2018 has been an eventful year for the SEO industry.
In this article, I’ll share both things that I’ve learned and important developments that are worth emphasizing.
1. This Year’s Google Updates Were Unparalleled (And No One Really Knows What Changed)
Search engines have been rolling out updates since the early days of the industry — nothing new there.
We’ve seen big updates such as the Panda and Penguin updates, which had a massive impact.
And yet still, the frequency and complexity of the Google algorithm updates we’ve seen this year are unparalleled.
And sometimes, while SEO pros are scrambling to figure out what an update was all about, it’s being rolled back as fast as it was rolled out!
The SEO game has changed for good.
I think AJ Kohn’s recent article “algorithm analysis in the age of embeddings” supports that.
Google’s algorithms have gotten so complex that no one really knows what was changed.
SEO isn’t about those famous “200 factors” anymore. It hasn’t been for a long time now.
There’s a virtually infinite number of factors that can differ for every user, moment, location, query, and vertical.
2. It’s Google’s World – We Just Live in It
Google dictates the kind of SERP we see, and what it contains.
And we have to deal with that.
We’re all just test subjects in Google’s massive, continuously updating tests.
They say their aim is to serve their users the best possible results, but we can’t help but note that coincidentally, we’re seeing Google answering more and more questions directly through SERP features (“zero-click searches”) while also driving up CTRs for paid listings.
So, our content is used to answer questions directly in the SERP, and we get nothing in return (except maybe for a bit of brand value).
Slowly but surely, Google’s eating up the SERP, and decreasing the CTR for organic listings.
I know this has been the trend for a while, but recent developments for the SERP features — as well as the results of a recent Rand Fishkin study on CTRs — are alarming.
3. Google’s Mobile-First Index Hasn’t Had Much of an Impact (Yet)
Over the course of the year, the mobile-first index rolled out, and… actually nothing much happened.
Back in November 2016, Google said they’d roll out the mobile-first index slowly and monitor its impact closely —and that has turned out to be the case.
Even though the mobile-first index shift only changed how they gather their data, not how they rank sites, I still expected to see a lot more fluctuations.
I expected sites that provide a poor user experience for mobile users to get hammered, but so far, the impact has been limited.
4. SEO Pros Are Creatures of Habit & Dislike Change
Even though we’re part of a fast-moving industry, many SEO professionals are creatures of habit who dislike change.
They don’t like to change how they audit websites, the way they report, the tools they use, and so on.
I know, SEO pros are human, too — and humans generally don’t like change.
But if you want to stay ahead of the curve, you need to innovate.
Deep down, we all know this.
You need to embrace change and the fact that people will challenge your existing way of working.
A typical example of this is the old-fashioned 50+ page SEO audit reports that take months to prepare. Kevin Indig’s tweet sparked a vivid discussion on Twitter:
The full agency SEO audits have to stop. The time in which you wait 1-2 months for an audit with 30-40 recommendations is over.
With more and more companies working agile, 3-5 good recommendations per month are much better.
— Kevin_Indig (@Kevin_Indig) November 12, 2018
Another example is relying on scheduled crawls to catch SEO issues and changes on sites.
You don’t know what happens on websites in between the scheduled crawls, so you’re missing essential information.
On top of that, you want information to come to you instead of your having to get that information (push instead of pull).
Reinvent the way you work.
Reinvent your processes and reevaluate the tools you’re using to match your new way of working.
5. DuckDuckGo’s Growth Has Picked Up, by a Lot
While they’re still a small player in the world of search engines, DuckDuckGo’s growth has surprisingly picked up by a lot.
As of November 26, they’re processing 33.6 million direct queries per day, compared to 19.1 million a year before.
The reasons for their growth?
The fact that they’re staying true to their word is one — and I’m sure the fact that we’ve seen some massive privacy scandals also plays in their favor.
You can follow their growth here.
Google having some real competitors would be really good for the SEO industry!
So let’s hope that alternative search engines such as DuckDuckGo keep growing, so they can one day represent a true challenge for Google.
6. Search Intent Is Extremely Important
I think a lot of the Google updates we’ve seen recently help Google serve the right results for the right search intent.
Google has loads of user data, and they’re continuously testing whether searchers are happy with the results that they’re shown.
Never before has search intent been as important as it is now.
Sure, it’s always been important from a conversion point of view.
But in the old days, you could rank for pages that did not match a user’s search intent.
It looks like those days are over.
When doing keyword research and writing content, pay close attention to satisfying your desired visitor’s intent.
I recommend reading “Optimising for Latent Intent,” as well as the previously mentioned article by AJ Kohn.
7. Google’s Far from Perfect
Google employs the smartest engineers and they’re using the most advanced algorithms to determine:
- What your content is about.
- What their users’ search intent is.
- What results satisfy people’s complicated search queries.
- And much more.
And yet at the same time, Google’s far from perfect. They often even don’t get the basics right!
Here are some examples:
- Many people are reporting that the quality of search results has gone down after recent algorithm updates. See here and here.
- Many old-school spammy link tactics still work, and have actually started to work better, with the introduction of Penguin 4.0.
This video shows a lack of result quality in the notoriously competitive and spammy (and lucrative) viagra niche, following an algorithm update meant to increase result quality:
So, What Does 2019 Have in Store for Us?
Obviously, for the foreseeable future, Google will keep on dominating the lives of us SEOs. They’ll try to become even more dominant, possibly by leveraging AMP and the WordPress partnership.
Google will keep on pitching updates at us at a high pace.
These updates will be ever more exotic, as we’ve seen this year, since they’ll continue to integrate machine learning into their algorithms.
The old saying says “keep your eyes on the ball.” But SEOs need to watch where the ball is going.
They need to be flexible and to adapt quicker than ever before.
- 10 Important 2019 SEO Trends That Will Really Matter
- A Complete Guide to SEO: What You Need to Know
- Top 8 Essential Website Optimization Strategies
Screenshot taken by author, December 2018