Oscar Wilde once said “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months”.
Anyone following SEO advice in the 20 or so years since search engines were first invented may have similar feelings about SEO; indeed Google doesn’t just update their algorithm every six month, but over 500 times a year!
So, how can you adopt an approach to SEO that works? How can you appear on the first page in Google for the most important keywords? And importantly, how can you implement an SEO strategy that will be effective in the long run?
To find a definitive answer we’ve researched 6 different large scale SEO and marketing studies completed by authoritative sources in recent months and compiled the results. The studies we used are:
Backlinko analysis of 1,000,000 search results correlating numerous different factors with position in the search rankings.
Bright Local survey of 1,973 Local SEO professionals looking at how large a role SEO plays in their company currently and which SEO strategies are most in demand.
Moz survey of over 150 marketing professionals specializing in SEO looking at how important they feel different factors are currently and how they anticipate factors changing in the future.
Moz survey of 435 agencies and experts asking which link building strategies they use and which are the most effective.
Audience Bloom survey of 357 Marketers asking ‘What works in online marketing?’
Sales Force survey of over 5,000 global marketers asking (amongst other things) how they anticipate the future of marketing looking.
Some of the above surveys also look at recruitment, marketing spend and various other topics, however we’ve focused just on the aspects that answer that vital question – “What SEO strategy should I use to market my business?”
Is SEO Effective?
If SEO works it indicates companies would plan on increasing their SEO budget and SEO companies would anticipate growth. Three of the studies looked at this question, the rest simply assume if you do SEO properly then, yes, it works!
The most significant indicator that SEO works is that of over 5,000 global marketers Sales Force surveyed, 97% said they plan on increasing their SEO budget or keeping it the same.
What is the best SEO strategy?
The first 2 surveys look at the best SEO strategy overall, the third looks at which service is most in demand.
Based on the first two studies, the top priority items are links, links, links and links. There’s a minor disagreement in whether links to the page or the domain are most important, however this could be explained by the Backlinko study correlating positions for individual keywords and if you’re only considering one keyword, links to the page are most important, however for marketing professionals looking at overall traffic, links to the domain as a whole are more important than links to any one page.
In Bright Local’s study they asked “Which service is most in demand from your customers?” Link building only appeared in 8th position, with 9% of respondents saying it was the service most in demand from customers. This survey looked specifically at Local SEO, where links could arguably be considered less important, however it’s more likely that customers simply aren’t aware of the importance of links. This suggests a need for SEO companies to educate customers in why link building matters.
Bright Local also asked what was the most time consuming / tedious task was and link building was rated first, however with a substantial drop in the number of respondents saying this since 2013:
- 2011 – 17%
- 2013 – 41%
- 2014 – 34%
- 2015 – 13%
In 2013 Google toughened up on spam networks, link farms and automatic links and this explains why link building suddenly became more difficult. Since then, as more companies have accepted that quality link building and content marketing is the way forward, link building has gradually become easier and less tedious.
Having quality content of a decent length also featured in the top 4 priorities with all 3 surveys, with the Backlinko study revealing that the average first page result in Google contains 1,890 words! They also found that pages with at least one image appear significantly higher in the results.
Given the importance of links, one measure of ‘quality’ is ‘Will people spontaneously link to this content?’ When writing creative content, particularly blog content, or advice pages, this should be a question at the forefront of your mind. If you write great, relevant content and people link to it, you fulfil the 4 most important criteria according to the first two studies.
Google’s SEO guide used by manual reviewers states that Google evaluators should only give the “Highest” quality rating to pages where it is “obvious that considerable time, effort and careful, thorough research has been applied to the main content” and where “The page and website are expert, authoritative, and trustworthy for the topic of the page”.
Writing content is therefore far more than just meeting a certain word count, or including keywords a certain number of times, but is about truly offering something unique and of value to your readers.
What is the best link building strategy?
Where the surveys identified link building as a separate activity, we’ve put the results below. Where they grouped all SEO activities together, we’ve simply only listed the ones relating to link building. 4 surveys specifically evaluated different types of link building.
Each of these 4 surveys reveals a similar picture. The links that matter are “In-depth and topically relevant”, require “content creation and optimization” and need to be “from high-authority sites”.
The Moz.com survey of 435 agencies and experts says that the most effective link building tactic is content publication / promotion, guest posting, etc. Our own experience of providing a wide range of SEO services is that it’s essential to create unique, original content with each link and that guest posting and infographics are two of the most effective strategies – both of which require research and writing content that offers a unique insight into the industry.
It’s interesting that in the Backlinko study ‘Exact match anchor text’ had a significant correlation with keyword position, however in the Moz.com study of 150 marketing professionals, “Diversity of link anchor text to the page” appears instead. These may appear contradictory, however this is understandable because the Google Penguin algorithm penalises pages that have too many keyword rich anchor text links going to them. SEO professionals are aware of this risk and keen to avoid it, whereas The Backlinko correlation only reviewed successful sites, so won’t have taken into account sites penalised by Penguin. To take both studies into account, it’s best to have some links to a page that use the exact match anchor text for your target keyword, but also to include some diversity to avoid a Google Penguin penalty.
Any SEO expert who’s up-to-date with Google’s algorithms understands that link building isn’t just about counting the number of links to a site, but is instead about focusing exclusively on building high quality links. The graph below from Google Trends shows that over the last 5 years the term ‘link building’ (in yellow) has been steadily on the wane, with ‘content marketing’ (in red) gaining steadily in popularity. We’ve also added a line showing the trend for ‘social media marketing’, as an added benchmark.
This reflects the gradual renaming of ‘link building’ to ‘content marketing’, however this change is far more than just a change of name and reflects a different approach and mind-set, with a focus on incorporating links in unique, quality content.
The Future of SEO
The following 4 surveys address which factors will increase in importance, the first two over a year, the third over five years and the Bright Local study by asking which SEO tasks SEO experts wish they could do more of, suggesting these may become more important in the future.
*We’ve deleted business tasks from Bright Local’s responses and only listed SEO factors.
It’s harder to identify a pattern in these future SEO predictions, not necessarily because there is a disagreement between the studies, but because of the methodology and questions asked and the options available. Smart Insights looks at which digital marketing activities will have the greatest commercial impact in 2016, whereas the Moz and Audience Bloom studies ask responders to estimate the change in impact compared to now. The Bright Local study reviews which tasks local SEO experts wish they could do more of.
Content marketing is the most clearly visible thread throughout the studies, (expressed as “Analysis of a site/page’s perceived value” in Moz’s study), however a range of other tactics all appear in the top 4 factors and each will have their own merits.
Neither the Audience Bloom nor the Bright Local surveys gave mobile marketing or mobile friendliness as an option to choose, however the fact that 100% of marketing professionals in Moz’s study thought mobile friendliness would become more important or stay the same in Google’s ranking algorithm is a sure-fire indicator that having a responsive web design that looks good across all devices is essential.
Other points of interest are that in Moz’s study 55% of marketing professionals predicted that the effectiveness of paid links would decrease (vs 4% saying increase) and 49% that the influence of anchor texts would decrease (vs. 3% saying increase). In the Audience Bloom survey they also asked “Which strategies do you feel will become LESS effective in the next 5 years?” 59% of marketers responded with ‘Traditional Advertising (Print, Radio, etc.), with PPC advertising second with 20% saying this will become less effective.
A couple of other survey questions that caught my eye were:
It’s interesting that marketers themselves prefer learning about new topics through blog posts and infographics, above other mediums and that even when asked a leading question like “What is the best name for link building?” 36% of respondents chose “Content Marketing” over link building.
SEO has entered a new era and it’s important to embrace the new and take stock of old strategies and carefully evaluate them and decide which to keep and which to abandon.
Several aspects of SEO, like keyword research and analysis and reducing bounce rate didn’t appear much in the top factors of the reports, but were still considered as valid and important, however content creation and link building really dominated the top recommended SEO strategies in the 6 studies, with a focus on offering something of unique value to the reader, not just to Google.
While the SEO algorithms might change every day, the overall trend is clearly one towards quality. Create a responsive, mobile friendly website. Write articles and design infographics or other content that your visitors find inspiring enough to share or link to. Market your site via a quality link building campaign that includes guest posts on high authority sites.
The advice that’s been floating around for years – “Do what's right for users and search engines will reward you with higher rankings”, is actually starting to become true, but don’t forget about the basics!
Indigoextra Ltd is a creative content marketing company. We offer an international SEO consultation and marketing service that includes guest blogging, infographic design and marketing and researching rich, engaging content for our clients’ websites.