Winning in organic search means winning with content and it's not for the faint of heart.
In the past year or so, organic search has seen major changes.
In 2013, we saw the Hummingbird infrastructure launched in Google Search and we experienced the end to keyword data in analytics due to 100 percent Secure Search. We also saw Google's Panda become a staple facet of the algorithm by becoming a rolling update.
There were also additional expansions to the Knowledge Graph and the way it displays information in organic search, leading to things like the local carousel results and results from Google's new voice search.
Even with all the changes to the landscape, many of us realize that some things never change -- like the tried and true approach of SEO and content -- we're just dealing with new ways of delivering.
In the past few weeks, BrightEdge has interviewed companies like Adobe, Bing, Google, Macy's, Adidas, Majestic and Seagate Technology ahead of our Share14 conference. Our goal was to find out what brands and those close to the search industry think about the changes we've seen, how to respond to them and what's on the horizon.
The SEO-Content Landscape: Changes and Their Aftermath
There's no question that some of the changes in the past year or so are among the biggest shifts in years.
"This is my 14th year in the industry and the pace of change has never been greater," says Dave Lloyd, senior manager of global search marketing at Adobe Systems. But even so, he adds, "The search marketing industry continues to evolve. Let's face it: SEO performance relies on a business solid foundation and adapting regularly to changes in the industry."
Bing's Duane Forrester, head of its webmaster program, agrees that while there have been changes, there are also some things that remain the same, like content.
"This past year will be remembered as the ‘Year of Content.' [There has been] so much conversation around how important content is, people moving budgets towards content efforts and so on," Forrester says. "And yet, for all that talk and action, content has always been important. Finally, though, businesses are starting to understand the downside to implicit or explicit shortcuts in this area."
In addition, most agree that if brands have been approaching SEO in a smart way, the changes are easier to respond to. Majestic's marketing director, Dixon Jones, explains, "Every year, the changes in SEO seem to be designed in part to surprise and upset, but I think companies with good business models and a healthy understanding of digital marketing are handling change better and better, whilst those that treat SEO as an afterthought, or, potentially worse, in isolation, are suffering more and more with every iteration in the industry."
For his part, Forrester adds that even those with the best intentions could have been impacted by changes in the past year or so, but others should have known the consequences were coming their way.
"In some instances, people had no idea that they were taking shortcuts and it served to slow their success. Others who knew what they were doing were outright hurt," he says.
And even though the shakeup that's happened in the past year has changed the way SEOs carry out marketing, most agree it's for the better. In fact, Macy's director of SEO and organic content, Lauren MacPhail, says the ability to track keyword performance within website analytics used to be the cornerstone of proving SEO success and identifying new opportunities for optimization and many SEOs had moved away from relying on SERP rankings for success in favor of a more conversion-driven approach.
"Secure search changed all of that by forcing SEOs to put more focus on ranking and start examining page performance with a greater level of detail. While many see this as a positive change, it has had the largest impact on SEO analysis and reporting in years," she adds.
And Forrester agrees that this has had a positive impact.
"In the end...SEO emerges as a better tactic from this intense focus," he says. "More people sharing ideas, more people investing more time and efforts truly aligned to giving a searcher what they seek."
How Brands Are Navigating Changes and You Can, Too
"Every business is different, but at Majestic, the mantra is moving from ‘content is king' to ‘functionality is the new content,'" Jones says. "By this, I mean what I used to put on our own well-respected blog, I now give to someone else with the ear of my potential customers," he says.
And, instead, he saves the blog for announcements about functionality.
Bing's emphasis is also on content, but with more concentration on the story, Forrester says.
"Our focus is almost entirely on content [with] very little around what we all think of as traditional SEO. Yes, technical SEO gets looked at, but maybe not to the depth you might think," he says. "The goal in everyone's mind is clear: we know our target persona and how do we serve them best?"
In addition to tracking and measuring content, Forrester says Bing is training for storytelling and enabling more people to become voices.
Lloyd says Adobe is optimizing "for the customer experience" because the search engine is now a means to the end.
"SEO must first optimize to your future customer where they increasingly spend their time on mobile, in social media and in search engines," he adds.
Alison MacDonald, digital marketing manager of global marketing at Seagate Technologies, says her company has responded to changes in part by focusing more on the customer than ever before.
"We are spending more time understanding our customers, which is not only allowing us to rank better, but also helping us create better products and speak to a customer in a manner they understand," MacDonald says. "Secure search simply forced us to do what we should have been doing from the beginning: using our internal knowledge to communicate with our external customers."
Additional Tips for Winning in Content and Search
Conversations with brands led to additional tips for modern SEOs who want to stay on the leading edge.
Take, for example, Lloyd, who says, "SEOs today must continue to focus on aligning to content strategy and inbound marketing while striving and innovating to add value to the lead quality being driven through the funnel."
MacPhail, on the other hand, says good SEOs need to start thinking more like traditional marketers, but, "on the other end, I feel like SEO has gotten more technical than ever and the landscape is changing quickly, so the need to keep up is imperative."
Changes in organic search also pose challenges.
Majestic's Jones sees some of those challenges on the horizon in terms of the ownership of content -- and that's something he says SEOs need to keep on their radars.
"One challenge...is the balance between giving your intellectual property up for crawling whilst preventing it from being used against you in a competitive manner," Jones says. "This is the new, very real threat that is emerging now. It's all very well to have the widest range of hotels and flight combinations on which to search, for example, but quite another [to have] Google collate all the information from you and your competition and present results that never give the user a need to cross your virtual front door."
Forrester says Schema markup is also not to be ignored.
"As if content weren't enough, more and more companies are starting to hear the message around marking up content and taking an action towards it. This is a future-proofing tactic that will serve websites well," Forrester says. "As engines ramp up how they use that marked-up data, richer consumer experiences emerge. The winners from all those experiments in UX, SERP shuffles, etc., will stick around long term. But you've got to be marked up to play."
And while content is the theme for SEO as of late, Forrester says, "Don't think for a second we've turned a corner on this topic. The importance of content is right at the top of the pile and should remain there indefinitely. Right next to usability."
The challenge, then, is to be objective about your brand's progress with content and don't forget that the foundations matter, he says.
"While it's tempting to think you've mastered content and to seek what's new and cutting edge, I'll suggest that a lot of sites still have work to do on the basics," he adds.
What's on the Horizon: Content, Mobile and Customer Acquisition
Darren Pleasance, head of customer acquisition at Google, says emerging trends in content are just as important as the foundations.
"There is a new phase of content development forming with in-app and mobile experiences," he says. "Content is being developed and tailored for device types that fundamentally improve the overall experience. It's surprising to still see people just digitize content but not actually tailor it for mobile."
From a bird's eye view, Pleasance says there's "huge opportunity in shifting brand dollars from TV to digital whilst, with balance, capitalizing on the synergy between the two channels."
Looking forward, Pleasance says brands that traditionally advertise on TV may shift dollars to digital.
"Technologies are emerging that allow advertisers to use products like video and display to reach and influence customers much earlier in their decision process," Pleasance says. "This has historically been the domain of TV, print and radio, and [they] still capture the lion's share of advertising spend today -- TV spend is more than two times all online advertising spend combined, and twenty times all online video spend -- but some of this spend will clearly be migrating online over the coming years due to the improved ability to target and track the impact of this spend."
We marketers are a creative and agile bunch. If your Web marketing strategies are surviving the test of time, it's a testament to a strong foundation and holistic approach to SEO, content and digital marketing.
As we swiftly move into the second half of 2014, we have new tools, tactics and ways of looking at things, but we also can't forget about the basics of SEO that have always been centered on creating a great online experience for our customer.
"That's where we are with search engine optimization today," Lloyd says. "Things are in transition because customer behavior is moving more to mobile, social and search activity. Where the customer goes, we go."
And it's the customer who ultimately tells us how we're doing with our SEO efforts.
"If people find your page, click on the result, then leave from that same page, for many websites that's a fail -- no conversion, no ongoing engagement, just a flash of bandwidth drowned by the deafening sound of the exit click," Lloyd says. "If you're nailing content, people want to engage with you more. They are compelled to consume more of it. You become a valued resource. And this is very hard to achieve."
As steadfast marketers, we'll do our best to navigate the sometimes rocky, sometimes uphill climb of the industry. And those with the most agile, best approach will conquer the mountain.