SEO landscape: everything’s changed, but nothing’s changed…

I’m very proud to have contributed to the SEO chapter of Understanding Digital Marketing by Damian Ryan – and now that the book is published I wanted to share with you.

The landscape of SEO

The one thing you can always be certain of in SEO is that the only constant is change! Ever since Google launched in 1998, they have kept us on our toes. They shook up the search engine landscape very quickly with their PageRank-based algorithm, which ranks pages in their search engine results based upon their link authority.

This development significantly increased the relevancy of search results. As a result, Google quickly started to build its market share to become people’s search engine of choice. 

Fast-forward 22 years, and they’ve clearly cemented that position. As of January 2020, they have an 87.35% global market share (Statista 2020) and that doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon.

Everything’s changed…

The whole landscape has become much more sophisticated, competitive and commercialised.

Google’s algorithm has evolved beyond all recognition, to the point where updates are now largely machine learning based, and on average there is close to an algorithm update per day. Added to which, personalisation and localisation (in regard to specific user behaviours and preferences) are now hugely prevalent. 

The software tools on the market are more effective than they’ve ever been, as are the search engines’ own tools, in the form of Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools. We live in a world where there’s hourly communication and open dialogue between Google and SEOs, with more transparency around Google’s own roadmap of where they are looking to take things. 

The depth of expertise required is immense, and SEO is no longer a single job role. It includes everything from technical site structure, page speed performance and UX, through to content strategy, on-page optimisation, link acquisition, reporting/analytics and much more.

… but nothing’s changed!

While the tactics will always change, the fundamentals remain the same. 

SEO isn’t just about following best practices, it’s about identifying and responding to changes in the search landscape. And it’s not a highly regulated industry, so there isn’t a unified approach.

It’s often about trial and error; setting up controlled experiments to test, measure and learn what works for you. And what works for one site in one niche, may not always be the answer for another. Context is key.

That said, the fundamentals haven’t changed much at all.

When I started practising SEO in 2003, the goal was to make brands accessible to search engines and to help potential customers find them online. That mission hasn’t changed, and it’s the driving force behind everything we do.

Start with the end in mind

In order to invest in SEO, you need to have clear expectations on the value that is likely to drive for you. Otherwise why should you prioritise this over other channels?

The two most common phrases in SEO are “it depends” and “it’s a long-term investment”, and the analogy about the benefits of building on rented land versus purchased land is often thrown around as a paid versus organic search comparison. But that still doesn’t give you an answer on why to do SEO and how much you should be investing.

You need to forecast the size of the opportunity. This should be based upon an understanding of:

  1. Where are you now? Analysing your own analytics and organic performance.
  2. Where are you going? Based on the marketplace and key competitors’ market share.
  3. How are you going to get there? What activity do you need to do in order to close the gap between your brand and its competitors?

Once you have that top-level insight, you can start to form a strategy based on forecasted results in the form of traffic uplift, profit uplift and expected revenue. Using this, you can then propose the right level of investment that brings the optimum value to the business. 


Three organic growth drivers

How we do that at a fundamental level hasn’t changed hugely either, we address the same three organic drivers. Their relative importance may shift over time, but they all play a significant role and every site should be doing everything they can to ensure these elements are as strong as possible. They are:

1. Technical SEO
This is about ensuring your site is crawled, indexed and ranked in search engines. Each of these is a very different thing, and there are many factors that can help to achieve each one. As a discipline, it’s become much more complex and there’s always fine-tuning which can be done to keep improving. Including (but not limited to):

  • Crawling, indexing, and ranking
  • CMS optimisation
  • On-page content optimisation
  • Page speed performance
  • Internal linking/navigation structure
  • Faceted navigation
  • Managing duplicate content issues 
  • Hreflang / geolocation targeting

2. On-site content
At a top-level, this is about understanding the search demand of potential customers and creating content that matches their query and intent at each stage of the user journey (from awareness to consideration to conversion).

This has evolved a lot over time, and it’s now much more about the user engagement on the page, not just the use of words on a page. You need to consider how you can demonstrate Google’s definition of EAT (Expertise, Authority, and Trust).

There are other considerations, such as how that content can be ‘marked-up’ in order to secure featured snippet results, which will generate additional traffic and awareness. However, the basics are still true – if you don’t write about a topic, you’re unlikely to rank for that topic.

3. Link reputation
The authority of your website / domain plays a significant role in deciding how highly you rank in Google, especially for competitive keywords and terms. The more quality links between your site and reputable sites, the higher your site’s authority climbs. This is what the original PageRank model was based upon, but it’s evolved over time (often to counteract manipulation).

Today, you need to consider a number of factors, but certainly ‘quality over quantity’ and ‘topical relevance’ are among the most important.

The approach has moved largely into a more product-led, Digital PR strategy, so you can amplify your brand’s messaging with a targeted story which appeals to relevant audiences and publishers. This has the double benefit of not only being positive PR, but also strengthens your link reputation and ability to rank.

The reputation of the brand is also hugely important. If you’re a highly popular, searched for brand, you are much more likely to be rewarded in the form of organic visibility – this demonstrates the importance of a more holistic, joined-up approach that operates in symbiosis with traditional marketing (above the line) channels.

SEO measurement

Perhaps the most important thing to remember in SEO is not to forget why you are doing it in the first place! 

It can be easy for everyone to get lost in the short-term excitement of the easy to measure, quicker wins. But don’t lose sight of what you’re really here for. My suggestion is to have a clear hierarchy of KPIs which are driven by business goals.

What is your North Star goal? Whether it’s organic revenue, profit, leads or conversions, pick one as your top priority. If you have multiple priorities, you’re chasing two rabbits and can risk ending up with neither. 

Once you have clarity over that number one objective, think about how you can build towards achieving it. What are the lead and lag indicators that show you’re making progress (this could be organic traffic, ranking visibility, etc)? What are the levers you need to pull to move faster towards your goal (reducing on-page errors, publishing more content, scaling high-quality link acquisition)? 

This is why it is so important to have a clear strategy in place from the start, because then you can prioritise these actions by value. 

Remember that SEO is not an overnight thing, it improves over time. The best long-term results are rarely seen from big spikes – it is the gradual month-on-month smaller wins that build up into much bigger and more meaningful success.

The future of search

The world of SEO changes frequently, almost too frequently to predict what’s coming next. However, it’s always important to look not just at what is working now, but also imagine where SEO will be one, five or ten years from now. That’s how we stay ahead of the curve.

Don’t get too caught up on the latest tactics that can give you a small gain here or there. The biggest winners in organic search are inevitably the ones who are looking much further ahead, trying to provide the best experience possible for their audience. It’s essential you put serving your customers first.

Also, take the time to understand Google’s own roadmap. If you can align yourself with what’s most important to them, while being prepared to adapt your course here and there, you’re likely to be well-placed when the bigger changes come along.