The Future of SEO: What You Need to Know

Here are four moves every company must make on their journey toward content optimization.

Content marketing and customer engagement often go hand-in-hand. Yet, while A-B-C may be as easy as 1-2-3-according to the Jackson 5, anyway-SEO isn't quite that simple.

For many companies, SEO remains this mystical mix of keywords and clicks that equate to page views and revenue. However, content optimization reaches far beyond ideal search terms. SEO success doesn't rely solely upon luring customers and prospects to your page; it also means featuring the correct type of content once they arrive on-site.

SEO, as with all content marketing strategies, must be built upon reliability and trust. Mike Koehler, CEO and chief strategist at Smirk New Media, emphasizes that authenticity and transparency are critical when it comes to 'getting real' with audiences. "Brands need to be prepared to tell their stories the best way they can. Truth, not tricks, will ultimately be the arbiter of great SEO content."

But, while SEO affords brands the opportunity to be there for their audience at the moment they need them most, many leaders still struggle to implement programs that will effectively achieve their engagement goals. Here are four steps every brand must take to ensure their SEO strategy engenders the level of credibility and visibility needed to new and old audiences alike:

1. Determine what's worked and what hasn't for both your brand and the competition

Brands already understand that developing an effective SEO and content strategy means first stepping back to examine their current approach. An internal audit will reveal which keywords lead consumers to their page and how they can better tailor their content to reflect these search trends moving forward. Dallas McLaughlin, digital marketing strategist at The James Agency, explains that the first step in performing an SEO audit is to look at traffic patterns over time:

Has traffic increased or decreased? Is the content that's being produced earning brand mentions, links, and shares? If so, what types of content are resulting in the highest engagement rates, and are these engagements resulting in actual business results? What technologies and strategies have emerged or diminished since the last time the SEO strategy was reviewed and implemented? Setting plans for future SEO efforts comes down to reverse engineering what has and hasn't worked over the previous time frame.

However, leaders often fail to analyze their competition simultaneously despite the fact that such efforts can reveal critical optimization lessons. "An extremely comprehensive competitor analysis must be performed prior to defining your new strategy," advises Carrie Wick, head of global PR and communications for eKomi. "During this process, you'll gather ideas that may be implemented into your own strategies, as well as identify shortcomings and pitfalls that you must avoid. In this case, it's best to learn from somebody else's mistake, as opposed to finding things out the hard way."

Companies must consider the strength of their competition, especially those that fall within the top Google results, as these brands are the ones that have achieved similar goals. By studying what they're doing and what they've done, leaders can bypass mistakes and fine-tune their own strategies to reflect what they've learned. Ultimately, it isn't always bad to be one step behind the competition, as they often reveal the right path. It's up to your team, however, to follow and surpass their lead by gaining momentum and predicting what's around the next bend.

2. Demonstrate commitment by always doing what's best for the consumer

Matt Riley, CEO ofSwiftype, emphasizes that the goal of any SEO strategy is to find potential customers who are looking for something your business can provide or offer. Many companies find SEO to be quite difficult, however, because they don't know ahead of time if the keywords or phrases they're ranking for will reach the right audience until after they've put in the work. Therefore, strategists must commit to understanding which keywords might drive the right audience. One way to 'hedge the bet' on this is to leverage site search data, Riley adds. This 'intent data' tells leaders what their customers are searching for on their own sites and can help them prioritize which words and phrases to rank for in an SEO environment.

Abhilash Patel, co-founder and president of Recovery Brands, urges companies to ask themselves two important questions when it comes to SEO and content strategy: Is your company willing tomake an organizational commitment tocreating meaningful content and engaging with your audiences on social platforms? If not, what do you need to do to get there? Get that answer to 'yes' as soon as possible to achieve greater success. Many companies will opt for the convenience of farming everything out to an agency, but"social"isn't just a line item on an agency invoice, Patel notes. It's an organizational commitment to brand visibility and doing things that will create lasting signals across the Web.

Deep down, Lynn Woll, founder and CEO of Create Whimsy, emphasizes that SEO will always be about doing what's right for consumers by providing them the content they're searching for, at the moment they're looking for it. "It's about meeting the needs of your target audience in the micromoment that they're looking for something," she adds. "In today's world, we all have our mobile phone with us24/7and look for answers immediately.If you don't pay attention to SEO, you're not attracting your target audience when they start their search at their favorite search engine when they have that question." SEO inevitably extends beyond clicks, as this level of commitment promotes both relevance and trust.

3. Create relevant content that resonates with your audience's search terms

Companies can optimize their content to reflect popular keywords, but relevance ultimately dictates the success of any SEO strategy. Megan Geiss, marketing strategy director for Merkle's search team, stresses that, at its core, relevance offers the opportunity to differentiate. "Since as early as 2005, Google has been using a group of people to create Search Quality Ratings for content appearing in the SERPs," she explains. "Theyhave also increasingly made changesto theiralgorithms to highlight the need for unique, relevant content. All of theengines' topfocus is the user and user experience, so therefore the content you display becomes incredibly important. Strong, relevant content is what can set you apart from your competition and is a critical component in any SEO strategy."

"Content must include the right targeted keywords to support the goal of that piece and gain traction in search engine results," says Ben Kirshner, founding CEO of Elite SEM."Even further, avoiding common mishaps such as thin content or duplicate content can do more harm than good for your site's performance."

Marcus Miller, head of SEO and digital marketing atBowler Hat, adds that this uniqueness serves as the reason for your site to exist. For search engines, uniqueness provides a reason for them to return to your site often above other more authoritative sites that offer a poor content experience. Consider a series of online stores that all sell the same television and use the standard manufacturer's description. Sites that have unique, high-quality reviews, user reviews, commentary, and additional information, however, stand out because they help the customer make their decision. That's the value of unique content, and what works for prospects also works for search engines.

For instance, James Goodnow, attorney with The Lamber-Goodnow Injury Team in Phoenix, AZ,claims that the future of SEO depends on doing what's real. In his eyes, content marketing has redefined the legal industry and, by extension, his law practice."We're a digitally focused team of lawyers and legal professionals that thrives on content marketing," Goodnow explains."In a highly competitive niche often associated with traditional TV and outdoor ad campaigns, we instead drive in leads through the Web, and then convert our new clients with relevant, information-rich content.In this digital realm, we strive for our brand's voice or tone to be perceived assmart, creative, compassionate, tech-savvy lawyers."

While many onlookers believe Goodnow's firm gives away too many secrets to prospective clients by discussing how they handle their cases, providing best practices, insightful blogs, educational vlogs, and useful social media posts allows clients to learn about who they are and how they can help. For Goodnow's firm, the first step to successful content marketing means ranking high in organic search, and then providing useful material that people are looking for to solve their problems and make informed decisions. By anticipating or responding to questions that consumers are concerned about with relevant, meaningful content, the team can convert these leads into clients, which is ultimately the bottom line for any content marketing campaign. Secondly, the team strives to be thought leaders in the personal injury space with Web content that all points back to whatever initiative they're focusing on-such as their 'Stop Distracted Driving Initiative'-helping to ensure that all content pieces are working together. Goodnow ultimately aims to understand clients' pain points and respond with content that serves their needs.

4. Don't expect immediate results, but remain open to the potential for improvements

Despite all this hard work, leaders must realize that renewed SEO efforts won't necessarily demonstrate immediate returns. From the start, Adam Thompson, director and co-owner of 10x Digital, suggests that companies identify and maintain their current rankings, for they must "do no harm" to the progress they've made thus far. He also emphasizes that SEO efforts require time in order to build rankings and traffic. Competitors have been ranking for months and years, but those at the beginning of their SEO journeys won't outrank them overnight. Instead, allow at least six months before drawing conclusions from subsequent results.

Caitlin Boroden, digital marketing strategist for DragonSearch, also emphasizes that, in today's constantly evolving SEO environment, it'sextremelyimportant that companies don't put all their eggs inone basket. "The fact of the matter is that you never know what changes can happentomorrow, next month, or even next year," she highlights. "If guidelines or algorithms change and you're not prepared or able to act quickly, you may find your business in a dire situation. Therefore, keep your website technically sound, following the search engine guidelines, and keep up to date with all the latest SEO news available. However, don't forget your other channels: social media, outreach, paid ads, emailmarketing,and more. An omnichannel marketing strategy willstrengthenyour brand, but alsokeep you covered in the case of the unexpected SEOchange ups."

But, as companies navigate the ebb and flow of SEO strategy, Jayson DeMersfounder and CEO of AudienceBloom, acknowledges that trying something new always presents an uneasy challenge. "If you experiment with an untested strategy, you run the risk of wasting effort. But if you wait until a strategy is proven, all your competitors will likely be ahead of you. There's a balance between what's comfortable and what's new that each business needs to strike-though I usually recommend leaning toward the adventurous side.

To succeed at SEO and content marketing, companies must stop being afraid or intimidated. Every campaign has its ups and downs, and every business will have strategies that do or don't work. Leaders have to take risks and try new things, or they'll never get anywhere, DeMers adds. Temporary setbacks may arise now and then, but because SEO is such a long-term strategy, brands will always have the opportunity to recover.