The world of search engine optimization (SEO) rarely stays still for long. Between new Google updates, new strategies, layout changes, new technologies, and new reports and studies from major influencers, the SEO community stays abuzz for most of the year.
Every year, then, I like to take the time to reflect on all these changes and discussions, and pinpoint the overarching trends that led to their development. Last year, I looked at things like the rise of video content and featured snippets—so what were some of the biggest trends of 2017?
1. For the first time ever, mobile optimization overtook desktop in importance. Last year, in November, Google announced that it was preparing to roll out its "mobile-first indexing" strategy, which prioritized mobile content over desktop for the first time ever, noting "Today, most people are searching on Google using a mobile device." Throughout 2017, Google has continued to promote and reward sites with mobile-optimized websites, along with mobile-centric features such as accelerated mobile pages (AMPs), pages that are specially designed and structured to load instantly on mobile devices. If you spent extra time and effort on appealing to a mobile audience, you've likely been rewarded this year with higher traffic and organic search rankings.
2. Voice search and the Internet of Things (IoT) continued to move forward. Do you own a smart speaker? If not, you could soon be in the minority. Amazon Echo unit sales alone have reached more than 15 million as of September this year, and competitors like Google Home are starting to flood the marketplace as well. The dawn of the smart speaker revolution, along with digital assistants like Siri, Google Now, and Cortana, is fundamentally changing the way people search; they're using more voice commands than ever before, and they're getting used to devices that can reasonably understand and execute directions their speech patterns. IoT has been slow to take off, despite bold, optimistic predictions forecasting an explosion, but smart speakers are the first anchor point to prove the technology's legitimacy.
3. There were minimal impactful algorithm changes. Usually, we see a handful of major and minor updates to Google's algorithm, even if no algorithm updates are formally announced. This year was a strange outlier in that pattern. There was a major unnamed update back in February, marked by a significant period of ranking volatility, and in March, there was an unconfirmed update called "Fred," which shook up rankings even further. But neither of these updates mandated major strategic changes, nor were they frequently discussed. For now, Google's keeping its algorithm mostly as it has been, and its updates are increasingly small, minimally invasive, and gradually unfolding.
4. We saw a surge in "related questions" in search results. Google has been making concentrated efforts to provide more quick answers to common search queries, in part because consumer demand has warranted more quickly decipherable text; users are searching on the go, and relying on voice-based devices to handle their queries. Accordingly, there's been a surge of "people also ask" questions, an accordion-style menu of related questions that appears after asking… well, almost anything. The selection of and answers to these related questions are likely the product of machine learning algorithms, fed by Google's ever-increasing hunger to aggregate and distribute all the world's knowledge.
5. Keyword research began to evolve to focus on subjectivity of content. This year also saw a surge in focus on contextual clues in content marketing. Rather than focusing on specific keyword combinations, content creators have focused more on ensuring the context of their content, along with their audience targeting, is on point. Google's content quality algorithms are sufficient advanced to "understand" the intent behind your content, rather than the basic text it contains, so it's no longer enough to produce content that objectively fits certain standards. This has led to the development of new keyword strategies, which hybridize keyword research with topical research, and a more relaxed, conversational approach to writing. Incidentally, the conversational approach to writing is more beneficial in a world dominated by voice search, so practitioners of this strategy have benefitted enormously.
6. The fake news outbreak led to massive content quality overhauls. The wake of the 2016 Presidential election left many people wondering about the trustworthiness of the news articles they see and read. In response, many tech companies (including Google) have taken action by partnering with third-party fact-checking organizations and developing new systems to ensure the quality of their promoted and distributed content remains as high as possible. Google's crackdown on low-quality or unsupported content has pushed content quality standards even higher, forcing more journalists and authors to get serious about their citations and sources.
7. Google continued its domination. If you would have asked me a few years ago if Google would remain the dominant source of referral traffic online, I would have answered, "probably, but not to this degree." I, like many SEO experts, would have predicted that other alternatives, especially search engine alternatives like Bing and DuckDuckGo, and user-hungry social media platforms like Facebook, would rise to take a share of Google's core search traffic. However, that doesn't seem to be the case; Google is as dominant as it's ever been, and continues to be both the search engine of choice and the biggest source of referral traffic on the web.
How well did your SEO campaign fare this year? Did you take advantage of some of the new changes? Did you get into a heated battle with your core competition? Take the time this year to review all the strategies you tried, and all the trends you either jumped on or missed.