Search engines, especially Google, are getting much more technologically advanced, with the slightly ironic goal of more closely approximating human thought and speech patterns. We predict that 2018 will find SEO experts making the most of new technologies to help “teach” search engines about how humans think.

Icon for "a seamless marketing experience"Icon indicating "AI and machine learning"Natural language is the lingua franca of SEO, helped along by voice search’s increasing presence. As of mid-2016, 20% of all searches on Android were made by voice; also in mid-2016, ComScore estimated that by 2020, 50% of all searches will be voice searches. In December 2016, Gartner predicted that by 2020, 30% of all search queries will be made without a screen, through a voice-first device.

Because voice search queries are questions in everyday language, search engines have learned how to parse everyday language for searcher intent. Google reported in May 2017 that its voice recognition software can now understand human speech with 95% accuracy—which is also the human threshold for speech recognition. In August, Microsoft reported that Bing’s voice recognition error rate was 5.1%, which puts it almost even with Google’s.

The result is a continuation of the years-long SEO shift from bot-oriented optimization to optimizing for humans. Rather than tweaking content to match keywords, content teams should use more natural language (even conversational where appropriate) aligned with searcher intent rather than bot-based best practices. This contributes to a more customer-oriented marketing experience, which will soon be the basis for customer expectations.

Icon for "a seamless marketing experience"Icon indicating "AI and machine learning"Position zero matters more than ever, as it’s really the only position in search on voice-first devices, such as Alexa, Echo, Google Home, and the new Apple Homepod. Voice-first searches tend to return only one result, and whenever possible, they prioritize the content of the device’s provider over all other content. Even in searches on non-voice-first devices, the search engine will prioritize its content over the content of others.

Fortunately, most SEO tools have become more sophisticated to keep pace with the new reality of search. Many can show daily data regarding which sites currently rank for answer boxes and other universal results, allowing marketers to see trends in what search engines deem worthy of position zero and form strategies to capture that position.

Icon indicating "personalization"Icon indicating "AI and machine learning"Photo of clothing being measured to indicate personalizationAs search becomes more personalized, rankings become more difficult to discern, since every search engine results page (SERP) is now a custom SERP. A high empirical ranking for a keyword can be reduced or even negated by a searcher’s location, browser history, and previous search data. In fact, the concept of an empirically high rating is starting to dissolve, as there’s no clear indication of which SERP among the many could be considered “true” or “accurate.”

Keyword rankings have been a cornerstone metric for SEO since its inception, but with so many personalization factors at play, the SEO industry will likely need to adapt measurement methods for keyword rankings, possibly using AI and machine learning to assess a visitor’s likely search history and location. Over time, the metrics themselves will change, as new KPIs for visibility evolve.

In the meantime, SEO teams can take steps to work with these aspects of personalized search:

  • Location – make sure your local SEO is on point, even if you don’t interact with customers face to face
  • Browser history – keep publishing interesting, rewarding content so visitors come back often, thus increasing your site’s presence in their browser history
  • Semantic connections – you can’t guarantee that your visitors will often search for terms similar to yours, but you can maximize your technical SEO, meta content, and markup to help search engines understand what your pages are offering and tie that back to search queries

Icon indicating data security and privacyThe privacy aspects of the GDPR will definitely have an impact on SEO and site content. Because the GDPR protects the data and privacy of European Union residents, any website that collects user data, including email addresses, from residents of EU member nations must be GDPR-compliant. (Like us: about 3.5% of our email list members are from EU nations.) Fortunately, many of these requirements fall under the headings of “good customer experience” and “good data hygiene.”

  • If your site gathers signups for an email newsletter, you’ll likely fall under the jurisdiction of the GDPR. Marketing best practices already dictate that signup forms explicitly request consent from the user and clearly state what the user’s data will be used for; now is the perfect time to ensure that all your site’s signups meet those criteria.
  • If your site doesn’t explicitly request consent for cookie data, that needs to change between now and May 25. The passively worded “by using this site, you are agreeing to our cookie policy” statement will no longer cut it; users have to deliberately agree to have their cookie data collected, and there must be a way for users to opt out of cookies. One SEO challenge to this directive is that most such requests are handled by pop-ups, which can harm page load speed.
  • If you use a third-party analytics platform (other than Google Analytics), be sure it complies with GDPR rules regarding personal and sensitive data. Just about every professional-quality analytics package will have GDPR compliance well in place by May, so a simple check should be all that’s required.

We’ll be interested to see if GDPR compliance becomes a ranking factor in Google, as HTTPS has since 2016. Admittedly, HTTPS was a security aspect that Google wanted to promote, while GDPR compliance is literally required by law. However, given that many GDPR requirements align with best practices, GDPR-compliant sites could rise in rankings simply for being high-quality sites.

While the GDPR will likely curtail at least some gathering of cookie data, SEO tools are starting to turn to a richer, completely voluntary data source: clickstream data. Analytics companies collect browsing history data from millions of volunteers and strip out personally identifying information while retaining all cross-device tracking data from anonymous user IDs.

Icon indicating mobile digital marketingEverything’s coming up mobile. Google’s mobile-first index will likely roll out globally in the next 3-6 months, making desktop sites a side show rather than the main attraction. Besides the basics such as responsive (or adaptive) design, no duplicate content, and an interface optimized for mobile visitors, one of your top considerations for the new year should be your site’s mobile speed.

Page speed has been a significant Google ranking factor for desktop searches for several years, and now that will apply to mobile sites, too. Google recently announced that page speed will be a ranking factor for mobile searches starting in July.

  • If you haven’t had your site optimized or at least checked for mobile speed in the past year, doing it now will put you ahead of the mobile-first rollout, so you won’t have to make up for lost rankings. The most popular resource for checking load times on desktop and mobile is Google PageSpeed
  • Make sure the same content is rendered on both your mobile and desktop sites. That doesn’t mean all the content has to be visible on mobile, but Google has to know that the content is there. So if you choose to hide some content for page speed or UX purposes, make sure your team is using SEO features to ensure Google doesn’t discount the content or its keywords
  • If you publish a lot of content or get most of your traffic from mobile, consider accelerated mobile pages (AMPs). Google hosts these pages on its AMP Cache, so it can pre-load the pages it thinks will be most relevant for the user’s possible searches; it also hosts them so publisher sites won’t have access to user data before the user even makes a query. Later this year, Google will be adjusting their displayed AMP URL to be the URL of the content publisher’s site, rather than[original URL]

While we’re certain to see other developments this year that are completely unrelated to these trends, we think they’re the ones that will have the most impact on SEO in 2018. If you’d like to see what we predict for paid search and CRO, check out our other posts in this series.

The Top 5 Phenomena for 2018 in Digital Marketing

Icon for "a seamless marketing experience"Seamless, customer-focused marketing experience

A consistent brand presence across all channels and all stages of the buying cycle focused on what customers need, want, and expect when they choose to interact with a brand

Icon indicating "personalization"Increasing personalization

The sheer volume of customer data now available to brands is allowing them to personalize their messages, offers, and even experiences for customers with different needs

Icon indicating "AI and machine learning"AI, machine learning, deep learning

The increasing sophistication of AI continues to revolutionize almost every aspect of marketing, from search results and ad bidding to customer service

Icon indicating data security and privacyData security and transparency

As online security threats multiply, marketers have become more vigilant about protecting user data, especially as new requirements from the EU go into effect this year

Icon indicating mobile digital marketingMobile. Still.

Mobile’s impact and importance continue to shift, as it’s gone from a separate marketing channel to the central hub of marketing for many channels, industries, and segments.
For a more in-depth explanation of these five phenomena, check out our initial post in this series.