What we thought the SEO World in 2020 would look like back in 2016
Back in autumn of 2016, the Authoritas team lead by David Bain our former Head of SEO decided to survey and interview leading SEOs worldwide to see if we could use the wisdom of the crowd to predict a coherent view of what the SEO world would look like today.
The research was broken-down into two separate parts:
1. In-depth video interviews with some of the leading SEOs back in the day (don’t worry they’re all still packing a big SEO punch today too!) They are, of course, very familiar names to the majority readers of this blog:
- Barry Adams
- Bas van den Beld
- Eric Enge
- Greg Gifford
- Duane Forrester
- Ammon Johns
- Ian Lurie
- Stephen Kenwright
- Mike King
- Sean Si
- Aleyda Solis
- Andrew Steel
- Nichola Stott
2. A survey of SEO practitioners worldwide, nearly 300 of whom kindly gave us their perspectives on what they thought would happen by 2020. The majority of these respondents are not ‘household SEO names’ on the conference circuit, but everyday practitioners at the sharp-end dealing with whatever Google throws at us all on a daily basis.
Since we’re just kicking off 2020, we thought it would be fun to revisit this research and see what was predicted and how many of those predictions stood the test of time; and also see if the industry luminaries outperformed the everyday SEOs we surveyed.
So, we’ve asked a few of the interviewees to review their 2016 predictions and also make some new projections for 2020. We also asked them and a few new faces to offer some practical SEO tips and advice for optimising in 2020 and the years ahead.
2016 Predictions from the famous faces of SEO
What did our interviewees predict back in 2016 and what did they get right?
The interviews and eBook amounted to hours and hours’ worth of great content and hundreds of pages of notes. If I recall correctly, editing it took David, myself and Lauren 3 days! For this reason, it is impractical to review every prediction in detail and it’s not my job to embarrass anyone who got it spectacularly wrong (because there’s still time for their prediction to come good this year!).
So, I’ve concentrated on where the predictions were pretty much spot on, or at the very least where conventional SEO wisdom says they were close to the reality we see today in the SERPs.
Let’s start with the easy ones we can all agree on.
- Q. “Will Google+ be around in 2020?”
A. “There is no way that Google+ has much of a future at all.”
Well done Stephen Kenwright of Rise At Seven.
Google announced it was sunsetting Google+ in December 2018 and shutting it for consumers in April 2019 and we all celebrated – one less thing for us SEOs to worry about!
- Q. “Will links matter in 2020?”
- “I would love to say that links won’t matter in four years’ time, because they’re gameable, but I just don’t think an alternative will be found very quickly.”
Well done Greg Gifford VP of Search Lab Chicago.
I think it’s fairly safe to say links still matter (isn’t it?). However, as you’ll see below, Greg suggests in his predictions for 2020 that the influence of links is likely to continue to diminish as Google finds other algorithmically reliable signals such as real site footfall.
- Q. “Will Content grow or decline in importance?”
A. “I think content is never going to go away, as being probably the most important signal, ‘cause I mean, everything else we’ve talked about, user experience, all these things, are based on what kind of content experience you’ve got on your website, having just a kick-ass content experience on your site, will never decrease in weight, as far as any search algorithm or search experience goes.
Well done Greg again. Anyone who has been following updates to Google’s Search Quality Raters guidelines will no doubt be focusing on E.A.T and creating quality content and matching this to user intent.
- Q. “Will keyword research become an activity we used to do back in 2016?”
A. “No matter what happens with search, you are always going to want to know what language your customers use to talk about your products. So, keyword research is unchanged, by anything. That won’t change.“
Eric Enge, General Manager of Perficient emphasised the continued importance of keyword research in order to really understand the language your customers use. In a world of growing voice search and a conversational search experience, understanding the search terms and questions your prospective customers use is as important as ever. And we’ve seen from recent Google SERP features such as Featured Snippets, Answer Boxes, People Also Ask and Organic FAQs that answering users’ questions in a machine-readable manner is a winning SEO strategy.
- Q. “How will the SERPs change by 2020?”
A. “Music will be a next step, where people play music hosted on Google, maybe integrated with streaming music platforms in Google’s search results. For Google it’s all about delivering the best possible user experience with as little interaction as possible. You see that with Knowledge Graph, you see that with everything else that they’re doing. So, yes, I do think we will see more of those sorts of integrations in search results and we’ll see it integrate more and evolve more into becoming an end destination in and of itself where you don’t have to go through to the actual website or platform that generates the content but Google will serve you the content straight away.”
One of the trickier questions asked the interviewees to predict the changes to the SERPs in the coming years. And although Barry Adams of Polemic Digital’s answer wasn’t 100% correct (yet!), he certainly clearly pointed the way to a world where zero-click searches on the SERPs were a reality.
2016 Predictions from Anonymous SEOs:
Nearly 300 SEOs responded to around a dozen questions about the future of our industry, some were even so kind as to provide quite comprehensive unsolicited opinions on the future of SEO! So rather than rehash the whole survey again, I’ve simply picked five of the most interesting areas. This is what people thought about:
- “Will Google have more or less online market share by the year 2020?”
A. As you can see from the chart below, this was pretty much split equally with an almost even proportion of respondents thinking Google’s market share would rise, fall or stay the same.
In reality what has happened? According to Statcounter, (whose tracking code is installed on over 2 million sites worldwide) Google’s market share has increased over this period from 91.01% to 92.71% and no single competing search engine or app has made a significant impact on its monopoly in search. Google’s market share of course includes Google Search, Google Images, Google Maps and YouTube.
- “Which search engine might be Google’s biggest competitor in the year 2020?”
A. I think this is one area where no one really hit the nail on the head. Google’s market share has pretty much remained static for the past few years, if anything it’s grown at the expense of the competition.
Interestingly, though quite a lot of SEOs believe (or maybe hope!) that this will change in the future as more users start specific vertical searches on apps and websites such as Amazon, YouTube, Autotrader, etc.
“We’re moving increasingly towards niche search engines. Google probably won’t lose its grip on the market for traditional search engines but it will be starting to lose its grip on searches overall. More and more people will fire up Skyscanner when they’re looking for cheap flights; Autotrader when they’re looking for cars; Indeed when they’re looking for a job. People don’t want Google to cross-pollinate its products with their data – most job seekers don’t have an issue with their personal data being posted on a job site; they don’t want that to affect their medical searches.”
The trouble the competition have is how Google exploits its monopoly and financial muscle to keep new entrants out and out-muscle existing competitors.
With a clear trend for the majority of searches moving from desktop to mobile devices, it would have been a reasonable prediction back in 2016 to think that Google might lose market share to players like Apple or other search engines who might partner with Apple in the future. But in reality, Google just dug into the top of its very deep pockets and paid to keep its market share; it’s rumoured to have paid Apple somewhere in the $3Bn to $9Bn range to remain the default search engine on its devices.
Regulators on both sides of the Atlantic have struggled to keep up with the pace of change and developments in the market and big fines have done little to stall Google’s march, with Google’s proposed solutions to regulatory decisions being widely criticised. Here’s just two examples; 14 Comparison Shopping Service providers wrote a join letter to the EU Commissioner for Competition in October 2018, complaining that Google’s compliance mechanism did not comply with the EU’s prohibition decision of June 2017; and in the past few days, DuckDuckGo despite being one of the winners in the race to be one of the default search engine options on Android has still criticised Google’s approach.
- Which of the following link tactics (if any) will NOT work for SEO in the future?
- I think the majority of us could see back in 2016 that the writing was on the wall for many of the link building schemes of the day and this has proved to be the case with Google issuing a public warning in May 2017 of Guest Blogging links from large-scale article campaigns and warning against the use of stuffing an article(s) with keyword-rich link anchor text. This was followed up with the introduction in September 2019 of two new link attributes; rel=“sponsored” and rel=“ugc”. The question remains as to how widely these new attributes have been adopted but it also goes to show how difficult it is for Google to algorithmically get a clean link signal.
- Will we see more of less “negative SEO” by the year 2020?
A. A small majority of SEOs were optimistic that we’d see less negative SEO issues by 2020. The question is have we?
I’ve not found any useful stats to support the argument one way or the other? So I guess I’ll leave it up to you in the comments below? Is Negative SEO still an issue in 2020 or can we all sleep soundly at night safe in the knowledge that an unscrupulous competitor cannot undo all the good SEO work we’ve done that day?
- Which of the following will be true about Google’s SERPs in 2020?
A. There were four possible options here and you can see the predictions yourself below.
- 65.4% of SEOs believed Google’s SERPs would incorporate videos and images for most queries by the year 2020.
This is not the case yet, although it has been increasing and I’m sure we’ve all seen the occasional SERP with 0 or 1 organic results when you search explicitly for a video.
Our own analysis (to be published later this month on a base of 125mn keywords in 26 markets) shows that on average videos appear on page 1 of the SERP for 64.6% of all keywords. This varies by market with the high being 77.5% in Spain (US 72% and UK 68.1%). For images, the average is 70.9% of all keywords with a high of 87.4% in Switzerland (French language) and the US and UK coming in at 72% and 73.4% respectively.
- 55.8% of SEOs believed Google’s SERPs would incorporate social results for most queries by the year 2020. Whilst we track this in our platform, we don’t have the stats on this – but the fact that we don’t tells a story. Social isn’t quite as big news as we all thought it might be….but of course this could (or should I say will) change!
- 29.4% of SEOs believed Google’s SERPs will be delivered as an “unlimited scroll” by the year 2020 – I pleased to report that this hasn’t happened yet. Although the changes to mobile pagination of SERPs in April 2018, with the introduction of the ‘More’ button instead of the pagination links were certainly a small step in that direction.
- 23.6% of SEOs believed by 2020 no organic results would be viewable until users started scrolling with only paid results visible initially.
I’m sad to say this was pretty much spot on, especially for mobile users. Google has continued to introduce new Universal Search features, the vast majority of which have pushed the 1st organic result further and further down the page. This report from the travel industry shows that 94.8% of #1 organic ranking URLs are below the fold of the screen on mobiles and 63.6% on desktop.
Google has continued to vertically integrate its own SERP features to exploit and monetise lucrative market niches and this trend is set to continue unabated with only limited regulatory interference (IMHO).
That concludes the re-cap of our 2016 predictions. I think it’s fair to say both the famous faces and the everyday SEO did a reasonably good job of predicting the general direction the SEO world was heading and there were no gob-smacking surprises….but who knows what the next year may bring? What do you think will happen in 2020? We are keen to hear your thoughts.
Tune in to our next post regarding predictions and SEO advice for 2020.