How to Win at SEO in 2018 and Beyond (What even is SEO, Really?)

I’ve promised myself to publish more articles in 2018 so I figured I’d get a head start.

I think that Growth in today’s world should be all about creating value for users and nothing is more relevant to this than Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

My first experience with the world of marketing and growth was almost 10 years ago, working as a digital marketing intern in Budapest. The job mainly consisted in helping out with web design and SEO at a time where search engine optimization was essentially a series of blackhat tactics designed to trick Google into thinking your (often shitty) website is worth being on the top of users’ searches.

There are heaps of debates and discussions about SEO on the interwebs, usually about whether certain factors actually matter or don’t. Often these discussions are filled with false or outdated assumptions, passionately debated by people who have superficially learned the ‘ranking factors’ by heart and have read about a few hacks here and there.

One of the things that a lot of people interested in SEO don’t realize is how important it is to understand the history of SEO. Ranking factors change, but understanding what SEO actually is can go a long way in contextualizing all the tips and tricks and preparing for the future.

What does Google want?

One of the most important things in SEO is understanding Google’s goal. This might be obvious but it’s often overlooked. For all of the amazing ventures pursued by the folk over at Alphabet, Google still earns most of its revenue through ads. And for companies to buy more ads, SEO needs to be difficult and meritocratic.

For Google there is little direct commercial interest in organic search. What they really want is to put the very best and most relevant content at the top of each user’s search. In the early days, Google’s algorithm was not so sophisticated, so people like me would exploit the weaknesses through blackhat tactics (after all, growth hacking was born out of the blackhat tactics of affiliate marketing). Over the years, however, with the releases of updates like Penguin and Hummingbird, Google’s algorithm has become increasingly smart and thereby more difficult to ‘hack’.

Which begs the question…

What is SEO, really?

Back in the day, we would jam keywords anywhere and everywhere to rank better. So what did Google do? They reacted by focusing on keyword density instead of quantity.

We would find long articles and use tools to jumble them up so we wouldn’t have to write them from scratch, so Google introduced factors like readability.

We would do link exchanges and ‘link farming’ and create lots of fake websites/blogs that linked to each other, so Google shifted the focus to the quality of backlinks instead of the quantity.

The history of SEO is basically one of Google constantly trying to rank the best content on top and SEO experts taking advantage of the algorithm’s shortcomings. The better we became at ‘tricking’ Google’s algorithm, the more Google tweaked and improved it.

There are still some hacks today that work, but we need to face the fact that Google is cleverer than us. It’s not long before the algorithm will be virtually ‘untrickable’.

How to win at SEO in 2018 and beyond

So where does all of this leave us?

As Google becomes better and better at ranking the best content on top, SEO is slowly being reduced to a basic checklist of conditions a piece of content needs to meet. Tools like Yoast show how easy it is to follow basic SEO guidelines these days.

Of course there are still sophisticated tactics and some hacks that work, especially when it comes to getting backlinks, but how long until Google releases another update that changes the game? With the mergence of AI content writing tools, voice search and other technological innovations, it is likely that this will happen sooner rather than later.

Now, I do not for a second believe we should ditch our tricks and tactics. The skyscraper approach, the broken link hack and the HARO backlink strategy all still work and we should continue using them as long as we can.

But what do we do if/when they don’t work anymore?

The future of SEO is will be about 3 things:

  • Choosing the right content to write about
  • Adhering to best practices (our ‘checklist’)
  • Making sure your content is the best and most relevant

The lines between SEO and Content Marketing are already blurry and it is likely that they will slowly whither away. The sooner marketers focus on creating the most value and the best content, the readier they will be.