Okay, so we all know that the search world is constantly evolving. It’s changed, radically, in many different ways since its general inception in the mid-1990s. Most of these changes, however, have been slow and gradual improvements to the core, original search engine algorithm. Search experts and marketers were quick to note when these things happened; for example, when Panda was released, 11 percent of queries were affected, and marketers couldn’t help noticing this extreme volatility because they were watching their ranks closely.
But users didn’t really notice this volatility—to the average user, the changes and improvements in search are so gradual they’re barely noticeable, the same way it’s hard to tell when a child is growing when you see him/her every day.
Because of this incremental phenomenon, it’s tough to categorize what might count as a search engine “disruption.” Usually, a tech disruption happens all at once—when a new product is released, a new trend takes off, or a new company emerges to challenge the norm. Now that all the norms of search are pretty much in place, the minor “disruptions” we’ve had so far (usually in the form of Google updates) can’t really claim to have that much impact. User search behavior has changed much in the past 20 years, but again, it’s done so incrementally.
Still, knowing that, the search world may be on the verge of a major disruption in the truest sense—a new set of phenomena that may turn the nature of online search on its head. And it’s already starting to take place.
Disruption is coming in the form of artificial intelligence (AI), and in two distinct modes of operation, it’s already here:
So on one hand, you have AI interfering with the way users are searching, and on the other, you have AI taking over the updating process for search engines.
Let’s take a look at each of these in turn, and how they could be considered disruptive.
Chances are, you’ve used a virtual assistant at least once in your life, and in the near future, you’ll find yourself using them even more. Consider how these programs could cause the next major search disruption:
(Image Source: LSA Insider)
On the other front of AI development, you have new machine learning algorithms working to replace the previously manual job of improving search engines. This has started out small, with a modification to Hummingbird known as RankBrain, but we can expect to see bigger, better versions of these machine learning algorithms in place in the near future. There are three key ways it could be a disruptor:
SEO has come a long way since the old days of overt rank manipulation and successful implementation of black hat techniques. Over the years, Google has released update after update designed to fight back against rank manipulators and provide better results for the user base at large. In response, most SEOs have been forced to scramble, trying to predict Google’s next imminent round of updates and take action to stay at the top of the ranks for as long as possible.
Today, SEO continues to evolve, but not in the fits and spurts of that 2011-2014 era that saw rise to major updates like Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird, and Pigeon. Instead, it is being gradually shaped as new technologies appear and become more popular, and user interests change. Consumers themselves are the motivators for Google’s consistent barrage of updates, whether they’re massive game changers like Panda and Penguin or subtle tweaks, like the recently overblown “Mobilegeddon” update.
By reading these consumer trends and understanding the factors shaping user preferences and behavior, we can make reasonable predictions about the future of search—and accordingly, the future of SEO.
Take a look at these four consumer trends, and how they’re starting to take the search world by storm:
Mobile devices have grown steadily in popularity since their emergence almost a decade ago. Today, they’re responsible for more web traffic than all desktop devices. Should that trend continue, and experts predict it will, one day the overwhelming majority of all online traffic will be done on mobile devices, with almost no desktop traffic (or searches) remaining.
Already you can see the results of this consumer shift. Google is heavily stressing the importance of having a mobile site, penalizing any site deemed “not mobile friendly” and even stating that mobile-only sites aren’t necessarily a bad thing. As mobile devices steadily become more favorable to the public at large, the way we consume content, interact with the world, and of course, mobile SEO, will all change. Location-based searches will grow to become more popular, as will the use of apps and the need for immediate information (both of which are represented here as separate points).
The way we connect to the Internet has changed dramatically over the past decade. In the old days, you would be limited to short bursts of access, allowing you opportunities to browse and hunt down the information you needed using a variety of tools. Today, the Internet is accessible everywhere and with virtually any digital device. Connection speeds are ludicrously fast, and search engines have evolved to give even faster, more concise, more appropriate results. As a result, people have grown to demand more immediate, more concise information in their searches.
You can already see this trend manifesting itself in the way Google provides search results. First, there’s the Knowledge Graph, which gives encyclopedic entries for common subjects and short answers to full-length questions (if possible). This is making it easier for users to forgo the search-and-hunt process altogether and simply read a quick answer at the top of the SERPs. You also have the local 3-pack, which offers quick information on only the most appropriate local businesses for your query (according to Google), offering directions, a website, and phone connectivity with only the click of a button. This need will continue to grow over time, putting pressure on search engines and businesses to provide simpler, more direct information.
Mobile devices are leading the way for people to rely on apps over any other interface. Old forms of Internet browsing involved locating sites via a web browser, whether you were looking for information or a specific function. Today, that “third party” web browser is no longer necessary; apps can connect you to that information and functionality, and users see little use for conventional web browsers.
Of course, as creatures of habit, we aren’t ready to do away with websites just yet. But in the next several years, it’s entirely possible that apps will come to replace what we know as conventional websites. Already, Google is indexing apps and introducing new ranking algorithms to account for mobile apps.
Social media has already grown to become a major influencer in search ranks, but the way we use social media may quickly change. Major platforms like Facebook and Twitter are trying their best to integrate as many features and functionalities into their apps as possible, such as Facebook’s new web search engine and integrated article sharing for major publishers. Most of these platforms are attempting to become one-stop-shops for their audiences, so there’s never a need to venture outside those apps. Such a shift could lead to a world where search engines are found everywhere, not restricted to just Google or Bing (or similar platforms), and the SEO community would need to respond accordingly.
The next several years should be very interesting for search. With Google and Bing leading the way, it’s unlikely that the way we’re used to searching now will be anything like the way we’ll search in 2020. Between artificial intelligence algorithms, the disappearance of traditional websites, the rise of apps and social media, and increasing user demand for quick information, SEOs will need to be sharp and adapt quickly if they’re going to survive.
Voice search today is surprisingly accurate—if you haven’t tried it recently, you should. As more users grow accustomed to the accuracy of the service, and as the service grows more popular in line with voice-dependent forms of wearable technology, it’s likely that one day soon, voice-based queries will overtake typed queries in popularity.
In order to prepare for this shift, search marketers need to understand how voice search does—and will—affect SEO.
Voice search currently exists in a number of forms, and in places where some users don’t even see it. You don’t need an app or special functionality in order to access voice search—in fact, it’s available straight from Google’s main search page, in the form of a microphone on the right hand side.
Perhaps more popularly, it’s available in the form of personal digital assistants like Apple’s Siri or the “OK Google” feature on most Android devices. As wearable devices become more popular, these types of voice searches will likely grow in popularity and importance to SEO—but we’ll get more into that later.
Voice-based searches have a number of qualities that make them distinct from traditional text-based qualities. Because of these distinctions, both in how users perform searches and in how search engines process queries, various SEO elements could grow or wane in importance accordingly.
Semantic search capabilities
First, and most importantly, voice-based searches will naturally take a longer, more natural form than their keyword-based text search counterparts. When typing, users are forced to reduce their search intentions down to a handful of keywords—in part to minimize the amount of typing necessary and in part because they’re used to older forms of keyword-based search functionality. Voice-based searches will have no such limitations; users will be more inclined to speak naturally when they search.
As a result, keyword-based search functions and processes will take another massive step back. Already, thanks to Google’s Hummingbird update, keyword-based optimization is practically dead, so voice search could be the last nail in the coffin. Instead, semantic-based processing will analyze the user intent behind a query and find relevant results, rather than doing a series of one-to-one matches based on existing content online.
To prepare, you’ll need to eliminate any remaining keyword-based strategies you have running in your SEO campaign. Instead, focus on writing in-topic with your area of expertise and associate your brand with other industry-related blogs and forums to strengthen Google’s understanding of your business.
Next, you can bet that people will talk to Google the same way they talk to each other, and that conversational way of speaking will translate to search queries. For example, people will be more likely to use unimportant filler words, like prepositions and conjunctions, in their queries. They’ll also be more likely to use slang terms or informal language in their searches. As a result, sites that feature similarly conversational answers to such queries will get a natural ranking boost and more visibility for these new types of searches.
To prepare, start writing your content with a more conversational tone. Select article and content topics that a colloquial audience might be more likely to search for, and eliminate any unnecessary formalities that could potentially hold you back.
Finally, because voice search is going to be a more immediate form of searching (and it’s also lined to use in mobile and wearable devices), the immediacy of search queries is about to change. In older days of SEO, searching was a dedicated event—you’d have to remember to search for something, set up your computer at home, and search for it at a later time. Today, mobile devices allow us to search while on the go, and voice-based searches on wearable devices will only increase that mobility. Users will become dependent on immediate answers to immediate questions, and as a result, more queries will be phrased and targeted in a way that demands an immediate answer.
To prepare, start producing more content that addresses immediate needs. For example, tutorials and how-to articles will increase even further in popularity as people search for answers to common obstacles in real-time situations.
In the next few years, you can expect to see a monumental surge in voice-based searches. This is partly due to a consumer base gradually getting used to the idea of voice search, but for the most part, this rise in popularity will be due to the increase in wearable devices like smart watches and Google Glass. Because these devices have less convenient forms of traditional keyboard/screen interfaces (or have done away with them altogether), users will be forced to rely on their voices to perform searches.
Voice-based searching won’t overtake typed searching overnight, but the trend shift is practically inevitable. The sooner you start preparing, the further ahead of your competitors you’ll be when the crossover finally takes place.
Since these technologies are still being developed, it’s hard to estimate to what degree they’ll be able to redefine the norms of user searches. However, early indications show these two forms of AI to be powerful, popular, and for lack of a less clichéd phrase, game-changing. As a marketer, you can’t prepare for the future in any concrete way, since even the technology developers aren’t sure where it’s going to go from here, but you can prepare yourself by remaining flexible. Hedge your bets with lots of long-term strategies, try to jump on new trends before your competitors can, and always be willing to adapt.