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Expert Insights On The Future Of SEO, Part 2
In today's installment, search industry veterans predict where SEO will be in 2020.
SEO is an ever-evolving art, as search engines are constantly changing things up in an effort to improve the searcher experience. In our first installment of this series, industry thought leaders discussed where SEO is headed next year, in 2015. Today, they share their predictions for 2020.
How Will We Practice SEO In 2020, And How Will It Differ From The Way We Do It Today?
Believe it or not, search engines will still need our help. It’s easy to envision a world in which a nearly omnipotent set of computers can understand the world the way we see it, but it will turn out that the required processing power to accomplish all that is far greater than we imagine.
However, due to strides in understanding what type of website and app experiences are good for (and being embraced by) users, some basic elements of search will remain the same. In some manner, we will pose a query, and we will get a response, and that response will need to include answers based on a statistical probability analysis designed to satisfy the maximum number of people who pose the same query.
The human need to get answers to questions, and for serendipitous experiences, will never go away. Whatever form a search engine takes in 2020 will need to satisfy both of those needs.
However, the processing power is amazingly complex. Doing things that make it easier for search engines to understand your content, and delivering superior experiences to users in a manner that search engines can perceive, will remain a real part of the landscape.
I know 2020 sounds pretty huge: “Six years from now in SEO? Everything will be different!”
However, looking back to 2008, I don’t see any drastic changes since then — at least, not in terms of common sense SEO. We got rich snippets, saw quite a few SERP experiments (including Universal Search, the Knowledge Graph and the Local Carousel), and witnessed the birth of Google Plus.
But have the basics of SEO really changed a lot? If anything, we are a bit more scared, a bit more lost, and a bit more careful. That being said, here’s what I think we can expect:
- We are not-so-slowly but surely moving away from the “free search traffic” phenomenon. It was pretty stupid to guarantee rankings in the past — it will be impossible to do so in the future. This may result in fewer companies willing to invest in the long-term benefits of SEO. It’s much easier (and in many cases more reliable) to invest in PPC (both in search and social), so internet marketing companies need to embrace PPC management if they haven’t already.
- Proactive link building (even if it seems perfectly white-hat nowadays) is getting too risky. Fewer companies will be able to invest in that, too. Standing out and being noticed (to attract links) is going to be harder, even with great content. Internet marketing companies need to embrace creative content development and outreach methods.
- App development is the future; however, like with content, it’s going to be harder to stand out (that niche is already quite cluttered). Internet marketing companies will need to embrace creative app promotion tactics.
- All in all, we are hopefully moving away from cookie-cutter types of internet marketing services. In order to succeed, we’ll need more creativity and more unique ideas. SEO is growing up — hopefully moving away from pursuing tactics and towards building long-term, varied strategies.
At the pace at which search evolves, a lot can happen in six years. Some things that might be different, vastly improved or more ubiquitous include:
- Search engines functionalities and capabilities (semantic and conversational search)
- Ranking factors (social endorsement)
- Devices (mobile, wearables)
- Interfaces (voice search)
- Formats (apps)
- Platforms (maybe other, more evolved search engines that establish a different search paradigm?)
All of the above might change, and we SEOs will need different tools, technical abilities, tactics and strategies as a result. But the “core” and goal of our job will be the same: to grow and maximize the organic search visibility of our clients’ online presences to connect with their target audience so they can achieve their conversion goals. It will be crucial to consider these goals and principles with the existing “search ecosystem” in 2020 to make the most out of it.
2020 is a long time away. Internet years are like dog years, so I wouldn’t really worry about what could or could not be in six years time.
One thing’s for sure, though: search in 2020 will be more local and a lot more personal. Search will be omnipresent, and Google will be trying to predict what interests you — and what questions you have — before you even think of them. So search will no longer be a “pull” service, but rather a “push” service, where Google will give you answers to things that matter to you, even when you don’t ask.
In regard to SEO, it’s really hard to tell. As far as I can imagine, I don’t even know if you will need a website in 2020!
Google couldn’t care less about websites — it’s all about data. Why visit a website telling you which flights are going from Chicago to Washington on Christmas Eve when all you need is a straight answer (pulled from structured data)? This is what Google’s Hummingbird Update was all about — getting better at answering real questions, instead of just serving results for keyword searches.
Giving a straight and correct answer is extremely important, since you will likely have all sorts of devices in 2020 that will have a much smaller screen space than the devices we’re currently using to access the internet. Same goes for answers that might be given verbally by a Star Trek-like computer integrated in your 2020 home. People don’t want to think or even have to click — they want an answer to their question — the faster, the better! Same goes for products or any other vertical topic.
But of course websites are here to stay. There will definitely be websites in 2020. And as long as Google has an organic search index, there will be SEOs trying to pull the odds in their favor to get a site ranking at the top.
It’s almost impossible to imagine 2020 on the web today. Five years ago, retargeting had barely emerged; Google and Twitter were partnering up; Google+ didn’t exist; Instagram was barely around; keyword data was still visible; and spam was Google’s problem.
If I had to guess, I’d say that we’ll see an increase in the difficulty of earning attention organically without paid amplification, alongside an increase in ad blindness that will combine to make content marketing a far more difficult practice for all but the best at execution.
We’ll likely see more blending of media, entertainment, and advertising leading to higher expectations around content.
Measurement will become more and more difficult as concerns around privacy and data-hoarding by the big players (like Google) run rampant.
The world will be more mobile, but we’ll also know more about how much share mobile really will take from desktop/laptop/tablet. I suspect desktop machines (at least large screens and bigger input devices) will always have a place in the home and at the office. Mobile devices themselves may also become more usable and capable of translating non-mobile-friendly sites and pages.
As SEO becomes more ubiquitous, successful SEOs will be the ones that can cut through the clutter and focus on the needs of the end user.
- Keyword data will have become practically extinct, especially since there will be an influx of different types of devices and personalized platforms such as wearable computing (the Apple Watch, for example), smarter, smaller mobile devices and appliances that can perform searches for us based on personalization and an understanding of intent.
- Thus, user experience and user intent will be front and center for the large SEO teams that organizations will employ. SEOs will have to truly get to know their different customer segments in order to gain an understanding of how to engage with them in different ways.
- These SEO teams will be more powerful and cross-functional. They will include several “traditional” disciplines such as PR, branding, event management, and journalism as well as community management, dedicated analysis and design/development.
- There will be an increasing number of analysts who are drawn to the SEO profession; responsible for user profiling, creating customer segments and planning tests and outreach campaigns that can help reach the target audience.
- In addition, a focus on building a strong brand reputation and improving trust signals companies can put out will be very big focus as that will be one of the ways the bad eggs are weeded out.
I suspect that with Google Now, we’re seeing the beginnings of Google’s valet or hyper-personal algorithm. Google has a wealth of data — and as mobile continues to be a source of more specific data on people, there’s going to be more opportunities for them to understand our body language both digital and physical.
I think they are really going to look to surface things for people before people explicitly ask for it. Things will get even more specific, as well. So, more than ever, I see there being a need for content that’s created for specific groups of people. I see filter bubbles being more of an issue; but for brands, I see it being more important to double down on content with social connections to ensure that when the time comes there is already enough data for Google to determine that your content fits these micro-audiences.
You know, the acronym for SEO is “Search Engine Optimization,” and most people think of that as Google or Bing. However, we need to think beyond the traditional search engines. People already search on social networks and through mobile apps, and that will only grow in the next six years. Companies will really need to understand where their audience is searching and make sure they are there.
That being said, I think it’s easy to look ahead and think about how different it will be when, in the grand scheme of things, it likely won’t change too drastically. Nine years ago when I got into SEO, I was putting together technical audits, writing content and building links. Today, I am still doing those same things but in different ways. We simply evolve.
In 2020, SEO will be a very complex field that will break up into several distinct disciplines, much how the link building industry stemmed out of SEO as a core. Things that you should pay attention to are:
- Conversational Search
- Internet of Things (IoT)
- Google as a personal assistant
- Predictive Search and Answers
Unfortunately, you cannot prepare for it now as the technology for the above is still emerging, but you can stay agile and informed. Quickly explore and investigate every new dimension of Google’s products in the future to take early advantage. (You could be missing out on some pretty awesome features already, as they may not immediately strike you as something which impacts people’s search experience.)
Once Google refines the algorithmic treatment of single-index it will be able to:
- Predict, suggest, influence and aid future choices
- Research and summarise findings for the user
- Perform background investigative work
- Assist in self-paced learning
- Act as a virtual assistant
- Curate content
I read your interviews in Part 1 of your article series. What I found very interesting was the lack of focus on the searcher experience.
Search engine optimization is optimizing for people who use search engines.
If people in the search industry do not believe that fundamental definition, then we will to continue to see emphasis on technology-centered design, development, etc., rather than user-centered design.
But in human-computer interaction, technology should support human (searcher) goals and behaviors. So Pandas, Penguins, Pigeons, Aardvarks, Flamingos, Cobras — whatever animal or label you want to give future search engine updates — will continue to negatively impact websites that focus on a technology-centered approach rather than a user-centered one.
Let’s see, what else will change between now and 2020? Search engines index text and follow links. Software engineers will continue to find different ways to validate those text and links. That won’t change. What will change is searcher behavior, which will evolve by device (phone, tablet, desktop/laptop computers) and software. Therefore, interfaces and algorithms will evolve to accommodate the unique behaviors on each device.
Over the next six years, search engine software engineers will launch features, get data, and implement successes as well as remove failures. SEO professionals will moan and groan at all or most of these changes.
I am looking forward to observing this evolution.
Bas van den Beld
SEO should be on the forefront of the online marketing cycle. It should be leading in marketing, because it is the most important part of the funnel. There is still a long way to go to make that happen, but because of the quickly changing market, it will happen. The danger, however, is that SEOs focus too much on the wrong thing: rankings.
Nowadays, rankings are still important, but that will change. Maybe even the whole principle of ranking will change. The search engines might take different approaches to displaying results, and SEOs will have to deal with that. It’s not easy, but they can prepare by putting more effort not just in understanding the algorithms, but especially the audience, the searchers.
In search, six years is a long time. I believe that in 2020, some key things will be the same:
- We’ll still mainly use keyboards
- We’ll still mainly use screens
- The open web will still be where we create and consume content (as opposed to apps / walled gardens)
Some trends will have played out more fully:
- We’ll be “post-pagerank” and a more complex set of authority/popularity metrics will have taken the place of pure link signals.
- There’ll be no real distinction between “mobile” and “non-mobile” experiences — but many features of the converged experience will look more like what we currently call mobile (personal device, signed-in everywhere, app stores, instant-on, ubiquitous connection).
- Artificial intelligence will pervade the search experience to the extent that even Google will have to treat ranking factors as something of a black box rather than a deterministic set of rules.
The best thing about SEO is that it continues to evolve in ways both good and bad, but it’s never boring. I worry that in the attempt to crack down on the manipulation of SERPs, Google will continue to try to fix problems and end up unfairly penalizing more sites. I’ve seen so many people get hit because of work done years ago, but I suspect we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
Over the next six years, I think social will keep growing in importance, but with that, we’ll see more manipulations. I believe we’ll also see more integration of offline marketing methods that work hand-in-hand with SEO (hopefully!) and that SEOs will have to learn more about traditional marketing just as traditional marketers are having to learn more about SEO.
My main business is with link development; for us, not much has changed in the past few years, with the exception of us having to better educate clients about risk. I don’t see links becoming less important in 2020, but the good links will become harder to get. From my perspective, we’ll need to focus more on hitting the right targets and showing them the right content.
SEO in 2020 will be drastically different than what we know it as today. For example, the idea of “link building” will seem as preposterous as creating numerous doorway pages optimized for each search engine. (Remember 1990s era SEO, anyone?)
How will it differ? Hard to say exactly, but it will be far more sophisticated and thus require far more sophistication, that’s for sure. After all, the technologies underpinning search engines are advancing at an exponential rate, thanks to the Law of Accelerating Returns. We just can’t see or imagine this acceleration, because our brains extrapolate linearly. (Ever look into the horizon and visualize that we’re sitting on a big sphere? Yeah, me neither.)
Search engines will be powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI). AIs that are smarter than the human brain at certain tasks (i.e., expert systems) will be able to ascertain the quality, accuracy, and validity and importance of what’s been published on the web. That’s a much better system than citation analysis.
So, as an SEO practitioner, expect to be using crazy killer tools the likes of what you saw in Minority Report. (Many of the technologies in that movie already exist, incidentally.)
By 2020, we will talk to our computers more than we will type on them. We will be immersed in augmented reality via contact lenses and other wearable devices, so much so it will seem like we are living in a Star Trek episode.
Molecular scanners, 3D printers, smart homes, pervasive computing, pervasive surveillance (the transparent society), nanotechnology (but not yet self-replicating molecular nanotechnology) will all be part of our daily lives. In that kind of world, it’s hard to imagine what an SEO practitioner will do on a daily basis, isn’t it? “Screaming Frog” might just evolve into a genetically enhanced, self-replicating, bionic, super-amphibian by then! ;-) (Editor’s note: currently, it’s an SEO tool.)
Naturally, the opinions above vary wildly, with some experts believing that SEO will be more-or-less the same as it is now while others envision more sweeping, drastic changes. What do you think we have to look forward to in 2020? Sound off in the comments!
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.