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improve SEO in 2016: SEJ Summit Chicago

Tips to Improve your SEO in 2016 – Lessons from the 2016 SEJ Summit in Chicago

Recently, I attended the 2016 SEJ Summit in Chicago to get insights into the most current SEO best practices from top professionals in the field. Besides feeling like, for once, I was not the only SEO nerd in the room who happens to get excited by Pandas, Penguins and Hummingbirds (Google algorithm updates), Yoast plugin updates, and absurdly long blog posts and large amounts of data, I got more clarity on some of the SEO priorities and best practices of 2016.

SEJ Summit Chicago 2016 - improve SEO in 2016

Of course, I did not attend this conference just for kicks. So today, I will share my top learnings from the conference, and how you can apply them to your nonprofit or social enterprise to improve your SEO. If you’re still wondering why your cause should care about SEO, remember that SEO brings free traffic of people who want to find you and that the time investment can pay off for years to come.

Google Algorithm Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird updates

How to improve your SEO in 2016

In short, you can improve your website’s SEO in 2016 in four key ways:

  1. Pay attention to your mobile SEO
  2. Speed up your site!
  3. Take advantage of rich features
  4. Search intent is everything – what is your audience really looking for?

I’m taking the main lessons and top priorities that I took away from the conference, and will try to provide you with actionable steps to take based on each of these. These include what questions you should be asking and what steps you can take to improve your SEO in 2016.

1. In 2016, your SEO has to be mobile-centric

It is 2016, people are increasingly searching on mobile. Google’s Gary Illyes mentioned that in the summer of 2015, for the first time ever, more searches were conducted on mobile than on desktop. This means that there is no excuse to ignore mobile SEO. The reason you’re being outperformed by your competitors could very well be because they are better mobile-optimized.

It’s important to understand that the way users search on mobile is different, users’ expectations on mobile are different, and the way Google presents mobile search results is different, as compared to desktop.

Case in point: See how ‘Finding Dory’ appears in desktop vs. mobile search results:

While there are similar features included in both, in this case the mobile search results page has some extra features and it takes a lot more scrolls down to get to your regular results.

So what does this mean for your cause? How do you optimize SEO for mobile?

Questions to ask about your mobile site:

  • What percentage of your audience is coming from mobile?
  • How is your site optimized for mobile?
    • Is it mobile-friendly or AMP?
    • Are you suppressing anything for mobile? Should you? For example, if some of your content is not necessary on mobile or not well mobile-optimized, you may want to suppress it for your mobile site. If you do suppress any content, are you still presenting the full story? What elements do you need to add to your page to make sure that you do?
  • How fast does your mobile site load?
    • (see point #2 on how to improve site speed)

Steps to take to optimize for mobile search:

  • Talk with your developer about the resources necessary to implement Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) and whether this is something you want to pursue.
  • Check the speed of your site on mobile and see if/how you can optimize it (see point #2)
  • When you’re doing a content audit, check the percentage of organic traffic from mobile, how you show up in SERPs on mobile vs. on desktop and what your page looks like on mobile.
  • Check what your competitors are doing on mobile vs. desktop for your top keywords. What can you learn from them? How can you outperform them?

Also think about voice search. On mobile people may use their voices to search, and get spoken answers that, in Google, are drawn from rich snippets. We’ll get into rich snippets in point #3.

2. For the love of SEO: Speed up your site!

If a mobile site takes longer than 3 seconds to load, 40% of users will leave.

Let me repeat that to make sure it sinks in:

We’ve just discussed how mobile is becoming more important than desktop in search, but the same counts for social or other sources: more and more media is consumed on mobile, and you need to make sure that no matter what medium people use to land on your site, they are not turned off because your site loads too slow. It is also the main reason Facebook now has instant articles: faster mobile load times.

Here’s a mantra I often use to answer questions from clients or colleagues about how some or other feature will impact SEO:

If it is bad for user experience, it is bad for SEO.

The caveat here, though, is that you need to talk to your UX designers about how UX doesn’t just apply to people who are already on the site. Think about UX from organic search TO the site. Rand Fishkin explains this perfectly in his discussion on tensions & trade-offs between UX and SEO.

What this means for website speed: People are not patient and will not wait patiently for all of your content to load to find out if they want to read your content. A slow site is bad user experience, and hence, bad for SEO. As Carolyn Shelby, Director of SEO at Tronc (formerly Tribune Publishing), said: your site needs to be a lean, mean, efficient machine.

From Carolyn’s presentation, questions to ask and steps to take to speed up your site:

Questions to ask about features that affect your site’s speed:

  • What is your website meant to do? Pick one or two things and make sure you’re awesome at those things. You can’t meet the needs of every audience, so don’t try to please everyone.
  • What content can you suppress from your mobile site?
  • How many tracking tools do you really need? Each extra pixel that needs to be fired off will cost more time.
  • What else can we do to speed up our site?

Steps to take to speed up your site:

  • Evaluate your plugins. Delete any that you don’t need or are not being used.
  • Make sure you don’t have bloated code. If it can be written in one line instead of three, make sure to do so. Get rid of code that doesn’t serve a useful purpose.
  • Minimize file sizes and mind your image resolution. Delete any images from your media library that are not being used.
  • Ony deliver the things that are necessary for user experience.
  • Prioritize above-the-fold content.
  • Don’t have too many ads.
  • Again, talk with your developer about AMP. AMP is designed to speed up mobile websites, it is easier and faster than going mobile friendly. There is even an AMP plugin for WordPress blogs.

Another great lesson from Carolyn: Just because something is available, doesn’t mean you need to use it.

Some great tools to get to the bottom of your page speed issues:

3. Adapt your strategy to rich features

Google is changing the way it presents search. Ideally, Google is trying to answer the user’s question without them having to actually go to any pages. There are now all kinds of rich features and featured snippets that enhance the way that a search query is answered on the search page. And Google is using these featured snippets and other rich features for voice search as well. Search for ‘Finding Dory review’ and it will read out one of the critic reviews for you. Search for ‘arthritis symptoms’ and it reads out the symptoms from the medical card info, which is based on Mayo Clinic’s content.  

If you want to stay relevant, it is important to adapt your strategy to these rich features. If your data does not make sense with what you expect from your previous experience (e.g. you’ve increased your ranking but your click-through-rate has decreased), it is likely because the search results are presented differently and people are getting their information from these new features. We need to adapt. 

Questions to ask about rich search results:

  • How are you currently performing in rich results?
  • In what (other) ways can you leverage rich snippets, structured data, and schema.org?
    • Reviews?
    • Events?
    • Info about our organization?
    • Local SEO?

Steps to take to leverage structured data and rich snippets:

  • Evaluate your content and determine what content you have that could show up for a featured snippet. Then make sure to present your content in a way that increases your chances to show up for featured snippets. You’re going to have to test and see what works, as Google itself is continuously testing this, as well. But you have to try, otherwise, someone else will take that coveted spot and take a significant number of eyeballs away from your content.
    • One tip I give my clients to help Google understand your content better AND increase the chance of showing up for a featured snippet: think of your content like a video interview where the questions will be edited out. What questions is your content answering? Make sure that when you answer these questions, they could be pulled out as a snippet by themselves.
    • e.g. instead of  ‘What is arthritis?’ ‘An auto-immune disease that….’ you’d say ‘What is arthritis?’ ‘Arthritis is an auto-immune disease that..’ The only thing is that you won’t edit out the questions. Ideally, your questions are subheadings.
  • Implement structured data
    • Evaluate the performance of your structured data in Google Search Console by filtering the Search Appearance for rich results.

4. Search Intent is Everything

SEO is not really about how you can rank for that fancy keyword. SEO is about understanding what your audience is really looking for – the search intent– and providing them with the best answer in the most user-friendly way possible.

If you understand that and act upon it, you will get SEO right, and many changes that Google will make won’t matter. Why we search won’t change. How we search, will.

As Ryan Jones of SapientNitro and WTFSEO put it:

Why we search doesn’t change. Stop trying to give me words on a page, give me a solution. Help me accomplish something.

Ryan advised the following:

Stop asking:

  • How do we rank for [keyword]?
  • What tricks can I use?

Start asking:

  • What would people who search for [keyword] find useful? What are they trying to do?

Then build something to help them.

Ryan is right; how people search will continue to change. For example, we now search a lot more on mobile, in the future we may search on other devices. Those are things we’ll have to adapt to. But these are more technical / UX problems (how do we optimize our site for mobile) or content problems (how can we be relevant on mobile). Not SEO problems (though of course all these things are interrelated).

In the solution, focus on the messaging

In building that solution, we have to look at the messaging. And the key to messaging again lies in search intent, not in demographics. In the words of Erin Everhart of Home Depot:

Intent is more important than demographics.

Just demographics are not enough. Behaviors and interests change even throughout the day; we change our minds. We need to change our messaging to appeal to intent.

This we can do by appealing to emotion more than logic. We need to get people to make decisions using more than just their head. This message is true for Home Depot, and it is even more important for nonprofits. 

Questions to ask to uncover your audience search intent:

  • What is your audience really looking for?
    • What is their ultimate goal?
    • What do they need to accomplish this goal?
    • How can you provide added value on this journey to an answer?
      • What information can you provide?
      • What tools can you give them?
      • How can you inspire them?
    • How does your messaging appeal to their ultimate search intent?

Steps to take to answer search intent:

  • Do your keyword research. Find out what your audience is looking for and what words they are using to look for it.
  • Do a content audit: how does your content stack up against your keyword research findings?
  • Evaluate gaps between content you have and what people are looking for; find opportunities to create new content
  • Evaluate if you are truly answering the search intent
    • How can you be more relevant, helpful, inspirational?
  • Make SEO a part of your content calendar process:
    • The SEO expert should provide your content team with actionable insights of content your audience would like to see, how your existing content is performing, and how you can improve with SEO.
    • Your content team should ask your SEO expert to find SEO opportunities for whatever content you have planned, help you find new content ideas based on SEO insights, and help you optimize old content.

Now that you know your SEO priorities, take a few minutes to write down the areas on your site where you think you are doing great, and the areas that could use improvement. Then, talk to the right people in your organization to make it happen. Find other useful presentations from the Summiton Search Engine Journal’s Slideshare

What are some other things that you think are important to improve SEO in 2016? Leave a comment below! 

Rianne Olde Keizer

rianne@mediacause.org