And I don't think I need to explain to anybody that keeping up with the changing tide of SEO trends is the most important thing you could do for your growth.
For the last couple years, the task for Internet giants was to keep us from leaving their properties as long as possible.
Search engines were no exception. Google, keeping up with the other huge platforms, is trying more and more to be the end destination of their users' journeys.
So the name of the SEO game in 2020 is: make Google your business card. Because god knows it's trying its damndest to be one.
I. There are fewer clicks
First we have to talk about "zero-click" searches. Those are the searches that don't end up with a click on any of the SERP results.
Zero-click searches existed before, of course. But today, due to the fact that a huge number of users' queries, and even their follow-up questions, are answered through SERP features, the situation is very different.
In 2019, for the first time, zero-click searches became the norm. How does this happen?
Let's look at an example of a non-localized search. I googled "what is crawl budget".
What I get on top of the normal SERP:
a. Featured snippet with the definition itself, answering my question,
b. People also ask graph, answering the additional questions that I might have.
Essentially, if I'm looking for a quick and easy answer, there's simply no need for me to click on any websites.
There's no need for an outright panic, of course.
The fact that the overall number of searches now lead to fewer clicks doesn't necessarily mean that this is happening to your industry, or that you in particular received any damage.
Well, the search seems to be turning more and more into a zero-sum game, but that's nothing new. What we all need now is to run a tighter ship.
Do your best to only optimize for keywords that bring you actual clicks. Let's call the pages with those keywords your "core" pages.
Use Rank Tracker in conjunction with your Google Search Console account.
See which keywords of the ones you're optimizing for actually bring you clicks.
That way, you save yourself a whole lot of time and effort optimizing for queries with keywords such as "when", "how many" "what year", and so on.
Those are vital for content, of course, but shouldn't be the focal point of your SEO.
The key, for now, is to optimize for the words bringing in the actual money and traffic. And optimizing for purely informational queries should be moved down the to-do list.
II. Where possible, getting into a SERP feature is a priority.
While you're tightening up your semantic core, you have to also work on actually getting into a SERP.
Because, like it or not, and no matter how much we'd like to pretend otherwise, some queries that could lead to real conversions also suffer from the "zero-click search" plague.
Fact of the matter is that due to the structural changes of the SERP, the way that users read also changed.
What we are seeing is that users don't read (well, they never really did, only skimmed) top-to-bottom. Users' eyes are doing zig-zag movements across the SERP.
With that in mind, and since users actually click on results less and less, getting "featured" is more important than ever.
Getting that coveted #1 rank right under a Featured snippet or a People also ask box, or next to a Knowledge panel, will, naturally, bring you fewer clicks.
In that vein, the absolute best thing to get into would be a Knowledge graph.
Obviously, it stands out even more than a Featured snippet, being positioned apart from all the other results.
And no, it's not just Wikipedia that Google uses as a source of their Knowledge graphs.
SERP features are varied: from Knowledge graphs, and Featured snippets, to People also ask boxes, and even starred reviews — all of those we can look at as hindrances, sure.
But I say: they are opportunities. They exist outside of the normal SERP, they stand out, and they are something of a feedback loop.
The more one and the same website appears in Knowledge graphs and Featured snippets for a particular topic, the more authoritative they seem to users and other website owners, the higher their traffic, the easier it is for them to rank in their niche.
As far as I'm concerned, this is a list of SERP features organized by profitability and importance:
- Knowledge graph
- Featured snippet
- People also ask box
- Rich snippet (when appropriate)
And of course there is a good old meta description.
Surprising absolutely nobody, this list is also already organized by descending difficulty to optimize for.
I'm assuming I don't need to tell you about writing a meta description tag. Keep them reasonably short, explain what your page is about, and throw in a few of your target keywords.
Now, the rest of the bunch is a bit tougher to deal with.
First, we need to determine for which of your chosen keywords you can even get a SERP feature.
With the list of your collected target keywords in hand, turn to Rank Tracker.
There, in the Rank Tracking module, you'll see for which of your keywords there are SERP features. You'll also see if you, perchance, already have one!
You also need to take a look at your competition. What keywords are they ranking for, and are there SERP features to get into for them?
Head over to the Keyword Research > Ranking Keywords module, type in your competition's domain, and voila!
A full list of keywords they are ranking for, complete with the indication of any SERP features that they might have.
Second, competition research. As it often happens with SEO, making something work often requires seeing how it already works for someone else.
So, if you see that one of your competitors for a certain keyword got into a SERP feature, head over to their website.
Look at the structure of the page in question, the way it's composed.
More often than not, you'll see that their text is organized in a specific way, thanks to which Google considers it valuable and readable enough to present in a feature.
Let's talk about Featured snippets and Knowledge graphs first.
Really, what we're talking about is using structured data markup.
Turn to WebSite Auditor and check if your web pages already have a structured data markup.
And if it isn't, use structured data. This will not only get you a chance to rank higher than your competitors, but also increase readability and user convenience in a major way.
Getting into a People also ask box is a bit of a different beast. Structured markup is still a huge thing for it, sure.
But you'll also need to organize your pages into a simple FAQ, Q&A format.
State the question first in a h2/h3 heading. Then write your answer in as clear, concise and plain a way you can come up with.
Working on getting into a SERP feature is a real win-win situation. On the one hand, nothing can assure 100% that you will get into any SERP features.
The only thing that is completely within your control on the SERP is the meta description you choose to represent you.
Everything else, really, is only partly on you. That said, the potential gains of optimizing for snippets are huge, and should absolutely not be ignored.
III. Google My Business and entity-based search change the way we do local SEO
So the biggest change in local SEO of the recent years has definitely been Google's Local Pack and the way that affects a user.
It used to be that if you were trying to rank for something like "home furniture" — your ecommerce page actually had a shot at pretty high rankings.
Today's situation is very different. Today more and more searches get processed as containing local intent, and the user gets a Local Pack instead.
It's not just that a Local Pack can take up an entire SERP for mobile users (although that's plenty).
But also, right there, in the Local Pack, a user gets a list of business profiles, complete with ratings, reviews, and locations.
Local packs are here to stay, simply because it's much more convenient for a user who's trying to choose the best service.
That means that if you're not using local SEO and working with Google to get into a Local Pack, you're losing out on customers.
On top of that, in 2019, Google finally got a patent for entity-based search. They filed for it all the way back in 2016, and now it's logical to assume they are going to start pushing forward the entity-based search.
That might be a new idea to some, so let's talk about it a little more in-depth.
First of all, in my opinion it's obvious that if they filed for patent in 2016, that means that Google's been doing entity-oriented search for years.
So what are those "entities"? Well, it gets a little obscure. Entities are defined in the patent itself as:
"[..] a thing or concept that is singular, unique, well-defined and distinguishable. For example, an entity may be a person, place, item, idea, abstract concept, concrete element, other suitable thing, or any combination thereof."
So, an entity is pretty much anything, if it's:
- well-defined and
And it can be pretty much anything. The core of it is that Google wants to create a unique ID for everything in the world.
Example: there is George Washington the President, and George Washington University.
As a person George Washington is an entity closely connected to one cluster of topics and words, and as a University — totally different.
So Googling "George Washington birth" will give you his birthday.
In turn, searching "George Washington tuition" will provide info on George Washington University's (exorbitant) price tag for a degree.
Optimizing for entity-based search is really not about changing much, but mostly about communicating what you're about much better.
Job #1: You can cover a vast number of searches, mostly those containing keywords such as "near me" or "address" and "phone number", in one fell swoop, creating a Google My Business page for your company.
It cannot be stressed enough: not having a GMB page for a local business is business lost. Use it not just as a quick reference guide, too!
Through Google Posts in the GMB app you can inform your clients of promotional offers and discounts easily. And Google reviews (and your reactions to them) are a brilliant space for direct customer communication.
But that should only be the beginning of your efforts. For users who don't actually stop at the Local Pack, there's still actual optimization to be done.
Job #2: So how do we start implementing entity associations?
Well, your services themselves are an entity, of course, but that's handled by your "seed keywords" or keywords that you're looking to rank for.
Some SEOs, myself included, consider that in the local search the "entities" you need to base your SEO efforts on are mostly geographical.
So putting in keywords like "near landmark" or adding directions from certain well-known places to your own business is key.
In 2020 local businesses need to always implement local entities (and do it in a way that feels natural and non-intrusive). Simply focusing on the content and core keywords is not enough by this point.
One of our users published a case study where he saw his clients' rankings grow thanks to subtly mentioning entities on as many pages as possible.
So add nearby landmarks to every page where that would be suitable and wouldn't seem completely out of left field.
Creating a keyword group for your entity-based keywords will allow you to easily manage your optimization.
You'll see where you've already added them, and where there's still some optimization to be done.
Remember, though, that having a solid backlink profile is paramount. Look up what kind of backlinks your competitors get, and try to get those for yourself.
Do this in SEO SpyGlass by going to Domain Comparison > Link Intersection.
A specific feature of local SEO is that you need not just any backlinks, but the ones that Google deems locally authoritative.
And of course, remember to track your local ranking performance. Keep in mind that the smallest change in location will influence the kind of results that the user will get.
To look up rankings for keywords down to a street and a house, you should use a rank monitoring tool like Rank Tracker.
For more in-depth instruction, check out this local SEO guide.
IV. Algorithms keep insisting we write for people
For years now Google's been using learning algorithms to improve their users' experience with search and help avoid keyword-stuffed webpages.
In 2020, this will be more important than ever with Google's latest algorithm named BERT.
Now, as far as we know, Google uses three mechanisms: first is Neural Matching, which figures out the meaning of the query.
Second is RankBrain, which adjusts the SERP's relying on the collected data about users' behavior.
Third, the aforementioned BERT, is the algorithm that is used for analyzing the structure of a search to better understand the context in which keywords are used.
The way SEO will change under the influences of AI is the most important question of SEO's future. Learning to play ball with Google's algorithms will be crucial for anybody trying to rank on the web in 2020.
As far as Neural matching or BERT go, there isn't much we can do about those algorithms — Neural matching is really Google's inner kitchen, and BERT simply states that it requires you to write good content.
But RankBrain really should be accounted for very carefully. The goal here is not simply to rank for whatever keyword.
Now, and more and more in the future, intent matching is paramount for creating successful content.
Because right now, simply ranking without matching intent will cut you off from a huge number of SERP's.
Intent-oriented, long-tail, extremely precisely-targeted content will be the lifeblood of SEO in 2020.
Sure, some of us still think it's okay to not mop-up all of the great long-tail keywords on their pages. But remember this: today people mostly communicate with Google in their own, natural language.
That means that more and more, people are using precise, long-tail queries, and expecting accurate results. This dictates the necessity for Google's bots to understand those better and better.
For every page you create, you need to hit those long-tail queries. This is an optimization priority for all of your pages, both old and the new.
Second half of understanding correct search intent is keeping your hand on the pulse of what's ranking right now for your chosen keywords, and why.
Use Rank Tracker's Related Searches module to see what kind of related queries users make connected to your target keywords.
Also, head over to the implemented Keyword Planner module (don't forget to integrate your gmail account for it to work!). And check out some long-tail keyword ideas there!
To both modules, add the Keyword Length column, and organize your list to get the best long-tail keywords for your topic.
Collect the long-tail keywords that match the intent your of the users searching for your page, then create content to match it, and you'll be golden.
V. Brand building comes to the forefront
The last (but not least) trend is that a large number of "classic" link building tactics is dead and over.
For an incredibly illustrative example, remember how everybody was raving about "skyscraper link building" a couple years back?
Well, now this tactic is used by a million SEOs all over the web, and it pretty much doesn't work anymore.
Today, almost without exception, websites with any kind of traffic get dozens if not hundreds of template emails asking for a link back to their "new and improved" piece of content.
In that environment, even a brilliantly put-together email, with relevant proposal, will get deleted as spam, or just ignored with a weary sigh. Unless the recipient recognizes your brand name.
In a situation where cold emailing doesn't really work anymore, and paid social can stop bringing great ROI any month, what we need to do is focus on brand awareness.
Concentrate on building actual personal relationships with the websites and blogs in your particular niche, as well as your own clients!
First, let's talk about websites and blogs. Every step of outreach that we do, we have to keep in mind that those people get 30 emails a day with similar proposals.
So we need to take extra good care to contact those websites to which we have some sort of connection, websites where people would already know our brand name.
Or, at the very least, websites who are catering to a very similar audience that would benefit from our content.
Building a personal relationship with your audience is a bit more complicated.
Of course you need to engage your customers on social media, respond to your mentions, etc.
But what we're also seeing is linkless mentions are becoming more and more important, with Google and Bing confirming those can be used as ranking signals.
Utilizing social media listening will allow you to monitor every mention of not just your brand, but even the type of service/product you provide.
Think about using a tool like Awario. Put in the keywords you want to monitor, which could be the types of content you publish, goods or services, and you'll get a dashboard with a long list of mentions.
That allows you to:
a. Engage with your clientele directly.
b. Build brand awareness by publicly providing customer care.
It's helping inform the people who are actually interested in your product about any campaigns or promotions you might have going on.
It's also just a great way to create rapport with your clients, joke around and turn from a faceless business into a personality.
Also you can look up where your main competitors are mentioned and start a campaign to get mentioned there as well.
This will work hand in hand with what I said before about the dangers of spamming.
Write short, clean emails, simply stating what you want and at all costs avoid the whole "I've been a fan of yours since grade school" schtick.
Only go for the websites that you can really offer some quality content to, where the keywords they are targeting are extremely similar to what you're working with.
By utilizing social listening tools together with some cautious and precise email outreach, you'll build brand awareness through direct communication.
In 2020, personality and brand are the name of the SEO game, and should not be thrown out of any digital marketer's agenda.
The rules around SEO keep changing with every update Google rolls out, every technique that becomes outdated because of its ubiquity.
Because the nature of SEO is to, essentially, become more popular, the second anybody figures out how to be #1, other people pick up on it, and in months, sometimes mere weeks, the technique is useless.
Local SEO is a great example. Having Google My Business used to make a local business stand out, acting as an addition to their website and social media.
In 2020, for a lot of businesses, having a GMB page means keeping up, not standing out. Without one, for a large amount of users, you basically don't exist.
We need to always keep our hand on the pulse, then, and adjust our work to the new challenges we're facing, to provide the best results possible for our clients.