SEO In 2017: The Crystal Ball Predictions

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This post was originally made on the 4Ps Marketing blog.

After the ever-saintly Ben Davis featured my thoughts on AMP in the usual seasonal Econsultancy roundup it seemed like a good idea to get the rest of my thoughts down on e-paper before getting swamped in keeping the pugs from eating all the tinsel and getting the cat away from the wrapping paper. As is normal, of course, I’ve only just had a chance to sit down and actually start thinking about the next (and last) twelve months with an appropriate level of depth, so here we go…

Real Time Penguin

Google finally launching real time Penguin was a huge highlight of 2016 for me – better late than never, and so on. I’m also very pleased about Google’s refreshed approach to this – ignoring rather than immediately penalising bad links – as this very much diminishes the nastiness potential of “negative SEO” and seems like an adoption of a “more carrot than stick” kind of attitude towards webmasters on Google’s side.

Voice Searching

The mainstream launches of the “home PA” systems like Amazon Alexa and Google home are very interesting and seem like they might finally propel voice search into the mind of mainstream consumers and brands. This idea of bringing search into an always-on state is a natural evolution of device proliferation but we’ll be watching very curiously to see how it starts to shake up user interaction with digital, especially buying patterns. It’ll also be interesting to see how paid advertising starts to rear its head on voice platforms without fundamentally damaging the user experience on them.

The implications for longer and more specific searches, which tend to occur more naturally in voice queries, are also going to have knock-on effects on everything from content structure to search market research. Alex Smith, on the Food & Leisure team a my agency, commented

“What I’d like to see is the evolution of a keyword planner-esque tool that can work on phrase match or uses machine learning to handle the longer tail, more semantic and context-driven queries.”

Whoever can start providing these sorts of datasets, given the increasingly vicious throttle that Google is putting on its own search data and the lack of granularity in Adwords tools for things like device split and media search method (voice vs type vs image etc), is likely to make a lot of forward-thinking marketers very happy people. Platform providers of the world, take note!

UX Integration

Something a I’ve started to notice with quite a few clients this year is the (very welcome!) development of marketing teams starting to take a real interest in their site’s performance in terms of user experience rather than just bottom line. Site speed, especially, has far too often in the past been written off as “a problem for the IT/web guys” so I’m bloody glad to start seeing some decline in this silo-ised thinking. Analytics, data, marketing and customer journeys seem to be finally starting to get joined up in brand thinking, so although there’s still a long way to go for most businesses this is a great step forward and here’s hoping to see it continue to see deeper adoption in 2017 and beyond.

VR, Bots And New Search Touchpoints

There’s been a lot of buzz around the tech and digital industries about virtual reality and the rise of chatbots as interaction tools for brands. VR is a big unknown for search at the moment as it is (of course) more experientially focused but Nick Shread, my fellow Kent resident and colleague at 4Ps who heads up the third sector team, notes

“I’m wondering how VR will impact search. Searches performed from within games or experience playbacks perhaps? Maybe a “find me something related to this” sort of prompted discovery angle that ties into results across other devices?”

There’s a wide open field for experimentation here of course – watch this space! Chatbots and similar machine learning or AI-driven tools are already starting to make waves in the search space though, especially on mobile. Google set the precedent with their own machine learning driven RankBrain, of course, but there’s an increasing trend of AI-type entities making searches on behalf of human users, rather than the human user undertaking the search themselves.

That’s all the average chatbot does if you dig deep enough under the bonnet of the technology (at the risk of oversimplifying a very cool and complex field), and you only need to look at the typical behaviour of digital assistants like Cortana and Alexa to get some cool ideas of where this could be going. Matt Stannard, my usual partner in predictive crime, and I predicted this back in 2015, so we’re applying for our licensed digital sector psychic badges this year. Matt (who serves at the Innovation Director at 4Ps when he isn’t building mad-scientist type analytics gadgets) also comments that he thinks different search methods than “words” are going to start rising soon too as things like image and sound recognition keep developing.

“What about searching by proxy? Cortana, find me something that looks like this, with “this” being an image, or phrase, or sound, or smell…or even a feel. Haptic interfaces are going to start showing up sooner or later!”

On the Google front, for 2017 the only thing I’m reasonably confident of myself is that AMP is going to get bigger before it goes away, despite some signs of rising controversy in its potential user benefits and current implementation form. Google is pushing it immensely hard and it seems to be only a matter of time before it extends to full capability deployment in new verticals like eCommerce. This will be particularly interesting as and when the mobile-first organic index gets rolled out, as despite Google’s claims that they’re aiming for a “low delta” I suspect that non-responsive sites are going to see some big shifts in visibility if they don’t get their content and markup synced up.

How do you see the organic search landscape shifting in 2017 and beyond? How will new technology and potential touchpoints start disrupting the way brands need to present their content to users? How will measurement, analytics and data struggle or stride ahead to keep up? I’m always up for a coffee and a geek out so drop a line to 4Ps for a chat or hit me up direct and let’s talk.

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