SEO used to be an industry of guarantees. With a little bit of link building and keyword manipulation, websites could instantly capture strong rankings. But the sun has long set on that strategy. Now, in order to be an effective SEO professional, you must be an effective marketer. In the old days, when the system was very easy to game, it worked out well for everyone. Searchers had low expectations. And websites willing to put in the work raked in the profits. Now, users have high expectations. They want quick, high-quality results that match their precise need at the time of their query. This evolution has shifted the foundations of SEO and changed the way webmasters approach optimization. To reflect this shift in expectation and experience, could the new definition of SEO be “Search Experience Optimization?”
Yes, Search Engine Optimization Is Dead (Sort Of)
It’s time for search marketers to admit a hard truth. High rankings and increased traffic do not guarantee revenue. For a long time SEOs didn’t have to be marketers, they just needed to bust the algorithm. They didn’t have to measure audience engagement or the quality of visitors to the site. They only needed to print a ranking and traffic report each month to prove worth to clients.
Now, marketing managers understand that just because they rank number one for a particular keyword doesn’t mean sales are going to pour in. SEOs have had to adapt to this. And so, when someone says that SEO is dead, they aren’t entirely wrong. The SEO of old is certainly dead. The SEO of today is about communicating effectively and providing visitors with usable and sharable content. This is where search experience optimization comes into play.
Search engine optimization” was never designed for the living, breathing, thinking humans who do the querying. It was always designed for the search engines – the robots. The major flaw in the SEO industry has always been simple: search engines don’t read, research, shop, and purchase. People do.
The Search Experience Optimization Revolution
And just as marketing managers shifted their expectations, so too did searchers. Users became fed up with poor quality results. They wanted the top result for their query to give them exactly what they needed. And Google recognized the need to improve user experience in order to maintain their market share. Since 2010 we’ve seen Penguin and Panda and every iteration of those algorithm updates; we’ve been rattled by the loss of organic keyword referral data, and we’ve seen the birth of semantic search.
To help webmasters adapt, Google made sweeping changes to their webmaster guidelines. And what was the common thread across the guideline changes? Focus on creating usable and sharable content. Google wants to do away with poor content that goes nowhere and has been frustrating users for many years. Each new change to the algorithm and webmaster guidelines is an effort to create a better user experience.
In order to be recognized as a website that is worthy of ranking well, SEOs have to change their approach from obsessing over rankings to obsessing over quality user experience. And so, we must focus on search experience optimization.
What is Usable, Sharable Content?
So what does it mean to create usable content? For content to be usable it must be crawlable and easy to access. A usable site is cleanly coded, free from errors, mobile-friendly, and loads quickly. If your side is not coded cleanly, it can create a barrier for search spiders. If Google can’t easily crawl your site, they won’t rank it well.
Load time is a critical component of usability. Visitors, especially new visitors, aren’t going to wait around for your website to load if they aren’t familiar with you or your content quality. They’ll simply exit and move on to one of your competitors.
Sharable content is, quite simply, content that visitors are inspired to share with members of their social networking circles. Content developers must focus on creating such a pleasant user experience that the audience will feel compelled to pass it on. Through sharing, brands build credibility and influence.
Shareable content can’t be created in a vacuum. Search marketers must understand their target audience in order to make valuable connections. Without this understanding, and without an investment in content development, a website won’t provide a quality user experience.
If You Build It, Will They Come?
The biggest frustration of shifting from a search engine optimization mindset to a search experience optimization mindset is the slow cook of the process. Old-timey SEO was a snap. You could guarantee results in 30-90 days. But when you’re optimizing for experience, results take a little longer.
When you focus on your audience – connecting with prospects, guiding them through the buying process – you won’t become an overnight sensation. Just as building an offline relationship with a client takes time, building trust and authority online takes time, as well. As you build a content library, optimize your content promotion, and earn links, your traffic will increase. Not as quickly as the old days, but it will happen.
And if you’ve built a usable website with sharable content that focuses on your customer, that traffic you capture will come from qualified prospects.
Consider this: If your company produces red widgets in Pittsburgh and you ranked number one for “red widgets” in search just a few years ago, there was no guarantee that the people searching for red widgets wanted to buy them. There was no context to consider. But Google’s shift toward semantic search can put your site in front of users making long-tail queries; those who are nearby, looking for your precise products and services. You may not rank number one for red widgets anymore, but if someone searches, “where can I buy red widgets in Pittsburgh,” and Google knows that your business is in Pittsburgh and produces kick-ass red-widget related content, you’ll get in front of qualified searchers.
And when that searcher likes what they find on your site, they’ll tell their friends in need of red widgets in Pittsburgh. They’ll share your informative widget-related posts on their social media channels, amplifying your content.
But none of this can happen if you don’t commit to building a dynamic website. Search engine optimization was a “set it and forget it” process. Search experience optimization is about building relationships and becoming an active participant in the process.
Are you moving toward search experience optimization? Do you think that definition accurately captures the new SEO? Let us know in the comments.