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Travis Bliffen

The Future of SEO: AI, Personalization, and Machine Learning

Travis Bliffen
The Future of SEO: AI, Personalization, and Machine Learning

The face of SEO is changing, and it’s mainly due to incredible research and development into artificial intelligence (AI) baked into search algorithms. A decade ago, search engine marketers could create a site with some keywords in specific places, drop some links around the web, and start ranking within a short amount of time.

The web has grown tremendously since that time, and now these methods are no longer viable. Instead of focusing on keywords, search engine algorithms attempt to “understand” your content. The latest news of Google’s new RankBrain algorithm is just one example of why the future of SEO will change Internet marketing.

Google’s Target Market

Before getting into the details of 2016 SEO, it helps to understand Google’s market. Google wants to give a variety of websites to search engine users. It’s important to understand that the search engine user is Google’s customer. Once an SEO is able to identify the quality of a website from the searcher’s point of view, he’s able to build a better brand that attracts both human customers and bots.

Google continues to improve its search engine algorithms through AI and spokespeople for the search engine have continually confirmed that its goal is to “understand” content in relation to user experience, backlinks, and user behavior patterns. Instead of ranking for one common factor, the future of SEO should take all factors into consideration. This is, after all, the goal for AI and search engine algorithms.

Link Building in 2016

Let’s start off with a hot topic – link building. Link building has become the red-headed stepchild of the SEO world. Everyone does it, but no one wants to admit it. Link building has become more of an issue in 2012 when Google released the Penguin algorithm. It continued to make iterative updates once or twice a year, and any SEOs caught buying links were caught in its filters. At work, the site owner received manual action that indicated that Google had reviewed the site and found that it was buying links.

After Penguin, you’ll hear many SEOs claim that link building is dead. Link building isn’t dead – it’s evolved. Instead of automating the process with directory links and article submissions, SEOs must look for opportunities within networks, brand recognition content, social signals, and content research.

Another change to link building has been anchor text and PageRank. Toolbar PR is no longer updated, so SEOs are unable to identify the true PR for any web page. Moz’s Domain Authority is often used to evaluate the value of a backlink from any particular site. In 2012, Google filed a patent that was later approved in 2014 for algorithm technology that identifies implied link. An implied link is a link that only mentions the site but does not have the hyperlinked code. This type of link still passes reputation of the brand, and some SEOs assume that this implies that no-follow links still count positively in link building.

When building a link campaign, it’s important to:

  • Identify targets that will help build a brand not just links
  • Find link markets that drive traffic and don’t just attract search engines
  • Obtain social media mentions for the brand
  • Perform outreach campaigns for guest posts on authority sites
  • Identify hot topics using competitor analysis for guest posts and content marketing

Content Marketing

Google recently announced its latest algorithm named RankBrain. RankBrain is an AI change that attempts to “understand’ the context of the content on any given site. It essentially eliminates the idea of keyword density, because the challenge is to understand the content and its value to search engine users.

There are two types of content marketing: on-site and off-site. Onsite content should be relevant and well-written enough to engage users and drive more social shares across multiple media sites. Google released an algorithm change that penalized sites for too many ads above the fold. It can then be assumed that the content should not only be well written, it must target real users (not bots) and can’t have poorly placed ads that interfere with user experience.

Years ago, it was common for an SEO to create 10 articles and post them to article sites such as Ezine articles. These links were seen as strong backlink signals, and most SEOs claimed that the method worked. With the release of Penguin, these links are toxic for any site. AI and the changes in Google’s algorithm have changed the face of off-site content marketing. Well researched guest posts that target the direct market are favored over article marketing. This doesn’t mean you should guest post on any blog. Blogs that could be seen as selling links would fall under Penguin or even lead to manual action.

For content marketing, always:

  • Curate your content into categories and keep related content available to users for better engagement
  • Network with bloggers and site owners in the industry or a related industry
  • Use competitor analysis and Google Trends to find the right search engine phrases for emerging markets
  • Upload branded content on sites such as YouTube and SlideShare

Local Search

Localized businesses must also focus on citations. Citations are mentions that include a name, address and phone number. Many well known directories show up first in search engine results, and these can actually lead to better brand visibility.

It’s not enough to use a virtual office or PO Box for business locations. Google wants to show real businesses in search, and it’s reinvented its local search and checks and balances several times in the last few years. The first step is to register with Google Business and add your business information. Google sends you a verification postcard to your business address, so ensure that you type it in correctly and don’t use a PO Box.

Take a look at a simple query for a local plumber.


Google used to show 7 top businesses on the first page, but it’s recently downgraded to only 3. These three are called “the 3 pack” and it’s where every local business wants to be. The three highlighted listings are sites that offer citations. These three sites usually dominate local searches after the 3-pack, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be used to help ramp up business. These sites are large enough where they can resist most penalties based on link building. You can use link building to rank brand citations if your own site isn’t ranking.

What’s great about these sites is that they are virtually immune to penalties due to popularity. You can even throw automated links at your external citations, and it won’t do any harm to your local site.

One note with citations: they must be listed in the same way for each one. In other words, don’t use various different formats for your business address. Always keep it uniform across all sites. It’s also important to keep a spreadsheet or database of citation locations, because you might need to change them in the future. For instance, if the business moves you need to update all citations listed in your spreadsheet. Without a track record, you could miss some important ones that you don’t remember using.

Local business SEO should always include:

  • Sign up for a Google Business listing
  • Find sites that provide citations (brand name, address and phone number) and build links to those citations
  • Keep citations uniform across all external sites
  • Perform competitor analysis to see what they are ranking for
  • Keep a spreadsheet of each citation and its URL

PPC Campaigns

If you feel your site traffic and sales slipping, you can take advantage of PPC ads and show up on the first page guaranteed but this prime real estate come at a cost.

PPC campaigns should be a part of any good Internet marketing plan. Even big brands budget for PPC ads, and they often times dominate the search engine organic ranks. For instance, you’ll find Amazon or Walmart at the top of most shopping queries, but you’ll also find them in the paid ad section. It’s a boon to any marketing campaign to always keep paid ads integrated with free organic rank.

Paid ads (Adwords) have their own algorithm. It’s even rumored that Google’s ad algorithm AI has enough data and intelligence to project what a user will search for before they type a query into search based on their browsing history.

Paid ads are even more important for local search. Let’s look at the top section of the same plumbing query we used previously.


Notice that the first 3 links are paid search, the right side panel is paid search, and the maps section is filled with the 3-pack businesses. Any URLs after this section is below the fold, so the user must scroll to see organic searches. This layout is new for Google, but it means that local searches at number 4 and above will struggle much more to be seen and improve CTR.

PPC can be very expensive, but landing pages can be improved for a better quality score. A better QA reduces costs for each click, and it improves visibility in paid search. It’s especially useful for brand queries that aren’t ranking in organic like they should.

Along with QA scores, it’s imperative that marketers track conversions and find which campaigns work. It’s costly and can strain a budget when money is thrown at ads that don’t convert. There are a number of tracking methods, and even custom code that can run reports and analysis, but at the very minimum the site should have Google Analytics installed.

To recap for PPC and paid ads:

  • Always use paid campaigns along with organic traffic growth
  • Tweak and optimize landing pages to improve quality scores and reduce costs
  • Track and analyze campaigns to identify any poor performers


Ecommerce is one of the most competitive areas on the Internet. It’s no longer enough to use a template site, throw some products up with a few unique sentences, and do a little SEO to rank well. The big brands dominate the organic search results. Between small shops and big brands, it makes it even more difficult for a local store or even a startup to compete.

The good news is that you no longer need to compete directly with these brands. You can use them to rank your sites and gain visibility with potential traffic.  Take Amazon for instance. Amazon is actually a Google competitor, because 44% of consumer searches start directly at Amazon. Amazon has become its own ecommerce search engine.

Amazon allows you to set up shop, sell your products, and you can even ship product to their warehouses and use their Prime Membership benefits. This leverages Amazon’s domination for your own search engine benefits. The next time a search user performs a query for your product, they could land on your Amazon sales page.

YouTube can be used in a similar way. YouTube gets millions of searches a day, and it’s a central point for video content. Site owners can leverage YouTube by uploading How-Tos and Tutorial style content that helps users better understand their products. These videos then link back to the brand and the site, which then brings more visibility to the site.

Indirect marketing is key in 2016. Instead of blasting links, articles and social media directly to a site, the new goal is to leverage dominate sites to rank the brand site.

Other beneficial SEO methods are rich snippets, reviews, and PPC campaigns.

Ecommerce site owners should:

  • Do competitor analysis to see what big brands currently rank for search queries
  • Leverage big brands for your own brand visibility and sales
  • Always keep content unique and optimized for sales and engagement
  • Use YouTube to gain visibility through How-To and Tutorials

Mobile and Search

SEO-termed “mobilegeddon” was this year and 2016 promises to be more competitive in mobile searches and even app development. Mobile continues to be a dominant force in Internet traffic, and Google has put more pressure on site owners to make their sites mobile friendly. Google announced that it made mobile friendliness a part of its algorithm ranking for mobile queries. With mobile such a dominant search force, site owners are doing themselves a disservice by ignoring this directive.

The benefit to site owners of going mobile friendly is Google’s deep linking. Site owners who build mobile apps for their site and products can publish the app online and have it show in mobile queries. For instance, do a search for Pinterest on your mobile device. A few search URLs down the list and you’ll find the Pinterest app. Above the app link is the actual site itself, so the mobile app link is prominent against other ranking URLs.

This phenomenon also occurs for search queries unrelated to brand searches, and it’s still a relatively untapped market. There are plenty of big brands using mobile apps in search as a marketing tactic, but many small businesses are still unaware of this benefit. This marketing strategy should always be combined with good analytics and tracking. Track where users are coming from, where they engage with your app, how they find your app, and most of all – watch your apps reviews in the app stores.

A new type of optimization has been developed for mobile app development. App Store Optimization (ASO) is a form of SEO for apps. Combine ASO with brand presence, and you can drive traffic just from having links and keyword directly in your Google Play apps.

Mobile app development is still new for smaller, local store owners. But it can greatly improve visibility and potential customers. Some points to remember:

  • Google searches links and content within the app, so optimize them for search and users
  • Use responsive web design to allow desktop and mobile users to view your site regardless of screen size
  • Add links to your mobile app on your site
  • Always publish the app in the Apple and Google Play stores (or at least one of them)
  • Test your responsive site to ensure it meets mobile quality guidelines – this can be done through Google PageSpeed Insights


Personalization has been a part of Google’s search results for years, but it’s become more important now and will be in 2016. There’s no question that Google is a powerhouse for data analytics, mining, and optimization. Personalization occurs when the search engine user is logged in. Some marketers don’t realize that it’s also a part of incognito searches.

Personalization is the term given to search query results relative to certain information obtained from the user. This can be an IP address, geographic location, and previous searches. When a user logs in to Google, Google takes much of the user’s previous activity into consideration when displaying results.  Even using different browsers can have various search engine results.

You can try it out for yourself. Do a search while logged in and then perform a search while logged out. If you have the capability, perform a search from a different IP in another country. You’ll notice completely different results. The reason behind this is that Google wants to give the user the most relevant results.

SEOs need to take this data element into consideration when analyzing search results and rank. It can also be used as an advantage. If you rank well for one query, you can rank well for others. One part of personalization is that Google ranks a site more prominently if the user continues to click on the same site for various queries. If Google believes that the user prefers your site from other queries, it’s possible that your site will rank due to personalization for other queries.

There isn’t much to wrap up with personalization, but it’s an important part of Google’s AI. Always consider this factor when performing keyword analysis or doing any research for your brand.

When doing your research, consider these factors for personalization:

  • The user’s location and search history make a difference in ranking
  • Even a different browser can change the way search results are shown
  • Third-party analytics software must use different proxies to see results from different Google top-level domains, but they still can’t take user personalization into account
  • Engaging users and creating campaigns that help them remember your brand will increase your rank even within personalized results

Did we cover everything? Not even close. The days of understanding and gaming Google are for the most part behind us. In 2016 and forward, adhering to the fundamental SEO practices that have worked for years and integrating those with new media delivery platforms is going to be the recipe for success.

Travis Bliffen is the Founder of Stellar SEO, a search marketing firm located near St Louis, Mo. Travis specializes in link building and enjoys testing, researching, and writing about various SEO strategies.

Travis Bliffen is the Founder of Stellar SEO, a search marketing firm located near St Louis, Mo. Travis specializes in link building and enjoys testing, researching, and writing about various SEO strategies.

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