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Each year, search engine giants Google and Bing roll out new algorithms (they control the answers we get to our search queries) that impact the way businesses approach search engine optimization (SEO). Sometimes the changes represent a major sea change in SEO thinking. Others are quiet rollouts that cause few waves.
Google’s recent update, called Hummingbird, is its biggest change in over a decade. Hummingbird looks more closely at the intent behind search queries—what users really want when they type in words or phrases—and less at the individual words. In part, this is a response to the increased use of mobile search, where people use spoken queries and more natural language. For its part, Bing lags behind Google on innovative changes, and commands a much smaller share of the market. But Bing is partnered with Facebook, so it shouldn’t be discounted.
So, what do this year’s changes mean for your SEO strategies? Let’s take a look at the six areas that demand the most attention.
1. Keywords & Key Phrases
Keywords are still important. However, because of Hummingbird, expect a resurgence in the popularity of long-tail key phrases: groups of search terms that are more detailed than a two- or three-word query. (Think red snakeskin stilettos on sale as opposed to shoes.)
Searchers who enter longer key phrases are usually farther along in the sales process, which is a plus for you. Someone looking for “southern Italian restaurant in Mamaroneck” is more likely ready to go out for dinner, versus someone looking for “restaurants in Westchester.” However, this means it’s no longer useful to shoehorn keywords into your pages for the sake of attracting search engines. If your pages are truly valuable to your ideal customers, they’ll naturally incorporate those keyword phrases people are searching for. Use tools like AdWords and Wordtracker to see what phrases people are using and make sure your pages address those topics.
2. Great Content
Google has never been shy about pointing out that its primary goal is to serve the user. It does that by finding the most relevant content online. Think of your content as the answer to a user’s search query—not just search engine bait—and craft content around topics and questions your key audience is interested in. More content (text, images, video, graphics)—that is useful and engaging content—consistently ranks higher on both Google and Bing. More pages also mean more entry points where search engines can find your site.
3. Inbound Links
In the past, SEO experts spent a lot of time and energy on link building: getting links to your site from other sites is one way Google judges its relevance and authority. Hummingbird doesn’t eliminate the need for link building, but over time search engines have narrowed what they consider important.
Google looks at the reputation of the referring site and the quality of the content on the other end of the link. And that’s the key. This is about quality, not just quantity. They’re looking for natural connections that make sense, not artificial link building for the sake of SEO.
4. Social Media
Both Google and Bing pay attention to social signals and use them to rank your site. (Especially Google, where its Google Plus social platform is directly connected to the rest of its products. A poor Google Plus review may have more impact than you realize.) If you haven’t already, begin to monitor your social media accounts closely. Be aware of what customers are saying so you can better manage the conversation and your reputation online.
5. Site Architecture
Your website architecture has always been a critical component of search, and that isn’t likely to change. The reason is simple: a poorly structured site results in a poor user experience, and that’s what Google wants to avoid. Make sure your website is well-organized and easy to navigate. Add an XML sitemap to make it easy to crawl. And, as with links, keywords in domain names and page URLs simply don’t matter much anymore.
6. On-Page Elements
On-page elements refer to the structure of an individual page. Like your site structure, the right page formatting creates a better experience for readers and also makes it easier for search engines to understand your content. Make sure you have descriptive title tags for your page titles, proper HTML headings (H1, H2, etc.) and image ALT text (which describes the content of an image). Pay attention to factors such as page load speed, which can be slowed by design, large images or video files.
There are hundreds of variables that go into any search engine algorithm, and we’ll never know them all. But by optimizing these six areas, your SEO strategy will be in great shape.