SEO isn't an exact science -- nor even exactly a science. That said, there are certain strategies that - when used consistently - greatly increase the likelihood of getting higher rankings.
Knowing what these strategies are means you can spend time doing things that will actually drive results.
This post will outline 12 of the most effective SEO strategies you should be using right now. These are based on my own experience, as well as the latest research in the field.
1. Optimize for mobile search and browsing
Mobile optimization has been important for years. However, in October 2016 mobile overtook desktop with mobile and tablet accounting for 51.3 percent of all web browsing.
Around this same time (November 2016), Google launched their mobile-first index. Previously, Google crawled the desktop version of a site, using that as their primary search engine index. However, with this update, Google has now started to use the mobile version of a site as its primary index.
This means prioritizing your mobile site and mobile content is a must. For more on this, check out my post How To Optimize Your Small Business For A Mobile World.
2. Engage in intentional link building
Links have been the most important driver of rankings for years now. Google has confirmed they're one of the top three ranking factors (along with content and RankBrain), and multiple ranking factor studies have confirmed this.
A recent study from the folks at Stone Temple seems to indicate that links are even more powerful than we thought. However, they also found that links alone aren't enough to redeem low-quality content.
Their advice? "If your content is not relevant or competitive, links won't help your ranking. If it is, links will make the difference."
3. Optimize for voice search
According to KPCB's 2016 Internet Trends Report, voice search queries have seen more than a 35X increase since 2008 and more than a 7x increase since 2010.
The report also cites Andrew Ng, Chief Scientist at Baidu, as saying, "As speech recognition accuracy goes from say 95% to 99%, all of us in the room will go from barely using it today to using it all the time. Most people underestimate the difference between 95% and 99% accuracy - 99% is a game changer..."
It's only a matter of time before we hit that 99% mark. Prepare now by optimizing your content for voice search. Here's a great primer on how to do exactly that: Optimizing For Voice Search With Siri, Google Now and Cortana.
4. Optimize for Rich Answers
As of 2015, Rich Answers were displayed for nearly 20% of all queries. This number is likely to be significantly higher in 2017.
If you want your content to show for common industry-related questions, it's vital that you intentionally optimize for these queries. There are a number of ways you can do this, including explicitly asking the question in your content, including a direct answer followed by more in-depth backup info, using lists and creating Q&A pages.
For more guidance, you may want to read 10 Ways To Improve Your Chances For Featured Snippets.
5. Consider using shorter URLs
Using descriptive, keyword-relevant URLs has been an effective SEO strategy for years. However, some research seems to indicate that using shorter URLs may actually lead to higher rankings.
While there's no set number of words you should include, Google has indicated in the past that anything after the first five words won't be given as much credit.
Whenever possible, use your primary keywords in the first few words of your URL, and try to keep your entire URL to around five words total.
6. Local optimization is a must
Given the move toward a mobile-first mindset, it's no surprise that many experts are placing increased emphasis on local search these days.
If you have a local component to your business, optimizing for local search in 2017 is imperative. As more of your customers turn to mobile to find local businesses, products and information, getting found for local keywords is a must.
7. Focus on improving user experience
We've known for years that providing a good user experience is key to rankings. However, the connection between user experience metrics (click-through rates, bounce rates, etc.) has always been a fairly indirect one.
A recent study published on the Moz blog now shows a direct connection between high rankings and beating out the expected CTR of other pages in the SERPs. In other words, if your content shows up in the SERPs but doesn't outperform the other results in terms of clicks, you may not hold onto your rankings for long.
One of the most important things you can do to ensure your CTRs remain strong is to optimize your metadata for your chosen keywords. Remember: Your title tag and meta description act as your ad copy in the SERPs, and should engage viewers and entice them to click-through.
8. Use related keywords in your content
Keyword research is still a critically-important aspect of SEO. However, it shouldn't just be about finding one or two words or phrases to use in your content.
Ideally, look for phrases that are semantically-connected to your main topic. For instance, if I'm writing a blog post about making a black forest cake, I'll most likely need to use words like "cherries", "chocolate" and "whipped cream."
Using these words will prove to Google that I'm comprehensively covering my topic. It will also mean I have a much more balanced and detailed article -- which is great for user experience.
9. Write longer content
In a recent Forbes article, R.L. Adams writes, "I rank #1 for so many of the most competitive searches, and almost all of those articles are over 2,000 words."
He goes on to clarify that it's not only content length that has led to increased rankings but content quality: "The goal isn't to simply write 2,000 words of rambling content. No, size matters, but so does the quality in that size. It needs to be well written for starters, and it can't go off on tangents. The content has to be laser-focused."
Anecdotal evidence aside, virtually every study done to date shows a correlation between longer content and higher rankings. Some suggest 1,200-1,300 words, while others say 1500 words should be the minimum.
If you want your content to rank, I suggest aiming for a minimum length of 1,200 words for standard blog posts, and 2,000 words+ for evergreen content.
10. Speed up your site
For years, Google has been emphasizing the need to have a fast site. However, in light of the upcoming mobile-first index, I imagine site speed will become an even more significant ranking factor in 2017.
In September, Google again emphasized the importance of speed, particularly in relation to mobile devices: "Slow loading sites frustrate users and negatively impact publishers. In our new study, “The Need for Mobile Speed,” we found that 53 percent of mobile site visits are abandoned if pages take longer than 3 seconds to load."