Your SEO Refresh Plan: Top Recommendations and Best Practices for 2018
For as long as Google’s been a widely used verb, SEO has been one of the most important marketing tools available to businesses of all types and sizes. That’s not a fact that’s likely to change anytime soon. Even for purchases made in a physical store, people often start by looking up information online.
Gaining visibility in the search engines takes time and work, but it’s work worth doing (or paying for) for the results it can bring. And the longer you keep at it, the more competitive you’ll be. But SEO isn’t static. You can’t just keep doing the same thing year after year. Every year brings new trends, updates, and best practices.
To make sure you don’t fall behind, here are some of the main things to be planning for in your 2018 SEO strategy.
Here’s the good news: some things haven’t changed. The most important parts of a strong SEO strategy in 2017 are the same in 2018, and they’re likely to still be best practices in 2019. These are the basics you can consistently count on.
1. Fresh, high-quality content is a must.
Not long ago, Google’s Search Quality Senior Strategist confirmed that fresh content is one of the most important ranking factors their algorithm. To anyone paying attention, this is no surprise. Regularly publishing new content on your website shows search engines that your website is still being updated. Covering a number of topics relevant to your industry provides opportunities to rank for a growing list of keywords and topic areas in the search engines. And high-quality content will attract the shares and links that search engines equate with authority.
SEO isn’t the only reason to create content, but it’s definitely a good reason to keep up with it. You should still use content marketing as a key part of your SEO efforts this year, and if anything, plan on giving it an even higher priority in the coming year than you did before.
2. Strategic link building is important.
Creating really great content is a good step for earning links, but you usually have to do more than just hit “publish” to get them. Link building is therefore still an important part of doing SEO in 2018.
Google is upfront about links being another one of the most important ranking factors their algorithm looks at, but they can’t just be from anywhere. The quality of the links you get is more important than the number of them. Make sure your SEO strategy includes a link building plan that emphasizes websites that have a lot of authority in Google’s eyes and relevance to your topic.
Most SEO tools can help you research the authority of websites in your topic area, and generally speaking, sites that end in .org or .gov are often a good bet. You can earn links by offering to write relevant guest posts, by building relationships with other site owners, and by doing something newsworthy that gets coverage (like a contest or charity event).
Link building is tricky because it requires convincing someone else (often strangers) to want to do something that benefits your business. But every time you earn a high-quality link back your website, the benefits you reap will be long term and significant.
3. Your website must offer a good UX (on all devices).
If you do everything else right and get people onto your website only for them to get frustrated with the way your website is designed and bounce, the search engine algorithms notice. They want to direct people to high-quality pages that provide searchers with what they’re looking for. Factors like how long they spend on your website once they get there and if they visit more than one page tell the search engine algorithms whether or not people are satisfied with what they find on your website.
Reps from Google have confirmed that RankBrain, a big part of how websites are ranked these days, measures when “someone clicks on a page and stays on that page, when they go back.” While the quality of your content and how relevant it is to what they were looking for when they clicked both play important roles in keeping people around, your UX can make or break whether or not people bother to stay on your website for longer than a few seconds. Great content can’t overcome a bad experience.
And while it’s not a new issue, each and every year, the experience you offer on mobile devices becomes more important both to how your visitors experience the website and how Google views it. When you’re focusing on UX, make it a priority to design for a good mobile experience as well.
What’s New for SEO in 2018?
So that’s the easy part (sort of). A lot of doing SEO well this year well will mean sticking with the things that made for good SEO before. But there are some newer trends and changes in Google that website owners should have on their radar moving into the next year.
1. The role of voice search
How people search online keeps evolving. It seemed surprising to many when mobile searches overtook desktop ones recently, but the next big shift has snuck up on us already. Over 55% of teens and 40% of adults use voice search every single day. Voice searches now make up 20% of all searches on mobile devices.
When you’re planning your content strategy for 2018, think about how people use voice search versus type search. When you ask your phone something out loud, you probably don’t use keywords – you ask a question or state a command in a full sentence. Instead of saying “austin weather” you’d say something like “what’s the weather forecast in Austin today?”
For businesses, that means a shift away from a focus on keywords specifically (although they don’t have to go away entirely). Think in terms of conversational phrases and statements as well as keywords. Aim to create content that’s based around the kind of questions you expect your customers will ask using voice search. Oh, and aim to optimize your content to show up in one of the rich snippets in Google that we’re about to talk about.
2. Rich snippets (and other rich results)
You’ve probably noticed in your own searches on Google that search engine results pages for a lot of keywords now include a lot more than the list of ten links that used to make up a SERP.
In addition to the ads that have long shared the space with natural results, you’ll now see alongside, on top of, and otherwise scattered around the list of links, rich results that are set apart from the main list with images, map locations, text in a box, and more.
In some cases, you have to go pretty far down the page to get to the natural results that SEO strategists spend so much time trying to rank in.
These rich results can be a distraction from your website in the results, but you can try to make them work for you by optimizing your site to show up as a rich result. There are a few tactics you can try to accomplish that:
Try to ask and answer basic questions high up in your content. The answer snippets now common in the results of many question searches visually dominate those pages. Optimizing for them is a mixed bag; on the one hand, if the answer is entirely contained in the box on the search results page, people are less likely to click through. But if they’re going to click on any results, there’s a good chance it’s going to be the most obvious one in the answer box.
Use schema markup. Schema markup helps tell Google what type of content is included on your page and identify the different parts of it they’re most likely to pull out to feature in a rich search result. For example, a recipe will be more likely to have the image featured on the search results page along with information like the number of calories, the time it takes to make, or the rating it’s received from users, if applicable. All that information makes visitors more likely to click, especially if your page is the only one that has it featured.
If you’re a local business, prioritize getting featured in the map cluster. Local SEO has always been a little different than SEO for national and international businesses, but this has only become more the case as rich snippets have taken over the SERPs – particularly when it comes to the map snippet. One of the most important goals local businesses should have in search is trying to get into the 3-pack of businesses that are featured on the map that shows up at the top of the page, with the business information right below it. That means a focus on things like directory listings, customer reviews, and making sure your on-site optimization emphasizes mentions of your city, state, and address.
And it’s always a good practice to go through the act of searching the terms that are most relevant to your business periodically to see what’s going on with the results page over time. If in six months your most important search term suddenly starts delivering rich video results over text results, then you’ll want to know that to shift your strategy accordingly.
3. Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI)
As technical as the term sounds, the concept behind latent semantic indexing (LSI) is pretty simple. The old advice was to pick one target keyword per page and really focus on it. That led to lots of sloppy keyword stuffing and low-quality content, so for a long time Google’s been finding ways for the algorithm to identify what pages are about without basing it on something like the number of times a keyword is used.
LSI looks at the relationship between different words used on a page to better understand the overall topic it’s getting at, rather than focusing on specific keywords. So when the algorithm comes upon a website that uses the word “bat” a bunch, it looks for other related keywords or signals to help it figure out if the page is talking about the small, flying mammal, the tool regularly used in baseball, or an acronym like the British American Tobacco company.
What LSI means for SEO strategists is that you don’t need to worry so much about focusing on a particular keyword. Using different variations of a term in a piece of content, along with the many related words that are sure to come up naturally, will do a lot of the work for you.
But if you want to further optimize your content for LSI, then do keyword research to discover the terms Google sees as related to the focus term you have in mind. Google’s Keyword Planner tool can help with that, as can the free LSI Keyword Generator. The autosuggest terms you see when you’re starting to type your term in Google can help as well, along with the “searches related to” suggestions that show up on the bottom of the search page. If there’s a natural way to incorporate these various keywords into your content, they can further signal to Google what your content’s about and what they should rank it for.
4. Mobile-first index
Google’s been letting us know for a while that they’re giving more priority to mobile. They announced a couple of years ago that whether or not websites were mobile friendly would affect their performance in search results. Now they’re going a step further by making the mobile version of websites the primary one that algorithms look at.
You’ve been hearing for years to make your website mobile friendly, so this news probably shouldn’t change much about your strategy. If your website isn’t already mobile friendly, then make that happen ASAP. If you built out a mobile version that doesn’t include the content and pages your desktop website includes, then work on moving your full website over to the mobile version you offer. If, like a lot of businesses, your website is responsive and delivers up a mobile-optimized version of the content visitors see on your desktop site, then you’re set.
There will almost certainly be additional changes to how people search and how Google’s algorithms work in 2018, so in addition to taking all this into account in your strategy for the year, keep an eye on the search engine news that arises. And pay attention to what you see in your own searches online. After all, everyone reading this is a searcher as well as a search optimizer. One of the best ways to stay on top of the trends is to simply pay attention as you see them happening.
As always, prioritize your visitors most of all. That means continuing to make useful content and a strong user experience your top priorities. The things your visitors like about the site will always be the main things Google cares about.
Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.