Change is a constant factor in SEO, and it will always provide plenty of challenges for the industry to overcome. Every Google algorithm update over the last few years has rewarded brands that understand how they can help their customers at specific times in their decision-making process by providing high-quality, user-friendly content for a good user experience on a range of different devices. I've found that the brands that regularly appear in high positions in search results have three main things in common.
Understand the customer
First of all, they understand their customers. Online success hinges on the ability to influence and persuade customers to trust your brand over your competitors by taking a series of small steps, from discovering that you can help them, all the way through to completing a sale and becoming a lifelong advocate. Knowing what they are searching for, why they are motivated to click, and what their choices are means that you can create useful media both on and off your website. Such content - either hosted by you or elsewhere on the web - sends a clear message to people and search engines about what your business is there to do for them.
There has been a lot of speculation recently about the growing importance of clickstream data as a signal of a site's value to a search user. The potential use by Google of these kinds of metrics definitely makes sense - its Chrome browser has a huge market share, giving it access to a vast quantity of user behaviour data. Google could understand directly how users value sites by looking at whether they stayed and for how long, rather than second guessing what a user might like by trying to analyse elements of a page or even links across the web.
Understand the technology
Influence and authority are necessary - but not sufficient - factors for SEO success, and brands appearing at the top of search results obviously have a clear understanding of technological factors. There are an almost unlimited number of reasons as to why you could be limiting your own success, such as poor asset organisation that makes it difficult for search engines to understand what a page is about, duplicate content, or rich media that creates long page load times. A review covering at least those areas will help to establish the priorities - and easy wins - for your SEO campaign.
The importance of rich media in particular is an interesting issue and, as much as I like to promote the significance of unique and innovative creative content, I'm sensitive to concerns that rich media may not be as visible to search engines and that, while video and audio content will be enjoyed by users for a short time, it may not lead to sustained usage. However, as with any marketing activity, success with rich media and content is about targeting the right people with the right message at the right time - again highlighting the importance of understanding your customers. While badly designed or tagged content can be invisible or visible to wrong audiences, it's a fallacy to suggest that rich media is still fairly invisible to search engines. The world's second biggest search engine, YouTube, is solely devoted to rich media in the form of video, and Universal Search and Knowledge Graph are bringing more rich media into the results pages.
There are other considerations, of course, such as optimising media over multiple devices - which necessitates an approach to rich media and content creation that takes issues such as responsive design, user intent and cross-device tracking into account. Understanding how your content is consumed once again matters because it informs the design and promotion of rich media - should it be short form or long form, video or text, interactive or 'static'? Consumers are defining how they want to consume media themselves instead of it being broadcast to them by brands. It's becoming more common to see brands producing media that carries the same message in a multitude of ways so that their audience can define the best format themselves. The TED website is a great example - you can watch the video or read the transcript. Same content, but various options of consuming it.
As always, no matter what content you are creating, in-house expertise is essential, and it can't easily be matched with software shortcuts. There is no substitute for tagging your media manually; Metadata still matters, and the automation of indexing can lead to media being tagged inaccurately, missing opportunities that only a human eye can spot.
Work for the long term
These two fairly broad attributes - understanding your customers, and a strong technical knowledge base - demonstrate the convergence of creative marketing and technical skills in SEO. They also show that there are no shortcuts to manipulate your way into artificially high rankings, so the third thing that consistently high-ranking brands have is a solid long-term strategy. High visibility in search results is an outcome of good marketing and brand positioning alongside technical expertise, used consistently over a long period.
Put together, these things improve the usability of a site, create relevant content, make sites faster and provide a focus for your digital PR to secure coverage about your brand with influential and relevant digital publishers. They create influence, trust and authority, and make your brand much more engaging - and that's what keeps you at the top of the list.