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2017 in Review: What Happened in SEO Last Year and How It Affects Your Strategy

By: Alina Gorbatch
January 16th, 2018

This year has been wild for SEO. In line with what Google's spokespeople say, updates seemed to have been happening every day. Not any updates too, but influential and noticeable ones. They brought massive jumps in rankings for many businesses, and, of course, speculations, emotions, and talks in the media. No one dared to squeak that SEO is dead this year, unlike in some years before.

Now let's see what main things have happened: gradual and sudden, predictive and not so much. Here's a quick list:

1. Mobile

Unless you've been taking a break from marketing and living in the wild for the past two years, you know that by now mobile search has overtaken desktop. At last count, 71% of U.S. Internet use took place on mobile.

What does that mean for SEO?

On April 3rd, 2017, Google announced the Mobile Sites certification for web developers. The test makes sure developers and designers know how to create great mobile experiences for their users.

"Passing the Mobile Sites exam signals that you have a demonstrated ability to build and optimize high-quality sites, and allows you to promote yourself as a Google accredited mobile site developer."

Chris Hohorst, Head of Mobile Sites Transformation

Moreover, Google is also planning to switch to mobile-first indexing by the end of 2018.

This should affect your strategy in the most direct way. User experience on mobile should be as seamless as it is on desktop. To achieve that, make important pages on your website mobile-friendly or even perform an in-depth mobile audit. You can do both these things with Google Search Console and WebSite Auditor.

How to:

  1. Use Google Search Console to add and verify the mobile version of your site. This step only applies if your mobile site is accessed via a separate URL; skip this step if you're using responsive design instead.
  2. Assess every one of your pages for mobile-friendliness. It sounds complicated, but what you really have to do is launch WebSite Auditor — Google's test for this factor is incorporated into the tool.

Create a project for your site or open an existing one, go to Content Analysis > Page Audit, add a page you want to analyze, and enter your target keywords. When the check is done, switch to Technical factors and scroll to the Page usability (Mobile) section to see if there are any problems detected.

  1. Perform an in-depth mobile audit. In your WebSite Auditor project go to Preferences > Crawler Settings, make sure the Follow robots.txt instructions box is checked; in the drop-down menu next to it choose Googlebot-Mobile. Right below, check the Crawl as a specific user agent box. In the drop-down menu to the right, pick the second user agent on the list:

That's the user agent Google uses when crawling mobile versions of pages. Press OK, click the Rebuild Project button, and wait for the tool to conduct a full audit of your mobile website.

That's not all, however. According to Flurry Insights, it turns out that in 2017, 92% of the time we spend on phones is spent in apps. Keep them in mind while optimizing for mobile. For example, Google Maps and Maps.Me are often used for search engines on their own. You can search for "coffee shop" directly in Google Maps to see the ones near you. Consider all of the information now contained in a single business listing on Google Maps! Make sure your business is listed in all relevant apps with all the required information and, preferably, reviews. For more tips on how to do that jump to this section.

2. Voice search

Voice search and personal assistants, such as Siri, Google Now, Cortana, Alexa, and others (yes, there's even more!) have massively shifted how people search. Instead of saying "hairdresser Brooklyn", they are more and more likely to go "Ok Google, where should I get a haircut?". Moreover, if you ask Alexa "What's new?", she'll tell you the weather and news from your specific location and things you're interested in.

How does this work? Devices get access to your location and search history, not to mention whatever you have on your device. With time, voice assistants learn the user's preferences in restaurants, shops, concerts and favourite people to talk to.

They know more about your behavior than you even notice yourself sometimes. That might seem creepy (it definitely is in a way) but it's also very convenient in terms of everyday use. That is why more than half of queries will be voice search by 2020, according to Google.

It's also important to keep in mind that more and more devices are getting interconnected. Our access to the Internet is more diverse and complicated than ever, which changes the way we search, too, and, importantly, the volume of search. According to Sophie Moule, head of marketing in Pi Datametrics, the prediction that more than half queries will be voice search means not that they'll take half of the current searches, but that a whole lot more will go on top.

Of course, that means changes for SEO.

Firstly, let's talk keywords. As I've noted before, people use more natural language when talking to devices rather than when typing something into Google's Search box. That's not just my speculation: Google reports that 70% of the queries that Google Assistant receives consist of natural language. It might be that people are still a bit behind Google in evolving habits: they typed with keywords in 2005, they don't know anything about the SEO evolution, they do the same thing now. However, with devices, people have this sort of association with Star Trek, The Terminator, or literally any sci-fi story, and don't have any trouble assuming Alexa is a real, or an almost real person.

Voice searches are built around questions, local information, and action-based, long-tail keywords. Categories are described below.

How can you incorporate this information into your SEO strategy?

How to:

1. Build your content around questions.

In case you don't know what questions are asked in relation to your business, there's Rank Tracker to help you out.

In your project go to Keyword Research, click the Suggest Keywords button, and choose the Common Questions research method. Enter your keywords and click Next. Wait for the ideas to appear on your dashboard.

2. Optimize for local SEO

If local SEO is something you're aiming for, it should be even more optimized now with the rise of voice search. Here're some steps to undertake to make sure you're not missing out on local customers:

  • Claim your Google My Business Page if you haven't done that yet
  • Write a unique business description
  • Choose a specific category
  • Make sure all the details are up-to-date
  • Upload at least 5 photos

Besides, after the Pigeon update, Google includes traditional SEO signals in its local ranking algorithm. So things that you optimize both off- and on-site now help you rank locally. To find out how backlinks and other factors can help your local SEO, jump to this guide.

3. Use long-tail keywords

Natural, conversational language is, firstly, longer. People include descriptions, preferences, specific actions when they search vocal more than they would otherwise. Adjust your keywords keeping that in mind: for example, include popular meals from your menu if you're a local restaurant to get noticed for searches such as: "Where can I eat a carrot cake tonight?".

3. "Upsetting-Offensive" Content flag

The past couple of years have shown a wide increase in what has been dubbed "fake news". Truth be told, it might be not the increase of fake news itself — the Internet has included made up stories since the beginning of time. OK, but for the past twenty years for sure. However, the hype and mass recognition of the problem appeared quite recently. Google and Facebook were among the first ones to get blamed for everything that has happened in politics in 2016, so in 2017 both of them took measures. Namely, Google introduced the "Upsetting-Offensive" content flag.

Now you probably see the problem with this straight away. How can anything be down ranked for being "upsetting"? A whole lot of things upset people, that doesn't mean these things shouldn't be shown by search engines. How do you keep free speech free and at the same time make sure people don't go on Google and learn that Holocaust didn't happen or that Ireland and England have been on best terms for the whole course of their history?

It's a tricky question and there is no ultimate solution. For now, Google's guidelines have been updated with "Upsetting-Offensive" content section. The guidelines are used by Google's quality raters: over 10,000 contractors that Google uses worldwide to evaluate search results.

The raters can't affect Google's results directly, and the site's ranking won't drop straight after it was flagged. However, in time that data might have an impact on low-quality pages that are spotted by raters, as well as on other pages that weren't reviewed. For example, that's what you see now as a Google result for "Holocaust didn't happen" as opposed to the results above:

You can still catch Google showing "fake" stories, altered facts, and you will still find offensive articles if you look for them. In some cases, Google simply can't tell the truth from the made-up well optimized content. In others, it recognizes that the searcher might be looking for the example of exactly that, the fake story, for whatever reason.

4. Fred

While thousands of tweaks have been happening through the year, Fred was the one that stood out and shook up the SEO community. It was also the only one confirmed by Google this year.

Fred was released in March, 2017. It targets thin, affiliate-heavy or ad-centered content. This wasn't openly stated by Google: we just know that the majority of affected sites are blogs with low-quality posts that appear to be created mostly for the purpose of generating ad revenue. For example, Google penalized some sites that used to make a reader click through 25 pages to finish a small article, sites that clearly sacrificed user experience for more and more promotion, sites that used aggressive advertising, UX barriers, had user interface problems, deceptive ads, and most of all thin content.

There were also some cases when Fred brought major growth to site's rankings. Owners of such sites noted that they've been working on improving the quality of their sites for a while now and haven't seen any result until the Fred update. Probably, this was Google's way of saying: "Sorry, we figured out you're not spam".

Fred makes it clear that user experience is more important than ever when it comes to rankings. Once again Google reminds us (in a harsh way, as always) that content should be in-depth, engaging, and made for users. And also that SEO is a long-term process and you might not see the results straight away.

How do you make sure Fred doesn't affect you in a bad way?

How to:

1. Make sure your ads don't disturb the user experience. If that sounds too vague, read Google Search Quality Guidelines.

2. Watch out for thin content. Thin content means low quality for Google, and that's the main thing Fred targets.

To start the check with SEO PowerSuite, navigate to the Pages module in WebSite Auditor and look for the Word count column. Sort the pages by their word count by clicking on the column's header.

Of course, it's not all about the size. For some queries, short pages do absolutely fine. To see if your content length is within a reasonable range for your target keywords, go to Content Analysis and select the page to analyze. Enter the keyword, and wait a bit while Google examines your and your top ranking competitors' pages. When the analysis is complete, look at Word count in body. Click on this factor and see how long the competitors' pages are.

To see each individual competitor's content length, click on Keywords in body and switch to Competitors. Here, you'll get a list of your top 10 competitors for the keywords you specified, along with the total word count on each of these pages. It's a good way to tell how much content approximately the searchers are looking for when they search for your target keywords.

5. Google's new policy?

It's a rare SEO (probably a non-existent one) that hasn't seen the Twitter exchange between Barry Schwartz and Google's Gary Illyes about the Fred update.

As usual, Gary jokes around and generally doesn't take SEOs very seriously. Is it time to draw conclusions from that approach that are bigger than Gary's sense of humor?

As Kristine Schachinger points out, with the Fred update it seems that Google decided to adopt the black box policy that they used to have before Matt Cutts took over webmaster communications. A black box is when system's inputs and outputs are known, but

  • internal structures aren't well understood or not understood at all;
  • understanding these structures is deemed unnecessary for users;
  • and/or inner workings are not meant to be known due to a need for confidentiality.

It's unlikely that Google will return to Matt's way of communicating the updates in the nearest future. In fact, after the Fred update it seems that we won't get as little as an update confirmation from Google. Sure, they've confirmed Fred, but only when it was so late no one really needed a confirmation. That's the new policy — the one where Google thinks all we need to do to get to page one is to be awesome. And we as SEOs know that this is not enough.


Key takeaways

Taking into account all of the above, my best advice to SEOs in 2018 would be to focus on 3 key things:

  1. Optimize for mobile (Checklist)
  2. Get ready for the voice search and optimize for it (How-to)
  3. Produce even better content (Audit)

Did you feel as if on the SEO rollercoaster this year? What do you expect of 2018? As usual, I'm looking forward to your opinions in the comments section.


By: Alina Gorbatch

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