Search engine optimization may be one of digital’s most traditional and well-established disciplines, but change is afoot. In fact, few other aspects of digital are evolving as radically as SEO, and much of it is being driven by Google’s reinvention of the SERP (search engine results page) from simple directory to personalized portal.
In the latest episode of Inside the Funnel, Jenna, Nasser, and Dan examined this sea change in organic search, explored Google’s role therein, and pondered the future of one of the most challenging roles in digital. Here are just a few of the highlights.
SERPs are changing… fast
Search results pages are steadily becoming richer, more complex, and more nuanced. Jenna attributes these changes to Google’s three broad goals:
- Visualization 👀
- Zero clickification 👆
- Monetization 💸
Compare a current SERP to those of, say, 10 years ago and you’ll see a significant difference. We’re seeing much more visual content (images, video), answer boxes and other snippets in position zero, and much more variety in the positioning and prominence of paid ads.
User behavior is a strong driver of these changes. In short, Google (and other search engines) is responding to the fact that most users have a strong preference for visual content, spend less time engaging with text, and are happy to have their queries answered without having to click through to another site. Google is also responding to competitive threats. Towards the end of 2021, for instance, Tik Tok got more traffic than Google. It doesn’t necessarily mean that people are using Tik Tok as a search engine (though its hashtags do lean into that purpose). Instead, Google is paying close attention to how users want to be presented with information.
Remember as well that Google’s primary mission is to not to send people to websites, but to organize the world’s information and provide answers accordingly. So if the search engine gives you all the information you need directly on the SERP, that’s a great user experience, right? If fewer click throughs and more time on the SERP results in more exposure to paid ad units, advertisers win too.
A new chapter in performance measurement
As we predicted at the time, Google’s BERT AI has proven to be a game-changer in SEO. It revolutionized how the search engine interprets and responds to user intent, and its effects are rippling far and wide. In fact, the general downturn in website traffic can be at least partially attributed to BERT. The AI is powering results that answer queries directly on the SERP, which is turning a traditional metric on its head: Higher rankings used to mean higher impression volume, but the correlation is weakening.
As of 2022, ranking #1 for a specific query doesn’t guarantee you clicks the way it used to; instead, your appearance in the organic section of the SERP is just one part of a richer search experience. It’s a timely reminder that SEO doesn’t work in isolation—especially if you’re focusing exclusively on written content. Think of all the other SERP real estate you could target for the exact same query: Paid ads, local listings, shopping modules, images, videos.
As SEO becomes more multifaceted, so too should your measurement. To take McDonald’s as an example, 25 years ago it likely had the number of Big Macs sold as a KPI. Back then it may have been a fairly solid indicator of the health of the business overall, but these days it wouldn’t paint such a rosy picture. That’s why McDonald’s has adjusted the way it measures success. accommodating a huge number of factors like consumer behavior, dietary needs, the complexity and regionality of its menu, and so on. In the same way, the role the SERP has on your business can’t be captured by the simple metric of organic visits alone. Consider a much wider range of metrics, and compose them together to tell a bigger story.
Content is (still) king
The first requirement for SEO success is to understand your customer. If you don’t yet have data-informed personas and segmentation—no psychographics—then it’s time to catch up. Learn whatever you can about your customers, then use that knowledge to step into their shoes and understand the type of content they want, need, and expect. It’s a team effort that will likely require considerable expertise in both research and content strategy, but it will provide the same foundation required for all good marketing, especially omnichannel.
Bear in mind also that Google holds technical SEO in high regard, including things like page speed, rendering time, and mobile friendliness. Fundamentals like page titles, meta descriptions, and on-page copy continue to matter, but also think about the many different ways people can find out about your brand, from optimized images and video to local listings, third-party content (e.g. influencers), and immersive experiences like AR and VR.
SEO has never been more SEO than it is right now; it is truly a holistic term, with connections to almost every other digital discipline. For instance, your decision to spend money (or not) on a certain set of paid ads is a part of optimizing your presence in a search engine. Just make sure your paid efforts are an off-on switch in your reporting so you understand in totality what the medium is doing for your business. Users, after all, don’t care about paid versus organic. They simply want to find the right information at the right time.
All this and more awaits in the full episode. Listen now!