Search engine optimizers are used to having to adapt their strategies to change. Search engine results pages (SERPs) rarely stay the same for long, and all it takes is one new dominant competitor or one major shift in market interest to undermine an entire campaign.
Over the course of a year, you might see hundreds of tiny changes in response to changing market conditions or Google algorithm updates, but over the course of the next decade—and beyond—we might be witnesses to a massive overhaul of how online search works, thanks to innovative new technologies.
So how could these changes manifest, and what would this future look like?
The Pillars of SEO Today
Let’s start by dissecting how SEO works today. When a user searches for a given subject (usually in Google), a complex algorithm produces results on SERPS based on two big factors: relevance and authority. The relevance has to do with how closely a page fits with the user’s intention, and the authority has to do with how trustworthy the source is. This is why both on-page and off-page SEO are important if you want your site (or a page on that site) to rank.
We expect some degree of competition, both from other sites like ours and from direct sources like Google taking up SERP real estate with ads and rich snippets as direct answers to user inquiries. We also expect occasional shakeups with algorithm updates that tweak how relevance or authority are determined. Fundamentally, this setup and these processes are designed to give users the most useful content possible for each of their desktop or mobile searches.
How Technology Could Reshape Our Future
So how could technology change what we understand as search marketers?
- Machine learning. Machine learning has limitless applications, but in the search world, there’s one that stands out above the rest: the ability to make search algorithm updates seamless, constant, and far more sophisticated than human-level thinking would allow. Google has already released RankBrain, a machine learning update designed to better understand and provide results for semantically complex user queries. In the future, updates like these could automate the entire process of algorithm updating, making it less predictable and faster than we’ve ever known.
- Smart speakers, digital assistants, and IoT. Smart speaker sales have exploded, and digital assistants are found in almost every major mobile device. More users than ever are relying purely on voice-based searches to find what they’re looking for. Accordingly, search engines are being specifically tailored to serve a voice-only audience, better understanding the semantics of language and providing instant answers—rather than the fleshed-out SERPs we’ve come to expect as commonplace. There’s an entire wing of search that has zero visual results, and it might only grow bigger as time passes.
- Wearable devices. Wearable devices, too, are shaping user search patterns, and might demand a change to the UI we’ve come to expect from online search. Wearable devices demand hyper-local results, and some method of navigation that’s both intuitive and convenient for users. It’s another factor that could result in the decline (or total death) of the traditional, visual SERP.
- VR and AR. One saving grace for the SERPs we all know and love is the potential rise in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications. These semi-digital interfaces could bring a new life to the visual layers we’ve gotten used to, presenting users with more navigation options than their audio- and voice-focused contemporaries. VR and AR could also revolutionize how local search works, presenting users with more in-depth visual experiences to help them make decisions, and demanding more immersive content types from optimizers.
- Decentralization. We’re definitely a decade or more away from a fully decentralized internet, but it’s a development we have to consider for the distant future of SEO. Once the internet is decentralized, certain problems associated with the typical online experience—including individual user privacy and spotty availability—are going to disappear. In response, search engines will need to be redesigned to accommodate a new type of internet, giving users an interface that suits modern devices, while maximizing the strengths of the new network. Since decentralizing the internet is still conceptual, it’s hard to speculate too much here, but search would definitely change significantly in the wake of this development.
Do you need to get your SEO strategy ready for the machine learning revolution? Or for instant answers that forgo the need for traditional SERPs? Not quite yet. These changes will likely unfold quite gradually, since it will require multiple generations of people to challenge and redefine their assumptions about how online search works. Still, it pays to be in the loop, so stay up-to-date with the latest in SEO, and never stop tweaking your strategy.