Over the next decade, it’s expected that an extra 3 billion people will gain access to an Internet connection, exponentially increasing the amount of content on the Internet that you and I will need to compete against.
So, what implications will this deluge of content have on search marketing and how can we prepare for them? What do we need to focus on in 2015 to ensure that our websites thrive?
In this post, I’ve outlined six defensive and five offensive tactics that I believe will set you up for considerable and sustainable search traffic growth in 2015.
“Invincibility lies in the defence” – Sun Tzu
A strong offense without a strong defence is the strategic equivalent of firing missiles from a fishing boat. In the short term it may appear as though you’re generating good results, but inevitably the boat will sink along with any progress made.
In the context of SEO, a strong defence comes from diversifying your tactics, building a strong brand, and having a website that Google wants to rank.
Ultimately, a strong defence encompasses anything that will prevent or limit the negative impact of algorithm updates (of all sizes), competitor activity, and wider changes in how information is consumed online.
Considering that there are shelves of books written on each of these topics, I just want to cover six actionable tactics that I believe will have the biggest defensive impact over the next year.
Step 1. Have the fastest website in your niche
Google have made it no secret that they have a strong bias towards ranking fast sites. From their perspective, it increases indexing efficiency (lowering their server costs), while improving the user experience for visitors.
For webmasters, the benefits of a fast site are even more compelling: more engagement, higher conversion rates, and increased ranking potential.
If you’re wondering how fast your website should be, my opinion is that it should be faster than the lowest of these (as measured by a tool like Pingdom or GTmetrix):
In August 2014, Google made an interesting announcement that, over time, sites that are secured with HTTPS encryption will have a ranking advantage over non-secure sites.
While this may be reason enough for you to consider tighter security and encryption for your site, I think the wider picture of how the web is evolving provides a more compelling case, and perhaps suggests the reason why Google is encouraging webmasters to focus on security.
With increasingly sophisticated cybercrime, and a general shift towards DIY development (e.g. click and install WordPress plugins), the potential for sites to be hacked is greater than ever.
While the link between security and SEO rankings may seem tenuous, I think the link is becoming less so. Consider this: if your site was hacked tomorrow and all pages on your server were deleted, how would that affect you and your company’s resources? How quickly could you revert to a backup? How would Google react to this down time?
My advice is this:
HTTPS – If you have an eCommerce site, or manage any sensitive data, use HTTPS encryption. For less than $10/year you can get yourself an SSL certificate, which will encrypt any user data that is entered on your website.
Use a reputable hosting company – Increased security and daily restorable backups are just two of the many reasons why investing in good hostingis one of the best investments you can make for your website.
If using WordPress, only use highly-rated themes and plugins – Most security issues with WordPress come from poorly developed plugins and themes. Avoid any plugin or theme that doesn’t have good ratings like the plague.
Of course, all general advice like using strong passwords and installing security plugins also apply here. At the end of the day, the less time you have to deal with hacking and data leakages, the more time you can focus on growing your website.
Step 3. Make your website compatible across all devices
In November, Google sent webmasters a big nudge to make their websites mobile friendly by launching the mobile friendly testing tool, and by highlighting mobile usability issues in Google Webmaster Tools.
At the same time, it appears that Google have began to experiment with showing whether a search result is mobile friendly or not alongside search results.
As if there were any doubt, clues from Google don’t get much more obvious than this. If you want your website to rank well in 2015 and beyond, your website needs to be mobile friendly.
Step 4. Neutralise and diversify your link profile
To mitigate against the possibility of being hit by a link-based penalty or algorithm update in 2015, you might want to take the time to neutralise and diversify your website’s link profile.
Neutralising your link profile Regardless of how ethical your SEO strategy is, it’s possible that your site might have acquired some suspicious links over the years.
To ensure that you don’t get caught up in the next refresh of the penguin update, you can use a tool like OpenLinkProfiler or LinkRisk to diagnose your link profile and highlight any links that might need removing.
Diversifying your link profile Perhaps with the exception of (natural) editorial blog links, having too many links in any link category can leave you susceptible to changes in what Google considers a valuable link.
Take infographics and guest blog posts for example. For years, these were considered the most effective and white hat methods of link building… until Matt Cutts said that these types of links might be discounted due to being over manipulated.
You can check the distribution of link types pointing to your site using OpenLinkProfiler. While the results aren’t perfect, it should highlight any standouts.
Step 5. Diversify your content strategy & traffic sources
When you put all of your eggs into one basket, you have to be absolutely sure that your basket is a good one, and will stand the test of time.
Unfortunately with SEO, putting all of your eggs in one basket is a really bad strategy due to the large number of variables, unknowns, and constantly changing parts. What looks like a good basket today could easily be a pile of broken twigs tomorrow.
As such, it’s sensible to diversify your strategy as much as possible – from the type of content you publish, to how you monetise your website, and where you acquire traffic.
Step 6. Above all, invest in the subjective user experience
If I had to make one prediction as to what will increase in importance for SEO in 2015, I would put my money on an increasing emphasis on user experience.
Why? Because all things being equal, there is no plausible argument for why Google wouldn’t value ranking a site with a good user experience over one without, and it influences so many sub-factors, from page speed to trustworthiness, that strongly correlate with higher rankings.
As much as we try to measure user experience with conversion and engagement metrics, the reality is that it’s highly subjective. Put another way, changing a call to action from green to blue isn’t necessarily a good idea, even if it does increase conversions and engagement.
When improving the user experience, it’s important to go beyond the tools to understand what your users really want and like.
If you have a strong defensive and a weak offence, then you’re playing not to lose, rather than playing to win. The two strategies are far from the same.
So how do you play to win? Below are five tactics that I believe will improve your offence and help you climb the search results in 2015.
Step 7. Long-form content marketing
Throughout 2014, I experimented with a wide range of content marketing techniques, from infographics and videos, to a myriad of weird and wonderful blogging formats.
Out of all of the various formats, the one technique that consistently generated excellent results was highly-visual long-form guides like this guide to the best scotch we launched on Qosy.
Irrespective of niche (we tried this in finance, luxury travel, music, and even on this site with our guide to best web hosting), the results from this type of content outperformed everything else.
The key to this strategy is that it contains many ‘hooks’ for success. Most of the long-form content campaigns that we launched in 2014 were between 2,000 and 8,000 words long, which enabled them to capture large amounts of long-tail search traffic.
On top of this, they typically contained stunning visuals, which led some to go viral on visual social networks like Pinterest and StumbleUpon. Most also generated a large number of shares across Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and Google+.
Of course, content like this takes a long time to produce (usually 40 hours+), but we’ve found it to be one of the least risky formats for generating everything that we’re after: links, leads, shares, conversions, and traffic.
The reason why is fairly obvious: the impact and value of automation speaks for itself: you save precious time while getting better results.
One friend of mine was able to completely automate his company’s sales process using a series of marketing automation sequences that were so good, his customers had no idea that the charming salesman ‘Barry’ was actually an Infusionsoft bot, not a real person.
While automation obviously won’t directly lead to increased rankings in Google, the indirect impacts are extensive. Not only can it increase the value of your search traffic by boosting customer lifetime value and sales effectiveness, you can use automation sequences to incentivise sharing, third-party site reviews, and much more.
Step 9. Brand building
Over the years, Google have increased the weighting placed on brand-biased ranking signals. It has also been made quite clear that brands are treated differently in the search results than smaller non-brand websites.
If you’re in an obscure niche, the impact of this shift will undoubtedly be less dramatic, but for the underdogs looking to take on the big brands, it’s going to be a challenge.
I like Rand Fishkin’s advice in the article linked above: “Those who aren’t building brands will struggle mightily in the years ahead. The only logical strategy today is to be so good that Google looks bad taking you out”.
Step 10. Authority building
Despite Google Authorship appearing to have largely come and gone, the value of building your personal authority remains unchanged.
For the same reasons as above, building a strong personal brand evokes trust – which is the underlying trait that Google are ultimately trying to understand when they calculate and weight the value of links, social shares, and other popularity metrics.
Building your personal authority in your industry through traditional PR, interviews, guest blogging, and cross-promotions will likely have an increasingly powerful impact on search as Google continues to place more weight on brand citations and non link-based popularity metrics.
Step 11. Building a mailing list
A strong mailing list enables you to reach a large relevant audience whenever you need to. When combined with blogging, email marketing can be very powerful in driving natural links, social shares, and other engagement that positively impacts your search rankings.
On top of this, email is one of the few online communication channels that has stood the test of time. While the value of building an audience on various social networks have risen and fell, email marketing still continues to increase in effectiveness, even after 22 years.
Of course, there is almost no limit to the range of strategies and tactics that will impact your search rankings. The 11 that I’ve outlined here are some of the main areas that I’m focusing on with our portfolio of sites over the next 12 months based on where the industry seems to be heading.
If there are any tactics that you think will become increasingly important for improving a site’s search rankings over the next year, feel free to add them to this list by sharing them in the comments below.