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2016’s Changes to SEM: Traditional Signals to User Intent

One of the most exciting and frustrating parts of marketing your law firm online is the speed at which search engines change. If you’re in the business, the constantly shifting landscape of search engine marketing (SEM) keeps you on your toes, and gives plenty of opportunities for some innovative maneuvering. If you’re not in the business, though, and are just trying to market your own law firm’s website, the rapidly evolving field of SEM is a source of endless confusion and aggravation.

In fact, over the course of 2016 alone, search engines have changed considerably. Luckily, the SEM experts at Searchmetrics have been tracking these changes. Here’s what they found.

Searchmetrics Tracks SEM Changes

In their annual report, Searchmetrics tracked the changes that search engines had gone through over the course of 2016. In their 63-page report, they looked into the “signals” that search engines like Google and Bing have been paying attention to. These signals are used by search engines to determine which sites are relevant and important for a given search, and are used to rank websites in the search engine results page (SERP).

The Searchmetrics study focused on the changes in these signals that had happened in the past twelve months.

Backlinks Declining in Importance, But Still Crucial

One of the things that the Searchmetrics study found was that backlinks – links from other sites, pointing to yours – are losing weight. While backlinks used to be the predominant factor in whether a website had a solid ranking, their importance has been slowly slipping over time. In 2016, though, the importance of backlinks took a real hit. According to the study, “it is now sometimes possible for a website to achieve a high Google ranking without a large amount of high-quality backlinks.”

However, that does not mean that backlinks are irrelevant. They’ve declined in importance, but they were once the Holy Grail of SEM, so they have a long way to fall. In fact, just because it is “sometimes possible” to outrank other sites without a strong backlink portfolio doesn’t mean that it’s often done. As we mentioned in our blog back in July, another study had found that there was a “near-perfect correlation” between the number of backlinks and a high search engine ranking.

User Signals Replacing Traditional Ranking Signals

If there’s a holding from the Searchmetrics study, it’s that user signals are replacing traditional ranking signals in SEM. This is not a small statement. In fact, Searchmetrics finds this to be such a huge development that their 2016 annual report will be their last issue because, without a traditional set of signals, talking about SEM in general becomes almost impossible.

“Traditional” ranking signals are things like backlinks, content length, and keywords. All of these signals have been falling in importance in recent years, and saw steep declines in 2016.

The Searchmetrics study found that replacing these traditional signals are softer, more holistic signals that focus on user intent and satisfaction. This development is both nuanced and significant.

Photo credit: Johanna Pung

Replacing traditional signals with those focusing on user intent is nuanced because it merely changes the perspective of the question that search engines are constantly asking. Search engines are in the business of finding the most relevant and important sites and pages for a given search query. Search engines used to look for particular signs of a site’s relevance and importance – these signs were traditional signals like keyword density and backlinks. However, the very act of isolating a set of these signals created the inevitability of their manipulation by marketing professionals. As these traditional signals became less effective at finding relevant and important sites, search engines have evolved by changing the perspective of their question – instead of looking at websites for signs of their quality, now they’re looking more at how users interact with sites.

This is significant. By paying more attention to how users interact with your site, the focus becomes less on catering to search engines and more about catering to your web traffic. In essence, your audience is changing.

The Importance of Professional Legal Blogging

One thing that the change in perspective in the SEM world does not change is the importance of a solid legal blog on your law firm’s website. A professionally-written legal blog caters to real people as well as search engines, bringing value to your law firm’s site that attracts readers and keeps them on your site.

Contact Myers Freelance to get a legal blog started on your site.