Just five months ago, I wrote a piece for State of Digital discussing the question ‘Can we future-proof our sites?’ I spoke about staying on top of your technical integrity and how you need to be aware of the latest trends to be ahead of the curve. If you took my advice, it’s likely you’re now overwhelmed from the exciting advancements taking place in SEO (and digital marketing as a whole). The risk is that the wealth of options available becomes almost infinite (certainly from a time point of view). However, at every brand, you’ll find that your resources are finite, so choosing the right activities is essential.
From money to time to technical capability, it is impossible to implement everything that you want on a website. Especially if you’re attempting to get sign off from senior stakeholders on a new marketing technology or a relatively untested theory or tactic. As you look to your future options, you must also weigh them up against tactics that you know work right now. It becomes a continual trade-off between optimising for now or for the future.
Reflecting on Link Building
The most pertinent example of SEO’s choosing to optimise for the present, rather than to look to the future, was the huge popularity of link building prior to 2012. It was widely accepted that sites could pay for links or provide free products in exchange for a ‘well-placed’ link with anchor text of their choice, without reprisal. All of this was in spite of the fact that within Google’s guidelines, it did contain statements on what a quality, natural link profile was.
Decisions were made that the short-term gain of buying links or manipulating your link profile was worth the risk on future performance. Then along came the first Penguin update and those caught unaware were left regretting their short-sighted strategies in most cases.
In every story of this nature, there’s always two groups of people those that had looked to the future and were prepared (by either not taking the risk or understanding the potential pitfalls) and those that just went into it blindly. The purpose of this article is to define a way to measure how long a trend will exist for, understand the new marketing developments that will last and make sure that you fall into the former category.
There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of factors which contribute to if a trend is here to stay or not. When you begin to work out the core criteria for an SEO advancement that will become core to best practice, it can be difficult to know where to start.
For ease of quantifying them, I think you can distill most factors into four categories:
- Connections & Partnership
This is all about what the MVP to launch really is. To do this, you need to start by assessing the barriers to entry, understanding if there are any roadblocks to entry. That also means that it’s important to determine if a stronger competitor would be able to launch or provide an alternative to the technology you’re about to adopt. If you’re looking to adopt a new SEO trend, for example, AMP, then the risk is if a version is launched by another brand without all the bugs/errors present currently. If the two are not compatible, your time adopting the first technology will have been wasted. One method to determine this is to study the patents related to that trend; understand when they were filed, what related patents exist and how this could impact the technology you’re looking at.
The cost involved in implementing a new marketing method is far beyond just the initial monetary value and time to launch. Thinking financially, you must also consider the maintenance time that will be required each time you adapt something on your site. There is also the opportunity cost of how else those resources could have been invested. If you dedicate all of your development resource to building a mobile version of the site, then what other developments will you be missing out on? These factors will need to be multiplied if you plan on rolling out this project across additional markets or internationally. The value of your implementation will be much higher if it is then easier to replicate or there are economies of scale involved.
The purpose in adopting any marketing trend is to ensure that it generates the business more revenue. To do that, it’s important that it’s beneficial to users and positively impacts their experience. Primarily this means understanding what the main difference in user experience will be. This also means how easy it is to adopt – will users need to download something to use it? Can it work on multiple devices? How do you share information on it with others? – all of these are crucial questions in understanding the new user experience.
The final factor to measure a new trend against is if it already has any connections or partnerships with existing brands. It’s important that any new technology can easily integrate into the marketing stack you already have. But also that it has partnerships with the platforms that users are already active on. For example; Twitter’s firehose with Google means that it is unlikely another competitor could overtake this technology as the majority of people are using Google search.
To understand these criteria fully, and the scope which they cover, I have picked three
We frequently saw QR codes implemented by brands a few years ago as a means to link their online and offline experience together or to add a second screen to a person’s brand interaction. So let’s see how they measured against the criteria:
- Product/Technology – The alternative would be the use of a numeric code, password, search term, or simple URL, instead of the scanning functionality. It’s also key multiple businesses are using this for it to be viable, as people must recognise it.
- Cost – Relatively cheap to implement, without being intensive on a single departments time, as a result, it’s quick to introduce and will not limit other developments
- Users – To use the codes, users would have to download a QR reader if it wasn’t built into their phone. It could also be disruptive to have to scan a code on an advert if someone is on the move.
- Connections – The iPhone 5 launched without compatible software, and there was no integration with new users’ experiences. It was only beneficial for people already interacting with the brand.
Despite the fact that against the above criteria, the codes did poorly, the number of QR codes in magazine ads rose to 8.4% in 2011. Yet in the same year, only 20% of American smartphone users were actually using the codes at all. QR codes were great in terms of cost being low, which meant that marketers found them easy to get signed off by stakeholders and adoption was widespread.
Looking to a more modern example, we’ve seen the adoption of AMP increasing across numerous industries. Here’s how it measures up:
- Product/Technology – Normal search pages are the obvious alternative, but it’s not viable to expect users to ignore these results in search. They also relate to Apple’s pagespeed patent.
- Cost – Implementation can be costly at times, but there have been multiple advancements in this recently for simpler ways to adopt AMP on site.
- Users – It’s a significantly better user experience for people if the content is accessible quicker than before, especially when the functionality is so familiar to normal search behaviour and Google Answer Boxes
- Connections – Made by Google, AMP integrates into organic search perfectly and is even having schema markup options added to it. As a result, we’ve seen multiple big brands already adopting it.
AMP has benefits across all four of the criteria compared to the drawbacks. Whilst there are some limitations and risks involved in using the technology, on the whole, if your brand is capable then implementation could be very beneficial.
The final example is a little less black and white – looking at the adopting of Progressive Web Apps.
- Product/Technology – Apps and the rise of app-indexing are the alternatives, but there are still some uniqueness and advantages to PWAs
- Cost – It requires a fair amount of development to launch a PWA, plus continuous testing and updating each time the content on site changes
- Users – The change in user experience is significant, and a seamless experience for them where they may be used to a slow app download process previously
- Connections – This fits perfectly into many SEO trends around speed and UX being the central point of a strategy. However, there are very few economies of scale to adopting this which means it can be costly if you’re working on a large site.
It’s not clear looking at PWAs as a standalone piece whether they should be implemented on sites or not. This is a case of looking at so many more factors and the brand’s marketing stack to see how it impacts upon all other business decisions.
It’s important to remember that with every new SEO trend, adopting it is at the cost of another piece of work on the site. As a result, when you’re assessing an implementation, it needs to be done in a comparative manner, not in isolation. To do this, you can score each element on a scale to understand the likelihood each implementation choice will be a long-term investment or not. For example; using the above examples, AMP would score the highest across the categories, therefore, should be the priority to implement, with PWAs in second and QR codes would be the least preferable choice.
This isn’t saying that launching a PWA or QR code would be a poor choice for every brand. In particular, if the cost of implementing AMP to that brand (due to their specific environment or product) was too high, then the order of implementation for these may shift.
There is no one size fits all when it comes to what the future of SEO and digital marketing really is. When it comes to the present day vs. forward-thinking trade off, it’s really about damage limitation and setting the best foundations possible. If you have the budget to invest and trial new things then you’re in a very fortunate position, it’s more likely though that you’ll be a brand following trends and adapting to the ever-shifting marketing ecosystem.