Search: 10 most significant changes of the past 18 months

Throughout my tenure in digital marketing, every so often, I try to take a step back and take stock of some of the changes that we’ve seen in search and look at how they’re changing the ways in which we have to react as online marketers.

Some of the more recent shifts we see have had more of an impact than others (Google’s Panda update for example, affecting the ranking and weight of content and article sites in search results), however they all contribute to the changing mix which shapes the way that Search Marketers have to adjust to achieve results for their sites and those of their clients.

So, without further ado, a summary of some of what I consider to be the most significant changes we’ve seen in the past few months;

1) A shift in Link-build tactics
Strategically, the industry has moved away from stand-alone links, those outside contextually relevant text content, link directories (I’m not suggesting there isn’t a place for a sensibly mixed link profile, though) as well as a shift through in-line content like articles and guest blogging.

Google’s ‘Panda’ update has had a significant negative impact on the weight of content farms and some article sites. Things have, as a result, had to move towards much smarter and more innovative practises. This is a pretty natural shift, a result of Google catching up with the game, or rather the way they’ve been previously ‘gamed’ – a cat and mouse, of sorts.

2) So much more ‘engagement’
Social Media has finally moved into the marketer’s eye as a ‘valid’ digital channel, no matter how long the digital industry has been suggesting it. Twitter just paid £25m for TweetDeck, as a result of their captive marketing-centric user base.

I’m personally of the opinion that social is no more a traditional digital ‘channel’ than a phone conversation, an informal chat over a pint, or a discussion across a few holes on the green – Rather, I see it as an enabler of more direct form of customer and prospect-led communication. A cross section of business-to-business marketing models may find that Social Media doesn’t directly drive leads and sales, but the added contact with customers and prospects can have a significant positive influence on the lead and sales pipeline.

3) Companies are finally paying attention to content
On a closely related note to these shifts in link tactics, towards more integrated social media strategies, website owners have learned of and reacted to the benefits of quality site content and are doing their copywriting in-house or outsourcing it. Finally, updating site content isn’t just a future consideration, rather an ongoing strategy. Content strategy is even top of the priority list for the smartest few, as it rightly should be – Through the understanding that a website is an evolving process which only just begins when it initially goes live.

4) CRO hits the mainstream
Conversion Rate Optimisation is now being more widely recognised as the adjustment process which makes traffic driven by SEM and other acquisition channels (i.e. PPC, SEO or display for example) work increasingly ‘harder’. Seeing the service as a companion, rather than as an alternative to traffic acquisition strategy is the key to maximising conversions on-site.

Tie together ongoing content generation with a structured and well planned CRO strategy and there’s no reason not to increase the levels of engagement and conversion on site as time goes on.
Using internal or external resource to produce plenty of considered landing pages and site content variations helps any CRO strategy to succeed and generate the best possible results and insight, in turn increasing conversion rate and associated revenue.

5) Real-time search
Google’s indexing capabilities are becoming increasingly impressive. Just to illustrate, a test we ran today on a site that we’ve had indexed in Google News for a little while, had a new page of content added. The article was appearing in Google’s blended search results from Google news within 6 minutes. Within 7 minutes of the posting, there was a page 2 organic listing (position 13) in place for the key article target search term.

Just 7 minutes to rank organically is a staggering technical feat and one which, alongside a reactive content strategy, opens the possibilities of almost real-time reaction and traffic generation from popular search trends and rising terms by marketers across the globe.

6) Social impact on search results
OK, some might disagree with me on this one, but here’s the thing; People are increasingly turning to twitter, Facebook and other social channels to promote their online content. Tests have shown that there is an impact on organic search positions with the inclusions of retweets and mentions on social platforms.
In practical terms, a second, third or fourth or even hundredth link from the same domain might have a minimal impact on search results, but as Google look to whatever factors they can find to separate genuine ‘buzz worthy’ content from the spam and low value stuff, it wouldn’t be too unreasonable to assume that they would take retweets and re-posts into account.

Google have even, more recently admitted that: "Yes, we do use it as a signal. It is used as a signal in our organic and news rankings. We also use it to enhance our news universal by marking how many people shared an article…"

7) Increases in the impact of ‘branding’
Google’s ‘Vince’ update gave weight to those sites Google considered to carry a ‘brand’. There was also a (perhaps debatable) change in the impact of exact match domains. Buying londontreesurgeons.co.uk (for example) isn’t going to cut through the search results any more without a proper link build strategy and considered on-site optimisation. If there was ever an ‘excuse’ needed for a case to build a brand online, Google gives us a valid one.

8) Heaps of add-ons
Through the months, we have seen Google and the other key players in the social and search landscape unleash a plethora of new ‘toys’ for us to play with; Local Search, Sitelinks, Google checkout, product ads, +1 buttons, LinkedIn Buttons, Facebook Like buttons. Each of these features has their own impact for different sites, so it is essential to know which are most appropriate to use and where, adding to the arsenal of the digital marketer. 

9) Google began to publicly acknowledge SEO’s
There has been a remarkable change since the days of ‘GoogleGuy’ – the lone engineer that answered some queries about search on webmaster world, to the situation we are in today – Official Google Webmaster help channels, regular updates from the webmaster team, questions regularly answered on twitter, and even the Google ‘beginners SEO guide’, a comprehensive look at the basics of SEO.

We’ve also seen Google react and provide and support systems and standards as solutions to frustrating problems; the canonical tag, Webmaster Location Targeting, much improved webmaster tools, Video Sitemaps and integrating MicroFormats into search results. This ‘acceptance’ is something that has helped to bring the industry out into the open, where it belongs, alongside traditional marketing disciplines.  

10) The end of “bad metrics”!
Finally, the death of ‘PageRank’ as measurement criteria! Less a development, more a decline in this behaviour – Marketers are waking up and paying less attention to metrics like Time on page (useful as a binary style indicator alone, in many cases), Keyword positions (Again, this should be an indicator to react to, not a reporting focus) and Google’s PageRank – something that even Google have admitted pays minimal relation to the factors they use in ranking. Farewell to those kind of metrics, I say, in favour of the more tangible, bottom-line influencing leads, enquiries, traffic levels and conversion rates.

 

That wraps up my 10 most significant changes for the time being – do you agree? Do you think there are more important changes on the horizon? Leave a comment and let us know!