Search engines are con­stant­ly improv­ing the search expe­ri­ence and, as a result, search engine opti­miza­tion (SEO) is in a non­stop trans­for­ma­tion. For SEO mar­keters, the chal­lenge isn’t to sim­ply under­stand the com­plex sci­ence behind the strat­e­gy — it’s to be able to adapt to the ever-chang­ing rules of the game.

The past few years have been excit­ing for SEO, marked by a series of algo­rithm updates, evolv­ing tech­niques and fast-advanc­ing tools that make SEO what it is today. To stay on top of the trends and equip their SEO arse­nal with rel­e­vant strate­gies, most mar­keters scram­ble to learn or pre­dict the emerg­ing devel­op­ments poised to shape the new face of SEO.

From the dom­i­na­tion of voice search to the increas­ing role of RankBrain in pro­vid­ing search results, we’re expect­ing big­ger changes on the hori­zon.

Marketers may start optimizing for voice search.

This past Decem­ber, Google’s web­mas­ter trends ana­lyst John Mueller tweet­ed about web­mas­ters ask­ing for voice search data in Google Search Con­sole. It reflects the cur­rent behav­ior among Search Con­sole users — more and more are see­ing voice search queries sep­a­rate­ly.

This rais­es the ques­tion: Why do site own­ers sud­den­ly care about voice search data? The sim­ple answer is peo­ple are using voice search now more than ever before, and gain­ing insights into these queries gives mar­keters ideas for how to pro­vide bet­ter expe­ri­ences for those search­ing by voice.

In 2015, voice search jumped from zero to 10% of over­all search vol­ume glob­al­ly. That means 50 bil­lion voice search­es were per­formed every month. And a Google study found that 41% of adults and more than half of teens use voice search mul­ti­ple times per day.

When there’s demand, there’s sup­ply. Many tech giants (not just Google) have invest­ed in vir­tu­al assis­tants and, by exten­sion, voice search. Google launched Google Assis­tant and Google Home, Apple has Siri, Microsoft has Cor­tana, Ama­zon has Alexa, and so on.

Brands and busi­ness­es that are reliant on search for web traf­fic have seen dras­tic impli­ca­tions from this rise in the usage of voice assis­tance. SEO mar­keters must con­quer a new mar­ket: the vir­tu­al assis­tants. In 2018, we can expect more web pages to com­pete to be the favored result by voice assis­tants in order to reach the user.

The shift to mobile-first indexing will be completed.

The rise of voice search wouldn’t be pos­si­ble with­out the rise of mobile devices since smart­phones are the source of most mobile search­es. If going mobile-first was impor­tant a year ago, it’s even more impor­tant now.

In 2016, Google took the first step toward mobile-first index­ing, which is expect­ed to cul­mi­nate in mid-2018. That means, by the third quar­ter, if the pre­dic­tion comes true, mobile index­ing will take pri­or­i­ty over desk­top.

The new index will crawl the mobile ver­sion of a website’s con­tent and deter­mine how it should be indexed in search. It presents a sig­nif­i­cant change from Google’s old index­ing prac­tice, which involved crawl­ing the desk­top ver­sion of a web­page and index­ing it in both mobile and desk­top search results.

The tire­less thrust for mobile is in line with a phe­nom­e­non that Google calls “micro-moments,” which are instant moments where users seek knowl­edge about an idea, a restau­rant, an online store, a trav­el book­ing agency — in oth­er words, moments when peo­ple con­sume media. Nat­u­ral­ly, micro-moments occur on a mobile device and have become a bat­tle­ground among brands.

When search­ing on their phones, 65% of users say they are look­ing for the most rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion with­out giv­ing pri­or­i­ty to the com­pa­ny or pub­lish­er pro­vid­ing the infor­ma­tion. As the name sug­gests, micro-moments require urgency and instan­ta­ne­ity. SEO mar­keters must make sure to be there when these moments hap­pen and be quick about pro­vid­ing the right results.

In oth­er words, being mobile-friend­ly is the only way to sur­vive — and stand out — at a time when people’s lives are defined by micro-moments. From page respon­sive­ness to page speed to con­tent read­abil­i­ty, your SEO cam­paign must be ready to com­pete.

Machine learning will play a bigger role in providing search results.

When RankBrain was intro­duced in 2015, peo­ple had a vague idea about how it worked. And the case hasn’t improved much since. RankBrain is Google’s machine-learn­ing, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (AI) tech­nol­o­gy designed to help process and deliv­er its search results. RankBrain appeared to turn the game on its head when it was announced as one of Google’s top three rank­ing fac­tors. Since its roll­out, RankBrain has gone from han­dling 15% of search queries to all of them.

Though the dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ty is most­ly in the dark as to the work­ings of this AI sys­tem, we know it ana­lyzes user behav­ior to pro­vide more accu­rate search results, and dwell time (the time spent on the page) is one of its most impor­tant fac­tors.

RankBrain, in essence, is after user expe­ri­ence. So it doesn’t make that great of an impact on the way we approach SEO. Opti­miz­ing for a machine-learn­ing tech­nol­o­gy is fun­da­men­tal­ly opti­miz­ing for humans since its goal is to draw up pre­dic­tions as a human would.

It has been pre­dict­ed that by the end of 2018, machine learn­ing will have a greater influ­ence over tra­di­tion­al search results and, even­tu­al­ly, it will replace algo­rithm updates with its “auto­mat­ed, con­tin­u­ous, and iter­a­tive algo­rithm updat­ing process.”

With RankBrain and Google’s inte­gra­tion of AI in gen­er­al, there’s a stronger push for site own­ers to become more nim­ble and adapt­able to con­stant, unpre­dictable changes in the deliv­ery of search results.

SEO and search expe­ri­ence have come a long way since the 1990s. Over the years, we’ve wit­nessed how search engines have increas­ing­ly nar­rowed their focus on pro­vid­ing the best results for users. From the reli­able, hands-free voice search to the depen­dence on machine learn­ing, it’s inter­est­ing to see how search is tak­ing shape, and it will be inter­est­ing to see where it takes our SEO approach in the com­ing months.