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Now and Then: A Comparative Look at the Evolution of SEO

By Stevie Carpenter, blog post 12/02/2016

According to Google, its algorithm changes between 500-600 times per year. So, if you have been using the same SEO strategies for a while, now is definitely the time for a re-think.

To help you do this, here’s a comparative look at the evolution of SEO in recent years, focusing on related algorithm updates and the four key areas of content, keywords, link building and mobile search.

Algorithm Updates

Above: Launched in 2011, Google Panda sent shock waves through the world of SEO by targeting sites with low-quality content. Image from Pixabay.

Back in 2009, as the confessions of Jeff Deutsch illustrate, keyword stuffing and generating spammy links were all viable tactics to help catapult your website up the search rankings. Fast-forward to 2016, and, thanks to a series of algorithm updates, Google now enforces stricter regulation on content to ensure people have a better experience when searching online.

Alongside Penguin, Google Panda is Google’s most powerful spam-fighting algorithm.

When it launched in 2011, the update was designed to penalise sites with low-quality content and give sites with high-quality content a boost in the search results. As you would expect, it caused a massive upheaval because it allowed Google to target sites that were using spammy tactics, particularly those sites with a large amount of similar content targeting variations of keywords.

Until recently, Panda acted as a separate entity to Google’s core ranking algorithm. However, in January this year, several sources – including Search Engine Land – reported that Panda has now officially become a part of Google’s core ranking algorithm.

Therefore, from 2016 onwards, Google is very unlikely to announce another Panda update in the future. From the perspective of SEOs, this makes keeping up with ever-shifting ranking factors even more difficult.

That said, the most important thing to remember is that it it’s no longer possible to use spammy tactics to trick search engines. And, to achieve success going forward, SEOs need to focus on earning rankings by creating high-quality, user-focused content.

For more information about staying ahead of Panda’s quality ratings, read this excellent post by Jennifer Slegg on SEM Post.

Content

Above: Today, SEO content writing is first and foremost about providing value for people. Image from Pixabay.

Before Panda, SEOs created content for search engines first and people second. Therefore, in years gone by, creating keyword-stuffed, short-form content was a shortcut to SEO success, whether it provided readers with value or not.

Today, however, the key to riding high in the rankings is to produce high-quality content that attracts audiences and provides value. To do this effectively, you need to consider what you want to achieve with the content you produce.

If your potential audience is searching for the ‘best tennis shoes’, for example, they won’t want to be directed to pages with lots of content to read. Instead, they will simply want to see a clear selection of the best tennis shoes available to buy.

However, if they were to search for the ‘best tennis shoes for flat feet’, the type of information the user requires would be different. Theoretically, they would want to be provided with more information evaluating a wide range of tennis shoes in relation to flat feet.

For this reason, many businesses are finding SEO success by creating long-form content that positions themselves as experts in their niche and thus provides readers with more value.

The fact that the average word count for content that ranks in the top 30 results is between 1,140 and 1,285 words illustrates this perfectly. In addition, Buffer and Medium have produced research that indicates blog posts that total around 1,600 words and take 7 minutes to read stand the best chance of ranking highly.

So, why does creating long-form content work wonders for SEO?

As a rule, longer content ranks well because it does a comprehensive job of covering a topic, which, in turn, attracts links and shares. In combination, this proves to search engines that the content is providing verifiable value to audiences.

Furthermore, longer content, if written well, is likely to increase the amount of time people spend on your site. Therefore, producing long-form content can also help reduce your website’s bounce rate, which is a crucial factor in effective SEO.

For more information about creating content that ranks in 2016, check out this post by Paul Hunter on Real Business.

Keywords

Above: There are now lots of good reasons to target long tail keywords for SEO. Image from Pixabay.

In the past, SEO focused primarily on singular keywords to get specific pages to rank. Currently, though, there is a much bigger focus on long tail keywords, as natural language search has become more prominent.

In fact, up to 70% of all search traffic is now believed to come from long tail key words. Hence, if you want to get the most out of search engines in 2016, you’ll need to focus on creating useful content around longer phrases that include popular singular keywords.

For examples of how to drive organic traffic with long tail keywords, check out this excellent post by Neil Patel.

Some would go further and say that in 2016, keywords have become less important than ever to successful SEO. Those that hold this opinion argue that, as Google has become more sophisticated, the search engine is now much better at determining user intent.

Therefore, instead of focusing solely on keywords, you need to ensure that you optimise your website for the people performing search queries. As such, in addition to keywords, search engines will use implicit signals like the device used and location to help return the results people expect.

For more information about leveraging user intent in your keyword strategy, check out this post by Nate Dame.

Link Building

Above: Google Penguin has changed link building strategies forever. Image from Pixabay.

In the not-too-distant past, link building was the foundation of SEO. It didn’t matter if those links were spammy – the tactic worked either way. And, as spammy links are easier to create, they became the modus operandi for almost every SEO.

In 2016, manually submitting your site to as many web directories as possible, exchanging links with other webmasters, writing low-quality guest posts and a wide selection of other black-hat techniques are no longer viable.

What’s more, not only are these tactics ineffective, but, because of Google Penguin, using them can result in penalties for your website. In the future, therefore, SEOs should be making the important distinction of trying to earn links, as opposed to building them.

The foundation of many modern link building techniques is producing high-quality content that people want to link to. For more information about using high-quality content as a basis for effective link building tactics, check out this post on the Quick Sprout blog.

Mobile Search

Above: The level of portable device adoption worldwide has made optimising your website for mobile search essential. Image from Pixabay.

Last year, Google announced that mobile search queries would overtake desktop for the first time. This seemingly irreversible trend accelerated the development of Google’s mobile-friendly update, which launched on April 22nd 2015.

Dubbed by many as ‘Mobilegeddon’, this update helped to give mobile-friendly sites a ranking boost in mobile search results. Consequently, although you may have got away with optimising solely for desktops in the past, in 2016 and beyond, you need to ensure that your website is mobile-friendly.

For more information about why your website need to be mobile-friendly for SEO purposes, read this post on the Fat Media blog by our very own Kathryn Dawson.

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