We’d like to say that our 2020 trends piece was planned to be out this late, but in truth between new projects, new (and very early) members of the Spark family, it’s already been a very busy year! Google also greeted us with a couple of New Year treats introducing the latest iteration of its Core Algorithm update and major changes to answer boxes and featured snippets.
For this piece we’ve pulled together 5 points of view from the Spark Digital Experience team on areas of SEO including:
- Content & SEO
- Winning in Local
- Focusing on the Customer
- Google & Linkbuilding
- Pre-Click & The State of the SERP
There are of course some benefits to putting out an annual view a month late, but you’ll just have to believe us when we say our predictions were right…
Content & SEO in 2020
Matt Norman — Digital Experience Associate Director
At the beginning of every year we identify “content” as being one of the key drivers of SEO performance for that coming year. Whether it’s applying content silos to your website, developing 10x and interactive content or creating integrated cross-channel content marketing strategies — all still legitimate strategies and tactics, — content always has, and will continue to be, a focus year-after-year.
And this year is no different.
In October 2019 Google started applying a Natural Language Processing technology called BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) which, in a nutshell, allows Google Search to “be able to understand the context of the words in your (search) query”. And while Google explicitly called out that there are no specific optimisations a website can make to utilise this new technology (because it is query analysis technology, not part of the ranking algorithm) there are steps which could be taken in order to improve search visibility, knowing that Google can now better understand queries with prepositions, that are more conversational and more complex with the use of homonyms, for example.
This is where content comes in.
With searchers having more confidence that Google will provide the correct answers to their longer-tail, unique and complex queries, brands are going to have to think more wisely about how they approach website content; more than just “how do I optimise for my head term?”
The adjacent topics surrounding websites’ core areas of service will become much more important over the next 12 months, as brands identify searchers’ behaviour in their niche changing to utilise Google’s more powerful, and hopefully correct, understanding of what users actually want from their queries. Consumers want to be more informed and feel empowered that they’re making the right purchase decisions, and this means more research and likely more Google searches — of which searchers will become even more confident in as Google gets better at delivering answers.
Directly tailoring content, in the form of answers, to real life queries that users have, and will continue to develop, will be critical to improving SEO and Organic Search performance in 2020.
Local Search in 2020
Maxime Fulpin, Digital Experience Manager
When talking about local SEO, one of the first thing that comes up is Google My Business (i.e. GMB for close friends). And you are right, GMB is and still will be at the core of any local strategy in 2020.
Google My Business is a channel on its own. This year more than ever, you will need to develop 4 tactics to leverage at best from the platform and improve your local visibility:
Be CREATIVE. That means leveraging as much as possible from the new features and functionalities in a way your business has never done, such as chatting with your clients via the internal messenger.
Be REACTIVE. As you would do with social media, make sure to be responsive when interacting directly with your current customers or potential clients.
Be PROACTIVE. Don’t wait / pray / implore for reviews! Rather, take the lead and ask your clients reviews. Timing is everything here. It needs to be done when you know your client is delighted by the value your business has provided.
Be willing to INVEST. This is how it works with Google: Pay to Play! It has been happening for organic search results, it is happening for the local search results. Less organic and more paid results. So you will need to support your organic effort with paid ads to be displayed over your competitors.
Focus on People in 2020
Monika Prokesova, Digital Experience Senior Executive
All brands need to be up to date with the many different ways to implement conversion rate optimisation (CRO), user experience (UX) & search engine optimisation (SEO). Bringing all of these three aspects together is key for increasing website traffic and conversions. Especially because CRO is low hanging fruit as it’s an easy strategy to use, can increase business profits with minimal effort and the brand has a lot of control. Not only does CRO bring a better ROI, but it also enhances trust and provides a better user experience.
CRO, SEO and UX teams should work very closely together. Google is getting and better at understanding if the user was satisfied with the answer on your website. In 2020 we will keep seeing the trend of zero-click searches, users looking for top level information on Google itself (in rich snippets, sports answer boxes, knowledge graphs and similar). Knowing which keywords are more or less likely to generate clicks to your website is essential for optimising your keyword strategy. If your content is well optimised, your page will be ranking on the first positions/featured snippets. But sessions are not everything, focus on the user’s interaction on your pages and remove all obstacles to conversion on your website. One of the obstacles is still site speed, slow loading web-pages are frustrating for users and can reduce conversion rates and increase bounce rates.
Link & You Missed It — What Will Happen with NoFollow?
Adam Langdon, Digital Experience Senior Executive
Since 2015 the nofollow link attribute has essentially been serving two purposes; initially the attribute was used for marking a link you didn’t want to pass link equity to. But it was also a method to block sponsored links so that marketers could stay in compliance with Google’s guidelines.
Because of this, many publishers (e.g. Wikipedia) would tend to implement blanket nofollow attributes on all external links with no SEO signals being passed on.
In an effort to reduce spamming and manipulative behaviour in marketers attempting to build their backlink portfolios, Google is adding two new link attributes in March 2020:
- Sponsored content: rel=”sponsored” = identifying advertised or otherwise compensated links.
- User generated content: rel=”ugc” = for use in linking comments in social media and form posts.
What does this mean for marketers?
The idea is that the new attributes will provide a ‘hint’ to Google on what to consider when indexing; and Google may even choose to ignore the nofollow attribute. Whilst Google has explicitly claimed that nofollow link attributes are not used as a ranking signal, there are those in the SEO industry that disagree. Google’s mention of the nofollow links being a ‘hint’ towards ranking signals has led some to believe that links from some websites may hold more value than they currently do come March. But Google’s not enforcing mandatory adoption of these new attributes, in fact they’ve stated that the new options are descriptive methods of flagging links to Google, without having to implement a nofollow tag on a sponsored link and lose the link equity. At this point, from an SEO marketer’s perspective not a lot has changed and Google has acknowledged that your current nofollow links don’t need to be updated. But publishers now have alternatives to the catch-all nofollow attribute whilst still deterring spamming.
Pre-Click & The State of the SERP in 2020
Alex Bundock, Digital Experience Director
Drafting this piece in 2019, this piece was going to cover how Google will continue to make changes to SERP formats to favour their own environments and the growth and growth of Zero Click Searches. Given that we’re a month late and that Google has already made some major changes including:
- New Core Update — That looks very much like Google is focusing on trust and content
- SERP Format — Ads look like listings and everything looks like mobile
- Featured Snippets — If you had a term that had an answer box and a listing you will get that no more
The questions now become:
- How much further can Google change the SERPs and their search formats
- How can SEOs and site owners respond?
For the first question the dichotomy is really between user convenience and transparency. For the former it’s really quite hard to consider a lot of changes to SERPs bad.
The various knowledge graph and featured snippet formats quickly surface data for users that 5 years ago would have taken multiple clicks. Even the most basic task of finding your local weather would have meant click through to a site, entering your location and then waiting for that content to load. Now you just type that in your search bar and the data is right there in real time. Answer boxes, flight times, directions, the lyrics from the awful song from your youth that you just heard on Double J — SEOs and publishers might decry the loss of clicks, but is any of that really bad for users?
Transparency is a different matter and some of the ad changes are questionable, given how much scrutiny the search giant is already under around advertising practices and user privacy. While regulation may have major implications to what “search” looks like in the long term those won’t be quick changes.
Given that these changes will continue to mean reductions in CTR and from “traditional” Google search results, we still need to provide a service and drive value for our businesses and clients — so what’s an SEO to do?
Forget About the Idea of the Traditional Search Result
Firstly, it’s forgetting about the idea of the traditional search result — personalisation, localisation, mobile device usage and the increase in video as a dominant content format will mean the very different ways of optimisation and getting organic traffic in the years ahead. Already we’re starting to see Google Discover drive a lot of traffic for our clients and the content that seems to dominate so far when we look at Search Console is long form and video. To start driving traffic in a world where all search results don’t have any organic listings above the fold we need to reconsider our relationship with content and making sure that we’re paying attention to how users are consuming content across publishers and social platforms and providing content in that format.
What is an SEO?
Secondly, in the decade ahead, those involved in SEO need to evaluate their skill sets and understand their value to their business and clients beyond getting clicks. Google will continue to make changes to search and produce innovations and features that will foreground their own ecosystem (including advertisers). And that’s fine because that’s their IP. As marketers with a massively diverse set of skill sets from technical knowledge to PR, we’ll continue to innovate and find all the ways beyond the 10 blue links where we add value including building great products and experiences, crafting great content and comms and having a deep understanding of our customer. Funnily enough — that’s also good SEO.