I’ve been writing about search engine optimization (SEO) for more than 20 years.
Looking back, I realize actionable SEO insights need to be thoroughly updated in this era of constant change.
Circumstances have always changed quickly, but the pace of AI development in SEO feels harder to keep up with. There are many uncertainties in Search, and not all advice is timeless.
Our ever-growing to-do lists are outstripping our available resources, and so we must be diligent in how we spend the resources we have.
So, what are the top strategic SEO insights and tactical tips you should focus on in 2024 and beyond?
1. Conduct Audience Research As Well As Keyword Research
With classic keyword research, you learn how many searches a keyword is getting. With SparkToro V2, you also learn about the audience that searches for a keyword, uses words in their bio, or visits a website.
This is a game changer – and it’s arriving at the precise moment when SEO pros need to start creating the kind of user, buyer, marketing, and customer personas that I wrote about before in Customer Personas Can Transform SEO, PPC and Content Marketing.
To get a seat at the big table, SEO professionals must move beyond optimizing their sites, pages, articles, and content for an undifferentiated group of search engine users.
Why? Because one size does not fit all.
Now, digital marketers have been targeting ads at segments of people with specific demographics, intents, and interests for decades.
However, SEO pros seemed satisfied with trying to guess the intent of users based on the words or phrases in their queries.
Who can blame them? Before the arrival of SparkToro, keyword research tools could only tell SEOs pros“what” people searched for, but not “who” they were.
Now, SEOs and content marketers can get surprising insights into the demographics, interests, and information sources that influence their intent.
For example, let’s say that the B2C company or client you work for wants to know who searches for “pasta recipes”?
Well, SparkToro tells you that 119,000 to 151,000 people search for “pasta recipes” each month.
The tool also tells you that 45.9% are male, 35.2% are female, 3.3% are nonbinary/other, and 15.6% don’t reveal their gender in their social media bio.
Oh, they also visit websites like SimplyRecipes.com and Food.co, as well as search other keywords like “recipes chicken and peas” and “easy recipes for dinner pasta.”
Or let’s say that the niche audience that your B2B company or client wants to reach is the “VP of Sales.”
Well, SparkToro tells you that 94,000 people have “vp sales” in their social media bios. The tool also tells you that 71.8% are male, 14.4% are female, 0.8% are binary/other, and 13% don’t reveal their gender in their social media bio.
And they are searching for keywords like “account management in sales” and “sales and territory management.”
Finally, let’s say you’re doing some pro bono work for the Cancer Research Institute (CRI).
You could tell the folks at CRI that 88,000 people visit CancerResearch.org each month – 43.1% are female, 27.4% are male, 11.6% are binary/other, and 18% don’t reveal their gender in the social media bio.
This audience also visits BMJ.com and Science.org, and they search for “cancer cure immunotherapy” and “immunotherapy for treatment of cancer.”
So, you have a pretty good idea about the original, helpful content you should create for them.
Now, let me be clear: Conducting audience research does not replace keyword research.
But it does enable SEOs to avoid the trap of optimizing content for the “average” visitor to their websites. Guess what trying to be all things to all people does to their conversion rates?
2. Analyze The Meaning Of Queries
To return relevant results, Google establishes what users are looking for – the intent behind their queries.
With a better understanding of your target audience, you are now in a stronger position to analyze the meaning of their queries.
It’s worth knowing that Google took over five years to develop language models that decipher how the relatively few words users type into the search box match up to the most useful content available.
It’s worth reading what Google says about how its systems understand the “meaning of your query:”
“If you used words in your query like ‘cooking’ or ‘pictures,’ our systems figure out that showing recipes or images may best match your intent.
If you search in French, most results displayed will be in that language, as it’s likely you want.
Our systems can also recognize many queries have a local intent, so that when you search for ‘pizza,’ you get results about nearby businesses that deliver.”
“If you search for trending keywords, our systems understand that up-to-date information might be more useful than older pages. This means that when you’re searching for sports scores, company earnings or anything related that’s especially new, you’ll see the latest information.”
But don’t focus too closely on the trees, or you’ll lose sight of the forest. Instead, I recommend re-reading an article that I wrote back on December 16, 2020, which was entitled The Future of SEO Lies in the ‘Messy Middle’ of the Purchase Journey.
Or, to save you some time, here’s the strategic SEO insight that Alistair Rennie and Jonny Protheroe, who work on Google’s consumer insights team in Great Britain, shared in their 1,000-word article that was a summary of their team’s 98-page report:
“People look for information about a category’s products and brands, and then weigh all the options. This equates to two different mental modes in the messy middle: exploration, an expansive activity, and evaluation, a reductive activity.
Whatever a person is doing, across a huge array of online sources, such as search engines, social media, aggregators, and review websites, can be classified into one of these two mental modes.”
So, when you analyze the meaning of dozens or hundreds of queries, you can put them into two buckets: Exploration and Evaluation.
3. Create Relevant Content
What will you do with two buckets of queries? Create relevant content for each segment in two different mental modes in the “messy middle” of their purchase journey.
This may involve creating two different pages of content for each kind of user, buyer, marketing, and customer personas that your company or client is targeting.
Now, virtually every SEO pro on the planet knows what Google says about the “relevance of content:”
“The most basic signal that information is relevant is when content contains the same keywords as your search query. For example, with webpages, if those keywords appear on the page, or if they appear in the headings or body of the text, the information might be more relevant.”
And a veritable army of SEO pros know what Google adds about the relevance of content:
“Beyond looking at keywords, our systems also analyze if content is relevant to a query in other ways.
We also use aggregated and anonymized interaction data to assess whether search results are relevant to queries. We transform that data into signals that help our machine-learned systems better estimate relevance.”
But far fewer may be familiar with Avinash Kaushik’s “Excellent Analytics Tip#2: Segment Absolutely Everything.”
He said, “Never report a metric (even God’s favorite KPI) without segmenting it to give deep insights into what that metric is really hiding behind it.”
Now, Avinash posted this guidance to Occam’s Razor back on May 23, 2006.
But just because he shared this guidance years ago doesn’t mean that SEO pros should ignore it today. Some advice is timeless.
Here are some of the benefits you’ll gain by creating relevant content for different segments:
- Improving the aggregated and anonymized interaction data that Google uses to “assess whether search results are relevant to queries.”
- Showing senior executives, who often don’t understand all the complexity and magic that goes into creating relevant content, the impact it has on different segments that they do understand.
- Earning, in Avinash’s words, “a big fat bonus and promotion.”
4. Create Quality Content
Unfortunately, relatively few SEO and content marketing departments have been reorganized to produce quality content for their companies – and even fewer SEO and content marketing agencies have merged to provide quality content to their clients.
Who knows, maybe 2024 will be the year that everyone gets on the same page.
Google’s guidance on the “quality of content” has been fairly consistent for a long time:
“After identifying relevant content, our systems aim to prioritize those that seem most helpful. To do this, they identify signals that can help determine which content demonstrates expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.”
“For example, one of several factors we use to help determine this is understanding if other prominent websites link or refer to the content. This has often proven to be a good sign that the information is well-trusted.
Aggregated feedback from our Search quality evaluation process is used to further refine how our systems discern the quality of information.”
But SEO pros will want to read What is Google E-E-A-T? How To Demonstrate First-Hand Experience, because “Demonstrating first-hand experience is more important than ever for Google Search rankings.”
So now, after the SEO team identifies a relevant topic, the content marketing team needs to identify a writer with some degree of experience.
This includes first-hand, real-life experience using a product, visiting a place, or interviewing a person who has been there, done that, and got the t-shirt.
Hmmm. That sounds like what journalists did for hundreds of years before Google came along and disintermediated the media.
Although much ink has been spilled on the negative impact of Google on newspapers, what SEO pros and content marketers should focus on is Google’s devastating impact on the trade press.
By and large, trade publications have gone the way of the dodo.
The temptation is to fill the vacuum left by the death of the trade press with low quality product reviews that are cranked out by a bunch of freelance writers or some generative AI tools. Sigh.
First, you should read Google’s advice: Write high quality reviews.
Yes, I know SEO pros now have access to generative AI tools that can create crappy content quickly.
But creating short, unsubstantial, or “thin” content hasn’t been an effective SEO strategy since Google started rolling out the Panda update in February 2011.
So, don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Invest in the time and money to find people who have the E-E-A-T to create quality content.
Then, use Google Analytics 4 (GA4) to measure the return on your investment.
And recognize the limitations of using organic search traffic as a key performance indicator (KPI). Although media companies can monetize organic search traffic by serving up ads, most other organizations are trying to raise brand awareness, generate leads, or drive online sales.
That’s why most SEO professionals aren’t likely to get top management’s attention.
But, if you start using GA4 to show that organic search produces more conversions – like purchasing a product or registering for a service – than any other default channel except direct, then you are more likely to get a bigger budget, more staff, and a seat at the big table.
5. Evaluate The Usability Of Webpages
Every SEO pro that I’ve met over the past 20 years knows how to evaluate the usability of webpages.
For any of the new SEO experts that I haven’t met yet, here’s what Google has to say about the usability of webpages:
“Our systems also consider the usability of content. When all things are relatively equal, content that people will find more accessible may perform better.”
“For example, our systems would look at page experience aspects, such as if content is mobile-friendly, so that those on mobile devices can easily view it. Similarly, they look to see if content loads quickly, also important to mobile users.”
Get it? Got it? Good.
6. Comprehend Context And Settings
I learned a long time ago – because my business partner is located on the West Coast, while I’m based on the East Coast – that Google presents different results to different people.
So, SEO professionals need to comprehend context and settings.
Here’s what Google says about context and settings:
“Information such as your location, past Search history, and Search settings all help us to ensure your results are what is most useful and relevant for you in that moment.”
“Search also includes some features that personalize results based on the activity in your Google account. For example, if you search for “events near me” Google may tailor some recommendations to event categories we think you may be interested in.”
Nevertheless, I can’t tell you how many times a student in one of the online classes that I teach is shocked to find what data is saved to their Google account.
If you haven’t checked yourself lately, then go to myaccount.google.com and see for yourself.
Now, take a minute before adjusting what data is saved to your Google account to think about how to apply what you have just learned to SEO best practices.
Yes, most people are vaguely aware that Google uses their country and location to deliver content that’s relevant to their geographic area.
But going back to the article that I wrote on customer personas, do you see why search settings are also an important indicator of which results a specific segment of users is likely to find useful?
This is why one size does not fit all.
That’s why creating two different pages of content for each kind of user, buyer, marketing, and customer personas that your company or client is targeting is probably the most pivotal thing that SEO pros should start doing in 2024.
7. Prepare For The Impending “Searchquake”
The seventh strategic SEO insight and tactical tip for 2024 and beyond is: Prepare for the impending “searchquake.”
A recent post by Jim Yu for the BrightEdge SEO Blog entitled, Preparing for the ‘Searchquake’ that Will Impact Every Industry and Marketer warned SEO pros, “The field of online search is set for a seismic change in 2024.”
“The shift to Search Generative Experiences (SGE) is not just Google’s next algorithmic change. It’s the Search engine’s most significant change ever and represents a tectonic change that will impact every industry, company, and marketer.”
The history of Google algorithm updates contains more significant changes than you can shake a stick at, including Panda, Penguin, and Mobilegeddon.
So, why does Yu think SGE will trigger a “searchquake” that will be the most significant change ever?
BrightEdge conducted some research that found 84% of search queries will include generative AI when SGE is fully deployed by Google. Okay, that’s bigger than a breadbox.
But also read Why Google SGE Is Stuck In Google Labs And What’s Next,” because, “Certainly, AI will take a bolder role in search but that day is definitely not today.”
So, What Should SEO Pros Do While The Jury Is Still Out On SGE?
As I did a year ago when I wrote the previous version of this article, let me explain why SEO pros should adopt the 70% Solution.
Ty Kiisel’s article 70% Solution: The Marine Corps Framework for Making Battlefield Decisions, should be required reading for every SEO manager who wants to become the VP of SEO someday.
The Marines teach their young officers what they call the 70% solution.
It could be a good strategy to adopt for making decisions in situations where you don’t have all the information or resources you’d like.
In a perfect world, you’d have all the critical data you need to make informed decisions. But we don’t live in a perfect world.
Nevertheless, if you have 70% of the information you’d like to have, then you can still make good decisions – provided you accept the notion that you may need to adjust and compensate for the critical data you lack as you move forward.
And like battlefield commanders, most SEO managers never have all the resources they need to meet their objectives.
But it can sometimes be enough if you have good people and 70% of what you need. And finding creative solutions to challenges is a hallmark of successful SEO professionals.
Finally, are you 70% confident that your plan will succeed?
In other words, do you feel good about your plan’s success with the information and resources you have?
The Marines believe a well-conceived plan, along with taking the initiative, is more likely to succeed than doing nothing.
This is why I can confidently share seven strategic insights, bits of critical data, pieces of tactical advice, or search trends that will impact SEO in 2024 and beyond without losing too much sleep over the fact that one or two of them may not be relevant a year from now.
The Marines have given us a framework for making decisions in less-than-ideal circumstances.
That is why you should “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
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