Just a few years ago, search-engine optimization was widely considered a specialized knowledge of how to manipulate Google’s search rankings with clever, secret tactics. While that was an accurate assessment then, the SEO industry has matured. It is now a dynamic, multifaceted online-marketing discipline that transcends clever trickery, and has become an essential requirement of expertise for every online marketer.

Google has facilitated and accelerated this shift by changing the game in ways that help users find information faster and in a manner that emphasizes the giant’s own products. So how is SEO evolving, and what is Google’s goal? What can online-marketing professionals learn about the future best practices of the SEO industry by studying Google’s present pattern of changes? Read on.

1. SEO is now more about building a brand than manipulation or trickery.

Changes over the past two years already have shifted our perception of search-engine optimization. We’re no longer talking about just links, keywords and PageRank. Instead, we’re discussing branding and content strategy. But building a brand and publishing high-quality content are not new concepts, they’ve always been key parts of inbound marketing. So why the sudden shift in buzz within the SEO industry?

Google’s launch of its Penguin and Panda algorithm updates sent a clear message to webmasters and marketing professionals: Google will not tolerate manipulative tactics or low-quality content in its search results. The result? A strategic, quality content strategy became the only option to achieve visibility in search results.

A content strategy is only effective, however, when executed by a strong brand, otherwise, that content achieves little reach, viewership or audience. Simultaneously, an effective content strategy is the road to building a brand. As a result, the focus is now on content and branding rather than manipulation and trickery.

2. Google is no longer just a search engine.

Yes, Google started as a search engine and it continues to serve that function. But Google has also become the leader in consumer-facing, data-oriented projects. Knowledge Graph, which attempts to figure out what searchers want, quickly supply the information and anticipate the next questions, is one example.

Many searches are location-based. “Vegan restaurants in Brooklyn”, “Spas in Brisbane”, “Where do I get designer shoes in Milan?” All these queries return search results that are peppered with extra information, from reviews to price ranges to maps. Throw in paid ads, which dominate the top spots in the rankings, and the top-ranking organic search result now appears a few hundred pixels down the page. That number-one ranking has lost a significant amount of value and visibility.

3. Links are key, but for a different reason.

Currently, it’s widely thought that the quantity and quality of inbound links to your domain and individual pages on your site are the primary factors in the ranking algorithm. Because of the resulting market for link buying and selling (which Google hates), Google might be tweaking its algorithms to give lower algorithmic weight to inbound links. However, even if links become irrelevant for SEO purposes, that doesn’t mean they won’t still be vital for your online-marketing campaign.

Before anyone knew what SEO was, they tried to get other websites to link to theirs for a different reason: referral traffic. How does John Doe discover your website if not via Google? Maybe he sees it mentioned on a blog. Maybe he found you on Twitter or Facebook. Or maybe he saw a sign you put up in the offline world. In every case, he arrived at your website through a “link.”

Ask yourself: If Google were not in the picture, would marketers still need to build links? If you’re in it for the long term, the answer is yes.

4. The future is “Now.”

Google Now is more than a mobile voice search challenging Apple’s Siri. It’s an entirely different mindset that pulls answers from geolocation, search history and preferences, as well as recent activity on Google products and other places.

It can search your calendar for birthday reminders. It can find your travel itinerary in your Gmail and spit out a weather report for where you’re headed. The emphasis is on serving answers, not webpage results. The challenge is making yourself relevant enough in people’s lives so that you show up in search results.

Because most of this takes place on mobile devices, SEO also means optimizing websites to be mobile-friendly.

5. Approach online marketing with a “product” perspective.

If you have a bad product, you can sell a few units through excellent marketing. But this strategy not only won’t last long — it’ll kill your brand as the word spreads. This is why you should treat every aspect of your inbound marketing campaign as a product.

Consider content as your chief product. Content can be a blog post, an ebook, a video, an email newsletter, an infographic or just about anything that’s going to be consumed by an audience.

As marketers and advertisers, we tend to value campaigns (the process) over the product. But the opposite philosophy is your ticket to long-lasting success. Apple has created great marketing campaigns, but their focus is always on creating the best products.

Conclusion.

The irony is that many folks who try hard to get that number-one ranking in the search results often fail, while brands and marketers who patiently and systematically follow these steps not only reach their goals, but stay there over the long haul.

Google has carefully crafted its strategy to encourage strong, quality content publication so its users don’t have to see the spammy content that used to litter its search results. Google’s future moves will be to further encourage this trend of quality and branding instead of manipulation and trickery.

 

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