Tommy-headshot-croppedSept-With Inbound Marketing on pretty much any good marketer’s radar, it has become increasingly important to understand SEO. Most of us are up to speed on the basics of on-page optimization, but that’s only the start.

Because of very spammy behavior that was clogging up the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) back in 2010, Google has released a series of algorithm updates and penalties to improve the quality of the SERPs. Rather than go through a list of changes, let’s take a moment to boil down the current state to the most important SEO topics you need to take seriously this year.

1.   Everyone Should be on Google+

When Google first launched Google+, there was an initial wave of interest followed by a big fat collective yawn. Over its first year or two, the platform was referred to as a “ghost town” and considered another failed experiment in social media by many. In reality, all of this criticism was short-sighted.

Fast forward to 2013, and Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt revealed that Google+ was more important for identity verification, as opposed to a foray into social media for Google. That’s right, it was built as a social network but intended to provide Google with a way to verify identity. Keep in mind that the old days of the internet were akin to the “wild wild west”, in that anonymity was commonplace. It was much easier to spam or scam the masses, and simply keep one’s identity secret.

If you want to succeed at SEO, the natural conclusion is that Google+ is a must. This extends beyond social to author markup, local SEO, and even publisher authority. Check out a deeper explanation of the thinking in my post Google Plus: Six Reasons You Should Be Using It.

2.   Social SEO is Part of the Game

So if Google Plus is more about identity than social, where does that leave social networking? It remains a critical piece of the online marketing puzzle.

There are a few ways that social can impact SEO. One of the indicators of a successful site to Google is the volume of traffic / visits the site receives. If your content is good and drives shares and likes, you will get referral traffic from social.

Even more powerful, the relationships you build through social media can drive word of mouth to spread your message. With enough of a social graph behind you, natural links to your website will result over time. This is very important – links are the fuel that drive website / domain authority, which in turn pushes you further up the SERPs for the keywords you target. Naturally earned links are like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and Social can contribute to your success in this area.

3.   Organic Performance Matters FAR More Than Ranking

A few years ago, it was typical that 15-30 keywords drove 80 percent of a site’s organic traffic. In that situation, it made sense to keep close tabs on where your site ranked for these keywords, referred to as “head terms” in the industry.

Then Google rolled out their Hummingbird algorithm update last summer, and head terms started to decrease in importance. Hummingbird was more than a minor tweak like previous updates. It was a complete rebuild and relaunch of the way they match results to search queries.

Post-Hummingbird, we are seeing a large number of websites deriving the bulk of their organic traffic from long-tail queries (search terms with 3+ words in them). One client of ours completely flipped the equation – rather than seeing an 80/20 split between head terms and long-tail, they are seeing a 20/80 split today!

This truly changes the game. You can’t over-focus on a few items and hope to win the game. Businesses are being forced to look at real business metrics to evaluate SEO performance, which should have been the focal point all along.

So today, it makes more sense to measure performance based on overall traffic, overall organic traffic, conversion volumes, traffic to each individual URL/page, and internet health metrics such as time on site, bounce rate, and pages per visit. If you are still obsessing over where your head terms rank, move on. That ship has sailed.

4.   Mobile Needs to be a Priority

In February 2014, mobile browsing surpassed desktop in volume for the first time, ever. If you have been holding out on optimizing your website for mobile, you are already behind the game.

Did you know that Google takes user experience (UX) into account when ranking your website? Did you also know that Google’s evaluation of your UX is platform-dependent? That’s right, if you don’t make it easy to maneuver your website on mobile, you simply won’t rank as well for mobile searches.

There are multiple ways to get your site optimized for mobile, but without a question, a responsive design is the best option. A responsive platform senses what platform or screen size is being used to view a website, and reflows the presentation of the site to suit the device.

There is no need to build a completely separate mobile site on an “m.domain.com” subdomain any more, now that we have the responsive option. Why waste time optimizing two separate websites anyway, when you can do it once and walk away? For anyone with resource constraints (i.e. all of us), it makes no sense.

5.   Manipulating Search Algorithms Is Dangerous

Speaking of penalties and algorithm updates, Google has gone to great lengths to not only penalize cheaters and manipulators of the algorithm, but also to make an example of them. Take for example the recent spate of slaps for spammy guest blogging, where they slapped an entire guest blogging network to send a message to webmasters and SEOs worldwide.

The benefit of all this mayhem is that we rarely speak with clients any more who think SEO is something that can rank them #1 for a keyword in a matter of days or weeks (thank you Matt Cutts). There simply are no more shortcuts, and those of us who choose to dance around the rules are only buying time.

Keep this rule of thumb in mind – if you have to ask yourself whether something is questionable or not, it probably is. When in doubt, opt for the ethical path. You’ll be happy you did.

Summary

SEO is a dynamic and changing area of marketing, and this has been particularly true the past several years. As we head into the middle of 2014, keep these five pieces of advice in mind. Build them into your overall approach, and you will reap the rewards in due time. Thanks for reading, and happy optimizing!

Tommy P. Landry has more than 20 years of experience in marketing and business strategy, at companies ranging from startups to enterprise. Having launched three businesses since 2001, Tommy is currently president and founder of Return On Now, a forward-thinking social SEO and inbound marketing consultancy in Austin, Texas that helps businesses increase their website visibility, traffic, and lead flow.

Return On Now (http://returnonnow.com)