interact with their search results. It’s simple really, these are the normal metrics we use in Google Analytics to determine how relevant our content is and whether users enjoy it — RankBrain does the same thing.
How does RankBrain use behavior metrics to rank search results?
Let's say you search for "how to tie a bow tie" in Google. All of Google's algorithms pull together and show the first page results in less than a second — hopefully providing you with the best result in the number one spot. Like any of us, you click on the first result, but find that there are no clear instructions listed, so you hit the back button and go back to SERPs.
You find that the second result is a little better, but there’s still no visual aid so you click back again and move onto result number three. There we go. Exactly what you’re looking for! Instead of hitting the back button, you read through the content, practice tying your bowtie a few times and even click-thru to another page on the website about how to master the pocket square.
RankBrain takes all of this information and understands that the first two results, though enticing enough to click on, don’t provide nearly as valuable of information as the third result. Once noticed by the algorithm, the third result will be pushed to the top.
UX/UI Continue To Gain SEO Traction
Behavior metrics and UX signals are becoming a much more powerful metric for Google and RankBrain is just the start. Your content has to be extremely relevant if you want to maintain first page rankings.
What used to be reserved for landing page junkies and inbound evangelists is now a necessity for those looking to compete in the 2018 SEO landscape. In the same way content must be relevant and engaging for the user, your website's design should draw the user in and and move them throughout the site.
How do you design for UX and SEO?
Google wants to provide the best experience for users, and you must do the same. A great website design, focused around the user, can make all the difference. Just try out a few of these user experience best practices and concepts for your website design to improve the user experience.
The psychological concept of cognitive fluency refers to the ease or difficulty of completing a mental task. It’s human nature to choose the course of action that will use the least amount of energy and brainpower. Users will immediately move on to a competitor’s site if they can’t easily find what they’re looking for on your website.
This is why Google considers time on site in their algorithm. If users are happy on your site, they’ll probably stay longer and complete their task. On the other hand, if users are leaving your site quickly after arriving, Google assumes your site didn’t provide the right information or it was difficult to use.
This is where a minimalist design with simple navigation comes into play, our brains don’t like cognitive overload. Websites need to incorporate white space and present content in a way that’s easy for the user to scan. If their task seems too difficult to complete on your website, users will move on to the next Google search result.
Offer Simple Choices
Similarly, users are more likely to take action on your website when they have a distinct, simple choice in front of them. Utilizing clear calls-to-action (CTAs) will guide users to view more pages on your website, indicating a positive user experience to Google.
Conversational Search and Natural Language Push Style Guides to the Side
We’re not telling you to throw out your AP Style Guides, but we are definitely telling you to start thinking about your writing from a conversational perspective. When you’re talking with someone, do you inherently think through keywords, or long-tail phrases? Of course not. Understanding user intent and vocabulary is a crucial part of keyword research and content creation. As Google continues getting smarter, we need to think about our writing differently.
First, we need to understand the transition taking place in how users search. There’s voice search via Amazon Echo, Siri and Google Assistant. Some of these searches occur in the home, some on the go. We’re seeing people ask their devices questions just like they would a friend, and that trend translates to how people enter queries into their search bar.
We aren’t recommending to optimize everything for voice search just yet (in our opinion that’s still a few years away) but we do recommend writing naturally and worrying less about the keyword and more about the topic/concept on page.
If you want your website to rank for “vegan cupcake recipes,” don’t worry about the extra specific keywords like “almond flour vegan cupcake recipes for a birthday”. If you’re writing naturally, this should automatically occur throughout your content. Spend your time optimizing around these medium-length keywords, like “vegan cupcake recipes,” and Google will understand what you’re talking about.
Ultimately, online writing should come down to three things:
- Does your content keep people on the page? (Dwell Time)
- Do you write like your audience speaks? (Keywords)
- Can you engage your audience? (User Satisfaction)
If you focus on the users and less about sharing your story, your content will come out organically and engage those who visit your site. It all comes back to being user-focused. Instead of sharing all about our company experiences, goals and accomplishments, think about what you can offer the user. What do you have an expertise on that gives the user value? Do this and you’ll have an engaged audience in no time at all.
Part of this is where SEO has been headed. Keyword stuffing is long gone and any type of unnatural use of keywords has been phased out by Google. It’s all about thoroughly hashing out your point and providing relevant information to your user.
The Mobile-First Index is Happening and You Better Be Optimized
We’re finally here. It’s 2018 and the promised “Mobile-First” index of old has already been rolled out to a few sites. After two years of waiting, Google is finally reflecting user action, as mobile accounted for 68% of internet usage in 2016 alone.
The launch of a “Mobile-First” index will solidify mobile experience as the basis for crawl bots and SERP rankings. While this is one of the biggest jumps we’ve seen by Google in a while, it shouldn’t affect sites as much as one would think. The web has been moving toward mobile since the late 2000’s, we’re just now going to start seeing that change reflected by Google.
Are you already prepared for the mobile-first index?
There’s little to be done if you’ve followed SEO best practices up to this point. If your site isn’t already optimized for mobile, responsive design is step one.
A website built for both mobile and desktop (AKA responsive) shouldn’t experience any issues once indexed. You will only see problems when non-responsive sites come into play, or mobile (m.) sites don’t have proper canonicals in place. Luckily, most of us jumped on the responsive train long ago.
Structured data, like Schema, should be your next step. There’s been a recent push from Google to give Schema markup more SEO value. The more you let the search engine know, the better.
Ask your development team or whoever is running the SEO on your site (maybe that’s you) if structured data is already in place. If not, you can always learn how to write your own Schema and then check it with Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool.
Mobile issues and usability will follow Schema as your final mobile-optimized check. Simply log into your Google Search Console and look under the mobile usability tab for any errors.
It should look something like this:
Errors like, “clickable content too close together,” and “object too wide for screen” will appear here. These usability errors, while always necessary to fix, are obviously going to become more critical with a mobile focus from Google. We recommend checking this section of Search Console after every site update.
There you have it. Just follow these steps and you should be ready for the “Mobile-First” index.
You can also review our checklist below for an abridged version.
Backlinks Still Reign Supreme
Though a somewhat old topic in the SEO-world, backlinks are still around and going strong. Remember up above when we mentioned RankBrain as one of the top three ranking factors? Backlinks are another part of that puzzle, sitting at number one on the list.
Links have long been declared the backbone of Google’s search engine, but they’ve evolved over time. What used to be a quantity over quality game has flipped with Google giving more value to high-quality links.
But, high-quality links aren’t all that matter anymore.
Google is now using relevancy as another way to judge backlinks.
For example, if you’re in the auto industry and you get a link from Pantone (arguably one of the biggest names in design) it won’t do as much for your site as you think. Google will see it as a high-quality link, but you’d be better off getting a link from Ford or Nissan — a company within your industry.
The addition of relevancy, as well as quality, has us looking at backlink profiles closer than ever before. To hit that first page in 2018, you will need high-quality, relevant backlinks leading back to your site.
How do you get high-quality backlinks?
Don’t send a million emails out to everyone immediately, but do some research and see if there’s a site where a piece of your content/information can be useful. Shoot an email off to the site owner or manager and give them a convincing reason to display your content.
We know this sounds like an oversimplification, and to stay on topic, we don’t want to get too far into backlink outreach in this post. For those looking to learn more, check out our post dedicated to everything backlinks.
Why are backlinks still important?
Backlinks are one of the easiest ways for Google to determine the authority of a site. If a trustworthy site links to your site, Google can guess the information is trustworthy as well. How do you measure this? The main metric we use is Domain Authority.
Domain Authority is a Moz metric composed of various data points, ultimately giving us a 1-100 score on how trustworthy a site is. A higher Domain Authority backlink will give you a bigger boost — ranking you higher in SERPs.
A metric like Domain Authority is a great way to determine what Google thinks of sites linking to your domain. You can view your backlinks in Google Search Console and then punch them into Moz for a site profile.
If the site has a low score, you’ll know it won’t do a ton for your backlink profile. If the site’s spammy, we suggest disavowing it before Google picks it up. This is especially true if you’ve ever bought links or used black-hat practices to obtain them.
If you have spammy backlinks, it’s only a matter of time before the Penguin algorithm update catches your site and blacklists you from SERPs.
While we hope Penguin isn’t a worry for you, it’s important to keep a close eye on your backlinks and fight for high-quality links. It’s all about quality nowadays, don’t get caught up trying to garner more and more backlinks — it won’t do anything for your site.
The Future of Search and Beyond
With 2018 being so busy already, it’s hard to imagine what the digital world will look like six months from now. Be sure to keep on eye on what we talked about in this post — the web is always changing and we expect even more updates to follow.
If you want to always stay ahead of the game, feel free to reach out with any questions and we’ll be happy to talk!