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SEO in 2018: Google Changes, Search Behaviour and Marketing Insights

This article was updated on: 07.02.2022

Rand Fishkin is a regular speaker in the SEO industry. His weekly Whiteboard Friday videos are always well worth a watch. I’ve been watching his session at the Web Summit, where he explored how SEO will look in 2018. I recommend having a watch, as there are lots of really interesting insights within – watch the video here, or check out his slides below:

Google search dominance

What the data Rand presented shows is that Google still sends most referral traffic to websites than any other source. More than Bing, more than Amazon, more than Facebook. It still shows that, if you want to attract traffic to your site, Google is going to be your primary channel to do that.
The finding that Google still dominates referral searches – in spite of the increasing SERP features that just a couple of years ago, everyone thought would reduce CTRs – is quite interesting. When Google first introduced featured snippets and quick answer boxes, many people wondered how they would continue to draw traffic through to their sites, if the user query was answered within the SERPs themselves. But what we see today, and moving in 2018, is that far from taking traffic from us, this SERP features actually present us with a plethora of new opportunities to rank – namely, by targeting those rich results. Look out for Edd’s post on the topic of featured snippets, coming soon on the Impression blog.
That said, Rand doesn’t go into specific industries or audiences – while trend data is interesting, we still need to look at our own data to understand what works for our clients’ audiences. That means we need to spend the time reviewing our own data to understand exactly what channels are working for us. To give a practical example, we are finding that, in some cases, advertising on Bing is yielding a better return for specific clients than Google, even though Google has the greater reach. So, as with all things digital marketing related, we take the trends on board but also invest time in reviewing our own data to gain the best insights.

Google as a suggestion engine

The idea that Google is a ‘suggestion engine’ rather than a search engine is by no means a new one. As personalisation has improved, what I see on my device will differ from what you see on yours, even if we search the same thing.
That’s because Google wants to present the best results generally, but also specifically for your own personal needs. That means, as Rand shows in his example, that once we have shown favour to one source of information over another, Google will also prefer that source when it meets our needs for another query. Of course, on the whole, that can work in the user’s favour; once you’ve read the digital marketing advice here on the Impression blog, for example, why would you want it from anywhere else?!
It also represents a challenge for us as marketers, though. When we know that Google is going to incorporate our historical preferences into its ranking decisions in the future, we recognise that our chances of ranking for a query where our competitor has previous been favoured are lessened.
Practically speaking, the way we resolve this, as Rand outlines in his slides, is to choose; either we target people at the top of the funnel as well as the conversion point, or we accept that we need to do a lot more at that conversion point to win.
Of course, personalisation is a factor in Google’s ranking decisions. But it’s not the only factor. Let’s not forget that a whole range of other factors come into play in showing the quality and relevance of our site, and what we’re not saying here is that simply appearing in a user’s history will be enough to get you to the number one spot in spite of all those other things. Remember the basic principles of SEO – quality content and links – and you’ll outrank your lesser performing competitors, even if they’ve been favoured by the audience in the past.
At the same time, recognise the value of capturing a user’s attention early on. Many of the strategies we are implementing with our clients at the moment centre around the idea of keywords segmented by conversion point; while we know that conversion rates will be lower at the awareness end, it’s still essential we have visibility there if we are to encourage users through that conversion journey in the future. You need look no further than our own Impression website to see that strategy in action.
More and more, SEO is about understanding audiences, not search engines, and 2018 will be no different. We need to get the technical excellence, and we need to understand how SEO works, but even simple tasks like keyword research are so much more user driven than they were 5 years ago, even.

How does this influence our marketing decisions?

The marketing mix is potentially huge, and we believe that only through strategic decision making can we utilise the channels that drive the best results for our clients. So it’s always important to review what works for you and make your decisions based on the best channels for your business and audience.

With that said, the focus on the end user has been increasing over the years to the point where today, all savvy marketers recognise the requirement and necessity of a ‘user-first’ approach to all we do.

That means investing in strategies that aren’t just about quick wins. We want to invest in long term strategies, whether that’s more traditional SEO or PPC campaigns, through to more creative (and potentially much lower converting in the short-term) strategies around digital PR or content marketing, backed up by other channels to help move users through the conversion funnel. Essentially, our marketing scope is getting wider, while still retaining that laser focus on end results.

I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this; feel free to comment in the box below!