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2015 was a big year for SEO, with lots of changes and some fairly big developments with respect to mobile search. So as we send off 2015, it’s time to flip the page and begin thinking about what’s to come. Below, I take my best shot at 12 of what I think are the most impactful SEO predictions for 2016.

1. Organic search results will continue to get pushed lower as Google fills up their real estate with more Google things in 2016

Those of us in the industry have have felt this pain over the last year and I expect this to continue into 2016.

This has been driven by 3 primary factors:

a. Emergence of local 3-pack fore more searches
This has been slow-building for quite a while, but it began to become more predominant with the launch of the local 3-pack in November 2014 and then the changed to display the map above the 3-pack recently.

The 3-packs dominate so much of the above-the-fold real estate – especially on mobile – that it requires a good bit of scrolling to see the traditional natural search results.

b. Changes to display of SERPs – especially paid
Additionally, the changes to the size and design of paid search ads (especially on mobile devices) have really taken a huge chunk of traffic away from SEO (see: Early Impact of More Mobile Ads and Google’s Year of Change Hits Mobile Retail).

In fact, Google has even been caught testing 4 paid text ads on some desktop results, so it’s clear that they’re looking to increase their level of monetization as well blue the line for consumers between paid and natural listings when it comes to listing design.

c. Rise of rich content in SERP’s
According to Stone Template Consulting, there has been a 38% rise in Rich Answers since December of 2014.

This, along with the rise of Knowledge Graph, represents just another means for Google to keep you on their SERP’s to increase ad revenue at the cost of pushing traffic to natural search listings.

Don’t expect Google to change the fact that they are trying to prioritize their ads and content in 2016. In fact, expect it to continue to go more this way – which means that us SEO’s will just have to continue to work harder to achieve success.

This tweet says it all:

2. Mobile SEO has already become more important than desktop, and that will continue in 2016

Mobile has been growing by leaps and bounds as the pace of growth and adoption of new mobile technology has skyrocketed. This culminated in reaching what many call the “mobile tipping point,” in which mobile searches outpaced desktop for the first time, in 2May 015.

It was clearly evident how important mobile optimization has become when Google released the Mobile-Friendly update in April of this year. This was easily the most significant update Google made this year.

If your site isn’t mobile-friendly, you’re shit out of luck until it is for the most part.

Also, as mobile app usage has risen to the point where consumers spend more time in apps than watching TV, Google has also been pushing app indexing and deep-linking pretty heavily this year, which will significantly alter the mobile search landscape in 2016 and beyond.

Because app indexing and deep linking were so new, I can speak from personal experience in saying that it has likely taken a while to get on the SEO roadmaps for organization who aren’t fast-moving.

However, I fully expect that to change in 2016, and app content in mobile SERP’s will begin to get hot and heavy.

Additionally, as it relates to mobile optimization, Google along with several other major brands have been pushing their Accelerated Mobile Pages project to enhance the performance of mobile content. I’d predict that AMP’s will be the hottest technology-related item in early 2016.

So all of the biggest things to come from Google are related to mobile.

3. More people will proactively target “Near me” searchers

According to Google, search queries that contain a location qualifier such as “nearby” or “near me” have doubled in the past year, according to Google Trends data from March 2015. Eighty percent of those searches come from mobile devices.

“Near me” searches have surged 34 times since 2011.

Again, this rising search trend is predicated on the rise in mobile usage and the enhancements that have been made to voice search and digital assistants.

This year, the “Near me” simply has become to big to ignore, so if you’re not thinking about how you can cater your SEO efforts to help users on-the-go in 2016, you’re missing a big opportunity.

4. Speed will become a more integral part of SEO

I’ve already touched in this above a bit, but Google is forcing us to change the way we think about site speed, and more and more sites are already beginning to adopt the new AMP technology Google is touting, which will be released into the wild in early 2016.

Simply put, Google and other brands really care about user experience, which means more speed.

In my experience, site speed is probably the most under-valued SEO recommendation and is probably the biggest thing that most websites get wrong. When you consider the potential benefits (see: KissMetrics and Wal-Mart site speed cases studies), it’s kind of shocking that more sites don’t focus on this.

That’s about to change.

The fact that Google is considering an SEO ranking boost for AMP’s, it will cause many folks to begin to take a look at both AMP technology as well as general site speed in 2016.

5. HTTPS will become a stronger ranking signal

Beginning in August of 2014, Google announced that HTTPS would become a minor ranking signal.

I’ve explained recently how I think SEO’s should be careful when it comes to recommending HTTPs simply for SEO purposes, but I also laid out some pretty strong evidence that the winds of change appear to be on the horizon as it relates to how strong the HTTPS signal could become in 2016.

That evidence includes this gem:

This theory is further strengthened by this report that Google will begin to index HTTPS pages first over HTTP pages when possible.

This may not happen in 2016, but it will happen eventually if Gary has any say in the matter.

6. Structured data will become increasingly important

Google has recently hinted that it may decide to use structured data in its ranking algorithm, something it has previously denied.

Structured data including Schema.org can be a critical component to feeding Google information to help them populate the Knowledge graph, Rich Answers, and add more rich snippets to search results, which they find to be valuable for searchers and which tend to lead to higher click-through rates.

Additionally, there has also been some recent evidence suggesting the structured data may play a part in AMP validation – which is significant.

At this point, I’d assume that most SEO’s are trying to get clients to implement partial or full structured data recommendations.

If you’re struggling this might just be the kick in the pants that you need to push the recommendations through in 2016.

7. More content targeting Rich Answers

As mentioned above, according to Stone Template Consulting, there has been a 38% rise in Rich Answers since December of 2014 – and showing up 8.6% more often overall this year.

It has become very apparent that Google is trying to keep you on their SERP’s and directly answer your queries before you actually go through the process of clicking on a natural SERP listing. Part of this is to quickly provide users with the information they’re looking for, and part of it is likely a more self-serving attempt to increase ad revenue at the cost of pushing traffic to natural search listings.

Quite simply, with the emergence of rich snippets and rich answers, ranking #1 traditional in 2016 likely won’t garner a site as much traffic as it would have historically.

To see that in action, all you have to do is take a look at this Rich Answer example (which happens to be near and dear to my heart). See how all of the traditional organic results get pushed down?

Google Rich Answer example

Luckily for AllRecipes.com, they’re being referenced in the Rich Answer as well as ranking in the traditional results, but that foodnetwork.com listing is probably cursing a little bit because the Rich Answer is stealing some of the traffic that they would have likely if it weren’t there.

Going into 2016, it’s likely that more marketers and sites will attempt to craft content in such a way as to trigger a Rich Answer. That means more content focused on answer questions such as “how to…”, “what is…”, and so on.

Why is this valuable?

Quite simply, because rich answers allow for the potential to capture a true #1 position which means a lot of traffic, and also to do it while potentially having less overall authority than sites ranking high in the regular organic search listings.

In fact, Eric Enge wrote a great piece on how rich answers will provide a new approach to SEO that I’d highly recommend reading that illustrates this point.

Here is an example, also from Stone Template Consulting, illustrating the traffic gain garnered by showing for a Rich Answer:

Rich Answer traffic gain example
Image credit: Stone Template Consulting

That’s a pretty significant opportunity, don’t you think?

So, what can you do about this?

  1. Know that Google is increasingly looking to quickly answer searcher’s questions.
  2. Figure out what questions your consumers are asking.
  3. Figure out how you can provide content on your site that succinctly answers your target audience’s questions.
  4. If you can mark up your content that’s great (especially because it can feed Google more information), but Stone Temple Consulting’s showing that structured data was not a prohibitive factor in showing for Rich Answers.

Following these easy steps will help you increase your chances of showing for Rich Answers.

8. Content production will reach a critical mass, quality will be paramount

I saw a pretty great article recently from TheSocialMs talking about the concept of content shock which I tend to somewhat subscribe to.

The article itself is from late 2014, but I think the message applies more than ever. In it, there is a reference to a presentation Mark Schaefer gave in 2014 on the subject in which he talked about content and content marketing is growing exponentially and how it may potentially not be a sustainable strategy long-term if done incorrectly.

In Mark’s article, he says this – quite accurately I might add:

Like any good discussion on economics, this is rooted in the very simple concept of supply and demand. When supply exceeds demand, prices fall. But in the world of content marketing, the prices cannot fall because the “price” of the content is already zero — we give it away for free. So, to get people to consume our content, we actually have to pay them to do it, and as the supply of content explodes, we will have to pay our customers increasing amounts to the point where it is not feasible any more.

This upward trend of content consumption is not sustainable because every human has a physiological, inviolable limit to the amount of content they can consume. I believe as marketers, we have been lulled into a false sense of security thinking that this consumption trend will continue to rise without end. That is simply not possible. The Content Shock is coming and I believe we are beginning to enter the danger zone now.

Mark used this graph to illustrate the trend:

Content shock trend graph

Pretty shocking right? Kind of goes against everything I feel like I’ve been hearing in marketing the last few years.

To use another quote from Mark’s article:

Like any good discussion on economics, this is rooted in the very simple concept of supply and demand. When supply exceeds demand, prices fall. But in the world of content marketing, the prices cannot fall because the “price” of the content is already zero — we give it away for free. So, to get people to consume our content, we actually have to pay them to do it, and as the supply of content explodes, we will have to pay our customers increasing amounts to the point where it is not feasible any more.

I agree with him, content marketing isn’t going away, it’s just becoming more challenging to figure out how to stand out in a world where consumers have content at every turn, and the quality of content being produced is exceedingly improving. Since the article, Mark has even written a book about entitled, The Content Code: Six essential strategies to ignite your content, your marketing, and your business which I’d recommend.

In 2016, I think we’ll begin to see a shift in mind-set as it relates to content marketing (and how that relates to SEO).

So remember, when others are all like “content marketing this…” and “content marketing that…”, remember that it’s about quality not quantity. Although consumers are consuming more content than ever, 43% of Millenial consumers value authenticity more than content according to Forbes.

Everyone is doing content marketing these days. The challenge is to figure out how you can make your content more authentic, valuable, and unique in order to stand out in an increasingly crowded world. This may mean writing fewer, but more in-depth posts, or it may mean putting a different spin on your content in order so make it more engaging such as video marketing.

If you think of content as a commodity, right now the supply is far exceeding the demand.

The trick in 2016 will be finding the sweet spot that helps bring demand in line with supply for your own brand!

9. Long-tailed keywords will still be very important

It started with Google Hummingbird and continued this year with Google RankBrain.

Search engines will slowly but surely allow machines to play a larger role in their algorithms, and this will result at them getting better at processing queries, synonyms, and learning how seemingly unrelated pieces of information to each other.

How does this effect SEO in 2016?

Actually, in my opinion, it doesn’t. In fact, this will play more into the fact that a good SEO strategy focuses on a diversity of tactics and content, with long-tailed keywords playing an important role in the strategy.

Technology like RankBrain only serves to perpetuate this type of thinking.

In other words, keep at the long-tail in 2016, and deliver diverse, informational, and valuable content to your consumers.

10. User behavior in SERP’s will weigh more heavily

The funny thing is, this may already be happening and we just aren’t 100% certain yet.

Personally, I’ve become a big subscriber in AJ Kohn’s time to long click theory. A long click occurs when a user performs a search, clicks on a result and remains on that site for a long period of time. In the optimal scenario they do not return to the search results to click on another result or reformulate their query.

It is my belief that Google views long clicks as an indication of quality and sites that generate more long clicks are likely treated more favorably.

Well, Google recently confirmed that the number of clicks does have an impact on rankings (in this case specifically for local listings) – a stance which they quickly changed and then removed once it got a little publicity.

PR issue on Google’s part? Sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

It has been speculated for years in the industry that Google uses click data as a measure of quality and relevance, and the articles referenced above along with the fact that they’ve recently files patents that would strengthen their ability to use click data to influence search results.

Now just because Google has a patent doesn’t necessarily mean that they will use it, but in this came it seems likely that they’d use it.

The question as an SEO is how can you use this knowledge to your advantage in 2016?

There are probably a lot of different answers, but I think it comes down to having a high level of quality and value across what you’re doing, translating that both online and offline, doing a good job of marketing yourself, and casting a wide enough net to ensure you’re playing in all the places your consumers play.

11. Penguin coming in real-time

It’s been confirmed that the next Penguin update, which was expected by end of year, likely won’t be implemented until next year.

The next Penguin update is expected to change from a manual algorithm push to a real-time algorithm. This essentially means that as soon as Google discovers the links to your site, the Penguin algorithm will analyze those links in real time, and ranking changes should happen in almost real time.

The real-time Penguin algorithm will continuously update, as opposed to SEOs and webmasters having to wait months or even years for Google to update it. The last official Penguin update, Penguin 3.0 happened on October 2014, more than 13 months ago.

The real-time nature of the algorithm likely means that we’ll see more stability overall in search rankings as opposed to large peaks of volatility each time a new Penguin update gets pushed live.

This doesn’t necessarily change anything in the way you should approach links, but what it does change is the timeline in which you’ll see impact.

If you get bad links, you’ll likely get penalized (or notified) much sooner than before.

This will knock the bad sites down quicker, and will allow good sites with bad links to become more quickly aware if they have an issue so that they can resolve it.

12. Expect change

This is the one constant in the SEO world. Learn to not just live with it, but to accept it and thrive on it.

Bonus:

What are your SEO predictions for 2016? What do you thinking some of top SEO trends will be next year?

Share your thoughts below.

Image credit: WelcomeHappyNewYear2016.com