Once the mantra that SEO professionals lived by, keyword optimization has turned into somewhat of a distasteful word today. The hundreds of backlinks that we begged, borrowed and bought are now taboo for fear of Google’s wrath. The Google authorship that every content professional worked so hard to cultivate lies in the dust by the wayside.
While it is tricky to predict today what may become untouchable in SEO tomorrow, there definitely are a few educated bets that one can make on what will still matter five years down the line. Given where we stand today on SEO, here’s my take on which site elements will be your best friends for the long haul from a rankings perspective.
1. Page Title
If your face is the first thing that another person notices about you, the page title of a web page is the first thing search spiders notice about a website. The page title is like the calling card of each page that tells search spiders as well as users what the page is all about. Of course, these page titles also get displayed prominently in search results.
The page title is one constant on-site ranking factor that hasn’t changed ever since optimizing for search engines became something that marketers actively did.
As we see in the example above, the browser is not very generous in terms of number of characters it displays to the user. Which means it makes sense to keep those titles short and to the point. Under 60 characters is a good bet to begin with.
A good page title describes what your page is all about and preferably does this using keywords that matter to that page. Unless you are an established brand already, putting your brand name at the end of the page title and putting your keywords closer to the Beginning ensures that users see the page description with the right keywords in the SERPs or the browser, leading to higher CTRs which in turn lead to better rankings in the long run.
2. Site Speed
Google is testing a bright red ‘slow’ label on its SERPs that warn users about the speed of each site listed in its search results, much like the ‘mobile friendly’ label it has already rolled out. This brings into action what Google has been encouraging website owners for a while now. In the words of Matt Cutts cited five years ago, “Speeding up your website is a great thing to do in general. Visitors to your site will be happier (and might convert more or use your site more), and a faster web will be better for all…”
Even if site speed was not ranking signal, it would make sense for any website owner to consider it as a key priority. Web users are notoriously impatient and a delay of even a single second can lead to drastic results for your conversions. According to a study by Radware, a six second page load time meant a 40% drop in conversions for an average website in 2010. Fast forward to 2015, and a six second load time will earn the site a further drop in conversions taking the exact loss to 50%.
So, in the interest of pampering those impatient customers as well as staying in Google’s good books, you need to:
- Test your site speed using Google’s own Page Speed Insights tool or a third party tool like GT Metrix or Pingdom.
- Identify roadblocks that slow down your site and actively work on removing them.
- Insist on developing light and quick loading pages for any new content that you host on your site.
- Pick a good web host with a reputation for high speed servers and site load times.
- Search your site for plugins that you don’t use anymore and remove them right away. Many older, unused plugins tend to clog up site load times.
3. Intuitive URLs
This one is another oldie that has stood by us.
Since search crawlers index websites in the form of URLs, optimizing a URL to be easily discovered by a search engine is a great way to rank high on search results. The idea here is to ensure that your page URL describes the contents of the page so that both search engines as well as users know what they are clicking on. By describing the contents of the page, a URL usually ends up with at least one of critical keywords for the page. However, working backwards, i.e. stuffing keywords into your URL is a strict no-no.
The early days of SEO saw a mad rush to buy exact match domains for your business. While the idea of having your keyword in your website URL is not a bad one, using just the keywords is like trying to fool search engines into giving your site importance it may or may not deserve. When simply too many black hat SEOs began misusing EMDs with thin or unrelated content, Google stepped in and began penalizing such practices, effectively putting an end to them.
That doesn’t mean you should not have your keywords in your URLs – you just have to be smarter about it, because after all keywords in URL are still an on-site ranking factor. A keyword tracking tool like RankTrackr allows you to group together similar keywords and build URLs that cater to each of these. This way not only does every URL on your site relate to a specific keyword or search intent, you also get to see which ones perform better from an SEO perspective and focus your efforts on the high performers.
A good URL:
- Is short. Under 100 characters works best.
- Describes the contents of the webpage. Avoid gibberish URLs that only contain your domain name followed by a combination of letters, numbers and special characters.
- Contains a keyword relevant to the page. In the case of local SEO, ensure you mention your city in the URL to rank better.
- Offer a clear breadcrumbs navigation structure that includes site categories making it easy for search spiders to dig out the right pages for the right search.
4. Content That Connects
There was a time when the biggest aspect of search engine optimization was keyword optimization (read ‘stuffing’) across the site. Today, the best part of an SEO practitioner’s day is spent in content marketing.
The seeds of content marketing were sown years ago, but they firmly took root with the back to back Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird updates from Google within a span of two years. These three updates tied together three important features – content quality, backlinks and semantic search – which today make up the backbone of content marketing.
With the focus on content marketing today, Google encourages brands to help users in their own domain. Instead of optimizing web pages by overstuffing them with keywords, overusing keywords as anchor text or building spammy backlinks to one’s website; Google expects marketers to create content that answers user queries that happen to be related to their areas of core competency. The focus has clearly shifted from keywords to user intent.
Google (and other search engines) no longer process users’ search queries based on specific keywords alone. Instead they understand the context behind the query and are capable of understanding natural language patterns.
This focus on semantics and contextual search results is now an expected UX search functions on websites. While a tool such as Swiftype allows content publishers or blog sites to quickly refine results by date, author, location and content types, ecommerce merchants can take advantage of an offering like Unbxd that for personalized site search with faceted search, autocompletes, and context-aware product suggestions.
Winning content across various websites tends to have some common characteristics. Content that consistently gets ranked high on search engines is:
- Relevant to users’ search intent
- Contains keywords that matter incorporated in a natural way
- Unique and extremely high quality
- Fresh and constantly updated
- Belongs to sites that enjoy high domain authority
5. Clear Internal Link Structure
Just as re-sorting the clothes in your wardrobe helps you dress faster before work, a clear site structure with a place for everything and everything in its place helps search engines retrieve specific pages quicker. The way your URLs are structured tells search bots about the way different categories relate to one another as well as their relative levels of importance.
Make sure your content links to inside pages of your site wherever relevant. Not only does this help in clarifying the point you’re attempting to convey through your content, it also provides some much needed visibility to webpages that are buried deep inside your internal site structure. Just the way backlinks from external sites at as votes in favor of your webpages, the presence of internal links across your site perform a similar function though at a relatively muted level.
Keeping your XML sitemap updated in real-time is a great way to show a search bot exactly what pages your site hosts and how they relate to each other. This helps search bots in indexing your web pages as well as retrieving the correct one when needed. The other benefit of a clear internal linking structure and XML sitemaps is that search engines get alerted about new content in time and this new content gets crawled and indexed correctly. In an age where Google can slap a Panda penalty on your site for duplicate content, an updated XML sitemap that reflects new content every time you publish it helps establish that you are the original creator of such content.
Some aspects to keep in mind when tweaking or improving your internal link structure include:
- Stick to an easily understandable category structure for your webpages. Make sure your page URLs reflect this category structure and information hierarchy clearly.
- Never forget to create an XML sitemap for your site for the benefit of search bots – both desktop and mobile.
- Update your sitemaps each time there is new content posted to your site so search bots can index the new content right away.
- Avoid creating too many internal links on a single page. Google and most other search engines only crawl through the first 150 to 200 links per page. Any links that appear beyond this figure typically falls into the dark zone from an SEO perspective.
- Create a coherent linking structure between all your webpages. Pages that can only be accessed through onsite searches will most likely not be indexed at all by search engines.
6. Optimize for Mobile
The predictions of web pundits finally came true last year as internet browsing via mobile devices officially overtook that via desktop computers. The explosive growth of smartphones has not only transformed web browsing but also e-commerce, app marketing, digital advertising and social media marketing to name a few affected disciplines.
This move from desktop to mobile prompted Google to launch their ‘mobile friendly’ tags on search results pages that called out websites that were optimized for mobile and ranked them higher than those that were not.
With future trends pointing to an ever growing dependence on mobile devices and wearable technology, this focus on mobile optimized sites is only going to get stronger. To qualify as a mobile optimized site, your site needs to
- Offer responsive design. While mobile only sites or adaptive sites are alternative ways to serve data on screens of different sizes, Google by its own admission prefers responsive design thanks to its versatility and SEO friendliness.
- Simple and intuitive layout that carries over from desktop to mobile in a robust manner.
- Uncluttered design with adequate white space. This will prevent users from clicking inadvertently on wrong sections on smaller screens and reduce the associated frustration.
- Use images that are responsive as well to be visible on the small screen.
- Be light and quick to load. Heavy sites that take forever to load incur high mobile data charges and can often deter users from entering them.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means. There are a host of other elements that hold promise as potential SEO superstars for the future, like optimized site images and schema markup. However without clear indications from Google about the importance it places on these secondary factors, your core focus for a long term SEO vision should ideally revolve around these evergreen site elements.