It’s the end of 2015 so time for a look ahead and a prediction on where we think the real changes are going to happen in 2016. Some of these are with us already and will only increase in importance, but others may surprise you.
1. Voice search changes everything, but it’s only the start
It’s quite a bold statement but it needs something as dramatic as this to successfully sum up the way Google is heading.
November saw an article in Time magazine (worth ten minutes of your time to read by the way) entitled Google Searches for its Future and if you don’t have time for that here’s a very simple summary;
Amit Singhal, who is Google’s senior vice president in charge of all search-related products, has been working on this project for some time and was quoted in the interview saying that this is likely to consume the next few years of his life.
The vision? Think Star Trek and their communicators.
To quote the interview;
“The company’s hope is that, together, this transforms the concept of “Googling” from something that happens via a static search bar into a kind of ongoing conversation with an omniscient assistant, ready to step in and fulfill [sic] any request—even ones you haven’t thought about yet.”
The key to this is of course, understanding you, and this explains why digital companies want to ‘own’ you. The four biggest and most noteworthy of these are Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft and if you have or use any of their products just spend an hour diving into the Terms and Conditions you have signed up to.
They own you. All of you.
They all reserve the right to track everything you do and offer you suggestions as to what you might like to do based on your past behaviour.
Right now each of the companies is at the voice product stage with Microsoft embedding Cortana into mobile phones, Apple using Siri, Facebook having ‘M’ in Messenger and Google is pursuing this with its own ‘OK Google’ voice product which featured in TV adverts in July 2015. Even Amazon is getting in on the act with a voice product named ‘Echo’ that sits in your home waiting for voice commands.
So what’s the next move?
Well, the predictive arm of Google’s assistant, ‘Google Now’, is planning to be an even more powerful evolution of traditional search. Launched in 2012, ‘Google Now’ aims to find information for users before they even think of typing it into the search box.
This is how it is described;
“Initially Now offered obvious features that were readily accessible via apps, like weather forecasts and sports scores. But the information available is getting increasingly sophisticated, making use of Google’s different services (and its tracking capabilities).
The program will pick up on your daily commute schedule and use real-time traffic data to recommend when you should leave home to make it to work on time. It will comb through your emails to produce info cards showing your upcoming flight times, purchased movie tickets or incoming package shipments. Google Now can even remember where you parked your car.”
The next step is ‘Now on Tap’ which allows Google to scan whatever is on a user’s smartphone screen and then pull up relevant information or links to relevant apps.
Google wants to implement ‘Now’ cards that can tell you which of the restaurants near you have the shortest waiting time, create holiday itineraries for an upcoming long weekend or send you reminders to take your prescription medicine.
And so we come to the most disturbing bit. This is where they are all going;
Google has to convince users they should trade their personal data for convenience. ‘Now’ is an opt-in service, and it works best when you essentially hand the digital keys of your life over to Google and trust the company to drive.
(The red and bold emphasis in the paragraph above is mine and there simply because this is the most disturbing part of the whole tale.)
Apple, which is building out its own predictive search feature into Siri, has been quick to cast Google’s data-hungry model as a potential invasion of privacy. In a June speech, Apple CEO Tim Cook did everything but call out Google by name when he said, “Some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information. They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that’s wrong.”
Google stresses that it doesn’t sell user data to third parties, but the company isn’t apologetic about the fact that Now works better the more Google knows about you. “We can build a far better future by knowing a little bit more about you,” Singhal says. “People should only opt in if they get value out of it. Otherwise they should go to ‘My Accounts’ and just delete all that data.”
But can you? Can you go to My Accounts and delete all the data? What happens to the useful bits that you already have stored there?
Google’s plan is clear. They want to make “ambient computing” a reality. Essentially computing that is seamlessly present wherever you are, so easily accessible that you barely even realize that you’re interacting with a computer. And they want this to be available Worldwide.
Google’s Gary Illyes even went as far as to day that said that he would love to see Google Now replace traditional e-commerce transactions. Seriously? This is heavy stuff as it requires us all to embed Google so far into our lives that it knows everything about us, all of the time.
Whether you want this or not, it is a reality and it is coming. The question is how will that affect business and what do we need to do now to build for the future? That’s the challenge for SEO.
2. Mobile search will dominate in 2016
Earlier this year, Google announced that for the first time, it was seeing more search activity on mobile than desktop with the one caveat that this was for ten countries, including the US. During October Google has now said this is the case worldwide. The summary is that right now over half the worldwide Google searches are on a mobile device.
This is massive. It means that we have moved away from the birth of search and we are now in a new and uncertain future.
Google also confirmed that as well as the data it holds on websites it says it has indexed 100 billion links within apps.
This is a frightening number and goes some way to explaining a story that went around the SEO community earlier in the year saying that there may be a ranking benefit from sites which have an app.
Last year Google said that more searches were happening on mobile devices than desktop in the US, Japan and eight other countries that weren’t named. In some countries desktop searches still top mobile but the direction of travel is clear.
It’s worth noting that this doesn’t mean that desktop searches have diminished. Stats on desktop search from comScore routinely show the overall amount has risen from month to month. Rather, it’s that mobile searches have been a growing new segment that have caught up and now overtaken desktop search.
On the whole, desktop search has grown. As a percentage, it has dropped.
That’s because we’re living in what I’ve called an “always-on search world,” where we’re always able to search.
Got a query? Your phone is always in reach, as opposed to the past when you’d have to get to wherever your computer was.
So the overall volume of search queries has grown. And now you can also ask your mobile to search for data through a voice activated service meaning a whole new range of searches are opening up.
Mobile is clearly incredibly important and of growing importance, so if you have not gone mobile friendly – do it. If you are not thinking about Apps and App Indexing, get thinking.
As you can see from the first subject in this article, mobile is essential for not only the way people search now but to make the future voice and predictive services a reality.
Of course, this is a slow process but is being given a bit of a shove by Google’s latest development which is Accelerated Mobile Pages.
Google announced in October a new initiative to make the web even faster on mobile, an open source project called Accelerated Mobile Pages.
The technology is new; it is AMP HTML, a new open framework built entirely out of existing web technologies, which allows websites to build light-weight webpages.
The current issue for many is that you probably need to maintain two different code bases to manage it properly.
Google however has wide support from Twitter, Pinterest, WordPress.com, Chartbeat, Parse.ly, Adobe Analytics and LinkedIn so it appears to have gained considerable traction already with some big names on board.
You can try it out in search by going to http://g.co/ampdemo on your mobile device. I tried it and it loads pages at a lightning quick speed which is massively beneficial on a mobile device in most of the country where 4G (or even 3G) coverage is sparse.
This fully aligns with Google’s drive towards mobile and the massive rise in mobile searches.
In fact, in November Google issued a statement saying;
“Google will begin sending traffic to your AMP pages in Google Search early next year, and we plan to share more concrete specifics on timing very soon.”
So where is this likely to go? Well, Google is committed to making mobile the default platform for websites so you need to be thinking long and hard about how you make your site mobile friendly if you haven’t already.
The good news however for those on Wordpress is that they announced the development of a plugin to the AMP standard.
The plugin will enable WordPress publishers to create AMP versions of posts with a single click, WordPress said in a blog post;
“We believe that open source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. We strongly and actively support a free, open internet. We’re very happy to support an open source initiative like AMP, which brings publishers and technology companies together to make a better mobile experience for everyone.”
So 2016 will see more and more news about mobile data and search and inevitably, as it gets easier to use a mobile to search, so the usage will rise. The SEO landscape means anyone not thinking mobile and voice first is missing out.
3. Beware of the Penguin; it will be a killer
We’ve written a lot in the past about being hit by the Penguin algorithm and in fact had one or two clients who came to us with penalties who were never able to free themselves from its grasp.
The problem typically is that there are so many awful backlinks pointing to the website that they could not remove them or disavow them fast enough. And even if they did manage to clean them up the Penguin has to wait for a refresh meaning that it could be over a year before your efforts are rewarded.
Now we are told if you get a slap from penguin for bad links it should be possible to get an instant bounce back.
Garry Illyes from Google said on Twitter that the update still should be on schedule by the end of 2015, but in early December it was announced that this is likely to be delayed until 2016.
He also said it should be the real-time/continuous version that we are expecting. So if you get slammed by Penguin and the algorithm is real time, as soon as Google processes your link removals (i.e. disavows or links are actually removed) you can potentially recover immediately.
This is the theory but the reality may be very different.
I argued as far back as 2013 that Google was wrong to penalise sites with bad backlinks and that they could achieve much better results by simple rewarding good link building. After all, the logic goes that if they know which links are bad they must, by definition, know which links are good, or at least not toxic.
The inherent problem with this is that Google’s entire algorithm and thereby competitive advantage, relies on counting and valuing links for it to work. It needs the rest of the world to link to make sense of the digital environment.
The fact that this is common knowledge and that people have been cheating it ever since Google first arrived doesn’t help matters.
What this means is that if the Penguin update does go live in 2016, and there’s no reason to suggest it won’t, then we could see some significant fall out from its effects very quickly. The last recognised update was December 2014 so if you have been hit by a link penalty since then the chances are you are still hampered by it today.
Whilst the principle is fine we need to consider the impact that previous Penguin updates have had on websites. If history teaches us anything it is that Penguin updates all come with considerable fall out. Expect the 2016 version to be equally devastating.
4. Google’s RankBrain brings AI to your search results
Bloomberg reported in October 2015 about a new method Google uses to interpret a “very large fraction” of the search queries they see every day. The new method is called “RankBrain” and has already been live in Google for months now.
RankBrain is basically a way for Google to understand more ambiguous queries better. It uses AI (artificial intelligence) to try to guess what your query is referring to, like a human would.
Greg Corrado, a senior research scientist at Google confirmed that it uses a human “gut feeling” approach, to interpret the hard to understand searches.
He also said this is considered the third most important signal of the hundreds of signals Google uses in search. This is crucial and has been overlooked by many SEO’s to date.
To quote from the original article;
“RankBrain uses artificial intelligence to embed vast amounts of written language into mathematical entities — called vectors — that the computer can understand. If RankBrain sees a word or phrase it isn’t familiar with, the machine can make a guess as to what words or phrases might have a similar meaning and filter the result accordingly, making it more effective at handling never-before-seen search queries.”
It is live worldwide now and has been for quite some time, with Gary Illyes from Google saying it “was launched months ago,” and it doesn’t kill SEO, he added “your SEO magic still works” with RankBrain.
But does it? The traditional and typical ‘SEO magic’ relies on keywords as the basis for any optimisation, but what do you do it the machine has learning capability and can interpret metaphors as searches for specific items? What if keywords are no longer the key to your ‘SEO magic’?
As an example, if you need a local plumber you are more likely when using voice search, to ask ‘find me a local plumber’ as opposed to typing in ‘plumber + location’.
But do the words ‘find me a local plumber’ appear anywhere on the website? Indeed do they need to? Or is Google now so advanced that it can dispense with the requirement to have the ‘right words in the right order’ on the page?
The author of the story at Bloomberg also added on Twitter that the AI in RankBrain is not run in real-time but rather “periodically re-trained” over time.
In other words, it is learning as it goes along.
The development of this AI took over a year and has been carefully blended into the main search algorithm so that it can now handle around 15% of all the search queries that Google receives.
But what about when Google gets these queries wrong? Some webmasters are speculating that this is why we are seeing more zombie traffic via Google and this has been quite a talking point during 2015.
Either way, the result is clear; SEO has changed and the old ‘SEO Magic’ simply won’t cut it in 2016. Expect early learnings and results to come from the bigger brands with the higher traffic volumes and expect all the smaller players to be playing catch up throughout the year.
5. Local becomes everything as Google starts to dominate this space
I wrote about this recently in this article but it’s worth repeating and updating it here as it is a game changer.
Back in the 1990’s, pre-internet and certainly pre-Google, there really were only a few ways that most businesses generated enquiries on a daily basis.
Aside from the huge brands with the deeper pockets for TV and in some cases Radio, the millions of small businesses, SME’s in the UK and ‘Mom and Pop’s’ in the US, relied on traditional print media for their day to day existence.
Local newspapers always had thriving advertising sections and directories such as Yellow Pages, Thomson’s and a multitude of smaller players made a living in this space.
Many businesses got around 80% of their revenue from a 20 mile radius of where they were based and despite the rise of the Internet this hasn’t changed much over the past twenty years.
And then along came Google. And the world as we knew it changed.
Fast forward 20 years and we are living daily with the new paradigm. Today Google is the behemoth of the advertising world and everyone dances to their tune. Yellow Pages is a pamphlet which floats gently to your doormat once a year and rumour has it that Thomson’s will actually give up on printing a directory in the next year or so.
If I owned a directory I wouldn’t, as Google is about to destroy all Directories and aggregators in the online space.
I first covered this in July of this year for our SEO customers to give them a heads up on the changes that were coming to their online environment but now we have the real thing in action and it’s a game changer.
In summary, Google has created an advert box which puts home service providers in touch with searchers. Plumbers, builders and the like will be able to get leads directly from Google without them having to go anywhere else.
The service has been trialled in the San Francisco Bay Area and was covered admirably by Ginny Marvin in her article when it first appeared.
This was the image which accompanied the original article;
Having ironed out early glitches, observers noticed Google rolling it out of the San Francisco area with adverts spotted for the search ‘San Jose house cleaners’;
Google officially announced it on Google+ saying:
From “unclog bathroom sink” to “locked out of apartment,” there are millions of searches every day on Google for plumbers, locksmiths, and other home services. To help these businesses better connect with their customers, we’re introducing AdWords Express home service ads — available today in beta for plumbers, locksmiths, house cleaners, and handymen in select cities throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more about home service ads.
Remember that this is the core space in which directories, aggregators and local newspapers used to play.
Whether you think this to be a good or bad idea it seems that trials are telling Google two things; firstly that users like it and secondly that they can make money at it. You will notice that it is currently occupying the top slot in place of the usual top three advertisements meaning that to dominate PPC search you will now need to sign up to their ‘home service ads’ programme.
It is still unclear if the standard PPC rules apply regarding size of bids, quality score and content/keywords but this will become clearer as the trial progresses and it moves towards mainstream roll out.
The reality is that Google knows it can make money at this and any aggregator or directory should be massively concerned at this development.
In the UK 95% of all search engine traffic is via Google so anyone looking for a plumber, builder or roofer is using Google.
So that’s it, Directories are now officially dead. Google Home Services ads are now live.
The reality is that when the new system is introduced the top results, which on PPC and Organic for many trades are aggregators, are likely to be removed and replaced with an actual tradesman.
Given that aggregators rely on PPC to make their business model viable this will be a significant blow to their revenue stream. In fact, in a recent sample we took 45% of the advertising belonged to aggregators and these adverts are likely to get displaced although what has happened in the USA is that they now all appear on the right-hand side instead of at the top.
The interesting element from an SEO perspective is the organic listings that are currently below the advertisements and the local pack where there are five aggregators and/or directories. In the US, the results immediately below the adverts are ALL for Yelp;
This doesn’t look so bad until you click the ‘More Plumbers’ button and…..
Everything other than the Google product is removed and every one of these entries is a paid entry.
Talk about a competition killer. With a monopoly position, Google has now found a way of removing people who would like a part of its revenue stream from the search results.
The argument will go that the user has made a conscious choice to use the service and everything else would be a distraction, but I can’t see that holding any water with the sites that have just been removed.
And for those of you reading this thinking that it won’t affect you; think again. It will.
Every small business owner who wants to appear in these search results will need to firstly have an up to date Google My Business profile page and then have to put budget aside to enter the world of Google PPC. Like it or not, Google will be asking for money for every transaction that goes through this platform and moreover they become the final arbiter of quality.
If a customer complains about your service, or lack of it, you will find your entry ‘deep-sixed’ rendering it impossible to get visibility, enquiries and business.
There are no details so far on how this programme works but your business life will be in the hands of a single provider who can turn the tap on and off at will.
You may be sitting there thinking that you are OK as you are not a small home service business. What makes you think that this will stop at tradespeople?
Why not Solicitors? Why not Accountants? In fact why not any business at all?
Back in the day Yellow Pages (or now Yell.com) had over 2,400 classifications which generated revenue and in the online space there must be over 3,000 separate searches that they currently rank for on Google.
What if all the clicks that currently go to these sites go directly to Google?
You can see the compelling logic from Google’s point of view. Aggregators always have been an interruption to search and this new Home Ad Service simply cuts out the middle man.
Is there anything that aggregators can do? Probably not, although it is unlikely that they will go down without a fight.
Whatever your view on this development one thing is for sure; it will redefine the local space in 2016.
UPDATE: We’ve created this infographic to represent the changes and you can see how the five elements link together.