Advanced SEO Strategies for 2018
Fundamental search engine optimization never changes. You only have three things to work with: content, links, and measurement. Content should come first. Links and measurement should come together. People who are impatient or who lack faith in the quality of their content will build links rather than wait for them. Literally, nothing has changed about basic SEO in more than 20 years. SEO practitioners differentiate their work on the basis of their strategies, methods, and resources. Over the past 2-3 years we have seen a gradual rift developing between three primary groups of search engine optimization “schools of thought”:
- Large Corporate SEO has shifted toward big data tools and predictive analysis
- Limited Budget SEO has shifted toward larger, more complicated content & third-party analysis
- Dark SEO has retooled automated content & linking, adopting more third-party services
Nearly everyone has had to adapt to the growth of the mobile market, but the short-sightedness of many startups has created a gap in desktop coverage. Even though Google is promising to index mobile-friendly pages first they cannot abandon the desktop Web. And it may be years before the “two Webs” are reunited again by better user interfaces. The need for a “mobile Web” and a “mobile Web index” is only created by the fact that smart phones have such terrible user interfaces. New technologies are beginning to appear which may finally help us move past this mobile-vs-desktop gridlock.
Expect More Interface Development & Experimentation in 2018
The new ideas won’t come from the usual corners. All the players who have staked out mobile traffic in 2016 and 2017 will begin digging in. They will try to protect their gains and “improve” upon the clunky interfaces upon which they have staked their tents. This means that for the most part whomever requires you to “swipe left/right” in 2017 will continue doing so in 2018.
Of course, a lot of people are excited about voice interfaces. I’m not so sure 2018 will be the year of the voice-activated system. There are some serious challenges that have yet to be addressed by these systems. For one thing, they are not very “mobile”. Yes, you can talk to your smart phone but what you cannot easily do is talk to your data.
The search engines may try to break through that barrier for us but SEO won’t be affected by “the mobile data experience” until search engines have to identify and call out MDE-compliant Websites and applications. The fact you can log into an account from either your smart phone or your desktop computer does not make your data mobile. It just means you have multiple interfaces. The “mobile data” to which I refer is all that user-generated stuff you create when you walk around with your smart fitness devices, your smart phones, as you drive your smart cars.
To properly utilize all this data the network will have to reconfigure itself. The nodes within the network (all your devices) will have to create a virtual node that disconnects from one part of the network and reconnects to another part of the network. When we have Web and mobile applications that can integrate with this kind of behavior we’ll need a new type of search index.
To get from HERE to THERE requires experimentation. Be on the lookout for new technologies that do strange things. The experimentation has already begun. We have been following some interesting developments in the weekly SEO Theory Premium Newsletter.
New interfaces must become more visual. Creating a visual interface experience on the desktop is easy. Creating a similar interface experience on smart phones is more complicated. The advent of 5G cellular networks, which will begin appearing in 2018, should lead to new experiments in interface design. Unfortunately it may be 2019 before the first 5G smart phones become available. But I think it’s only a matter of time before 5G technology shows up in other devices. We desperately need it in laptop computers, too. 5G will give you the ability to download an entire movie in a matter of seconds. Imagine what kind of interactive experience you can create over such a signal.
We don’t yet have the search lexicon to help us find these experimental apps and resources. That may begin to emerge in 2018.
There Will Be an SEO Content Explosion in 2018
There are a number of reasons why you will (not) see more content in 2018. Of course, all the usual content publishers will continue pursuing their strategies. But unbeknownst to most western marketers there are emerging third world Internets that are beginning to develop serious marketing niches. Africa and the Middle East will both become more engaged in international marketing. I’m not convinced we’ll see much of that in English because French is an important international language in both those regions. What may drive an increase in English language overlap between Middle Eastern and African Internet marketers and western marketers is a round of expansions or acquisitions by western conglomerates in the emerging market places.
The day of everyone investing in and limiting their discussion of third world marketing to Kiva is about to sunset. You may begin to see some interesting players emerge from these outside markets at industry conferences, on YouTube, and in other venues where people exchange marketing wisdom and experience. Americans were not very receptive to the emerging Indian market ten years ago. Maybe they will treat African and Middle Eastern marketers better. What the space still lacks is an economic bridge between aggressive American-style marketers and the hundreds of millions of customers who live in Africa and the Middle East. You can’t yet sign up for affiliate programs in those countries and be paid in dollars. The advertising networks, if they exist, are very small and limited.
Content will drive the early growth of the emerging markets. Native writers may be able to flourish for a few years until western marketers can find a way to invade their markets. Invasive SEO will begin sniffing around the edges of the third world markets when the third world marketers come looking for western resources to enhance their Websites and marketing.
Here in the United States we’ll see a new round of experimental marketing content. I am hoping that those awful “27 expert” roundups have run their course. Truly forward-looking marketers should abandon the format because it doesn’t create lasting value. I don’t even know how good the links are but I would not want any of them. Someone who participated in several of these Guru Clownups joked on Twitter at one point that he felt like he had joined the club of “Guys Who Said ‘Yes’”. Experts are nothing more than cheap fodder for content and links. I wouldn’t trust the advice of anyone who agrees to participate in any of those roundups in 2018.
So where will marketers turn next? We’ve seen guest posting fall through the floor, and yet it has resurged at least twice since Matt Cutts told everyone to stick a fork in it for link building. I think more people will try their hands at collaborative content. We have seen some collaborative case studies already on major SEO blogs. They have not been very good case studies but they represent an evolutionary step in the way content is created.
She or he who collaborates the most may become the next big superstar of Web marketing. Of course, it will be reasonable to question the quality of large-scale collaboration. People will argue that they see benefits from “economies of scale” as they systematize (or calendarize) their collaborative content production. You’ll need partnerships. Collaboration will confer greater visibility and credibility on whatever you publish.
That doesn’t mean it will be good content. As far as the Web marketing industry goes, most collaborations that I have read are 90% nonsense. I don’t expect that to change. But imagine what it will be like when the IBMs, Microsofts, and Googles develop content collaboration platforms for everyone. They are already doing it for internal teams. The next horizon on that path (it seems to me) extends to collaboration tools for multi-company teams.
And how does this affect search engine optimization? If two companies collaborate on a project, who owns the keywords? I don’t think we’ll see any lawsuits come out these partnerships but if you have to work with another company they will want some search traffic. How the keywords are divided may become an important issue among collaborators. One possible resolution is to jointly develop a single domain. But that doesn’t always work out for everyone.
And there will be more spammy content in 2018. Web spam continues to work. It will probably always work. We know that. But the spammers have developed a whole new generation of tools and services. They took them out for a strong run in 2017. The first new Turnkey Content Generation Services hit my radar in 2016. I watched them expand their outreach in 2017. I believe they will begin pitching themselves as mainstream products and services at some point in 2018.
That means you will hear about them at conferences. Web marketing podcasts and Webinars will mention these services. You’ll see case studies about them at local meetups. Some of you already know the services I am obliquely referring to. They have made great inroads with certain affiliate marketers.
These SEO False Claims Will Gain Strength in 2018
There will always be popular SEO bloggers who glibly spread complete nonsense as “expert” advice. Here are a few examples of wrong-headed SEO nonsense that I see going into 2018 with more momentum.
SEO False Claim #1: Google RankBrain Tracks User Interactions
It doesn’t matter how many times Google and anyone with a smidgen of mathematics training knocks down the false explanations about the RankBrain algorithm, some of the most popular SEO bloggers continue to misrepresent what the algorithm does.
Google RankBrain is NOT “closely measuring how users interact with your site”. That is complete bullshit. Google doesn’t have the capacity to measure how users interact with your site. Hence, RankBrain cannot use that data.
Another misrepresentation about Google’s RankBrain algorithm that “experts” continue to spread is that it is “the third most important factor”. Googlers have backed away from this statement. The SEO “expert” community needs to let it go (but they won’t).
The BACK button is not killing your SEO. Stupidity, ignorance, and gullibility are. People need to push back against these nonsense claims.
SEO False Claim #2: You Need to Speed Up Your Web Pages for Mobile
Too many people are talking about speeding up the server side of the equation. Not enough people are talking about the user side of the equation.
No matter how fast your server is, the average mobile user is connecting at 3G speeds over cellular networks. Even a 4G network can drop down to 3G due to congestion. Your mobile marketing strategies need to take this into consideration. Your content development strategies need to take this into consideration.
You can invest in a CDN or AMP strategy. Any business that is counting on being included in a search carousel absolutely needs to get into Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages service. But even AMP doesn’t solve connectivity issues.
Upgrading your server to HTTP/2 sounds like a great idea because it does allow your server to handle more concurrent users. But there are some issues with HTTP/2. To date the only real-world test for a production-quality HTTP/2 system of which I am aware found that mobile users had a slower experience over HTTP/2 than over HTTP/1.1. Your server-side and desktop speed tests don’t reveal this problem. You have to test with real mobile devices. And because this was an isolated test in China more evaluation is required.
We just don’t know what the real-world user experience with HTTP/2 is like. We do know there are a lot of smug, happy server-side marketers who have upgraded to HTTP/2 who say absolutely nothing about what user-side testing reveals. Maybe they did test everything in the field and they are not sharing. That’s a reasonable guess but it still leaves you in the dark about what the impact on the user experience is.
Prefetching pages to “speed up the site” remains another bad factor in the user browsing experience. Forcing mobile phones to download extra pages, images, videos, and ads the user may not ever look at (especially over a 3G connection) is not only STUPID it’s incredibly rude and inconsiderate. Most mobile users have less than 20G of bandwidth per month. Many have less than 10G. In the United States Comcast users now have 1000G of bandwidth per month for their cable-supported Internet access. Do you see the problem here?
The truth is that you need to speed up the user experience. A byproduct of improving the user experience is that your server will perform better overall for everyone. And how do you speed up the user experience? Transmit fewer bytes to the user.
SEO False Claim #3: Link Building for SEO Is Dead
Just because Google just came out and said that “blog bribes lead to SEO penalties” doesn’t mean the Web marketing world is going to stop innovating ways to build links. Private blog networks not only still exist they have been commoditized. I know of several ways to buy PBNs at relatively low prices. Almost anyone could afford a PBN today. Does that sound like PBNs are dead?
Aggressive link acquisition still works because Google’s algorithms still use links. Until Google finds a way to live without passing link anchor text and PageRank-like value through its index and ranking algorithms, spammers are gonna spam. It’s a numbers game, nothing more.
But that puts more pressure on the “white hat” link acquisition community to compete. We still lack adequate link assessment resources. The most reliable link reporting tools you have are Bing Toolbox and Google Search Console. Everything else is less reliable than either Bing or Google. That is because SEO crawlers:
- See fewer links than either Bing or Google
- Don’t know which links Bing and Google count
- Substitute their own metrics for Bing and Google’s internal metrics
If you want to put yourself at a competitive disadvantage in advanced SEO for 2018, just ignore Bing and Google and rely on third-part link research tools. You cannot screw yourself over more than that.
The people who believe you cannot compete without links will continue to invest in links, linking strategies, and link building tools. They only need to stay ahead of the spam filters and penalties long enough to make a profit over their monthly expenses.
And this means that content production will remain chaotic. A lot of content produced in 2018 will be created for the purpose of building links. Some of it will be very good content. Link spam has improved in some ways over the years. Everyone knows now that low quality content doesn’t help as much as high quality content. And if people are still willing to pay thousands of dollars for a link then people will still be willing to create high quality content so they can sell those links.
Is it time to discuss linkless content as a preferred SEO strategy? Companies have turned to linkless content in the past. They may tighten their requirements again and make linkless content a standard for “content marketing”. Googler Gary Illyes says he doesn’t like this approach while acknowledging that it’s a business decision. And yet, I can sympathize with the business decision-makers who want to benefit from content marketing without having to worry about whether their own outbound links can be trusted by the search engines.
What Should Link Building Look Like in 2018?
We’ll see more of the same, more experimentation, and maybe a few new things. That’s an easy guess to make. Isn’t that how it goes every year?
I believe that the much discussed Penguin 4.0 algorithm has partially failed of its promise. That also means I believe it has partially succeeded. Of course, Google never promised it would wipe out link spam and many of us expected only partial success. It could be that being one of the initial Nay-sayers biased my judgment over the past year.
One of the reasons why I think Penguin has partially failed is that Web marketers have been disavowing good links. Google’s own admonitions to Web marketers to stop disavowing links unless they receive a manual action was a wake-up call. Honestly, I did NOT see that coming. I infer from Google’s concern over the disavowals that the volume of GOOD links being blocked far exceeded what my gut instinct was telling me.
Disavowing millions, possibly hundreds of millions of good links could wreak havoc on Google’s index. The last time I discussed the possibility of a user-driven disavow process with Matt Cutts in 2012 (and he had heard numerous requests for it from all across the industry by that point), he was still in doubt about how useful and effective it would be. Maybe the disavow tool does accomplish some good. Anyone who has to fix a manual penalty should be glad to have the disavow tool to work with. Everyone else should just leave it alone.
But the link spammers joyfully went back to work once Penguin 4.0 was running more-or-less on autopilot. To take advantage of this algorithm all you have to do is create a buffer zone between your sites and their linking resources. It’s all spam but the buffer sites can look very different from the normal link spam. And how people fight or try to take advantage of Penguin will vary by their personality, resourcefulness, and resources.
So where does that leave the “white hat” marketers?
Don’t Be Afraid to Interlink Your Properties
There are two reasons why marketers should stop agonizing over whether it’s “safe” or “a good idea” to interlink their branded Websites.
First, most people who ask about this usually have 2-3 Websites. The search engines don’t care about that. They’re looking for people who interlink 40-100 Websites in complicated schemes or through huge blocks of links in their page footers.
Second, the Penguin 4.0 algorithm may decide your footer links should be ignored. And if Penguin decides to filter your links that is all that happens. Sure, no one wants their links filtered, but you are allowed to interlink your Websites. It’s not a violation of search engine guidelines to create brand links for your visitors.
Use Guest Posting to Create a Great User Experience
There is where “content marketing” becomes more nuanced. When you stop relying on those guest posts for search-influencing links you have to rely on them for other benefits.
- Can you create brand awareness?
- Can you generate non-search referral traffic?
- Can you inspire search queries that favor your site?
- Can you introduce your products and services to new audiences?
The more “yes” answers you give, the more opportunities that guest posting offers you. Marketers should never have used guest posting to build links. The real value in publishing content on other people’s sites is that it extends your reach to other audiences.
You don’t need to build search-influencing links. You need to build links that will bring people to your site. Let your site earn the links it needs to help in the search algorithms. That takes longer but the links generally last longer.
What Should Measurement Look Like in 2018?
Sadly, I don’t expect much change in this area. It needs to change. The Web marketing community needs to give up on these ridiculous case studies that use Search Visibility Data (SVD). SVD is the bane of good marketing analysis.
When you talk about “rankings” based on “keyword reports” produced by SEO tools that are scraping Google’s search results, you overlook three very important facts:
- the search results are different for everyone
- the algorithms and/or index change during SEO crawls
- you don’t know where the searchers are clicking
There is nothing useful or meaningful or helpful in these massive keyword analyses that people use for ranking studies. We have barely gotten some marketers to stop throwing Domain Authority and Trustflow around in their case studies. Now it’s all about imaginary rankings.
Worse, they are multiplying those estimated rankings by click rate estimates to guess wildly (and badly) at how much traffic competitor sites are receiving from the search engines. These estimates don’t even come close to reality.
Measure Search Referral Traffic, Not Guesses
If you have access to traffic data then use that. If you don’t have access to traffic data then find a way to legitimately capture that data.
Even guessing how much traffic one site receives by looking at the traffic data for a similar (competitive) site is very iffy. There are so many reasons why the two sites may not perform the same way.
Learn to live with the lack of data. Don’t make up numbers because it looks cool to have spreadsheets full of data.
Measure Keyword Potential, Not Rankings
Although it may seem like I am saying you should abandon SRD, it does provide you with lists of keywords to experiment with. If you ignore the “rankings” and don’t try to estimate the clicks you’ll get, you can develop editorial calendars that are practical, achievable, and fit with your editorial needs.
Arbitrarily telling a team of writers to produce 5000 articles because your keyword research shows your competitors are ranking for those keywords will create a lot of busy work.
Now, it’s true that my friend Kent Yunk has written some keyword research articles for SEO Theory. There’s a fine line between creating busy work and mapping a keyword strategy where you attempt to saturate a topic. I hope that fine line has more to do with the expectations you set and less to do with who my friends are.
In other words, if you target 10,000 keywords for content (regardless of how you chose them), do you expect all that content to perform the same way or are you willing to live with a lot of low-performing content? If you only want high performing content you need to be more selective about which keywords you target.
Keyword potential includes more than what you hope will be the return on investment. It also includes the investment. How much will it cost you to chase the keyword? Is there a more cost-effective choice you can make? You cannot measure this cost by looking at competitor backlinks. You don’t know how many they have or which links help with their search performance. You measure cost by knowable factors including all associated production costs.
Can We Measure Visibility? Is Reach Acceptable?
You’ll still find some companies measuring and boasting about reach today, 20 years after a lot of companies gave up on it. What is reach that it should matter to anyone at all? It’s the largest possible potential audience that might see your content. Most Websites cannot even begin to measure reach.
On the other hand, visibility is really a measurement of who has seen your content. If you publish an article on someone else’s site you may not ever learn what the article’s visibility was. Maybe you can embed your own analytics bug in the text. We used to do that but it was a tedious inconvenience. You can also ask for analytics updates. Some people will do that for you. In most cases where we have come in behind client promotion campaigns there was no visibility data for their content-based promotions.
In 2018 the SEO community should make a better effort to measure true visibility, both inside search and across the Web. Your search visibility falls into three categories:
- Search impressions for your content
- Search referrals to your content on other sites
- Search referrals to content that mentions you or your content
This area is ripe for refinement and development of new tools. But I don’t know if it will be worth anyone’s time to do that.
Final Thoughts on Advanced SEO Strategies for 2018
We are poised on the brink of a new period of exploration of ideas and exploitation of gimmicks. In 1-2 years the 5G Web will begin to take shape and there is no way to predict how search engines will handle that. They have to wait for the content to appear, and for searchers to decide what 5G content they want to find.
Content producers may also have to wait for a new generation of tools. Maybe we’ll see more animated content on the Web. Maybe new methods of interaction will appear. How will interactive content be properly indexed by search engines? What meta data will the SEO practitioner have to master? How will everyone produce this content? And when will the data itself become mobile, moving with us through the world in a parallel virtual universe?
Finally, where will we begin the transition from the old Web to the new Web? The way we do things now won’t be sufficient for the new technologies we’re about to start using. I think the text-based Web will continue to grow, but our Websites and apps will grow more autonomous. Maybe in 2019 or 2020 we’ll be predicting the birth of Autonmous SEO. A primitive form of its exists today but we’ll eventually need to re-engineer the content so that it attunes itself to new contexts. We won’t be able to do that manually in a competitive time frame.
2018 should be a great year for experimentation. Even though we’re still using yesterday’s Web production tools it’s time to lay the foundations for a more comprehensive search marketing experience. Your content needs to work with all media: desktop, mobile, and voice. Your resources must be found in all appropriate search tools.
We need to develop more flexible search engine optimization methods. Call them responsive or cross-environment or something else, but our SEO tools and methods have to move away from the guesswork and toward working with real data. Otherwise we’ll have to climb much higher mountains to adapt to the next generation of Internet presentation and indexing tools.
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