10 key news and trends
Search engines are changing at lightning speed and the path to a top ranking is no longer the same as it used to be. Strategies that were effective a few years ago may not have the same positive impact today, so you need to be ready to adapt if you want to succeed with digital marketing and search engine optimization (SEO) in 2020.
In this post, you'll find 10 important news and trends to consider when working with SEO - trends that will affect how you work with SEO and how you act if you want to rank well on Google.
1. User signals
2. Voice controlled searches
3. Featured Excerpts
4. Quality content
5. Structured data
6. Meta Descriptions
7. Google Mobile-first
8. Load time
9. Personalised search results
11. Concluding remarks
1. User signals - retain and engage your users
According to a American study by Searchmetrics has user signals (User Signals) and the quality of the content on your website since 2016 are the two most important factors in how Google rates and ranks your website in search results:
"Together with the quality of content, the user signals generated by interactions - like Click- Through Rate (how frequently search results are clicked on), the Time on Site (how long a user spends on a page) and the Bounce Rate (percentage of single-page sessions) - can now be considered amongst the most important ranking factors."
Content has long been an important part of Google's algorithm, so user signals in particular will be more important going forward. And this makes sense, because if most users leave a website that ranks high in a specific search after a very short time, for example, this gives Google a credible indication that the website is not relevant to that particular search.
Google has not revealed what type of user behaviour they are measuring, but it is probably rejection rate (the percentage of users who leave your website after viewing only one page), the average session duration (the average time spent on your website) and click rates (the percentage of users who click on your website in search results), so these are the parameters that will have a greater impact on your Google ranking in the future.
Conversion optimisation has become an important part of SEO
Google's focus on user signals means you need to focus on engaging and retaining users on your website. Conversion optimization and User Experience (UX) have therefore become key success factors for SEO. This is positive because they are also business success factors (in terms of increased conversions and sales).
According to the study by Searchmetrics, the average session duration on the top 10 ranked pages in search results is 3 minutes and 10 seconds. The average bounce rate is 46%. For the top 3 ranked pages, the average click-through rate is 36%. You can see your site's bounce rate and average session duration if you use Google Analytics.
You can optimise your click-through rate using your Title Tags and Meta Descriptions (which are your website's headings and descriptions in search results). And you can (very simplistically) optimise your bounce rate and average session duration by creating a user-friendly website with a high volume of quality content that is relevant and engaging to your target audience.
2. Voice-led searches - prepare for a new future
Voice controlled searches (also called voice searches) may sound like something out of a futuristic movie - but they are very real. Already in May 2016 Google statedthat 20% of all searches on their Android devices are voice-activated, and Microsoft has previously statedthat they expect 50% of all searches (not just mobile searches) to be voice-led by 2020.
And that's not really surprising, considering that everyone has a personal assistant in their pocket (smartphone) that can perform voice-activated searches quickly and easily, without having to spend time hitting the too-small keyboard buttons with their cold fingers in the Danish winter weather. There is therefore little doubt that voice search will dominate SEO in the coming years.
At Apple, your personal assistant is called Siri. Google offers Google Now, Microsoft offers Cortana, and Amazon offers Alexa. Siri and Google Now speak and understand English - admittedly with a level of error sometimes on a four-year-old's level, but it doesn't last. In his keynote address at SMX West in 2016, Google's director of voice-activated search, Behshad Behzadi, said that the error rate in speech recognition has reduced from 25% two years ago to only 8% today.
Optimise your website for voice search
Voice-activated searches are not currently widespread in Denmark, but they are sure to become so. While I don't recommend making a lot of changes to your website right away, you should start preparing for a voice-driven future.
How to optimise your website for voice search:
- Re-evaluate the keywords you have optimised your website for. Text searches are typically keyword-based and very short, whereas voice searches typically take the form of actual sentences asked as a question. By optimising your website for specific questions phrased as sentences, your website can gain an advantage when a user performs a voice search.
- Think local. Purna Virji of Microsoft has said that voice-activated search is locally based three times more often than text searches. If you are optimising your website for a local audience, you should use local place words (cities, road names, place names, landmarks, etc.) in the content of your website.
- Be aware if voice assistants can pronounce your company name correctly. You run the risk of being confused, or of the pronunciation being black-speak - in which case it might be best to tone down the use of your company name in the text on your website.
Google has said that reports for voice-activated searches will soon be visible in Google Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools). Read more about voice search.
The Bing search engine on the rise
Microsoft search engine Bing is much more than a search engine with pretty background images. Bing is the default search engine in Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana and Amazon's Alexa, and unless the user specifically asks the assistant to perform a Google search, Bing's search results are presented to the user.
It is therefore highly likely that the Bing search engine - which currently has only one global market share of 2.6% - will gain a significantly larger market share as voice-led searches gain ground in Denmark. And of course, this means that you no longer have to focus solely on Google when working with SEO.
3. Featured snippets - go for position 0 on Google
When a user asks a question in a search, Google often displays a so-called highlighted excerpt (English: Feautured Snippet) at the top of the search results, answering the user's question.
12% of all US searches contain a highlighted excerpt according to a study of Ahrefs. In Denmark, the figure is probably somewhat lower. According to a study by Stone Temple Consulting, the amount of featured snippets in search results has almost doubled from 2014 to 2016. And it's a trend that continues - especially with the rise in voice-led searches. Indeed, Google's personal assistant, Google Now, answers users' questions using featured snippets, so it's important for Google to be able to present a featured snippet on as many relevant searches as possible.
Featured excerpts can increase traffic to your website, boost your credibility and make your brand more visible to your audience. So how do you achieve a featured snippet? The short answer is: write quality content that answers your audience's questions - and do it better than your competitors do. Use Answer The Public to find out what questions your target audience has.
4. Quality content - the key to a good website
According to Google original, high-quality content is the key to creating a great website. Google has identified the following five characteristics of good content:
- Useful and informative. The content is directly applicable to your target audience and the users of your website.
- The best. The content is better (longer, more in-depth and more relevant) than the content on your competitors' websites.
- Credible. The content is reliable and trustworthy. Quotes, links, reviews and recommendations can have a positive impact.
- High quality. Content is unique and written with your audience in mind.
- Exciting. The content is complemented by visual effects (e.g. product images) and engaging elements (e.g. comment fields and social media widgets).
Specifically, you need to identify what your target audience is looking for and what their search intent is (read about keyword analysis). Afterwards, you can create new, relevant content for your website that supports your target audience's search habits and intentions.
The Searchmetrics study also shows that only 53% of the top 20 ranked web pages contain the keyword the web page was found on in the page's Title Tag. This tells me that Google has become better at understanding and assessing the relevance of good content - and that good content can therefore easily rank well for a keyword that the content is not directly optimised for.
Use video to engage and retain your audience
Google is the largest search engine in Denmark. YouTube is now the second largest! And that's not surprising, if you believe a survey from Statista, which shows that digital video consumption among the US adult population averages 72 minutes per day.
When creating content for your website, you can therefore think in terms of both text and video. As well as enabling you to be found on YouTube (provided you publish the videos on YouTube, of course), videos engage and retain your users. And the latter is particularly important, given Google's increased focus on user signals going forward.
In addition to videos, visuals such as images and infographics can also help engage your users on the site. The same goes for interactive content such as polls, quizzes and comment boxes.
Inbound links remain important for your visibility
Very simply, it is the content of your website and the number of inbound links that will get you a high enough ranking on Google to drive traffic to your website. Once you have a certain amount of traffic, Google analyses the user signals from visitors and uses this to decide whether your website should be ranked higher or lower.
Links - that is, quality links from websites that are related to your website in terms of content as far as possible - therefore remain a very important element in the initial SEO work. But links are not as effective as they used to be in a longer-term perspective. Therefore assesses Searchmetricsthat the importance of links for your website's rankings in search results will decrease going forward:
"The correlations for backlinks remain high, but their importance for a page's ranking will continue to decline. For long-term success, in an age of self-learning algorithms evaluating semantic relationships between content and user intention, backlinks continue to decline in relevance and have now become just one of many contributing signals."
That links are not nearly as important as before is not just a result of Google's decision to focus more on user signals. It can also be attributed to the increase in smartphone and social media usage. This is because people do not link to a website in the traditional sense - they share and like it. As an aside, there is no evidence that social media data influences your visibility in search results.
5. Structured data - become more visible in search results
Google increasingly displays the information the user is looking for directly in search results. This could include information on opening hours, product features, reviews, images and dates. For example, compare these two search results for chocolate chip cookies and notice how much more visible the top search result is compared to the bottom search result.
Most recently, Google has launched a new type of search results, called Rich Cardsthat uses information from the user's website (for example, an image and a review) to present the website more visually.
Rich Cards can currently only display recipes, movies, restaurants and online courses (the latter two were launched end of November 2016). Rich Cards were initially launched only in US search results, but were rolled out globally in March 2017 according to Google (we have yet to see examples of this in Denmark).
Google usually creates these extended search results using structured data (often referred to as Schema Markup). Structured data are small pieces of code on your website that make it easier for Google to understand the content on your website and thereby extract specific information for display in search results.
The more information from your website that you can get Google to show directly in search results, the more your website will rank against other websites and the more visible you will be. That's why I recommend you start working with structured data in 2018 - if you're not already. Read more about structured data.
6. Meta Descriptions - new length of up to 300 characters is NO LONGER APPLICABLE
In December 2017, Google extended the length of Meta Descriptions in search results from around 160 characters including spaces to as many as almost 400 characters including spaces. The reason is probably that Google's users can then better assess whether the search result in question is relevant to click on or not.
However, this is no longer the case. I therefore recommend that you write Meta Descriptions with a maximum length of 160 characters including spaces. That way you are about 95% sure that your entire Meta Description will appear on Google. With the caveat that in many cases Google will not show your Meta Description at all because Google thinks they can find a more relevant snippet of text from your website to show.
7. Google Mobile-first - mobile-optimize your website or die
The use of smartphones and tablets has reshaped SEO in recent years. The number of mobile searches is steadily increasing and there is no sign of the trend slowing down. Many websites already get the majority of their visitor traffic from mobile devices, and back in May 2015 Google reported that mobile searches have overtaken desktop searches on their search engine.
Since then, Google has taken many steps to favour mobile-friendly websites in search results. Most recently Google has announced (November 2016), that "To make our results more useful, we've begun experiments to make our index mobile-first. [...] Our algorithms will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site's content to rank pages from that site”.
In other words, it is the mobile version of your website that will determine how your website is indexed and ranks in search results (including desktop searches). Think again! Therefore, it is extremely important that you have a well-functioning mobile version of your website and that the mobile version is not a reduced version of your website in terms of content.
According to a American study by Searchmetrics the 100 most visited US websites all have a mobile-friendly solution for mobile users. So do 78% of all other websites. If you're one of the 22% who don't yet have a mobile-friendly website, you should get one now! Even if Google has said they will continue to index the desktop version if you don't have a mobile version.
The desktop version is not dead (yet)
Google has not yet set a date for when it will roll out mobile-first indexing, so although Google already favours mobile-friendly websites, the desktop version of your website will still have a big impact on your search rankings. The increasing focus on mobile-friendly websites should therefore not cause you to lose focus from the desktop version.
In addition, a large number of users continue to use desktop devices for searches, although more mobile searches are now being made. In fact data from Googlethat there are certain types of searches that are overwhelmingly performed from desktop devices. For product searches (searches for a specific product), as many as 78% of users use a computer, while only 19% of users use a smartphone.
You therefore need to strike a balance in terms of creating a website that is user-friendly for both mobile and desktop users. A responsive design can typically do the job nicely, but there are other and better solutions, which we'll look at shortly.
Google penalises mobile websites that display pop-up messages
In order to improve the mobile search experience, as of 10 January 2017 Google has started to penalise websites in mobile searches if the website displays a pop-up message that (intentionally or unintentionally) hides the actual content of the website. This applies even if the pop-up message can be easily closed and even if it is not a pop-up but a message that forces the user to scroll down to see the actual content.
The change only affects your rankings in mobile searches, as a pop-up message does not have the same annoying effect on large screen sizes, where it only fills a small part of the browser window. The change also does not affect the small cookie alerts that are in many cases a required element of the website. Read more about the change at Google Webmaster Blog.
Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)
Accelerated Mobile Pages is an open source standard for mobile websites that aims to make it easy to create websites that load lightning fast on all types of devices and internet connections. In practice, AMP is a scaled-down version of your website, with all superfluous code and design cut out so that content can be displayed to the user as quickly as possible.
AMP is a great benefit for mobile users with slow internet connections, and AMP can therefore have a positive impact on your bounce rate (and therefore your user signals) and your conversion rate. Google has also said that it favours AMP websites in mobile searches - including by marking AMP websites with a small AMP icon.
Similarly, Google used to mark all mobile-friendly websites with a small "Mobile Friendly" icon, but this has now been removed as most websites are mobile-friendly. Google is also likely to remove the AMP icon when AMP becomes more widespread than it is today.
A number of large websites, such as ebay.com, already use AMP. If you want to try AMP, I recommend that you develop a small part of your website (for example a product category) in AMP. This way you can easily compare the impact of AMP with the impact of your current mobile website. Most major CMS systems offer tools that can automatically create AMP websites - but for most, AMP is an overly complicated solution and a responsive design is more appropriate.
Progressive Web Apps (PWA)
An alternative to AMP is the so-called Progressive Web Apps. Read more about PWA.
8. Load time - avoid losing potential customers
One of the more technical elements that is becoming increasingly important as mobile searches increase is your website's load time. Load time has a huge impact on how your users behave - especially mobile users with a slow internet connection - when they visit your website.
According to a study from September 2016 53% of mobile users leave a website if the load time is longer than 3 seconds. And that leads to lost revenue, poor user experience and a drop in visibility on Google. You can use Google PageSpeed Insights and Pingdom Website Speed Test to check how well your website is doing.
A few years ago, Walmart, a major US retailer and online store, experimented with improving the load time of their website. The result was that for every second they reduced the load time, the conversion rate improved by up to 2%! Read more about speed optimization.
9. Personalised search results - forget static rankings
We already know that Google presents a personalised version of search results to each user based on personal information about the user searching. For example, Google will typically favour sites that the user has previously visited when the user performs a new search.
Search results are likely to become more personalised in the future, as personal assistants like Siri gain ground. This is partly because personal assistants have a wealth of knowledge about the user. For example, Siri knows where the user is (using the built-in GPS in the smartphone) and this allows Siri to locate the search results that are displayed.
Dynamic rankings in search results
Search results are therefore no longer as static as we have been used to. Search results are now highly variable and change from day to day, not only because of personalised search results, but also because of Google's real-time algorithm updates.
Therefore, it will be less relevant for you to evaluate your (or your agency's) SEO work based on individual rankings one day - because the next day, the rankings may be completely different. Rather, you should evaluate your SEO work and results based on trends over time.
10. HTTPS - avoid a discouraging security warning
Google previously launched a HTTPS Everywhere Campaignand they also announced that they will in future favour HTTPS websites in the search results. From January this year (Chrome 56), Google will also mark websites that collect information from users (such as passwords and credit card details) as "Not Secure" if they do not use HTTPS.
The warning appears in Google's Chrome browser, which is one of the most widely used internet browsers in Denmark. It will therefore be a warning that will be seen by many users and is likely to have a very deterrent effect. Imagine, for example, that Google marks your webshop as "Not secure". How many users do you think would be willing to enter their credit card details on your site?
You would therefore be wise to switch from HTTP to HTTPS immediately if you collect personal data about your users. Afterwards, remember to set up a 301 redirect that forwards your visitors from HTTP to HTTPS. In the past, this redirection meant a loss in SEO value of about 15%, but Google announced in February 2016that the redirection will have no SEO impact in the future.
11. Concluding remarks
Technology is advancing at lightning speed and online consumer behaviour is markedly different from just a few years ago. You should therefore be prepared for the fact that search engines are constantly changing, and you should also know that just because you have now read this post and acted accordingly, you are not necessarily covered for the years to come. Technological developments have only just begun and it is impossible to predict exactly what the new years will bring!