Let’s face it. Today’s SEO is like the Labors of Hercules for many businesses.

Each year, Google changes its search algorithm around 500–600 times. 2016 has already been a roller-coaster for marketers who are trying to keep up with Google… and we can expect much more yet to come in 2017.

Cockpitphoto credit: #Checklists make #flying #safe via photopin (license)

While many of these changes are minor, Google occasionally rolls out a major algorithmic update (such as Panda, Penguin, and the Hummingbird) that affects search results in significant ways.

With so much scattered information about SEO, I reached out to Sam Hurley, a UK-based SEO veteran with years of experience on both agency and client site, to round up his ideas about the most important trends and strategies in SEO to brace for.

Sam’s ideas have been recognized by many global media outlets, including BBC, NBC News, Daily Star, Global News, and many more.

In this SEO playbook, we will break down for you:

  • How to stay in front of Google as it evolves at a light speed.
  • Algorithm changes SEO professionals should anticipate.
  • Ways you can work with (not against!) the constantly evolving ways Google changes.

What have been the key SEO trends marketers should brace for?

Let’s recap on Google’s algorithms geared towards on-site signals:

Marketers have been surprisingly challenged with less major algo updates than previous years. That said, we’ve still seen large shakeups spanning user experience on mobile devices (‘Mobilegeddon’) through to ‘quality’ content (‘The Quality Update’).

Echoing this, the slow-moving, content-orientated Panda 4.2 was released. This refresh appeared to hit, not too long before what many witnesses described as a complete reversal – further testament to the unpredictable nature of Google. (Cough, remember rel=author…?)

There’s been a lot of change concerning the importance of structured data mark-up, which offers greater foresight to searchers and increased visibility for websites on the SERPs. This extra presence can take the form of rich snippets, breadcrumbs and sitelinks (to name a few) providing coveted, increased real estate.

schema seo markup

The Knowledge Graph has become a key driver of brand visibility on Google since it was first introduced during 2012, not so good for many but imperative for local search battlers and individual entities of status. (Yep, entities. That’s all we are to Google). Now Google is also implying that structured data mark-up could affect rankings in the near future…

What are the on-site SEO priorities?

Cutting through the many news stories, hype and animal titles, there’s common patterns here regarding on-site SEO and it’s no different than what has already been drilled into us for a long time.

Solid technical structure and user navigation which mirrors this clean organisation.

Logical information architecture which provides value to visitors at all stages of intent. This maximises visit durations and depth. (The Chrome browser holds 45% market share and MUST collect usage data, no matter what they say. It’s going to look bad to Google if a visitor leaves after viewing a single page, before pogo-sticking to a competitor. Ouch).

Internal linking within all body content (where it makes sense), applying keyword rich anchor variants of diverse tail lengths

Seamless mobile responsive design – mobile searches on Google have now surpassed desktop searches and it is imperative to have a slick website to accommodate this.

responsive design

Source: Gravitatedesign.com

Structured data mark-up on all relevant elements (avoiding mark-up spam).

Local identifiers including consistent NAPs (name, address and phone numbers) within footers and a trustworthy contact page. The rise of mobile voice search means this is nothing less than essential to deploy alongside structured mark-up and mobile responsive design.

Regular, newsworthy stories which indicate you as an authority in your industry.

Consistent, thought leading content which provides valuable information or advocates emotion. Think long-form blog posts of 2500+ words with attractive imagery, interactive microsites, how-to guides and whitepapers.

Engagement focal points including large social share and follow icons and a reliable, crawlable commenting platform like Disqus.

Application of visible trust signals (partner logos, memberships of governing bodies, SSL certification…) and authentic social proofing to solidify user experience while encouraging positive usage metrics.

What are the off-site SEO priorities?

There’s never been a time to be more diligent with backlinks. Competition is fierce and shady link tactics (for ‘good’ or for ‘bad’) are rife.

Google once invalidated the concept of negative SEO having any impact. Nowadays, we hear different. In addition, the real-time Penguin 4.0 update is soon to be released; which to many, will offer a faster recovery from link-related penalisation.

In contrast, becoming burdened with a penalty will occur just as quickly if Google’s rules are broken. There have been more scares for ‘black-hat’ troopers in the form of another link-network de-indexation.

Local search results have seen heaps of transformation – Google’s continuous tweaking of local packs and the Knowledge Graph make for tricky terrain for smaller businesses. There’s been a lot of misunderstanding surrounding the introduction of Google My Business and the grouping of separate Google properties such as Google+ Local pages. (Some confusion noted here and here.)

At least they offered their support…

google for business Source: Searchengineland.com

How to Earn Backlinks?

Backlinks are still thought to be the most influential factor in Google rankings, and I truly believe that. Providing epic, on and off-site content is deployed in parallel, a combination of highly relevant anchors surrounded by contextual content, keyword rich title tags (semantically solid, not stuffed) and CTR-focused meta descriptions see pages climbing that high wall of Google SERPs.

It seems Google isn’t as advanced as they make out – we are often mesmerised by the fancy algo tweaks and recent advancements such as RankBrain, the artificial intelligence, machine-learning spectacular. It is this boundless fascination with shiny new objects which steers us away from the old-fashioned stuff which still has great impact…

How can you be so confident?

This is based on personal experience through years of client and in-house work. I must stress the importance of variety – I would never condone the application of say, exact-match backlinks in a manner which represents 19% of an entire link profile…

anchor text

           Source: Hmtweb.com

I would however, recommend building your brand and relationships to earn this type of links on authoritative websites to the tune of perhaps 4% as long as they garner link clicks, social shares and encourage conversation.

There’s undoubtedly a huge difference between Google’s interpretation of an exact-match, service-orientated link (SEO Firm London) opposed to an informational exact-match (Quick Guide to SEO). In the shadow of the new Penguin refresh, this must be taken seriously. Any instances of exact-match should be unique, too. Along with this, keep the frequency of new backlinks looking sporadic and there won’t be anything to worry about.

But Sam, isn’t that ‘gray hat’ SEO?

My general advice: Don’t get caught up in Google’s news. That’s what they want. It is important to stay on-top, but not to become consumed by the media frenzy. Test, test and test some more until you find what works for your niche.

I tend to go against the grain because putting it simply, who’s going to win; those who follow the herd, or those who experiment? I feel the more weight a website holds towards ‘white hat’ SEO, the more ‘grey hat’ SEO is allowed to proportionally seep through undetected.

black hat gray hat

It’s just ratio. Don’t be ignorant; an astute marketer will wear all ‘hats’.

Can you explain that using an analogy?

Think of the big banks. We see their cheerful adverts on TV with that typical joyous music, lulling people into a false sense of security. Yet underneath the pretence, we have an inkling of what’s really going on. We don’t mind too much, as long as it carries on in the background and doesn’t cause us too much hassle. We still use the banks every day. That’s how to go about link building… Google is just the TV audience.

A marketers and SEOs, we’re all here to do the same thing, and that’s to manipulate the search results. A lot of actions we take are against Google terms and conditions. It’s just a case of how clever we are at doing so, undetected.

What off-site SEO strategies to leverage?

Spend a great deal of time networking and building relationships – I love this topic so much that I’ve written super-helpful guides on influencer discovery and influencer outreach. Build a rock-solid personal brand as well as the company brand.

Use a growing social circle to nurture online presence and backlinks will come naturally as part of the process. Links can often take the form of favours.

Leverage your network to acquire guest post opportunities on industry-specific blogs. These guest posts need to take the form of thought-leading, inspirational content pieces which utilise attractive imagery and other visual cues such as infographics and new data-findings. Stuff people are going to find useful.Guest posts are not freakin’ dead! Even without backlinks, they convey personal and brand notoriety.

guest blogging no dead

Focus on acquiring a combination of branded and mid-to-long-tail anchors, with a sprinkling of branded head-term anchor backlinks from a select few trustworthy sources. These anchors MUST look natural and NOT shoehorned.

For example, there might be an authoritative blog round-up opportunity featuring data trends covering brands in varying sectors. ‘KillEmAll Weed Killer’ could feature as a link next to their plentiful supply of information, looking natural amongst a bunch of other branded backlinks. Brand + exact-match = Winner.

For the most part, concentrate on informational anchors instead of service-led anchors. Link out to lots of other relevant sources in your off-site articles to disguise any possible signals of ‘manipulation’.

long tail

Source: Elliance.com

Concentrate on gaining reviews within Google+ and other platforms such as TrustPilot. These can then be displayed in SERPs using schema, and on-site too.

Ensure NAPs are consistent throughout all reputable directories to aid local and mobile search.

Get active on authoritative blog and forum commenting. Provide extra insights to others’ content and incentivise engagement. Add links to personally written material when appropriate. This isn’t for link equity; this is about conversation and relevant traffic.

Push forward with those social signals – and don’t say some businesses are too boring for social media! It’s been proven that quality and quantity of tweets affect rankings, Facebook shares even more so, and who really believes Google when they say their own social network doesn’t affect SERP positions?! Yeah right.

social media networks

Social media presence is part of the brand-building package. One cannot exist without the other. Heightened social interaction garners website traffic, domino-effect sharing and backlinks. Whether directly or indirectly influencing rankings, it doesn’t matter. Social media is critical. Google’s deal with Twitter is yet another indicator of this.

Give testimonials everywhere it makes sense to. Consider all connections past and present, any tools, partners, clients and charities. These testimonials will often provide juicy, branded, followed backlinks. Be sure to push for it, tactfully.

Don’t forget LinkedIn. Tap up everyone and request personal recommendations. Maximise the power of your profile by adding a nice followed link to your website.

Create outstanding infographics which can be distributed on reputable infographic sharing sites. Reach out to industry influencers and see if they are willing to feature your graphics and link back to you. You could even create an infographic solely for a highly authoritative site in return for a link – an irrefusable gesture.

Purchase followed backlinks with due diligence. I can hear the gasps! It pisses me off when the term ‘paid link’ is met with shock and turned-up noses. This process goes on all the time, links are bought and sold by some of the largest, most reputable websites in digital marketing in the form of guest posts. Would you believe it? All you have to do is ensure these backlinks are gained sporadically, masked with a number of links to other sources while utilising natural, longer-tail anchor texts.

If your guest post site labels the post a sponsored article yet follows your backlinks, you can bet your website the Google police will find you out. Be clever.

Purchase nofollow links from trusted sources all day long. Banner advertising, editorial backlinks, governing body memberships – they all aid brand exposure and help balance the ratio of any followed exact-match backlinks.

Syndicate press releases through press distribution platforms such as PRFire and Cision. Use entirely nofollowed, branded links and watch your brand awareness grow.

Invest heavily in content distribution. Due to the intense saturation of content marketing and limited demand, ‘build it and they will come’ is just not the case. At least 65% of your marketing campaigns should be focused on the dissemination of material. 

What SEO tactics should marketers STOP?

  • Crappy 100 word blog posts
  • Sneaky mobile redirects
  • Interstitial ads and over-use of annoying pop-ups to organic, or any visitors!
  • Obvious paid backlinks
  • OTT internal linking
  • Internal links to same page
  • OTT portions of exact-match anchor text backlinks which promote products or services
  • Site-wide backlinks from client/partner websites
  • Footer backlinks
  • Backlinks from irrelevant sources
  • Backlinks from sites/profiles never managed or updated
  • Blog comment/forum backlinks just for the sake of link-juice
  • Backlinks from low-quality directories and social bookmarking sites
  • Backlinks from low-quality guest blog sites purely existing for link spam
  • High proportions of backlinks from relevant yet unauthoritative sites
  • Obvious link wheels between all owned websites 

mobile seo

Source: Adstage.io

What to watch in SEO?

The continual rise of the Knowledge Graph and its presence in Google will expand. The changes over the years tell us everything. We’ve gone from zero to approximately 19% of queries resulting in rich/direct answers with 75% of these showing links. Expect these numbers to fluctuate in a way which isn’t welcomed by marketers.

Life is only going to become more difficult! Google are pushing to keep searchers on their platform for as long as possible because it was never built for the profitable gain of websites…

Desktop search becomes obsolete. Mobile usage will surge as new phone technology is released and pre-millennials are encouraged to move with the times. This obviously affects the SERPs and organic real estate. Advertising on Google becomes almost compulsory to gain adequate visibility on mobile devices. SEO or PPC? This question may no longer bear any relevance.

Ads will consume most of the real estate on desktop SERPs too. As mobile usage grows, desktop advertising becomes an ultra-targeted market, lucrative for certain niches. We’ve come a long way since 10 blue links – ads on the left hand side too?

Greater ranking signals for backlinks which gain clicks. It only makes sense that a ‘natural’ backlink on an authoritative website should attract clicks and traffic which sticks. I expect more weight to be given to such backlinks, made official by Google.

Real-time Panda. Need I say more?

Rankings will update on the fly following every fresh ranking signal. Similar to real-time algos, rankings will change just as fast thanks to the relief AI will bring to Google’s workload, making the accurate tracking of positions more difficult. Rank monitoring tools will have to adapt.

About Sam Hurley

sam hurley

Sam Hurley is a lateral-thinking digital marketer holding 6+ years’ experience, currently heading up the search department at Midas Media Digital Marketing Agency.

He has achieved success for both agency and client-side businesses from SME, national to international blue-chip organisations, gaining invaluable experience along the way.

Catch him on Twitter.

11 replies
  1. Steve Fitz
    Steve Fitz says:

    Great article again Sam. The real-time Panda equation is something I thought would happen a lot sooner than it did. I predicted something similar to this three years ago http://digitaldomination.com.au/google-algorithm-equivalency-score/

    It didn’t quite roll out that way, but as Google starts looking at their own interest from an Ad revenue point of view, it makes sense that this change will have the same effect. IE: More people spending on Adwords and less reliance on SEO as a sole strategy.

    • Sam Hurley
      Sam Hurley says:

      Glad you enjoyed it Steve – thanks for your comment.

      Interesting theory! I can see the similarity to my thoughts there.

      At the end of the day, Google will never risk taking any focus away from their $60+ billion per-year revenue source. They’re only going to intensify it, as any business in that situation would.

      What that means for organic is anybody’s guess – but it ain’t gonna be pretty 😉

      Google’s renewed partnerships with Yahoo! and Yahoo!’s partnerships with Bing make everything a tad incestuous…which does bring to mind the word ‘monopoly’, leaving marketers and business owners with no real choice in years to come.

  2. Mark
    Mark says:

    Great post! Love the importance you place on online reviews. I agree that it’s important both for search reasons but also because customers are looking online to find out about businesses before they make a purchase. Online reviews simply have to be part of a solid strategy.

    • Sam Hurley
      Sam Hurley says:

      Cheers for your comment Mark! 🙂

      Social proof in this day and age is CRITICAL – as you say, customers rarely make a purchase without first searching for reviews of the brand. 61% of Ecommerce customers in fact, according to Econsultancy!

      When considering the generally lower costs involved in Ecommerce goods, that percentage is much higher still for service-led or B2B purchases.

      Any business which ignores that is a business missing opportunities!

  3. Jack
    Jack says:

    This is a great article but what a click bait title. Every single thing on that list has been relevant for the last 3-4 years. You could change the year in the title and wouldn’t know the difference.

    Albeit, sold go-to article for anyone looking for a simple guide on what to look out for

    • Matthew Capala
      Matthew Capala says:

      Hey Jack, glad you liked the article and you found value in reading, As the publisher of Search Decoder I was responsible for picking the headline. I felt like Sam went above and beyond putting this together, and in my view his insights were so in-depth that they warrant the ‘ultimate playbook’ headline.

      I think there is a ton of mentions of new 2016 SEO trends and innovations, but the point Sam was trying to make – “cutting through the many news stories, hype and animal titles, there’s common patterns here regarding on-site SEO” – so we laid out the SEO strategies that actually will work for website in 2016.

      While we mentioned the new SEO speculations, it’s not like putting a cherry on the top of your 2016 SEO strategy will propel you ahead in Google if you don’t have rock-solid on-page SEO. Should you optimize for RankBrain yet? [ What does that even mean? 🙂 ]

      In a way I feel like, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and so – as Google removes spam and adds new user signals to its algo – having all the fundamentals of on-page SEO are as relevant today as they were 3-4 years ago… if not even MORE important today.

      Thanks again!

      • Adam LG Ring
        Adam LG Ring says:

        Matthew and Sam,

        Thanks for the article. The heading and content are just fine. Things don’t change completely year to year and this article is indepth, generous and up to date. These comments add even more insight. In a space where a lot of the advice is not that useful it is great to find an article that is not derivative or a rehash. The only cost to people is the time taken to read it; can’t say fairer than that.

        Director ACP
        Disclaimer: I am not associated with the authors, just an honest opinion.

        • Sam Hurley
          Sam Hurley says:

          Hi Adam – thanks very much for your thoughtful comment. Much appreciated 🙂

          We’re glad to have provided value for your time with this article. I aimed to try and cover everything in a simplistic manner – sometimes not an easy task within a single SEO post!

          Matthew is a master of this so definitely come back here and check his latest material each week or so, I’ve found myself doing the same.

          Just tweeted you too – wish you and your country all the best Adam…



  4. Matthew Capala
    Matthew Capala says:

    Hey Sam, great article, even though I try to follow all the Google changes and SEO trends, I’ve learned new things working with you on this article

    One thing I wanted to ask you as a follow up, you mentioned RankBrain, the new Google’s “artificial intelligence” algorithm, do you feel like it’s another PR gimmick or the future of search?

    • Sam Hurley
      Sam Hurley says:

      Hey Matt,

      Thanks for your feedback, I very much respect all your material and contributions to the SEO community; it’s an honour to be featured here on Search Decoder in your presence!

      Happy to have provided you with more juicy info – that’s great to hear 🙂

      (Drum roll) RankBrain: It does always strike me as a PR stunt every time Google hits the headlines with official statements. The fact these things go public usually hints that ulterior motives are at work!

      The bottom line: Yes, the algo is becoming more advanced. What does that mean for SEO? I doubt anything major as long as we play the game right. Instant ranking fluctuations may begin to hurt smaller businesses who are in ‘traditional’ niches seemingly untouched by Google for a long time. (We see many antiquated websites ranking for all the wrong reasons at the agency!)

      I guess RankBrain could all get slightly out of hand. At least with human configuration, Google are able to see what goes in —> PROCESS —> what comes out.

      If we’re talking machine learning / AI, what happens in the middle? Nobody knows. That sounds like dangerous territory to me!

      RankBrain et al is definitely the future. Whether that’s a good or bad future is difficult to predict. I’m definitely more concerned with organic real-estate and it’s slow demise as we’re pushed into spending on ads.

      P.s. Remember Terminator? 😉

  5. Matt Kellogg
    Matt Kellogg says:

    Thank you Sam! I am relatively new to SEO and really learned a lot from this. You can tell you have a deep understanding and knowledge of SEO and just wanted to let you know that this provided me a ton of value. Cheers


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