PostHeaderIcon What Is SEO Now that Everything Is (Not Provided)?

Posted by Ruth_Burr

Google’s recent announcement that it will be obfuscating all keyword referral data going forward has created yet another occasion for (and perhaps the first occasion that really deserves) that age-old cry, “is SEO dead?”

My response to the “is SEO dead” question is always the same: The Internet isn’t going away, and neither is selling stuff. It’s a pretty safe bet that online marketing is here to stay, and as long as search engines drive traffic to websites, marketers should be thinking about how to get the best audience and the most sales from that traffic. The optimal traffic from search engines, if you will.

Here at Moz, our organic traffic has already been at over 50% (not provided) for over a year, and our (not provided) numbers have been hovering around 80% for a while now, so I’ve had some time to mull this over: in a post-keyword world, what is SEO?

Moving away from keywords

One reason Google’s move toward (not provided) feels like such a blow is that for a long time, SEO was all about keywords. You’d start by brainstorming and researching keywords, and once you had your list you’d assign those keywords to pages and content pieces. Then, once you had each page nice and targeted around a keyword, you’d build some links, track traffic from those keywords to those pages, and adjust as needed. Done and done.

The thing is, even without the loss of Google’s referring keyword data, search engine traffic isn’t just about the keyword anymore. Thanks to the new search carousel, it’s possible for users to perform several searches and get to several different SERPs from just one query. Thanks to Google’s autocomplete feature, users are often using a suggested query rather than whatever their original keyword might be.

The real killer of the keyword-driven approach isn’t (not provided), though. It’s Google’s increasing devotion to semantic relationships between topics and entities on the web. Author Rank, personalization, and the Knowledge Graph have added new elements to consider: Now, in addition to what your content says and who links to it, Google also cares about who created it, what else they’ve done, and who’s shared it. Content from a trusted source can rank in personalized results for related keywords without specifically targeting them; Google’s gotten that good at figuring out topical relationships.

Pages and authority

What this means for SEO is that we need to shift our focus from getting traffic from keywords to getting traffic to pages. The recent hot trend in SEO around quality content is one aspect of that transition—it’s much easier to drive traffic to a great piece of content, regardless of how keyword-targeted it is. A more content-oriented mindset will also help us build topical authority, which is clearly something Google is interested in; they’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of money trying to figure out who knows the most about what, and authorship is just the latest development in that ongoing quest.

Smarty Pants.
Smarty Pants. by ~Shari, on Flickr

Building authority around a topic involves new, #RCS-oriented twists on classic SEO techniques:

  • Brainstorm specific content pieces within your target topic, research to gauge potential audience interest, plan it out and create it (keyword research, anyone?).
  • Promote your content to audiences you know have an interest in it (some people might call this social media).
  • Build relationships with entities who already have established authority in your topic, especially those who are in your geographical area, and start brainstorming new content and sharing each other’s content (that’s link building but without all the horrible, tedious or shady stuff).

The great thing about focusing on building topical authority is that all of these tactics also drive traffic to pages. If your goal becomes “get a lot of awesome traffic to this awesome page” rather than “rank for this one keyword by any means possible” or “build x number of links per month” you can continue proving excellence in everything you do while doing better marketing.

In fact, shifting the focus from keywords to pages means that you can show the traffic that came from links you built—there’s no faster way to wean an exec off of the “x number of links per month” mentality than to show what a huge difference there is in different links’ potential to drive traffic.

This trend should also (hopefully) eventually kill the idea that we will come in to an existing content site and “do SEO” to it (can I get an amen?)—instead, it’s more important than ever that SEO be considered throughout the process of building a site.

Brand power

One potential pitfall of targeting increased traffic, especially in the absence of specific keyword targeting, is that clients may claim that increased traffic comes from brand recognition, not from your SEO efforts. To which my rejoinder is: Who says brand building isn’t part of SEO?

Part of building topical authority is setting up your brand as the place to go for the best information on that topic. Bust up the notion that branded keyword traffic never comes from SEO! Use your link-building efforts, whether that’s PR, guest blogging or content sharing, to get your brand out there. You can track your progress in building your brand online by monitoring search volume for your branded terms in Google Trends. By increasing search volume for your branded terms, which you probably already rank for, you’re also—you guessed it—building traffic to pages! #Winning!

Win at fundamentals

If you’re really invested in showing Google that your site is an authority on a topic, you should also be showing Google that your site is a pleasant place to be—not a weird, difficult-to-parse heap of broken pages that takes forever to load. Do you see where I’m going with this?

FREE GARBAGE!!! by sylvar, on Flickr

If (like me) you work on a big site, or an old site, you know that when it comes to technical SEO there’s always more to do. That’s one part of SEO that hasn’t changed at all: Solid technical SEO can still take you very far. Make it easy for Google (and Bing, and, you know, people) to load your site, to navigate your site and to figure out what each page is about, and you will be rewarded with return visits. Semantic markup is the new hotness in technical SEO for a reason: It helps search engines easily figure out what you’re trying to do with your data.

The nice thing about technical SEO is that it doesn’t require people outside of your company (or your client’s company) to take action in order to succeed. You can have a running list of SEO improvements in your dev team’s queue, launching while you’re taking the time (and it does take time) to build relationships and create great content.

OK, but what about keywords?

Focusing on topical authority and building traffic to pages is great, but search engines are still search engines, and that means that queries—a.k.a. keywords—are still important. Rand had a great post recently about ways to back into keyword tracking—if you know you’re ranking for a popular keyword, and you know you’re getting search traffic to that page, it’s a fair bet that at least some of that traffic is being driven by that keyword.

This is the time, however, to be training our clients away from keywords. Keywords feel nice, and it’s great to Google yourself and have your site come up, but the more we can track our activities back to real traffic from real people (and real sales that result in real money!), the better and more interesting work we’ll be able to do.

To that end, we all need to be thinking beyond Google when we think about traffic sources. We need to be thinking about other search engines. We need to be thinking about traffic from social media, link building, and third-party content-sharing sites like Pinterest and SlideShare. Reducing our dependence on Google is the best way to “algorithm-proof” our sites and make sure we’re getting the best traffic and sales we can. So maybe next time there’s a big change like this, it won’t be quite so upsetting.

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