The Future of SEO

Today I want to walk you through and talk you through some of the interesting conversations that emerged from a panel comprised almost entirely of State of Search bloggers on Monday at a4uexpo in Munich! I joined up with Martijn, Roy, and Kelvin to discuss what the future of SEO may look like and what’s in store over the next few years.

This is not an exhaustive look nor is it necessarily reflective of what the future will look like for SEO because hey, as I’m sure Harold Camping can attest, we can’t predict the future. However, I’m going to do my best to summarise here the different viewpoints from the panel as well as the audience so please feel free to disagree, even I disagree with some of the predictions but we’ve all used our experience to try and figure out what is in the future of our quickly maturing industry.

Near Future

Who Controls the Internet

We kicked the presentation off with an examination of the announcement by Google, Yahoo! and Bing about schema.org and the new standards that the search giants have provided our industry with regards to microformats. Whilst, in general, the panel agreed that standards are a good and necessary thing to have and for all of our concerns about Google being too obtuse when telling webmasters what they would like, that we could not help but discuss a couple of alternative outlooks that Martijn provided us (and I strongly suggest you have a read of this article as well as this one when you have a moment).

image source: @csolcer

Schema is potentially a god-send for a great many users who needed a kick in the rear to get started with microformats and to take advantage of the impressive impact that they may have on click-thru rates in the SERPs! However, the larger argument remains that these standards go against W3C standards and have not been agreed by consensus but rather ordained by the search Gods and interestingly- it appears that the major search engines will expect SEOs to spearhead this issue and ensure that our clients roll these new “standards” out on their websites.

Ultimately this decision makes using RDFa or Microformats (rather than using Microdata) on a commercial website a “false choice” – much like coding a site entirely in Flash would be considered a “false choice” – if the webmaster wishes to have that data indexed in Google.

I don’t want to beleaguer the point too much but there was some differing opinions on this particular decision on the panel – though it seemed we could all agree that it was an interesting twist that SEOs are now becoming messengers for the type of web the Search giants would like to see rather than the developers and creators on the web would like to build.

What is the Next “Panda” Update?

Anyone else heard enough about this big cuddly bear yet? In any event, I have.

As Kelvin pointed out on our panel, although it is sometimes difficult to speculate what the next big update will be but the clear indication that Google’s “big” updates seem to be responsive to things that either already have embarassed Google or have the potential to do so in the future: the conclusion was to try not to create a site that would be embarassing or risky for Google to rank first (easier said than done).

Potential areas we have discussed for Google to address (and areas which they have acknowledged will be happening):

1. Exact Match Domains – I know, I know, we’ve been talking about this for years but it seems ripe for the picking. Kelvin pointed out that 18 months ago he saw a bunch of domains that he wishes he had snatched up but was afraid they would be devalued. I agree with his opinion but I’m going to go ahead and say that this problem will certainly be addressed in the next 18 months.

2. Panda Knock-On- a lot of people I have spoken to in the field seem to feel that some of the – let’s say “lower-level” – link building techniques that were meant to be crushed by Panda still seem to be working a treat in certain circumstances (sorry I’m not going to ruin something that people are still using by being any more specific). My view is that the impact of Panda was not a completely algorithmic impact and potentially the hit that some of these content farms took directly (i.e. they no longer rank for “how to pour a glass of water”) may not have had an impact on the sites these farms have been linking to. In my view (one that I know is shared by some others in the industry) this will be addressed in the next year as well.

What’s the Next Infographic?

So there are plenty of people in the field that are absolutely fed up with infographics and I am getting dangerously close. There was a period of time where creating a graphical representation of complicated data in one big image with an embed code below seemed to be a guaranteed way to get links and to get people to share your content.

Whilst I would contend that this is still true to a certain degree (if the chart truly serves the purpose of making difficult data more easy to understand) it would seem as though there is a looming backlash and this panacea to linkbuilding has overstayed its welcome.

A Joke About SEO InfographicsImage Via: SEOmemes

So what is next then? Well, I think a strong case has already been made for using new and emerging web technologies to create interactive materials.

Examples

For me, the obvious frontrunner at the moment seems to be the interactive parallax pages and sites though it never hurts to be ahead of the curve and I’m sure people will tire of those soon enough too!

What’s in a Name?

We couldn’t very well have a panel about the future of SEO and not discuss the severe PR problem our industry faces. I covered this earlier this year in my Dangers to SEO post but I think the need for us to consider the negative impact that “call centre” tactics and misperceptions of the work we do need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Some of us in the panel, as well as some attendees with whom I spoke after the presentation made suggestions about becoming more generalist and removing SEO from a lot of their communications – more on that below. However, there is a pretty strong sense of agreement that SEO is becoming every day more synonymous with “scumbag” and there is a lot of misinformation out there.

One such example we discussed was brought to my attention by a tweet from Ross Hudgens about a thread on Hacker News.

The title of the thread/link was “What kind of Spam/SEO is this?” and if you have a chance to read through you will notice right away that clearly it has nothing to do with SEO, but the fact of the matter is; if it comes to the point that HackerNews and a community of well versed and engaged internet users believe Spam is synonymous with SEO we have a more serious reputation on our hands than perhaps most are willing to admit or do anything about.

Google +1

Finally, we couldn’t help but discuss Google +1 because it (along with seemingly 200 other buttons) went live in the last week or so and blogs everywhere are adding it into their arsenal of buttons.

Now, as I said in the presentation, my feeling is this: Google had to do this in order to get at some of that data they cannot (or claim not) to be able to access via Facebook. Google also launched this prematurely (and childishly) to drown out some of the sound from Twitter’s announcement about the Follow button. Google is stubborn and will no doubt rely on this data for the next few months.

As I also pointed out, here is the reason that this cannot last as a significant ranking factor and why it may be worth taking advantage of now (if you are so inclined) rather than later: Google likes to use their own data and are stubborn at admitting when something doesn’t work properly (so it will work for now), however, there is no emotion whatsoever attached with hitting +1; sure it may show up in the SERPs if you are logged in to your Google profile and I have hit it but it’s not the same as putting it in front of my trusted and hard earned followers and colleagues (Twitter) nor my judging friends and family (Facebook).

Lastly, and most importantly, +1 is way too easy to game. Perhaps not in terms of having a real and meaningful impact (which it would see would come by engaging in communities which Google just don’t seem to have down yet) and getting your information shared more widely across the web but it sure would be a lot easier to make use of Mechanical Turk, Fiverr or any other service to get a whole heck of a lot of +1’s.

Perhaps the button will evolve, or perhaps it’s to try and track down sites that are trying to game the system (whether through link building, spamming or social media) but as it stands now it cannot meaningfully be used in the long term as a ranking factor in my personal view.

 

Distant Future

As an economist by training I cannot help but quote Keynes here and point out that “in the long run we are all dead.” Now, does that mean that SEO is dead? No, of course not. Do I think, however, that our day to day tasks will change by 2018? Of course!

We as an industry have evolved immensely in the few years that we’ve been around and as anyone who has made it from the “pre-Google” SEO days and is still running a successful business today can attest: the most successful among us are those of us who are able to adapt. At the end of the day we are an industry full of chameleons (not snakes or other industries with a bad reptutation) and one of the most impressive and marketable skills that I believe every SEO has – and indeed must have – is the ability to evolve and adapt quickly.

And I think this is an important thing to celebrate – though it does make communicating our work to our spouses, family and clients difficult at times!

It is much harder to say what the industry will look like in 5 years so we’ll just stick to a couple of the broad questions addressed in the panel.

What will an SEO do in 5 years?

I think Kelvin put it quite eloquently on the panel by pointing out that ultimately this whole game is about creating content that will be shared and will engage users and receive approval from a wide set of audiences. I don’t see this changing a great deal in the next five years and I do think offsite activities may not be “link building” per se, but it will be about content distribution, consumption and interaction.

Onsite I think both Google’s ability to crawl and developers ability to write code that the search engines like will ultimately mean that less time will probably be spent optimising title tags and meta descriptions – though I still think onsite will be important. Hopefully in 5 years we won’t see any more of the burdensome development “release schedules” and every site will have a manageable CMS that allows for control over architecture, internal linking, and the major onpage indicators to search engines, “content discovery” channels and whatever else helps generate traffic and business to a website.

There will still be a need (perhaps more than ever) to get SEOs involved in building a site and providing the requirements, structure and flexibility of the platform and for my money, content managers and copywriters to maintain the site once built. However, it is also my belief that SEO will be further enveloped in the marketing of any website or product and will likely mean that less time is spent on “SEO” onsite than at present as more in house resource is taken on to handle this.

As I say above, we will all adapt if we wish to stay within SEO and there will always be opportunities as long as there are search engines, or app stores, or anything else that has an algorithm and helps a user find your product.

Finally, on this topic, we also discussed an increasing need for specialisation within the field as it seems a great number of the folks we spoke to have not tried much with the other search and discovery engines to try and find new channels for traffic. I suspect true mobile specialists, video optimisation specialists and app store specialists will almost certainly emerge as more SEOs experiment in these different channels and start to realise that “SEO” for YouTube is not the same as SEO for Google and “SEO” for the App Store is more different still.

What will your title be in 5 years?

This was a fun one and I think it says as much about an individual’s ambitions and aims as much as it does about the changing field of SEO. Unfortunately Roy didn’t really get to answer this one but we will close with the answer and the thoughts on these titles:

Kelvin, pointed out that he already has a [redacted] title as he goes by “Creative Director” though he does anticipate more people moving away from SEO based titles.

Martijn suggested that he would quite like to go by something along the lines of “Information Architect” as he sees his position and ability to add value moving in that direction slightly. I personally thought this was a great way to describe someone who specialises in the onsite side of things and potentially could work for offsite as well.

Audience suggestions: many alluded to the fact that they will (or in some cases already have) moved toward more generic titles because they focus on more than just SEO. Some of the examples were simply “Director,” “Founder” or “Consultant”.

Ultimately, my aim is to get more involved in the broader marketing set and hopefully direct strategy for brands online beyond just SEO. The more I learn about other disciplines the more this changes though, so we will have to see where the journey takes me. In the meantime, I’ll be gunning for a title somewhere along the lines of “Strategy Director” (whether specific to SEO or otherwise) and also threw out the idea of “Head of Content Visibility” off the top of my head.

For now though, it’s back to the present and dealing with today’s reality: getting through all the emails that built up whilst I was away. Here’s to the future – may it bring hover boards and many successes for all of you!

About Sam Crocker

Sam Crocker is SEO Associate Director at OMD UK. Sam focuses on increasing traffic and conversions for websites whilst always keeping his eye on a company’s bottom line.