Marketing strategies involving organic search, or SEO, have never been more complex. Brands are confused about where to deploy resources and investment, the industry is well into its evolution to enterprise marketing and data visibility is poor.
With paid media options that provide more easily trackable ROI, such as paid search, display and paid social, it's understandable why some SEO budgets are slowing. However, there are opportunities to market to your audience with SEO strategies that are not available through paid media channels.
Although increased monetization of search results pages has put a squeeze on organic real estate, organic’s share of traffic is still notably higher than other channels. Merkle's “Digital Marketing Report” data shows organic’s share at 30 percent, and other industry analyses show organic responsible for 30 to 50 percent of traffic online, depending on sector.
Still, we need a clearer view of the landscape and opportunities, while acknowledging key challenges. From this insight, smart marketers can invest in the right areas and prioritize those initiatives that will point their dollars toward performance and away from waste.
SEO Remains a Significant Opportunity for Brands
Despite shifts and challenges in the industry, SEO remains a significant and growing opportunity for marketers to support the customer journey, provide enhancements to mobile discovery and improve overall digital visibility.
SEO Supports the Entire Customer Journey
Search is core to online behavior. SEO addresses a wide swath of the everyday online activity that exists at every stage of the funnel, and especially at the broad top. Paid search, an important component of performance marketing, tends to be more transactional in nature. Organic search is best integrated into an overall strategy with other channels, such as paid search, and tends to be more exploratory. It represents a unique opportunity for brands to be visible to their customers when they're exploring, rather than only when they're transacting.
SEO Represents a Major Opportunity for Mobile
Mobile has overcome desktop as the largest driver of Google's traffic, and the SEO opportunities on mobile devices still represent first-mover advantage to innovative search marketers.
With responsive design and Google’s indexing of mobile apps and deep links, the differences between mobile and desktop experiences are blurring. Single-page applications and progressive Web applications make that connection even closer. Because of its standing between marketing and development, SEO is often a key stakeholder, managing app indexing, deep linking and other cutting-edge mobile opportunities.
SEO Presents Opportunities Not Available to Other Channels
Google's pace of innovation causes a continual release of products available to marketers in search and elsewhere. Some of these are monetized over time, but often are launched without paid inventory. Of these, we're most excited about Instant Answers, rich snippets, the Knowledge Graph, Accelerated Mobile Pages, Firebase app indexing, Google News, and local search.
Unique SEO Opportunities in 2017
Let's start with the king, the Knowledge Graph. This is the advancement Google has made to move toward entity search: the idea that people, places and things can be known, partly through indexing the Web and ingesting public and private data sources, and partly through machine learning.
For search marketers, it means there's often a prominent Knowledge Graph result with valuable real estate that a brand can directly or indirectly influence. More importantly, it means content efforts aren't rewarded by sticking keywords on a page a dozen times and stuffing it down a robot's digital throat.
Synonyms, nuance and topical understanding now trump keywords for robots.
We can finally write with users in mind, not search engines, and have it perform well in organic search.
The Knowledge Graph is partly fed through structured data. Schema.org, the open source standard, presents myriad opportunities for Web content to be marked up. This markup can then be used to create richer marketing messaging in the form of rich snippets and can be leveraged for local citations and many other applications.
Structured data can also aid, but doesn't directly influence, a page's chances of being awarded an Instant Answer. These large results dominate above-the-fold real estate and result in dramatic increases in CTR and traffic acquisition.
Let's explore something that hits close to home for anyone who's ever struggled through a long flight with sluggish Wi-Fi speed. There's no more primal way to delight your audience than with a snappy, hyper-fast Web page. And one of the easiest methods available to do that in search results is through Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP.
While this approach has some caveats – the pages are hosted by Google and cached locally on its servers – the result is near-instantaneous loading. The product is available for news, blog posts, and other assets, and clever search marketers are already figuring out ways to use it more broadly.
Google News isn't new of course, but it remains a considerable traffic producer for publishers and content sites, and coupled with AMP, it can be a potent search visibility play. There hasn't been any meaningful monetization of News yet by Google.
Local search results are ubiquitous and will only become more prevalent. Google reports nearly one-third of all searches on mobile are related to location. Regardless of platform, on both mobile and desktop, local inventory is rising and often dominates above-the-fold real estate. It's critical that brands with physical locations put resources into ensuring that their information is accurate and relevant.
Where to Invest in 2017?
While helpful to understand the market dynamics and the SEO opportunities available to search marketers, the key question is still: What do you prioritize and where do you invest?
In my view, there are three critical areas where brands should be looking to put investment in the coming year:
The analogy of building a house is relevant: Without first building a strong foundation, it doesn't matter what kind of house you build on top. Think of your technical infrastructure as the foundation of your website properties.
Technical strength is a must, but don't settle for basic methods. Ask your team and your agency these questions first: Are we inspecting the DOM and fully rendered page for signal consistency? Are we doing all we can with mobile app indexing and deep links? How is our mobile site performing? Or, if you've gone responsive, ask your team if they're looking into progressive Web apps.
Content Throughout the Customer Journey
As SEO evolves within the enterprise, so does its relationship to content strategy. Rather than leading content planning, SEO should instead inform it.
Leverage search data and align it with audience demographics to understand gaps in content inventory and their impact on task completion and conversion, and test content initiatives to find out what's working.
Most importantly, don't write with search engines in mind with a desire to rank for general terms. Write with your users in mind, and be targeted, relevant and focused on the user experience. Content strategy is not about keywords and their search volume. It's about multiple stakeholders aligned on the common goal of performance, with the content strategist, information architect, SEO and user experience designer (for example) all working toward that end.
Brands investing in SEO today should think of overall discoverability. Rather than a static "10 blue links" of yesterday, marketers are dealing with personalization, platforms, location, devices and voice search all representing unique opportunities to be visible.
SEO is more complex than ever. Marketers have a long list of tactics available to them, and it’s easy to get caught up with projects that won’t contribute to the bottom line. There are more opportunities than ever, and brands that develop an SEO strategy that invests in areas where the greatest business impact can be achieved will reap the benefits.
Focus on mobile, customer experience journeys and your technical foundation to move to the next level of SEO strategy. It's still early out there, and first-mover advantage remains a competitive reality. Either you'll be in front, or your competition will be, and SEO is a zero-sum game. Get out in front.