A few months ago, moz.com released the results of their annual SEO study describing the observed correlation of specific variables to high-traffic search engine results pages (SERPs). It showed high (relative) correlation between social signals from Google Plus and Facebook to the higher-ranking results on these SERPs.
An ancillary aspect of that study was to survey a pool of professional SEOs to understand how they interpret the contribution of different variables for search. The results of that survey, or more specifically the differences between the correlation study and the SEO study offer some important insight about where to put your SEO resources for 2014.
Add to the mix that Google just implemented its most significant algorithm change since 2001 (Hummingbird), and it seems that 2014 may be challenging for businesses to make heads or tails of the changes. But it’s probably not as complicated as you might expect.
Let’s take a look at SEO best practices for social media, content and link building for 2014.
Why SEO is important
When we discuss search engine optimization and different tactics to rank high for relevant terms, you might question why search is important.
The “why” may be different for any particular business. It may be that a business wants to generate awareness with locally relevant content, or bring in customers with business-specific content, or any one of many completely reasonable aims. In the big picture, search offers a way for businesses to reach consumers with very specific needs and intention. This is why Microsoft created Bing and why Facebook created Graph Search, and why businesses should be paying attention.
In Nate Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t, he explores how, from the time that Garry Kasparov lost to “Deep Blue” in 1997, computers have dominated chess games with their human counterparts (and will continue to do so ad infinitum).
We may want Google or Bing to be our “Deep Blue,” to distill from our intention, semantics and context the perfect solution for our search, but the rules and patterns of our intention, semantics and context aren’t as limited as the moves available on a chess board. When you think about the infinite possibilities for search intent, it should become clear why SEO is important: because Google needs to establish conventions to make sense of all of the available data. People who are pay attention to these conventions and act on them have a higher likelihood of being seen.
Social SEO: Facebook and Google Plus
Correlation is not causation. It’s a mantra that is instilled in the brain of every first-term Statistics student. Here’s why it’s important in the context of Facebook and Google Plus: the moz.com study found that the Facebook and Google Plus social signals showed some of the highest correlation to SERPs. Ice cream consumption correlates positively with outdoor swimming, too – but just as ice cream consumption doesn’t cause outdoor swimming (temperature may be a lurking variable), Facebook and Google Plus likely aren’t causing high-ranking on a SERP. In the case of Facebook specifically – it can’t. Google can only crawl Facebook’s public pages.
The SEOs in moz.com’s survey seem equally bearish about the likelihood of a causal relationship between social signals and search. But there is value to both. Let’s consider each separately:
It is highly unlikely that you will be contributing to search by focusing on Facebook sharing for the reason mentioned above. The correlation is probably caused by lurking variables related to content. However, Facebook is worth mentioning because they have their own search: Graph Search.
From the outset, Mark Zuckerberg described Graph Search as a semantic search tool to find businesses (I believe the example he used was finding a sushi restaurant in New York that his friends Like). It follows that businesses most likely to benefit from this type of search would be brick-and-mortar stores that could be discovered by users with buying intent.
Mechanically, it would follow that the aggregation of Likes, Check-ins and reviews would increase the number of intentioned users who would see the business in Graph Search. There are plenty of big “ifs” in that scenario, most importantly whether Facebook users will use Graph Search with buying intent, and whether Facebook can entice enough social signals from its users to make the search results valuable.
For specific recommendations about optimizing for Graph Search, you should consider Jim Yu’s piece on Search Engine Land (note that the insights specific to EdgeRank are no longer correct).
Google Plus is important to SEO, but for a somewhat counterintuitive reason. A funny thing about the moz.com survey: year-over-year Google Plus correlation (quantity of +1s and shares) increased at the same time that Google Plus had a pretty large growth spurt. Because content with bigger distribution is more likely to be linked to and shared, it makes sense that Google Plus would increase its correlation relative to Facebook.
In other words, Google Plus social signals are probably not causing a lot of movement on the SERP. This makes some sense when you consider that Facebook’s Graph Search has pretty sparse aggregate social signals, and compared to Facebook’s population, Google Plus is sleight.
So if G+ isn’t directly impacting search with its social signals, why is it important for SEO in 2014? Because shared articles on G+ have their own canonical URL that (likely) passes on link authority to the referred article (you can read more about that here). That’s a big deal….. but more about that later.
Content in 2014
The number one content concern for 2014 is probably semantic search.
The intention of Google’s Hummingbird update is to try to more accurately generalize specific content to semantic search, which could diminish the viability of long-tail keywords somewhat. For example, say I get a very specific craving for “Steak Lettuce Wraps with Horseradish Cream” and Google it. You’d think that something so specific would return something equally specific, yet it isn’t until the fourth entry that “Steak Lettuce Wraps with Horseradish Cream” returns (incidentally it’s a pretty great recipe). The top entries are generalized from sites with a high number of sites linking into their content, and not specific for the keyword itself.
From Google’s perspective, they are trying to give users the most relevant data. They assert that users are searching with more semantic queries that Hummingbird is better able to sort out, which may be true or they may be reacting to the semantic promise of Graph Search. In any event, the long tail may not be as fruitful for marketers as it has been in the past. So what to do?
For content, Google’s recommendation is to focus on quality over quantity. More precisely, to write content that is especially helpful for its intended audience (which can probably be extrapolated from the targeted keywords).
About a year ago, a study came out showing that the first ten entries of the SERP for a selected set of keywords averaged about 2000 words. Many people argue this point (and describing the mean in a sample set like this is probably somewhat misleading), but it does make sense that the more relevant, useful information you are able to share, the more likely it will be helpful to readers. Despite my overtures to the contrary, most experts suggest going about keyword research the same way businesses have traditionally done it. This makes some sense if you are generating qualitatively better content for the same targets.
It’s also important to think beyond just words. Infographics, pictures and charts are very effective ways to drive traffic (and build links). And although social traffic probably doesn’t cause a high position in search, it does correlate.
Link building in 2014
The most anti-climatic SEO trend for 2014 is link-building. Because Google isn’t analogous to Deep Blue, it needs some context about the utility of your content. The moz.com study and survey concluded the same thing about links: they matter a lot.
Whether you create an infographic and send out a press release about it through the Vocus Marketing Suite, or whether you do something advanced like broken link building (finding broken links on good ranking sites and contributing content to fill the void), link building is an exceptionally important part of your SEO. By inference, the most important thing you can do on social media is get active on Google Plus.
In 2014, SEO-minded businesses need to get active on Google Plus (sorry about that), they need to create long-form, uber-relevant content, and they need to continue to focus on quality link-building. This sounds daunting, but all of these goals work well together. Useful content can garner interest on Google+ and generate links, it’s just a matter of devoting your resources where they can do you the most good.
What are the biggest SEO challenges and opportunities that you foresee for 2014?
Image: Silly Eagle Books (Creative Commons)