I started working on organic search visibility in 2006. Back then, you didn’t have to get up too early in the morning to rank (at least not for the long tail). Tactics like directory submissions and article syndication still worked, and on-page optimization was relatively straightforward.
To some, those were the good old days, but they didn’t last. Google hasn’t dominated the search market with the same product they launched from a garage in late 1998. They’ve fostered a culture of innovation and been at the cutting edge of search and big data computing in general for the last 16 years.
As Google has evolved, marketers looking to capitalize on this massive source of valuable traffic have adapted in kind.
But there's a problem.
Google's Innovation has Outpaced SEO Practices
What we've called "SEO" for many years has been in a state of flux from the beginning, because we're vying for SERP positions managed by a company who is innovating their search product daily (and is often less-than-transparent with details on updates).
While Google isn't gunning for the SEO industry so much as working to deliver the best results possible and drive ad revenues, they are moving towards a world where SEO as we know it is not necessary.
Source: Google's Inside Search Blog
As they have improved their ability to crawl the web and serve fresh results (Caffeine), automate page quality assessment (Panda), ensure the signal:noise ratio of their link graph (Penguin), disambiguate entities and understand their relationships (Knowledge Graph), incorporate implicit query signals (unnamed update probably tied to one of their mobile acquisitions) and understand conversational queries (Hummingbird), they have moved well away from a world where SERP visibility is driven by a few basic signals.
Secure Search has Obfuscated Results
On top of the above, many marketers have yet to vie with the difficulties created by secure search.
Many have retreated to ranking reports to try to prove progress and justify continued investment in SEO projects.
We've been in wide agreement that rankings are a dead metric for quite some time (now for many more reasons than Jill provides in this post from 2008). Going back to ranking reports is not going to solve our problems.
Organic search marketers are in a tough spot, but this game has been about adaptation from the beginning. Some of the necessary change will be painful (change often is), and the path forward remains largely to be determined. But reinvention is a trick humans pull off remarkably well, when properly-motivated.
Here are a few good places to start:
1. Move from Targeting Keywords to Targeting Topics & Audiences
Say goodbye to your keyword-level reports. We'll give you a moment...
Setting your pages up for success from a search standpoint is now about diving deep on the people you are marketing to and the topics that interest them at any given point in the conversion cycle.
Yes, search is still language-driven, and tools like the AdWords Keyword Planner and Google Trends still provide valuable insight into the language people use when they search.
But with many potential factors influencing SERPs per user history, per location, per freshness, etc. and the fact that tracking traffic at the keyword level is now more or less impossible, targeting 1-2 keywords per page and tracking results through those keywords is obsolete methodology.
Rand's initial recommendations in this recent Whiteboard Friday are helpful:
2. Track the Performance of Organic Search Traffic to Key Landing Pages Overall
Rankings are, at very best, a proxy to a bigger picture. At worst, and far too often, they are treated as representative of that big picture.
Where organic search traffic is concerned, the most granular dimension we now have at our disposal is landing pages. These represent simply the best lens we have to report on organic search performance and how well our content is serving search users.
Kate Morris shared some great initial tips on this in the conclusion of her Moz post, "Stop Thinking Keywords, Think Topics."
Of course, the inability to segment branded vs unbranded traffic means that you won't know whether your team's efforts to optimize links/code/content are the driving factor or some broader brand/PR effort is behind growth trends (driving increased branded search). That leads us to a third, and perhaps most important, imperative.
3. Integrate Organic Search Marketers Across Digital Teams and Projects
If your SEO team is operating in a silo, working on isolated projects and still trying to report on unbranded search to prove value, best of luck.
Even before secure search wiped out the ability to report on unbranded traffic growth as an organic search KPI, the kinds of projects your team engaged in to improve SEO - matching the language on a page to that people use when they search, optimizing page speed, ensuring a good user experience and avoiding the poor quality signals that drive Panda and, overall, building authority - all have impacts beyond organic search visibility.
On the flip side, your content, social and PR teams are running campaigns that are generating authority signals (links, shares, mentions) that Google is picking up on and incorporating into search algorithms.
Add to that what we now know about the customer journey as demonstrated by Multi-Touch Attribution reporting, and silos make even less sense. Last click attribution is dead. Customers engage over time across multiple devices and channels. Cohesive messaging and a comprehensive focus on meeting the customer's needs at every stage of the conversion funnel is the only answer.
Make 2014 the year you fight the good fight to get marketing teams integrated, bake SEO into the rest of your marketing efforts, push towards common goals and work with the overarching wisdom that we market to people, not channels.
What say you? What do you think we need to change in 2014 to become better marketers? Please share in the comments below.