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Our 'SEO in 2017: What Marketers Need to Know' Q+A Roundup

On April 21, I was part of a panel discussion entitled “SEO in 2017: What Marketers Need to Know” at the 2017 Mid-Atlantic Marketing Summit: The Future of Marketing in Washington, D.C.   

The topics ranged from SEO history to where we think SEO is heading in the future and everything in between — at least everything Brian Patterson (Go Fish Digital), Steve Wanczyk (RepEquity) and I could cover in 55 minutes.

There were a lot of questions we couldn’t get to during the discussion, and a lot of more that people asked me afterwards — so I want to answer some of them here. If I missed anything, feel free to leave a note in the Comments section or tweet us @silverbackstrat. Thanks!

Silverback Strategies SEO chief Kurt Lambert speaks at the 2017 Mid-Atlantic Marketing Summit from Silverback Strategies on Vimeo.

Here we go:

In the big picture, what are two or three important trends you've recently noticed in SEO in 2017, and what direction do you see SEO heading over the next year?

The biggest trends we’ve noticed over the last year have centered around the increased importance of trust and user experience. “Trustworthy” websites and information have been a hot topic lately, and Google’s tried to do all it can to continually build that trust with its searchers — specifically, websites’ use of secured HTTPS domains has skyrocketed as Google has acknowledged it is an SEO ranking factor. User experience issues such as site speed, click-through and bounce rates and ease of navigation all have played larger roles, as well.

I can definitely see Google continue to push towards a safer, more trustworthy web while constantly trying to process information and serve it to its users quicker than ever, rewarding websites that play along in the process.

Imagine you're at a cocktail party (or Thanksgiving dinner). You mention that you work in SEO and you get this question — "How does Google decide in 2017 what results I see?" You have two minutes to answer. What do you say?

Search results are all about what Google believes are the highest quality pages for whatever is being searched. Our job is to convince the big G that our websites are of the utmost quality for our clients’ respective industries by breaking down “high quality” into four main buckets:

  • Quality content on the website
  • Technical quality of the website (no errors, no issues with crawling and indexing
  • User experience quality
  • Quality of the links/authority being passed from other websites and reviews

Google tends to display results based on the websites that cumulatively come out on top from those particular categories.

Could you give us an update on the move to mobile-first? Industry buzz towards the end of 2016 indicated this would have a drastic impact in 2017, but has it?

The switch to the mobile-first index hasn’t happened...yet. Most industry experts were speculating it would roll out at some point in early 2017 — however, the launch might not happen until 2018.

That’s not to say businesses should stop preparing for this mobile-first switch to happen. Mobile friendliness has been a huge ranking factor in mobile searches for well over a year now.

Google is always adding features to the search results. Answer boxes are becoming more common at the very top of the search results.  Why is that? How can businesses use it to their advantage?

This may seem shocking, but Google is trying to become the ultimate resource for all kinds of information. It wants to increase your reliance and usage for its searches and get you to stay on Google-related entities as much as possible — which explains the expanded prominence of such features as the Answer Box.

Since it’s Google’s game, we have to play by their rules. We’ve increased our focus on adding relevant structured data as much as we possibly can to websites to help highlight the most important information for their crawlers.

Another big piece of “answer box optimization” is organizing the page content in a manner that actually answers questions that users might search. This means doing such things like phrasing the main headers (H1 tags, H2 tags, etc.) of a page as a question, clearly spelling the answer to the question in the first few sentences of the initial paragraph or leveraging lists when appropriate. Like structured data, this makes it easier for crawlers to comprehend the meaning of the page content, and allows them to put that meaning to good use directly on the search result pages.

What are some of the challenges you've faced as Google continually increases the ad real estate on search results? How are you working around that? When do you recommend paid search vs. organic to your clients?

In many cases, the true, number-one organic result has been pushed down the page quite a bit and results in a lower click-through rate than it had before — especially on mobile. But there are ways we can work around that.

We’ve been able to combat the increase in ads by focusing on strategies around longer-tail keywords. Typically, the longer-tail the search, the less likely it is to see ads on top of the SERP — whether it’s a few less ads on a particular search, or in some cases, no ads to compete with at all.

In regards to when we’d recommend paid vs. organic: there are quite a few examples that highlight why it’s never a good idea to run one or the other, but rather run them both in conjunction with each other. In certain instances on mobile searches (especially for local searches), the mobile click-to-call ads get such a high click-through rate that it’s a no-brainer to run them.

However, if you do similar searches on desktop, there is a high likelihood of organic Google My Business results actually appearing above the ads. To be safe, it’s a good idea to make sure you have complete coverage.

How do you advise brands use Facebook and Twitter for SEO? With the social ecosystem becoming increasingly image- (and video-) dependent (i.e. Snapchat, Instagram, FB Live, etc.), how is this impacting your SEO strategies?

Social media links don’t pass any link authority directly, but there are a ton of indirect benefits that can come from having a good social strategy. Google can tell how many times a particular page has been shared. Featuring attractive images or video that grab people’s attention are a large part of improving shares on networks like Facebook and Twitter. There are also strong correlations between the number of shares a page has with the number of backlinks it’s able to generate. It’s really in a brand’s best interest to make sure that they have a solid social strategy to back up the work they’re putting in on the SEO side.

What are some ways that we are able to measure the success of a brand strategy in relation to an SEO campaign? What about the the importance of taking inventory of all the different SERP features a particular brand may face in their respective industry (standard results, answer boxes, knowledge graphs, rich snippets, etc.), and how that can be monitored and reported upon on an ongoing basis?

There are a few ways to measure the awareness a brand can have when it comes to SEO. One of the more straightforward ways is by pulling the data each month from Search Console, filtering out for all brand-related queries. Supermetrics is a tool that can automate this process and make reporting a breeze.

Other brands want to be seen as synonymous with traditionally non-branded words (think Kleenex = tissues). Ensuring they rank at the very top of search results for these keywords are as important as any other SEO metric we could throw out there.

Because the search result landscape truly varies from industry to industry, we try to make sure a client is doing all they can to take up as much of that real estate as much as possible. Tracking the answer boxes, knowledge graphs, rich cards, reviews, products and any other rich snippet information that might display for a particular industry is as vital as figuring out how to get our clients into all those spaces.

You can't talk digital marketing these days without content marketing coming up. How important is content marketing for SEO, and what changes can brands make to their content marketing strategy that will benefit SEO?

Something that we always emphasize is the connection between content and SEO. We truly believe that we’ll always get the best results when SEO and a content marketing strategy are working together. SEO tends to be the driver of uncovering organic opportunities, and a content marketing strategy is essential at delivering on those opportunities — whether it’s via on-page content, outreach for link building, a social strategy, etc.

For example: links are clearly a huge part of SEO. Content is the best way to dazzle highly influential bloggers, publishers and editors who can pass quality link authority by ensuring the content we’re offering is unique, relevant, and valuable.

One change brands can make to their content marketing strategy is to keep outreach in mind. Build game plans around specific topics or keywords and target who would be most likely to link to the content. As a brand, self-evaluate and see if you’re providing enough genuine value or information to be linked to in the first place. Have your outreach targets linked to other similar content previously? If so, you know you could be on the right track.

How do you pro-actively protect, or in some cases fix, your branded search results?

Social profiles are a great way to proactively protect brands on search result pages. Profiles that feature higher engagement, more follows and regular updates will appear much higher for branded searches. This helps build a barrier around the branded searches that naturally make it tough for negative items to break through.

Fixing branded searches would follow a similar path. Social profiles will always contain the most potential authority outside of a brand’s actual website. Building them up the right way by putting out great content and interacting can pay dividends for the brand.

How is the industry and/or Google itself handling the notion of “fake news,” and how will it impact sites across the board?

With Google — its news results specifically — you’ve been able to tag various news articles as being fact-checked. Other tag labels include satirical, opinion, user-generated, in-depth, etc. Google would then treat the fact-checked items a little differently, provided the claims are valid.

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Google’s able to validate claims by fact-checking via a new form of structured data schema called ClaimReview, which allows crawlers to find articles quicker and highlight the fact-checking work that has been done and verify any sources of information.

If a news item passes these claim reviews, they’ll appear higher in search results and display the fact-checked designation.

What three SEO tools are essential to us?

The three SEO tools I absolutely could not live without:

Screaming Frog — It's great for crawling websites and returning on-page SEO data. — What we primarily use for all backlink research

SEMrush — Provides a lot of great insight on all the possible terms a website might be ranking for (whether intentionally or not), can regularly crawl and report on website technical issues, and is also is a good way of doing competitive research.

I had a great time participating in this panel. I hope those in attendance were able to get a lot out of the discussion. For those that did not attend, I hope this recap gives you some idea on where SEO might be heading over the next several years.