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Google Semantic Search: What Is New in SEO?

This chapter shows what is different in SEO, what is the "new SEO" everyone is talking about, and what you can do to take advantage of the developing trends. More importantly it shows what you should do to integrate SEO in the DNA of your business.
This chapter is from the book

What Is the “New SEO”?

If you’ve been reading Forbes, The Guardian (in the UK), or The Wall Street Journal lately, you will have noticed the screaming headline: “SEO Is Dead” frequently followed or preceded in the editorial content by “How Google Killed SEO.”

Apart from the fact that neither of these headlines is true the degree of consternation they cause is indicative of two facts: First SEO now plays a central role in marketing, and second it is undergoing radical change. Both of these developments are good. The first because when SEO is done right it is indistinguishable from being a public service: It allows the right information to surface at the right time for those who want it (everyone’s happy). And the second because for too long the SEO industry was mired in the dark ages, hiding behind obtuse terminology and ill-defined concepts and beset by practices reminiscent of snake oil peddlers selling a cure-all to being found online.

In the SEO world that’s being left behind many activities revolved around two primary constants: keywords and links. Keywords were necessary to get a website to show on the search engine results pages (SERPs) in response to a search query. Links were needed to help that website rise in the search rankings.

This is a bit of an oversimplification of the Google ranking process. Google’s algorithm takes into account more than 200 separate signals before it ranks a website. However it is fair to say that without keywords content would not even surface in search; therefore your website would be invisible, and without inbound links it would not rank well. These two factors then became the primary drivers of SEO in the past.

They also became the focus of many of the practices that led to SEO abuses. Links, in particular, became subject to a number of sophisticated schemes to artificially boost the ranking of websites. Google’s Link Graph is a record of the link profile of every indexed website linking to others and being linked to in turn.

The power of links and linking to boost a website’s ranking in search was such that unwittingly it gave rise to an entire link economy. Whole online industries were built around the exchange and selling and buying of links, with professionals as well as amateurs engaging in the practice.

Things are changing. The days when almost anyone could claim to be able to sell you links that would drive your online business up in search rankings are practically gone. The few emails that I still get, with such offers, come from Hotmail addresses and have names like “SEOKing” and “Optimizer75.” Anyone taking these seriously and getting burned should not be in business anyway.

The paradox here is that the “new SEO” that is emerging is not new at all. As far back as there was an SEO industry to speak of Google advised optimizers to focus on quality, content, navigability, and an excellent end-user experience. This is really not rocket science, and the search engine optimizers that came from a business background to begin with consistently put out the message that SEO and the way you do business are closely interlinked. They would say that the message of who you are and what you are about should be part of your search marketing strategy and that focusing solely on getting traffic to a website when the usability of it was less than optimum, was a waste of time and money.

Some of these SEOs were listened to. Many were not. The perception that search engines had nothing to do with business and search engine optimization was simply a quick-fix service that needed to be brought in to “fix” things was too ingrained in too many businesses to change. Search engine optimizers were not thought of as anything other than tech stuff.

To be fair there was an element of truth in that as well. SEO started out as a purely technical activity carried out principally on-page (i.e., on the website itself), and to an extent that technical nature has persisted. Its evolution, however, has been steadily adding layers to its toolbox so that just being “technical” is no longer enough.

In all this Google has engaged in a considerable amount of education of its public on what is considered ethical SEO. The company has published its Webmaster Guidelines (http://goo.gl/kAd7G), which are constantly updated, and it is engaged in an ongoing effort to help online businesses understand better what they must do to make search work for them.

Despite this, every Google search algorithm update that is designed to address abuses finds a large number of websites that suddenly suffer as a result.

It is a fact that Google’s successive algorithmic changes over the last seven years and its switch to semantic search have hit hard many online businesses that relied on either shady techniques that skirted or broke the Google approved guidelines or poor quality SEO work to rank. As a result the days of being able to “wing it” are long gone. Businesses that are serious about succeeding in the new Google-dominated online world have to take search seriously and create a process-driven business strategy around it.

If you want to know whether your business is one of those who either on the advice of your SEO agency or out of your own in-house SEO actions have been placed in a position of vulnerability to search updates, work through the following questions:

  • Is the online marketing of your company or brand based entirely on keywords?
  • Do you only use keywords to check your ranking in search?
  • Do you use a link building strategy as the core of your company’s or brand’s SEO?
  • Do you use keywords to assess the effectiveness of your ranking in search?
  • Do your SEO-planning sessions revolve mostly around spreadsheets of keywords and where each one ranks in search?
  • Do you regularly research where competitors get backlinks from and try to adjust your link building efforts to match them?
  • Is a “first page position on Google’s search” the main thrust of your online marketing?
  • Is “anchor text” in created links something that is considered crucial to your SEO activities?
  • Are your SEO activities kept apart from everything else your company does, such as branding and marketing, for instance?
  • Is your SEO strategy revised a lot less frequently than any other of your brand or company initiatives?

If you answered “yes” to any of these 10 questions you may want to start rethinking things a little. The sea change that’s underway questions whether there is even such a thing as an “SEO strategy” these days. Certainly there are SEO activities, but the “strategy” part should spring naturally from everything else your brand or company does.

It is in this total alignment of effort that the difference and the strength of the SEO of today is to be found.

The “new” SEO that works now focuses as much on the quality of the business offerings, the online visitor experience once they get to the company website, and the perceived reputation and authority of the business itself as much as it focuses on the traditionally technical aspects of search engine optimization.

As such it has now been divided into unofficial but increasingly differentiated types of SEO: technical and nontechnical. Technical SEO addresses specific onsite issues that prevent a website from being indexed by search engines. Indexing issues can be caused by the website structure, the coding of the underlying platform it runs on, excessive use of javascript, ajax programming that does not permit a search bot to follow navigational links, slow server responses, slow website loading times, and even top-heavy graphics that affect individual page loading speeds. Typically there can be as many website set-up indexing issues as there are websites.

Each one is unique in that respect and many of the indexing issues that crop up are the direct result of website use that has not been factored into the SEO equation or the website’s set up.

The good news is that a technical audit usually brings up all these issues, none of which are very difficult to fix. Technical SEO services, like this, can be one-off services, or they can be brought in as required, though keeping a careful eye on traffic figures and running audits at regular intervals is just common sense, particularly as websites grow in content.

Nontechnical and on-going SEO work looks at the company’s or brand’s marketing strategy, the evolving nature of marketplace communication, content creation, social media outreach, and the way a company connects with its customers in the online environment.

If that sounds a little intrusive to a business it is because that’s exactly what it is. In the new SEO world of today a business can no longer afford the luxury of considering what it does as being separate from search. Search is how its online customers navigate the Web, discover products and services, and research the products and services they need on their way to making a purchasing decision.

Google, which thrives on data, released in July 2011 a free eBook authored by Jim Lecinski, Google’s vice president of products and sales in the United States. Lecinski details how the traditional “first moment of truth” when a customer first encounters a product on the shelf and the battle to win this customer begins has shifted to an earlier stage now called “zero moment of truth” (hence the title of the eBook) that starts with search.

The startling statistic that Lecinski reveals is that 70% of purchasing decisions start with search, looking for product details and online reviews. The eBook is packed full of data pulled from Google’s own research, and it creates a sharp moment of clarity for businesses everywhere. The digital landscape that had been seen by many as a bolt-on to the traditional business model is now key to driving business forward.

Search is center stage in all this. SEO has suddenly become the key to success.

The journey then from “there” to “here” has been one of maturation. Businesses have gone from seeing search engine optimization as something you could call in and action as an afterthought, to seeing it as a service that is inseparable from marketing and now required to be part of the company’s DNA.

It has not been an easy journey, and most of the challenges lie ahead. But the very fact that now we are talking about SEO being inside a company is a major win in itself.

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