Where search engine optimization (SEO) once heavily relied on shady tactics and other unscrupulous methods of tricking search engines, now it focuses around user experience that in turn is based on content strategy.

Today, content is at the heart of SEO. Compared to how SEO was conducted during the days of black hat strategy, this is a welcome development. The animal-themed algorithm updates that Google rolls out consistently has forced the SEO industry to make massive changes. Spammy link building and “thin” content farms are out. Instead, now the focus is white hat best practices, such as natural link building and standardized on-page optimization bolstered by quality content.

Seeing the current state of affairs, what is the role of content in the future of SEO?

Smarter Search Engines and More User Devices

It’s easy to point a finger at Google and say the entire industry is up to the search giant, but in reality, Google is concerned with what it thinks is best for its users. The implications for the SEO industry happen as a consequence, but they’re not the goal.

SEO experts might not be thrilled about future algorithm updates, but the people using search engines are simply making good use of their improved capabilities. One such improvement that can potentially be game-changing is smarter contextual intelligence. Keywords used in search queries are no longer just meaningless strings to search engines that they compare to cached web pages. Now they can store an understanding of the context of the keywords and thus guess at the query user’s intent.

Yet another unstoppable tide is the continued rise of mobile device usage. According to data published by Think with Google in September 2016, in an average day, 80 percent of people who are active online use a smartphone, compared to 67 percent who use a computer and 16 percent who use tablets. Twenty-seven percent of users are smartphone-exclusive — they use only their smartphones to access the internet. That’s near twice the 14 percent who use computers exclusively.

That makes sense: data on demand is the name of the game now, and mobile devices are simply more convenient for accessing the internet.

For the SEO industry, however, the combination of developments like contextual intelligence and mobile device usage have significant implications. For instance, one of the simplest applications of contextual search on mobile devices is location tracking, when a mobile user wants to find a restaurant, for instance, Google will take into consideration where she is at the time of search and suggest relevant locations nearest her.

In effect, these improved capabilities combined with new technology opens up new avenues for user experience, which necessitate new and better approaches to SEO.

Going Full Circle Back to Content

While the technology that makes all of that possible is pretty impressive, you need to keep an eye on the bottom-line: how do you now adjust your content and SEO strategy to leverage such developments as contextual intelligence?

This is the new challenge for SEO. Experts have stopped trying to give Google the slip and instead are thinking in terms of “early adopter” and “mobile first” advantages.

Take the issue of performance attribution, for instance. SEO has always been focused on driving organic traffic, which meant in terms of key performance indicators (KPI), the usual suspects include metrics like new and returning visitors, bounce rates, audience targeting, and keyword performance. However, with contextual intelligence that connects online search to offline experiences, these metrics are only part of the entire experience.

Mobile continues to grow its share of the online search market. Google even launched a mobile-first index at the end of 2016. This means it’s nigh inescapable to include mobile stats into your performance attribution, and good luck if you were never paying attention to mobile in the first place.

For organizations who want to break into the mobile space, they need to reconfigure their existing content and make it mobile-friendly. They need to consider instances where some content should be mobile-only and others should be desktop-exclusive. They need to think which of their content should definitely be “mobile first,” and which formats would work across screens.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, however.

A Modern Content and SEO Strategy

SEO no longer only deals with “bringing in traffic.” Some could argue that it’s gone from search engine optimization to search experience optimization. It’s no longer involved in just the requirements to make a web page highly visible in search results, but the challenges that come with the overall user experience starting with search.

Effective SEO isn’t just about numbers now; it’s about implementing a content strategy that creates an optimized user experience from search to landing.

While in no way comprehensive, this is the barebones framework of a modern content and SEO strategy:

Keyword optimization – Any SEO campaign starts with keyword research and optimization. Working with contextual intelligence in mind, however, keyword targeting is a little more refined than just comparing keyword search volumes and choosing the best one. Now keyword optimization should take into account the three stages of search: navigational, informational, and transactional search. Keyword targets for specific pieces of content should be geared towards search intent and even additional context such as a device used — mobile content might want to highlight the benefits of the location of the physical store, for instance.

Information architecture optimization – The visibility, shareability, and overall markup of the content fall under information architecture. This includes, but is not limited to technical alt data for non-crawlable HTML elements such as images and video and rich snippet schema markups for both desktop and mobile search.

Performance attribution optimization – As mentioned earlier, the KPI you should keep an eye on now extends beyond traffic stats and into other aspects, such as engagement stats like page depth and time spent on page, and mobile stats like mobile OS used and location.

Finally, it’s also important to take note of content acceleration methods that affect mobile-only ranking. Google’s accelerated mobile pages (AMP) project, for instance, is controversial for improving user experience but making it harder for content publishers to actually get stuff done.

AMP is a specific, mobile-only HTML code that allows web pages shown in mobile devices to load faster — aiding user experience on the device. Google is already putting a premium on page load times on both desktop and mobile and has announced that pages running on AMP would get a boost in rankings, despite AMP itself not being a search factor.

In conclusion, the role of content in the future of SEO is simple: it’s become even more important to focus on getting your content in front of search users through the best experience possible. The challenge this presents, however, especially in light of developments like contextual intelligence, the mobile device takeover, and projects like AMP, is not so simple.

The way forward for SEO is all about taking all of these factors and leveraging them to get your content in front of your audiences all wrapped up in great user experience from search to landing.