It’s been a tumultuous 2015 for search, perhaps more so than any other year.
With mobile optimisation becoming a ‘do-or-die’ component of your web presence, a massive shift in focus towards the user and Google letting many cats out of the bag when it comes to the ranking signals it uses, marketers have been faced with some major upheavals this year.
To help me unpick this tangled web of news-stories and trends are a selection of expert contributors, who will expand further on the biggest events on the year and perhaps shine a light on what may come in 2016
Google opens up, reveals more than it ever has done before
The once reticent search engine… uh… hmm, my new year’s resolution is to find a synonym for ‘giant’… has spent much of 2015 being more open about its algorithms than in previous years.
Here’s Rohan Ayyar from E2M with the skinny…
“I think the fact that Google has taken to publicizing and discussing its algorithm changes in the mainstream media represents – here comes the dirty phrase – a ‘paradigm shift’ in the business of search engine optimization.
Take Mobilegeddon. While Google didn’t exactly reveal this directly to a business or tech publication, they turned their practice of letting others discover algorithm updates after they were implemented on its head and pre-announced their intention of using a specific ranking signal. (HTTPS was already tested and in operation when they made it known.)
Possibly encouraged by the BBC and WSJ’s coverage of Mobilegeddon, Google chose to directly reveal the deployment of RankBrain to Bloomberg. They didn’t do that even with Hummingbird, which was a virtual overhaul of the core algorithm.
Taking the 50,000-foot view, you can see that Google, which puts the “SE” in SEO, has stopped talking to webmasters (bye, Matt Cutts) and started talking to journalists.
Neither Mobilegeddon nor RankBrain caused a radical shake up in search results. However, they were rolled out around the same time, arguably at the expense of traditional updates such as Penguin and Panda. This leads me to speculate that Google has a proactive, business-focused strategy in place to make big picture changes to their flagship product – the search engine.”
The rise of the machines
As mentioned above, RankBrain is an artificial intelligence system developed by Google that helps process its search results using machine learning. Google stated that RankBrain has now become the third-most important signal contributing to the result of a search query.
This is pretty significant and you can understand the ensuing interest from anyone with even a passing interest in search.
Here is Rob Kerry, Chief Strategy Officer at Ayima, on Google’s announcement…
“Google’s RankBrain announcement came as a surprise to some, but the use of ‘machine learning’ is a logical step for Google’s newly renamed Alphabet parent company, already heavily invested in AI for self-driving cars and automated homes.
RankBrain makes Google more efficient at its job of interpreting and ranking web pages for the 3bn searches made every day. Humans alas are the least efficient and most fault prone part of any tech company, Google certainly isn’t the exception to that rule. A growing sophistication in search spam techniques over the past few years has seen a panicked Google, hiring poorly qualified Search Quality Raters and junior staff, to manually vet SERPs and penalise websites.
These fake Googlers have caused more harm than good in my opinion and are now flooding the SEO marketplace, with pseudo Google experts for hire. I for one welcome our RankBrain overlords, with a measured and fact based approach to ranking, interpreting and rating pages.”
Mobilegeddon outta here!
And while we’re on the subject, let’s devote a few words to perhaps the most widely publicised event in search from 2015, Mobilegeddon.
As Cory Collins, content marketing manager for Page One Power explains, “the mobile update made it very loud and clear that Google’s deeply investing in mobile and we all better get on board. If you were running a site in 2015 that offers a terrible mobile experience you’re behind.”
Collins adds. “I also hope SEOs learn from adding “geddon” to such events, and that we stop with the sky-is-falling mentality.”
Rob Kerry continues…
“Mobilegeddon must have been released on a slow news day, as it was the first time that I’ve seen SEO mentioned so prominently in the national news.
The ranking algorithm separation made complete sense for Google, with the method, intent and behaviour of searchers on a mobile device differing immensely to desktop.
Whilst the announcement was an anti-climax to most, it was a shot of adrenaline in the arm of many large brands that I know, who had neglected or pushed back on Mobile improvements to their sites up until now.”
Google releases search quality guidelines
November saw the release of 160 pages of search quality guidelines from Google.
While we’re sure there’s plenty that Google is keeping under its hat, the guidelines do provide some insight into Google’s decision making processes.
The sections on content qualiy are interesting, as Google tells us more about what it considers to be low quality content.
“We will consider content to be Low quality if it is created without adequate time, effort, expertise, or talent/skill. Pages with low quality MC (main content) do not achieve their purpose well.”
What Google didn’t do
Despite Google making official announcements regarding RankBrain and Mobilegeddon, perhaps it’s more telling to think about what Google didn’t do. Cory Collins speculates…
“No update of Penguin across all of 2015 is a big deal. To me this signals Google isn’t in a place where they have great/fine control over their machine learning algorithms. It’s a very complex issue, but I believe if Google could have refreshed the data, they would have. This is significant in terms of Google’s algorithms moving forward, particularly if they continue to invest in machine learning (which it appears they will).”
Stephen Kenwright, the director of search at Branded3, echoes this sentiment and its ‘unknowability’.
“Arguably the biggest development in 2015 has been the approach of the Search Quality team. No Penguin update and little publicity around Panda has meant that the goalposts have been moved.
The biggest shakeups have been around ‘core’ algorithm updates – which have only been dissected only briefly and in only a couple of sources (with Glenn Gabe leading the charge) – so the specific pitfalls are unknown and as an industry we largely have to assume it’s business as usual. The most publicised update – Mobile Friendly on 21st April – arguably had a negligible impact.”
Google has been showing app-only content in search results for the last couple of years, but only content that matches the same pages on the web. However starting from last month, Google began showing some ‘app-first’ content and will also allow searchers to stream ‘trial previews’ of some apps they don’t already have installed.
Here’s Stephen Kenwright on how SEOs can take advantage of this:
“2015 has been the first year this decade where the biggest changes in the SERPs have not come from the Search Quality team but from other teams – local in particular, and the developers working on app indexing – who have been taking up more real estate than before and really refining the algorithms powering their sections of the search results to an extent that it’s no longer guesswork.
SEOs can now influence mobile app and local rankings more tangibly than before.”
Perhaps the biggest PPC feature added in 2015 was Google AdWords’ Customer Match, which gives advertisers the ability to upload a batch of email addresses to Google, ultimately providing targeting capabilities to specific customers that were previously unavailable.
Jamie Smith, Vice President of iSpionage, elaborates:
“Not only can you advertise to those people but Adwords creates a “similar audience” list that to get in front of NEW potential customers that match the criteria of your current email list.”
Jamie also talks about further paid search shake-ups:
“The second biggest change in PPC was that you MUST invest in CRO (Conversion Rate Optimization) or landing page testing in order to improve conversion as the cost per click (CPC) keeps going up. The only way to maintain profit if CPC continues to rise is to increase your conversion rate.”
Changes in content distribution and consumption
James Perrott, stategy director at Zazzle Media, has this to say on how content was delivered in 2015:
“I believe content has changed this year more than any other with the introduction of a broader implementation of Google Answer Boxes, the increased consumption of content on mobile and the evolution of bloggers/vloggers.
The shift hasn’t made links redundant, they’re still very important, but we’re beginning to move further and further away from them being the most important.
How content is being distributed and consumed is changing also, with digital PR, programmatic and social becoming a much more integral part of content distribution. A concrete distribution plan is the key to successful content marketing campaigns now. Hosting content with bloggers and posting it on your social feed just isn’t enough anymore.”
The dominance of the Knowledge Graph
Mags Sikora, co-founder of Period Box, charts the negative impact of Google striving to answer every question itself.
“While we focused on the creation of quality content, the constant growth of Knowledge Graph within the search results space, hasn’t passed unnoticed. In 2015, Google Knowledge Graph started causing strong traffic drops across more types of websites, with the most worrying being Local Knowledge Graph for mobile users.
Companies invest a lot into research and content creation to provide best answers to search queries, while Google pulls it out to show it directly on their search results pages. That reduces the need for users to click on the source of that information and as a result, reduces the amount of traffic coming through.
Since Google continues the development of Knowledge Graph, this negative traffic trend may be seen across the larger amount of industries and websites in 2016.”
Are we closer to a seamless marketing experience?
Shreya Kushari, SVP of Search Marketing at DigitasLBi, North America, seems to think so…
“Search is not about the active hand-raiser alone; it is about being there for the moments that matter. 2015 has been the perfect year to help facilitate this as publishers have improved technology and targeting to help create a seamless marketing experience.
Whether it is search automatically targeting based on TV ads or search publishers tying remarketing lists to Brand DMPs, the conversation is about precision.
In 2016, it will be interesting to see if Search publishers allow us to retarget based on DMP data and not necessarily connected to site visits. That will be the next biggest turning point in search.”
Google became less ‘withholding’
Rob Kerry reflects on better times, and whether we will ever see our full referral keyword data again…
“It’s almost four years since Google started withholding referral keyword data from website owners, as a whimsical nod to the plethora of privacy lawsuits and government enquiries that were mostly focused on the data collection practices of the search giant themselves. Like cake crumbs dropped from Alphabet’s table, Google opened up its Search Console API to enable the download of keyword data in 2015.
Whilst this won’t tell us what an individual user searched for, it offers us the ability to match referring keywords to pages and harvest the related traffic data quite easily.
I’ve yet to see any evidence that the general public were concerned about a website knowing what they searched for to find a page in the first place, but at least this API release gives webmasters better visibility over which keywords are driving traffic.”