Search remains strong; are your SEO practices keeping up?

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Despite recent criticisms about the decline of Google's search engine - driven by Google's ongoing changes and additions to its core product - search remains a primary activity of most Internet users. The challenge for digital publishers is keeping their SEO practices up to date with Google's constantly evolving search algorithms.

Ninety-one percent of Internet users say they use a search engine, which is second only to sending or reading email as the most common online activity, according to a new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Among young adults, search is even more popular, used by 96 percent of 18-29-year-old Internet users.

On any given day in early 2012, 59% of U.S. adults using the Internet used a search engine. That's nearly double the 30% of Internet users who said they used search engines on a typical day in 2004. And they're using it more frequently.

The majority say they find search engines to be reliable, trustworthy and accurate, the report finds. Despite Google's critics, the majority of respondents to the Pew study believe the quality of search results continue to improve and become more relevant.

What does this mean for online publishers? The short answer is that Web teams need to stay focused on the basic blocking and tackling of good SEO.

At the same time, you need to adjust for the changes in search engines being driven by social media and the mobile Web - and Google's evolving search ranking algorithms. Here are some evolving best practices gathered from around the Web:

Invest in content

The Panda updates that Google released throughout the course of 2011 focused on rewarding quality content and penalizing low-quality content farms. So the best way to improve your search rankings - not to mention how your audience perceives your brand - is to invest in content development. This does not mean you have to assemble a masthead-heavy staff of experienced journalists crafting 3,000-word features, but it does mean you'll need to create a good blend of original and curated/aggregated content.

SEO Hosting Blog offers these tactics for improving your content in the eyes of Google:

  • When creating new content, reference facts with links to relevant, high-quality sites, such as those appearing on .edu and .gov domains. Providing references and resources can make your site more trustworthy in the eyes of readers, which in turn makes your site more appealing in Google's new guidelines.
  • Optimize and revise old content and make each page count. If a particular piece is hopeless, redirect it to something similar and useful or delete it altogether. Think of a low-quality page as a virus that spreads, affecting your entire site's rankings.

Build links with care

Blatant link building has always been a shady practice, but Panda has put the kibosh on building links to low-quality sites to drum up traffic. How to avoid these sites? Search Engine Watch's Kristi Hines says that low-quality sites generally have four traits:

  • Lots of ads
  • Lack of quality content
  • Lots of content, low traffic
  • Lack of moderation

Steer clear of a site with any of these red flags. If you swap links with them, Google may penalize you.

Optimize for social

Social media optimization - making your content easily sharable, and promoting it aggressively - has a direct impact on search results, as Google and Microsoft work to incorporate more of an individual's social graph into their search results.

The search engines are also giving more weight to social backlinks. The more people who share your content, the more you become a trusted authority in the eyes of the search algorithms. Even Pinterest "pins" are beginning to show up in search engine results.

Don't neglect your own social pages

This is more about improving search results for your brand. comScore's Eli Goodman, writing for Search Engine Watch, offers three tips:

  • Link from your homepage. Search engine algorithms value these links
  • Use brand names in posts. For publishers, this means your company as well as publication title.
  • Get 'likes.' Search engine algorithms value this type of "inherent trust metric."

Optimize for mobile

A mobile version of your website, built with distinct URLs, can negatively impact search rankings. Jill Kocher, an SEO manager with digital marketing agency Resource Interactive, explains:

Some mobile users may create links to or share pages from the mobile site, which essentially steals link equity from the only site likely to rank: the primary desktop site. For example, say a mobile version of a product page has links to it from two blogs, two tweets, two Facebook Likes and two Google +1s. But the desktop version of that same page has links to it from 20 blogs, 20 tweets, 20 Facebook Likes and 20 Google +1s. The mobile version of that page is almost certainly not going to rank, and it's stealing those links and shares from the stronger desktop version of the site."

If a lot of your traffic is coming from mobile devices, it may be time to consider alternatives to how your designing your mobile site. Kocher suggests using responsive design. to create a single site that adapts to different screen sizes: "One responsive site with one set of URLs means one set of links to build, and no annoying redirects for mobile users to add to server load, site speed and maintenance hassles."

Raise the bar on keyword research

352 Media Group's Erin Everehard, writing forMashable, offers good advice on to improve keyword research:

People search in Google because they have a question. Anticipate those questions -- whether about the best style of yoga pants or where to get the lowest mortgage rate. Your keywords and the content on your pages should reflect the answers to those questions. … Transition away from thinking of keywords like data, and put more of an emphasis on the person who will be typing in that keyword.

Think globally

Ensuring your website is optimized from a global perspective will drive more international traffic to your site. ClickZ's Crispin Sheridan offers five tips for improving your global SEO, ranging from the use of multilingual markup tags to engaging in local link-building.

Bonus: While you're thinking about best practices, don't forget these five SEO "worst practices."

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