SEO trends and tips for 2020
With voice search, mobile-first indexing and all manner of measures to ensure relevancy and authority in content, Google is forever keeping SEO professionals on their toes. Trying to stay ahead in the SEO landscape can be a difficult game. Here, our managing director Andy McCaul discusses the tips and trends that will enable brands to craft more effective SEO strategies in 2020.
Anyone working in SEO knows there’s lots of change. Google releases so many updates to its algorithm that it stopped announcing them all a while back. According to SEO software provider Moz, in 2018 there were a reported 3,234 updates. At The Bigger Boat, we are interested in updates and are always curious to learn about the impact and rationale – but we don’t let the volume of change distract us. For example, the number of updates that have significantly changed how we tackle SEO in the last 10 years is only a handful. Our advice would be to pay attention and be curious but don’t become distracted by it. Let’s take a look back at some of the more significant changes to SEO in 2019 and see how these might develop in 2020 to give you some actionable tips.
I’ve been a fan of Rand Fishkin for a long time – he founded Moz and the Whiteboard Fridays have been a staple for SEOs for years. I would highly recommend giving Rand a follow on Twitter. One of the things he pointed out this year really made me stop and think: ‘less than half of Google searches now results in a click’. This is something that seems to have crept up unnoticed to a point where it’s now massive and fundamentally different to what Google set out to do. Businesses change and we all have new ideas and adapt – why shouldn’t we? However, this is a pretty big one. Google’s entire foundation was built around reading text on billions of pages across the world and in the blink of an eye getting you to the website that best meets your needs (not Google). Now, half of every search delivers an answer that doesn’t result in a click.
That means for 50% of searches, the featured snippet (shown above) or similar is enough to satisfy a user’s need. This sounds alright on the face of it, but here’s the potential issue: Google isn’t writing the content – it’s happy for you to give it the answer, take the credit and, in return, you might not even get anything. The significant word here is ‘might’. You might get the click-through if you answer a question or you’re an authority on a topic, but you might not. You can’t control what Google does, but you can control your own strategy. It’s not ideal that we do not get 100% of the clicks, but it’s better to have the presence, impressions and some of the clicks than to have nothing.
Voice and natural language
Voice, featured snippets, natural language, machine learning and no-click searches are all intertwined. It’s really part of the progression of the search algorithm from pure robot to more human-like – kind of like Terminator 1 versus Terminator 2. In short, it’s about Google delivering accurate results.
Google has been working on interpreting language for a long time. In the early days of search, we used individual words and ‘+’ to link keywords together to get a better result. Fortunately, it has become less robotic and the search engine now better understands sentences and meaning. With recent updates (for example, BERT) and likely future updates to be focussed on this, everything is heading towards better understanding natural language.
Why? Firstly, it’s a much more robust and accurate user experience to understand what someone is searching for, rather than simply returning a result purely on keywords. Ever heard anyone say ‘you write like you speak’? For years we’ve seen plenty of very natural search questions in keyword research, pre-dating voice searches. We’ve always suggested that people build content around those questions, by answering the topic succinctly and then going into more detail. Voice is another key driver here. When you have to start the conversation with ‘Hey Siri’ or ‘Hey Google’, you are already in question mode physiologically, so the query that comes next is almost bound to be a completely natural question.
What you will see throughout 2020 is a continuation of the last few years: an increase in the volume of natural searches – written and spoken. And you can take advantage of this by using the same key principles as before – keyword research, producing great content and doing technical SEO. Business as usual.
This takes us on to the next point – all of the above supports featured snippets, meaning they are likely to become more frequent and those no-click searches might continue to grow.
Although featured snippets were not new in 2019, they should be a key focus for 2020. We know that Google is placing great emphasis and investment in understanding natural language – that is reflected in the rise of featured snippets. Take a look at Moz’s discussion around how voice search influences featured snippets.
Featured snippets nearly always show an image and short section of the key copy. Snippets are sometimes a list, especially if you use a word like ‘best’. It makes sense, as you would want to compare a few candidates in something that is essentially subjective, like the below. If you look at the full question, which could easily be spoken or written, you can see the featured snippet is actually based on ‘the best coffee bean’. Google understood which words it can ignore from the full question.
Content that uses keywords like ‘best’ has been a sound strategy for a long time – and it will remain so in 2020. Look at the keyword data and find other content themes that will trigger featured snippets and factor them into your content plan.
Featured snippets are showing up for all kinds of queries. They’re not always long-tail keywords or even things that sound like questions. Why? Because Google sees it as the best description for that query and will return that result as an answer to a question that features those words. For example:
First search = foil blocking. We get the below, which is the content from our client’s page. Well done us.
Second search = what is foil blocking? It’s effectively the same result and we still have the featured snippet. But because we asked a question, the ‘people also ask’ box appeared. This is a great marker for content to include either in your existing article or a new one, depending on what it is.
There’s quite a lot of information available to read up on optimising for featured snippets. The short answer, though, is there’s no quick fix, no cheat – just logic and hard work. Answer a question or define the topic succinctly early, then go into more detail later. Think about how it might sound as a voice answer. And as always structure the page and do the technical SEO right.
E-A-T and get rewarded
It’s never been enough to simply pull together a few clunky paragraphs for your site and hope to soar through the SERPs. But now more than ever there’s a need for in-depth, consistently high-quality content that pits brands as experts in their field and wholly answers users’ questions. Google solidified that importance with its E-A-T update in 2018. The need to establish and show expertise, authority and trustworthiness is not only vital for content credibility, it’s now a requirement to rank well too. Content creators should demonstrate expertise with relevant, quality content that’s been thoroughly researched. Better still, source genuine, respected experts to author the content or at the very least validate it. Become a regular contributor on your topic of expertise and ultimately, the higher level of expertise you can show, the more authority you’ll have on the subject. Google is big on trust – it wants to be confident you’re creating useful content that’s free of spam and overly salesy language and isn’t stuffed with keywords. But more than this, you can show you’re trustworthy by ensuring overall site quality, enhancing security features and highlighting evidence of your reputation through, for example, user reviews and engagement. The most successful brands were improving their E-A-T signals for years before the update was released – but it’s certainly not too late to start now.
Google started to switch to mobile-first indexing in 2018 and that is still being rolled out now. Although this feels like something that was announced ages ago, for some sites it’s only just happened and is still new. Therefore, it’s worth going back over the basics. Your website must be responsive (optimised for all devices), with a seamless user experience. Review it in Search Console and check for errors – run it through Google’s mobile check too. Last but definitely not least, do periodic user testing on the actual device itself with WiFi turned off.
It’s important to monitor search engine rank across mobile and desktop versions. There can be a lot of variation in rank between the two. We use Advanced Web Ranking for this, but there are many products you can choose to do the same thing. If you get mobile right, you have a good chance of ranking better for that device, especially if the competition has lagged behind in addressing mobile.
Site speed is now more important than ever and linked to mobile indexing and user experience. It should be a big priority for businesses and brands in 2020.
Having seen the impact of improving site speed on a client’s conversion rate, it’s safe to say we will continue to take it seriously throughout 2020. As far back as 2018, Google confirmed speed was a factor in Google Ads and Search.
While this is only scratching the surface, the following is a list of reasons why you should be seriously investigating and budgeting for speed improvements:
User experience. If it’s too slow to load on any device, users will click away.
Linked to the above, a fast site has a much greater chance of achieving a conversion, which is where the main ROI in speed optimisation lies.
Google confirmed speed is a ranking factor in search.
It’s a quality score factor for Google Ads.
Chrome is going to start highlighting a fast or slow site with badging.
There is a cost-benefit analysis to be done when making speed improvements to a website. It’s not going to get any quicker without time being put into it. Our advice, as ever, would be to focus on those ‘five out of five’ impact tasks, especially the ones that are a one or two out of five for effort. Examples of this might be moving to a fast host and using a CDN. After the most obvious improvements have been made, you will get to tasks that take a lot longer, but you shouldn’t let that put you off. Remember speed kills.
Links still count
Although internal links are valuable as part of technical SEO, what we are talking about here is external links – other websites that point to your website. This type of linking has always been considered ‘a vote of confidence’ by Google’s algorithm. A lot of work has been done in the last 10 years by Google to combat spammy links and other suspect link-building techniques. They can issue manual penalties and demote your website if it’s really bad, which can have catastrophic effects on a business. It makes sense the search engine would invest time in this, as it doesn’t want people to ‘game the system’. The problem is that it basically proves, if you had any doubts, that links are still important.
Not all links are equal but, again, that has always been the case. For example, a link from a relevant website with high authority is better than a link from a seemingly irrelevant and lower-authority site. However, last year Google confirmed that it uses ‘no follow’ links as a ‘hint’ for ranking. The historical view on ‘no follow’ is that you could get referral traffic from those links but not any SEO value. For the referral traffic alone, a ‘no follow’ link would have been valuable. Now Google has confirmed that it is a hint, it has even more potential importance. In short, high-quality links from trusted sources, whether ‘follow’ or ‘no follow’, count. Continue to build links through sound content strategies and don’t try to buy links from anywhere and everywhere.
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Written by Andy McCaul
Co-founder and digital marketing guru Andy ensures all projects are shipshape, and that we generate the best return on investment for clients.