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How to Survive the Ongoing Confusion With SEO

Search is one of the most vital – and misunderstood – components of a content distribution strategy.

The ongoing algorithm shifts initiated by the search engines make it hard to be confident that you’re doing everything you can to optimize content performance.

As part of CMI’s new Mastering Content Marketing video series, we asked Courtney Cox Wakefield, digital marketing manager at Children’s Health, to share her view on trends shaping the search landscape, and the challenges and opportunities they hold for content marketing.

You’ll find the highlights of our conversation filmed at Content Marketing World 2018 in the video below. Keep reading for a more detailed analysis of some of the key issues Courtney discusses. I also offer a few steps you can take to preserve your brand’s search influence and authority – even in the face of Google’s ongoing assaults on outbound link building.


New ranking factors rock the boat

One of the most talked-about shifts in the search world this year has been Google’s transition to mobile-first site indexing – i.e., crawling the mobile version of a site page to analyze its content and determine its ranking rather than using the desktop version.

Though Google insists that having your site content included in its mobile-first index is not a consideration in its ranking algorithm, the company notes (in a series of tweets) that overall mobile-friendliness of your site content is (and will continue to be) a ranking factor.

Courtney offers her take on what this shift might mean for marketers:

Mobile is really the most recent thing that’s made a big impact because Google used to look first at our desktop factors – so, what was going on our desktop – in order to figure out how they were going to rank us. Recently, within the last year, they have slowly started rolling out mobile-first rankings; so, they’re basically saying, ‘OK, we’re going to look first at the ranking factors for mobile. What are you doing on mobile, on your mobile site?’ Whether that’s a responsive site, or a separate mobile experience, or no mobile experience at all, they’re going to be ranking every search based on those mobile experiences.

Google is going to be ranking every search based on #mobile experiences, says @CourtEWakefield. #SEO Share on X

Consider: In his analysis of the subject, SEO strategist Mike Murray contends that, whether or not mobile-first indexing directly affects rankings now, the fact Google shifted its priorities strongly suggests that meeting its high standards for mobile-friendliness and content quality is something marketers should pay extra attention to.

Latest word on voice

In her Content Marketing World presentation, Courtney discusses a sleeping giant among search ranking factors that’s poised to crush other factors under its tremendous weight – voice search.

Indications already are appearing that the growing smart-speaker market will make a huge dent in the way consumers search for information. For example, data from Alpine.AI reveals that over 1 billion voice searches are conducted every month, and comScore estimates that by 2020, 50% of all searches will be voice-based.

Why does it matter whether consumers search for information using their voice or their fingers? Well, for one thing (as I point out in my recent deep dive on the topic of voice technology), digital assistant devices deliver only one search result per inquiry.

Digital assistant devices deliver only one search result per inquiry, says @joderama. #SEO Share on X

This makes reaching the coveted top SERP spot a heck of a lot more important. It also makes the path to achieving this critical goal – and measuring the impact of your content’s progress to achieve it – a lot more complicated. It’s a pressing concern, Courtney admits, that the industry isn’t adequately prepared to handle:

Voice, the things that we can do for it now, they’re limited because we don’t have a lot of measurement for voice. It’s not separated out in our Google Analytics. There’s not a lot of things that we can say, OK, I know this works because I can point back to this metric that shows that my traffic for voice is going up. The number of impressions I’m getting for voice is going up. We don’t have those things. What we have to look at is these proxy metrics, which nobody really likes, but they’re there and it’s what we’re stuck with right now. 

Google gobbling your lunch?

Since the beginning of search, there’s been an altruistic exchange in play between content marketers and the big G: Brands allow search bots to crawl and index their site content for free in order to supply the useful information and answers consumers rely on search engine results pages (SERPs) to provide. In turn, Google offers outbound links that direct back to the marketers’ site pages so the brands can capitalize on the extra attention and continue the conversation on their home turf.

But Google (and other search engines) has slowly and slyly started to rig the system against content creators by developing no-click features that ensure that the consumers’ path of discovery stays firmly within Google’s walled garden. The increased prominence of Google’s self-hosted solutions – including its answer boxes and featured snippets, Google posts, and knowledge panels – may provide greater convenience for consumers who want immediate gratification. By breaking the terms of this unstated social contract and killing organic reach, Google is leaving content marketers little choice but to make a few strategic changes of their own.

In his recent presentation at Brighton SEO, search expert and SparkToro CEO Rand Fishkin admits it won’t be easy for content marketers to keep the Google goliath at bay, but he offers strategic and tactical moves brands should prioritize in their content optimization efforts. They include:

  • Emphasizing tools, interactive features, data-driven stories, and other types of content experiences that drive clicks rather than providing quick answers
  • Doubling down on branded demand creation so that consumers are incentivized to search for you directly (rather than for broad keywords that you may or may not rank for)
  • Creating content for the platforms Google prioritizes (e.g., YouTube, G News, Google Maps)
  • Building brand profiles on the sites that rank well in your space and/or forging content partnerships with influential publishers that dominate the SERP for your top keywords

Think beyond SERP-based metrics

With Google seemingly set on cannibalizing brands’ traffic, another area where Courtney thinks marketers urgently need to make some changes is measurement:

We have spent a lot of time as an industry using clicks and traffic as a metric for success, and we’ve called other things vanity metrics, but I think clicks and traffic are vanity metrics. Ultimately, the only real metric is ROI. What money are you making from this?

This may be accurate from a pure search engine marketing (SEM) perspective; however, in the world of content marketing, the path from a click on a SERP to a sale isn’t as direct as it might be with pay-per-click advertising. This is where some of the softer ranking factors – influence and authority – are likely to come into play – something Courtney acknowledges and addresses:

I think we’re going to have to shift majorly as a marketing industry to say we’re going to lose clicks – and that’s OK because we’re building influence, and that’s what’s most important.

And that’s where getting more proficient with your content marketing holds a distinct advantage over relying on marketing techniques like SEM because the discipline is built on compelling consumers to view your brand as the go-to source of valuable, trustworthy information on the subject at hand. As Courtney says:

Just because you don’t get a click, it doesn’t mean you’re not building influence. It doesn’t mean that somebody doesn’t see you as that source where that content came from. So what if they get their answer right there? If they see that the recipe that they’re looking at came from, well, the next time that they need a recipe, they may just go straight to It’s really hard to track that success back to that time that you showed up in the answer box. Ultimately, it builds influence and it makes people more likely to search you out as a brand in the future.

Just because you don’t get a click from SERP doesn’t mean you’re not building influence. @CourtEWakefield‏ Share on X

Content conclusion

Even if you can’t compete with Google’s self-serving strategic shifts and ongoing algorithm adjustments, your business still stands to reap strong benefits from search’s value exchange – as long as you focus less on counting the clicks and more on creating content experiences that satisfy consumers’ underlying needs. As Courtney advises:

One of the things with SEO is making sure that people stay engaged with your content and don’t leave and go back to the search engine results page and click to somebody else. Google is tracking that type of behavior. They know when people aren’t satisfied with the content that they get on your page. Building engaging content, like what Drew (Davis) was talking about in his (Content Marketing World) keynote session; and making sure that people are engaged, that you keep that tension, that you really answer their question but have that big payoff at the end, that is so important. Even though it’s not a direct ranking factor, it influences a ranking factor that can really make a difference for your content and your ranking.

Got a topic you would like our team to tackle in a future installment of the Mastering Content Marketing series? We would love to see your suggestions in the comments.

Courtney presented at Content Marketing World 2018. Will you be a presenter at CMWorld 2019? Speaker proposals are due December 14, 2018. Submit yours today. 

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute