SEO is dead. Long live SEO.

For the past few years, Google has been trying to refine its search engine in order to promote quality content over SEO. When Google launched Panda over a year ago, it  wanted to emphasize the importance of meaningful content that people actually found helpful. As such, they increased the visibility of search results based on things like views, shares and backlinking. Additionally, they incorporated more advanced algorithms that are effective at identifying copy-cat sites that mirror original content as well as features that can identify overuse of keywords.

seo4For many SEO professionals, cutting mirrored content wasn’t a big deal – original material has always been better anyway. However, when Google’s algorithms turned against keywording, many SEO pros were effectively kneecapped. Moreover, Google has not publicly released the secrets behind its search algorithms. Without hard data to go on, the process of unpacking Google’s methods in order to help writers create more relevant content has been a Herculean task. Nonetheless, computer whizzes the world over have been crunching the numbers and collecting evidence from interviews, research papers, U.S. patent filings and empirical observations to come up with a new list of search engine optimization tips writers can use to keep their web pages at the top of search results.

According to The Moz Blog, the No. 1 thing to remember with SEO is that the search algorithm is evaluating content, not people. Human beings read differently than machines. As a person, reading is a surprisingly complex task. We interpret texts, which means that we draw on our personal experience, prior knowledge and even the poetic elements of a piece of writing. This is why stuff like satire and sarcastic writing can exist, because people can read between the lines. Computers can’t do that. They look at things like content structure, repetition of phrases and keywords to determine what a specific web page is about.

With that in mind, it is important to note that keywords are still relevant, not matter what anyone says. They are decidedly less important than they were a decade or so ago, but they still help Google’s search algorithms figure out what a page is about. However, unlike keywording in the early days of search engines, there are measures in place now that will identify keyword spam. Basically, if a website features too much repetition of the same phrase, then Google’s algorithms will flag the content as keyword stuffing, which is a form of spam.

Instead, these search terms should be used much less aggressively. Rather than jam keywords into the article as much as possible, it is much better to sprinkle them over the entire piece. Placement counts for a lot in this case. In order to let the search algorithm know what your content is about, it’s important to try to get your targeted search terms into four locations: the title element, the URL, the body text and any images that you use on the page. Moz says that depending on the length of your article, you may want to consider including more than one instance of your keyword in the body, but you should absolutely take care to not go overboard. But how does Google figure out when you’re trying to actively keyword a piece and not just using the same word repeatedly?

The answer is term-frequency-inverse document frequency, according to Moz. This is where new SEO starts to get a bit tricky. TF-IDF grades words based on how common, rare or specific they are in comparison to other content, according to Google’s blog. This means that super common words, such as coordinating conjunctions like “and,” “or,” and “but,” are graded very low in terms of TF-IDF. Less common words and phrases, such as “marketing,” or “content,” are graded more highly. So if you have written an article about content marketing, then the threshold for the words “content” and “marketing” is lower than that of words like “and” or “but.”

If you really want to go deep into the TF-IDF rabbit hole, you can see how Google ranks the rarity of words on its Ngram viewer. Using this tool, you can see that the word “content” ranks significantly higher than the word “marketing.” This means that you can use the word “content” more frequently than “marketing” without needing to worry about getting flagged for spam.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, however. The Moz article notes that TF-IDF is decidedly a part of SEO, but it is hardly the whole story.

It used to be that writers would sacrifice the quality of their writing to maximize keywording. This meant that you had articles that were incredibly repetitious in order to maximize keyword saturation. Fortunately, Google’s search engine has been upgraded significantly to accommodate natural language. This means that you don’t have to lock yourself into repetition. Instead, you can use synonyms and close variants to diversify your language. For instance, if I wanted to write about “marketing to millennials,” then I could use terms like “advertising to Generation Y” and the search results would be largely unaffected.

Page layout
In determining what a web page is about, Google places a high priority on the way in which the content is laid out. This is because the placement of text helps the search engine figure out what information is the most important. Therefore, your header and main body text are going to carry a lot more weight than the stuff that shows up in sidebars or footers. Moz reports that the importance of these fields has gone up even higher recently due to pared-down mobile web page layouts. However, it is also important to note that repetition of words and phrases in the body and header will count against you significantly more than if it occurs in sidebars or footers.

Phrase-based indexing and co-occurrence
One of the defining differences between Google and lesser-used search engines is its use of co-occurrence and phrase-based indexing – in other words, Google’s ability to read your mind. Basically, Google is able to predict phrases that are related to what you’re searching for based on recurring connections between your search terms and other pages. So if you Google “selling stuff by writing helpful content,” the first results are going to be about content marketing.

You can use this to your advantage to increase your content’s visibility by finding points of co-occurrence. So if you’re talking about content marketing, you’re going to want to browse other popular sites to see what kind of co-occurring words or phrases you can use to increase your page’s search relevance.

seo6Changing your strategy
Search engine optimization has definitely changed over the past few years, but it is by no means a dead craft. Today, SEO requires significantly more finesse and technical savvy. But most importantly, it’s nowhere near as underhanded as it used to be. The best thing about the new face of SEO is that it allows people to be creative with natural language, which leads to much higher quality content.

How have you changed your SEO strategies to accommodate these changes? Have you discovered any search engine optimization tips on your own?

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