SEO isn't dead, but it's become something of a shapeshifter. Google's latest core update rolled out across its servers over the past month, and businesses are feeling the aftershocks -- hopefully, for the better. But in many cases, an algorithm update means an unexpected falloff in traffic.
Paradoxically, the trick to staying ahead of the updates is to not obsess over Google's new hidden rules. "Most SEO amateurs are trying to play catch up with Google. You have to think ahead of Google," Guy Sheetrit, who runs a consultancy called Over the Top SEO, explained to me. "Google is trying to think like a human, but you are a human. So by making your content human, you have the advantage."
Here's how to bounce back if you've fallen off the SERPs.
Play the Long Game with Good Content First
Yesterday's black hat techniques, like keyword stuffing and chasing backlink quantity over quality, were short-sighted and, unsurprisingly, short-lived. Google developers catch on to these loopholes and close them, rendering all that black hat work moot. "The lesson moving forward is that trying to game the system doesn't pay off in the long run," says Sheetrit. "The best way to gain visibility now is the same as it was in 2014: produce regular, high-quality content that's valuable to your niche."
What makes content high-quality? Google favors pages with video or star ratings from users, but don't get too caught up in the details. Blogs should feature tight, accessible writing that solves a specific problem. Videos should be short and digestible. Your layout and design should be clear and user-friendly. Long story short, use your good sense -- and make it easy for your customer.
Assuming your content and UX are up to snuff, let's take a look at the new Google page.
Understand the New Google SERP Layout
A search engine results page (SERP) today is a lot more cluttered and complicated than it was a few years ago. Most of what's displayed is ads. There's usually also an answer box, which contains a snippet of content that might directly answer the user's query. Often, a video carousel or a row of image results appears. You've probably also noticed the recent appearance of the "People Also Ask" box (PAA).
All of these boxes command valuable real estate on the SERP, taking space away from links like yours. Sometimes, they only leave room for the No. 1 organic result to appear, relegating all runners-up to the second and subsequent pages. That means the best ways to appear on the first page of search results are to rank first in organic links, rank with video content, pay for ad space or win a snippet.
Emulate Your Customer Journey, Using the PAA Box for Query Inspiration
The PAA box might be an asset if it generates questions that bring users to you. "This feature has the ability to trigger a potentially infinite number of questions on the topic of interest," notes London-based SEO consultant Samuel Mangialavori on the Moz blog. He goes on to say that, in some cases, "the initial 3-4 listing could continue into the hundreds once clicked on."
But using PAAs to direct traffic to your link is complicated. Experts still aren't sure how the PAA boxes are generated -- or how many questions are generated per query -- because there are so many variables. "Interestingly, it also appears that Google does not keep this feature consistent," Mangialavori says, adding that the same search sometimes produces different PAAs on different days, while other queries seem fixed over multiple days.
For now, the best use of the PAA box is to use it to inspire new queries for which you could rank. If you're ranking for "large men's shoe stores in Atlanta," take a look at the PAA box and see what other queries you could rank for: "What is the largest size of Vans?" for example, or "How big are Dominique Wilkens' feet?" You might not have thought of these as important queries for your target customer, but by emulating their journey with PAA, you now know to blog or vlog about these topics to reach customers with the answers.
The invisible wall between us and Google's inner workings can make SEO a bit maddening if you don't have the help of a well-versed team. But don't get discouraged: Remember that the ultimate goal of Google is to answer a user's search query. That's your goal, too, so keep it simple. Solid content and a good understanding of the current SERP layout will go a long way toward connecting you to the people searching for you.