This year we’re celebrating thirty years since Tim Burners-Lee first outlined his vision of a “linked information management system”. In his “vague but exciting” proposal, he laid out how “distributed hypertext” could be used to make vast quantities of information stored all over the place easier to find and access from anywhere.
In 2019, this once abstraction has grown into something very real and tangible that we couldn’t live without: the world wide web. And the ambitious system of distributed hypertext has become the foundation of the search engines we use everyday to navigate and explore it.
As per the last thirty years, the way the web works isn’t going to change much anytime soon. And so although today you could base your presence solely on social platforms or rely on gaining traffic from email marketing, if you want to exist online, you’re best off figuring out how to rank well in the search engine results pages (SERPs).
We know SEO as the process of increasing the online visibility of a website or web page in the SERPs. We also know it’s somewhat of a science, but mostly an art — with the secret sauce that drives search algorithms being closely guarded by search engine marketers, top ranking domains, Google, and whoever pays for it, naughty naughty.
For most of us, then, if you want to please Google, there are many basic SEO best practices you have to follow to stand in with a chance. Things like optimising titles and headings for keywords, gaining links from relevant, authority websites, producing lots of content, and interlinking your pages with rich anchor text.
Many of these practices still hold strong today, and will continue to for many years to come. The thing is, though, although how the web works and how we explore it is not going to change much, there is one major part of the search landscape that is experiencing drastic and rapid change: what matters to the searchers.
Usability, trust, quality, choice — such intangible factors that are somewhat harder to quantify and assess in websites and content are becoming more important and expected by users every day, and so Google and others are beginning to and will only get better at making sure their results can deliver them.
Burners-Lee’s linked information system will continue as the basis for the web we use, but how we use it is evolving way beyond what he could ever have imagined (or ever wanted it to become). And so if you want to be visible on the linked information management system of the 21st century, you need to approach it from a perspective of not only what the machines want, but what the constantly changing and difficult-to-please humans want from it too.
Authentic and targeted influence
Let’s face it, if this article was offered in video format as well as text, it would without a doubt get more views and higher rates of engagement.
What it would also do, as Google is a pioneer and promoter of video content, is boost the article’s ranking in the search results. So why don’t we do it? Well, the problem is video takes a bit more effort to make sure you get the most out of it. Not only in planning and producing, but in making sure you have the platform and audience for it.
This is where the social media influencer boom comes in. Social stars come with the platform, audience, and face for video, and as such, they were touted by marketers as the “fastest-growing customer-acquisition method over other methods including organic and paid search.
How it works is simple: an influencer shares a piece of sponsored content to their platform, and voilà, your brand has hitched a ride to page one. The downside, though, as many are finding out the hard way, is that their popularity and value are as fickle as the weather.
People love social media stars because they speak to an audience in an honest and open way about the things they care about. But as more and more influencers team up with brands and become marketing powerhouses, the lines between what’s real and what’s sponsored has become somewhat blurred — tainting the authenticity and originality that made the medium so powerful in the first place.
Micro-influencers take the best bits of being an influencer — the relatability, authenticity, and personality — and engage smaller numbers of followers in personal stories. Best of all, though is that you don’t have to hire them but rather just seek out the thought leaders and personalities you already have in your company.
It’s the social media intern who likes being in front of the camera, or the accounting manager who already blogs about the business. As long as they’re upfront about their associations and deliver value, people don’t so much care who they work for. Add in tactics like vertical video, and the divide between businesses and customers is so small today that effectively building an audience built on trust and value is completely possible without having to rely on hired help.
With the rise of video, social media sites, and publishing platforms like Medium, it would seem like running your own blog is a thing of the past. And in many ways, it is.
When most people think of a company blog, they think a sparse scattering of random opinion pieces and the odd too-personal anecdote. But this is the dead shell of blogging that has long been outgrown and discarded, at least by businesses at the leading edge of their niche.
The businesses that use blogging well today treat them as libraries of information-rich resources. Other than e-commerce stores, the majority of websites are largely just holding pages with a few details of product/services and contact info, so their reach tends to be limited to people searching for them or that are sent there directly. Businesses that invest in blogs know that, on average, they generate around sixty percent of a website’s search traffic.
If you think about it as your website being the fishing line dangled into the web, a blog is what provides the hooks. In this way, you want to use it to place as many hooks as possible across the search landscape. That means going wide and creating content for all stages of the customer journey, focusing on long-form pieces, using multiple languages, routinely updating old content, and following standard SEO content marketing practices.
Sure, there’s already a tonne of content out there and more being churned out every day. But if your website is to stand any chance, then it needs to join in on the action. Not least because building followings on other platforms, as demonstrated above, is not a clever long-term strategy.
Rather than being an uphill battle, though, people are only going to crave more original ideas and reliable info, and so if your blog’s quality is high and consistent, then it is sure to get noticed.
High-quality link distribution
As long as there’s a web that relies on links as the streets between its addresses, link building will be a part of every SEO strategy.
For a long time, however, link building has been about building up those streets no matter where they come from and where they lead to. Of course, if you had the choice of forums and link farms or government organisations and high authority domains, it’s clear where you want your links to come from. That’s not the point. The point is what’s not been so clear is how much traffic to your site those backlinks will actually generate.
Many businesses today rely on social media as a key source of traffic to their blogs and websites. But posting links on social sites like Facebook drives people away from their platform, meaning less ad revenue for them, and yet again that it is a dangerous and unreliable long-term strategy.
This is why, in 2019, link building as an SEO tactic is stronger than ever. However, it’s also why it’s important to think of link building not only as a way to boost your rankings, but also as a key source of referral traffic.
Doing this safeguards your site from the many pitfalls of social media whilst also combining two different ways to increase traffic into one strategy. As Neil Patel describes in his guide to SEO, what this could look like is consistent guest posting and generating lots of PR — methods that create steady, quality traffic and that aren’t too affected by algorithm updates.
The solution for everyone
Listening to choose-your-own-adventure games on Alexa and sharing cringe-worthy lip-synced videos on Tik Tok are trends that may not be around for too much longer. But the trend they’re built upon — the move from text-only to more visual and audible content — most definitely will.
When it comes down to it, SEO is about solving problems in the most appropriate and convenient way. And as anyone who looks up from their phone for a second can see, this is best done today with short video clips and podcasts. What makes these methods so effective as an SEO strategy, though, is not just preference and convenience, but that they keep people engaged for hours.
Algorithms are built to act favourably toward content types that keep people on the page. So if you have three lines of text answering a question, or you do the same with a five-minute video or a half hour podcast, it’s clear which one is going to boost your rankings.
Or is it? What’s best about video and audio content is that today, it doesn’t necessarily take much less effort to only produce one or the other. Rather, for the same amount of time and effort you could turn what would in the past have only been a blog post, into a video transcript, an audio download, a podcast episode, and an animated video.
Such an approach fits the modern mobile web searcher who wants to be able to find content anywhere, at any time, and in every medium possible. If SEO is about giving the user what they want, when they want it, today, users want to listen, watch, and read content, all whilst offline and flicking between each one simultaneously. The best SEO advice for anyone, then, is to be one result that lets them do it all.
Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Connect with him on LinkedIn and find more articles on work, technology, spirituality, and everything in between.