2016 is just about done, and it’s been quite a year for SEO. Google debuted not one, but two algorithm updates, rolled out the Accelerated Mobile Pages project, changed the layout of its SERPs and started experiments with a mobile-first index. Now, it’s time to get ready for what’s to come in 2017. SEO and digital marketing changes quickly, so it’s important that you stay ahead of the curve to avoid being left behind by both search engines and your competitors.

Here are five SEO trends that will have a major impact on the SEO landscape and should inform the way you optimize your site in 2017.

1. Conversational and Voice Search

Voice search and digital assistants (Siri, Cortana, Google Assistant, etc.) is taking over. To date, 55% of teenagers and 41% of adults use voice search on a daily basis. The majority of people who use voice search do so for efficiency - 73% of teens and 62% of adults - but most people use it because "it’s the future" - a whopping 89% of teens and 85% of adults. Voice search is getting more effective: word recognition error rate dropped from over 20% two years ago to 8% today. And, its popularity is growing at an almost shocking rate: from a “statistical zero” to 10% of all searches in 2015, and 20% of searches made with an Android device in the US this year.

So if you have any lingering doubts about voice search’s impact on SEO in 2017, forget them now.

Conversational search has a major impact on the way people search for things, and interact with those search results. That’s because it recognizes the context in which the search is made: previous searches, location, mobile apps you’re using, current on-screen content and information about the user.

So how do you optimize your site and content for something like this?

  • Focus keyword research on conversational queries: Tools like Ubersuggest, Answer the Public, KeywordTool.io or even plain old Google Autocomplete provide insight into the way people use your keywords in voice search. This will naturally lead to an increased focus on long tail keywords. The plus side is that while these long tail conversational queries might have low search volume, they should convert like gangbusters.

  • Add pages that answer questions: Voice searchers ask a lot of questions, and questions typically start with "who", “what”, “when”, “where” or “why”. Build your pages around questions that start with these adverbs and answer them using conversational language. FAQ and about pages are natural places to put this content. If it sounds a lot like Google Answer Box optimization that’s because it is (but more on this later).

  • Use schema markup to help search engines: Schema markup is an HTML add-on that provides semantic meaning behind your page content. This allows Google to better understand what your pages are talking about, which means they’ll better connect them to conversational voice searches.

  • Make sure the answers to questions are findable: An important part of helping search engines understand your content is helping them crawl your site more efficiently. That means making sure your robots.txt file and XML sitemap can be accessed by search engines and don’t contain any errors that are blocking the spiders from accessing your pages. Use the Sitemaps test tool and robots.txt Tester to validate your sitemap and robots.txt file.

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2. Accelerated Mobile Pages

The Accelerated Mobile Pages initiative, or just AMP, is an open source standard to create web pages that load quickly (nearly instantly) and provide a user experience optimized for mobile devices. AMP isn’t a ranking signal, so using it won’t make you outrank a page that has better content and/or links. However, since AMP improves page speed and usability, it automatically boosts two major aspects of mobile friendliness.

The proliferation of smartphones and mobile has also given rise to the idea of the "micro-moment." Micro-moments are the times at which someone turns to a device, often a phone or tablet but not necessarily, looking to fulfill an immediate need. There are different types of micro-moments, but what’s important is that the user expects their need to be fulfilled directly on the landing page.

Thanks to the mobile friendliness update (AKA "Mobilegeddon"), your site’s mobile friendliness is incredibly important if you rely on traffic from mobile devices for conversions or branding. Mobile SEO has been important since mobile search surpassed desktop last year, but going forward it’s going to become all but mandatory. Plus, as Google further experiments with its mobile-first index, the mobile versions of your pages are going to become increasingly more important than the desktop version. Using AMP lets you maintain consistent content and design and share important ranking factors like link juice and domain authority between versions.

3. Google Answer Box Optimization

Speaking of micro-moments, since Google’s Hummingbird update, the search engine has been slowly (or maybe not that slowly) transforming itself from a search engine into an "answer engine." That is, it’s looking to connect searchers directly to their goals, not just the best websites it thinks are relevant to their queries. One part of this shift has been the Answer Box, officially known as “featured snippets.”

Featured snippets are the title and URL of a page, along with the page text Google thinks best answers the searcher’s question. The Answer Box appears at the top of the SERP.

Link juice Answer Box

The Answer Box is generated automatically when Google is able to determine that a searcher is looking for a particular piece of information. You can’t opt in (you an opt out by adding the "nosnippet" meta tag to your page) and you can’t decide what text Google uses. The Answer Box isn’t new, but as Google gets better at figuring out search intent, it’s becoming more frequent.

Some marketers don’t like appearing in featured snippets. The thinking goes that even though the Answer Box appears above the top-ranked search result, giving the user what they’re looking for right in the SERP will negate any need to click through to the site. More people see your content but, but fewer people visit your website. Not what we want. However, most pages that are featured in the Answer Box see an increase in impressions, clicks and CTR. Plus, they’re great opportunities for branding and to establish yourself as an authoritative source of information.

Unfortunately, since features snippets are generated by Google automatically, you can’t really determine what content it chooses to feature. You can, however, optimize your pages in a way that will make getting featured more likely. And since, thanks to Hummingbird and Rank Brain, Google is getting better connecting searchers to answers, Answer Box optimization is absolutely something you should be doing in 2017.

4. Optimizing for Search Intent

It may seem that after all of Google’s recent advances in semantic search, AI and interpreting conversational language that keywords are becoming a thing of the past. That’s a prevalent misconception surrounding SEO. You still need to optimize your pages and content around keywords. But what has changed is the type of keywords you should be targeting.

As we discussed above, Hummingbird and Rank Brain have changed the way Google interprets search queries and determines keyword relevance. That means choosing keywords that capture searchers’ intent:

  • Complete an action: Whether it’s buying something, signing up for something or downloading something, these people have a specific task in mind they’d like to complete. When they click on search results, they expect to be able to complete that action directly on the landing page - if they can’t, they’ll bounce off of your site and won’t come back. Generally, these types of keywords have low volume but very high conversion rates - they’re the people who already have their credit cards in hand.

  • Find information: These searchers aren’t looking to complete an action, or are at the very beginning of the sales process. They haven’t decided if they even need the product/service yet and just want to know more about the topic. They use phrases like "what is", “do I need”, “how to” and “where to find” in their queries. If you want to attract these users, your keywords page content should be structured around answering those questions. They don’t convert very well at first, but make excellent prospects for retargeting campaigns.

  • Research products: These users are between the other two in the conversion funnel. They know they want or need something, but they don’t know exactly which one, or how to decide. They use phrases like "top 10", “reviews”, “deals” and “product guides” in queries and are looking for content that will make their decision-making process simpler and easier. Using words like “cheap” and “deals” are especially effective for users with this type of search intent, even if it looks like spam to you.

Determining the intent behind your keywords should guide you in your on page optimization. Remember, Google is looking to connect its users with their end goal, so your on page elements, title, <H1> tags and page content should, too.

5. Mobile App Indexing/Deep Linking

As mobile search grows in importance, so does the importance of mobile apps. In fact, Statista expects mobile app downloads to read 268.69 billion in 2017, a growth of 20 percent. That’s a huge amount of content that, until recently, Google couldn’t access. Starting in 2016, Google can now crawl, index and display content from mobile apps in mobile search results. Even better, if a user has your app installed and has visited the relevant app page before, Google will display your app in Google Suggest above its other suggested queries.

How does App Indexing work? First, your app needs to be able to support and be able to parse HTTP URLs, and those URLs need to match the URLs on your website. Use Google Search Console to associate your website with your app. Next, your app page content needs to be equivalent to the content on your page - if it’s too different you’ll see content mismatch errors in your Google Search Console crawl error report. Google considers your website to be the canonical version, so your content needs to be well optimized for search engines. Verify that you own the app to track its performance in search results.

Why will app indexing be important in 2017? If you make money from your app and your marketing relies on organic traffic, it’s obvious. However, it will also help create a more integrated, cross-channel experience for your users. Indexed apps will be able to use Google’s Now on Tap to integrate even further with user’s Android device. Say you run a local restaurant blog. If two of your audience members are having a text conversation about where to eat dinner, Google can suggest links to your restaurant review app. This only works for indexed apps on Android devices, but the potential in terms of traffic and engagement is huge.

Improve Your Users’ Lives

If you haven’t noticed by now, there is an overarching theme behind the SEO trends for 2017: improving the experience for your users. Which makes sense, since Google’s core responsibility is to connect users to the information, brands, products, answers, etc. that they’re looking for. As you plan your marketing going forward in 2017, keep your focus on now your website and content will help your audience learn something or do something and you will be well positioned to rank highly in the new year.