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SEO: Modern Trends and Challenges

By William Kammer, SEO Director, Clearlink

William Kammer, SEO Director, Clearlink

Depending on who you ask, SEO (search engine optimization) has been around for about 20 or 30 years. While some will argue that SEO began with Yahoo in 1994, it didn’t really kick in as a legitimate industry until Google showed up a few years later and vastly improved search engine algorithms. Despite the advances Google’s algorithm brought to the industry, articles published in almost every year since Google took over market share—including this year—have claimed that SEO is dead.

As someone who has made their career in SEO for the last 10+ years, I can assure you that SEO is not dead yet. While SEO hasn’t died, and won’t for a long time to come, it has changed drastically. The trends and challenges we face today are very different than those we faced years ago, and modern SEO strategists need to evolve to keep up.

Modern Trends in SEO

Smarter Robots

Google is mind-blowingly more sophisticated than it was back in the late 90s and early 2000s, keeping pace with other technological advancements. Instead of focusing on keyword density and link counts, SEO strategists now have to focus on things like NLP (natural language processing), AI (artificial intelligence), big data querying, and intelligent server-to-browser interactions to get the best page load speed possible. Mobile and voice search weren’t even on the radar when Yahoo and Google began ranking pages. But mobile users now account for over half of all web traffic, meaning if you’re not optimizing for mobile experiences, you’re already behind.

"An SEO understands leading-edge technology, leading-edge marketing, and can look towards the future to determine how the world may change in the coming years in order to predict how to react"

Entities and E-A-T

Google’s algorithms are also becoming more human. Instead of reading a keyword to determine what a web page is about, Google is sophisticated enough to understand context and authority. One of Google’s big focuses for the last few years has been what it calls E-A-T (Expertise, Authority, and Trust). Without these, ranking in competitive verticals will be very difficult. And with Google’s knowledge graph and improved entity identification, E-A-T doesn’t just refer to websites; it refers to humans as well. This means Google isn’t ranking only web pages anymore. Somewhere in its data centers, Google is ranking humans as well, determining who is the authority on which subjects.

Scaling with Automation

SEOs are getting better about understanding these changes and trends at scale with automation as well. By working with data science, engineering, and other departments, SEOs can build internal products to customize analysis, monitoring, reporting, and other tasks to free up time for strategy. These automatable tasks can be huge time sucks for SEOs, especially for enterprise brands with a lot of pages and traffic. Anything we can do to speed up those processes can be extremely valuable.

Modern Challenges in SEO

Google is constantly tweaking how it crawls, tracks, ranks, and analyzes content. SEOs have to consistently reevaluate their strategy and pivot to make sure they are in line with what Google is now focusing on to rank.

What Does Google Consider “Quality?”

Since the beginning, Google has said that content is king. Ten years ago, it was a joke in the SEO community. Very poor content could rank very well, very easily. As Google gets more sophisticated, though, this idiom becomes more true. Google is better at identifying which content is of the highest quality, meaning we as SEOs also need to be able to identify quality content that addresses a user’s needs. After all, Google is really just trying to do one thing when ranking organic results: give users what they want. If you’re producing high-quality content, you’re more likely to be rewarded with ranks. But you have to be able to produce and recognize quality content—following Google’s E-A-T requirements—to get those results.

Dealing with More Data

With advances in Google’s algorithms and analytics, we’re also able to get a lot more data on performance and shifts that make the technical side of SEO more robust and challenging. At Clearlink, we have an incredible amount of online-to-offline tracking data for our users, internal crawlers to gain technical SEO insights at scale, and a data warehouse. The more data you have, the more insights you can gain to drive your strategy. The challenge here is not getting so lost in the data that you aren’t gaining accurate insights.

Hiring for SEO

With this level of data on top of the ever-changing environment of SEO, it can be difficult to hire. Look at the resume of any developer, designer, or content writer, and you’ll likely see SEO listed as a skill. Unfortunately, most will know only one or two main concepts. Even SEO specialists that have been at the same agency for a  few years may have had exposure to only a handful of the skills needed for the job when going to an enterprise-level organization. This means that most new SEOs require a lot of training. Processes need to be created, onboarding takes much longer, and it can be months before a hire has a firm grasp of their duties. As industries continue to discover the value of SEO and what it takes to win, the supply hasn’t been able to keep pace with the demand. If you work for a company that doesn’t have the resources and patience to train greener employees, this can be a significant disadvantage.

Conclusion

With how often SEO evolves and brings in new challenges, it can be easy for marketers to get discouraged with this channel. It takes a unique mindset to play a game with Google where you don’t know all the rules and the rules can change at the whim of Google. It’s important to understand the kind of experience and skill-set a person can gain from working in SEO. An SEO understands leading-edge technology, leading-edge marketing, and can look towards the future to determine how the world may change in the coming years in order to predict how to react. These kinds of skills can transfer well to a plethora of other professions and can help create a well-rounded MarTech professional.

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