There are seven major themes driving search today, according Rand Fishkin, the flamboyant founder of search engine strategy and tools vendor Moz. And to no one's surprise, many of them are frustrating marketers' efforts to attain good returns from their search engine optimization (SEO) efforts, he conceded.

Fishkin shared his insights with an overflow crowd at Content Marketing World in Cleveland last week. Sponsored by the Content Marketing Institute (CMI), a UBM company, the event attracted more than 3,500 attendees.

7 Major Search Themes

Rand FishkinSo what are the seven major themes? Here's Fishkin's list, in reverse chronological order.

  • 7. Google is still growing but other search engines are, too (but, don't worry, Google's still No.1)
  • 6. Google answers simple queries directly using Answer boxes or Snippet boxes (this can help or hurt your results)
  • 5. It's not just you: Keyword data is less reliable, less accessible, and harder to decipher than ever (good place for Fishkin to plug his company's products but he has a point)
  • 4. Google+ is slowly fading, even for Google (Twitter has replaced Google+ as Google's primary social result)
  • 3. It's not just about keywords anymore (there are more ways to get into Google's results than ever — it's not all bad news but it's still hard)
  • 2. Google is getting really good at matching searcher intent to returns (type in "circle of big rocks" and you get Stonehenge)
  • 1. Search is being taken over by SkyNet (machine learning is Google's future — but they don’t even understand it all yet)

Digging Into Search Problems

No. 7: Think beyond Google

Starting with No. 7, Fishkin pointed out that, while Google is still — by far — the most important and dominant search engine outside of China (because the Chinese government redirects everyone Baidu), marketers should not neglect other sources of traffic; especially ones like Pinterest or Yelp! that they may not have thought about leveraging before.

"Google is the 800-lb. gorilla and that I don't' think is going to change in the near future," said Fishkin.

YouTube is the No.2 search engine. And, when it comes to pure hours of video served, Facebook is not far behind. But, since Facebook doesn't like to let go of its users, it's not necessarily the best place right now to expend resources to get visitors to you site.

At 44 percent, direct traffic to websites still accounts for the majority of referrals, but no one really knows where this "dark traffic" comes from so it's hard to influence.

And, due to what Fishkin calls the "Edward Snowden effect" the privacy-focused DuckDuckGo search engine is growing astronomically. For its part, Amazon is growing in importance as a search engine for consumers starting product searches — a fact product companies should note.

No. 6: Answers and Snippets

Coming in at No.6 are Google's new Answer and Snippets boxes, where simple queries are answered on-page so users don’t have to click to learn where Rio is or what time the Space Needle in Seattle opens.

This is ticking off a lot of marketers because they perceive these boxes as siphoning off clicks. And, in some instances, that is indeed the case — unless you can get your site into one of the boxes. This is achievable but, like all things Google, it requires a concerted effort that takes into account the remainder of Fishkin's presentation.

The other thing Google has done is more closely align Web search results with mobile. This is more than a formatting issue. Mobile search puts more information at the top of the page so users don't have to click to find out movie times or find a phone number. This too is eating into click-thru rates (CTRs).

No. 5: Keyword 'obfuscation'

Keyword "obfuscation" comes in at No. 5. Basically, the free keywords tools that Google provide show ranges, not actual results. Some of these results are also wildly inaccurate because now that Google is looking to understand searchers intent, many keyword strings are being reported as, basically, identical searches.

"Google," said Fishkin. "They're kind of a pain. They make changes and spin it as a good thing when you know it's a bad thing."

To break through the noise and, for example, get your pages to show up in an Answer box at the top of the search engine results page (SERP), marketers have to understand better than ever not just what terms people are using but how and why they are using them.

To do this marketers need a clearer picture of what keywords and search are actually trending. Fishkin made no bones about recommending Moz's Keyword Explorer platform but also pointed out there are many tools to aid marketers including SEM Rush,, as well as Google Trends.

Although potentially the most expensive route, marketers can also buy into Google's AdWords platform to get highly accurate keyword search results and recommendations.

No. 4: The Slow Demise of Google+

At No. 4, the never-endingly slow but seemingly inevitable demise of Google+ being replaced by Twitter in Google's results is perhaps the least impactful theme. The point Fishkin was making is marketers should be paying closer attention to how Twitter influences the keywords and SERPs they care about: engagement and "recency" govern Google's display of Tweets, for example, so use these two insights to your advantage.

"If you have a Google+ account I would keep sharing there," said Fishkin. "There are some benefits. If you haven't yet invested in Google+, I have great news: You can ignore it."

No.3: Restricted search results

No. 3 is a little more complex. Only about three percent of Google's results pages look like the now-classic "10 blue links" pages. The rest are integrated results pages that show Answer boxes and video feeds, etc. This is at once a problem and an opportunity for marketers.

It's problem because Google is increasingly restricting which results it will post. YouTube and Vimeo are the only video feeds that return on the SERPs pages and, on mobile, search results are even more limited – greatly reducing CTRs, said Fishkin.

"It really sucks but, if you want to get into a lot these results, you have to go through Google properties," he said.

The opportunity for marketers is there are more platforms than ever on which to get exposure. There are 18 unique types of SERPs, for example, that show up in over 50 percent of Google's results (not surprisingly, AdWords tops this list). Marketers can take advantage of this by analyzing which SERPs types ("disaster type," "Reviews," "Featured snippets," etc.) appear most in the keywords they care about and then determine what verticals and SERP types they need to optimize for.

Visuals help as well since Google is now ranking images.

The idea is to be on the right platform for the SERPs that matter to you. So, for video: YouTube, Facebook, and Vimeo; for e-commerce: Google shopping, Amazon, Etsy, and eBay; for apps: iTunes and Google Play, etc.

No.2: Search results based on user intent

Coming in at No.2 is, as we've mentioned, Google matching searcher intent to returns. This is good for users but not so much for marketers.

Intent makes direct keyword matching less of a competitive advantage so marketers now try to rank across the pantheon of terms and keyword strings searchers will likely use to find them. Also, how the keywords are used on a website's pages matter. So context counts even more than ever.

"It is still super smart to use keywords but we do have to do this thing where we match our content to the searcher's intent," said Fishkin. "If you want to rank, you need on-page SEO that is more sophisticated and advanced."

So matching content to what users are actually looking for is critical. Trulia, for example, knows users want home prices but they also want a zoomable map and area trend data like demographics and income by zip code. Since they offer this information to their readers anyway, they can also try to rank on it.

No.1: Machine Learning

And, finally, at No.1 is machine learning. Google is using something they called RankBrain (and a lot of other less visible algorithms apparently) to look for the "happiest searchers". Basically, this helps Google match results to searches better by seeing what pages are actually being consumed — regardless of page rank or authority. They then point all similar searches to that page.

Basically, a good SERP today means that searchers don't bounce from their first choice, but according to Google's own engineers, they don't fully understand what is going on. In the future, it may be that thousands or even millions of algorithms will determine SERPs.

For marketers this means focusing resources on pages that are performing well and even hiding pages with high bounce rates from Google so the whole website performs better. "For marketers, big things include focusing on signal-to-noise so bad pages on my site aren't going to drag down the whole site," said Fishkin.

The Right Content, the Right Time

So, there's a lot going on and Google, as the dominant search engine in the world, will continue to drive what and how marketers approach SEO but if there is one word that sums up everything that word is "intent."

Google is more and more focused on searchers, not marketers. So it is up to marketers to get more in touch with their ideal visitors are and what they want so they can reach out to them using the right content, terms, and expressions that meet their needs, not the needs of the company.

In other words, make user experience the cornerstone of your SEO efforts by generating content 10x better than you competition and Google will reward you for it.

Title image by Craig Sunter