What is SEO?

SEO in 2020 is not the same as SEO in 2010. In this update, I explain what changed, how to thrive in SEO in 2020, and what parts remained constant.

Why would I write a "what is SEO" article on an advanced SEO blog? Because we need to update our understanding of what SEO is. The space develops too fast to operate on outdated principles.

SEO has changed in many ways. Coming across ten blue links without a single SERP feature or universal search integration is rare these days. Featured Snippets, People Also Asked boxes, Local Maps and many more aim to satisfy user intent. Sometimes, Google tries to meet many user intents simultaneously, depending on how ambiguous the query is. As a result, Google Search has become a rag rug of fragmented search modules rather than a list of search results.

what is seo

Ranking on position 1 is still important but not as important as 10 years ago. The click distribution in the search results flattens, as a second-order effect of "the death of 10 blue links". Multiple studies (Sistrix, Nielsen Norman Group) show that a) click curves look vastly different based on what SERP Features are present, and b) we see a smaller power curve and more clicks going to results 2-5.

click distribution study from nielsen group
Click distribution study from Nielsen group

The big driver behind many of the trends we see is Google’s blessing and curse: ad revenue. On the one hand, ad revenue is a cash cow. On the other hand, Google struggles to squeeze more milk out of its cash cow. Being the largest traffic source and the biggest ad platform in the universe is a great position to be in, but undiversified revenue is a problem. Only recently, Google started to invest more in other revenue streams like its Cloud business.

Google's Q2 2020 report
Google’s Q2 2020 report

There are only two ways to squeeze more milk out of the ad cow: show more ads on the same page or show more search pages to users. Google aggressively shows more ads and keeps users in the search results with SERP Mazes, which inevitably comes at the cost of user experience and is a risky balance to strike.

Google was lucky to catch one of the most massive economic trends in history: the rise of the smartphone. Two search engines, one for desktop and one for mobile results, doubled Google's ad real estate. That allowed the giant to continue growing at an unprecedented +20% YoY growth rate. Now, it’s not that easy anymore.

Besides that, some results yield much lower clicks on organic search results overall. Last year (August 2019), Sparktoro reported that only half of Google searches result in a click. Google answers more searches directly with SERP Features, instead of sending traffic to websites. Some searches don’t even result in ad clicks. Google turned from a search engine to an answer engine.

no-click searches in Similarweb
no-click searches in Similarweb

For the longest time, Search was a pull channel: users came, search and found. Google Discover put an end to that. It’s a push channel and based on behavior, not intent. Since the inception of Universal Search in 2007, Search included results from verticals like Local, Image, News, Video, or Shopping. But Discover is an attempt at directly competing with Facebook, as so many of Google’s moves.

Discover’s home on mobile devices is very representative of the growing differentiation between desktop and mobile search. When Google announced Mobile-First indexing initially in 2016, they built the foundation to accelerate the mobile web and slowly separate it from the Desktop search results. People mainly use smartphones in different situations than Desktop devices, which means users might expect different results for the same search on other devices.

We also need to ask ourselves what qualifies as a search engine because the borders between online platforms and search engines are no longer clear. Big platforms like Amazon or even Glassdoor are built around their own search engines with their own ranking signals. Some are more complex, others more simple.

I distinguish between three types of search engines: pure, mixed search engines with a strong search component but tend to not send users to other sites, and vertical search engines that aggregate results in a specific industry.

  • Pure search engines: Google, Youtube, Bing, DuckDuckGo, Baidu, Yandex, Naver
  • Mixed search engines: Pinterest, Amazon, Apple App Store, Play Store
  • Vertical search engines: Glassdoor, Linkedin, Facebook, Zillow, Booking, Tripadvisor, Expedia

As a result, the definition of SEO has become fuzzy as well. Is it still SEO when you get referral traffic as an outcome of link building? Is it still SEO to recommend updating a site layout? Is it SEO to build relationships with experts in a space on social networks to build a brand (and links)?

To summarize, SEO has turned from being solely focused on Google, a platform in the transition from providing results to providing answers to a multi-faceted discipline with many dependencies and the goal to attract and retain customers on the web.

What is SEO in 2020?

Now that we went through how SEO changed, I want to give absolute beginners a chance to understand what SEO is all about. So, if this is your first time encountering search engine optimization, check out the gray box below.

Then, I’ll cover more what SEO looks like in 2020 and beyond.

What SEO is (for absolute beginners)

SEO is the art and science of optimizing sites, apps, and content to attract maximal organic traffic. SEO is a set of guidelines across web development, engineering, design, and content creation to make brands as visible as possible on search engines like Google, Youtube, Bing, Apple App Store, Play Store, and Amazon.

Besides the Apple App Store and Google Play Store, you don't have to submit your site or app to search engines. Instead, the "optimizing" part of SEO relates to the four basic steps of the search engine ranking process:

  1. crawling
  2. rendering
  3. indexing
  4. ranking

SEO often entails a fifth step: Content Marketing. Whereas we consider the first four steps as "technical SEO", the fifth step revolves around content creation and distribution within SEO guidelines.

Search engines look for different signals and standards when ranking sites for search queries that we can summarize as relevance, authority, and user experience (UX).

The goal of SEOs is

  1. to make sure search engines understand a site
  2. the site's content is relevant for what customers are looking for
  3. customers have a good experience when coming to the site

Keep in mind that no definition in and outside of SEO is set in stone because there is no agreed set of standards. SEOs gain their knowledge from trial & error, experiments, Google statements, and shared experience.

Several trends distinguish SEO in 2020 from SEO in 2010.

The fluidity of rankings

Without a doubt, the way search engines rank sites and the signals they look at have become more complex over time. It used to be just content and links. Then, Google progressed its infrastructure through machine learning, e.g. Rankbrain and BERT, and advanced indexing, e.g. Hummingbird and mobile-first Indexing.

Google seems to factor hundreds, if not thousands of signals in when deciding what page to rank at the top for a search query, which makes reverse engineering nearly impossible. The search engine tests a lot of results by placing them higher for a short duration and measuring the impact. If the page "proves itself" and performs better than the current result, it can stay. That makes rankings noisy and at times unpredictable.

Google testing a page for a keyword to see how it performs
Google testing a page for a keyword to see how it performs

One outcome is that the growing impact of user intent and EAT add more fluidity to rankings. In some cases, it is not apparent at all why organic traffic increases or decreases. SEOs need to look beyond easily quantifiable signals and think about questions raised in Google's Quality Rater Guidelines and Panda questions.

Another outcome is that Google weighs ranking signals differently based on the query they apply to. SSL encryption is, for example, more important for sites in the financial space, the concept of EAT explicitly applies to YMYL sites, and images seem to play a larger role in the travel space. I call that category specific ranking factors and relate it back to Google's pattern algorithms that determine what a good user experience looks like. If a site doesn't match these signals, it won't perform as good.

Mobile vs. desktop

When Google announced Mobile-First Indexing 2016, they didn't just push webmasters to provide good mobile user experiences - they indicated that mobile and desktop results are diverging more as Google gains a better understanding of the context of mobile searches.

Google needs to take the context people search in into account if they want to provide the best results, such as when someone uses their smartphone to research a product when they're in a store. In other words, the user intent for the same keyword might be different when people search it on smartphones or Desktop.

SEOs need to consider these subtle differences in user intent when assessing content and differentiate between mobile and desktop search volume for the same keyword.

Differences in search volume between mobile and desktop
Differences in search volume between mobile and desktop

Let's take the example of the keyword "growth levers" (screenshot above). You see my site ranks pretty much on the same position in mobile and desktop search, but the impressions are vastly different. Search volume is just an approximation of impressions. Both represent the number of people searching for a keyword in a given timeframe (often within a month).

SERP feature optimization

Optimizing for SEPR Features comes in two parts. Part one is structuring content with tables and lists because Google's algorithms seem to look for the formatting and relevance of information. At the highest level, SERP Feature optimization is identifying what specific questions users are seeking answers for (user intent) and in what format (text, images, video, audio, web stories).

The second part is Structured markup, a code dictionary for search engines, which has become the gold standard for attracting attention with Rich Snippets. The possibilities range from simple breadcrumb navigations to fat FAQ snippets.

Alternate formats

Lastly, SEOs need to think beyond Search or classic content formats and optimize for channels like Discover and formats like Web Stories.

Google recently married the two and not by chance. SEOs need to optimize for user behavior instead of just search queries. Not for ranking purposes, but to appear in Google Discover and get users to watch Web Stories.

SEO evolves

The best way to describe what happens to SEO is evolution. Some people argue SEO hasn't changed, other say it changed completely. Both are right.

The importance of strong links has always been important. What evolves is the weight of link strength, volume, and how Google determines relevance. The way to get links has also changed: cold outreach and infographics rarely work anymore. Instead, building relationships is the name of the game.

High-quality content has always been important, but the length and number of pages play a much smaller role now. Who writes the content has become more important. I remember the times when the most important aspect of SEO was pumping as many pages in Google's index as possible. Now, Google's understanding of content involves rapidly through machine learning breakthroughs like BERT.

The early days of quantifying UX revolved around page load time and then, mobile-friendliness. Next year, Google will take the next step in the UX evolution with Core Web Vitals, a new ranking signal.

The world of SEO is constantly changing, but that's what makes it so exciting!