If there’s one particular part of digital marketing that is viewed with the most confusion, it’s search engine optimization (SEO). And it’s easy to understand why. Search engines like Google need to keep their ranking algorithms a secret. It’s critical to their survival as a business. And then, there’s all of the outdated SEO advice flying around the web. But things have changed in a big way, particularly in the last 5 years, yet that hasn’t stopped the dissemination of outdated information and strategies. So here are 8 things you need to know about SEO right now: #1. SEO isn’t dead – it’s just evolving Let’s get this one out of the way first. I’m sure you’ve probably seen a few of those sensationalized headlines claiming that SEO is dead. That’s pure click-bait because it’s not dead. … It’s just evolving. And all that means is that Google is constantly working to improve their algorithm to improve the quality of search results. So, the SEO tactics and strategies we use have to evolve as well. It’s the same for channels such as email, social and content. There have been articles proclaiming each one as being ‘dead.’ But the real truth is that a marketing strategy should never rely on a single channel. #2. Long-form content isn’t always the answer There’s one question I’m asked about SEO more than any other. It’s this: “How long does my content have to be to rank?” The short answer is: it depends. Long-form content is often thought to correlate to higher rankings. That’s partly due to how it’s more likely to earn backlinks. But, the reality is that your content only needs to be as long as it has to be in order to satisfy searcher intent. For example, if someone searches for “2017 bank holidays” they don’t need a 3,000 word heavily researched post with multiple citations. They just need a list of dates. And anything more would be fluff and get in the way. You could probably add some additional information to the bottom of the page providing it’s relevant – just don’t make someone work too hard to get the information they want. Otherwise they’ll just pogo-stick back to the search engine results page (we’ll talk a bit more about pogo-sticking later on). Here’s the bottom line: write as much as you need to in order to answer the search query directly. And ensure your content is as useful as possible. #3. Ranking for a keyword is meaningless if nobody is searching for it Do you ever find yourself targeting keywords you think would be highly searched for, only to rank 1 and get no traffic at all? This is common and simply because people aren’t searching for those terms. So how can you find out which keywords people are actually searching for? This is tricky. But there are several keyword research tools available that can give you an estimate of how popular a specific keyword is. Google does have its own keyword tool but its data isn’t very accurate. After all, it was designed purely for Google AdWords campaigns. From what I can tell, the most accurate traffic estimates come from tools like Ahrefs that use something called Click-stream data. So what exactly is Click-stream data? In a nutshell, it’s anonymized data collected by third-party tools such as browser extensions. #4. Optimize your search listings for clicks but don’t disappoint If you can encourage more people to click through to your site from organic search than a competitor, then that’s awesome. This isn’t necessarily about optimizing for specific keywords. This is more of a persuasive copywriting thing. But there’s a catch: Don’t big up your content so much that it’ll lead to disappointment. It’s like what I always say about headline writing: your headline is a promise and your content needs to deliver on that promise. So what can happen if your content doesn’t deliver on that promise? This can lead to something called pogo-sticking, which I mentioned earlier. Here’s how it works: Someone will type a query into Google and click through to a website. If they don’t find what they need to know, they’ll go back to the same search and try the next website. This tells Google they didn’t find what they need at the first website. If this happens often enough, it could signify to Google that the page in question isn’t a good fit for that query. So it’s critical to create content that answers a given search query in the best possible way. And write your SEO title/meta description in a way that won’t lead to disappointment when users click through to your site. Side-note: Sometimes Google will change your title and meta-description based on what it thinks is better. It’s not always right, but there’s nothing we can really do about it. #5. Forget writing for search engines – write for humans It used to be that if you wanted to rank in a search engine, you needed to write specifically for search engines. Usually, at the cost of the people that would actually end up reading the content. Like I mentioned earlier, SEO has evolved. And the reality is that it will continue to evolve. I’m still occasionally asked; “should I write for search engines or people?” It may seem like a strange question but there’s a lot of outdated SEO advice flying around the web. Here’s the reality: Writing for search engines and people is now the exact same thing. Search engines have become a lot better at separating low-quality content from content that’s truly useful and answers search queries directly. This is partly done through engagement metrics, although only Google knows exactly how this is done. We can only theorize and experiment. But SEO experiments are tricky because there are so many variables. Here’s what to do when you write content: Forget search engines and keywords entirely – this can sometimes lead to changing the way we write without realizing it. The key is to write for people because that’s what search engines want. #6. There are no top 3 ranking factors One thing that almost everyone in the SEO space has been wondering is: what are the top ranking factors? Recently Gary Illyes from Google stated that there are no ‘top ranking factors’ – the ranking signals that count more depend entirely on the search query and the results from that query. Typically, backlinks are considered to be one of the most significant ranking factors. But, Illyes went on to say that a huge number of results don’t have links. Particularly long-tail keywords. #7. Google applies link penalties retroactively Backlinks have long been thought of as one of the most significant ranking factors. And despite the statements made recently by Google, for a lot of search queries, they’re likely to be a significant factor. It’s just impossible to know which ones. Moreover, it’s equally as impossible to know which backlinks actually move the needle on rankings. Sure, getting a decent link pointing to your site is great. Especially if it refers traffic. But the reality is that low-quality backlinks can be dangerous. Not so much since Penguin went real-time rather than relying on refreshes. Thanks to this, and how Penguin is now more page specific, websites generally find it easier to recover from penalties. Well, algorithmic penalties that is. Before I continue, I should explain that there are two types of penalties: Algorithmic – this merely a penalty that is applied automatically. Manual – this is where a manual reviewer has determined that the site does not meet Google’s webmaster quality guidelines. Typically done when Google’s algorithm is unable to demote the spam links. Now, what did I mean by ‘Google applies penalties retroactively’? If you’ve engaged in questionable link building tactics in the past, if Google applies a penalty, they won’t just look at recent links – they look at everything. Particularly in the case of a manual penalty, it requires a significant link removal campaign for a penalty to be lifted. This is significant because a lot of people aren’t aware of this. #8. Modern link building is more about link earning Now, with so much confusion surrounding SEO and link building – what advice should you actually follow? The late Eric Ward’s advice on this is spot on. He said the best links are the ones you’d want to have if Google didn’t exist. That means links that generate traffic and introduce your website to a new audience. The best way to do this is by crafting link-worthy content. So, you’ll need to create content that is: Well-written Detailed Actionable/informative Research-based Data-driven content is great for link earning. For example in Ahrefs I can see that Buzzsumo has several of these types of posts that have earned a huge number of links: Damn. That’s a lot of referring domains! But there’s a catch: Most websites aren’t in a position to publish a piece of content like this and magically links from over 300 domains. The reality is that you need to get the ball rolling with a substantial content promotion campaign. In my recent post on content promotion mistakes, I list out a number of strategies you can use to get started. You could also: Partner with another influential brand/blogger Repurpose your content into different formats and contribute them to industry publications with extensive reach Pitch your story/data to journalists that write for top-tier industry publications Monitor HARO (HelpAReporterOut) for relevant queries The key here is to get clear on your target audience and leverage every opportunity to get your content in front of them. And the truth here is that your content needs to be worthy of their attention. When your content is, that’s when these promotional strategies will really start to pay off. Also, It’s also worth mentioning that some of these strategies will involve link building rather than simply relying on link earning. But, these are links you’d want to have even if Google didn’t exist. Conclusion As we’ve seen, there are plenty of things to be aware of when it comes to SEO. Plenty of misconceptions. Now, this post isn’t an exhaustive list. SEO is a huge topic, but this should give you some insights to take away with you and some ideas to put into action. Got questions? Let me know in the comments below.