SEO trends-2012 & beyond

As Panda has given way to Penguin and even mainstream business newspapers like The Wall Street Journal cover the “destruction” that Penguin has left in its wake since it walked over websites around April 24, let’s take stock of what all this means for the SEO industry.

Some of the antidotes recommended for sites affected by Penguin sound extreme. For instance, I read one suggestion by a SEO consultant on a fairly well-read blog that we should be having more of “Click here” and “Read more” links instead of using keyword-based anchor text. That’s almost like a 180-degree turn; afterall, hasn’t using keyword phrases in the anchor text been part of SEO 101? Yes, everyone in the SEO industry will have to re-evaluate what has been done historically, adapt and adopt new/ different approaches to hitherto successful techiniques, but I doubt we need to go to extremes. If we have to, then I reckon there has been something seriously and fundamentally wrong with the SEO strategy anyway!

Nevertheless, considering whatever is happening, here’s my take on the SEO trends for 2012 and beyond in the post-Panda, post-Penguin environment.

The age of global dominance is over
This probably has nothing to do with the recent update(s), which has been called the update to penalise “over optimisation”. However, what I have been seeing— and this needs to be confirmed with data; till such time, this assertion is based on mere observation— is that there is a significant geographical bias in the search results. For example, a search on conducted from India tends to show more results from India than a search on conducted from Singapore. This is a clear sign that it will be increasingly difficult for websites to be in the Global top 10 rankings.

From a user standpoint, that should generally be fine, though there will be cases– let’s say in academic research for instance– where such a geographical bias will not be as useful/ user friendly. From a SEO company perspective though, this certainly has much more significant implications, because a lot of clients still want to be No.1 on, across the world! Talk about expectation management!

User behaviour will play an ever increasing role
I think the clickthroughs from search results pages and probably, even the actions of a user within a website having landed there, are likely to influence search results greatly. We have already seen quite a bit of personalisation of search results– how much of it is good or necessary is open to debate- and we could see a lot more. Google itself has acknowledged that they have to get the balance right between personalised search results and general results, but I feel that the direction will be towards more personalisation than less.

On a related note, with all the data that search engines have– through analytics, tool bars, etc.–they may also be taking into account the nature of the sites that attract direct traffic, and then use that information to determine relevance of websites/ pages in the search results. For example, let’s say Cricinfo attracts a large volume of direct traffic. Now, a search engine could use some “signals” based on an understanding of the behavior of the users who visit this site, to show relevant pages from Cricinfo for queries related to cricket or cricketers.

From a SEO perspective, the above will mean the need for much more involvement in improving user engagement and retention on a website rather than limiting the focus to just getting users to a website. SEO professionals will also have to look much beyond search engine traffic and consider how to increase direct traffic to websites. Let’s just say that the job description for a SEO professional is undergoing a very quick makeover!

Social “Clout” will matter more
That social signals are being factored in search results is probably a 2-3 year old news. Recent updates from both Google and more recently, Bing, also make this even more important. My take on this is that the key factor that will ultimately make a huge difference is not “where” you are, but rather “who” you are connected to. Just like not all links are considered equal, not all social connection or interaction will be given the same weightage. At the cost of stating the obvious to those who have played the SEO game for long, an article or website on SEO shared by Joe Bloggs will likely carry much less weightage than say something shared by a Rand Fishkin, Danny Sullivan or Matt Cutts.

FOCAL Content
To say that content is king is passe… we all know that! My point here is related more to the attributes of content that will find favour with search engines. Based on the guidelines for good content from Google following Panda and our interpretation of the various updates Google releases each month, I feel there is a 5-point framework for content that should form part of the SEO strategy. Ideally, every piece of content created can score well on each of those 5 points; however, that may not be practical depending on the nature of the business, the business model, priorities, and so on.

Nevertheless, the critieria that I specify for search engine friendly content is “FOCAL”.
>> F – Fresh
>> O – Original
>> C – Comprehensive
>> A – Authoritative
>> L – Localised

I will elaborate each of these attributes on a separate piece focused exclusively on content.

Links will likely get a lot less weightage
Don’t get me wrong; links will continue to carry weightage. However, as search engines become ever smarter in determining relevance of page content to match user intent, they will need to rely a lot less on “external votes”. Moreover, with a much broader array of external signals (social ones, for example), the weightage of different link attributes will change significantly. “Anchor text” is just a case in point.

Link building, particularly of the mechanical sort that a lot of SEO agencies (including us) have relied on- particularly for servicing small to medium sized businesses- will need to make a huge qualitative shift.

Overall, I think that all of the above trends present quite a significant challenge, for both SEO companies as well as clients and will require a huge shift, both in mindset and skillsets.

- By Manoj Aravindakshan
Manoj Aravindakshan is an online marketing consultant and the Managing Director of On Target Marketing Solutions, a Mumbai-based search engine marketing company.

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