How to Prepare for the Future of Search.
SEO is always evolving. Here are three ways to get ahead of the curve.
Search engine optimization is a discipline of constant change. As the people responsible for increasing a site’s organic search visibility, search engine optimizers are always reacting to developments as they occur. Did the link redirection plan go off with more hitches than expected during the website relaunch? Has Google suddenly added a bunch of variables to its search algorithm to benefit mobile-friendly sites? It’s on the SEO to identify what those developments are and help the tech team update the site. That’s why it’s so important for us to be up to speed on how the industry evolves.
With all these reactive efforts, it might be difficult to stop and imagine what search optimizing for the future will hold. There are clues floating around, however, if you look for them. Recent technological developments and hypothetical ideas point to these three SEO trends’ relevance in the near future and beyond:
An increase of queries resulting in answers, not referrals to resources.
Thanks to search engines’ focus on user experience, Google will look more like Wolfram Alpha than Bing as it pulls data from Wikipedia, the Mayo Clinic, and other high-authority sites into answer cards above organic results. SEOs will fight tooth-and-nail to be the source of that data in the Knowledge Graph; their use of Schema markup will be a deciding factor in Google’s adjudication of sites.
Computers are increasingly able to create images and write articles on their own.
Which means content strategy for SEO will change dramatically as more and more results are unfettered by actual artists. Will this phase out content creators, or create a demand for human voices amidst a sea of electronic approximations of humanity?
The job of an SEO could become automated and ultimately phased out.
If search engine technology is evolving, as some have theorized and as the previous two trends attest, then this might be the next logical conclusion... But if the job of fact-recall (which we’ll get into more below) is automated and offloaded from human responsibility, what are the ethical implications?
Certainly, we’re not suggesting that all SEO professionals should run off and find new career paths just yet. Conversely, we should up our game in the midst of these changes.
The first thing for a modern SEO to do is use Schema markup.
Schema allows you to declare the category to which something belongs. For instance, Schema data help search engines differentiate between, say, Titanic the ship and “Titanic” the film. It is this markup Google uses to help populate the right-hand rail adjacent to the organic results in search engine results pages (SERPs).
This helps users navigate the Internet by suggesting similar searches. (It also helps Google by keeping users on Google’s pages). The only people it doesn't directly help are content creators and their SEOs: if users can get all the information and related queries without leaving Google’s pages, they have no incentive to click on results and read the original content. However, Schema also augments the information in the result snippet in a SERP, which in some cases (such as a star-rating above the meta description) may lead to higher click-through rates because users are receptive to valuable descriptions. So don’t go thinking about foregoing Schema to try to stick it to the Man: uninformative descriptions in SERPs will hurt you, as a German news organization discovered when limiting Google’s license to publishing just headlines.
Schema may also help a website gain inroads to Google’s answer cards. Although Google has partnerships with information sources for some of these cards, like medical information, other answers appear to be auto-populated from high-authority sources. That means if you can become an authoritative source on a topic by using metadata, Schema markup, the right tech improvements, and a smart content strategy, you have a chance of leaping to the top of the SERP with an answer card.
Human-generated content will have to compete against computer-generated content.
Computers are getting better at writing prose and poetry, while Google DeepDream images are already generating fascinating results. A Web search for the phrase “psychedelic images” already surfaces DeepDream-related results alongside the traditional fractal art found in so many college dorms. As algorithms become responsible for more content creation, they will become better at approximating human voices. It’s the same reason search engine results are becoming more and more accurate: the evolution of technology as designers react to user experience. If the computer-generated content is getting a higher bounce rate than the human-created stuff, that might be an indicator that the user wasn’t satisfied by the computer’s answer, perhaps finding it too robotic. To fix this, the content-creation algorithm’s designers will fine-tune it until users are satisfied. So, humans will demand a human-sounding voice in their content, and once that’s achieved they likely won’t care who the author is, or even notice.
Automating the search-retrieve-answer process will create a new set of problems. So the jobs of professionals, while they may change, will likely not go anywhere.
When technology disrupts an industry, like the addition of robots to the car-manufacturer’s assembly line, the initial shock looks scary but what follows is a new set of jobs requiring new skills, such as assembly line-robot repairman. One of those new problems, for instance, is answer accuracy. Do a Google search, right now in a new tab, for the query, “What happened to the dinosaurs.” Can’t be bothered? Here’s how it looked in January 2016:
The answer is wrong, and it has been for a while, and Google’s attempts to fix it unintentionally exacerbated it. First the card was populated with a chunk of content from Answers In Genesis, a Creationist website. Then The Skeptics’ Guide wrote a post decrying the old card and Google used it to make a new card, but it quoted verbatim the text of the original, so the inaccuracy remained. Then Search Engine Land noticed, and wrote their own post about the changing answer card, also quoting the original bad source, so the wrong information is still in the card!
This case shows us two modern SEO efforts for the future: the ability of an unscrupulous SEO to successfully manipulate Google into serving propaganda as a legitimate answer; and the need for some sort of Search Engine Ethicist to combat such campaigns. An honorable SEO trying to market a product or website (or, in this case, a religious and political campaign) must ensure content accuracy, and Google needs to check for such truthfulness. As Google relies on its Knowledge Graph and users rely on Google as a source of prosthetic knowledge, it’s imperative to have unbiased sources serving correct information.
We are beginning to see how recent moves by Google and the broader trend of technological evolution are affecting the everyday lives of SEOs. These trends will only become more pronounced as search engines become more like answer machines and less like Internet navigation resources or research tools. Apple’s release of iOS 9 and its improvements to Spotlight Search reveal how rapidly this is happening. Taking a moment to identify these trends and consider how we’ll adapt to them can help us plan ahead and prepare our digital platforms for the long term to beat our competitors. Search engines are becoming the gatekeepers to all of humanity’s art and knowledge, so we must ensure our collective prosthetic brain is as accurate and true as possible.