How to do SEO in 2016

How I did SEO in 2016.

The main problem I want to write about here is that SEO has become so complex and individualized that many say "nothing works anymore" or "SEO is dead". I really don't want to join the "SEO is dead" conversation here, but rather show an approach to SEO in 2016. Maybe it inspires you to think about your current approach.  

This post is inspired by Aaron Wall's Reinventing SEO.

I love seeing my job as cool as the "operator" from "Matrix", but I guess that's "a little" exaggerated ;-).

Status Quo

Google hast just announced Penguin 4.0, which will be the last of its kind. Why? Because it has been integrated into the real-time algorithm, or as Google calls it "core algorithm". That means it's not an algorithm update anymore that needs to manually be pushed live, but rather its signals (conditions) are now constantly influencing a site's ranking.

The same procedure was applied earlier to Google's Panda algorithm, a quality filter.

On top of that, Google becomes better and better at understanding semantics, using RankBrain. That means Google more and more understands the meaning behind a search, interpreting the user's intent.

Check this result for the query "take out coffee Paris". The old Google would have simply shown you Cafes that offer cafe à emporter - coffee to go.

Take out coffee Paris
Google understanding search intent

But the new Google understands that Americans (since looking in English) like the paper cups filled with black gold, while in France (and many parts of Europe) that's not part of the etiquette! Google understands the problem that people have who look for "take out coffee Paris".

Where am I going with this?

SEO used to be very straight forward, but nowadays it's very complex to understand implications and impacts.

A used to cause X. In 2016, there's a high chance A causes X, but it could have also been B or C. Reverse engineering becomes harder and harder and is often tied to the particular entity (website).

That is also closely connected to the increasing focus on content in SEO and the digital world. It fulfills two purposes: relevancy, since search engines can only read text (yet) and look at how happy users are with the content on a page, and attention, since good content is shared and attracts people. Just ask Jay-Z what releasing a Kanye West album exclusively on Tidal first does for a label, to see how powerful content for a platform / brand could be.That does not mean SEO is dead or nothing we learned works anymore. It just means that things have become more complicated and we need to reinvent ourselves as SEOs in order to facilitate these challenges.

That does not mean SEO is dead or nothing we learned works anymore. It just means that things have become more complicated and we need to reinvent ourselves as SEOs in order to facilitate these challenges.

Here is what to do.

First, we need to understand that SEOs have to split up their time into two things, besides the mandatory project management and self-education:

  1. Macro optimization (how to optimize the site / platform on a large scale?)
  2. Micro optimization (how to optimize single pages for them to rank higher?)

Some companies may be able to hire one SEO specialist for each of the tasks.

Let me go a little deeper into both specializations:

Macro SEO - building a city

macro seo building a city

Macro SEO revolves around large-scale tactics. What's one thing I can roll out on many pages or across the whole site that'll benefit SEO and users?

Macro SEO is very technical.

I don't want to explain all the tactics and methods that are involved in macro SEO in detail. If you want to know more about them, please either comment on this article or google 'em ;-).

Optimization involes:

  • accessibility (status codes, crawl budget management)
  • link juice flow / internal linking
  • large-scale content features (e.g. descriptive products text or product specs)
  • indexation and crawl budget management ("pruning", paginations)
  • design and UX
  • meta-title and description patterns
  • internationalization (hreflang-tags, TLD vs. subdomain vs. directory)
  • URL optimization

Micro SEO - building a house

micro seo building a house

Micro SEO is about increasing organic traffic for specific pages, rather than the whole website. That means you try to either rank a page on position 1 for its main keyword / topic or, if that's already the case, rank it for more keywords and improve their ranking.

That has a couple of synergetic effect, but basically follows the principle of incremental progress: small things that add up.

Micro SEO is very content-focused / creative.

Optimization involes:

  1. meta-data optimization and testing of a single page
  2. comparing the page to the top10 rankings for the main keyword / topic in depth and refining its content
  3. content marketing campaigns
  4. conversion optimization

The interference between Macro and Micro SEO

What combines the two is not only the goal to increase organic traffic, but also two more aspects:

  1. their approach to testing
  2. analysis
Experiment and analyze!

Testing needs to revolve around both disciplines like a satellite revolves around earth. I'm mainly speaking about a/b testing here.

It's very important for companies to understand that SEO needs an environment in which experiments can fail. Innovation is crucial for SEO and it can only happen when people are allowed to try out things.

I want to paraphrase a statement from Jeff Bezos here:

To invent you have to experiment and that involves failing.

You also want to foster a very well documented approach to testing. If you don't write down your findings and experimental design you won't be able to spread the knowledge (throughout the company and historically). It's crucial in order to learn from experiments.

Analysis is the second part of the glue that holds Micro and Macro SEO together. You need to be data-driven in SEO, gut change doesn't cut it anymore. A couple years ago, it might have worked to simply implement tactics that you learned from SEO blogs, but nowadays those have to constantly be confirmed and refined.

And that's where I close the cycle to the problem that we cannot determine impact 100% anymore. That makes it 10x more important to be on top of your analytics, so you can isolated results from SEO as good as possible. Not as easy as it sounds.

However, it is a little easier when traffic for a URL goes up. It is not at all easy, when traffic for a URL or domain goes down. How to identify what happened in this case, is enough material for a whole other blog post, or even series.

Wrapping it up

Battling the ever growing challenges machine learning and automation for search engines, we have to segment our expertise into a micro and macro level as SEOs in 2016. That allows us to still foster growth of organic traffic, because it makes testing and analyzing SEO efforts more efficient.


"Can't you do macro and micro SEO at the same time? Why don't we have both?"

Sure you can and most SEOs probably will have to, but if you don't distinguish between the two disciplines you run into the risk of becoming completely overwhelmed and confused. That usually leads to people thinking "SEO is dead", when in reality they simply lose a structured approach to optimization.