As we roll into a brand-new calendar year for SEO, it seems only appropriate to reflect on the momentous changes that occurred from a search-engine ranking perspective last year, and to look ahead at what we can logically expect in 2020 and beyond.

There certainly has been a lot of seismic activity in the industry — particularly toward the end of last year — so let’s talk about some of the major SEO trends that have emerged.

Straight Talk about the Progression of SEO

First of all, let’s get one thing straight: SEO is not dead. It is very much alive and well. It has simply evolved — quite dramatically — in response to incremental changes made by the search engines [pronounced “Goooo-gul”].

Indeed, let’s just stop all this nonsense whereby the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater. I’ve heard terms such as “post-SEO era” mentioned in passing, which seem to imply that all best practices at the heart of search engine optimization should suddenly be tossed out. That isn’t true at all. At the end of the day, 90 percent of consumers still use search engines to find what they’re looking for, by entering keywords related to what they’re interested in. This simple fact has not changed, nor will it anytime soon.

What has changed is that the process of creating content and promoting it for the sake of ranking well must be approached in a completely natural way, as the search engines come closer to mimicking human behavior, in determining which sites should rightfully be served to their users. This methodology — that is, creating genuinely helpful content and promoting it to target audiences who will appreciate it — has been preached as the gospel truth for those who wished to approach SEO in an upright way for years. Sadly, however, shady practices such as “link farms” — superclusters consisting of thousands of utterly pointless directory submission sites, built and interconnected solely for the purpose of link building — still continued to work long after they should have been relegated to antiquity. These are the types of practices that are being rooted out with a vengeance, as each successive update is issued.

Ultimately though, SEO isn’t going anywhere; it is simply evolving out of necessity. Marketers need to ensure that their website content is clearly aligned with actively searched topics of interest for their target audiences. This first step of keyword research and data analysis should indeed continue to drive the structure of the site, the content created for it, and the overall marketing strategy used to promote it.

The fundamental principles of SEO — and the underlying objective of connecting search users with relevant information in this “win-win” way — will never die. The methods have simply been refined over time, with some dramatic changes in 2013 contributing to this process of evolution.

A Look Ahead at Emerging SEO Trends & Predictions

Alas … if only I had a crystal ball to foretell the future of SEO. Who knows the specific twists and turns that Google has in store for us this year.

But here are my personal predictions, as three dimensions of SEO that I expect to emerge with even greater depth in the coming year:

  • “Semantic search” — which, in short, has to do with dissecting the meaning of words, and associating input terms with synonyms and other related phrases — was blown wide open with Google’s Hummingbird Update in late September 2013. Semantic search is nothing new, but Hummingbird represented a huge leap forward for this dimension of SEO, by placing it front and center in importance. This — in combination with encrypting 100% of organic search keywords, so that marketers can no longer see exactly which terms drive traffic to their websites (unless, of course, they’re paying for it through the “sponsored match” section!) — has forced businesses to think more broadly in terms of content topics, instead of focusing exclusively on very specific individual keywords. I would expect to see things continue to head in this direction, as Google refines its ability to process phrases in a conversational manner. This will have the effect of rewarding SEOs who are able to produce well-written, descriptive content.
  • Mobile is another huge arena to watch. For now, most of the tactics needed to rank on mobile devices simply overlap with Local SEO best practices, but I would expect to see more enhancements that are mobile-specific, given the ever-increasing amount of time users devote to these types of devices.
  • More advanced forms of microdata and other technical factors, along the lines of schema tags and rich snippets, are bound to explode as well. These types of tags allow the search engines to slice and dice particular pieces of data — clearly labeled as such through these types of tags — and display them in interesting ways within their results. Employment of these types of enhancements will give marketers an edge, as competitive advantages that can be used to help them stand out in a crowded online marketplace.

How to Approach SEO Here & Now

Step One: Breathe. There are so many aspects of SEO — with hundreds of factors incorporated into current search-engine algorithms — that it’s easy to feel completely overwhelmed in trying to tackle it all. This is why it’s so important to lay out a plan, as the first order of business. Make sure that you have all of the basics covered, and then scale up, as your budget allows, to pursue additional terms and more competitive phrases.

Given the complexity and range of tactics involved, it really helps to have a team to handle all of the moving parts. Because SEO now spans so many left- and right-brained skills — from keyword research, coding work, and data analysis to content development, graphic design, and social engagement — one person will have a very difficult time handling all of the different dimensions. Split up the tasks among those who can handle each aspect best. Make sure all efforts are centrally coordinated, so that all of the moving parts work together optimally.

Keep a watchful eye on performance statistics through regularly scheduled reporting, and invest more of your time and money in what proves most successful — to magnify the overall impact.

To keep everything in proper perspective, simply remember: The search engines are ultimately designed to serve best-match content to their users typing in various phrases. How can you show them that your site is clearly relevant to what their users are hunting for? Let this simple principle be the central guide for all of your efforts.

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