What would you do if you could go back in time 10 years?
You know, back when search engine optimization was primitive and building a few links could rank you for high-value search terms.
You’d be able to make a killing, practically overnight, because you’d be so far ahead of the competition.
The only problem, as I see it, is that I don’t know where you can get your hands on a time machine…bummer.
The next best thing is to predict the future of SEO because today is the future’s past.
To make that clearer, if you can predict future SEO changes and grasp where digital marketing is heading, it’s essentially the same as having knowledge from the future.
Some digital marketing professionals proclaim the death of SEO, asserting an overabundance of content and the demise of link building.
But the truth is that SEO is growing and will continue to do so. (Think of how far we’ve come since the days of being mostly about keyword targeting.)
You can prepare yourself for the changes in search engine optimization we anticipate and set yourself up to take advantage of them.
Keep in mind that media marketing is ever-changing, and in our hyper-connected world of social media and smartphones, those changes are happening fast–from the way web design works to trends in how long-tail keywords and anchor text in general work.
Content marketing that focuses on personalized content–and starts a conversation–is becoming more and more important, while effective link building remains an essential component of smart digital marketing.
In short, adapting your SEO strategy is vital to your ability to stay on top of your field and remain relevant and successful.
This is true in any field really.
All fields evolve, even though some move faster than others. If you could take modern knowledge back in time, you would easily achieve success.
Since we’re talking about search engine optimization, consider that Google makes 500-600 algorithm changes per year. It never stops improving and likely never will.
Now, some of those changes are small and may not affect you, but some are big, like the “Panda” and “Penguin” updates, which have dramatically altered search engine results.
Others, like the 2015 “Phantom Update 2,” involve changes to Google’s core algorithm. These core changes set the stage for Google to make drastic changes in the upcoming years–and may lead you to reassess your media marketing campaign now.
Success now doesn’t guarantee success in the future: If you need an example of why it’s so important to never stop learning and trying to improve your search engine optimization strategies and tactics, look at sellers on Fiverr.
Some of the highest-rated services are absolute garbage. Not only will they not help a site, but they might also even get it penalized.
Go back 5-10 years and these wouldn’t have been the worst idea. Now? Useless–all because those sellers don’t want to evolve with the industry.
So, how do you, as an SEO expert, stay on top of your field and anticipate the future of SEO?
There are a few ways. You can read blogs and study actual search engine results, but, you can also look at the direction that Google is headed (assuming other search engines follow suit as usual).
Unless you have insider information, which I’m fresh out of (darn), the best place to start is by looking at Google’s recently published patents.
In this article, I’m going to go over 4 fairly recent patents. We’re going to look at what the patents could allow Google to do and what implications these might have on the future of SEO (and, thus, your web design and digital marketing strategy).
Even if they don’t all affect you directly, some are pretty cool.
Disclaimer: The patents themselves are dense, so I will be simplifying, wherever possible. If you’re interested in the exact mechanisms behind the patents, please refer to the original linked documents.
Also, just because Google filed for and was granted a patent, doesn’t mean they will definitely use it.
1. Google wants to answer questions with more than text
Patent: Rich content for query answers
For those of you who have been around search engine optimization for a long time, you already know that Google came from humble beginnings.
It was a very simple search engine, but it was the best search engine at a time–the modern internet, after all, was in its infancy.
It let you search simple text strings and found you web pages that contained those search words on it.
Since then, Google has evolved for one reason: to provide better results to search queries.
Sure, Google returns much more relevant results these days, but it does more than that.
Google recognized that searchers want answers, not web pages.
That sounds simple and obvious, but it’s huge. People don’t use Google as a search engine because they want to click through a bunch of results, they only do that to find the answer to their search query.
There are 2 ways for Google to solve this problem:
- Create its own content to answer every question
- Try to extract answers from relevant web pages
The first option is near impossible and it’s just not the business that Google is in. But, the second option, that’s something that works great.
You’ve likely seen this yourself. If you type in a simple search query, you get a simple answer:
But now, Google has started to take it to the next level and this patent is a part of that.
This patent outlines how Google will serve rich media (audio, video, images and combinations of those) to answer search queries.
Here’s part of the abstract:
…determining first rich content item in the first set of rich content items that meet a context condition that is indicative of a rich content item providing contextual information of both elements of the question query and the answer query; and preferentially selecting from the first content items relative to the second rich content items to be provided as one or more answer rich content items.
Not only does Google want to provide rich content answers in the search results, but they may incorporate more than one rich content answer.
You might have noticed rich content answers already appearing in Google’s knowledge graph:
According to the patent, Google interprets the words in a search query, then forms that into your likely intended question. It then can give you an answer to that question that includes relevant rich media.
So, when you search “Taylor Swift style,” or “Listen to Taylor Swift style,” or anything related, Google will show you the same rich media results. It interprets the search query along the lines of: “I want to listen to Taylor Swift’s song, Style”, and then gives you the perfect result.
But, it’s not just happening with music videos. Google has gotten frighteningly good at pulling content from pages in a logical way. For example, see what happens when you search “how to unclog drain”:
You not only get a useful, relevant image, but you also get step-by-step instructions. The amazing part is that those instructions are just a plain list on the actual page:
In addition, there are other lists on the page, but Google was able to identify the right one.
Predict the future of SEO – Get your site included by using schema: Google can sometimes pull the right information from a page without any help, but it’s going to be quite a while before it can do that for all, or even most, pages.
Right now and in the near future, there is an opportunity to increase your search engine appeal and get more traffic by getting your content to show up in that top rich media answer box.
Notice how both those above examples have a link to the actual page? Those get an absurdly high click-through rate in most cases. Even though they provide partial answers/solutions, searchers often want more, which is why they click through.
As you’ve probably guessed, you can increase your odds of your content being used (never guaranteed) in the rich media answer boxes by using schema.
In addition, schema markup can be included in normal search results, which also helps increase your click-through rate and, therefore your search traffic. Schema is also key if you want the best from those sharing your content on social media.
The great thing is that as long as you’re ranked on the first page, you have a chance to be chosen since most higher ranking results won’t have schema implemented. This is your chance to get ahead of the curve and harness the future of SEO.
Take a look at the source code of that Taylor Swift video. Youtube incorporates schema, when possible:
I realize that might be a bit confusing to you, but I’ll explain in just a minute.
I’d like to point out that third highlighted tag first. Note that the span tag uses schema to describe the HTML within it as a thumbnail (“itemprop”). The “<link” tag right below has a link to a picture.
Guess which picture that is? That’s right, it’s the one that shows up in the search results. That tag tells Google that the linked picture describes the video content, so that’s what Google uses.
And, all of these tags describe the content in one way or another. Once you understand which ones to use and how to use them, it gets much simpler.
What is schema? The simple version: Schema is a type of “structured data.” There are many different types of structured data, but schema is the one you want to use. It was created as a collaboration between Google, Bing, Yahoo, and Yandex, as a sort of standardized structured data language.
Its only purpose is to help describe your content better to search engines. The better a search engine can understand your content, the easier it is for it to serve your content to the “right” searchers. Schema is never seen by human readers unless they dig into your source code.
Google, in particular, doesn’t use schema markup as a direct ranking factor. However, it is used to create rich snippets. Plus, it can be used in the rich media answer boxes that we’re concerned with here.
The way that schema was designed was so that it could be incorporated right into existing HTML code.
Just like you can add a “href=…” property to certain HTML tags, you can add schema properties, like “itemprop=…”, to HTML tags.
Itemscope is one of the most common schema properties, which tells search engines that the section that it is assigned to is all about the same thing.
For example, in the below code, the itemscope label tells search engines that the entire div is all about the same topic – the movie “Avatar” in this case:
Director: James Cameron (born August 16, 1954)
Here’s where most SEOs will get confused. There are actually thousands of schema labels to pick from. Very few know them all and even fewer actually need to know them all.
For getting into the rich media answer boxes, we don’t care about the majority of them, only a few of them.
- itemscope – Typically is added to a div or span to indicate that the section all goes together. No value is needed (e.g. just write “itemscope”).
- itemtype – Specifies which type of item the section or tag describes. (e.g. itemtype=”http://schema.org/Movie” means you are describing a movie). You can pick any item from this list. Most common values are movies, articles, and itemlist.
- itemprop – Typically added to individual HTML tags – not divs. (e.g. <span itemprop=”genre”>Science fiction</span>). If you visit the link of an itemtype (like http://schema.org/Movie, you can see all itemprop options).
If that makes sense to you and you’d like to do it manually, you’re welcome to do so.
However, I also have 2 options that make adding schema to your web pages easier.
Creating schema with Google’s markup helper – option 1: Google has an incredibly simple and useful tool that can be used to create schema markup for any website.
You start by entering the URL of a page, which will render it in the browser.
From there, just highlight any text by left-clicking and dragging over it. After you highlight text on the page, a small menu will open with different schema options for you to choose from:
Once you do that for all the sections you’d like to label, you’re just about done.
Click the red “create HTML” button at the top right to go to the final step. It will give you your page’s source code with the schema labels added and highlighted in yellow:
You can copy and paste the entire code, or just the relevant sections, into your actual web page. You can also click the download button to download the entire page code if you’d like a copy.
Even though I trust Google to create reliable code output, it’s easy to make a mistake on the human end, which is why you should always validate your code.
Copy the entire code into Google’s structured data testing tool and click verify to see if there are any errors:
That should be enough to get you started. But, if you really want to read more about schema, try these guides:
- How to Boost Your SEO by Using Schema Markup
- How to Use Schema Markup for SEO: Making Your Site Easier to Find for Stupid Machines
2. Beyond the web: Google wants to answer questions for you and only you
Patent: System and method for enhancing user search results by determining a television program currently being displayed in proximity to an electronic device
Some SEOs love Google and some SEOs hate Google.
That chasm is only going to grow larger over time.
In the past, Google has been limited to its website – the search engine. People need to have questions while they have access to a computer (with an Internet connection).
Now, with mobile phones, people have access to Google at almost all times.
Consider that most people on mobile phones have a limited connection or internet speed and the number of mobile searches is only going to increase from here.
So, we know that people are getting more and more access to Google.
We also can see that Google is acquiring companies and inventing technology to collect as much user data as possible. Think of projects like:
- Google Maps – location data and travel data
- Google Analytics – tracks your website’s data, but also browsing data of your visitors
- Google Fiber – providing faster Internet to allow people to use Google products more
- Nest – Google acquired a thermostat company to gather data about preferred climate settings
And, these are just a few of them…
Google wants data because it can use that data to return more personalized results for search queries. Remember, it all goes back to providing more relevant search results, which allows Google to remain the leader in search engines and sell advertising at a premium.
What this patent is about: This patent outlines how Google could use information about what is playing on TV to serve more useful search query results.
The basic idea behind this patent is that if someone is watching an episode of a TV show, Google could take that into account, if they searched for something at the same time.
For example, maybe you’re watching a part of a show about making a salad.
If you searched for “salad”, Google could then provide results like:
- how to make the particular type of salad in the show
- how to make other related salads
- the nutritional information of the salad in the show
In other words, you’ll get results to your search query that are probably relevant, considering that you’re searching during or right after the salad segment of the show was on.
What this really tells you about the future of SEO: Google has been showing personalized search results since 2009. That being said, this is really the next level of personalization.
All past personalization has been based on in-browser habits, but now Google is starting to incorporate outside context signals as well.
It’s one of the surest signs to me that search engine optimization is far from solved. Google’s search algorithm will continue to evolve past the current on-page and basic off-page signals.
For most search queries right now, Google has to guess what your intent is. If your search queries are broad, it plays the percentages. For example, if you search “Taylor Swift”, you get a variety of different answers:
- news articles
- social media accounts
- personal website
- biographical information
But, with more context, Google could serve you the one type of result that you were looking for.
While keywords will always matter, they will become relatively less important as Google is able to dial up the impact of search intent.
This patent doesn’t really have obvious implications for you as a website owner.
What I would say, as a general rule, is that you’re better off creating very specific content when possible. What I mean by that, is create content that is focused on particular:
As Google gets even better at personalization, your content will become the best result automatically for a small percentage of searchers, rather than having to compete with highly authoritative “broad” pages.
For example, don’t create “10 tips for farmer’s markets”, create “10 tips for Seattle farmer’s markets”. This way, your content would rank higher for anyone in Seattle.
You don’t have to go too gung-ho with this, quite yet, but start incorporating it into your content marketing strategy. Google is getting better at personalization.
TV is just the beginning. Google will use information from other sources to take personalization even further.
3. Directions based on more than distance and travel time
Patent: Systems and methods for monitoring road quality
For a company that started as a search engine, Google has made great strides in the auto industry.
Google’s main 2 products, when it comes to auto, are driverless cars and Google Maps.
When first created, Google Maps was revolutionary. All of a sudden, people could get GPS directions that were as good or better than GPS systems that cost hundreds of dollars. To top it off, they could get it for free on their phone or computer.
Driverless cars have the same potential. While they aren’t fully developed yet, the early results are impressive. They have had very few accidents and those accidents were all clearly the fault of human drivers.
This patent has the potential to add yet another tool to Google’s auto arsenal. The main purpose of it is to allow Google to get feedback from users to determine road quality.
The implications are clear for drivers: you could choose a route based on smoothness and impact to your car over traditional factors like speed or distance.
The patent explains that the data would have to be collected by sensors in the car (or possibly in a phone), that would then be stored and relayed through the onboard diagnostics computer (OBD) that all modern vehicles have.
The sensors would measure things, such as vibrations and vertical displacement, that would measure any large bumps or overall poor road quality. Pretty neat.
What this means for the future of SEO: This patent, among numerous other Google Maps software patents, tells us that Google is far from finished when it comes to the auto industry. Google Maps is a key driver behind the popularity of local listings, which drive significant revenue.
In addition, Google is really just beginning with driverless cars. These cars are key for certain Maps functions, like street view:
Combine this patent with the above information and you can see how it could help Google’s driverless cars last longer (less wear and tear). In addition, once driverless cars grow in popularity (probably not more than 5-10 years off), this patent function would ensure smoother rides.
So, how does this tie into the future of SEO?
People have tons of questions while they drive. For now, directions are a main part of it, but they also want to look for entertainment (music, podcasts, etc.), as well as to plan activities for when they arrive.
Google wants to answer these questions, of course.
Right now, questions need to be asked/answered through hands-free voice apps, like Google Now, for obvious safety reasons. Creating content that can easily be consumed during car rides is a great start.
The best form of content to take advantage of this seems to be podcasts. Many digital marketing pros have started to catch on to this, but there is still a lot of room for growth.
While this is way down the path, consider what will happen once driverless cars become the norm.
People will have long periods of leisure time during smooth commutes. Yes, podcasts still might be popular, but people will have time for other types of content as well since hands-free will no longer apply.
Long content (such as blog posts with thousands of words) is suddenly the perfect size for a drive. They’re essentially mini-books that could be consumed in one trip.
In addition, as I said earlier, creating location-specific content is going to become more effective as well. People are going to be looking for activities and events in the places they travel to. This ties into the personalization aspect of the 2nd patent we looked at.
4. Solving outdated offline information and spam with pictures
Patent: Systems and methods of correlating business information to determine spam, closed businesses and ranking signals
We just talked a bit about Google’s driverless cars and how they contribute to Google Maps.
They drive around all day, taking pictures of surroundings, in order to keep the street view images as updated as possible.
But, Google has big plans for these cars.
In addition to their basic function, Google filed this patent, in particular, that describes how it could potentially use most of this existing technology to benefit local business owners.
You’re probably aware of Google’s local search. You type in a store or type of place, followed by a location and then you get a list and map of relevant businesses:
The current local search is good but could be a lot better.
Listings become outdated, operating hours are often wrong and some websites create fake addresses to try and get extra search traffic (a.k.a. spam).
This patent could go a long way towards fixing that.
It proposes that Google could use the pictures it takes to confirm the locations of businesses, as well as when they are open or closed. It will also try to match the picture information with the local listing information, to make sure things match up.
This takes care of 2 of the main problems: incorrect operating hours and spam listings.
In addition, it also addresses outdated listings. Google would likely be able to identify locations of new stores, as well as remove listings when a store becomes permanently closed (similar to how Google deals with websites, really).
What do you bring to the table as an SEO consultant?
If Google is able to implement the technology described in this patent, it will be taking away part of the current job of a local SEO consultant.
At some point, Google may be able to automate all local listings with their driverless car technology. For SEOs that are just looking to make a quick buck, this is bad news. Some SEOs charge hundreds of dollars to small businesses, just to fill out a quick local SEO profile.
While this could still be a few years off, I’d like to ask you one thing: what kind of SEO consultant are you?
If you’re the type who’s looking to dupe unknowledgeable business owners, you’re never going to be too successful and you’ll soon become irrelevant.
If you’re the type who cares about your clients and wants to provide as much value as possible – great.
There are no direct implications of this patent for most SEO consultants, but the main takeaway you should get is that you need to be constantly building your skill set. Without continuing education, you will become outdated and unable to provide real value.
So, how do you stay on top of the industry? There are 2 main ways:
Testing things personally is always the best way to learn, but, obviously, you have limited time. If you do those 2 things, you will always have something of value to offer.
Search engine optimization evolves fast.
This scares many SEO consultants. They’ve put in a lot of time to get to the point that they are now and it unnerves them that they may not be an expert in the future.
But, there’s another way to look at it and it’s why I get so excited about the future of SEO. It’s an opportunity to grow as a professional and provide even more value to clients.
If SEO becomes more “difficult”, it means that good SEO consultants will only become more valuable. If you continue to learn about search engine optimization and digital marketing because you’re passionate about it, there’s nothing to worry about – things will only get better.
I showed you 4 different patents that illustrate how Google is expanding as a company from its basic search engine roots. There are many opportunities that will be opening up to you and me in the coming years, so keep your eyes and ears open for them.
Overall, it’s a good time to start diversifying your content marketing efforts, when appropriate, to create more personalized content. Create local guides in niches that you work in so that you’ll rank better in personalized searches.
How do you feel about the future of SEO? Are you excited? Worried? Let me know in a comment below.
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