Search engines have been in a constant state of flux pretty much since their inception and time has largely sorted the wheat from the chaff over the years. Gone are the days when Yahoo and AltaVista ruled the roost – that crown now, undoubtedly, belongs to Google where a staggering 64% of searches were performed using the Google engine. It also dominates the mobile/tablet search market with 89% of searches, sure to increase now Apple has decided to use Google’s results in its Siri resultsets rather than those of its nearest competitor, Bing.
Microsoft’s search engine is the second largest of the big search engines, but it’s a long way behind with only a 21.4% share. Former ring-leader Yahoo? At the tail end of 2015 (aforementioned figures are from early 2016, so roughly comparable) their share was around 10%.
Of course, in some respects, these shifts are caused by clever marketing, brand awareness, tie-ins with other big tech brands and so on. It’s also down to how each engine actually crawls, judges, inspects, indexes, and finally returns and displays those results to the end user that will make them popular. By returning reliable and relevant results, the engine becomes more trustworthy. The engine knows that, and constantly revises its algorithm to continually improve. Websites know this too, and so are constantly revising their SEO methodologies to keep track with these changes and compete for the top spots in their relevant targeted searches.
So what are the big changes we’ve seen recently? Well, keyword-driven ad-based results now dominate the first few results on pretty much any SERP (Search Engine Results Page), but that’s not the be all and end all. What about organic searches based on what’s actually been crawled and indexed?
This has been changed in three main ways:
- The way we search – especially with the dawn of the mobile internet, smartphones, tablets etc.
- Changes in what Google can show, and chooses to show us – metadata such as maps and Knowledge Graphs.
- Reactions to what websites include in their content. Keyword spamming or keyword stuffing, and other poor SEO practices, for example. Sites that do this are now penalised.
So, let’s have a look at how things are, and what we can do as marketers and developers to maximise our returns.
Coming Top On Google Rankings.
For most people, SEO is about hitting the number one spot when a certain set of keywords are entered. These keywords are usually based either on user-intent – i.e. what the user wants and is searching for; or internal vanity – the company wants to appear first to drive traffic to its site.
Think about your searches, though, particularly when looking to acquire a product or service. How often is the first link you click (the number one spot), the company you go for? They might be number one, but are they always what you want?
Ranking number one is all well and good, but just because you get that spot, is it going to ensure that your clicks convert to sales?
Probably not. A high-volume keyword isn’t necessarily a high-converting one.
Today, particularly with Google, the top organic search spots are more and more valuable, and they’re being pushed down further and further down by the sheer volume of information that’s presented – information such as maps, popular similar searches, related images, related news and so on.
Essentially, if you want to appear straight away on a user’s page – “above the fold”, so to speak – you most likely need to be in one of the top three organic spaces.
Don’t Think Outside The Box. Make The Box Bigger.
The big question, of course, is how do you react to this ever-changing, competitive landscape?
Well, let’s look at a standard set of search results, based on a set of standard keywords. Someone is looking for a web design agency, so that’s what they search for.
Here’s what we get, on first view:
Since Manchester is where the user is based, Google has automatically returned results for that location.
So that’s four adverts and a map of the user’s region showing various agencies in the default browser viewport. No organic search results at all – it’s a combination of paid-for results based on keywords, combined with what Google thinks the user wants.
OK, so now let’s consider what got the user to this point. They want to build a website, clearly, but why? What are the questions they’re asking before they decide to look for an agency to build it for them? Are they sure they really need a website? Why not just stick with using social media – it’s free, after all? If they know they want one, why shouldn’t they build it themselves, given the plethora of tools out there?
On that basis let’s look at “Why should my business have a website?” and “Why should I hire a web designer?”.
Looking at the results above, almost instantly we’re seeing organic results and a completely different looking SERP.
What Does This Mean?
For a start, from the perspective of SEO and improving visibility, it means notsomuch thinking outside the box, more changing the box and making it bigger. In other words don’t just concentrate on your primary targeted keywords, but also think more about what the user wants, why they want it, and how they came to that decision. In being blinkered and looking solely at “web design agency”, from an agency’s perspective, that agency instantly becomes equivalent to a puppy yapping at a football match.
The way around this is to consider the user’s process and create relevant, useful content accordingly. Use terms related to that original concept of “web design agency” and think about what a user is going to be thinking prior to that. This will up the rankings in the organic results and increase the chances of being seen both higher on the page and earlier in the user’s web-page project process.
The box might be “web design agency” in this example; make it bigger. Just don’t go too far, and don’t step out of it. Relevance is crucial.
Use Every Organic Option.
What does that mean exactly? We’ve established that SERPs have changed and that organic listings have been pushed down, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still other organic ways to be shown at the top of the page. Other options include:
- Knowledge Graph Results
- Local Search Results
- Featured Snippets
These other areas can take up a significant amount of space on a user’s screen when their results come up, so it pays to try and get on them – so here’s an outline of what they are, what they do, and how to get on them.
What is the Knowledge Graph?
Well sometimes Google, being helpful, wants to present all its relevant information right there on the SERP, saving you that extra click. It was actually introduced back in 2012 so while not entirely “new”, it’s still as relevant as it ever was.
It pulls information from public repositories such as Wikipedia to provide commonly found, relevant information. You can see it highlighted below, using Google itself as an example.
Why Is The Knowlege Graph Important?
For a start, it takes up a huge amount of the SERP above the fold – clearly, if you want to appear in search results, it’s an important place to be.
In most cases, it’s going to be difficult to make yourself appear there, particularly with generic, small-box searches. Remember, we need to make the box bigger. The graph simply doesn’t appear in most of these cases.
The Knowlege Graph comes into its own, however, when a user searches for a brand. It becomes even more important if competitors are trying to bring down your brand name by buying up your brand terms to capture your traffic. Getting the entry for your Knowledge Graph when people search for your brand terms is a fantastic way of beating overly-aggressive PPC activity from competitors.
How To Appear In The Knowledge Graph.
The most common way to appear in the Knowledge Graph is by having an article on Wikipedia.
Having an article on your brand on Wikipedia means you have an entry on one of the biggest independent information resources out there, and it just so happens it’s one of the resources that Google uses to generate the Knowledge Graph.
A unique name for the business helps too, as it reduces the likelihood of confusion with other brands. Combine that with properly tagged, titled, and keyworded content on an equally appropriately named blog and Google can and will work most of the relevant information out for itself, often based on location.
Local Search Results.
Looking back at the then-and-now, no longer are the days when a search for a local business involved typing in your location. All you do now is search for “pub” and expect Google to do the rest.
Geographic location – both for the user and the business – is now an essential ranking factor. Looking below, the top organic results are clearly based on that factor, complete with a map.
Clearly, this is another substantial chunk of screen occupied by the local listings. Appearing here means not only are you right in front of the user at a glance, but also provides opportunities for reviews and photography to help sell your business.
So, to answer the obvious…
How Do I Appear In Local Search Results?
These local search results are drawn from Google My Business. It’s free and gets you some solid organic exposure.
If you’ve not claimed it for your business you need to get on it, but you do need to go an approval process. Google needs to confirm you are who you say you are, and where you claim to be.
Once that’s sorted, you need to get optimising. Upload your logo, photos, crafting a good description, categories, opening times. Basically, anything your potential clientele might want to know. Just work through until you’ve filled everything in.
It’s worth noting too that Bing has a similar directory. Once you’ve done Google, get on that.
Featured Snippets – Show What You Know.
A Featured Snippet is different from the Knowledge Graph. It’s still a normal search result, it just has a special layout. If you hark back to our earlier search when we were looking at expanding keywords, there’s one right there, highlighted below:
Google explains how it finds them on it’s Featured Snippets page:
“The summary is a snippet extracted programmatically from what a visitor sees on your web page. What’s different with a featured snippet is that it is enhanced to draw user attention on the results page. When we recognize that a query asks a question, we programmatically detect pages that answer the user’s question, and display a top result as a featured snippet in the search results.”
As Google states, these snippets are a big draw on the SERP. It’s a great place to get your site to appear if you can.
How Do I Appear In Featured Snippets?
To start with, some good research is key. You need to ascertain what searches Google is showing the Featured Snippets for – namely queries or searches that imply a question. In the case above, “why should I hire a web designer?”
Taking that forward, considering the products and services offered, what are the questions your potential clientele are going to ask? How can you answer them?
Once you’ve worked out what the questions are you need to start creating content that answers them – specifically. It’s essential that you create a clear and direct answer to that question and one that’s easy for users and search engines alike to find on the page.
You can then build on this concise basis to provide more: additional content, a call to action – information to keep the user engaged and give them the opportunity to convert.
If you find this method isn’t working, look at what Google is displaying instead of your answer. What has that site done differently? What have they done better than you? What can you optimise and improve?
Yes, search engines have changed. Yes, the way results are calculated, prioritised, and displayed has changed. Contrary to what some people might tell you, however, SEO is not dead – it’s just different.
Understanding your target keywords is vital, as well as a conscientious approach to the technicalities of SEO. It’s the subtleties that will take you further, incorporating those technicalities into useful, relevant information for your users and taking advantage of the other options mentioned above to stand out on the SERP.
Let’s Get Visible.
If you’ve made it this far, well done. Admittedly this is a bit of a read, but then again, search engine visibility and optimisation isn’t exactly a small subject. It’s a mix of science and art, with a smattering of psychology to boot. For us though, it’s a passion, it’s what we do, and we want to help you do it too.
One thing’s for sure, search engines change and will continue to do so. To compete effectively you need to remain on top of those changes. If you’d like to know more about SEO, or any other web services Big Red Rocket can offer you, contact us today.