Colum­nist Pratik Dho­lakiya explores cur­rent search trends and spec­u­lates on where the indus­try might be head­ed in 2018.

We’re already over a week into 2018, and the start of a new year is a great time to check in and see where we stand as an indus­try — and how things might change this year.

Prepare for fake news algorithm updates

Back in 2010, Google was get­ting beat­en up in the media for the increas­ing amount of “con­tent farm” clut­ter in the search results. That neg­a­tive press was so over­whelm­ing that Google felt it had no choice but to respond:

[We] hear the feed­back from the web loud and clear: peo­ple are ask­ing for even stronger action on con­tent farms and sites that con­sist pri­mar­i­ly of spam­my or low-qual­i­ty con­tent.

Soon after that, in Feb­ru­ary 2011, the Google Pan­da update was released, which specif­i­cal­ly tar­get­ed spam­my and low-qual­i­ty con­tent.

Why do I bring this up today? Because the media has been ham­mer­ing Google for pro­mot­ing fake news for the past year and a half — a prob­lem so exten­sive that search indus­try expert Dan­ny Sul­li­van has referred to it as “Google’s biggest-ever search qual­i­ty cri­sis.”

Need­less to say, these accu­sa­tions are hurt­ing Google’s image in ways that cut far deep­er than con­tent farms. While the prob­lem of root­ing out false infor­ma­tion is a dif­fi­cult one, it is one that Google has a great deal of moti­va­tion to solve.

Google has already tak­en action to com­bat the issue in response to the neg­a­tive press, includ­ing ban­ning pub­lish­ers who were pro­mot­ing fake news ads, test­ing new ways for users to report offen­sive auto­com­plete sug­ges­tions, adjust­ing their algo­rithm to deval­ue “non-author­i­ta­tive infor­ma­tion” (such as Holo­caust denial sites), and adding “fact check” tags to search results.

Of course, the issue of trust­wor­thy search results has been on Google’s radar for years. In 2015, researchers from Google released a paper on Knowl­edge-Based Trust (KBT), a way of eval­u­at­ing the qual­i­ty of web pages based on their fac­tu­al accu­ra­cy rather than the num­ber of inbound links. If imple­ment­ed, the Knowl­edge-Based Trust sys­tem would ulti­mate­ly demote sites that repeat­ed­ly pub­lish fake news (although there is a poten­tial for it to go wrong if the incor­rect facts become wide­ly cir­cu­lat­ed).

Whether the Knowl­edge-Based Trust method is enough to com­bat fake news — or if some ver­sion of it has already been imple­ment­ed with­out suc­cess — is dif­fi­cult to say. But, it’s clear that Google is inter­est­ed in mak­ing truth­ful­ness a rank­ing fac­tor, and they’ve nev­er had a stronger moti­va­tion to do so than now.

Voice search and featured snippets will grow hand-in-hand

One in five mobile search queries cur­rent­ly comes from voice search — a num­ber that is like­ly to rise as Google Assis­tant-enabled devices such as Google Home con­tin­ue to grow in pop­u­lar­i­ty. And as voice search grows, we can expect to see an increase in fea­tured snip­pets, from which Google often sources its voice search results.

Indeed, there is already evi­dence that this growth is tak­ing place. A study released by Stone Tem­ple Con­sult­ing last year con­firmed that fea­tured snip­pets are on the rise, appear­ing for rough­ly 30 per­cent of the 1.4 mil­lion queries they test­ed.

If this trend con­tin­ues, fea­tured snip­pets may even begin to rival the top organ­ic list­ing as the place to be if you want to get noticed. (For more on fea­tured snip­pets and how to tar­get them, check out Stephan Spencer’s excel­lent primer on the sub­ject.)

Artificial intelligence (AI) will power many more aspects of search

It’s now been over two years since we were first intro­duced to RankBrain, Google’s machine-learn­ing AI sys­tem which helps to process its search results. Since its intro­duc­tion, it’s gone from han­dling 15 per­cent of search queries to all of them.

Google’s inter­est in AI extends much fur­ther than RankBrain, how­ev­er. They have devel­oped the Cloud Vision API, which is capa­ble of rec­og­niz­ing an enor­mous num­ber of objects. Indeed, Google has so much machine-learn­ing capac­i­ty that they are now sell­ing it as its own prod­uct.

But per­haps most inter­est­ing­ly, Google has now built an AI that is bet­ter at build­ing AI than humans are. This was a project by Google Brain, a team that spe­cial­izes specif­i­cal­ly in build­ing AI for Google.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, AI is not with­out its issues. AIs tend to get stuck in local min­i­ma, where they arrive at a “good enough” solu­tion and are unable to climb out of it in order to dis­cov­er a bet­ter solu­tion. They also have a ten­den­cy to con­fuse cor­re­la­tion with cau­sa­tion; one might even call them “super­sti­tious” in that they draw con­nec­tions between unre­lat­ed things. And since the devel­op­ers only pro­gram the machine-learn­ing algo­rithm, they them­selves don’t under­stand how the final algo­rithm works, and as a result, have even more dif­fi­cul­ty pre­dict­ing how it will behave than in the case of tra­di­tion­al pro­grams.

As Google con­tin­ues to embrace AI and incor­po­rate more of it into their search algo­rithms, we can expect search results to start behav­ing in less pre­dictable ways. This will not always be a good thing, but it is some­thing we should be pre­pared for.

AI doesn’t change much in the way of long-term SEO strate­gies. Opti­miz­ing for AI is essen­tial­ly opti­miz­ing for humans, since the goal of a machine-learn­ing algo­rithm is to make pre­dic­tions sim­i­lar to those of humans.

Manipulative guest posting is likely to take a hit

In May, Google warned web­mas­ters that using arti­cle mar­ket­ing as a large-scale link-build­ing tac­tic is against its guide­lines and could result in a penal­ty. Since this is already well known in the SEO com­mu­ni­ty, Google’s announce­ment like­ly sig­nals that an algo­rithm update tar­get­ing manip­u­la­tive guest post­ing is on the hori­zon.

What counts as manip­u­la­tive guest post­ing? To me, the most vital piece of infor­ma­tion from Google’s guide­lines has always been the rec­om­men­da­tion to ask your­self, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”

Guest posts that don’t expand brand aware­ness or send refer­ral traf­fic aren’t worth doing, except for the pos­si­bil­i­ty that they will pos­i­tive­ly impact your search engine rank­ings. The irony of tak­ing that approach is that it isn’t like­ly to work well for your search engine rank­ings either — at least not in the long term.

I’m not say­ing any­thing that isn’t com­mon knowl­edge in the SEO com­mu­ni­ty, but I have a feel­ing that a lot of peo­ple in this indus­try are fool­ing them­selves. All too often, I see mar­keters pur­su­ing unsus­tain­able guest post­ing prac­tices and telling them­selves that what they are doing is legit­i­mate. That is what a lot of peo­ple were telling them­selves about arti­cle mar­ket­ing on sites like Ezin­eArti­cles back in the day, too.

Linkless’ mentions

Bing has con­firmed that they track unlinked brand men­tions and use them as a rank­ing sig­nal — and a patent by Google (along with obser­va­tions from many SEO experts) indi­cates that Google may be doing this as well.

As AI begins to play a big­ger part in rank­ings, it’s not unrea­son­able to expect “lin­k­less” men­tions of this type to start play­ing a big­ger role in search rank­ings.

The tac­tics used to earn brand men­tions are, of course, not much dif­fer­ent from the tac­tics used to earn links, but since the num­ber of peo­ple who men­tion brands is much high­er than the num­ber of peo­ple who link to them, this could pro­vide a good boost for small­er brands that fall below the thresh­old of earn­ing press.

This high­lights the impor­tance of being involved in con­ver­sa­tions on the web, and the impor­tance of incit­ing those con­ver­sa­tions your­self.

An interstitial crackdown may be on the way

The ear­ly 2017 mobile inter­sti­tial penal­ty update was a sign of Google’s con­tin­ued bat­tle against intru­sive mobile ads. The hard­est hit sites had aggres­sive adver­tis­ing that blocked users from tak­ing action, decep­tive adver­tis­ing place­ment and/or oth­er issues that hin­dered use of the inter­face.

How­ev­er, colum­nist and SEO expert Glenn Gabe not­ed that the impact of this penal­ty seemed… under­whelm­ing. Big brands still seem to be get­ting away with inter­sti­tial ads, but Google may decide to crack down on these in the near future. The cru­cial fac­tor seems to be the amount of trust big brands have accu­mu­lat­ed in oth­er ways. How all of this shakes out ulti­mate­ly depends on how Google will reward brand­ing vs. intru­sive adver­tis­ing.

Mobile-first indexing

It’s been near­ly three years since Google announced that mobile search­es had final­ly sur­passed desk­top search­es on its search engine — and just last year, Bright­Edge found that 57 per­cent of traf­fic among its clients came from mobile devices.

Google is respond­ing to this shift in user behav­ior with mobile-first index­ing, which means “Google will cre­ate and rank its search list­ings based on the mobile ver­sion of con­tent, even for list­ings that are shown to desk­top users.” Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Google have stat­ed that we can expect the mobile-first index to launch this year.

In oth­er words, 2018 very well may be the year where sig­nals that used to only impact search­es from mobile devices become sig­nals that impact all search­es. Sites that fail to work on a mobile device may soon become obso­lete.

Be prepared for this year

Google has come a long way since it first hit the scene in the late 1990s. The preva­lence of AI, the polit­i­cal cli­mate and efforts and warn­ings against manip­u­la­tive guest posts and dis­tract­ing adver­tise­ments, all sig­nal that change is com­ing. Focus on long-term SEO strate­gies that will keep you com­pet­i­tive in the year ahead.