Not only is this the time for new beginnings, it’s the time for a lot of updates from a certain search engine. Here’s what we advise to get the year off to a strong start in SEO.

For Structure and Design, Think Mobile First

Last year, Google announced its intention to go from mobile-friendly to mobile-first in the first months of this year, so now is an excellent time make sure your website has no gaps in content or quality of user experience. We recommend using responsive design for your site for this reason, although some SEO experts have suggested that responsive design can actually slow down mobile sites because all the same content and code is loading for both desktop and mobile environments.

However, Google representatives have said that mobile sites won’t be penalized for slow load times (for now, anyway), so there’s no immediate drawback to responsive design in an SEO context. That said, because a fast-loading site is always preferred by users, it’s still a good idea to keep your site lean and optimized. January is often seen as a time for weight loss, and that should definitely apply to your site, even if you can’t get it a free month at the gym.

Also, make sure your site is constantly tested and checked on mobile devices, especially if you’ve added any interstitial content (i.e., pop-ups). Starting this month, Google will penalize websites with “intrusive interstitials” that aren’t necessary, such as those for logins, cookie approval and legal matters such as age verification. Before adding a pop-up to your site, make sure it meets Google’s guidelines on mobile devices.

New Goal: Position Zero

As we noted in December, the available space for organic search results on Google’s search engine results page shrank throughout 2016, and looks to keep shrinking as more and more featured snippets are introduced. However, those snippets can work in your favor if your content is strong enough to appear in them, especially answer boxes.

In fact, content in a featured snippet gets a boost in the organic search results, meaning that you could appear in “position zero” (the answer box) and on the front page organic results as well. We’ve seen significant increases in click-through rates for clients with two listings on the SERP front page—up to 400%.

So how do you structure your content to be snippet-friendly? First, be sure your content uses the terms your target searchers use and correlates to their intent when searching. (This is a fundamental aspect of both SEO and PPC, and if we do say so ourselves, we’re quite good at it.)

Know your potential customers so well that you can anticipate the gaps in their knowledge, which you can fill with your content. Then write that content in an explanatory manner that genuinely answers the question posed by your chosen search terms. Start with the content that concerns your company’s most mission-critical elements, see how it performs in search results, then test and tweak it.

Smart Home Assistants: Asked and Answered

With the success of digital home assistants over the 2016 holidays, the era of voice search has arrived. Obviously, if your company specializes in B2B services (e.g., government contracting or heavy equipment), you probably won’t need to worry about getting many topical questions from Amazon Echo or Google Home users.

However, if you’re a B2C company, this is a great time to seek out optimization opportunities for voice search. As with answer boxes, make sure your content answers questions your target users would have, and make sure it does that in a clear, conversational tone.

Remove as much jargon as possible and tone down the formality, so a smart home assistant will know what you’re talking about. Much as we hate to say it, even take out some of the wordplay in your content, so a digital assistant won’t get confused by the extended Canterbury Tales metaphor your blog writer was so proud of.

HTTPS: It’s Time

Starting this month, Google Chrome will begin putting an unpleasant label on sites that collect credit cards or passwords but don’t have the HTTPS designation: “Not Secure.” Sure, it’s not a strict penalty, but it’s almost certain to leave a bad impression on visitors who use Chrome and see the notation in the URL bar.

If your site requires a login, or you’re an eCommerce site that takes credit-card payments, you’ve probably already begun the switch to HTTPS. However, if your site is more informational than transactional, you might be putting it off, thinking it would be a hassle with little payoff.

The good news is that it’s easier than ever to get an SSL certificate; your web hosting company probably already has a feature that does it. Updating your links, internally and externally, will require some effort from your SEO team or agency, but Google has published many guides for each step of the process.

If you’re worried about the payoff, Google has reported that switching to HTTPS gives you a slight lift in rankings, as you’re demonstrating the security of your content. Additionally, HTTPS pages tend to load faster than non-secure pages.

And if that’s not enough, here’s a little more motivation: the “Not Secure” label won’t be limited to passwords or credit-card info for long. Google has declared, “Eventually, we plan to label all HTTP pages as non-secure, and change the HTTP security indicator to the red triangle that we use for broken HTTPS.”

Seven Steps to Strong SEO in 2017

To give your website a strong SEO foundation for 2017, we recommend these steps:

  1. If your site isn’t already on HTTPS, give it strong consideration.
  2. If your site doesn’t already use responsive design, give it strong consideration.
  3. If responsive design isn’t an option, run an audit to make sure there are no content gaps between your mobile and desktop sites.
  4. Check all interstitials (pop-ups) on mobile to make sure they’re within Google’s guidelines.
  5. Review your content to ensure that at least some of it contains helpful explanations for answer boxes.
  6. If your company is B2C, review your site’s content to make sure it reads in an informal tone that a smart home assistant can understand.
  7. Always keep reviewing your site and lowering your page load sizes, with a focus on mobile.

To get this list in a handy PDF, download it here. If you’d also like its companion list, about starting the year strong in paid search, you can get both with one click here.

Here’s to a thoroughly optimized 2017!

Tiffany Pullin

Tiffany Pullin

Former Senior SEO Analyst at 360Partners
Tiffany Pullin was with 360Partners from 2013 until 2017. As our Senior SEO Analyst, she was an expert on technical SEO and content strategy and execution. Tiffany is no longer with the team, but we're still grateful for the knowledge and insight she gave to this blog.
Tiffany Pullin