The last year brought a lot of changes. Get set for one more. Happily, it’s less jarring than many, though it can have a real impact on your livelihood. As we all know, COVID has accelerated the rise of online shopping: A business that can’t connect with customers through the internet is one with a decidedly shaky outlook. Which makes it all the more vital to understand a transformation in search engine optimization.

Search engines have grown increasingly complicated. In 2011, Google released 538 updates, encompassing everything from new feature rollouts to changes in their algorithm. By 2018, that number grew to 3,234. Indeed, search engines are evolving so quickly that traditional SEO tactics struggle to keep up. Not to mention there’s currently a rapid evolution in the people using search engines. Think about it: We’re still in the midst of a global pandemic, but increased vaccine availability may have finally put the end within reach. For over a year, our search patterns have been impacted and we’re still adjusting today.

With all these changes, it’s easy to fall behind the curve. Don’t worry: We turned to SEO expert Kim Herrington to bring you up to date. Here are some highlights from our conversation, as Kim predicts where the industry is headed, and how changes by Google should impact your content strategy.

What does the future of SEO look like?

When most people think about SEO, they think about specific keywords and searches that people are doing in Google. [But] the more that people use Google, the less they use the same words over and over. Google has said — and keeps reiterating — that ~15% of searches they’ve never seen before, and they’re having to interpret them for the first time. So what they’ve been doing over the last few years is developing machine learning and AI to better interpret the semantic meaning behind keyword searches. And that’s made the topical focus of SEO significantly more important than the keyword focus.

This is especially important this year because Google just released a new version of indexation called passage indexation, where they’re actually looking at specific passages on a page instead of a page in its entirety. That’s a really big difference in the way Google is interpreting and understanding content: it’s actually breaking our content down into sections of meaning.

Instead of focusing on keywords and thinking about them from a whole page standpoint, we should be thinking about topics and how they interrelate with each other. We need to focus more on the reasons why somebody is going to search and the intention behind that search, and less on the actual words that they are using. Keyword research is still very important, but they’re looking for comprehensive coverage of that topic. Think about different sections you can create to address different needs that could be contained within a single search.

Not really. They did before [by] helping Google interpret different sections of the page — and there’s still some SEO juice that you can eke out by using jump links. And you should use them in terms of making it easier to navigate. But Google’s actually indexing each section of the page, and you’ll see this in search results now. When you search something, if you click on the featured snippet they’ll actually jump to and highlight that section of the article. This is a change in how Google is looking at content and interpreting it. [Jump links] can help Google understand what’s important on your page a little bit better, but it’s actually doing that basically on its own now.

What else should we have on our radar?

The other bit of it is making sure that you have a good backlink profile. One of the big things that people should pay attention to is that it’s not the volume of links that matters, it’s where the links are coming from that matters the most. Getting a handful of really good PR placements can do more for you than creating a private blog network and manipulating links. It’s about making sure that your message is being picked up by authoritative sources and using a more traditional PR approach to get backlinks.

When it comes to figuring out what kind of content you should be creating, ask yourself, “Am I helping my ideal customer get a comprehensive, authoritative answer for any question related to the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of what my brand does?” [Those] should be covered really extensively so that you are the authoritative source for every answer. The better you answer those questions, the more people want to contact you to get answers to those questions and buy your product. What types of questions and do our ideal clients have, what sort of content do we need to create — regardless of whether or not it’s ranking.

Google is taking that into consideration for ranking: content that you have that links to other content creating that site hierarchy within your own site, even if it doesn’t rank, because it’s showing that you are an expert on that topic. It’s going to help your rankings for the pages that you do actually want to rank.

What about distribution strategies?

You want to make the content not only informative but engaging enough that it’s going to allow you to gain meaningful links. And not just from listicle roundups or things like that, but a meaningful editorial link showing the expertise, authority and trust you’ve developed by creating that content.

And it can be, using your creativity as a content marketer, unique and interesting ways that are more geared towards what we commonly think of as linkbait — but in an honest, brand authentic way. Think about the PR aspect of content creation — how can I market this in the future? — before you even create it. [This] can help you cultivate links and distribute it better so that your message reaches more people, and you get the SEO added boost as well.

So it sounds like we should be thinking more broadly about SEO than just optimizing for keywords.

Yeah. It’s really about topics and intention. The more that Google understands the semantics behind why our searches are the way that they are, and why we use language the way that we do, those keywords are going to become less and less important. I’ve seen this over the last couple of years and it’s really starting to reach peak speeds. We’re at the cusp of machine-learning and AI starting to reach that superhuman, exponential learning ability. It’s going to change to be much more topic-focused than keyword-focused as they understand the relationship between words and meaning significantly better.

How does this impact keyword research?

It’s still really important. [But] I overemphasize that topics are super important because the topics should dictate how you do keyword research, instead of letting keyword research dictate what topics you’re writing about.

The topics that you write about should come from the standpoint of customers you want to cultivate rather than simply for ranking purposes. That’s where it comes down to getting your message in front of the right people. People will self-assign based on the messaging that you’re using. The push-pull effect of some messaging will pull people in, [but] they’ll also push people away based on the words that you’re using. The same thing happens with keywords and how people are using language when they’re doing searches. Certain customers will use certain types of words to talk about a specific topic while other types may use a different way of articulating.

Understanding the topics first and then dictating the keyword research from there is really helpful to make sure that you’re narrowing in on the exact type of customer that you’re searching for. This will increase your conversion rate and help you get more clients more easily — rather than attracting a bunch of bad leads.

What should marketers be doing for SEO that most aren’t?

Most don’t do keyword research at all. They think about the content they want to create and what the customer wants to see, but they are lacking keyword research. Because it still matters, it just matters less than before in terms of making sure the content is going to rank in search engines. And then the other thing is making sure that you get links. Those are the two things that content marketers overlook the most.

And then they overlook the fact that distributing your message on social media is not actually helping you build your audience and only cultivating the same people that you’ve already gotten through other means. You’re depending on the viral aspect of whatever message you’re creating. It really comes down to making sure that you’re creating content from the get-go with the intention of doing something with it that helps you get in front of more people.

What tools do you recommend using?

Google Analytics. Most content marketers don’t go back and see: How much traffic did we get to this piece? How did it perform in search? How did it perform on these different social media channels? We care a lot more about likes and shares than we do about actual traffic, so that’s a big tool that most people have that they’re currently overlooking.

The same goes for Search Console. You can look and see how many impressions your content is getting in search as well as clicks from organic search to see how it’s performing there. That will help you understand how you’re performing when someone sees your brand in search. Are you getting a good click-through rate? Those are the two main tools that I would advise every single content marketer to take a look at and understand what the reports are — because most don’t.

Finally, how is SEO intersecting with audio and visual media?

Google is getting a lot better at interpreting audio and visual media and understanding the emotions they create in us. Audio is a lot easier because of the voice technology that they’ve developed. They can transcribe it and then treat it the same way they treat text. It can interpret that information much more easily than it can visual content.

But they’ve been making a lot of headway with visual content. There are tools you can use to see how Google would interpret, through their visual API, what it’s going to see. They’re starting to also understand not just the composition and subject matter of digital media, [but] also the emotion and ambiance that visual media creates. More social media and third-party platforms are starting to allow Google to index that media. So for instance, you’ll start to see TikTok videos, with the appropriate settings, in Google search results.

As we start to open the floodgates of information between all these different mediums, Google’s getting a flood of information that they can use to better understand audio and visual media. We’re not quite at the point where audio-visual media is fully understood by Google, but that day is coming. Investing in thinking about how machines will interpret that content will go a long way to making that content reach more people.