SEO is changing. In fact, it always has been changing but the shifts over the last few years have been nothing short of seismic, and have seen businesses the world over struggling to keep up. What was once a dark art of gaming the system has been dragged out into the light, kicking and screaming, by Google in their pursuit of consistently serving customers the content that really fulfils their needs.
Now SEO isn’t really about satisfying the search engines, algorithms and spiders (although that’s still a part of it), now SEO is all about people. Google wants to provide their users (your customers) with the most relevant and useful content as quickly as possible. Your customers want content that will help them in some way or fulfil a need. So if you align your SEO with the one constant in the changing SEO equation, the customer’s needs, then success is never far away.
We’ll be exploring the topic of people-centric SEO over the coming weeks leading up to an event where we will delve deeper into the issues with industry experts. But to whet your appetite, here are the broad concerns when it comes to making your SEO people-friendly.

The technical foundation

There’s been a big, and on-going, debate between SEO experts on the importance of technical SEO versus content-led SEO. The problem is that, both sides are important and quite often people seem to be arguing at cross purposes, or disagreeing when in actual fact they broadly agree with each other.
What is technical SEO? Basically it’s any SEO that is focussed on making your site and its pages easy to spider and index, and lays the foundations for everything else that follows.
Is your site fast? Is it mobile friendly? Is its architecture clean and easy for spiders to navigate? These are just some of the concerns of technical SEO, and they are all vital if you want your site to rank.
Technical SEO is important. It’s the foundation that all of your other SEO work will sit on, and if you get it wrong then everything else you do, no matter how good, will perform sub-optimally.
So yes, technical SEO really does matter.

Never mind the width, feel the quality

Time was when you could rank just by stuffing pages with keywords, or churning out pages and pages of content that was of no real use to anybody.
Not anymore.
Thanks to Google’s infamous Panda update, if you aren’t producing original, high quality content on your site then you’re going to feel the pinch. Nobody knows the exact details of the Panda algorithm but when Google published an article on creating high quality sites following the update most of the tips were based on creating content that real people will find genuinely useful and interesting.
In the simplest of terms, quality content gets more interactions and more links, which is good for your customers, your brand awareness and equity, and for Google.

What’s their intent?

Intentions, and the actions they drive, need to be put under a microscope if you’re going to really target your SEO strategy.
It starts with understanding the buying cycle, what kinds of content people want at the stage they are on, and what kinds of keywords they’re using to find that content.
The kind of content that is useful for someone in the research phase of the buying cycle is different to someone who is at the decision-making stage, and so the kinds of searches they carry out will be different. Let’s use running shoes as an example.
A customer wants to find a new pair of running shoes to train for a 10k run. They might start off just by searching for ‘running shoes for men/women’. That’s going to return a lot of high-level results, probably from big retail sites, where they can sift through lots of brands and styles. Perhaps they like the look of a pair of Nike trainers, but that pair of Asics seems to have good reviews. Then they might start looking for specific reviews of each online, changing their search terms appropriately. Now we’re in the evaluation stage. Maybe they do a ‘which is better for running Nike or Asics’ type of search too, to see if anyone has put them head to head.
At each stage of the cycle you need to create content that herds the user towards purchase, but it’s more than that. You need to be able to workout if users who engage with your content are taking the specific actions you want. That way you can focus your content creation to not only better serve their need, but also to target users who are much more likely to convert.

Positive signals

Most of the big ranking factors surround interactions, because if people aren’t interacting with your content in a positive manner then it tells Google and the other search engines that your content, and by extension your site, isn’t useful for the user.
While you used to be able to just get lots of links back to your site by handing over cold, hard cash that’s not going to cut it anymore. Google’s Penguin update launched in 2012 with the express aim of penalising sites that have created unnatural or suspicious backlinks to improve their performance.
Why do links matter so much? Because when somebody links to your content, and vice versa, it is seen as an endorsement of that content/page/site. And like recommendations in real life, the quality of the individual giving the recommendation matters. If someone you don’t know tells you to try a new toothpaste you probably won’t take their advice as seriously as if your dentist recommends it, or if an independent professional dental organisation gives it a seal of approval.
But if you found out that the dental organisation receives funding from the manufacturer of the toothpaste…well you suddenly put less stock in their opinion. It’s the same with links.
Links should be natural, and from quality sites, not purchased from low authority domains, if you want to succeed.
And it’s not just links. Social shares, likes, comments and other interactions all have an impact on your SEO performance.

The people-centric future

Being people-centric in your SEO isn’t the future, it’s the here and now and it will only become more important as technology becomes more sophisticated.