Last week I had the pleasure of moderating a discussion for the Austin SEO Meetup. At that discussion, our focus was on uncovering what we expect to change next year — basically, an SEO 2016 Predictions session.
The event took place at Orange CoWorking in south Austin. Thanks to owner Shelley Delayne for hosting the event. Orange is a great spot for southies like myself, so give a look if you are in the market for a place to get away and work.
You can see the handwritten notes from the event in the feature image above. While that snapshot might give you a general indication of the topics we covered, it makes sense to dig a bit deeper.
Not to mention that my handwriting isn’t always the easiest to interpret, so let’s review the discussion here. I also have a couple of separate predictions from attendees of the event at the end.
As with any good looking-forward discussion, it makes sense to start by looking backward first.
SEO 2015: What Changed In The Past Year
Mobilegeddon: The label given to April 22, 2015, the day Google changed the rules so that mobile friendly sites are required to show up on SERPs for mobile searches in the vast majority of cases.
Rankbrain: Announced on October 26, 2015, Rankbrain is Google’s machine learning technology that adds a level of Artificial Intelligence to their indexing and ranking processes.
Blocked Resources: While this was technically announced in late 2014, it began showing up in Google Webmaster Tools / Search Console in March of 2015, so we included it for that reason.
E-Commerce Update: Rolling out in early February, this update primarily impacted E-Commerce websites and typos on brand terms. Some in the industry complained that it further advanced the lead that big brands have over smaller brands, while others speculated that duplicate product descriptions became more problematic.
Quality Update in May: Without full understanding of the exact changes made. we were informed by Google that they updated how website and content quality is assessed during May. This led to noticeable shakeups of the SERPs when it rolled out. Quite a few news sites complained of losses in ranking and traffic, but none were able to pinpoint exactly why one site was impacted more than others.
Panda 4.2: Google progressively rolled out Panda 4.2 over the late summer and into October. No one is quite sure exactly what “tweaks” were rolled into this update, as there was a slow deployment and impact was nearly impossible to measure. Perhaps they’ve gotten it down and are no longer causing collateral damage on each rollout.
Big Brands Increased Their Lead: As a topic that has been discussed for nearly four years now, members of the panel agreed that big brands have a distinct and growing advantage with SEO. Whether it be due to years of link building and earning, deeper pockets, or large teams to manage SEO priorities, it has become very hard to compete for smaller businesses.
Snack Pack Update: Many in the industry have adopted this nickname for Google’s early August change to the Local Pack. This update reduced the number of standard results for local searches from seven to three. This was a rather big update for companies who rely on local ranking heavily but have yet to make it into the top three in the local pack.
Google+ Rebirth: Later in the year, Google announced that they are changing the description and positioning of Google+. Allegedly a response to user feedback, it would also be logical to assume that this was a follow on to their previous decision to sunset authorship indefinitely.
SEO 2016: What We See Coming This Year
Below are the unfiltered predictions that were brought up by the group. Some of these were my own assertions, and I will call out which of those were my own below. The rest were either generated through open discussion or volunteered by one or more members of the group.
All-in-all, the ideas were pretty insightful. Let’s go through them now:
Bot Traffic and Black Hat techniques attacked head on: One member of the audience suggested that Google will get even more aggressive about uncovering cheating, automation/bots, and black hat SEO.
SEO more focused on integration to marketing and compliance with guidelines: Old school SEO is clearly past its prime, and it is time to look at SEO less as tricks and more as an integrated piece of the marketing mix. This is the year that most SEOs finally move over and accept that it should be done properly as a part of an overall business strategy, and in compliance with ethical standards that are practices elsewhere.
More Focus on Social: Much of the group agreed that this has to continue to grow in importance as we get more sophisticated with websites and rankings. With Google’s Rankbrain and other recent announcements, it is clear that they are factoring in a range of items including Trust. Social is a huge input point for determining whom and what content is the most trustworthy and worth sharing or ranking.
Brands, Brands, Brands: Brands have grown their lead and will continue to do so. As they learn more about SEO, they will only improve their advantage over smaller companies and agencies.
Penguin Folded into the Algorithm: This one is a no-brainer since Google already announced it, but we had to include it since it’s still yet to be done.
Algorithm vs. Point Updates: Following on #5 above, it is pretty apparent that Google’s goal is to evolve away from penalties to algorithmic spam management. Not only will they start to build these tweaks into the algorithm itself, but I anticipate that they will be less open about the details behind each major change. The only exception will be for massively impactful modifications like Mobilegeddon in 2015.
Video Will Become More Important: One member of the audience suggested that video will start to grow in importance this year. This point elicited a good debate, as some in attendance posited that video was already a huge impact. It is worth including, though, because video is clearly a key medium for sharing and social in addition to SEO. So why won’t it grow in importance? We shall see.
Massive Growth of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) Functionality by Google, and a Bigger Shift to Intent Based Results: Following up on the Rankbrain announcement in late 2015, this is a logical prediction for 2016. The question is how much more advancement Google can generate over what they have already built since mid-2013 in this area. Personally, I can’t wait to see what they manage to figure out in the coming year.
Voice Search Will Become a Huge Deal in 2016: This was my prediction, and one that I stand by staunchly. It is the logical follow up to the huge emphasis on semantic search and mobile over the past couple of years, and the leading smartphone platforms are clearly working on it by way of Siri, Cortana, and Google Now on the top three mobile platforms.
More Semantic: With so many websites finally starting to adopt semantic markup, and Google’s latest advancements in machine learning, semantic will dominate in 2016 and beyond (everyone in attendance agreed on this one). Old keyword only strategies will continue to fade, and it is becoming more and more important to understand the growing importance of topic targeting, synonyms, and link/content relevance on ranking.
Fear of Google: As another one of my own predictions, I expect fear of Google to reach a fever pitch this year. It will take them at least 2016 and possibly longer to convince website owners that they are following the mantra of “Do No Evil” after years of penalizing and slapping websites for spammy behavior. Building updates right into the algorithm and simply ignoring behaviors that don’t follow the guidelines will help, but some PR may be in order to repair their image with owners of smaller and mid-sized websites that have been burned in the past.
Other Search Engines Grow Their Share: Simply put – several members of the group expect Bing and Yahoo to continue chipping away at Google’s market share in the US. Based on the trends in recent years, this is a reasonable expectation. You can find the current market shares of leading search engines in key markets here.