We reviewed many predictions made in 2016. Change is the only certainty that 2020 will bring. But these brave SEOs have got their crystal balls out again and have given us their thoughts on what 2020 might bring and what their SEO strategies and tactics are for the year ahead.
I’ve broken down the responses into the following relevant SEO areas to help you digest the commentary. So, by all means skip to the area of SEO that interests you most, but my prediction is that it will be worth your time to digest them all as it’s a well-rounded approach to SEO that will pay dividends.
- Technical SEO
- Local Search
- Keyword Research
- User Intent
- The future of the SERPs
- Voice Search
- Summary of suggestions
Franco Valentino, Founder of Narrative SEO – is forecasting the growth of “entity” based search, given the importance that search engines are placing on schema mark-up. According to Frank;
“Roughly 7% of websites globally are using Schema mark-up at this point, so there’s an early adopter advantage as the technology matures. The biggest winners in 2020 will be those websites that do 3 things:
- Improve and maintain their technical SEO architecture.
- Build a well-thought-out and comprehensive Schema plan to improve user trust and quality scores.
- Target new SERP enhancements like events, carousels, and a host of product and service item features.
The biggest challenge continues to be a lack of basic technical SEO maintenance. In nearly every audit we conduct on large sites with healthy traffic, we consistently find basic structural problems like:
- HTTP1 vs HTTP2 which slows down the transfer of web pages
- Lack of security certificates or mixed content errors
- Page speed well above a 3-sec max benchmark for DOC complete
- Missing or corrupt sitemaps and robots files
Anyone setting off on a quest for optimization can find success this year by focusing deeply vs widely on their website’s structure.”
Barry Adams, explains that there are likely to be some new technical SEO challenges for website owners, for example with Google’s Live Indexing API which is still in a private beta. He also sees expanded support for existing and new structured data mark-up to help make website content more machine-readable, feeding in to Google’s on-SERP features as well as functionality in the wider Google ecosystem (Assistant, News, Local, etc).
Looking further ahead, Barry expects that by 2025, Google will have solved most crawling (discovery) challenges by rolling out things like the Live Indexing API and integrating this with Content Management Systems like WordPress.
Stephen Kenwright, is going all-in on local search and he’s not the only one.
“There have been more than a few things I’ve said that haven’t come true *yet* and I’m going to bring one of them up again: Local search will go mainstream in the UK in 2020. Yext is worth $1bn; Synup is moving into the country; and Uberall continues to get closer with Moz Local. High street retailers are shutting left, right and centre – and the UK is leaving the EU now, come what may – so we’re going to be more reliant on the business on our own shores and driving footfall into our stores will be a bigger and bigger part of that.”
Greg Gifford concurs; “Looking ahead to 2025, I think local search will be even more important and more well-known. In fact, I think it’s going to be the default – instead of regular SEO. We’ve seen such a huge shift in query intent thanks to mobile search continuing to grow. There are tons of terms that used to pull commerce results that now pull local results. I think that trend will continue, because the immediacy of local searches will influence the perceived intent of the queries.”
The general consensus is that links will still play a role as a ranking factor but they will be less important than they are today, especially if Google has more reliable signals. For example, some of these signals may have a more significant influence on Google Local pack results.
“I think by 2025, links really will be less weighted than they are today. Google has made big strides towards figuring out real-world signals – look at their patent from this fall, where they want to use real-world visits as a ranking signal. Google’s been looking at this for years, and I’m pretty confident that within the next few years they’re going to figure out how to make it work in the algorithm – links won’t go away, but they won’t be anywhere near as weighted as they are today.” Greg Gifford
Barry Adams concurs with this view of diminishing importance of links as a raking signal. “I don’t expect links to have disappeared as a ranking signal by 2025. I do expect some other measurements to reduce Google’s reliance on links, such as better algorithmic evaluation of content quality and accuracy, but links will still play an important role in the total SEO ecosystem.”
Looks like we’ll still be doing keyword research, or should I say ‘audience research’ in 2020 and beyond. It’s just an essential part of being a marketer and is not unique to SEOs. It’s critical for us all to understand the language of the customer.
Eric Enge, “I see keyword research remaining part of the overall landscape. As I noted in our 2016 interview, this is really just about learning the language of the customer. Are you selling “kitchen electrics” or are you selling “appliances?” Even if the use of the consumer preferred way of referring to something would lead to zero rankings benefits, it would still provide commercial benefits to you. This is because it helps the prospective customer relate to you better, and that will help improve conversion rates. So, use of keywords and keyword research is much bigger than just being an SEO thing. It’s a marketing thing and you’ll always want to do this.”
Google’s SERP feature developments in the past few years show us all how important answering users’ questions as quickly as possible is to them. As SEOs we are rewarded with Featured Snippets, People Also Ask results and nice and chunky Organic FAQ results, when we get the marriage between user intent and Schema mark-up right.
Greg Gifford, admits he was “way-off” in his 2016 prediction on social behaviours and CTR so he’s decided to flip his point of view this time around.
“I think social signals have lost any value in the algo at this point, and CTR is really a by-product of the quality of your content. We’re moving towards showing up for concepts, not keywords, and the people who answer the questions that match the intent of the searchers are the ones who will win. AR is the next big frontier, and I think we’ll have a pretty functional AR interface by 2025, so CTR and social signals won’t even matter anymore.”
Eric Enge, suggests that Google’s understanding of user intent is going to continue to improve and that as SEOs our understanding of what Google thinks the intent is for a query is going to be important.
“Over the past several years Google has invested a massive amount in better understanding user intent. If you think about it, a user who types in one to three words is not providing Google with a lot of information on what they really want. I believe that Google is heavily leveraging machine learning to try and map distribution models for user needs on a per query basis. The evidence suggests that this effort has provided Google with great results.
In 2020, Google will double down on their investment in better understanding user intent. We will see more core algorithm updates and more advances in their ability to model user intent using search queries and historical data they have on you, as well as models of other people with similar interests, as the primary inputs.”
Jason Barnard, founder of Kalicube.pro, believes the slow demise of traditional blue links will continue, as Google adds more rich elements to each SERP, and adds more variants into the mix. Digital marketers will need to switch focus to optimise for these, and learn to make the best of the no-click SERP scenario. He also expects more major updates to the Knowledge Graph (a specialism of his);
“In summer 2019, Google made a massive update to the Knowledge Graph, updating the saliency scores and expanding the number of entities. In 2020, the number of entities in Knowledge Graph will expand further, and Google will improve ontological classification, returning less related entities, but more refined results. This will be seen in an expansion of knowledge panels in the SERPs for people and brand searches, a rise in related entities within the Knowledge Panel and an expansion of the number of secondary knowledge panels “See results about”. This means 2020 will be the year of the brand SERP!”.
Eric Enge is keen to remind us why Goole’s intent is to answer user intent faster in the format preferred by users (videos and images) as his research shows this leads to greater overall engagement in the search results.
For his part, Barry Adams isn’t predicting any major tectonic shifts in search in 2020. “It’ll be a gradual change with more on-SERP features, as Google has been steadily doing for years, which drive fewer and fewer clicks to organic rankings as Google provides more on-SERP information especially on mobile.
He’s also perhaps a bit more optimistic than some SEOs arguing that, “A SERP in 2025 will be a mix of ads, organic, and SERP features like news, local, video, direct answers, knowledge graph, etc. It’ll look and feel a bit different from now and there’ll be elements on there that we won’t yet know exist right now, but there will still be a SERP and we will still be optimising for it.”
I’m a big fan of the potential of voice search, not necessarily from an SEO perspective, but as a consumer I can see how this is going to make my life easier in the future and there are obvious benefits for certain sections of society who have difficulty with traditional user interfaces. I’m also very excited about the prospects of ‘Voice Commerce’ and being able to transact in a frictionless and secure way using voice with a trusted brand and a secure wallet (probably from Apple Pay or Google Wallet).
It transpires that Eric Enge shares my enthusiasm describing himself as “a big fan of voice”, but says it is still early days for voice search and although usage is growing it is still smaller and perhaps different in nature to what most people think. “I think that the term “voice search” is misleading because a large percentage of the voice inputs from users are really commands (call mom, set a time, play a song, etc). The actual number of queries that are more like search is relatively small.“
He believes that there are two major barriers to a much broader adoption of voice: “ We need to see improved speech recognition. Yes, there are studies that suggest that Google and others tend to have higher levels of recognition than humans. But the mistakes that the devices make are more jarring to us.”
“The voice UI for navigating complex experiences is not there yet…But we will get there, but it’s going to take some time. In the meantime, there are opportunities for many businesses to experiment with voice and build relationships with users who like to receive information through their smart speakers or personal assistants. These early days of experience will be invaluable as this market continues to evolve.”
How do we summarise all of this? Well we’ve seen that we’re not too bad at predicting the future (but probably not as good as a machine learning algorithm).
I’ll leave it to Paul Lovell, Founder of Always Evolving SEO to summarise what many SEOs are saying.
“After a year of updates from Google including BERT and many other core updates, there has been a rise in zero-click search. So, we need to ask, what can we do to help engage with these users of zero-click search?
- Go after Featured snippets. The best thing about this is you do not even have to be ranking high on page one to steal the snippet.
- Look for Schema opportunities that allow you to stand out in the SERPs – there are a few to choose from Product, Article, FAQ, How to and Recipe just to name a few.
I think everyone needs to start looking at their content and understanding if it is really meeting the user’s intent behind the query.“
From my perspective, I think we’ll be spending a lot of time this year (and likely in perpetuity) writing content that answers users’ questions and matches their intent succinctly or in greater depth if that’s what’s required.
From an SEO perspective user intent can be somewhat subjective and in many instances without the context it can be ambiguous. SEOs might look at a given set of key phrases and classify them slightly differently as Navigational, Informational, Research or Transactional keywords. Users are clear what they are looking and they vote with their mouse clicks. Google is becoming more and more adept at understanding this and that’s what really matters for us as SEOs.
What is Google’s Intent? What do they believe the user’s intent is and how do they reflect this in the make-up of the SERP results for a query (or a cluster of related queries); not just in the SERP features but also in the type of ranking URLs and the nature of the content on those ranking pages.
Laurent Bourrelly, a leading French SEO calls this “The Smell of the SERP”. I really like this phrase because it conjures up a vivid image of the type of content and format of results Google wants to give its users. Although, I’ve been asked by my colleagues and a few SEO friends not to call it this and maybe use something more flowery like “User Intent & the SERP Landscape”!
A big thank-you to everyone who participated in making the predictions back in 2016 and again in 2020.
I can safely predict that you can expect more research from me in 2020 on “The Smell of the SERP”!