Actionable guide to SEO in 2017
The year of 2016 was relatively calm for SEOs. But no matter how peaceful the current SEO landscape looks, it doesn't mean you can lean back in your chair and relax!
RankBrain, semantic search, AMP, and mobile-first are among the top buzz words of the past twelve months. Penguin and Panda have become smarter and are now part of the core algorithm.
So, to help you catch the wind and brush up your SEO skills, I've prepared a list of recommendations SEOs should focus on right now.
The rule is simple — search engines won't rank your site unless they can find it. So, just like before, it is extremely important to make sure search engines are able to discover your site's content — and that they can do that quickly and easily. And here's how.
1. Keep a logical site structure
- The important pages are reachable from the homepage.
- Site pages are arranged in a logical tree-like structure.
- The names of your URLs (pages, categories, etc.) reflect your site's structure.
- Internal links point to relevant pages.
- You use breadcrumbs to facilitate navigation.
- There's a search box on your site to help visitors discover useful content.
- You use rel=next and rel=prev to convert pages with infinite scrolling into paginated series.
- Certain important pages can't be reached via navigational or ordinary links.
- You cram a huge number of pages into one navigation block — an endless drop-down menu or something like this.
- You try to link to each & every inner page of your site from your homepage.
- It is difficult for users to go back and forth between site pages without resorting to Back and Forward browser buttons.
SEO PowerSuite tip:
In WebSite Auditor, go to the Pages dashboard, and look through the Links to Page column to identify any pages that have no internal links pointing to them.
Head to Site Audit and check the URLs section. Make sure the website doesn't have any overly long ULRs or URLs with dynamic characters (these are not search engine-friendly).
2. Make use of an XML sitemap & RSS feeds
The XML sitemap helps search bots discover and index content on your site. This is similar to how a tourist would discover more places in an unfamiliar city if they had a map.
RSS/Atom feeds are a great way to notify search engines about any fresh content you add to the site. In addition, RSS feeds are often used by journalists, content curators and other people interested in getting updates from particular sources.
Google says: "For optimal crawling, we recommend using both XML sitemaps and RSS/Atom feeds. XML sitemaps will give Google information about all of the pages on your site. RSS/Atom feeds will provide all updates on your site, helping Google to keep your content fresher in its index."
- Your sitemap/feed includes only canonical versions of URLs.
- While updating your sitemap, you update a page's modification time only if substantial changes have been made to it.
- If you use multiple sitemaps, you decide to add one more sitemap only if your current sitemaps have already reached the limit of URLs (up to 50 thousand per each sitemap).
- Your RSS/Atom feed includes only recently updated items, making it easier for search engines and visitors to find your fresh content.
- Your XML sitemap or feed includes the URLs search engines' robots are not allowed to index, which is specified either in your robots.txt, or the robots meta tag.
- Non-canonical URL duplicates are included into your sitemap or feed.
- In your sitemap, modification time is missing or is updated just to "persuade" search engines that your pages have been brought up to date, while in fact they haven't.
SEO PowerSuite tip:
WebSite Auditor has a built-in XML Sitemap Creator that lets you upload the freshest version of your sitemap to the server right from the software. Go to Pages and click Sitemap at the top. Choose the pages to include, set the frequency and the priority for your pages and either save the sitemap to your hard drive or upload it straight to your site.
3. Befriend Schema markup
Schema markup is used to tag entities (people, products, events, etc.) in your pages' content. Although it does not affect your rankings, it helps search engines better interpret your content.
To put it simple, a Schema template is similar to a doorplate — if it says 'CEO Larry Page', you know whom to expect behind the door.
- Review the list of available Schemas and pick the Schemas to apply to your site's content.
- If it is difficult for you to edit the code on your own, you can use Google's Structured Data Markup Helper.
- Test the markup using Google's Structured Data Testing Tool.
- You use Schemas to trick search engines into believing your page contains the type of info it doesn't (for example, that it's a review, while it isn't) — such behavior can cause a penalty.
4. Leverage rich answers
Basically, a rich answer is a snippet that already contains a brief answer to the search query. It appears above other organic search results and thus enjoys more exposure.
Any website has a chance to be selected for the rich answers section. Here are a few things you may do to increase your chances of getting there:
1) Identify simple questions you might answer on your website;
2) Provide a clear direct answer;
3) Provide additional supporting information (like videos, images, charts, etc.).
"Panda" is a filter in Google's ranking algorithm that aims to sift out pages with thin, non-authentic, low-quality content. Early in 2016, Gary Illyes announced that "Panda" had become a part of Google core ranking algorithm. The bad news is that now you can't tell for sure if your rankings changed due to "Panda" or other issues.
1. Improve content quality
- You need to create really useful, expert-level content and present it in the most engaging form possible.
- It's not obligatory that all pages of your website are like Wikipedia articles. Use your common sense and make sure that the overall image of your website is decent.
- There is no recommended text content length. A page should include as many words as It's necessary to cover the topic or answer the question of a user.
- If you have user-generated content on your website, make sure It's useful and free from spam.
- You block non-unique or unimportant pages (e.g. various policies) from indexing.
- Your website relies on "scraped" content (content copied from other sites with no extra value added to it). This puts you at risk of getting hit by Panda.
- You simply "spin" somebody else's content and repost it to your site.
- Many of your site's pages have duplicate or very similar content.
- You base your SEO strategy around a network of "cookie-cutter" websites (websites built quickly with a widely used template).
2. Make sure you get canonicalization right
Canonicalization is a way of telling search engines which page should be treated as the "standardized" version when several URLs return virtually the same content.
The main purpose of this is to avoid internal content duplication on your site. Although not a huge offense, this makes your site look messy — like a wild forest in comparison to a neatly trimmed garden.
- You mark canonical pages using the rel="canonical" attribute.
- Your rel="canonical" is inserted in either the <head> section or the HTTP header.
- The canonical page is live (doesn't return a 404 status code).
- The canonical page is not restricted from indexing in robots.txt or by other means.
- You've got multiple canonical URLs specified for one page.
- You've got rel="canonical" inserted into the <body> section of the page.
- Your pages are in an infinite loop of canonical URLs (Page A points to page B, page B points to page A). In this case, search engines will be confused with your canonicalization.
SEO PowerSuite tip:
To check your site for canonicalization issues, go to Pages with multiple canonical URLs under Encoding and technical factors.
Google's Penguin filter aims at detecting artificial backlink patterns and penalizing sites that violate its quality guidelines in regards to backlinks. Penguin has become a part of the core Google algorithm. In its early days, Penguin would hit an entire website. Currently, it's more granular and it demotes particular pages that have "bad" links. Keeping your backlink profile look natural is another key point to focus on in 2017.
- Your website mostly has editorial backlinks, earned due to others quoting, referring to or sharing your content.
- Backlink anchor texts are as diverse as reasonably possible.
- Backlinks are being acquired at a moderate pace.
- Spam, low quality backlinks are either removed or disavowed.
- Participating in link networks.
- Having lots of backlinks from irrelevant pages.
- Insignificant variation in link anchor texts.
Quite a few UX-related metrics have made their way into Google's ranking algorithm over the past years (site speed, mobile-friendliness, the HTTPs protocol). Hence, striving to improve user experience can be a good way to up your search engine rankings.
1. Increase site speed
There are quite a few factors that can affect page loading speed. Statistically, the biggest mistakes site owners make that increase page load time are: using huge images, using large-volume multimedia or other heavy design elements that make the site as slow as a snail.
Use Google's PageSpeed Insights to test your site speed and to get recommendations on particular issues to fix.
SEO PowerSuite tip:
Google PageSpeed Insights are integrated into SEO PowerSuite's WebSite Auditor app to let you easily check if your pages pass Google's speed and usability tests and see the exact issues you need to tackle. To check your pages' loading time, simply go to WebSite Auditor's Page Audit dashboard and click on Technical factors.
2. Improve engagement & click-through rates
The Bing and Yahoo! alliance, as well as Yandex, have officially confirmed they consider click-through rates and user behavior in their ranking algorithms. If you are optimizing for any of these search engines, it's worth trying to improve these aspects.
While Google is mostly silent on the subject, striving for greater engagement and higher click-through rates tends to bring better rankings as well as indirect SEO results in the form of attracted links, shares, mentions, etc.
3. Consider taking your site HTTPs
In August 2014, Google announced that HTTPs usage is treated as a positive ranking signal.
Currently there is not much evidence that HTTPs-enabled sites outrank non-secure ones. The transition to HTTPS is somewhat controversial, because
a) Most pages on the Web do not involve the transfer of sensitive information;
b) If performed incorrectly, the transition from HTTP to HTTPS may harm your rankings;
c) Most of your site's visitors do not know what HTTP is, so transferring to HTTPS is unlikely to give any conversion boost.
4. Get prepared for HTTP/2
HTTP/2 is a new network protocol that should replace the outdated HTTP/1.1. HTTP/2 is substantially faster than its predecessor. In terms of SEO, you would probably be able to gain some ranking boost due to the improved website speed.
On April 02, 2016 John Mueller mentioned on Google+ that Google Bot does not yet fully support HTTP/2, however the crawler will work normally for HTTP/2 websites. December 19 Google Webmasters tweeted "Setting up HTTP/2? Go for it! Googlebot won't hold you back." There are no furthers details. However, the tweet assumes that Google Bot now supports HTTP/2. At the time of writing, about 78% of web browsers support HTTP/2. You can keep track of HTTP/2 support by browsers on "Can I Use". In fact, if your website runs on HTTPS you can already switch to HTTP/2 because most browsers already support it through HTTPS.
HTTP/2 is likely to become a "must" soon. Thus, keep an eye on the issue and be ready to implement this feature when required.
The number of mobile searches has finally exceeded the number of desktop searches. The inevitable has happened; Google has begun experiments with mobile-first index. It means that their algorithms will primarily use the mobile version of a site's content to rank pages from that site, to understand structured data, and to show snippets from those pages in the results. It doesn't mean that your website will drop out of the index if it has no mobile version — Google will fall back on the desktop version to rank the site. However, if you stick to mobile-unfriendly design, user experience and rankings may suffer.
- Your website utilizes responsive design.
- Your page's content can be read on a mobile device without zooming.
- You've got easy-to-tap navigation and links on your website.
- You are using non-mobile-friendly technologies like Flash on your webpages.
Accelerated Mobile Pages project (AMP for short) is a new Google initiative to build a better, more user friendly mobile Web by introducing a new "standard" for building web content for mobile devices. Basically, this new standard is a set of rules that form a simple, lighter version of HTML. And pages built in compliance with AMP are sure to load super-quick on all mobile devices.
According to Google's VP of Engineering David Besbris:
- AMP pages are 4x faster, and use 10x less data compared to non-AMP pages;
- On average AMP pages load in less than one second;
- 90 percent of AMP publishers experience higher CTRs;
- 80 percent of AMP publishers experience higher ad viewability rates.
The official AMP Project help pages are the best starting point for those who want to try the new technology out.
AMP is a strictly validated format, and if some elements on your page do not meet the requirements, Google will most likely not serve this page to users. So after building your AMP page, check if it passes the validation.
SEO PowerSuite tip:
If you're using WebSite Auditor for on-page SEO, here's how you can conveniently manage your AMP content with the help of this software.
After creating a project for your website and letting the tool crawl all your pages, switch to the Pages dashboard in the Site Structure module and click the "+" button in the upper right corner of your working area to create a new workspace:
Select the columns with the necessary data.
Then click the Filter icon and apply a filter to only include pages that contain AMP in their URL.
And now you can instantly access all your AMP pages' SEO data, like canonical URLs, status codes, robots instructions, broken resources and so on.
Search engines favor websites with a strong social presence. Your Google+ posts or Tweets can make it to Google organic search results, which is a great opportunity to drive extra traffic. Although the likely effect of Twitter or Facebook links on SEO hasn't been confirmed, Google said it treats social posts (that are open for indexing) just like any other webpages, so the hint here is clear.
- You attract social links and shares with viral content.
- You make it easy to share your content: make sure your pages have social buttons, check which image/message is automatically assigned to the post people share.
- You are wasting your time and money on purchasing 'Likes', 'Shares' and other sorts of social signals. Both social networks and search engines are able to detect accounts and account networks created for trading social signals.
Back in 2015, Google reduced the number of results in the local pack from 7 to 3 and removed addresses and phone numbers. The search engine made it harder for SEOs to get to the local pack.
To make things worse, in 2016 Google began showing ads on top of normal results in Local Finder. 2017 will probably see even more fierce competition in local results.
- Make sure your website mentions your business name, address, phone (NAP) and that this information is consistent across all the listings.
- Optimize your Google My Business listing: NAP, correct category, photos, reviews are the priority.
- Create incentives to get more positive reviews and citations across the web.
- You are using a false business address.
- Your website is listed in a wrong Google My Business category.
- There are reports of violations on your Google My Business location.
SEO PowerSuite tip:
Besides a number of purely local ranking factors, when ranking search results in the local packs Google also relies heavily on the sites' overall SEO authority (like its backlink profile and on-page metrics). And SEO PowerSuite allows you to quickly estimate the SEO authority of your domain.
To do that, go to Domain Strength in any SEO PowerSuite app and see the overall domain score along with the domain's key SEO metrics displayed in one convenient tab:
What's coming in SEO in 2017?
Here are the main SEO trends I predict for 2017:
SEO remains part of multi-channel marketing
Customers can find your business through social, paid search, offline ads, etc. Organic search is an integral part of a complex path to conversion. Just be aware of these other channels and get savvy in additional spheres, if necessary.
Enhancements in artificial intelligence
Thanks to RankBrain (the algorithm based on artificial intelligence) Google has become smart. It now also looks at synonyms, your niche connections, location, understands entities, etc. to see if you fit the bill (=query). It looks like Google is actively moving in the direction of predictive and personalized search experience.
Your website MUST be mobile-friendly
The number of mobile searches exceeded the number of desktop searches. Google introduced the mobile-first index, and AMP pages are gaining momentum. We reached the point where being mobile-friendly is an industry standard.
No quick results, no easy SEO
With enhancements in Panda, Penguin and artificial intelligence Google widened its net for spam ‐ and became even better at detecting sites with unengaging content or unnatural link patters.
Traffic stays on Google increasingly
Google has definitely stepped up its effort to provide immediate answers to people's searches. And, with the increasing number of rich answers, this tendency for stealing traffic from publishers will likely increase.
Paid search expansion
A few years ago, Google changed Google Shopping's organic model to pay-per-click. In 2016 paid ads in Local Search came around. The trend will likely persist and we'll experience more native-like ad formats in the near future.
Head of SEO at SEO PowerSuite