Search engine optimization has always been one of my favorite marketing channels, and after being in the industry for about 14 years, I have been able to grow up alongside of it. We've seen so many changes and transitions with SEO in recent years that its evolution, growth, and integration into other marketing channels has helped us to achieve a real omni-channel marketing approach.

In The Beginning

In order to see where we are going and what is happening next with SEO, we need to understand where we started and where we've been. We used to have a single focus and a one-track mind and that was our obsession with keywords. We found ourselves spending countless hours researching, tracking, and applying hundreds of thousands of keywords to our websites. We did this not only on the webpages themselves, but wherever we could (or couldn't) find the space to fit them. This included making the most of technical elements like titles tags and meta descriptions. This was what we did. We loved it. We were obsessed with it. We did this as long as we possibly could, until it no longer worked. Everyone started doing it, and therefore the competition grew. It was then that search engines sent a signal telling us there was a new game in town, (or that's how we thought about it) and there was a new way to recognize the importance of pages in search results. It had a lot to do with a reciprocal agreement between you and other sites in which their authoritative influence would boost up your rankings. That influence came in the form of links. We traded our keyword obsession for a link building obsession. Wherever we could get a link, we would. We reached out to webmasters for a link to our websites in exchange for a link to theirs. We contacted bloggers, begging and pleading with them to write about us on their websites, and occasionally they would (they would give us a link and occasionally we would throw them a $20 under the table.) We submitted to directories that were completely irrelevant for our brand, but it didn't matter because we were getting a link and we loved them. We would even go so far as to create blogs offsite on Blogger or BlogSpot to write about and give ourselves a link back. That's how obsessed we were with links. And just like most things in digital marketing, it worked until it didn't.

Growing Up

It was about 2011 when we started to see some pretty big brands get penalized for their link building schemes. We realized we needed a change, and we needed to grow up. With that, we traded the trickery for some true marketing prowess, and decided that we needed to build something more. What we built was true brand equity for our clients and our businesses, and it was a lot of hard work.

1. Unmatched Content

It all started with quality content. Instead of working with copywriters to research and insert keywords into content, we gave them the opportunity to delve into their actual audience, putting them alongside other marketers to understand the content needs of consumers, and their search intent. We started writing for the needs of consumers, not for robots. This allowed us to create and develop much richer media like infographics, slideshows, image galleries, and downloadable pdfs that were actually useful to individuals on the web. Users were demanding a more meaningful content and web experience, and that was how we could begin to give it to them. Great content lives on across all channels, and in the omni-channel marketing world, it can be repositioned and repurposed across many other outlets. This change worked, and continues to work as we see marketers continue to increase their spend in content marketing. It is projected that they will spend 75% more in 2016 than in 2015. So clearly, content is still working for us.

2. Digital PR

The trickery wasn't working so we gave it up. We dropped the word "link building". It became a dirty word and I still hate hearing it. We already understood how to build those relationships originally, so we hired people with real public relations backgrounds and knowledge of gaining placements, and that's how we gained our links. We built relationships, we nurtured them, we shared information with our contacts, and we pitched out our great content as resources to help build up our brand. We gained fewer inbound links overall, but that was okay because the links we were getting were links of quality. They were influential and made sense to the brands that we were pitching, and in the end, more quality, less quantity is a better way to work and build your brand organically.

3. The Role of Social Media

We finally recognized the role of social media, and we still are to be perfectly honest. For a long time we hoped and prayed that social media, your social profiles, and shared content on social would directly relate back to a boost keyword rankings, but we haven't found that to be the case yet. That being said, a strong social presence is necessary for brand building, and it does indirectly help keyword rankings and benefits your SEO. Again, it all starts with great content. Quality content can be shared on social, leading to greater brand awareness, and knowledge surrounding your product. If something is shared on social, it goes in the back of the user's mind, and they might go to search it later on. That builds up search market, market share, and search intent, and that's a really good thing. Social has the added benefit of increasing your search engine real estate, meaning more listings on the search results page are about you and your company. If you have all these profiles like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram appearing in the search results and your competitors don't, that's a great benefit. If your stuff is appearing and their's isn't, you are more relevant in the eyes of a searcher and the chances of them clicking on one of your pages increases. Social media also really helps with building relationships with bloggers and media sources. If a sales person or media contact reaches out to me I'm a lot less likely to even pick up the phone than I could have been 5-10 years ago. Reaching out through Twitter or LinkedIn is a great way to make connections and get some of the placements that you'd like. Some of the best brand marketing happens organically. If you share something on social and it's a great piece of content, or a great resource for some of your readers and potential customers, then the chances of something like that being picked up and going (I hesitate to use the word "viral" but…) viral dramatically increase. That allows that content to be shared organically across the web, and that's some of the best results that you could ever hope for.

4. Local and Universal Search

The way in which the search engines are changing has really been the crux of how SEO has moved forward. Some of the things we are doing now such as building up your operation hours, phone number, and other elements in the search engine results are really helping differentiate you as a brand doing SEO right. These are the things that make you stand out, versus someone who is just applying the tricks. Now we are seeing things like Google Answers, where optimized content is appearing in answers that people search. Maybe you're asking a popular question, or looking for a recipe, and the information appears right at the top of the search results page. If your brand is one of the ones lucky enough to have something like that occur, that means you are doing everything right and you are being rewarded for it.

Where Are We Now?

So where have we seen SEO headed recently? Well search is no longer simply a set of technical rules. The rules are still very important and you need to implement them, but there is much more to consider now. Theme focus vs. keyword obsession: It's very important for us to get content out to readers and potential customers that they can use versus what search engines can reward. Chasing link quantity is a dangerous game: We don't do it anymore. I would rather see one link from the Huffington Post than 20 links from a blogger with a domain authority of 10. That's a much greater benefit to your brand. Content is necessary for all channels of marketing: We've seen this as a common omni-channel theme. You need to create quality content, and cater it to your audiences on every platform. Off-site recognition is more important than on-site optimization: Links and brand mentions count for more than half of your SEO benefit today. Its important to pay attention to how other people see you and the signals that they can send, not just onsite optimization. If you only cater to one thing, you are not truly doing SEO.

Where Is My Audience?

Have there been any changes to where they are and how they search? The answer is yes, because search engines have changed. People are still searching, but they are finding other things. Sources like Yelp tend to show up for a location-based query, while Facebook, Twitter, and Glassdoor show up for brand-related queries. Those are huge websites and they are rewarded for all of the content and resources that they provide to users. News sites and other media pages tend to appear for any events or product reviews that you may be looking for. With YouTube being the second highest search engine on the internet today, more queries are performed on there on any given day than Bing and Yahoo combined. This is all happening because at the end of the day, Google is a website, and they want to provide as many options as possible for their users. SEO is the optimization of engines, not the optimization of your website. If 10 out of 10 links on a search engine results page are about your brand, and can direct back to your website, that's not a great user experience for the audience that Google hopes to attract. They want to provide as many useful options as possible, and this is how they are doing that.

Looking Ahead

The solution to the new landscape of SEO is pretty simple - Be Everywhere! We live on the social web today, and a social audience trusts their peers, reviews, and news media more than they trust anything you could ever say about yourself on your website. You need to join existing communities and organically nurture your customers wherever they are. Don't expect them to come to you. It's great if they do, but go to where they are, and reach them on their terms. Above all else, take good care of your brand and your brand's reputation. Take care of your consumers and your employees. As we all know, negative sentiment spreads a lot faster than the positive on the web. By taking these steps, your website will hopefully be 1 of 10 options on the first page of Google's search results. Aiming to capture the other 9 results through social media, positive reviews, and media placements will guarantee users find your brand somehow. How has your business adapted to the evolution of SEO over the years? What changes do you predict coming into play in the future? Leave a comment below or tweet us @BFMweb to share your thoughts.
Search Engine Optimization Whitepaper