The SEO landscape has changed phenomenally in recent years. Since I started in the industry 7 years ago, my day-to-day activities have completely transformed.
The way it was could be summed up quickly:
· Choose your keywords
· Get your target page in order (relevant title, keywords in the copy etc)
· Acquire a large volume of (often anchor text rich) links to that page
Acquiring links could often mean paying for them. And sponsored links worked. You'd enjoy big rankings on big keywords with relatively little effort. It didn't matter if your links were marked as sponsored. It didn't matter if your links featured in advertorials.
Fast-forward a few years and that sort of activity is more likely to land your website a long term Google penalty than any kind of return on your investment.
Today, pages have to have value for users, not just keywords stuffed in content. And you have to earn links. There's more emphasis on PR style techniques to acquire links to assets you've created on your website.
Today's SEO consultant has to be a more rounded marketer than the SEO consultant of 2009.
So yes, things have changed. But one of the consequences of this change is that SEO appears to have become a channel often positioned as one that is less accountable for delivering direct ROI. And there's now so much hype and talk around elements of SEO that I'd consider, at best, misunderstanding and at worst, complete misinformation.
Here are 2 of the myths we're constantly hearing about the modern SEO landscape:
1. Keywords Don't Matter Anymore
Back in 2009, if we had a local service provider who wanted to rank for the following set of keywords, we'd create a page for each:
· Plumbers in Oldham
· Plumbers in Manchester
· Plumbers in Rochdale
· Plumbers in Bolton
Or we might create separate pages on a travel website to rank for things like:
· Cheap holidays
· Low cost holidays
· Discount holidays
We did it because with a separate page, you could fine tune your page title, meta description and page content perfectly around that one specific targeted phrase.
Did this represent a good experience for the users? Probably not.
The reality is that the content on all those pages would be incredibly similar.
But the modern day extreme opposite of this is doing away with keywords altogether in favour of "topics," and letting Google itself determine which keywords are the most important for you.
Don't get me wrong. Topics are critical. And keywords shouldn't ever be one per page these days. Keywords with similar meanings will be grouped together on a page that is predominantly designed to answer the user's query.
But keyword research is still a vital part of the process.
Consider these queries in the USA:
· iPhone accessories (Searched up to 30,000 times per month in the USA)
· mens shoes (Searched up to 70,000 times per month in the USA)
· Cheap car rental (Searched up to 30,000 times per month in the USA
· Car rental Washington DC (Up to 1,700 searches per month in the USA)
If you supply those products or services, you absolutely need to know the way in which people are searching for them.
And yes, people are using voice search and more natural language when performing search engine queries. But we still see significant volumes of potential customers using short keyword queries.
What should you do about it?
Do not ignore keywords.
Google is much better these days at handling natural language queries and can deal with synonyms and things like that in a much more efficient way than ever before.
But do not rely on Google using your page content to determine your most important keywords.
In the way you always would have done, carry out your keyword research first and optimise elements of your page the way you always would have done. But don't create unnecessary pages and assign single keywords to a page. Group by topic, but research by individual phrase.
This is explained incredibly well in this Moz Whiteboard Friday by Rand Fishkin.
2. Rankings Don't Matter Anymore
I can't imagine that there's a business owner on the planet who would choose not to take a top 3 position for the biggest keywords in their industry.
While there's plenty that has changed about Google, one thing still holds true. If you appear in the top 3 for a well searched keyword, you're going to get traffic. And if that keyword is incredibly relevant for the services or products you sell, you're giving yourself a real shot at getting customers.
So of course rankings matter. If thousands upon thousands of your potential customers are searching certain phrases each month while looking for your products, of course you want to appear highly for those phrases.
What has changed over a few years for me is how many different keywords I look at. Rather than a list of 5, 10 or 15 big keywords, I might now focus on hundreds including a solid mix of short headline queries, medium tail queries and longer tail ones too.
I wouldn't ever want all my eggs in a single basket!
But I still pursue rankings (albeit in a much less aggressive way than in 2009) and I still report on rankings for my clients.
More to the point, there's still a direct correlation between core rankings and revenue driven by SEO. I don't see that changing any time soon.
What should you do about it?
Track and monitor rankings. But don't just target a small handful of phrases. Make sure you have big groups of target keywords incorporating headline, medium tail and long tail queries.
And don't forget about keyword data available to you in Search Console. Understanding the keywords already driving traffic, regardless of whether they're already in your rankings tracker or not, helps you to consistently identify new keyword opportunities.
The Modern Approach
SEO these days is more like technical skills meet digital PR. There's a much bigger emphasis on user experience and interaction with your site and on ultimately being the best answer for a user's query.
How we acquire links has changed. There's a huge crossover with PR as you see SEO consultants creating research pieces, compelling content, opinion pieces and big interactive content pieces designed to gain coverage and links on merit (albeit with a lot of promotion required).
But users still make keyword based queries in search engines. And while we see more "long tail" queries and more question style queries in many industries, we do still see huge volumes of searches for short headline phrases.
So yes, let's embrace the change in this field. Let's enjoy the fact that we're pushing one another to create bigger, better, bolder content. But let's not forget that some of the keyword research and rankings tracking of old still very much has a place in 2016.