If you are thinking that SEO in 2018 will just be an updated version of SEO 20xx, think again. In the past couple of years, a process began that is bound to change the way we do SEO once and for all.
Ever since Google announced that RankBrain will be used in connection to all queries and is becoming the third most important ranking factor, SEO specialists have tried to figure out, how to please it. What they missed through, is that RankBrain isn’t the ultimate innovation or the end station. RankBrain, as we know it now, is just the beginning.
AI is becoming an increasingly important part of shaping the SERP and is bound to grow even further in importance. The reason is simple: Google and the other IT giants around the world are investing heavily in artificial intelligence, which is seen as the unavoidable development within the field.
Google has already announced that RankBrain is not powered by classic algorithms but by deep machine learning, a process allowing it to develop and modify its behavior depending on the environment and what it learns on the way. In practice, this means that we’re not talking about a static set of ranking factors anymore but situation-dependent or conditional ones that are expected to change, if and when gathered data suggests it is necessary.
Besides unleashing RankBrain, Google has already released the OK Google AI helper on Android devices and the new Intelligence feature in Google Analytics, answering various analytics-related questions. In the same time, Google Cloud machine learning services are already now offering to inject AI in businesses worldwide.
It is therefore only a question of time before AI takes completely over areas as mobile and desktop search, changing or abolishing SEO as we know it.
The “Classic” Ranking Factors in 2018
It would be crazy to state that SEO in 2018 won’t be based on the classic ranking factors. However, the way they are interpreted will increasingly change along with RankBrain gaining confidence and power. Here’s what you can expect:
- Backlinks: Quality backlinks are still irreplaceable as a way to boost the SEO score. However, it has never been the idea that webmasters should dedicatedly work on harvesting backlinks. Now less than ever. While backlinks will continue to count as a quality seal, in many cases they’ll lose their value. As RankBrain focuses on user intention, in certain situations it will be other factors, such as freshness of content, content type, user engagement, proximity, etc. that outperform backlinks.
- Bounce rate: Keeping the bounce rate low is essential in order to maintain and improve your SEO score. The reason why site users bounce may be low quality, misleading or imprecise titles and metas, poor design, slow page loading, etc. It is your job to test and figure out, what causes the high bounce rate and fix it – and you should do it quickly. If AI registers that your website can’t engage visitors in connection to queries, perceived as relevant to your content, chances are that it’ll stop serving them. While Google’s classic algorithms are more conservative in terms of downranking or completely banishing sites from the SERP, RankBrain won’t show mercy: if it, for example, is programmed to deliver the best possible user experience, it will do it – at any cost.
- Freshness: Content should be fresh, as nobody wants to read 10-year-old articles on whatever. They are deemed invalidated by time. You are therefore likely already now working hard on a blog or another freshness strategy for your site. In 2018, however, this might not be enough. Some queries will require content that has just been published, a sort of news service. Other queries might ignore the freshness factor (up to a point though) to the benefit of perceived user engagement or other factors. So, while it will still be important to keep content as fresh as possible, this won’t be a guarantee for ranking well.
- Security: Switching to HTTPS was introduced a few years back as a small ranking factor that might grow in importance. The reason is that Google is working towards securing the web, which is achieved by encrypting the connection to and from each individual website. According to Wired.com, already in the beginning of 2017 half of the published websites were using SSL encryption. This trend will continue and at the end we’ll see it turning into a negative ranking factor, that is, instead of websites getting a SEO boost for switching to HTTPS, sites with no encryption will be punished or removed from the SERP. It is not sure that this will happen already in 2018, as it depends on the level of SSL adoption worldwide, but it will for sure start affecting websites in a couple of years.
- AMP: Accelerated Mobile Pages were predicted to become the biggest SEO hit in 2017 (even though it was stated that it won’t affect SEO scores), however, this prediction did not exactly become reality. True that some 1 mill. domains have implemented AMP by now but that was not the point, right? There were supposed to be some special carrousels and other AMP-only features on mobile, making the use of AMP a must, if you want to gain more visibility and own more SERP real estate. It does, however, seem that they never appeared in many regions, including mine. In addition, only around 3 out of the first 10 pages in search (3 different test queries used) have at this point implemented AMP. So, for now, the only reason to consider implementing AMP is speed – but you should weigh the benefits of speed against the possibility that Google steals your mobile traffic. In connection to SEO 2018, you can safely set your AMP-strategy on hold and wait to see how things unfold. The argument to be the first mover is in any case not valid anymore.
- Quality content: Content is king. This is what we have heard for the last decade. However, we have also heard a lot of stories by webmasters of new-started websites, where quality content simply doesn’t make a difference in terms of SEO. The reason? Google is more conservative than many believe. It has for years now only served content that has been tried out or is provided by the big names in the industry. While this is a safe approach, it diminishes the chances for success of any young company or content provider – and deprives internet users from the right to get access to content by new authors. In 2018, SEO won’t change that much in terms of conservatism. In fact, it can be expected that RankBrain adopts the conservative approach and makes it even more difficult to break through, simply because experimenting is a human feature, not machine. Therefore, while you should still continue serving quality content, in 2018 you must focus even more on building your brand and establishing yourself as an authority within your field.
- Authority: While I wouldn’t characterize building a brand or establishing your authority as a pure SEO task, it is important that you start looking at it as one of the most important tasks on your to-do list. The reason is that, with the fluctuation of ranking factors, caused by the invasion of AI in search, it might turn out to be the only stable pillar to build your reach on. Get in touch with influencers, engage users on social media, take part in discussions on forums, collect as many genuine customer reviews as possible, connect with businesses and organizations from your branch, and make your presence online prominent by taking advantage of all business and web features and services, offered by Google and other providers (including Webmaster Tools, business listings, and advertising).
- Intuitive navigation: This is a no-brainer. If site visitors can’t find what they are looking for or can’t figure out where to go next, they’ll leave, resulting in high bounce rate and low engagement level. Navigation is therefore one of those website elements that simply must be thought through and carried out professionally. In 2018, the SEO-recipe for success is called intuitive navigation. Design several user paths, depending on the website’s structure and offerings, and guide website visitors by implementing clues, interactive elements, standard (expected) menu positioning, and a website structure, following the logic of a typical customer’s journey.
- Structured data: Structured data allows search engines to better read and classify your content, as well as construct rich snippets.
Rich snippets in search can increase the CTR of your links by providing internet users with information, important to them, such as reviews, images, additional info about the service/product, as well as the opening hours or location of your business. In addition, structured data is what makes links render as enticing preview of your posts on social media. While it is unrealistic to expect any major changes here, in 2018, the correct use of structured data will become even more important. The reason is that search engines become ever better at reading and analyzing every element on web pages and such elements become increasingly important, also in connection to features as Google Instant Answer. Therefore, it is a must for SEO specialists to make web pages search engine-friendly by implementing the language search engines understand best, structured data.
- Speed: You know the rule: a page must load for under 3 sec. Each additional second means that you’ll lose traffic. With RankBrain on the loose and the impending mobile index first update, it is expected that this behavioral trend will be translated into an even more important ranking factor. With user satisfaction in mind, RankBrain is unlikely to send users to slow pages that have shown to not live up to their expectations. The focus of SEO 2018 will therefore be not only on speed but also on users’ reaction to it in combination with other factors, specific to each individual website.
- Website age: While I’ve never encountered it black-on-white that website age is a ranking factor (as opposed to the period a domain is purchased for), experience shows that new domains generally don’t stand a chance against established ones. Unfortunately, there is no easy fix to this. You must simply persist and learn to generate traffic from social media and advertisements until your pages start appearing in organic search, also in 2018.
The redefinition of ranking factors that will be observed in 2018 and in the years to come, will come in the form of SEO segmentation and fluctuation. In will become relevant to speak about medical, educational, retail, news, etc. SEO instead of SEO as one-fits-all solution.
It will also increasingly become important to target not just specific consumer groups but also the different stages of the customer journey in order to appear as relevant as possible to the more individualized and demanding queries that especially voice search brings along.
Here’s the complete overview of the most important trends that will make SEO 2018 like nothing you’ve seen before:
- Voice search is at the moment used in 20% of all Android searches and there are reportedly over 140 mill. monthly Cortana (MS’s virtual assistant) users, making voice search increasingly important for SEOs in more than one respect: firstly, it means that content optimization should take voice search into account by implementing new keyword and content strategies, delivering the necessary customer-journey-relevance; secondly, it might mean that SEOs must accept that Bing is likely to grow in market share (as it powers Cortana, Siri, and Amazon’s Alexa), making it a must to comply with two sets of SEO criteria instead of one (Google’s).
- Local search has been important for a while now but the trends in user behavior and the growth of voice search mean that Google will try to deliver hyper-local results. Therefore, as long as your business has customer points, make sure that they are registered and optimized in Google MyBusiness and Bing Places for Business. Remember to also maintain an optimized contact page on your site and implement structured data.
- The mobile index first update will likely be the biggest change of all in 2018. It was supposed to be introduced already in 2017, however, it seems that Google’s evaluation of the current state of the web and prediction of what would happen if the update was rolled out today, keeps them from pressing the start button. This does not mean that you can relax. Instead, put the mobile index first as a task number one on your to-do list for SEO 2018, because it will come and it will hit you, if you’re not ready. Get ready by optimizing your mobile site and turning canonical links backwards to point towards the mobile site, instead of the desktop version. If this is an option for you, follow Google’s advice and move to responsive design.
- Keyword optimization has already changed a lot in the past few years, even though some webmasters still haven’t noticed. In 2018, redesigning content to fit the customer journey and satisfy the need for information on any possible angle of a topic, requested via natural language standard or voice search, will become a must. We have all heard about clustering keywords or writing long texts to rank high. This is, however, not what will be the essence of SEO 2018. It is time to accept that search engines are advanced enough to understand text, meaning that using specific keywords or matching the searcher’s query is of lesser importance now. Instead, keywords should be used as a natural part of naturally constructed text, which is meant to be comprehensive and answer all possible questions one could have regarding the topic. Stop thinking about keyword stuffing and start focusing on delivering high-quality text that is pleasant to read and useful.
- Intrusive ads and popups started triggering a punishment on mobile already in Jan, 2017. While you might have not paid so much attention to this until now, the fact that the mobile index first update is expected to be rolled out in 2018, means that you can’t stop ignoring the issue. If your mobile site doesn’t rank well, so would your desktop site, no matter which is your target group’s preferred device. Be aware that Google has strict rules, concerning what is allowed and what isn’t, when it comes to intrusive popups and ads. While many argue that it’s crazy to remove popups because of the high conversion rate they’re known for, you might want to be smart about it and consider a setup that either doesn’t cover the whole screen or triggers the popup in connection to an event, such as leaving a page, making it less intrusive.
- AI is, as discussed above, already a big part of forming the SERP. In 2018, you’ll be able to experience even more of it in the form of an ever more powerful and decisive RankBrain, as well as the increasingly popular virtual assistants. In practice, what is about to happen, is that virtual assistants will decide, how the query should be formulated, based on a user’s question or command, and RankBrain (or Bing) will return, what they deem to be relevant top-quality results. SEO specialists should therefore learn to work with perceived best user experience and perceived situational needs as a way to meet the requirements of AI agents.