While this past year was definitely a flurry of activity for our PPC experts, our SEO specialists were pretty busy too. Changes in search engine behavior and the expansion of new channels for search captured our clients’ attention as well as ours.

Search Results Page Squeezes SEO Entries

One of the year’s biggest developments in paid search advertising was Google’s removal of the side rail for ads on their Search Engine Results Page. However, this also had a major impact on SEO in 2016. While the side rail went away, on balance, Google also added more items to their first page, which meant less space for organic search results.

These new “featured snippets” can take up significant amounts of the first search results page, especially if several different snippet types appear for the same search term. While in previous years, 10 organic results were listed on the first SERPs page, now that number can be as little as… well, none. Suddenly, not only is “position 10” nothing to aim for anymore, even position 4 or 5 is no guarantee. (For Google, anyway; Bing still shows at least 7 organic results.)

However, one silver lining did emerge: the opportunity to seize “position zero” by owning the content in the “answer box” featured snippet. The results page for most search terms includes a boxed excerpt from a web page describing what the search term means, and that answer box is usually at the top of the page. We’ve been advising our clients on how to approach answer boxes for months now, and we don’t see that trend slowing down in the coming year.

Google Announces Mobile-First Indexing

In November, Google announced that it will start indexing websites by examining their mobile content before their desktop content. This complete reversal of their current way of indexing sites is expected to roll out during the next few months.

What impact will this have for your website? Potentially none, if you have responsive design on your website, as the content and markup are the same for both mobile and desktop visitors. However, if you have a mobile site that’s a smaller or lighter version of your desktop site, you could take a hit in Google’s rankings.

Additionally, under these new mobile-first guidelines, Google will display your mobile content among their search results (rather than your desktop content). This is yet another reason we advise our clients to use responsive design: to ensure complete, effortless congruence between mobile and desktop content, so there are no gaps to frustrate search bots or users.

ABV – Always Be Vigilant

Earlier this fall, Google introduced an update to their code that inspects inbound and outbound links on websites. While Penguin 4.0 was years in the making, it would be the last numbered version of the Penguin code, because it’s now part of Google’s overall algorithm, and has been updating in real time since its release.

That means Google can now keep up with black-hat linking tactics as they develop—but ironically that also means spammers will become even more responsive and resourceful to keep up with Google. So link-based threats to your website will likely increase in speed and come from unexpected places.

We advise checking your site’s inbound and outbound links; in fact, we even have a handy checklist for link-checking. We also recommend reviewing your SEO policies for the past few years to ensure that you’ve been staying up-to-date with and following SEO best practices to minimize your risk.

Voice Search Comes Home

iconic painting of a Jack Russell terrier listening intently to a phonograph
How voice search really works (image source: Wikimedia Commons)

One of the clear winners among holiday gifts in 2016 was the smart home assistant, the device that performs tasks (such as answering questions, streaming media files and controlling smart devices in the home) based on voice commands. Amazon Echo and Google Home were the two market leaders in devices; the Echo had been out for more than a year, while Google Home was the newcomer.

Of course, voice search has been growing since the introduction of Siri in 2011. But with the sudden popularity of home-based devices that bring voice search into the most familiar spaces in people’s lives, we think it might be time to consider whether smart home assistant users might be asking about your company, your products or your industry.

Next week, we’ll look at more of the coming trends in SEO and PPC, to help you get a strong start to 2017. Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year!