Since the first search engines began scouring the early Internet, webmasters have tried to figure out how to game the system to enable their content to show up at the top of search results.
There, the first attempts at SEO, or search engine optimization, were founded by marketers who would load pages with keywords, stuff pages with tags and create fake or spammy backlinks to generate higher rankings in search engines like Lycos, Yahoo and AltaVista.
A quarter century later, Google has become the dominant search engine and tightened the reigns, forcing companies to focus on user experience and quality content if they want consumers to ever find their pages. This has come in the form of punishing websites for lacking responsive design, slow load times and ignoring any optimization efforts for mobile users.
This has led to what many SEO experts, including Foxtail Marketing’s Mike Templeman, call a new era of “Search Experience Optimization” (also, coincidentally enough, known as SEO).
“It means that ‘gaming’ the system has become less and less viable, and that groups who rely on black hat techniques are seeing their efforts become less effective,” Templeman wrote in a recent Forbes column.
I know, it’s hard for your eyes to not glaze over at the mention of SEO. However, recent changes are actually good news for online publishers like newspapers, and Google continues to reward sites that focus on quality content and a good user experience over keyword manipulation and SEO gimmicks.
“Adopting the ‘Search Experience Optimization’ definition of SEO over ‘Search Engine Optimization’ allows your organization to shift the focus from the search engines onto the users,” said Keith Goode, the chief SEO evangelist for seoClarity. “It sounds simple, but this small shift in perspective will align your organization with the intent behind all of Google’s algorithmic changes, which is to rank sites with great content on fast and responsive pages.”
Data from a host of studies clearly shows the emphasis placed on user experience by major publishers is paying off. A recent Searchmetrics report shows websites for The Atlantic, The Guardian, The New York Times and Vanity Fair were among the top 20 winners in 2015 in terms of increased search engine visibility.
Ranking highly in Google isn’t just a matter of creating quality content. You might not need to turn to back-handed methods to game the system, but there are definite steps your company can take to maximize its chances of being picked up more prominently by Google.
Emphasis on Mobile
If you’re still dragging your feet, let me reiterate it once again—it’s time to prioritize mobile! 2015 was the first year mobile searches outnumbered desktop searches, so naturally Google released a major algorithm update (dubbed “mobilegeddon”) that gave websites that were optimized for mobile much more visibility over their non-mobile competitors.
As you read this column, Google more than likely has adopted its Accelerated Mobile Pages Project (AMP) into its search engine, which could lead to AMP pages earning a coveted ranking boost and a “fast” label designation (Google already labels content as “mobile friendly” in its results).
Google isn’t alone in placing a heavy emphasis on mobile. Apple has long been rumored to be working on an Apple Search algorithm, using the same technology based in the massive amount of data generated by their millions of iPhone users.
According to a recent study by marketing analytics firm Moz, ensuring the best user experience on mobile also means avoiding annoying pop-ups, designing screens for fat fingers and optimizing your titles to fit better in the smaller space mobile screens have to offer.
“Note that these factors are not ‘proof’ of what search engines use to rank websites, but simply show the characteristics of Web pages that tend to rank higher,” the authors of the Moz report study wrote.
Speed Up Those Pages
A focus on usability is more important than just optimizing your website for mobile. After all, the Huffington Post has won a Pulitzer Prize for its original reporting, yet was among the top losers in terms of search engine visibility in 2015, according to Searchmetrics.
While there is no one reason why Huffington Post saw it’s search engine visibility decline, it has long suffered the fate of many websites run by news organizations—slow load time.
According to a recent study by the consulting company Backlinko, there is a strong connection between a website’s load speed and their relative ranking within Google. Google themselves have said they use site speed as a “signal in our search ranking algorithms.”
Indicators of a bad user experience, such as bounce rate, time on site, pages per visit and conversions, all factor into how visible Google makes your content. So lightening up Web pages and simplifying your design could pay huge dividends in how visible your content becomes.
Don’t think Twitter, Facebook (and yes, even Google+) are important to your SEO efforts? Think again.
Most media companies have thousands of followers on social media, and according to Moz, there’s a strong correlation between the number of social shares a page accumulates with a higher search engine ranking.
I know reporters and editors get angry when a competitor simply aggregates (though the term more newsrooms news is “steal”) original content so it can be featured on their site, but those organic backlinks are highly valued by Google’s algorithm, and they will help your content rise up in terms of ranking.
“If the content is good and is put out to the right audience, people will share it online helping you to build links to your website which will improve your organic search rankings,” said Jack Willis of consulting firm Marketing Grin. “This will lead to further qualified traffic to your site and improved readership.”
At the end of the day, the best SEO strategy is simply focusing on quality content and making sure the user experience of your website is top notch.
I know it sounds a bit like “Build it, and they will come,” but at the end of the day, even the most well-designed algorithm only works if it has quality content to point to.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at [email protected]