As that last page of the calendar flips over, we’re always reminded to look back, refocus, and prepare for the year ahead. Take yourself back for a moment to the beginning of 2010 – could you even have imagined how much search would change in the last decade?
At a macro level, the last decade has brought about a transformation from search as a perfunctory information-finding task to a complex journey with many touchpoints across devices, networks, and channels. Simply browsing has given way to desires for the convenience of instant answers. As social media has been plagued by “fake news” and rampant misinformation, search has proven far more effective at crowdsourcing the verification of data, whether it’s business location information, answers to informational questions, claims about products, and more.
In fact, ten years ago marketers were hard-pressed to get their messaging in front of people who actually wanted to hear it. Today, over 60% of people expect brands to give them the information they need when they need it, and less than half of them feel that brands are delivering (Google). The face of search is changing and SEOs, more than anyone, need to track the trajectory of these changes to stay relevant.
How the evolution of the consumer is driving changes in SEO
Voice search is undoubtedly one of the most impactful consumer trends affecting SEOs, and you can expect that to continue over the next decade. Google first introduced Voice Search in 2002, but it’s only in the last several years that consumers have really grown comfortable conversing and engaging with their devices in the way we now do. People are no longer pecking words into the keyboard and hoping Google understands their intent, they’re asking questions and even having ongoing conversations with technology. Longtail is the new norm.
They’re not only asking Google or Alexa, either. Even though Google dominates traditional search engine market share, search is happening on platforms like Amazon, Facebook, and YouTube, too. Getting the answer to a single question might span multiple networks as increasingly savvy searchers compare answers from different sources.
SEOs are having to adapt to a zero-click environment, where Google curates so much information that searchers’ needs are answered without ever leaving the SERP. As a result, SEOs are having to make better use of Featured Snippets and other space available to them throughout the search ecosystem. Schema.org has been around since 2011 but it’s only in the latter part of this last decade that structured data really became one of the core tenets of SEO.
The mobile experience has been an area of focus for many years, but in 2018 it was made mission-critical as Google introduced the mobile-first index and mobile speed updates. Snippets became smaller, page speed became a ranking factor for mobile searches, and video became a far more commonly used content format in the SERPs. SEOs had to move beyond thinking of “mobile-friendly” only in terms of web development and consider how mobile users search for and consume content, as well.
Today, we’ve moved beyond mobile-friendly to mobile-first, where websites need to do a lot more than just work on smartphones. Mobile-first design thinking offers a seamless, intuitive experience with careful thought given to content, navigation and site structure, CTAs in the context of the customer journey, and more.
EAT (Expertise, Authority, Trust)
Many have long assumed that the Quality Rater’s Guidelines were the keys to understanding algorithmic ranking factors, but it wasn’t confirmed by Google until VP of Search, Assistant and News, Ben Gomes told CNBC in 2018,
“You can view the rater guidelines as to where we want the search algorithm to go.”
EAT (expertise, authority, trust) are categorized as “very important” in the Guidelines. This is not new or earth-shattering, but it’s clear that content quality and author/business authority aren’t going anywhere. Crafting authoritative content, citing reputable sources, developing your digital footprint and online profile, and being involved in your niche are all going to be critical in the years to come.
Machine learning, entities, and NLP
“People come to Search for all types of information to help them form a better understanding of the world and the topics they care about most. […] Now, we’re using the latest in machine learning to bring this approach to top stories in Google Search, making it easier for people to dive into the most useful, timely articles available.”
– Duncan Osborne, product manager at Google
SEOs are being challenged by machine learning on two fronts – the first, in how Google uses it to evaluate and rank content. But secondly, SEOs have a huge opportunity to scale and maximize their own performance with smart automation and tools that incorporate machine learning.
First, the October 2019 NLP-based BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) update, designed to use machine learning to help Google better understand the relationships between queries and content, rolled out affecting 10% of all queries. Google called BERT the “biggest leap forward in the past five years, and one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of search,” so you can bet this is an area SEOs want to focus in the coming years.
As for how SEOs can use machine learning and smart automation, I’ve written about this in recent columns; check out How AI is powering real-time SEO research: Insights and optimization and Five ways SEOs can utilize data with insights, automation, and personalization for more.
Technical SEO is as important as ever, but SEOs are being forced to think more holistically about searcher experience and the entire journey from discovery to conversion and loyalty.
Data and AI-driven SEO strategy
The IDC predicts that in 2025, 175 zettabytes (175 trillion gigabytes) of new data will be created around the world. As the role of SEO has evolved inside organizations, we increasingly find ourselves as the point resource for interpreting and activating marketing data.
In the coming years, we’ll have even more rich and diverse sources of data to draw from, too. For example, marketers now have access to crowdsourced open-source data via Google’s Dataset Search, just out of beta.
“The majority of governments in the world publish their data and describe it with schema.org. The United States leads in the number of open government datasets available, with more than two million. And the most popular data formats? Tables–you can find more than six million of them on Dataset Search.”
– Natasha Noy, Research Scientist at Google Research
Again, I can’t overstate the importance of smart automation for SEOs given the pace of the flood of data organizations are up against. Embracing automation there’s no possible way to perform in a real-time world without them. AI is enabling marketing to target demand, deliver on consumer expectations for real-time personalization, make smart content optimizations content that speaks directly to consumer needs at each stage of the journey across channels and devices, and more.
Video and visual
Video and visual SEO will be increasingly important elements in a comprehensive SEO strategy going forward. The next generation of search continues to push our understanding of what’s possible and develop particularly around how consumers find and consume multimedia content.
SEOs are now able to optimize for the awareness and consideration stages with voice content. Currently, Google Assistant is on over a billion devices and Google Home makes up 24% of the U.S. installed base (Amazon’s Alexa-enabled Echo accounts for 70%). Amazon uses Alexa as a loss leader to get consumers to spend money elsewhere on Amazon, while Google treats voice search as an extension of the search experience; as a more conversational way to find answers to life’s every need and problem.
Mike Levin, co-founder and partner in Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, said Amazon and Google’s strategies of offering lower-priced devices so people can own more than one in their home seems to be working. “Now, about one-third of both Amazon Echo and Google Home users have multiple units.” The report said 35 percent of owners have more than one device as of the December 2018 quarter, compared with 18 percent the previous year (CNBC).
Knowing that two of the world’s most prolific tech giants are duking it out to ensure there’s a voice search device in every home, car, and pocket, SEOs would be remiss not to make voice search an area of focus.
Don’t forget about your visual content, too, including video. Over two billion logged-in users visit YouTube each month and every day people watch over a billion hours of video and generate billions of views. What’s more, greater than 70% of YouTube watch time comes from mobile devices, according to YouTube. The platform is a massive search engine in its own right. Original content is a great opportunity. But SEOs can also increase the online footprint of their company or clients by creatively repurposing content to capture traffic here and point it back to the next relevant step in the customer journey.
The changing face of search puts SEO front and center at the marketing table
As the various facets of digital marketing continue to collide and converge, SEOs are uniquely positioned to lead. Last year (according to BrightEdge research) organic channel share expanded to 53.3% of website traffic. At some point in recent years, your SEO tasks could have touched on not only technical SEO and data analysis but social media, email marketing, blogging, PR, web design, and more.
The evolution of search is creating the necessity for a sort of Sherpa inside organizations; for hybrid marketers with equal parts analytical and creative thinking. Whether that person is in-house or a contracted extension of the team, the need for this bigger picture conductor who understands the challenges and opportunities of each channel is growing.
In this next phase of SEO, optimizing for search engines and optimizing the consumer experience truly become one. Business leaders will rely more heavily on the insights that SEO provides to make decisions in every department and will look to SEOs for guidance on how organizational data is used. As SEOs continue to bridge the gap between departments and disciplines, we enter a new era where the delivery of dynamic content and SEO is helping to create new experiences across the whole digital journey.
Jim Yu is the founder and CEO of leading enterprise SEO and content performance platform BrightEdge. He can be found on Twitter @jimyu.
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