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Opinion, SEO

Life Of The Search Party: What To Expect From Search In 2020

16 December 2019
A man on a beach searching for answers

As we tumble through the throngs of winter, there is one thing that we can always rely on to rear its gruesome head – and that thing is the spectre of a million predictions on the future of marketing!

In this edition, Sauron’s eye is cast to the realms of SEO. Naturally, there are plenty of harbingers of doom who are all too keen to have their say on why the industry is dead. 

A few examples of titles from blogs proclaiming SEO to be "dead"

It’s probably more accurate to say that it’s changing year-on-year. Still, even many of these changes have been wildly exaggerated. Here we take a brief look at what the future holds for SEO and make a few predictions of our own on what could happen in 2020. 

Does SEO Have A Future?

Yes.

Anyone who decries the death of an entire marketing channel is a buffoon. 

I will yield that a time will come when SEO no longer bears relevance to this world. But equally, so too a time will come when the Earth is subsumed by a bloating sun, and all life will come to an end of our planet. (Merry Christmas!)

My point is that just because something may not last forever doesn’t mean we should gorge ourselves on articles predicting demise and ruin. There are various factors which point to the change of SEO over the past few years, but this isn’t to say that it should be abandoned. Given that it is a channel which is often easily overlooked, it may be tempting for businesses to plough more resources into paid search; however, the benefit of one channel should not coincide with the ruin of others.

My Predictions For Search In 2020

Chickens To Come Home To Roost For Voice Propagandists

“50% of searches will be voice by 2020.”

How many times have you read this over the past few years? I’d venture more than a few, and this crass prediction (which actually hails from 2016) could barely be further from the truth. The main reason for this is that there are precisely *Z E R O* articles saying how this prediction was correct. Given how much attention is paid to voice search, if there were even a smidgen of truth in it, we would never hear the end of it. 

If you review the stats put forward in favour of voice search, they almost always refer to stats in an insular manner rather than contextualising them against other channels. The reason? They know that voice is a busted flush. For all the talk of unit sales, we are still no closer to understanding how brands are benefitting from voice search. Econsultancy summed it up well in a recent article which took aim at the lack of case studies on voice search:

[The] problem is that smart speaker sales figures don’t tell us anything about how consumers are using their devices – how often they use them, whether this usage drops off as the novelty wears off or remains consistent, and what kinds of functionality they make use of.

Far be it for me to declare voice “dead”, but I do think that expectations need to be tempered. Voice is still an immature market. As such, marketers would be better served focusing on what gets results in 2020 rather than in 2025 and beyond. To take a different perspective on the topic, companies such as Google would not want to cannibalise their own business by having people move away from browser-based search (and, by proxy, PPC ads) in favour of another channel. 

For this reason, any marketers who hailed voice as the next big thing would do well to keep their heads down and get back to what works here and now rather than in the future.

More Instances Of Companies Lashing Out At PPC Dominance In The SERPs

SERPs have changed a lot in recent years, with a far greater emphasis being placed on paid ads, as demonstrated by these two identical searches from 2016 and 2019:

A screenshot of Google's SERPs for the term "holiday" from 2016
A screenshot of Google's SERPs for the term "holiday" from 2019

As such, some SEO marketers may feel as though they are starting to get short-changed by the prominence of PPC ads. In this instance, ranking 1st actually means ranking 5th, and it shouldn’t go without note that the ad on the older page is also more easily distinguished as an ad rather than an organic search result. Google has long been a champion of the claim that people can tell the difference between paid and organic search results with ease, but research shows that nearly 60% of people do not recognise the paid ads versus organic search results. 

Basecamp recently highlighted this in a snarky PPC ad which took aim at Google’s new practices, which had forced it to place PPC ads to appear at the top of the SERPs for searches related to its name. In the coming year, my prediction is that we’ll see more cases of companies becoming frustrated that Google is favouring its profits over its actual product.

Pages To Face Heavier Penalties For Ad Saturation

This is The Independent’s home page, viewed without being a logged-in subscriber:

A screenshot from The Indepedent's home page

At this point, you’d have a hard time explaining to someone who didn’t know that this is supposedly a news site. To deign to click through to one of its articles, users must have their skills of perception at the ready as they prepare to play the game of “Ad or Not An Ad”.

Now, this might be unnecessarily cruel to The Independent as they are far from the only ones with sites like this, but, you know what, screw them. Their site is awful. By allowing mainstream sites to get away with this nonsense (and this is before we consider their incessant linking to the likes Taboola and Outbrain, but that’s for another time!), Google and other search engines are sullying their own product, and one of my predictions is that ranking penalties will get harsher in the coming year. 

To play devil’s advocate on my own prediction, part of the reason it may not come true is that Google will not want to discourage the use of ads, but surely the sense of quality over quantity must kick in at some point. 

What do you make of our predictions for SEO in 2020 and what thoughts do you have on the future of search? Let us know over on Twitter @createdbyneon!

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