How to Hack SEO in 2018

Zach Brooke
Key Takeaways

What? Heading into 2018, search pages are more crowded than ever.

So what? Businesses are likely to receive fewer benefits from organic SEO ranking, no matter how stellar their SEO game is.

Now what? Use natural language to appeal to RankBrain, and consider how users will find your site with voice search. Adopt a holistic view of search and web marketing, which includes building e-mail lists, leveraging social media and SEM.

Google power plays and the decline of keyed search input could be among the year’s biggest SEO X-factors

As marketers proceed with their digital strategies in 2018, it’s easy to be overconfident in their brand’s online searchability. Search engines have existed for nearly 30 years. Four out of five Americans report buying items online. And eMarketer estimates total 2017 online retail sales reached $452 billion in the U.S. Marketers should have a pretty good feel for what works by now, right? Not so fast.


Search engine optimization in 2018 is more challenging than it’s ever been. The main reason is the ever-increasing battle for space on Google Search Engine Results Pages (SERP). SERP real estate is finite, but the space occupied by special SERP features continues to grow. SERP features are any items on a SERP that are not traditional, organic indexed and ranked listings. 

Paid search results, such as Google Adwords and Google Shopping, are SERP features that can push down organic results by taking up space on the results page. Another common SERP feature is the rich snippet, which adds extra information to existing results, such as star reviews for business ratings. Image results, category results or breaking news updates appearing at the top of the search page are other SERP newcomers, all of which expand the size of a traditional organic result, occupying valuable space.

“Every year more keywords and phrases return search results that have ads, maps, images, answer boxes, local listings and products,” says Andy Crestodina, co-founder and strategic director of Orbit Media Studios. “Back in the day, search pages almost always displayed 10 blue links.” Now, Crestodina says, when someone submits a query with key phrases indicating commercial intent, organic results that are considered high-ranking are relegated far down on the page, beneath paid SERP features.

Crestodina attributes the burgeoning features to aggressive competition among marketers for the Google search audience.

 “Last year, the percentage of visitors who clicked on a Google ad or Google Shopping product was something like 49%,” he says. “The click-through rates from search engines to websites is declining because there are so many featured snippets on every search results page now. The size of the prize is smaller, and I predict less website traffic from search for most websites.” 

Because SERP features now occupy more space than ever before, it’s harder to ensure a site is noticed, no matter how well marketers own their key phrases. There’s less screen space on which to be seen. Crestodina believes the proper solution is to view SEO as a single prong in a larger search strategy. 

“Anybody who has 75% of their traffic coming from organic search did not diversify their traffic sources, and they’re at greater risk,” Crestodina says. “You can adapt by doing pay-per-click [advertising] or image SEO or optimizing your YouTube videos. Google is a monopoly, and they’re deciding that they want to keep more [website] visitors in Google Shopping and Google ads. The best approach isn’t to do better SEO, it’s to diversify your traffic sources. Don’t rely too much on organic traffic.”

In lieu of dependence on SEO, Crestodina says every marketer should be building e-mail lists, leveraging social media and investing in search engine marketing, aka SEM.

Hearing Voices

Mobile searches surpassed desktop searches in 2015, according to Google. And one in five mobile searches were voice-based in 2016, as cited in esteemed chronicler of internet evolution Mary Meeker’s “Internet Trends 2017” report. Paired with the explosion of smart speakers, these advances suggest optimization for voice search will be an imperative for marketers in the near future. “The keywords you optimize for need to be based on user behaviors for mobile devices,” says Rocco Baldassarre, CEO of digital marketing agency Zebra Advertisement and a recently named Forbes 30 Under 30 marketing and advertising expert. Those behaviors include localizing searches with words such as “near me.” 

Other distinct keywords and phrases in the lexicon of voice search will become clearer as the format grows. Baldassarre predicts voice searches may be prone to long-tail keywords because users will not be hampered by typing, however business category will have an impact on length as well. A locksmith will likely always traffic in shorter terms, he says, but industries with a lot of local variety, such as restaurants, may strive to optimize for searches like, “best Italian restaurant in the area.”

Google RankBrain

Another curveball from the gatekeepers in Mountain View, California, is Google’s RankBrain, an artificial intelligence-powered tool that helps the company evaluate the relevance of search results. According to Baldassarre, RankBrain is closer to a detective than a traffic guard. 

“The overall trend over the past few years has been truthfulness,” Baldassarre says. “Google is trying to get rid of all reviews and tools that can be used to fake your results.” 

Google first confirmed the existence of RankBrain in 2015, but it wasn’t until last year that the company said it was among the three most influential factors in its ranking algorithm. Put simply, RankBrain is an attempt by Google software to guess at the intent or the interpretation of search terms. Kristine Schachinger of Search Engine Journal writes that the functionality is most in play when a search is unique and causes the search engine to spit out a best guess . She cites as an example a search she made for water rights near Mesquite, Nevada, which Google interpreted as a request for links on mesquite wood, trees and barbecue chips. In this case, Schachinger thinks a lack of results about Mesquite, Nevada, water rights spurred RankBrain to provide results to more popular searches using the word “mesquite”.  

Knowing this, how can marketers account for RankBrain and meet its requirements? Unfortunately, there’s no template for pleasing RankBrain because Google keeps its exact inputs a closely guarded secret. But a good start is to ensure authenticity and quality of a site’s content.“RankBrain is impacting the way you need to optimize your website to be able to rank,” Baldassarre says. “It’s not one-size-fits-all anymore.”

In the words of Google webmaster trends analyst Gary Illyes, try writing in a natural voice instead of structuring text in the form of SEO bait.

“Optimizing for RankBrain is actually super easy, and [writing in natural language] is something we’ve probably been saying for 15 years now,” Illyes told SEM Post. “Try to write content that sounds human. If you try to write like a machine, then RankBrain will just get confused and probably just push you back. But if you have a content site, try to read out what you wrote, and ask people whether it sounds natural. If it sounds conversational, if it sounds like natural language that we would use in your day-to-day life, then sure, you are optimized for RankBrain. If it doesn’t, then you are ‘un-optimized.’” 

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Zach Brooke
Zach Brooke is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @Zach_Brooke.