Last week, we went over the basics of search engine optimization. This week, we share what’s changing.

WHAT’S COMING (or already here)

Mobile-first indexing
Searches from a mobile device surpassed those from a desktop three years ago. In fact, a BrightEdge study found that last year, 57 percent of traffic from its clients came from smartphones and tablets, and that percentage is increasing all the time. Quite simply, what mobile-first indexing means is that search engines will soon begin ranking websites based on their mobile versions first, because that’s how most people access the Internet.

What this means for marketers, according to SEO and marketing consultant Bridget Randolph, is that “the lack of a mobile-friendly experience could impact negatively on the rankings of a site, and a site with a better mobile experience would potentially receive a rankings boost even for searchers on a desktop.” Sites without responsive design (adapting desktop web content to mobile devices) could suffer in the search listings.

Voice-activated searches
Voice searches, like the kind 55% of teens and 40% of adults conduct every day, also significantly affect SEO. That’s because Siri or Alexa (or whomever your digital assistant may be) most often reports from those sites with featured snippets, and only the best content earns featured snippets.

Featured snippets
Have you noticed when you search for something on the web nowadays that a bordered paragraph of information on the subject shows up first? It looks something like this:

Example of a featured snippet; courtesy of searchengineland.com.

Featured snippets receive a “position 0” on the SERP because they come even before the coveted position 1. They are earned and (here’s the great news) have less to do with link metrics and more with content quality. Sites with content the search engines deem most able to answer users’ questions or meet their needs are the most likely candidates for featured snippets. Generally speaking, the tactics that increase opportunities for a position 0 are appropriate keywords that answer who, why, what, where and when as well as implied questions, such as “does,” “makes,” “costs,” etc. If you need a little inspiration, answerthepublic.com is a great resource that offers a list of questions most commonly asked about a certain topic.

Said Stephen Spencer, author of Search Engine Land and other books and material on SEO, “Surprisingly, it is not unheard of for URLs ranking on page two of the Google SERPS to get a “position 0” result” with a featured snippet.” Anticipating the right questions and providing clear, concise answers to them affects not only search engines, but, ultimately, consumers as well. And that should be the only goal of SEO

SERP feature bonanza!
Far beyond the “10 blue links” of Google past, moz.com identifies 16 features that commonly appear on Google SERPS. In addition to featured snippets are: Adwords (paid); In-Depth Article; Local Teaser Pack; Shopping Results; Knowledge Card; News Box; Site Links; Knowledge Panel; Related Questions; Tweet: Image Pack; Local Pack; Reviews; and Video. And there will certainly be more tomorrow, because Google is always working to be the best provider of information.

Increasingly, users don’t even have to go to an actual website to get the information they need; it’s all right there on the SERP. This is good for Google, but it’s also good for SEO writers because, for the most part, these features are earned, based on proximity to the searcher, reviews, and quality content that best answers consumers’ questions or provides the information they’re seeking.

Linkless backlinks
More content creators and participants in conversations on social media are mentioning businesses or brands without including links to them, and search engines are increasingly using linkless backlinks (links to other sites) as ranking signals. This is primarily because unethical SEO practitioners were using backlinks to “suck up” to other brands, without a genuine intention to send consumers to the sites that best suit their needs.

Search engines caught on and are now rewarding linkless mentions, because they demonstrate natural engagement with a brand. Engagement enhances brand reputation, earned through quality, accurate, fresh content and robust social media activity. It can’t be “bought,” and the search engines know it. It’s kind of like a flower shop owner recommending a hair salon to someone without letting the salon owner know they’ve done so – they did it because they genuinely endorse the quality of the salon and not because they’re expecting a reciprocal favor.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)
As with many things nowadays, AI is powering more aspects of SEO. While not without their flaws, AI algorithms can understand entity salience, semantic distance, and phrased-based indexing. All that boils down to is that AI is able to determine content relevance based on relationships between commonly associated words. For example, advanced algorithms can recognize that copy containing the words “jays” and “seed” is more apt to be about birds than sports. On the flip side, copy that includes “jays” and “hockey” is more likely to be about athletics.

Read Part III of our blog next week, when we’ll discuss what’s on the decline in SEO and what will always be relevant.

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