The time to take SEO beyond Google is now
Data from SimilarWeb shows how much SEO traffic some of the biggest names in Tech get relative to their total traffic: it’s more than 30% on average*! WeWork even bought its own SEO tool company, Conductor, and Amazon owns Alexa Internet (not the voice assistant).
*The data comes with two limitations: first, SimilarWeb’s data is good but not perfectly accurate. Second, many of the brands I looked at have a high consumer focus.
SEO is the most attractive user acquisition channel right after viral growth. It’s scalable, (technically) free, and brings qualified traffic. And yet, the time to take SEO beyond Google is now!
Let me explain.
SEO traffic is more important than ever
I mentioned that SEO traffic is cheap, scalable, and qualified. Those are innate benefits of SEO. But there are also three good extrinsic reasons for SEO in 2018.
Google > Facebook
Social networks – mostly Facebook – have failed to be the golden goose of traffic they pretended to be in the beginning. Facebook gave publishers and other companies a taste of what life could be like – then dropped them like a hot potato. When Facebook rose from the ashes of Myspace and opened the traffic floodgates, most publishers fell for the temptation of clickbait.
Fast forward to 2018, we see one player benefiting from Social’s struggle with fake news, echo chambers, and useful engagement the most: Google. “The Search Engine” has beaten Facebook as #1 referrer in mobile traffic, desktop traffic, publisher format (AMP vs. Instant Articles), and source of (Google) news.
Even Twitter is being rivaled by Google News traffic.
Social Media is far from dead, but it wasn’t able to replace Google as #1 source of traffic.
Ads are…a mixed bag
Ads are still a viable way to generate business, but only for business that can afford them. If customer acquisition cost is too high to leave a good enough margin between lifetime value, they’re not a source of sustainable growth. Young startups shouldn’t bank growth on ads, anyway. For most companies, ads are a channel for awareness spikes around campaigns and ground noise, but not for a constant stream of traffic that carries a business.
Facebook offer the finest ad-targeting on the web, but the price per ad has risen by 29% in 2017.  On top of that, users are mostly annoyed by ads. Pixalate found that almost 13% of clicks on mobile video ads are by mistake.  Lumen used eye-tracking to find that only 4% of ads receive more than 2 seconds of engagement. 
More people than ever use ad blockers. According to PageFair, ad blocker usage has been growing 30% YoY in 2017. People use ad-blockers for security-reasons, to avoid interruption, speed up sites, and avoid ad-overload.  Ironically, Google ranks sites with interruptive or too many ads (interstitials) lower and Chrome comes with a native ad-blocker (Firefox plans to catch up). 
Content = overkill
Content is cheap and easy to produce – producing outstanding content is not. When Google started to fight web spam more rigidly around 2011 and introduced more ranking factors over time, content turned into the main driver of SEO. That has led to a flood of (mediocre) content. A BuzzSumo analysis of 1 million posts found that 50% get less than 8 shares. 
These are all good reasons to double down on Google, right? No!
Now is the perfect time to diversify your SEO strategy beyond Google. Why?
Taking SEO beyond Google is more important than ever
As good as things look for SEO and Google, there are three important reasons to not just rely on SEO.
Reason 1: Competition
I mentioned competition in the realms of content production getting fiercer and that’s also true for SEO all around. It has become a real thing that many companies pursue seriously. They’re far from executing optimally, but the overall standard of SEO has risen. There is only so much shelf space in the search results and, due to new devices (soon even without screens), it’s getting smaller. Logically, the fight in the search results is also getting fiercer. It’s a game of constant on-upping. The average length of content ranking on #1 was already 1,890 in 2016. 
(Google Featured Snippet)
This fight is really taken to the next level by featured snippets. Those are answers to the questions people ask Google – whether in a browser or to a voice assistant. Even though the site that provides the featured snippet tends to get a lot of traffic, it becomes a winner takes-it-all situation.
(A study by AHREFs showing that featured snippets seem to take away traffic from other search results)
The other side of competition is the question “who is ranking well?”. The answer: big sites, such as Wikipedia, Amazon, YouTube – and the 16 largest publishers in the world – dominate the search results pages. 
Once a site gets large enough, it benefits from SEO Network Effects: by ranking well for lots of keywords, the chance of getting clicked on or being linked to is much higher (both seem to be important ranking factors). That in itself fosters better rankings, which get more clicks and links, etc. To a degree, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, even though Google tries to shuffle results. It’s harder for small sites and young companies to come up in search.
Reason 2: Google is getting aggressive
Google’s business model has shifted in the last couple of years. The original deal was that websites provide content and in return Google would send them traffic. Now, Google wants to display an answer right away, which cuts right into the business model of many companies. Google’s tests of “zero result SERPs” emphasize that shift. [2, 3]
A selection of services Google provides directly:
- Travel + Tourism (flight booking, hotel search + ratings, local guides)
- Local search (business reviews)
- Q&A 
- Job search
And those are only services connected to Google Search.
Google is also aggressive in other ways, for example updates. In August, Google released at least two bigger algorithm updates. One came to be known as the Medic update and, as far as we can tell, it wasn’t even about spam. Yet some sites lost tremendous amounts of traffic. Google can be an unstable source of traffic and that makes it more unreliable.
The big G is quite smart in the way it stimulates change on the internet. AMP is a great example: it can bring loads of traffic to publishers and Ecommerce brands, but it also takes a lot of effort to implement and standardized web development forcefully. AMP’s main strength lies in caching and standardization, the page speed improvement is actually not that high. [7, 8]
I mentioned that Google ranks sites with too many ads lower, but ironically Google itself has become more aggressive in showing ads on search results pages. Paid results cover everything above the fold on mobile (sometimes on desktop, too) and have become less distinguishable from organic results. Whereas paid results were once color coded and easy to distinguish from organic search results, they’re hardly different nowadays at all. 
(Change of Google ads over time from SearchEngineLand)
In the end, Google is a public company that answers to shareholders and needs to grow. I don’t think it has to be as aggressive about it, but that’s a different question. In the second quarter of 2018, Google made about $32b in revenues, of which $28b came from ad-revenues (87.5%).  They’re going to monetize ads as much as they see fit and users are willing to take. That comes mostly at the cost of organic search results.
Reason 3: More click-less searches
The last reason to diversify SEO is how people will search in the future. The smartphone changed the search landscape significantly and voice assistants will do so, too. We see Google preparing for that with Featured Snippets, the basis for voice results. Not all types of searches will be affected. Users will rather look for quick answers than doing sophisticated research, but the impact is already noticeable.
So, how do you diversify SEO?
The point I’m making here is this: do SEO but not just for Google. The principles of SEO can be applied to a wide range of platforms and cases. That protects your business against unforeseen and foreseen changes related to Google.
There are three things you can do.
Extend your SEO strategy to video
YouTube is the second largest search engine and has a huge user base of 1.8 billion MAU.  In fact, it’s more a hybrid of a search engine and a social network. While Google sends traffic to sites (which is changing now), YouTube tries to keep users on the platform, so they watch as many videos a possible #walledgarden.
But you can still apply many of the concepts from organic search to YouTube, for example the concept of keywords and keyword research. Hence, it makes sense to translate content that performs well on Google Search into videos. Good YouTube videos have a high chance to appear in Google Search as well, so you can kill two birds with one stone.
When creating video content out of web content, do the following:
- Look for content that perform well in SEO (ranks for many keywords, has a lower bounce rate and higher time on site than average)
- Create several videos (at least a series of 5)
- Create video scripts (with the help of an agency if necessary)
- Record the videos
- Optimize for video SEO
- Monitor performance
- Keep shipping
How to do video SEO is a topic for another article, but you can optimize videos similar to textual content for better rankings in YouTube search and referrals from other videos. Like on other social networks, engagement is key (video CTR, watch time, thumbs up). It takes time to build a YouTube channel, so don’t just upload one video and call it quits. Ship continuously for a while to really scope video out as a format for your business.
Direct incoming traffic to a medium you can control
When SEO gets harder, you need to make more use of the traffic you get. One way to do that is to convert visitors to a closed environment like Slack or Email. You can fully control these platforms and interact with subscribers.
What you can do to combine SEO and Email:
- Analyze on which pages you get the most Email sign-ups and what organic keywords these pages are ranking for
- Personalize Email onboarding based on those keywords
- Test content with Email campaigns and then roll it out on your site/blog
- Interact with your audience through Email (and get feedback on your content)
- A/b test Emails and transfer the lessons to SEO, e.g. headlines
You should at least test different headlines, see which ones perform better, and use these lessons for (SEO) content. But you could take it much further and write mini-blog posts that you can test in Email campaigns. Then, if they perform well, you flesh them out for SEO (and Social Media). In the end, you combine your analytical stats from Email and SEO to understand what topics, headlines, and content works well before you create long-form content or roll it out on your blog. All too often, SEO is treated like an isolated channel. With the importance of content and user signals, however, there is much more room for synergies with other channels.
Spread your content
Too many people and brands create content just for one channel. That in itself is not a bad idea, because you should create content for a channel. But that shouldn’t stop you from repurposing it. The idea of repurposing is that, after you created content for a primary channel, you make it fit for another channel.
A couple of idea for content repurposing:
- Repurpose an article as LinkedIn story, Twitter thread, Medium post, Pinterest image, SlideShare deck, or Quora answer.
- Repurpose a podcast episode as blog article, infographic, and prepare quotes as little images for Social Media.
- Repurpose a slide deck as blog article and record it.
The idea is not just to establish a presence on other platforms and communities, it’s also to make the most out of your content. Most sites have a content power curve, meaning a few articles bring in the most traffic by far. Those are the articles you should start repurposing into all sorts of formats. That makes it easier to build momentum on other platforms and test them out in a cost-efficient way. Once you see what’s successful on other platforms, it’s easier to double down.
Spreading content is not about repurposing, though, it’s also about publishing content on other sites. Guest articles and features broaden your reach, attract new readers/customers, and increase your share of referral traffic. Sure, they might also get you good backlinks, but when that is the only purpose, the strategy is doomed to fail.
(Co-marketing campaign between Trello and Buffer)
Seek out sites with complementary products, similar target audience, and good, original content. Try to form a partnership, instead of going for a one-off project. The value of two or more brands working together is huge.
SEO is still great, just less controllable
Is this the point at which I declare SEO dead? Absolutely not! SEO is getting harder, more crowded, and less controllable, but it’s still a great channel to drive business for most companies. That being said, the signs point at a change with the transition to the next wave of technology (machine learning, VR/AR, IoT) and the Web 4.0. If the trends continue, SEO will change even more than it already has in the last 3 years – and with change comes risk. It’s always good to be prepared and now is the time.
I didn’t even mention the fact that SEO ranking factors have become so diverse, manifold, and subtle that it’s next to impossible to reverse engineer them. 10 years ago, organic search was built around fewer ranking factors, which allowed us to impact them more effectively. Now, Google rolls out an update with massive effects and we have almost no idea what’s going on.
Take your strategy beyond Google and transport the lessons from SEO research to other channels. It’s like a good investment portfolio: invest in multiple assets that are not dependent of each other.
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