When I'm not busy at WordStream, talking about magical unicorns on social media, speaking at industry events, or writing, I'm reading. I want to stay up to date on everything SEO, which means I devote hundreds of hours to reading every year.
As another year comes to a close, I want to share my top picks for the best, must-read articles of the year.
While there was (as always) a lot of news in the SEO industry, my goal here isn't to highlight news stories or "how to" types of posts. Also, my selections aren't purely based on social share numbers or view counts – I wanted to highlight posts that either offered original research (we need more of it!) or strong opinions that offered really interesting insights about SEO.
These SEO posts were the unicorns that stood out in a sea of donkeys in 2016. Away we go!
Surfacing Featured Snippets From Around The SEO And SEM Industry, And What I Learned Along The Way
Did you know WordStream is the king of featured snippets? Crazy but true! That's what Gabe discovered when he analyzed several of the most influential search marketing blogs and publications.
WordStream got featured snippets for keywords including [boost website traffic], [outbound marketing], and [how much does Google AdWords cost].
In addition, Gabe researched and shared his findings on featured snippets that appeared on Google's blogs, as well as other great sites including Search Engine Roundtable, Search Engine Watch, Search Engine Journal, and PPC Hero.
Because featured snippets are so amazingly powerful, they became a new fascination of mine in 2016. In fact, I devoted an entire column to featured snippets on Moz in November (and Gabe was an incredibly helpful resource!). My post includes some of my own research about how engagement rates might impact which snippets Google selects.
We Analyzed 1 Million Google Search Results. Here’s What We Learned About SEO
What factors correlate with first page search engine rankings? To find out, Dean did a brilliant analysis of a million Google search results.
Although most of the findings won't be super surprising to experienced SEOs (links, topically relevant content, and a fast loading website matter, duh!), it's always important to continually test our assumptions, because search behavior and Google are always evolving.
One interesting thing Dean found was a "very small relationship between title tag keyword optimization and ranking … which may reflect Google's move to Semantic Search."
YES! That's why I've been preaching the importance of ditching old-school SEO title tag advice in favor of writing titles that will get crazy high click-through rates this year.
RIP Google PageRank score: A retrospective on how it ruined the web
This year SEOs were forced to say goodbye to public PageRank – the number between 0-10 that Google assigned to pages based on their importance. And, as Sullivan put it: "Good riddance."
Sullivan recounts the checkered history of PageRank and how it led to the rise of link spam and shady SEO tactics. It's a great read and includes an important bit of advice:
"Don’t fixate on scores, either Google’s scores, for the remaining few weeks they’ll be around, or third-party scores. For some, they can be a useful way to focus. But for too many, they can become an obsession that pulls away from other types of SEO work that can be done."
What 300+ Content Marketing Campaigns Can Teach You About Earning Links
Libert analyzed campaign data from a sample of 345 campaigns that launched between 2013 and 2016 to find out what factors increase content’s ability to earn links. They found her agency's biggest unicorns had four things in common:
- Highly emotional
- Broad appeal
- Pop culture-themed
Emotion is huge, whether it's in PPC or SEO. The same emotions that make people share make people click.
The same is true of pop culture references – I love having themes for my posts. In addition to the ever-present unicorns, I also enjoy referencing everything from "Terminator" to "Mission: Impossible" to "A Beautiful Mind".
8 Old School SEO Practices That Are No Longer Effective
Many SEOs are living in the past, as Fishkin points out in this edition of Whiteboard Friday. For instance, are you guilty of prioritizing keywords over clicks? If so, stop focusing on how many keywords you can cram into your title tag and start trying to increase how many clicks you get.
As Fishkin put it:
"I'm essentially trying to create a message, like I would for an AdWords ad, that is less focused on just having the raw keywords in there and more focused on drawing the click. This is a far more effective approach..."
You also don't need to create separate pages for every keyword variant. This is OLD SEO thinking that needs to die!
How 16 Companies are Dominating the World's Google Search Results
Are Google's search results diverse? Maybe not as diverse as they seem.
ViperChill dives deep into how 16 big companies are dominating the SERPs in some of the most popular industries.
While Google's Gary Illyes indicated on Twitter that domain authority isn't a ranking factor, strong domains do matter – as evidenced by this post. But remember: you aren't doomed as long as you can raise your organic CTR!
10 Illustrations of How Fresh Content May Influence Google Rankings (Updated)
We know it's important to create relevant content that inspires clicks, is memorable, and generates engagement. But does freshness matter? As with most things SEO, "it depends."
Essentially, Shepard's post offers a good reminder why it's important to keep your content updated:
"Your goal should be to update your site in a timely manner that benefits users, with an aim of increasing clicks, user engagement, and fresh links. These are the clearest signals you can pass to Google to show that your site is fresh and deserving of high rankings."
We do that all the time here on WordStream. We want users who come to our pages to get the best, most accurate information, so you'll often see under our headlines the data we last updated each post.
Are Links Still a Powerful Ranking Factor? (New Study)
Links still matter for rankings! Dog bites man? Well, not quite.
Enge put together a really interesting (and data-backed) study that essentially concluded that links matter, but building links alone may not be enough to help crappy content.
What it all means: You need UNICORNS (a.k.a., high-quality content). No amount of links will help donkey content (i.e., content nobody clicks on or interacts with) rank.
When and How to Listen to Google's Public Statements About SEO
Google's employees are under a ton of pressure whenever they speak to people in the SEO industry. Sometimes they misspeak; sometimes they don't tell you everything (because they can't!); sometimes their words end up being misinterpreted; sometimes their word is blindly held up as gospel.
So, with that in mind, Fishkin put out a Whiteboard Friday discussing this very topic. Because it can be tough to know which statements from Google you should trust. Fishkin offered us a few helpful recommendations:
- Consider all the ways that the statement could be true while the surface-level info is technically wrong.
- Give statements some time to be amended or modified.
- I like data and I like experiments over opinions and public statements. (YES!! All of this!)
The Future is More Content: Jeff Bezos, Robots and High Volume Publishing
This is a must-read for anyone doing content strategy. Rayson's post on BuzzSumo is my pick as THE top post of 2016.
Quality or quantity? Yes! The future of content includes both.
It doesn't matter if your content is long or short – you should define great content based on your engagement rates (the top 1 to 3 percent of your content, or content with 3-5x or more higher than average engagement rates).
Your headline dictates your content success/failure most of the time. Length isn't a discriminating characteristic of high-engagement content.
But quantity plays a big role. You have to audition tons of stuff and atomize unicorns into tons of unicorn babies (related content). If done right, you end up with both the quality and quantity you need.
11 Battle-Tested Ways to Raise Your SEO Click-Through Rate [Infographic]
Getting the idea that clicks and click-through rates matter a lot? OK good.
That's why I joined forces with the awesome Brian Dean of Backlinko to create an amazingly easy-to-follow infographic that collects the 11 most effective ways to boost your organic CTR.
The Magical Content that Gets Links and Shares – New Research
Content that provides original research and insights is one of five types of posts that attract lots of links and shares. That's why we regularly try to create research-based posts using the vast amounts of WordStream data we have access to.
In Rayson's view: "Regularly updated research content should be part of any content strategy. It builds your authority and can become cornerstone content that is referenced by your industry. My one caveat is that the research needs to be in-depth and serious to have credibility. That can take time to build."
Other popular types of posts, according to Rayson: authoritative content that answers popular questions; strong opinion posts and political posts; content that leverages a trending topic but that also provides practical insights; authoritative news content on new products or developments.
6 SEO Experiments That Will Blow Your Mind
Ready to get your mind blown? This post is a collection of all the crazy SEO experiments we ran this year.
One big theme this year was the impact of engagement on organic search rankings. So, over the year I went in search of answers to six SEO questions:
- Does organic search click-through rate matter?
- Is organic CTR an organic search ranking factor?
- Can rewriting your titles boost your CTR?
- Do website engagement rates impact organic search rankings?
- Do engagement metrics impact the selection of featured snippets?
- What's the REAL relationship between organic rankings and social shares?
RankBrain and/or other machine learning elements within Google's core algorithm are increasingly rewarding pages with high user engagement. This is kind of a huge deal – so pay attention to it in 2017!
BONUS: This Epic Flowchart Will Help You Decide Whether to Listen to SEO Advice
Satire alert! This "epic" flowchart, which appears on parody SEO site WTFSEO, is funny because it's true.
Should you listen to that SEO advice you read on the Internet? Now, at last, you have a way to tell!
Oh, and it should go without saying, but anything that appears in a Larry Kim "best of the year" post is totally worth listening to. But if for any reason you're in doubt, consult the above flowchart! ;)
Your Top Picks?
Did I miss any of your favorite SEO posts of the year? Share your favorites in the comments!