It's hard to keep up with Google. Just as you make a change to your search engine optimisation strategy it seems another comes along and ruins everything. Google Caffeine, social media and retagging – the list never ends.
Over the past few years, businesses have been pretty good at getting up to speed with the basic SEO requirements. Keeping Google Places profiles up-to-date, ensuring links and pages are all defined clearly and with relevant content – these are basic tasks that plenty of small- and medium-sized enterprises are familiar with now.
So what's the next step? With most businesses now on board with the SEO requirements that forward-thinking SMEs were doing five or six years ago, how can innovative businesses get ahead of the pack?
After staying ahead for a few years, SEO experts say it's easy to become complacent. Now, they recommend you take on a few more responsibilities to ensure you're staying ahead for as long as possible.
Reseo chief executive Chris Thomas says businesses need to be across all levels of access now – that's how you get ahead.
"If we're talking about SEO, there are a range of ways you could get more people seeing your content come up. One easy way is Google Plus, but there are plenty of others to make sure you have a healthy following of users."
Retargeting – the new frontier
There are always plenty of new SEO methods to get a hold of, but retargeting is probably one of the most popular at the moment among search marketing types. And it's something you should increasingly be aware of.
"For us, this is really important and crucial for the next frontier of online marketing," Thomas says. "Servicing ads to people that have previously been to your site creates awareness and recall – and it can be done in sophisticated ways."
It's a complicated process, but easy to understand. Retargeting is basically showing advertisements to people who have already visited your site.
So if a user visits your site, and leaves, you can then "follow" them digitally and show them ads to convince them to go back to your site and buy your products or services.
Instead of just buying ads to target the users who come to your site, now you're following people who have already been to yours.
You have complete control over the websites which show your ads, so you can start culling those sites that aren't up to scratch.
"Let's say you're a car maker, like Ford," Thomas explains. "What you can do is put some script in the Ford Territory page, build an audience of people who are interested in that car, and then hit those people with ads."
"You can cross promote between all those ad networks and target the people who have already been to your site."
Google even wants you to start using this type of service. It has its own remarketing platform, saying it allows users to "communicate with people who've previously visited key pages on your website".
Of course, there are a couple of catches. For one thing, the practice is banned in some European nations due to privacy controls. The other concern is that some people aren't using this properly, according to Thomas.
"What ends up happening is that people are building their own advertising networks, but are putting tracking codes on websites that aren't even theirs."
"So people will say to a website owner, 'if you put this tracking script in, I'll pay you for a certain amount'. That means they build their advertising network over a lot of sites."
Thomas says he's surprised Google allows this, given it doesn't necessarily match its "don't be evil" mantra.
"People are building audiences using those networks, and paying money for it. But really, I think you should only be allowed to generate accounts that are within your own website network."
Google+ is now essential
Love it or hate it, Google has made its social network a huge part of its strategy and businesses need to pay attention. Now there are brand pages available for registration, SMEs need to ensure they're getting on top of this network as soon as possible.
Your search results depend on it.
AussieWeb chief executive Monte Heubsch says the network has millions of users – users could potentially convert into sales.
"Whenever you sign up a Google account, for anything like Docs or Reader or anything like that, it automatically creates a Google+ page for you."
"There are significant anecdotal suggestions that put Google+ at 400 million users soon, and that's a pretty awesome statistic."
Even if you don't like Google+, you need to get on board. The simple reason is that Google+ is now impacting search results.
You don't need to do much, but the more you do the better. Filling out a profile, getting connections, updating semi-regularly with new content, will all help your SEO chances as Google more tightly integrates the network with its search results.
"Google now searches the world and the network is now impacting SEO," Heubsch says. And there's something else that's critical here as well – Google's changes to its privacy terms.
The company recently blasted this notice in front of all of its users, and with good reason. They make a significant change to the status quo. Now, unless you specifically opt out, Google will use all your status updates, information, etc, to impact search results.
Obviously some people might think that a bad thing, but Heubsch says for businesses it can really help.
"Just get your head around how Google+ pages work. It's critical to your results, and the more you work on it the better."
Become a thought leader
The reason why all of this is important ties into Google's new strategy of authorship and socialisation. Put simply, Google is trying to do two things. The first is more closely tying authors to their content, and the second is ensuring results are more individualised.
That means you and a friend could type in the same search terms and come up with very different results.
Jim Stewart says this is exactly why businesses need to be creating content to help their SEO. This is one of the biggest ways to influence your rankings, he says, and yet few companies do it well because they don't have an idea of what "quality content" actually means.
"Obviously everyone wants to be ranked highly, but now you need to produce quality content that's worth sharing. That associates you as an author on Google, which will show up in search results."
"The more people share your content, the more they will see you as a thought leader."
And sharing on Google+ is exactly why having a profile is so important. The more your articles transfer between friendship "circles", the more likely that link is going to show up highly in native search results.
For example, a business selling cycling parts may write regularly blog posts on quality brands and parts. Having a Google+ account allows that business to then share those articles with its followers, who then share those articles with their own friends.
Eventually, having enough people share those links raises the rankings for those blog posts for terms such as "cycling parts" and "bicycle parts".
But as Stewart points out, this will only work if you create quality content rather than just putting stuff online that no one will read.
"When you hear the words 'thought leadership', you need to think about what that actually means. Think about what type of material you would want to read, and then share."
"The personalisation of search is going to be really important. That means making sure your content is published and linkable by all your followers is extremely important."
And a few other things...
Apart from these major improvements, experts say you should be targeting a few different things – and mobile is at the top of the list.
"Mobile is going through the roof," says Heubsch. "Over half of people over 18 have a smartphone which is obviously optimised for the internet, and yet people don't have sites that are mobile optimised."
You may not think this is important now, but as Heubsch points out, Google favours sites that are mobile friendly.
"That was true last year, and the year before, and it's becoming even more prominent now. So you need to get on that."
The other advantage you need is YouTube. Opening all areas of access is critical, and that includes video as Google offers video results at the top of normal search results pages. Just as businesses are using blog posts to position themselves as thought leaders, doing so with video is critical as well."
"The next frontier of search and creation will be about generating video," Thomas says. "The current younger generation of internet users, it's natural to them and so you need to be using YouTube and other video to get that audience."
YouTube is optimising for this as well, releasing a suite of analytics tools that allows creators to judge exactly when and where users are leaving their videos, where they are watching them – anything you would expect from an analytics suite.
But despite all this, there are questions to be asked about how relevant SEO will become in the future. As Heubsch points out, the creation of mobile apps is impacting SEO in a way some in the industry hadn't anticipated.
"The question is whether the web could eventually be replaced by apps. Instead of having people go to websites now, many apps are replicating this function."
"There is new data that shows users in Britain, France and Germany are now starting to spend more time on their phones than on the desktop. It's a given you have to be optimised for phones now."
But Heubsch is unsure whether apps will eventually kill the need for dedicated sites or whether they will just become another requirement.
"I'm not smart enough to answer that question, but it's one we should definitely be thinking about."