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8 Predictions for SEO in 2012

by Debanjan Ghosh on January 2, 2012

Posted by randfish

It’s 2012, and that means we get to revisit our expectations for 2011 and prognosticate for the year ahead. In keeping with tradition, I’m first going to evaluate my predictions from last December before determining if I’ve got the cred to make some for 2012. Here’s the rules:

For each prediction, we’ll grade using the following points system:

  • Spot On (+2) - when a prediction hits the nail on the head and the primary criteria are fulfilled
  • Partially Accurate (+1) - predictions that are in the area, but are somewhat different than reality
  • Not Completely Wrong (-1) - those that landed near the truth, but couldn’t be called “correct” in any real sense
  • Off the Mark (-2) - guesses which didn’t come close

The rule is – if the score is lower than +1, I’m not allowed to make predictions for the coming year. Cross your fingers for me!

Last year, I made 7 predictions:

  1. Someone proves (or a search engine confirms) that clicks/visits influence rankings +2
    Both Google and Bing confirmed in 2011 that they use searcher behavior, including clicks, as ranking signals. This prediction was spot on (though, to be fair, some felt that prior statements had already insinuated this was the case).
  2. Google local/maps adds filtering/sorting -1
    This one was almost completely wrong. I expected something more like what Yelp offers (and I thought Google’s move to do this in recipe search was the beginning of something broader). Google has added more suggested searches as seen below, which is the only reason I’m giving myself a “not completely wrong.”
    Google Local Suggestions
    _
  3. Social search will rise -1
    This guess was also quite nearly off the mark, but Google‘s move into social saved it, at least partially. Google+ has added a lot more depth of social elements and signals for the engine, and for anyone logged into their Google/Gmail/Google+ account, the prevalence of social results is quite remarkable.
  4. Rank tracking will be possible through the query string -2
    Sadly, this one was dead wrong. We saw rank tracking in the query string first emerge in 2009 and I was sure that Google would roll this out more broadly, but instead we’re still getting only 10-20% of search referral strings with rank data included, and the new (not provided) issue has made manual or machine-based rank tracking even more essential. Sad, because I think this was a big opportunity for Google to be more open.
  5. Mobile will have a negligible effect on search/SEO +1
    While many pundits will surely claim that 2012 will (finally) be the year of mobile, I’d say 2011 has helped prove that the search world  is pretty device agnostic. Rather than changing SEO, mobile and tablet adoption has merely meant that there’s more searches around local and location and that the web as a whole is a bigger part of people’s lives than ever before.
  6. Software will become an SEO standard +1
    This one’s hard to quantify, but I think it’s directionally accurate. Here’s the Forrester Interactive Marketing report, which notes a large adoption of SEO software at the enterprise level, and with the death of Yahoo! Site Explorer, software and tools from third parties is more essential than ever. I’m not going to give a +2 as I’d say we’re still missing conclusive proof that software is “standard,” though our upcoming industry survey may help shed light on that.
  7. We’ll start to move away from the title “SEO” to something more all-inclusive +1
    It didn’t happen in a big way, but the phrase “inbound marketing” and “inbound marketer” appears to be gaining traction. I like the wording, which suggests earning people’s trust and interest rather than buying it and includes SEO, social media, content marketing, blogging and web analytics. In our recent survey of agencies, “inbound/organic” agency was how the largest group of respondents described their firms:
    Survey Data
    We’ll be releasing the full data tomorrow night on the blog – stay tuned!

When we tally up the numbers, it’s +5 and -4, leaving me with +1, just barely enough credibility to make predictions for another year :-)

This year, I’m making 8 predictions (rather than 7). The goal with each is not just to share an opinion, but hopefully to provide some action (implied or explicit) for marketers on at least a few. I’m also aiming to have each prediction be verifiable at year’s end, so that I can, once again, check my work.

Prediction #1: Bing Will Have a Slight Increase in US Marketshare, but remain <20% to Google’s 80%+

According to Comscore, Bing + Yahoo! have ~30% market share in the US to Google‘s ~65%. I personally think these numbers are relatively bogus and put much more faith in those generated by sources like Statcounter (which look at traffic sites receive rather than queries performed by a sample audience). Statcounter shows Google at ~82% and Bing+Yahoo! totally to ~16%. I’m guessing those numbers will be pretty similar come January 2013.

Statcounter Google vs. Bing in North America

The biggest reason, IMO, isn’t necessarily just brand loyalty and inertia for Google, but their continued superior performance on long tail queries (note: plenty of the comments in the linked-to Reddit thread are worth a read to get a sense of how “early majority” searchers feel).

Prediction #2: SEO Without Social Media Will Become a Relic of the Past

Already, we’re seeing SEO and social media marketing become intrinsically intertwined, but in 2012, I believe we’ll see SEO without social fade, just as SEO without link building did from 1999-2000. It’s not just that social signals are making their way into the ranking algorithms (in both direct and indirect ways), but also that social is becoming the dominant method of both sharing and discovery for web users. The link graph will remain useful for years to come, but the social “sharegraph” is chipping away at its ability to illustrate what’s new, interesting, useful, relevant and high quality.

This trend could well be part of what finally weakens the title of SEO (though I think the practice/tactic will remain strong) and forces those of us who’ve used that name to describe our profession for over a decade to migrate to something broader.

Prediction #3: Google Will Finally Take Stronger, Panda-Style Action Against Manipulative Link Spam

One of the major weaknesses of Google (and Bing, to be fair) is their continued over-reliance on links as an overwhelming ranking signal. Just recently, I took up a friend’s offer to point some obviously shady links from sites Google should clearly be discounting at several webpages. We saw dramatic results within 24 hours – #1-5 rankings that have sustained for several weeks (more news on this experiment to come). This shouldn’t be the case and Google‘s webspam and search quality teams know it.

Linkspam Panda

In 2012, I believe Google‘s search quality folks will roll out algorithmic changes in how they value low quality links that help them regain pride in their work. The embarrassment and quality gap caused by linkspam is egregious and, if left to stand, gives competitors an opening while simultaneously weakening searchers’ trust in Google‘s results. Just as “content farms” took their hits in 2011, I think link spam’s up for some blows in 2012.

Prediction #4: Pinterest Will Break into the Mainstream

The last 4 years have seen Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, FourSquare and Tumblr all break the 10+ million users mark. In 2012, I give Pinterest good odds for doing the same. Pinterest is also the first major social network where the gender balance heavily favors women (which is, IMO, a great thing).

Pinterest Geek Memery Board
(above, my sad attempt at a Pinterest board)

Because of this breakout, don’t be surprised to see lots more posts like these showing marketers how to leverage Pinterest to help share their content and find potential customers.

Prediction #5: Overly Aggressive Search Ads Will Result in Mainstream Backlash Against Google

There are some pretty crazy things going on in the search advertising world right now. To wit:

espresso machine paid search results

On my laptop (which has fairly impressive resolution), I can only see a single organic result, and the paid search markup is incredible. Star ratings, seller reviews, prices and individual items, photos and featured brands are all dominating the page.

0% Interest Credit Cards SERPs

Google‘s own “comparison ads” in the credit/finance world push organic results down even further, as the Google product still allows for three additional full size ad slots above the organic listings.

Work From Home Sales SERPs

Perhaps the most aggressive of all is Google‘s new ability to insert a logged-in users email address automatically into PPC ads, as pictured above. These are still rare, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them roll out in greater force.

My prediction is that in 2012, we’ll see the start of “paid search blindness” being studied, reported and impacting the engines’ bottom lines. Organic results still garner 80%+ of all clicks, but that percent has been dropping as Google gets more aggressive with paid search to continually meet earnings expectations.

Prediction #6: Keyword (Not Provided) Will Rise to 25%+ of Web Searchers

Despite Google‘s statements that missing keyword data will stay below double digits, I’m predicting that by December of 2012, we’ll be looking at a quarter of all searches coming from logged-in (and thus, keyword-anonymous) searchers. Google‘s working hard to get adoption of Android, Google+, Google Apps and Gmail, all of which will increase the percent of not provided searchers.

Keyword (not provided) for SEOmoz

While I wish this program would roll back (as there’s clearly no real privacy risk or they wouldn’t provide the data to paid advertisers), Google‘s the 800-pound gorilla and the marketing field’s counterpoints, while far more valid, likely won’t play as well in the media. Google‘s got the politics sewn up on this one, so our only hope is that they decide to do less evil. Unfortunately, that’s not the way they’ve been trending of late.

Prediction #7: We’ll See the Rise of a Serious Certification Program

The search/inbound marketing industry is in sore need of a program that helps early talent in the field become mature professionals. Today, SEMPO, Market Motive, Inbound Marketing University (from Hubspot), Search Engine College and a variety of others provide this service, but none of them are yet at scale or universally respected by hiring managers and companies in the field.

It’s hard to quantify what “the rise of…” means. Thus, I’ll predict that by year’s end, at least one industry certification has 5,000+ users on LinkedIn (currently, Market Motive leads the pack with ~1,700)

Prediction #8: Google Will Make it Very Hard to Do Great SEO Without Using Google+

Google‘s just started to add Google+ brand pages in search results, They’re leveraging Google profiles for rel=author tags. They’ve made Google+ circles and +1s visible in SERPs. In 2012, I think this pattern becomes a concerted effort by Google to tie promotional efforts in organic results to the Google+ login/verification system. This will not only encourage/force usage of their social network, but give them a much greater ability to tie social, ranking and visibility signals together (and probably fight spam + manipulation, too).

The positive for marketers is that closer integration with the social platform will reward those who can successfully manage both SEO and social media marketing. It’s also (hopefully) going to be a boon for white hat tactics that help build brand signals while reducing the effectiveness of exploits that manipulate (like exact match domains or anchor text link spam). The negative is that Google‘s probably going to get even more data about ALL of our online behaviors, making themselves an even more overreaching and powerful force on the web than they are today. We just have to hope they’ll also become more benign, though more power rarely leads to less corruption.

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