Your Approach to Organic Search is Obsolete: How to Evolve in 2014

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.

Source: NetMarketShare

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.

Mike Tekula

Mike Tekula

Mike joined the Distilled NYC team after managing a small business consultancy and heading up digital strategy at a New York ad agency. He specializes in organic search but has worked on a wide range of web projects across channels. Outside of work...   read more

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  1. Phillip Moorman

    Good article. 2014 is really going to be about building up your website through content that is entertaining, valuable and share-worthy - keywords don't really fit into the equation anymore. What do we need to do to become better marketers? It's simple: Become Valuable. There are far too many websites churning out a set number of blog posts a week just to build "content" and yet none of the content is original or remotely well researched. People (and Google) are tired of wasting their time on information published by mediocre sources.

    SEOs need to evolve and begin working more closely with their PR and Social counterparts in order to build a better digital marketing strategy.

    reply >
    • Mike Tekula

      Thanks Phillip. I agree, in some ways it's simple - create valuable stuff and give it to people. Become a generous brand, proudly represent your values and find the audience who shares them.

      Simple, but not easy. For many brands, they need to go back to square one and ask tough questions about how well their business aligns with the market and what kind of message/content will actually cut through the deluge. Few are asking these tough questions and answering them honestly. It's time.

    • I agree with you! And, I think as marketers, the "content is King" metaphor needs to move over and be replaced with "content is Queen." What I mean by that is, women would never have developed "silos" to work in. Women tend to be more "social." They tend to network more by listening. And, they are natural "A-B" testers (just talk to women who shop together!) Taken together, I think a woman's touch in marketing for SEO will work better in 2014 than in previous years. The evidence: Google has put a greater emphasis on social in the last few months for ranking websites. And, it is a strategy that is working for our small business!

  2. The basics still work well.
    Create useful and unique content that people will want to read.
    Pay attention to your site architecture and on page optimisation and get some quality links.

    I think the thing we've learned in the past year or two is not to overdo anything in terms of SEO.
    Many techniques become damaging at the tipping point of oversaturation - as we have recently heard about guest blogging from Lord Cutts.

    BTW That graph showing Google's market share is worrying.
    I don't think that type of monopoly would be allowed to happen in any other industry.
    It's not Google's fault - they have created a better product than their competitors.
    I just wonder if EU and US regulators will allow their dominance to persist?

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    • Mike Tekula

      Agreed. Technical SEO still represents a massive opportunity for a lot of large websites - ecommerce retailers in particular. The specialty of SEO won't die, but when it comes to building authority, we're just talking about marketing. Get in front of audiences with something they want. Do that consistently.

      Look at - they have consistently ranked for intensely competitive keywords for the last 5-6 years. I doubt they've had much use for SEO specialists during this time, maybe here and there when they've pulled off some 301 trickery to turn well-linked blog posts into sales pages, but for the most part they've done this by building a massive audience. Little to no "SEO" required.

      I'd welcome a worthy competitor to the search space - Google is just so good at it. They haven't rested on their laurels and continue to push innovation. I'm no anti-trust expert, but I do wonder whether the Nest acquisition and the kind of access to information outside the realm of desktop/mobile search Google is building will prove the trigger for regulatory action. Trouble is, regulators have a hard time understanding just what "market" Google is dominating. Tech journalists are still arguing over the intent behind the Nest acquisition - I expect regulators won't sort it for quite some time.

  3. Yes, this is bang on. The frustrating thing for me is that I find that many clients (often with poor websites) are still chasing keyword rankings, with the belief that churning out more and more of the same low value textual content onto their website will help their site in SERPs.

    This is what I believe to be successful online strategy:
    1- Have a well designed, well structured and well coded website
    2- Make sure that the site contains useful, engaging content that is relevant to your audience
    3- Connect with other people on Social Media and they will find your site
    4- Other people will then link to your website, because it is a good website

    The web is a highly competitive place to do business these days, and making sure you are communicating to the right audience has got to be the first step to running a successful business online.

    reply >
    • Mike Tekula

      Thanks Phill. I think there's still room in that process for deliberate outreach to influencers - we rely on our Outreach and PR teams at Distilled to help get the word out about content and other campaigns we launch for clients. We've landed some solid placements at major publications on the back of this outreach work, and our content campaigns would be nowhere near as successful without it.

  4. Genuine real and quality content, for genuine people, on genuine topics of interest that people are both emotionally tied into and want to engage with.

    Keywords will continue to pop up in the content we generate from now until forever, but they are not the SEO factor they once were. As such we will not be over reliant upon keywords for impact and determining where landing pages sit in the results pages they will be purely for supporting the content than driving the content.

    reply >
  5. Joe

    Ms. Allcroft, I have changed to the statement: "Content is royalty"; not for your reasons, but it just didn't make sense to me to call it "king" in the 21C.

    Mr. Holmes, thank you for the excellent statement—it will stay with me for years to come: "Genuine real and quality content, for genuine people, on genuine topics of interest that people are both emotionally tied into and want to engage with."

    reply >
  6. Great post, Mike

    In the comment above you said: "We've landed some solid placements at major publications on the back of this outreach work". What are some of your key strategies and tactics you use to reach these influencers/publishers? How do you create targeted emails/outreach messages that these influencers won't ignore?

    Just curious, as I'm developing an app called Buzzsumo (content + influencer research), and would love to know how we can improve it to help it easier for people to get their content placed in the right places. Would love for you to check it out if you haven't - I know some of your colleagues use it as well.

    reply >
    • Mike Tekula

      Thanks, Henley.

      Our Outreach team will have far better insights on that than me. Distilled folks have written a few posts on this topic over the last few years. But our Head of Outreach, Rob Toledo (@stentontoledo), might be a good person to ask for more.

      I've used Buzzsumo, and I'm a big fan of what you guys are building (have recommended it to clients and colleagues alike). I'll send along any feedback on improvements that occurs to me, but it's looking great so far.

  7. Darren Vrede

    This is one of the best posts I have read in a long time. Its still a battle trying to get clients to understand that they need to have an integrated marketing approach and that all marketing channels should be sending the same signals about their brand.

    Its hard to explain to clients that have been fixated on rankings for the last few years, that rankings is not the #1 KPI for the success of their campaigns any longer.

    reply >
    • Mike Tekula

      Thanks Darren, I appreciate the kind words.

      Convincing people to act, to go through the pain of change, is always the tall order.

  8. "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." Matt Cutts has been so wishy washy on this the last few years. Just recently he mentioned: "as far as doing special specific work to sort of say “you have this many followers on Twitter or this many likes on Facebook”, to the best of my knowledge we don't currently have any signals like that in our web search ranking algorithms." Then again, he said they would never take away keyword data within analytics and looked what happened there. Good article Mike. -Brad

    reply >
    • Mike Tekula

      Thanks Brad.

      I agree, and I should have tempered that statement a bit - what we have seen are correlations between social sharing activity and rankings. There's no proven cause and effect.

      I would suggest, though, that Google wants to be able to incorporate social signals, that part of the aim of Google+ is to give them their own source of this data, and that they will innovate on this in the future.

      Even if we're just looking at links - they're frequently influenced by broader marketing activities. Sussing out what results a SEO team/agency have generated is foggy work at this point.

  9. Jay

    Mike, I couldn't agree more regarding your comment about deliberate outreach being incorporated into the mix. This is at the core of what we do for clients and works really well. The only issue I've had over the last couple years pivoting from old school SEO (article syndication, directory submissions, etc..) to an outreach model is educating potential new clients on the fact that this is how it needs to be done. Other companies in our vertical (medical) still offer old school SEO type services, ranking reports and keyword based pricing which confuses the marketplace in general. Citing references like this is definitely helpful so thank you, but any other tips as to an easier way to educate clients?

    reply >
    • Mike Tekula

      It's not easy, Jay - we're always dealing with a set of biases and assumptions with our clients that may not be readily apparent when we're initially discussing a campaign. We're anchored to the last SEO experience the client had.

      We deal with this a lot at Distilled, and I think the best tip I can offer is to ensure that your sales team (we call them the Client Development team at Distilled) is educated and ready to push back on leads who express the wrong kind of thinking or walk away entirely.

      We turn a fair amount of business away when we recognize biases and assumptions that we won't likely be able to overcome. For the clients we do take on, our CD team starts the education process early.

      That, and find ways to create value in the short term, to build clout. It's sometimes best to put aside the big issue and work on things you can solve today that you can prove the value of. With a few wins on the board, it becomes a lot easier to open the client's mind about the big things.

  10. Great post Mike! I think deep down we all know that keywords are no longer the main point to focus on yet I think it is a case of old habits die hard- the desire to target those keywords will always be there no matter how many times we are told that our focus should shift.

    reply >

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