Between work and travel I haven’t been able to publish the obligatory predictions article for the new year. But better late than never.

Rather than talking about what’s going to happen over the next year in SEO, I want to talk about the next 6 months…since SEO years are shorter than dog years.

Now, let me preempt these predictions with something very important. For the vast majority of businesses it still comes down to a few simple things. And if you get those things right, you’ll beat out the competition in most markets.

These few simple things are content and links. I explain why and how it works in more detail in my chapter of “Creating Business Growth.

But for the more competitive industries out there – ones where your competitors are hiring SEO armies – you need to start worrying a bit more about the nuances. You need to start getting more technical.

And, quite often, in the most competitive industries you have to battle with SEO that isn’t necessarily following Google’s best practice guidelines (not listening to Google still works, shocker).

That being said, some of these predictions will affect anyone concerning themselves with SEO, while others will only apply to people who live and breathe it – those in the deep trenches focusing on the more technical issues at hand (something not necessary for over 90% of businesses that want to rank).

Let’s jump into it…

Themes Over Keywords

Google is getting “smarter”.

Or, rather, I should say that the algorithm is getting much better at identifying content themes rather than focusing strictly on keywords.

This was the main goal of the Google’s Hummingbird update. They want search to be more “conversational.” The update is not something new, but the algorithm does keep getting better at what this update intends to do…

The whole idea is that rather than picking out specific keywords out of sentence, the algorithm should be better at understanding specific questions you are asking in order to return results that are more in line with what you are looking for.

That’s all good and well. And I do see them improving in this regard. But I have a feeling this will take some time for them to perfect this. I’ve seen too many instances where “conversational” search doesn’t come back with appropriate results to be convinced it is working quite yet.

What I do see happening – or rather continue to happen – is Google being better able to understand themes of pages rather than focusing on the specific keywords on the page.

Take a look at this page about nightclubs in San Diego, for example.

The theme of this page is clear. It is about nightclubs. But it doesn’t repeat the keyword over and over again. Moreover, “nightclubs” is only one of the target keywords. All of the individual venues listed on the page are potential targets.

These are entities that fall under the same theme. Google recognizes this. Just do a search for “San Diego nightclubs” and you will see that the results clearly show that Google can identify these venues and recognizes that they are the same type.

In the past, best practice would dictate that you create a separate page for each venue that you want to rank for. However, this is changing. Long-form content focusing on themes is now the better solution.

You don’t need to stuff your page with keywords. You only need to sprinkle in a few, and keep the content of the page on topic. This, Google’s algorithm is getting much better at identifying.

I’m certainly not saying you should ignore keyword research. You need to do that. But once you have your targets set, you are better off grouping them together into themes rather than attacking each of them as a single entity.

_____ Hat is not dead

White hat, black hat, gray hat. Take your pick.

You’ve probably heard by now that black hat SEO is dead. Heck, you might have even heard that SEO is dead altogether.

Well I can tell you that nothing is further from the truth. In fact, SEO is more alive and well than ever. And so are the “black hats” and spammers.

It has just gotten a bit more difficult. But all that has done is reduced competition and provided bigger pay days for the people that know how to game the system.

And make no mistake, it’s nothing more than a system. Google’s algorithm is a robot. It looks for signals. And if you can figure out what signals it is looking for, you can figure out how to replicate them.

You’re about to see just how not SEO is. And how not dead black hat SEO is. And this is

This is why I always say that any SEO should familiarize themselves with what is happening in the black hat community, whether they act on the information or not.

Not only will this keep you up to date with how Google’s algorithm reacts to certain signals, but it will also allow you to protect yourself from any possible attacks (more on that in moment).

More Data (Signals) From Different Sources

Google’s results are completely based on the data they are able to collect and analyze. The more data they can collect, the more improvements (potentially) they can make to their algorithm and search results.

Google will continue to experiment and bring in data from all sources that are available.

That may (and probably will) include data as detailed as users looking up driving directions through Google maps.

And rankings are going to rely more and more on behavioral signals…

Behavioral Signals Gain More Importance

My first bold prediction for 2015 is in terms of social media (which is technically supposed to represent user behavior online)…

2015 will finally be the year that social media signals have a big impact on rankings.

This is something that people have been speculating for years. Social signals (shares, re-tweets, etc.) have been a hot topic of discussion in the SEO circles for a while now: do they impact rankings or don’t they?

Up until recently, I haven’t seen anything more than a correlation between content that is shared more often and content that ranks higher.

However, I’ve seen some things recently that makes me thing this correlation will become a direct causation in 2015.

My other bold prediction is a bit more technical…

I’ve already seen examples where rankings are being gamed by manipulating click through rate.

This is something I’ve been hearing rumblings about for quite some time now, but have now seen a few case studies from some pretty trustworthy sources that show that click through rates do, in fact, affect rankings.

In other words, if users searching for a specific term keep clicking on the fifth result, that result is likely to move up the rankings.

Darren Shaw of WhiteSpark recently did an experiment about this and discusses click through rate, along with some other behavioral signals, in this recent Max Impact Hangout:

Other behavioral signals such s bounce rates, time on site, etc., will also gain importance.

This brings us back to the topic of manipulation…

This is alarming on two levels. Not only can people manipulate these signals to improve rankings, but they can also use these signals as weapon for negative SEO.

And despite what Google says, negative SEO should be a real concern for businesses – because it is a real thing. And unlike negative SEO attacks through spammy backlinks, behavioral signal manipulation is much harder to spot.

You can find a great case study and discussion specifically about this topic here.

This reinforces my statement: whether you are going to pursue black hat SEO or not, you need to know what is going on in that community to – at the very least – be able to protect yourself.

More Questionable Claims From Google

Although in the past Google has stated that negative SEO isn’t something webmasters should worry about, there has been plenty of evidence to the contrary.

In fact, that isn’t the only claim that they have made that has been questionable. Perhaps the biggest flop is Google+ integration. We went from “you have to integrate with Google+ to improve rankings” to “oh, never mind.”

Just the latest claim from Google’s camp is the move to HTTPS.

Albeit Google’s John Mueller did say that the impact of moving your site to a secure server would have an extremely minimal impact on rankings, the truth is I haven’t seen a shred of evidence that it has had any impact…

…at least on rankings.

The process of moving a site over from HTTP to HTTPS is actually quite the undertaking. It’s a burden in terms of time and labor. But it’s also an unnecessary additional expense for businesses who were functioning just fine before the move and only made it due to Google’s request.

And if you messed something up during that move, the end result might be errors on your site that might actually be damaging rather than helpful.

I figured the whole thing would be one overblown mess. And it seems that, at least for now, I was right.

I foresee 2015 having at least a few announcements coming from Google that will lead to a flood of businesses going out of their way and taking action on things that really aren’t going to be necessary in the long run.

It seems that Google’s dominance allows them to experiment with whatever they want and everyone will follow along with their orders. Really quite a shame.

Google Eats Up More Of Its Own Search Results

Increasingly, Google has been acting more as a content curator than a search engine. The launch of Google’s knowledge graph signaled the company’s desire to not only provide links to results, but also instantly answer user questions through semantic search.

In other words, rather than providing you sources that provide information, Google now straight up gives the information for you (bypassing the source).

If the answer to the question is long enough, the source of the information is in luck, because a click through to the site is inevitable. Take a look at this search for “How to bake chicken” for example:

Google Semantic Search

 

In this case Google pulls its answer from thekitchn.com. They are in luck because the full answer can’t be displayed and if you want to see the rest you have to click through to the website. They probably aren’t complaining too much in this case (at least as long as they are the source of the answer).

But what about inquiries with shorter answers? How about Benjamin Franklin’s birthday for example:

Google Knowledge Graph

Pretty quick and to the point. You aren’t likely to click through anywhere else. Wikipedia might get some traffic from the info box on the right, but the question has already been answered.

Now, in this case it’s probably not too big of a deal as I doubt that many sites are making money off of Franklin’s birthday (although you never know). But this spells trouble for many content-driven sites and businesses.

I don’t foresee this going away anytime soon. In fact, we are likely to see more of this even though Google has already been facing some legal trouble in Europe over copyright issues relating to this sort of “curation.”

With the amount of information that Google has, and the integration of all of its services (such as Local business pages, maps, etc.), it’s not unrealistic to think that there will eventually be some search results that are 100% comprised of Google’s own information and not linking to outside sources.

Other Search Engines Start Mattering More

OK, let’s be honest. Google’s dominance isn’t going away anytime soon…certainly not in the next six months. But it does feel like there is a battle being waged against the search giant.

Ranging from Google’s legal troubles in the EU, to Firefox’s recent decision to drop Google as its default search engine, it seems that people (and companies) are getting a bit fed up with the near-monopoly that Google holds on search.

Firefox’s decision alone had an instant impact. Although it was certainly far from crippling.

There are also rumblings that Apple might launch its own search engine. This could spell trouble for Google as chances are it will be integrated as the default on Apple’s browsers. However, it could be even more damaging to Bing, which is the default for Siri.

This isn’t to say that other search engines don’t already matter. Just not nearly enough that most people’s attention isn’t solely on Google’s results. No matter what happens, it’s going to be interesting how things play out here.

The truth is, no matter what happens with this or any of my other predictions, SEO isn’t going to change too much for the vast majority of businesses. But it’s those ultra-competitive niches, where people dig deep into the trenches and look for every possible advantage, where some of these developments might make a different.

It’s going to be an interesting six months. Let’s see what happens.

 

 

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