Ch. 7 – Foreseeing the Future – Critical Thinking

Foreseeing the Future

 

For as long as man has been around, he’s had the desire to see into the future, but after centuries of failure, seems to have finally accepted its impossibility (except for a few fringe-riders, anyway). Still, there are ways to foresee possibilities and probabilities, and those that do so successfully often reap significant benefits.

One way this can pay off for those of us in the SEO/IM fields is in future-proofing our sites. That may sound difficult, but it’s actually quite a lot easier than picking a winner at the track.

I look upon future-proofing as having two facets. One is not using any techniques that may have a negative backlash in the future, and the other is being an early adopter of techniques that have (or will have) a positive effect in the future.

Let’s talk about the negative possibilities first. A good example would be the sites that buy inbound links. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that doing something that’s against the search engines’ guidelines just might eventually get the site hammered. Playing around the edge of acceptable practices can have a short-term benefit, but can also create big problems if caught.

Having thin content or poor quality (subjective, I know, but still an issue) can be other issues that could be foreseen as risky. Ideally, one doesn’t play around in areas that are known to be frowned upon, or that are likely to be frowned upon in the future.

The other side of future-proofing involves a bit more imagination, tempered with common sense. Here, we try to foresee what may become a positive, even if it isn’t yet. A prime example would be the folks that started building a strong social persona way back when. An SEO-practicing Barbara Mandrell might have sung, “I was social when social wasn’t cool.”

Those people may have thought it likely that social connections would one day take on an important role in search, and by being early adopters, established themselves so they could reap the benefits later. Others may have foreseen that the search engines would eventually have to begin phasing out links and pagerank as a major ranking factor, and saw social connections as the logical progression.

Almost exactly a year ago, I predicted exactly that on my old blog, and then republished it on my new one. I also discussed it again last year here and here. This year, it appears as though Google may have an image of a different type of Linked Data, somewhat different from what Tim Berners-Lee had in mind so many years ago. I’m still as convinced as I was last year that links will be greatly devalued, and  pagerank will be phased out in favor of some new, more socially-centric “rank”.

I wasn’t exactly what you could call an “early adopter” of social media. In fact, I resisted it, for the most part. But last year, I decided that it was time to dive into it, and put my money where my mouth was, so to speak. All it cost me was a little more time, and there was no risk associated with it.

However, at the same time, I stopped worrying about gaining links to my site. Pagerank stopped being important to me, since I decided that some new sort of “rank” would be coming down the pike, probably closely tied to social media connections. Forsaking any linkbuilding efforts did carry some risk, if I was wrong, but not enough to concern me greatly.

Don’t misunderstand me… I’m not saying that ranking is going to evolve into a system that is solely, or even largely, based upon social connections. But I am convinced that those connections will play a role, and a greater role than links will. I think pagerank is breathing its last breath and will soon expire.

That’s what I have done to future-proof my approach. What about you?

 

We put this question to our contributors:

 

6. What dramatic changes do you foresee in the next year or two in the way webpages are optimized/ranked? Why do you see this as probable?

 

Alan Bleiweiss

Schema.org – as I mentioned in answering a previous question.  It’s going to take content level optimization to a whole new level – exponentially more granular than it is today.  Because it’s going to involve code level optimization specific to content.

If you think you’ve seen enough of that already with image alt attributes, link labels and old school table headers, then breadcrumbs and hReview or hRecipe microformats, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

Andrea Scarpetta

Some business sectors are going to be dominated by social signals (eg: google +1) because they are the basics of a “recommendation engine”, I’d say that the days of the “social shopping” are near the corner: since I trust my friends’ opinions, if three of them recommend a hotel, a certain TV model or a carbon-fiber crocheting hook… I will probably click on the “buy” button… and if I still have doubt, I can ask my friends more details almost immediately. In this scenario, link building is going to be devaluated, while it will be strong and important for those business sectors where a great deal of knowledge is required (eg: high-end tools, Academics, Medicine, etc.).

Implementing Schemas will also be vital, in order to improve the crawling of complex websites like big ecommerce and news portals.

Andrew Bleakley

Webpages will need to become more self-describing and self contained. Be that microdata, microformats, the schema.org vocabulary or something new entirely, search engines have signalled that they are approaching the extent to which they can extract the intent from HTML documents and we will need to find a better way to define purpose and relationships between documents.

Anthony Verre

Two big changes that are already happening now but will be much more prominent in a year or two: social and page speed. With the introduction of Google+, it is clear that Google is looking to social signals as an identifier through the general populous to help augment the algorithm as to what constitutes good content. With smart phones, and visa via the mobile web, becoming more and more prevalent, I tend to think that page loading speed will become a much larger factor in order to assure that the mobile web continues to grow.

Barry Adams

I think that big search engines such as Google realise the link graph is losing its potency, and are looking for authenticity signals to separate the spam from the genuine content. Social Media plays a huge role there, and there are many signals pointing to the growing importance of social media signals playing a larger role in search.

That of course opens up a new can of worms with abundant spam on social media sites, but this is a fight search engines aren’t waging on their own – social media sites themselves have a vested interest in keeping spam on their platforms to a minimum. This shares the spam-fighting burden, and helps make social signals more valuable.

So there you go, I’ve gone from a social media sceptic a few years ago to someone who’s aware of its enormous potential for search. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to send a parka to Satan because Hell just froze over.

Dana Lookadoo

Social and off-site signals will have a greater predominance as ranking factors. Google and Bing are increasingly giving more weight to social. They are leveraging multiple signals to associate entities and to incorporate user behaviour as signals – what people talk about, what they share, how they interact with the SERPs and with pages. (Ah, now see, that’s why marketers should also be looking at people first!)

Danny Sullivan

Social media signals will continue to be used and used more strongly. I call social media shares “the new link building.” I see this because search engines desperately need an off-the-page ranking criteria, and links have become degraded due to being sold or not given freely when deserved. I think social shares are a form of trusted linking.

Dean Cruddace

The search teams within the Googleplex, Bing and Yahoo have some of the smartest engineering brains on the planet and they have been tweaking our search results for quite a while now in every kind of vertical imaginable, the more they discover about us the more they will tweak their own products to fit in with their advertising models and at the same time offer relevancy.

Of course I am talking about local search with a good sprinkling of personalization, we are still in my mind at the very beginning of how much Google et al actually know about us and how much of that is being integrated into our search experience, how much are they holding back that they could integrate into our SERPs? The social graph is growing and how long or how much of a leap of faith would it be to suggest that “Doc Sheldon Campbell has actually bought the same thing you are looking at right now”.

My short answer would be local personalized search suggesting navigational, informational and Transactional.

Debra Mastaler

No doubt social media signals will play a role ranking web pages but I believe personalization signals will play a larger role.  With Google introducing G+1 and Bing getting ready to launch their version, it will be easy for each engine to track and evaluate how people are sharing between services.  Incorporating usage stats from platforms such as email, video sites, feed readers, image sharing etc engines can assign credibility and reputation levels to the signals passed between them.    Fake people, new people and spam bots won’t have the historical credibility behind their profiles and their interactions won’t carry as much/any weight.  Cultivating your brand appearance and reputation will become a key factor for all SEO’s.

Eren McKay

There are so many updates implemented each year, it’s hard to try to figure out exactly what Google will be doing next. However if you watch Google Webmaster videos, you’ll get a better understanding of where they’re heading. For example, Matt Cutts ‘hinted’ in one of the videos that article directories were low quality and not surprisingly those sites were some of the most affected by the ‘Panda’ updates. Once in a while, you’ll find these non direct statements that you can read into and figure out what’s going to happen next.  Based on what I’ve been reading, I believe mobile, personalization, page segmentation and social signals will all impact rankings.

When Google launched Chrome, they had ulterior motives (a.k.a. data retrieval). In the same way, I believe they will use the data that they get from Google Plus users to make changes in the algorithm. (Of course we can never be sure of anything that will happen; just make our best educated guess.)

Ultimately the best thing to do when optimizing your pages, is to focus on practices that will never be frowned upon by Google, (or at least not penalized). That way, no matter what happens, you’re safe from major hits.

Gabriella Sannino

Link building for the sake of authority won’t be as important. Links now have more value when they are earned. Especially with social it will have a heavier hand in how pages are ranked, especially with personalization and, of course, depending on where and how Google+ fairs in all of this new network.

Garrett French

Bill Slawski – that’s who I’d ask for this one 😉

Heather Lloyd-Martin

I’m not sure if “dramatic” would be the right term to use. For instance, I know that Panda represented a dramatic change in ranking for some companies – but I see the update as “Google getting back to valuing quality content.” If anything, I see more opportunities for companies to connect with their readers/prospects.

Hugo Gill

At a guess I would say sentiment analysis as search engines are now able to access peoples’ feelings on a product/service through social media channels as well as forums, review sites and blogs.

Ian Lurie

We’re going to see a continuing devaluation of links. It’ll be dramatic, though, because links have been such a large perceived part of the equation for so long. It’s going to flip a lot of the rankings on their heads. It’s unavoidable, though, given the work and changes Google’s been rolling out. Panda showed a real focus on document and site quality, and they’ve been working on using social media as a ranking factor for a while now. Put those together and you can see links’ relative value dropping fast.

Jahnelle Pittman

Social and local – search is obviously becoming more social, more personalized and more targeted towards local results. SEO is useful from technical and relevance standpoints (it’s amazing how easy it is to get your site off track as months go by), but internet marketers will really need to embrace – and understand! – social marketing for their clients.

Then again, the future is really hard to foresee, due to how fast search is changing. All I really know is that it’s going to be exciting, it’s going to be challenging, and we’re going to have to work hard to keep up.

Jey Pandian

I see us moving away from links as a dominant factor with more reliance on the linguistics of a particular language. Google already uses n-grams to calculate probabilities of words appearing in web documents, I don’t think it’s a haphazard guess to wager the creation of an IR technology with AI-like intelligence with the ability to comprehend web pages by simply reading them and running them through mathematical equations.

Joe Hall

I think we will see an increase in social signals and more blended search products. The increase in social only seems logical as Google slowly moves away from dependence on the link graph. Blended search products means that as Google and Bing rely more on structured data we will see more search related apps but aren’t intended on a click through. For example why should I search for a “review site” on a product if I can see all the reviews right in the SERPs? Product name: Product Review Search.

Joshua Titsworth

I think Google is gearing up to something very similar again to Panda, but instead of being focused on content, it will be focused on backlinks. I think the mass amount of link networks and mini-nets that have been created over years are beginning to show their “foot-print”. As random as the creators think they are creating them, a randomized pattern is still a pattern. It’s only a matter of time before Google is able to see it, and then devalue those links.

Justin Parks

Social Media is already having a massive impact on search results as the search engines try harder and harder to produce more focused and relevant results for the end user via personalised search. Taking this evolution into account, I think the trend will continue and in a few years, the difference between search and social will become almost unnoticeable as they combine more and more and the networks we are involved in and are allowed to exert more influence on what we, as users, see in return when we perform a search.

In regards to how this will affect search in the future it, will almost certainly become more about “ME” as an individual, a completely unique set of data will be presented for every search I do and as such, the importance of things like code, website links, exact domain names and keywords will become more leveled to the point where some of these factors will become obsolete.  I still believe they will be used as signals to help the overall algorithm perform, but the usage of my “social graph”, “social profile” and existing “social network” will become more and more important, making SEO as we know it today, almost unrecognisable in a few short years.

This, of course, raises massive questions about the industry and how it functions in terms of technical structure and approach. We have to account for the way that the technology is developing to become more and more user friendly and accessible by the normal user. Today we can see “ordinary” or “untrained” people set up a website in WordPress, start Twitter or Facebook, add some apps and call APIs or RSS, add their business on local listings, get an online billing system and CRM or ecommerce provider and suddenly they are up and running with an infrastructure and marketing capability that  could put many fortune 500 companies to shame.

This access will mean huge shifts in the way search is done, how sites are ranked, the speed with which sites are created and deployed and the way they are ranked and optimised by Google.

I haven’t even mentioned mobile. That’s another huge change in how we see influence exerted, changing the results. Imagine your search results on a mobile search affected by your geo location or by the “networks” of people in your immediate vicinity? Not an unbelievable scenario based on the evidence of the current technology available.

Lyena Solomon

I see websites moving towards more personalization.  Already we see “related posts” on blogs and “your friends who like us on Facebook” widgets to make the website and the content more relevant, more personal to the visitor.  With expansion of social media, I see more integration with the sites, more interaction.  And the reason is that personalization gets results.  I also think that search will be more personalized.  We already rank results, see what our friends read or liked. Community filter of information will get more prominent.

Michelle Robbins

In the next year or two, I think brands, the social graph and off page factors will continue to grow in importance where web page – or more accurately, whole web site – rankings are concerned. With personalized search, mobile and other location aware searching, as well as social sharing, reviews, etc. – the ability for a search engine to develop a better, holistic picture about the content of a site overall (vs. just a given single page) will continue to improve.  As for optimization, I see larger teams comprised of individuals specializing in specific channels (social, ppc, apps, mobile, offline) working together on more integrated campaigns – a more traditional agency style approach, with brand development as the primary goal.

M.J. Taylor

I believe “self service” links – blog commenting and article directories in particular – will be less and less effective. Panda has already ushered in changes to Google’s algorithm to erode their effectiveness. That will continue.

Rand Fishkin

I suspect we’ll see even more use of user + usage data, combined with signals of authenticity about a content’s producer/author (possibly through more social-based signals).

Rebekah May

I think this will be a great next few years or more for Social Media managers.  In addition to Google releasing Google + and the +1 service, Google has been making a big push in the areas of social search, personalized search and real time search.  I see this trend continuing where social media mentions and friends may even become the backlink profiles of yesterday.  There will be a bigger emphasis placed on trust and authenticity as these factors will help determine how the search engines may or may not rank your content.

I think this has its pros and cons.  This will be good for those who have built a strong reputation around what they do – but I also think this will make the entry barrier for new websites and new authors to get visibility a lot more difficult.   While this seems a little unfair to new businesses, I can understand the intention behind this, as it will be more difficult for spammers as they tend to use multiple identities without building a solid reputation under a single identity.

I keep mentioning less emphasis on links – and I want to say that I don’t think link building as an SEO method is going to die out completely; I just think it will not be as important to SEO as it is.  Currently, link building is one of the most important factors in optimizing a website for search engines.   I think this will be taken down a notch or two, and in time, social media may take first place.

While social media will be an increasingly important “off page” ranking factor, I think that content improvement will gain more attention.  The saying ‘content is king’ which has not held true in all circumstances previously, will become more important as others start seeing the value that good content can provide in tandem with proper social media usage.

I also think video and mobile are both going to become more important.   By mobile, I am referring to mobile websites as well as marketing techniques such as click to call numbers in both website and Adwords, the use of QR codes and more.

I believe we will start seeing a lot more videos too, and that a lot of SEOs, myself included should start looking into video SEO as well as marketing.

Steve Gerencser

Most likely we will see more and more social signals integrated in to the ranking algorithm. I think we would already be seeing more of that if Facebook had opened its analytics to Google when they were trying to negotiate a deal. With the #1 destination website closed to Google they have been forced to rely on lesser indicators and to try, again, to create a social site of their own that they can mine for data to be used for rankings.

S. Emerson

Even though there are lots of Do It Yourself (DIY) services for building websites, unless they upgrade them to ask the right questions for the user, the DIY website owner is going to have to either hire someone that keeps up with the latest SEO tactics or spend a lot of time learning how they need to tweak the sites these services produce.

With all the semantic web things, Resource Description Framework (RDF), product feeds and HTML 5 coming, the DIY website owner is going to lose out.  Even those who sub out the creation of their site are going to have to learn something about this stuff so they pay once to have the site produced correctly the first time.

Taylor Pratt

A much stronger emphasis on structured data and holistic Internet marketing, and we’re already seeing evidence of both.

Structured data like schemas enhance the display of search results. They are great not only for humans in terms of usability, but it’s beneficial to the search engine robots themselves. Traditionally, search engines have had to rely on how the HTML was coded and rendered which prevented them from interpreting all relevant data points – like venue, price and time for concerts or movies. You can learn more about schemas at schema.org and take advantage of this free tool: schema-creator.org.

Holistic Internet marketing refers to how our various marketing activities work together and influence each other. We’ve seen over the last 1-2 years the social impact of SEO – and those types of influences are only going to grow whether they are direct ranking influences or just strong data sources.

Thomas Fjordside

I feel that to keep your sites optimized, a more and more holistic approach is needed. You need to have it all to keep your website safe from the many changes that are happening everywhere. I also see video and local keep growing as the smartphones with internet access will become the standard (that’s about.. now). I also see social and local happening at the same time. I want to know what my friends liked in the city I’m in.

Tim Nash

I think Google is going through a period of being reactive rather than proactive. As social media continues to gain momentum and ideas spread faster, there is a genuine possibility that the major search engines could face stiff competition from something not yet on the market. Search Engines are currently in a halfway house and while they try and fail to bring social media factors into their rankings the results will wildly fluctuate. In the meantime, segmentation and more machine-readable meta data will start to drive search engines into true content segmentation. This can already be seen with recipes and reviews and I expect that to be expanded.

William Slawski

I’m seeing a strong move towards object level ranking, where information is collected about named entities, or specific people, places and things, including brands and ideas. Google’s acquisition of Metaweb and their system for associating the same entities under different names is one aspect of this.

While Google recently introduced schema.org and metadata that can be associated with different businesses and entities, Google has also been working hard on understanding structured data that appears on Web pages in tables, lists, and where key-value pairs are located, and trying to learn from labels associated with those to create their own understanding of schemas as they find them., using an attribute correlation statistics database as described in Google papers such as “WebTables: Exploring the Power of Tables on the Web” (http://yz.mit.edu/papers/webtables-vldb08.pdf) and in “Uncovering the Relational Web” (http://yz.mit.edu/papers/relweb-webdb08.pdf)

 

You can begin with Chapter One of Critical Thinking for the Discerning SEO here.

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Doc Sheldon has been writing professionally since the 1970s, and has worked in marketing since the 1980s. He owned and published weekly and monthly newspapers and magazines during the ’80s, before becoming a business consultant and ultimately "retiring" in 2008. He began studying SEO in earnest in 2003, and now specializes in technical SEO. His passions are the development of the Semantic Web, trying to figure out what changes may be coming next from the search engines and eliminating misinformation.

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