Ben Silverman

SEO isn’t what it used to be. Marketers used to have SEO down to a science – they could represent it almost entirely as numbers on a spreadsheet. In 2016, SEO depends on more intangible factors and requires a holistic approach. We’re dealing with people: how they use the internet, what questions they ask and how they go about finding answers are what matter most when it comes to a modern-day SEO approach.

The techniques and technology SEOs use become obsolete as fast as bloggers can publish their “10 tips to improve SEO.” The one thing that stays more or less the same? You. If you’ve ever searched online (you probably have if you’re here right now), you are already more prepared to manage your SEO than you might expect. Knowing how you search online and choose the most appealing solutions is more than half the battle in optimizing your content to reach users. When you apply your own experiences and search preferences, it will help you customize your content to reach others.

What worked in 2010 won’t cut it in 2016

No longer can you simply identify high-traffic, low-competition keywords and stuff them into your site wherever possible. You also can’t rely entirely on outbound linking in your site to build SEO (and you certainly can’t rely on black hat, invisible link techniques). More content is certainly not the way to get better search presence, either.

“… ‘gaming’ the system has become less and less viable…” – Forbes

Base your SEO around how people like you might interface with the web and seek out answers to their needs.

1. Appeal to how people talk and search

How do people talk? How do they think? How do they ask questions?

As search engines improve their machine learning, people are posing more natural, conversational queries. Semantic searches have overtaken keyword-based searches, especially ever since Google’s Hummingbird update in 2013.

Content that specifically answers questions will not only appeal to searchers, but will make for a better experience on your site and boost your credibility. Content that simply matches keywords, on the other hand, won’t necessarily answer a user’s question. People might not even click on it, and if they do, they will likely bounce away.

Not only are people asking more questions, but they are doing it out loud. Most of us now have Siri, Cortana and Google Now in our pockets, and voice searching has seen a dramatic rise in the past 12 months. Optimization for conversational speech is crucial for helping mobile voice-searchers find you, so make sure that you are covering casual phrasing in your overall SEO practices.

2. Well-written content trumps keyword-stuffing

Don’t dilute your content with forced keywords. You spent a long time working on it, so why ruin it by sprinkling in keywords than don’t help the quality?

Users want to read something good. They can tell when something was created according to strict guidelines designed for an automated crawling system. Content that is structured well, gets to the main points efficiently and satisfies what users are looking for will keep your readers engaged, which can help perpetuate healthy SEO. High bounce rates can indirectly damage your SEO – if a user goes to your site and is unsatisfied and leaves, they’ll head back to the SERP and choose the next result.

  • The Phantom III Update from this past winter drove home Google’s preference of simple, quality content that gets to the point as quickly as possible. To read more about the update and see some examples of content that works and doesn’t work, take a look the three things to know about Google’s quality guideline updates for SEO.

3. Users want a good site experience

Even if the writing is good, a bad user experience can kill your progress. Strong, modern UX is a major part of what Google looks for when it is ranking sites. Designing UX that satisfies the intent of as many qualified leads as possible is as much an anthropological endeavor as it is a feat of engineering. Ask questions to learn more about how your audience uses the internet, and what experiences they enjoy the most:

  • Is the user searching from mobile or desktop? Are they home or at work?
  • What might they have they searched for in the past?
  • Are they looking for a quick answer? An informational deep dive? A video or infographic?

More than half of Google searches take place on mobile. Creating UX that fits those formats is your best ticket to reach the majority of users, not to mention that Google will penalize you if you don’t optimize for mobile. Keep mind that simple design is not only more inviting for people on smaller mobile screens, but it is often more compatible across devices, and will use less data.

If you create solid mobile UX, you might be tempted to relax your constraints for desktop formats and use a heavier, more involved design. You shouldn’t. Keep your desktop site minimal, and make sure your most prized material – the content that the most people are looking for – is front and center. Minimalism not only looks and feels the best, but most importantly it performs best on Google. When you put less in front of people, they are more likely to enjoy themselves on your site, engage with your content and convert.

Load time matters too, on both mobile and desktop. People aren’t willing to sit and wait for a page to open – if your site takes too long to load, they will find another site to answer their question. Google specifically rewards fast-loading sites, and even developed their AMP project to further promote speedy page loads.

4. Exciting content gets readers talking

When people are excited by your site, they’ll talk about it on social media and share it with their networks, giving you a serious SEO boost.

The better your content, the more your audience will share and engage with you, and the more visibility you’ll have on social and ultimately search engines. Search engines don’t crawl all of the content on every social network because of certain privacy constraints, but they are increasingly turning up public Tweets and popular Facebook pages. This is because the more social and present a conversation is, the more buzz there will be around it.

Buzz will lead more qualified traffic to your site, and increased traffic can mean a higher search ranking for your website. With Google’s gradual inclusion of brands’ social accounts into its ranking algorithm, third-party tweets that link to your content might appear on the first page of results. They may not be leading directly to your site, but if your link is there, you’re there too.

When it comes to SEO in 2016, the intangible, experiential, holistic factors are more important than the statistical, practical nuts and bolts of the ’90s and ’00s. As Google’s machine learning gets better at understanding how people use the internet, it will reward content marketers who also understand real human patterns. It is finally more important to produce content that people like to engage with than it is to make content that satisfies an automated, algorithmic web-crawling protocol. If you treat your audience like they are real people, not machines, your content will appeal to them, and Google will reward you.