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SEO in 2014: Where It’s All Headed

It’s that magical time of the year again when everyone tries to guess what’s next for SEO. 2013 was a downright bizarre year for SEO, which is why you’re bound to see all sorts of wacky predictions for 2014. The good news is that you just started reading the blog post that makes all the right predictions.

What Happened to SEO in 2013?

2013 was the most turbulent year for SEO since they invented the internet. 2011’s Panda and 2012’s Penguin updates were just warm ups for Google’s biggest update to date: the notoriously hard to pin down Hummingbird. Matt Cutts went on a crusade against link networks culminating in a very high profile takedown of Lyrics site Rap Genius. SEOmoz, one of the industry’s biggest thought leaders, rebranded to just Moz. Google made virtually all keyword data private, or “(not provided)” while also adding a ton of weird new SERP elements.

Did I mention it was a little turbulent?

But What Really Happened to SEO in 2013?

If you want a few clear takeaways from all this madness (and why wouldn’t you!), then here you go:

Google Tore the Keyword Down

The biggest underlying event in SEO, across the board, was Google’s attack on keywords. The big push of Hummingbird was to take focus away from the words themselves and focus more on the intent and semantics, and the (not provided) debacle made that effort exponentially stronger. Nowadays all the cool kids in SEO are talking about random affinities, targeting topics instead of keywords, and content strategies that go way beyond the keyword. Tracking rankings and keywords for client reporting took a fall while tracking page performance and conversions took a big step up.

“SEO” Got Fuzzy

Social media freaks love throwing around headlines like “is SEO dead?” because not a lot of people understand the industry in the first place (but don’t those kind of headlines get a lot more clicks?). But when Rand “Mr. Rodgers” Fishkin starts talking about “the first existential threat to SEO”, maybe we should all be a little concerned.

The fact of the matter is that a lot of fundamental parts of SEO were unraveled this year, and it’s not 100% clear what’s going to be the big new tactic moving forward. The kind of link building tactics that agencies have been going nuts with, like excessive guest posting and marketing infographics, are quickly running out of steam. Out of the box website builders are getting much better at handling on-page SEO elements while citation distribution services like Yext are simplifying a large part of the citation building process. By the end of 2013, it’s not perfectly clear what role optimizers will play in times to come.

“Great Content” Was Split Down the Middle

Great content? There were two big groups of winners in content this year. The first group made some of the most data-driven, in-depth content we’ve seen in years. Moz’s “The Best of 2013” post of their top viewed stories included entries like this massive post on on-page optimization while Google was busy carving out a spot for in-depth articles. To see just how much Google, and users, are learning to love in-depth content, check out serpIQ’s slightly shocking post on content length.

The other big winner in content this last year was on the other end of the spectrum. Reddit (the #30 most visited site in the U.S. just released their most viewed posts of the year. Topping the list at over 3.6 million views was “What gif reduces you to hysterical laughter every time”. Meanwhile Youtube made a killing with some of the silliest and stupidest music videos you might ever see. Funnily enough, my biggest post of the year was an in-depth article on how Walmart leverages “no brainer” Facebook content for massive social networking.

Anonymity Became a Thing of the Past

2013 was a big year for anonymity in the same way that 1937 was a big year for the Hindenburg. From the NSA to Google+’s integration with Youtube, it finally became clear to the average Joe that there are plenty of people keeping track of who you are and what you do online.

For those of us that produce content (believe it or not, I’m one of them!) this wasn’t the end of the world. As of 2013, Google has been clear that they’ve been using Google Authorship to track content creators across the web, and the implications are only going to get better for quality content producers. Meanwhile, since Google has mentioned that less authoritative authors will probably see their rich snippets disappear from the SERP, we’re probably going to see a big shift in CTR towards content produced by authors who are willing to invest in their online personas.

What is Next for SEO in 2014?

My big prediction for SEO in 2014 is this: everyone is going to double down or fold.

In 2013, the seismic changes to SEO and the search ecosystem as a whole left a lot of seasoned SEO providers scrambling to redefine their roles. As keyword data disappeared, local data aggregators pushed out small business websites, and ROI became exponentially more difficult to calculate, SEO itself has begun to look like a less dependable solution for many small business owners. I think it’s only inevitable that a ton of small businesses will exit the market.

On the other hand, I think it’s only inevitable that a lot more big businesses will double down on their SEO efforts. If small businesses do in fact start exiting the market, at least some of them will turn back to Adwords, especially since they offer the reliability and reporting metrics that Google has systematically stripped from Analytics. That means there is a good chance that Adwords bid prices across the board will grow aggressively, which could drive the more sophisticated brands away from them. In the meantime, Google’s offering of better page-level and demographics data in analytics is going to make a stronger case for big businesses to invest in super premium content to drive brand awareness, interaction, and advocacy.

All and all, 2013 was a weird year for SEO, and 2014 is going to be even weirder. It’s only a matter of time until nobody understands SEO outside of the big leagues, and when that happens, the people and businesses who will truly succeed in the industry will be the ones who are willing to hold on tight and take the ride. Like Ken Kesey said, you’re either on the bus or off the bus.

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