The Future of SEO

Predicting the future

The idea of prediction may be as old as human history. From significant world events to smaller everyday activities, the evolution of our modern human behaviours is believed to have started in the Middle Pleistocene period, some 120,000 years ago.

During this period, several South African sites evidenced a change in subsistence strategies. From a time where humans hunted big game to subsisting on aquatic resources from fish to shellfish, palaeontologists have interpreted an intentional shift to behavioural modernity. The surviving cave art depict scenes changing from the hunting of game to fishing. Did these changes in human behaviour help the indigenous people predict the availability of marine resources when the big game was scarce? Perhaps.

Past events to find predictions

Cover of Michel de Nostredame, Les Prophéties (1568)
Michel de Nostredame, Les Prophéties (1568)

Later in history, Michel de Nostredame (1503 – 1566), better known as Nostradamus, first published in 1555, titled Les Prophéties, and later in 1568 as an omnibus edition. These poetic quatrains, a type of stanza consisting of four lines, are considered the first evidence of published prediction.

While academics debate the validity of the forecasts on the events of future centuries, his predictions were rooted in a belief of history repeating itself as he used historical precedent to extrapolate those events to likely future outcomes.

Today, every facet of our daily lives relies on predictions. From a seemingly simple Google search that provides us with the answer to a sophisticated analysis of a medical test, these predictions from the mundane to our health care needs matter. All of them are taking educated guesses, sometimes with facts, to help us to think ahead, and ask better questions of potential future states.

SEO experts and the future of SEO

Attempting to understand the future of SEO, I have started a series ‘Conversations in Search‘. In these interviews, I explore the background of other SEO experts, discuss their views on the current state of SEO practice, and where they believe the future of SEO may be.

Please get to know my guests. I hope these interviews help you to formulate your own view of the future of SEO.

Okay, what is the future of SEO?

People have been predicting the future of SEO, and the demise of it for decades. Google’s index has 1/3 more articles reflecting an optimistic future of SEO than the death of it; both perspectives are forecasts on a possible future state of SEO. 

In a long line of behavioural shifts another is emerging as our search behaviours are changing to seek out higher quality of food of the mind. The rise of ‘fake news’ and a blurring of lines between what is machine-generated, and what is truthful, it’s no wonder we are hungry for information that we can rely on. Our search appetite is now more selective, like a fussy eater.

We know the types of information we enjoy and those we would rather avoid. Search engines have taken note and are adapting. Search algorithms are tweaking and pulsating to provide us with information in new ways.

Search engines have evolved to understand the value of providing us with individual experiences. They want to befriend us, to become our trusted advisor to provide us with a frictionless, and serendipitous encounter as we skip along the search paths for the themes and concepts we choose to explore.

As our trusted advisor, search engines have stated they don’t want to be arbiters of truth. It’s an interesting challenge. No one likes to be told how to think or do something, but we do largely like the idea of having the benefit of prior experience, to avoid the mistakes of others.

I wonder if it is possible to be a trusted advisor and not speak the truth or at least judge on some scale the level of trustworthiness? I make just one SEO prediction:

Search engines will need to invest in and increase their capability for detecting truth to give users surety in the answers they provide.

Irrespective of how we obtain advice, sound advice is derived from experts. We trust those experts to judge the veracity of the intelligence we consume, and the substance of the facts for their predictions. Everyone I have interviewed raises a few possible futures for SEO, and I summarise one point each here, in order of interviews:

David Freeman – ‘If we look at things that we do, things that people traditionally focus on in SEO, let’s take rankings, let’s take links, let’s take SEO metrics, for me they’re dead, and they will only be less critical moving forwards.’

Dan Sharp – ‘What you do as a brand and how good your product is will have a bearing on your SEO performance. If your product is weak, you’re going to struggle to maintain rank. Everything needs to line up today, and if it doesn’t, you won’t rank for very long.’

Rob Watts – ‘Google will continue to make use of user search patterns, etc. and the truth ultimately is that it’s tough to predict. Google will continue to push its ad-based, and commission-based products to the benefits of shareholders and regulators will push back.’

Dewi Nawasari – ‘I wouldn’t go so far as to say the future means no link building, but it’s easily a future which makes link building secondary. Google’s focus has been all about shifting perception as to what’s essential to succeed in search. It’s given us a catalyst for thinking about the users.’

Antonis Konstantinidis – ‘I wouldn’t go so far as to say the future means no link building, but it’s easily a future which makes link building secondary. Google’s focus has been all about shifting perception as to what’s essential to succeed in search. It’s given us a catalyst for thinking about the users.’

Jono Alderson – ‘As Google evolves and changes in a way that means more of us spend more time and solve more of our problems in the search results, we need to start asking, what are our websites for? There are some interesting possible answers to that.’

Tim Vee – ‘One of the critical things that we look at later in 2020, smart SEO teams are going to look at their websites and ask ‘Are we going to be the one that stands out that cost Google money?’ Indexing isn’t free; it costs energy for Google to power up its data centres, store all of this and organise it.’

Phil Crothers – ‘The more we can understand how language works, I believe the better we will be able to succeed. But at the same time, you know, you can see that for as advanced as Google’s become, it still struggles with fundamental things.’

Tom Crowe – ‘I think a lot of future challenges are going to be around a decline in organic traffic and how you can position the offering to compete when Google shows the information in the search result page so that nobody needs to click through.’

Daniel K. Cheung – ‘Everything that we do, whether it’s content, and the links that we’re building has to be relevant and solve that person’s query. That’s the whole intent for a user making use of a search engine, and they want the answer quick.’

Dave Smart – ‘Google is insatiable, and they want to index good content. You could say, in some ways, that their rational goal would be to make technical SEO not necessary. I don’t see that ever really happening.’

James Rippon – ‘I’d like to see the future of search be about designing your product around that. Don’t think that everybody lives in London with the latest iPhone and a 5g connection because they are the outliers. That’s not the real world.’

Bill Slawski – ‘Something I see that people fail at when they talk about SEO: they don’t speak about audiences enough, understanding the audience. Who is your customer? What is it that they desire? How do you make that affinity with them? How do you listen to them? How do you learn about them?’

Michelle Wilding-Baker – ‘Having good content in search has become more about answering questions and being the best at it. The best can be having a fast site with richly marked up content, answering customer questions and enabling a great experience, it’s as simple as that.’

Dawn Anderson – ‘Search will become more assistive everywhere. It will be an ‘all-around us’ experience. I know it’s a way-off, and things don’t move as quickly they think they do. There’s a massive amount of research going into Voice Search. One day we’ll turn around and see voice search is ubiquitous.’

Claire Newton-Simonnet – ‘There’s no way Google is going to stop looking at links because it gives them a powerful way of gauging the authority of your website. It’s tougher getting exciting content out there, which cuts through the noise and actually gets valuable backlinks.’

Barry Adams – ‘I’m with Jono Alderson on this. He and I have independently arrived at the same conclusion that websites are becoming less for human consumption and more just data sources for systems like search engines.’

Pedro Dias – ‘Technology is going to cease being a burden for whoever wants to be online or have a business or whatever. I think even programming is going to stop being a burden too because there will be systems, no code systems, that’s going to code for you.’

Julie Joyce – ‘When Google says something or John Mueller says something, and he is a saint honestly to answer everybody’s questions, we need to think for ourselves and not do exactly what Google says is going to work.’

Dixon Jones – ‘You can then try and make sure that your SEO approach matches the goal, and even if an update starts going in the wrong direction for you, that’s Google’s problem, because Google is trying to get to the same goal that you’re trying to get.’

Ian Lurie – ‘Entity detection has been around for a while. The tools are proliferating, and it’s getting more comfortable for people to do it. The ability to take the content and not spin it, but make it genuinely more valuable in an automated way, that could be a game-changer.’

George Danny Murphy – ‘Don’t put all your eggs in the Google basket. That’s always been the case, but it’s kind of hard to invest time in Yahoo or Bing when you know that Google has such a large market share. ‘

Kevin Gibbons – ‘Quite often what is it they’re not saying that is more important than what they are saying. There’s an element of trust that’s been lost for Google, but at the same time from an SEO perspective, you can’t ignore them, they control too much.’

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