2020 SEO Plans & Common Misconceptions

As we roll into 2020, and as companies begin making their 2020 SEO plans, there are three big misconceptions that I see coming up repeatedly across vertical and across company size that should be avoided when deciding how to change SEO tactics in the new year.

Misconception #1: Google Is So Smart

I’ve heard a lot of people (myself included) argue that they don’t need to perform various tactics anymore because Google is smart enough to figure things out without us bothering to do all the work required to help them figure it out. For example…

  • We don’t need to deal with duplicate or thin content issues because Google can figure out my content.
  • We don’t need to monitor our site’s backlink profile and add disavows because Google can figure out what is or isn’t legit.
  • We don’t need to worry about how crawlable our JavaScript rendered content is because Google is smart enough to crawl through it.
  • We don’t need to worry about building links because our site has a good enough reputation and Google is smart enough to see that.
  • We don’t need to worry about organizing our site because Google is smart enough to figure out all the pages we’ve got without clear navigation.

Now, is there some truth in each of these statements? Yes. Google is better at understanding duplicate and thin content, and site organization more generally, today. Google is better at figuring out backlinks. Google is better at understanding reputations and doesn’t rely as heavily on links. And yes, Google is better at crawling JavaScript than in the past.

However, on each of those examples, Google’s bots still get mixed up and confused. Nearly every large site will tend to see Google ignore canonicals they shouldn’t or otherwise get tripped up when crawling through duplicated/disorganized/thin pages. Coding a page as pure client-side content with JavaScript will lead your website to not rank very well until you switch at least the key content to server-side. Not building links will hurt your website even if you have a stellar brand reputation. And so on.

Don’t get me wrong—Google’s bots are wicked smart and way smarter now than 5 or 10 years ago. The improvements that have been made are incremental at best despite our hopes and misbeliefs that the improvements are somehow more dramatic. That means, we’re still dealing with bots and those bots need clear signals on what to crawl and how to evaluate the content once crawled.

Part of your 2020 SEO strategy needs to be about helping reduce the bot confusion. You need to figure out where you’ve assumed Google is smart enough to figure out your website’s mess and make sure that is a valid assumption. Likely, assuming Google is so smart isn’t a great assumption and doing the work to help Google’s bots better crawl and understand your website will lead to big wins.

Misconception #2: How Can I Keep Up?

I’ve caught myself saying a variant of this one and hear it often from others in the marketing and SEO field. It goes something like: “Google makes X numbers of changes per year, are you staying ahead of all the changes?” But…while there is some truth here, it is not a completely correct statement either.

Yes, Google releases a lot of changes. Yes, you should monitor those changes closely and respond accordingly. However, rarely is the intent of those changes a big surprise to anybody paying attention. Google tends to be directionally minded and most changes are headed in the same direction. Over the last decade, at least, those changes have generally headed in the direction of figuring out the highest quality answer to a search query and figuring out how to deliver those results to searchers the quickest. Quality has tended to be based on a myriad of factors, including the quality of the content on the site, the quality of the site’s user experience, how technically sound the website is, as well as off page signals like good backlinks. There isn’t anything to “keep up” with or “stay ahead” of; it is about understanding the direction and aligning to that as best as possible.

That said, the specifics change with the various algo updates and those are worth monitoring in detail. As well, there are outliers to Google’s general changes that don’t always go the same direction. Plus, there are false positives where websites get caught up in the algo changes for no good reason (though fewer than expected).

But should you worry or panic? No. You don’t need to live in complete fear of the next algo change provided you are generally following the best practices and moving in the same direction that Google’s changes seem to be headed.

Over the last several algo updates, the sites that tended to come out ahead were sites that had followed the general direction Google had been headed in—a good brand, good UX, good quality content, well organized website, decent backlinks, strong reputation, etc. If you are generally good on those fronts, you probably don’t have too much to worry about. Monitor? Yes. Correct as needed? Of course.

Of course, that said…some of the changes Google makes, even if directionally not a surprise, still aren’t good for your website. Featured snippets are a good example. Snippets deliver exactly the answers people want without the need to click to the website. Directionally, this fits—Google wants to deliver answers fast. But for a content publisher, that doesn’t mean this is a welcome change.

So, what to do? Well, one, quit worrying about the next algo change and get busy understanding the details of where Google is headed within your industry (especially if you are in the medical or financial space). And then make sure your website is basically headed in the same direction as best you can—build a good brand, improve your UX, fix content issues, improve backlink quality, etc.

To the extent where you want to head conflicts with where Google is headed (i.e. content publishers and featured snippets), invest time in 2020 figuring out alternative traffic sources as well. Because it is a lot easier to stop worrying about Google’s latest changes if you have other means of driving traffic to your website.

Misconception #3: EAT Everything

The new buzzword is E-A-T: Expertise, Authority, and Trust. This is Google’s attempt to understand how authoritative your website is and how much they should trust your website’s content. The higher your EAT, the better your chances of ranking highly in search results. So, easy answer: improve your EAT!

How do you do that? There are specific tactical things to do, like including more information about the authors of your website’s content and including more information about your organization. It is important to provide accurate information and clean up old, incorrect content. Along with these factors, improving EAT also has to do with off page factors, like reputation and links. All of this helps establish why your website and your staff are worth listening to on the subjects you cover.

EAT is massively important and worth seriously evaluating on your website, especially if you are experiencing traffic drops from the algo changes over the last 18 months or so. And you’d be wise to make that part of your 2020 plans. A big part of that is not just evaluating your website yourself but using qualitative methods, like surveys and usability testing, to uncover hidden authority issues lurking on your domain.

However…while EAT matters and it is important, it isn’t the only part of SEO to worry about. SEO is still very much about having good quality content that uses relevant terms, a good site architecture, a sound technical structure that can be crawled, and high-quality backlinks. I’ve heard clients say, we need to improve authority! And that’s true. But you can’t do that at the expense of these other critical areas of SEO.

Of course…most of those core SEO aspects overlap with EAT—so much so, that if you focus solely on those core factors, and largely ignore EAT directly, you probably will end up improving your EAT factors too. It is almost as if EAT isn’t anything especially new, but more a clearer representation of the general direction Google has been heading all along.

Recap

In 2020, I’d recommend you:

  1. Focus on reducing areas on your website where bots are getting confused because while smart, Google’s bots aren’t smart enough to untangle all the messes we humans can create on websites.
  2. Review what direction Google is headed in specifically within your vertical and make changes to head in that direction, to the extent that direction makes sense for your organization
  3. Improve and evaluate your EAT factors but not at the expense of the more traditional core aspects of SEO. Or rather, improve the EAT factors by improving some of the core aspects of SEO.

The websites I’ve seen that have done this over the last several years haven’t all won big from the algo changes (a few have) but the website’s that have stuck to these kinds of tactics have tended to avoid losing big on Google’s algo changes.

More importantly, though, the sites that have taken this type of focus have seen good steady growth in their traffic. And that good, steady growth has resulted in good growth for the business too.

If you’d like help on any of these fronts, please contact me and let’s talk about your website, your website’s current SEO performance and your plans for 2020.