If there's one golden rule within the SEO industry, it's listen to what Matt Cutts says! Last week Matt presented at Pubcon. And he had a key message for all us SEOs - stop chasing the algorithm! Rather than constantly chasing Google's tail, Matt implored SEOs to use the past as a way to to predict where they are heading. Today I'm going to take Matt up on his challenge and attempt to answer the age old question - What will Google do?
As per Matt's advice, before I attempt to gaze into the future, it's necessary to take a considered look back. What have been Google's key movements in the last 12 months? In my opinion, there have been five key trends that Google firmly has on their agenda:
- Local search
- Mobile search
- Social search
- Integrated search results
- Search speed
There's little doubt in my mind that these trends will continue to be central to Google's evolution. So with that in mind, let's try to hypothesise where Google may take each element of search in the future...
1. Local Search
Google is serious about local search. And with good reason - 20% of web based searches have a local intent. If Google isn't able to provide accurate local search results, one in five of their searchers will leave dissatisfied. This is undoubtedly why Google recently reorganised the SERPs and gave greater emphasis to Places listings. Places listings are Google's initial attempt to resolve the local search problem.
However, at this point the local search experience is primitive. Results are localised based upon a user's IP address. When I conduct a search for a gym, I am served results in my closest metropolitan city, which is 12-15 kilometres away from my home. There are at least 10 gyms closer to me than the Places listed in Google. Local search still sucks in Google. Therefore, expect Google to continue to work heavily on its local search algorithm.
Initially, I'd expect Google to provide far greater visibility to manual location settings. Only the most perceptive users will be aware of it. And in the longer term, I'd imagine Google will attempt to coerce users into installing technology that enables them to anonymously pinpoint the destination of each desktop PC. This is the key to accurate local search results via the desktop. The privacy nazis will go crazy, but Google will offset concerns by offering an amazing free utility in exchange.
2. Mobile Search
Smart phone usage is exploding. Which means the mobile search market is following suit. Late last year Google's Marissa Mayer stated that mobile search volume had doubled within the last 12 months. It probably quadrupled since then. Yet mobile search is an entirely different beast to desktop search. Firstly, mobile search can be truly localised via GPS coordinates. And secondly, people use mobile search differently to desktop search. Their needs are more immediate. Research from Bing estimates that 53% of mobile searches have local intent.
Ultimately, that means that a different search algorithm is needed for mobile search. And like local search, Google will be committing some serious resource to it in 2011. Proximity will clearly be a defining factor in the mobile algorithm. However, as always expect Google to use other signals to attempt to reveal the best local result. Sites optimised for mobile handsets will be likely to receive preferential treatment (as they will load quicker and provide a superior user experience). User generated reviews and ratings will become a key signal (if not already). And of course, Google Places will be at the forefront of mobile search results. Indeed, it's not completely unrealistic to envisage that Google's long-term plan is to utilise Places listings as the default for all mobile searches. Look at the clues and optimise your Places listings now people!
3. Social Search
Social search is a battle Google seems destined to lose. But that won't stop them from trying. Google has had a number of attempts at social search, yet has failed on each occasion. The missing piece of course is Facebook's social graph, which Facebook isn't likely to share any time soon. However, despite their inability to master social search, there is no question that social signals now influence Google's algorithm.
Last week I was lucky enough to attend SMX Melbourne, where Darryl King and Greg Boser presented a compelling case on the power of social signals in the modern algorithm. Despite constructing the My Politician site just weeks before the Australian federal election, and housing next to no original content, the site rapidly rose to the top of the SERPs in an incredibly competitive market. Traditional SEO techniques didn't drive the meteoric rise. Social signals did. Google recognised the level of buzz the site was generating via social channels, and rewarded My Politican accordingly.
Historically, the link between social media and search has been considered an indirect one. Good content certainly fed search. And popular social content often generated inbound links. But the link now seems to be a direct one. Social signals influence search rankings. Expect the influence to grow further in 2011 and beyond.
4. Integrated Search Results
Since it's inception, Google's user interface has been notoriously simplistic. However, over time the search results have become increasingly sophisticated. Today, users are met with a plethora of media formats and filtering options. Google is showing no signs of slowing down enhancements to the SERPs. Consider some of the recent changes Google has made:
- Google Instant Preview has been introduced to allow users to view a snapshot of a web site before they visit it
- Product Listing Ads introduced product imagery and pricing to Google's paid ads. Expect organic results to follow suit.
- Google Places listings integrate third party ratings and reviews
Not content with simply leading users to the well, Google is increasingly attempting to integrate content that helps users find exactly what they're looking for. Google is transforming itself from a search engine into a decision engine. The implications for businesses are evident. Accessibility and crawlability have never been more important. Web sites that don't give Google access to extract whatever information they desire will be at a competitive disadvantage. How many clicks will a listing without pricing information attract in the future when all competitor listings have clearly defined price and shipping information?
5. Search speed
Google is obsessed with speed. Their entire business has been built upon lightening fast online applications. First it was the speed of search results, but Google has continued to apply the philosophy of faster is better. More recently, the obsession with speed has resulted in:
- Site load speed being factored into Google's algorithm as a signal of site quality
- Google Instant being introduced to expediate the search process
- Google Chrome's differentiating characteristic being faster web browsing
Subsequently, there's little case to think Google won't continue to push the speed envelope. In all honesty it's difficult to predict how this will influence search in the future. Who in their right mind would have predicted Google Instant? It's hard to imagine search operating any faster. But you can bet Google is intent on finding a way...!
What are your predictions?
I've had my turn at attempting to read Google's tea leaves. Yet I am far from Nostradamus. Do you see a different future for Google? Chime in with some crystal-ball gazing of your own via the comments.
I'm an online marketing strategist currently working for one of Australia's largest online agencies. I consult with our clients to develop holistic web strategies, while also managing the SEO and social media elements of the business.