We are data driven, not guesswork driven. In our SEO mastermind, we spend more money a year on SEO tests that you would believe. With all of this data, we know what works and what doesn’t. Let’s face it, the people that have a clear view of SEO trends and know what Google wants are those who manage a lot of websites and spend a lot on R&D.
In other words, you got to be an SEO scientist. Or you can just read this article on the SEO trends 2020, where we reveal a few insights 🙂
The Grand Game
Ranking in Google is like a grand board game, where only the game master (Google) knows the rules. But you can observe how pieces (websites) move on the board, and you can place your own pieces and make random moves, then observe how the game responds. From this you can infer what the rules must be. The more you do this, the more moves you think of to try, the better you will understand how to win the game.
Hypothesis, experiment, result, repeat. This is the scientific method, and it is also exactly how physicists discover laws of nature, only we aim to discover the laws of the SERPs. Like all areas of knowledge where science can be applied, there is a lot of junk out there produced by people that guess around and don’t follow a rigorous process. That’s most SEO blogs and Youtube videos.
1. Optimize your SERP Appearance
Google’s business model is simple: Copy the content of all websites in the world and make it searchable to sell pay per click ads.
They want as many people as possible to click on their ads, and they have been optimizing their SERP design to make that happen. This tells you what you need to do: use your listing to full capacity.
Google started in 2019 to show favicons next to website titles. Don’t be fooled, this is not to make it more user-friendly like they say and everyone thinks.
An ad has a small [Ad] symbol next to it, which they are legally required to do. In the past, they have changed the color of that symbol from yellow to green, to make it less noticeable, thus increasing the click-through rate (CTR) and revenue. By adding favicons (of the same size as the ad symbol) next to website titles, people get used to a symbol there and become blind to it. Again, this increases CTR.
Do the same.
1.1 Featured Snippets
One way to do that is to aim for featured snippets (position zero) whenever possible. It is uncontrollable, but you can get them if you put the right content on your page. Here is an example of such a snippet:
As long as this type of snippet exists, you need to go after it on your informational pages. The way to get picked for these is to provide information that is listable and easy to understand for a computer (Google). Primarily, you need bullet point lists and HTML tables.
As you can see in the screenshot above, the snippet shown here has a bullet-point list. Note, however, that Google chose to display a picture from a different website than the one it took the list from. That is why image SEO also plays a role.
1.2 Maximize Width
We can learn something from ads. If you run ads, you want your CTR to be as high as possible, as that decreases your cost per click (CPC) and brings more valuable traffic to your website. From running six figures in Adwords per month across our clients, we know that you want to make your them as wide as possible. The wider they are, the more likely they are noticed and clicked on.
If your CTR in the organic results is higher than for other sites, Google sees your site as more relevant.
Here is how one of our city SEO pages appears in the SERPs:
Things to note here:
We have an attractive star snippet (this is done with schema code)
We have inner links to sections on the page (check our NYC SEO page to see how it is set up)
Both of these elements add one line of information and thus one line of width to our listing.
Note: A homepage cannot receive star snippets. Only inner pages can.
We have read a lot from other sources about how much stars alone can increase CTR. Some say it can be up to 30% more traffic but our data doesn’t agree (it’s usually more like 10%). It depends strongly on multiple factors, such as:
Are there many pages with stars in the SERPs for a keyword?
Do you have an attractive title and meta description?
Do you have the inner links?
These points matter, because if you are the only website with stars, you are bound the be noticed and CTR should increase more than in SERPs with 4-5 pages that show stars. Also, if people notice your listing more but your title and description suck, they may still not click on it that much more. Again, here you can learn from ads because their titles and descriptions are typically optimized.
Practical tip: Mark up your content in the best possible way. Here you have different possibilities at your disposal, the main one being Google’s own website at schema.org.
2. The WebP Format
Do you love gif animations, too? Newsflash! They are soon going to be a thing of the past!
JPG, PNG, GIF – these are outdated formats and have all been replaced by a single one: WebP, which is developed by Google. Do you think Google likes it when it sees WebP images on your website? You bet!
Our own websites only deliver WebP today and we aren’t looking back. It saves us 50-60% of our total image weight, even against compressed images of the old formats.
3.1 Why is WebP so great?
The formats we all use are very old. WebP uses modern developments for image compression.
WebP is often more than 50% smaller than even compressed images of the other formats.
JPG is lossy and compresses well but with bad quality. WebP ist better and has good quality.
PNG is lossless and can do transparent backgrounds. WebP can do that, too.
GIF has 8-bit colors and animations are huge. WebP has 24-bit colors and animations are small.
How about that? Who wants gif animations if you can have WebP animations that have all colors and are 90% smaller? The Internet meme-world has not yet discovered this.
Look, even Rocket is excited about it! By the way, that animation runs at 20 fps and is only 220 kb small. No more stuttering animations like with GIF just to save space. If we turn this into a GIF it is 10x bigger. Yikes!
Imagine how much bandwidth and loading time could be saved across the entire web if memes were in WebP. Websites like Tumblr should automatically turn all uploaded images into this format.
2.2 Compatibility of WebP
Every mainstream browser except Apple’s Safari supports WebP. Here’s an overview of that.
If you are on Safari, our website simply shows you the old JPG / PNG images and only shows the WebP format to browsers that support it. Thus, compatibility issues don’t break the website. We only don’t do this for animations like the one with Rocket.
Graphics software still needs to catch up! Not even Adobe Photoshop can handle WebP yet. For now, you can simply work with an old format and turn your images into WebP by using one of the many free online tools.
All of this is for the benefit of website speed and user experience, of course. Google has long stated that slow websites (especially on mobile) can hurt your rankings. Plus, it reduces bounce rates and enables you to add more images and animations to your pages without stressing the loading speed, thus creating higher quality content.
2.3 No More Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)
We no longer use AMP. It’s fine for news outlets and such but if you run a blog, a business website or affiliate website, you don’t want your mobile users to come to a website stripped of design and images anyway. For image size reduction, you have the WebP format and lazy load.
3. Quality Content & Thick Websites
Google keeps talking about high-quality content so much that it’s coming out everyone’s ears. But people keep asking what quality content actually is. What does Google mean?!
First of all, know that we own info-websites filled with tons of content that is actually useful. From this, we know that such sites can rank without backlinks – and once they do, they get natural backlinks on their own.
Have you ever looked for news about, say, the next Marvel movie, or something that could be answered in one paragraph? Yet somehow the websites that Google serves you have long-winded articles that take forever to get to the point. I’ve seen articles about some celebrity’s newest tweet that have 1000 words around it. Hello?!
Well, what can these websites do? If they were 150 words, those articles would be unlikely to rank. That is what quality content looks like.
It has thousands of words
It has images, tables, bullet points, quotes, video embeds
It interlinks with other pages of the website
It ideally contains useful information so users stay on the page
It is well on-page optimized so Google gets what it is about
This very article is quality content.
A new blog with 50-100 quality articles that target long-tails will, after maybe 7-8 months, start hitting its first growth curve. It begins to rank, get some traffic, and Google notices that the user signals (dwelling time, engagement, bounce rate) look very good. This causes better rankings, more users, more positive user signals. Finally, natural backlinks come in because lots of people find your articles and link to it due to their high quality. This is how it was always meant to work, and it does.
3.1. Voice search
If you have a lot of pages with long, quality content, you also have a lot of keyword phrases on the page. This gives Google all it needs to give you rankings for all kinds of phrases that you’d never manually optimize for. With things like Alexa or Google’s voice search, people search by speaking phrases and questions rather than typing in keywords.
15% of all queries in Google have never been asked before.
The more content you have, the more words there are, the more chances to be selected as a relevant page for someone’s convoluted long-tail query.
Here are some useful tools to find such queries:
4. Responsive Sites Can Fail Mobile SEO
Even if your website is responsive, you can still get hurt by lack of mobile compatibility. As a friendly reminder, Google used to have separate indices for desktop searches and mobile searches. Now, everything is based on the mobile index alone. So if your website is still not optimized for mobile devices, you better get started.
We recently had an issue on a website where the text was too small for mobile devices. At least the Google Search Console said so. The website is less than one year old and it refused to rank properly at the top of the search results even for long-tails. It was, however, at the bottom of page 1 for some terms. I went in and fixed the mobile compatibility issue and within days, the site jumped up.
There is a big lesson to be learned from this. Google does take mobile compatibility seriously. Even on responsive websites, you need to make sure all is in top shape. A similar common issue, by the way, happens if clickable areas or buttons are too close together. Like the text size issue, this gets reported in your Google Search Console.
5. Backlinks for SEO in 2020
Ranking in Google is ultimately a combination of signals, and backlinks have always been the most powerful one.
We mentioned that content alone can rank, staring with long-tail and working yourself up to high rankings thanks to good user signals that tell Google your website is relevant. As rankings climb, you get links naturally and the site hits even more growth.
While some people are abandoning links or don’t care about them at all, actively going out there to get good links remains a huge part of a powerful website. In fact, if people abandon links and you don’t, you have an advantage.
Needless to say, your links need to have quality. Don’t just go and pay someone for it, don’t spam and so on. Links can come from Youtube, from social media, from citations (for local businesses), and from guest posts.
If you spend time creating high-quality content on your site, going out there to get some links is perfectly sensible. People want to link to great content, so outreach can yield a lot of success. And if can write some high-quality guest posts for other websites that link to you, go ahead! After all, you’re an expert in your niche.
All of this must be based on a relevant website with content that Google wants to rank. For every link, think about whether a link to your website really offers the user added value.
6. Switch to PHP 7+
This is a big one for site speed, similar in nature to the WebP format, and easily overlooked.
Many web hosts still run on the old PHP 5.6 version. Websites that have been around for a while may even run on PHP 5.6 because you’d need to go to your hosting provider or log into your cPanel and switch to, say, PHP 7 by yourself.
What you need to know: The developers of PHP have overhauled the code going from PHP 5 to PHP 7, enabling tremendous speed improvements. The number of CPU operations for PHP instructions was reduced by 200-400%, so the same action can be completed much sooner and using fewer server resources.
For a WordPress site, switching to PHP 7.1 has several performance benefits.
The backend is much faster and not as sluggish as we are all used to
The “time to first byte” is massively reduced when someone accesses the site
All WordPress operations are faster, increasing page loading speed
The server does less than 50% of the CPU work, saving resources (good for shared hosting)
More people can hit your website simultaneously since the server has less to do per user
Remember AlphaGo, the AI that beat the world’s best Go player? Yep, it was developed by Google. Said AI was further improved until it was able to master any game after being told the rules. AlpaZero, as it was called, was applied to chess, and in just 4 hours it became the best chess player in history, beating every other AI easily.
You can not underestimate the power of this software. AlpaZero went through thousands of years of human-level chess experience and discovered all of the strategies and tricks used by people, and like in the case of Go, it ditched some of them as it discovered more effective strategies unknown to humans. See, in the real world, The Terminator would always win and The Matrix never be undone.
Google image search can recognize what images are showing, and it can read any text that images are displaying. The Rankbrain algorithm still gets better and answers that 15% of search queries that have never been asked before.
You better believe the AI Google is powerful and sees a lot of things. Not being bound by the limitation of the human brain, it moves towards an understanding of the web that might resemble your understanding of your favorite pop culture franchise.
SEO 2020 and beyond means to please the AI overlord with the very thing it wants: Quality. So the good news is that quality content, good web design & optimization, and earned backlinks get to win in most cases. We think this is only going to continue.
Conclusion: Your checklist for SEO 2020
Try to optimize your SERP listings to get a high CTR.
Switch to the WebP format, even for memes you post on social media.
Switch to PHP 7.x if your server is still running PHP 5.x
Work with quality content – long articles that are useful and target long-tails as well as short-tails.
Make sure you are in top shape for mobile compatibility, even if your site is responsive.
Aim for natural backlinks due to your content.
Reach out to blogs for guest posts and sensible links to your quality content.
Always aim to satisfy the user’s need, which is what the AI wants.