Trends in SEO: 2020 and Beyond

January 22nd, 2020 by Cory Agular

The beginning of a new year marks a fresh start, new outlooks, and perhaps new approaches to a person’s conventional wisdom or habits. Digital marketing, though constantly evolving through the calendar year, is no different. As we begin to envision digital success in the new year, one important exercise is to evaluate where you have been and which trends you need to follow to stay ahead of the competition moving forward. Many of the topics we will discuss are not necessarily new information or revelations, but rather, the relative importance of them has increased and will continue to do so as search goes in a certain direction. With that out the way, let’s jump into the biggest trends that will impact SEO throughout 2020.

Start Learning and Understanding Google’s BERT Update

Announced in the latter half of last year, this announcement made waves in the search community due to the potential implications around how digital marketers perform keyword research and develop content. BERT, or Bidirectional Encoder Representations, originated as an open-source research project that aims to better understand the contextual relationship between words and how that tacit relationship may affect the meaning, or intent, of those words when used together. In plainer terms, it is a framework that tries to better understand natural language to deliver better search results rather than serving up more direct, literal word-for-word results.

Bert from Sesame Street using a banana as a phone and saying hello?

So, Why Does BERT Matter for Businesses?

Google posted a blog on October 25th, 2019 announcing their reasoning behind introducing this new algorithmic feature. In his post Pandu Nayak, a Google Fellow and Vice President of Search at Google stated:

“Particularly for longer, more conversational queries, or searches where prepositions like “for” and “to” matter a lot to the meaning, Search will be able to understand the context of the words in your query. You can search in a way that feels natural for you.”

Essentially, Google is trying to deliver better results by understanding searcher intent rather than responding to an exact query. This has large implications for content because SEOs will now have to consider intent, or what customers are trying to find, rather than getting bogged down with the exact search value of a keyword string. That is not to say that keyword research does not serve a purpose; this type of research will be helpful to understand broad trends or high-level areas of the search funnel, but what businesses and digital marketers will need to better understand is what the searcher ultimately wants.

The English language is chock-full of nuance, so this is really a move to try to get at the heart of that nuance. An example of that would be a query such as “how to play a stand up bass”—it is fairly apparent we are not talking about bipedal fish. Trying to better understand the relationship between words and why context matters when delivering search results is at the core of this BERT update. It bears mentioning that John Mueller from Google recently came out and reflected the idea that keyword research is not “dead,” but rather, diminishing in importance a bit:

“There’s probably always gonna be a little bit of room for keyword research… And even if search engines are trying to understand more than just those words, showing specific words to users can make it a little bit easier for them to understand what your pages are about.”

While it’s hard to trust Google when talking about these topics, it seems to me he’s implying there will still be value in optimizing towards general keywords with established search volume.

This discussion leads nicely into another concern for digital marketers moving forward:

Expansion of Voice Search

This will be a much shorter section because, as it stands, most of the SEO recommendations made for voice search align with already established SEO trends applicable in normal search context. However, while there are not special SEO tactics needed for voice search, the level of adoption of this product is something to be mindful of because of—you guessed it—BERT!

People tend to use more natural, longer-tail questions when using a voice-assistant device. A happy coincidence of generating content with BERT in mind is that it will inherently align with the intent of a lot of voice searches. This matters because, according to analytics firm Comscore, nearly half of the searches in 2020 will be done via a voice device.

As we know, voice search typically serves up a single result that answers the query; in order for businesses to best position themselves for voice search, they will need to be mindful of both BERT and another large issue moving into 2020 and beyond:

The Rise of Zero-Click Searches

If you have used Google to find an answer to an inane question in the last few years, you have undoubtedly performed a zero-click search. It may be fairly obvious why these are called “zero-click searches,” but it’s important to understand why this is happening and the ways brands and businesses can work around a system that diminishes traffic to their website. The decline of clicks is likely the reality for the foreseeable future. As mobile and voice search grows, the need for Google to provide quick, relevant answers versus pushing you to a third-party site increases. The goal from there should be to figure out how to get your brand best positioned to be the answer that voice and mobile searchers are looking for.

As mobile search increasingly becomes the search method of choice for users, it’s helpful to visualize just how this impacts user behavior. Let’s take a basic question like “how to fix a bike tire.”

Screenshot of mobile search on Google for Search Influence blog

As you can see, there is competition amongst featured snippets, video content, and embedded images. While discussing this very topic at Local U Advanced in Denver, CO, Cindy Crum from MobileMoxie offered a really interesting visual way to see why zero clicks are becoming more and more important to deal with. If we block out anything that is not a traditional “organic result” in the SERP, you will see that other types of results occupy most real estate.

Mobile search on Google with all non-organic results blacked out

How to Combat Zero-Click Searches

It may be time to stop thinking purely in terms of organic traffic. Much of SEO for businesses moving forward is about visibility. How can we position ourselves to be the brand that answers the questions our clients want to know? This is why content will continue to be the backbone of any SEO strategy. Doing proper research into the questions, queries, or searches that align with your business goals and striving to be the authority in your industry is the best way to ensure you remain competitive—and visible—in a landscape that does not necessarily reward good content with clicks.

In shorter terms, you really want to try to be the featured snippet. This is an extremely difficult task as we know there is a high barrier to entry and it takes content tweaks, patience, and a strong will to see it through to grab snippets. Good content research includes finding the least competitive snippets and prioritizing those over a more competitive, higher level search. Doing simple keyword research is not enough nowadays. Moving forward, thinking about how these searches propagate results is equally as important.

Google Maps: The New Home for Local Search?

When people think of search, the Google homepage with the requisite search box is likely most people’s first mental image. However, for businesses moving forward, there should be an increased focus on how the Google My Business/Google Maps product is influencing and driving local search.

Another big takeaway from the Local U Advanced conference is the volume at which users are going directly to Google Maps to find local businesses. According to the data from industry thought leader David Mihm’s presentation, from March of 2018 to August of 2019, 72% of all impressions on search were on Google Maps as opposed to Google Search (the traditional SERP). This is a huge discrepancy, and one of the big takeaways is that businesses are not leveraging Google My Business as much as they should.

In order to be competitive in rankings in Maps, it is important to breathe as much life and information into your listing as possible. This includes driving reviews and optimizing descriptions, including appointment links, booking platforms, a healthy number of photos and videos, answering questions, and, finally, ensuring you are engaging with reviews. While proximity to a location plays a huge role in how the Maps listings are displayed, if you are actively managing your profile, the chances are that you will see some benefit.

Also, consider how public-facing this listing is. If it looks sloppy, incomplete, or utilizes blurry images, users might be less engaged and less inclined to click through to your listing. While this seems relatively simple, many businesses fail to leverage this product—or even use it at all.

Design Your Site for Mobile First. Always.

This is not new for 2020, or even 2019 for that matter, but that does not minimize the importance of designing your site to perform well on mobile. Back in late 2018, the SEO community started talking about mobile-first indexing, and this was a major shift in the way search engine crawlers—and Google—understood and indexed your site.

In response to Internet searches becoming an increasingly mobile experience, Google decided to push developers and business owners in that direction by making the mobile version of the site the version that is indexed in Google. In other words, Google crawls the mobile version of your site and makes determinations about its health on that basis. Web development is often thought about in terms of desktop computers, but it is becoming increasingly the case that your mobile version is at least, if not more, functional than the desktop experience.

One of the biggest factors and problems searchers find with mobile sites is the overall speed. We know there is a direct correlation between load times and how many people will abandon your page. In the same way that users respond negatively to slow sites, the crawler will factor that in when crawling your site. A slow experience is not good for users, crawlers, or your business.

This became increasingly visible to digital marketers when they rolled out site speed evaluation in Search Console. Google is essentially giving people feedback about their site speed in the hopes that flagging this will lead developers and businesses to try to create better mobile experiences for users. As seen below, this a report that is now standard in all Google Search Console reports.

Example of Google Search Console speed tests for Search Influence blog

Google has been poking and prodding at digital marketers and developers for a while, indicating their sites are “relatively slow.” To the extent that this is accurate is questionable in my view—my belief is Google is inclined to tell you that your site is slow because they want you to go after improvements that ultimately make Google’s life easier. In that way, I do not see it as super nefarious because ultimately it helps everyone in the end, from users to large businesses.

What’s Old Is New

While we have pinpointed some newer aspects or changing directions, there are some old tenets of SEO that will remain very important moving forward. Backlinks are still relevant, you need to leverage structured data, video content will remain a huge differentiator in terms of content, leveraging E-A-T guidelines and content can help drive traffic, and, finally, write good content that serves the need of your users.

SEO is constantly evolving. Many of these trends will change over the coming months, and different algorithms will impact different industries in unique ways. It will be next to impossible for businesses to develop the “perfect” site for ranking well—the best we can do is interpret what Google is asking for and do our best to align with their needs while also considering the needs of users. Ultimately, Google is incentivized to provide the user a good search experience, so by reading the tea leaves and (skeptically) following their guidance, your site should be in a good place to grow its audience.

Do you have questions about how SEO could help your business? Need a consultation? The team at Search Influence has experience managing SEO campaigns of all shapes and sizes. Reach out to us today for more information.