The patterns and pacing of SEO (search engine optimization) developments are difficult to predict, but in the context of historical developments, become easier to nail down. I’ve written a handful of pieces on the future of marketing, most of them manifesting at the end of one year in anticipation of the next, but now that we’re about halfway done with 2016, I wanted to take a moment and venture to guess some of the developments we may get to see before the year is over.
Based on what we’ve seen so far, and the amount of time we have left in the year, I suspect we’ll see the following changes and trends:
Rich answers are the bits of immediate information you sometimes get when you perform a search for an immediately answerable question. For example, you might search for “how to cook pasta” and be met with a handful of steps illustrating how to do it. We already have data to suggest that these types of immediate answer provisions are on a sharp upward trajectory, especially since the beginning of last year. The changes have been gradual, so the average search user may not have noticed. My suspicion is that Google only plans to expand this further, until as many queries as possible are serviceable with some kind of immediate answer (many of which Google classifies as micro-moments). It can’t achieve 100 percent service by 2016, but it can dramatically increase the prevalence of rich answers.
You could easily argue that app SEO has already taken a few massive steps forward this year. In addition to deep link indexing, Google is now offering an app streaming functionality, allowing users to “stream” in-app content and functions without ever downloading the apps to their phones. Currently, it’s restricted in its functionality, but you can bet Google will expand this function—and soon. App developers may start developing more kinds of search-friendly content exclusively in-app, and Google may start boosting certain types of apps to start phasing out website-based content.
Siri, Cortana, Alexa, and Google Now are just a handful of the digital assistants that have started to permeate the search landscape. My guess is we’ll see more develop and launch by the end of the year, and more importantly, we’ll see a double-digit rise in user adoption of these programs. Voice search popularity has been on the rise for a while now, but as users become more accustomed to the convenience and usefulness of digital assistant searches, they’ll start to rely less on traditional website-based search, and we may see the tipping point that digital assistant proponents have been waiting for. I don’t believe we’ll hit this tipping point for another year or two, but the fact that more Google searches now occur on mobile devices than desktop devices is a clear indication that people perform searches from their phones. It’s just one small step forward to perform those searches using voice input instead of typing.
Google RankBrain was a bit of an experiment, making Google’s ranking algorithm capable of self-updating and improving autonomously, but even a few months after its subverted launch, its creators were calling it a success. I’m a firm believer that Google has its sights set on a fully self-updating version of its algorithm in the distant future, but to bridge that gap, we’ll need to see a number of small machine learning advances—and I believe the next one in line will come out later this year, following Google’s historical pattern of following landmark updates with new versions approximately one year later.
In the years following the release of the Panda algorithm, it was a regular occurrence to see new “versions” of Panda rolling out on smaller scales, even though sometimes these were merely data refreshes. Penguin, too, held this pattern, but recently these refreshes have been much smaller, occurring monthly. Even more recently, Google has made the move to a kind of revolving door when it comes to data refreshes, and this may accelerate even further by the end of the year, turning the whole of Google’s ranking algorithm into a kind of constantly updated juggernaut. We’ll never have to fear those game-changing, massive block updates again.
This is a bit of a culmination of different items on this list, most notably the rise in the use of digital assistants (some of which do not rely on Google by default), but the rise in popularity of Bing and other, third-party apps like DuckDuckGo are starting to give Google a run for its money. I don’t imagine Google stepping down as the reigning champ in search—in fact its global search volume may grow—but in the United States, I anticipate more users will start relying on alternative search solutions.
Countless studies have shown that only the “best of the best” content is worth anything—the vast majority of all online content never generates any inbound links, shares, or other meaningful forms of interaction; in other words, it’s a complete waste of time and effort. Google recently refined its search quality raters’ guidelines, and is constantly tweaking what it considers to be trustworthy and authoritative content, and competition in the content market is only getting fiercer. I imagine that by the end of the year, the gap between “good” and “okay” content will widen even more dramatically.
I’m fairly confident in these predictions, though the timescale is the area where I’m least confident. Quite honestly, some of these features may develop in the next few weeks, while others may take years to fully manifest. My 2016-focused timetable puts these as developing roughly within the next 6 months, but any number of variables could interfere with these projections (and of course, I don’t have any first-person views into Google’s R&D department). Take these for what they are, estimations, and prepare your teams and strategies accordingly.