What's in store for search in 2020? Here are 10 of the biggest SEO trends you need to know, according to 58 industry experts.
It’s time to take our annual look at what’s ahead for SEO professionals in 2020.
What SEO strategies and tactics will work and help you dominate in the SERPs and earn more revenue in 2020?
This is the question we ask every year here at Search Engine Journal.
This year, I asked 58 of today’s top SEO professionals for their thoughts.
Here are the top 10 trends you need to know in 2020, according to the experts.
Trend #1: BERT & User-Focused Optimization
In 2019, the launch of Google’s new BERT algorithm got a lot of attention. Naturally, every SEO professional wants to learn how to optimize for BERT.
Well, rather than focusing on how to optimize for that specific algorithm, take a page from Kelly Stanze, Search Strategist, Hallmark, who will be focusing on user-focused optimization and the technical delivery of content.
In short, that means reassessing user access points to search and aligning content with that.
“Look at the mechanics of how something is crawled, indexed, and served in a variety of different search settings,” Stanze said. “With users having more options than ever in how they search for things, it’ll be even more important for SEOs to bear in mind the fundamentals of clean architecture and content delivery.”
With the incorporation of BERT this year into the ranking and featured snippets algorithm, Google has taken a huge leap forward into making search really about intent matching rather pure string matching, according to Eli Schwartz, Growth Consultant and Advisor.
“Content will truly have to be written to user intent rather than just strings that a user might search,” Schwartz said. “Keyword research tools may even become less relevant with the primary dataset for content creation coming from suggested queries. In 2020, the really smart SEOs will get up from their desks to talk to customers so they can find out what their audience really wants from them.”
Frédéric Dubut, Senior Program Manager, Bing, echoed that, noting that keyword research, at least as we know it, is going to become obsolete.
“There’s no sign of [natural language processing] NLP and deep learning research slowing down anytime soon, and you can expect search engines to shift even further from keywords to intent in 2020,” Dubut said. “Both practitioners and tooling providers will need to shift their efforts towards ‘intent research’ and fulfilling user needs.”
As Jenn Mathews, Senior SEO Manager, Groupon, points out, Google is continually updating to optimize search results based on user intent rather than a focus on content/page to keyword matching.
“SEOs need to understand the nuance of what this means with their content as well as have a firm grasp on Google’s past updates leading to this trend.”
We’ve all wanted to focus on intent for the last several years, and better understand what the journey of our customers looks like, said Duane Forrester, VP, Industry Insights, Yext. Now it’s become such an important part of the landscape, it’s integral to the survival and growth for most online businesses.
“If you focus on the customer’s intent, you’ll clearly understand where you fit on that path,” Forrester said. “By providing the best answers for questions on that path, you can more reliably capture and convert customers.”
What does this mean for you?
Focus on how our users talk about their issues, problems, and needs at each aspect of the buyer’s journey much more, according to Keith Goode, Sr. SEO Strategist, IBM.
“Additionally, we’re going to have to extend our efforts far beyond the purchase in that journey to include content that addresses needs after the sale – support, opportunities to advocate, community-building and staying relevant for future purchases,” Goode added.
Always focus on your customers, said Sam Hollingsworth, Director of Search, Elevation Ten Thousand
“Too many brands forget or fail to realize what it takes to attract and impress potential customers. They want real value,” Hollingsworth said. “Just like in a brick-and-mortar establishment, customers want to know that you’re on their side, that they can trust you, and that you are a reliable partner in what is going to be a long-term – hopefully lifelong – relationship.”
Carolyn Lyden, Lead SEO/Owner, Search Hermit, hopes 2020 brings a change where we get back to the qualitative, human side of search.
“So many marketers market their products and services having never spoken one-on-one to their target audiences,” Lyden said.
Without talking to our customers and understanding why they are behaving the way they are, we are limiting our ability to create a smart and holistic strategy, according to Sarah Gurbach, Senior Account Manager, Search and Audience Insights, Seer Interactive.
“So, in 2020, I recommend you go and sit down with your customers,” Gurbach said. “Talk to them, ask them to tell you about their journey to purchase, how they used search, what they thought of your site. Use that data in every decision you make.”
User-focused optimization can only truly be done by integrating SEO into a holistic marketing strategy. Ryan Jones, SEO Group Director, Publicis Sapient, said this will be the biggest trend in 2020.
“Now, more than ever, companies are going to have to stop treating SEO as a condiment that they just add on to their digital strategy, and instead treat it as a key ingredient of their business plan,” Jones said. “SEOs are going to have to grow their skillsets to understand the full marketing and digital stack. It’s going to be less about fixing SEO issues and more about fixing marketing and business issues.”
Trend #2: High-Quality, Optimized Content
Anna Crowe, Assistant Editor, Search Engine Journal, said there is one thing that has been and will continue to be the lifeblood of SEO:
“Content affects everything in SEO,” Crowe said. “From your site structure and internal linking strategy to the types of links you build.”
To succeed in 2020, you will have to write something that is relevant and valuable, said Tony Wright, CEO, WrightIMC.
“This means that SEOs need to learn how to write or hire people who know how to write,” Wright said. “Google’s editorial discretion isn’t perfect yet – there will still be content that ranks that shouldn’t. But the day is coming when the best content will win.”
Make it your goal to have the best content on the web for your topic, or at least an important subset of your topic, said Eric Enge, General Manager, Perficient Digital. By doing so, you will be future-Google-proofing your business.
“This allows you to compete effectively for long-tail searches (which still remains about 70% of all search queries), will help build your site authority and demand for your content, and can be done in a directly ROI positive way,” Enge said. “In addition, this type of approach to content is exactly what Google is looking for to satisfy user needs and represents the type of market investment that Google will likely never make, because Google is about doing things with massively scalable algorithms.”
Jesse McDonald, Global SEO Strategist, IBM, and Jessica Levenson, SEO & Content Strategy Consultant, both said 2020 is the time to move away from the obsession with keywords. Stop targeting individual keywords, chasing pageviews, and “spraying and praying” with content.
McDonald said to focus more on topics.
“The goal of switching the mentality to more of a topic-focus is to create content that addresses an entire conversation holistically as opposed to just worrying about the single keyword a page should be targeting,” McDonald said.
Levenson said to adopt a deliberate and methodically organized cluster of content that delivers comprehensive and intuitive topical experiences while meeting business objectives.
“Know what answers the user needs next,” Levenson said. “Boiled down:
Understand who your audience is and how they search.
Understand the intent behind the questions they are asking or problems they need to solve.
Give them solutions or answers in the formats they prefer via on-point, quality, and authoritative content.
Execute in this fashion for every stage of their journey to create a satisfactory topical experience that serves their needs again and again.
Iterate because just because you do it well once doesn’t mean intent won’t change or someone else won’t do something better.”
Another thing to watch out for, according to Aja Frost, Head of Content SEO, HubSpot: content cannibalization.
“I’d recommend auditing all of your content for overlapping rankings and merging, redirecting, and archiving as needed so every page ranks for a unique set of keywords,” Frost said. “If your website covers the same topics again and again, even if you’re covering these topics from different angles, your pages are going to knock each other out of the results.”
In 2020, it’s time to take a hard look at the quality of your content – and optimizing that content for users rather than search engines, said Michelle Robbins, VP Product & Innovation, Aimclear.
“In a way, the key to staying successful in search marketing 2020 is the same as it ever was – put out good content, with consistent brand messaging, in all your channels,” Robbins said. “As the search engines become ever more adapted to natural language understanding, the best-written content – in all forms – will win the day.”
And in the world of international SEO, the time is now to invest in good localization of content, said Motoko Hunt, President, AJPR.
“Many global websites have poorly translated content that hasn’t been edited for the local tongue,” Hunt said. “It’s not the placement of the keywords, it’s about how well your content is written for the local audience.
Trend #3: E-A-T & Your Unfair Advantage
In 2020, Google will continue to look at the overall reputation and E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness) of a given company and the individuals who publish content on behalf of that company, said Lily Ray, SEO Director, Path Interactive.
“Companies that struggle with a poor reputation, customer service issues or other trust issues will have a harder time competing,” Ray said. “These trust issues not only manifest themselves as reviews and feedback about your brand, but they also take the form of technical or security issues on your site.”
Ray expects that it will become increasingly difficult to receive organic visibility for YMYL (Your Money, Your Life) queries without the proper expertise and credentials to write on those topics.
Trustworthiness will be super important for publishers in 2020, said Grace Kindred, Junior Technical SEO Analyst, News UK.
“There will be a strong focus on quality content and fighting against fake news,” Kindred said. “It will be more important than ever to focus on the trust value of authors (verifying authors and showing their authority for particular subjects) and sites as a whole.”
According to Loren Baker, Founder, Search Engine Journal, opening up nofollow as a hint was an attempt by Google to better understand the sources of news stories, the sources, and references in large papers and academic study.
“Match that with the credentials of the author (which can be defined by structured data markup) and any fact-checking oriented schema, and we have an easier way for Google to weigh authority and trustworthiness of a piece of content, whether a news or publishing story,” Baker said.
Put simply: The offline is coming online, said Jason Barnard, Owner, Kalicube.pro. Every business needs to find its unfair advantage.
“With entity-based search, the Knowledge Graph and the rise of E-A-T, our capacity to create an accurate and convincing online representation of our offline world will become a major differentiating factor,” Barnard said. “All those offline events, conferences, awards, partnerships, etc. that Google cannot see suddenly take on enormous importance. Pull them online and push them to Google to feed its need for understanding and credibility.”
Alexis Sanders, SEO Senior Manager, Merkle, shared a few ways to have a digitally-based competitive advantage:
Supply chain excellence (e.g., delivering within 2-days (or less) with relevant status updates).
Customer service (e.g., ability to answer the user’s question with minimal friction).
Digital charisma / branding (e.g., Having users seek you out, because they want to do business with you? Do most of your reviews look more like love letters?).
User experience (e.g., is your experience more convenient / useful / simple?).
Trend #4: UX & Technical SEO
The biggest trend that smart SEO professionals should focus on in 2020 for greater success is UX – user experience, according to Brock Murray, Co-founder, seoplus+.
“This includes the overall experience from the initial interaction in the SERPs, to the overall landing page experience, and even the experience after they leave your site (think remarketing, drip campaigns, personalization for returning users),” Murray said. “Think about how you can help your users have the best possible experience while truly pondering what value you can provide to them during their visit. ”
Technical SEO is a key piece of the UX discussion, according to Goode.
“While I believe Google will do a lot to compensate for our site’s own poor technical foundations (e.g., canonical corrections, hreflang corrections, etc.), it’s going to become increasingly more important for SEOs to focus on shoring up their technical foundations,” Goode said. ”I don’t think it’s accidental that Martin Splitt spends as much time as he does promoting good technical best practices from Google’s perspective. We should consider that a signal in and of itself.”
When we talk about technical SEO and UX, you have to talk about site speed and page speed.
Dan Taylor, SEO Account Director, SALT.agency, noted that Google has reinvigorated discussions and focus around site speed, with the new Chrome “slow warning badges”, and the speed reports in Google Search Console.
“This for many will reignite conversations with developers and in some cases lead to systems requiring almost complete redesigns of page templates and reengineering of how assets are loaded,” Taylor said.
“This already started since a few years ago but has become far more obvious this year,” Solis said. “In 2020, it will only get bigger with the popularization of JS frameworks, app first businesses that will also more strongly shift to the web due to the benefits of PWAs, and the need for SEO task automation for bigger sites where machine learning with Python can provide a solution.”
Trend #5: Mobile SEO
Surprised to see mobile SEO as an important 2020 trend? Don’t be. As Wright put it:
“Almost every prospect coming into our shop has a mobile site that is a mess,” Wright said. “To survive in 2020, you need to implement 2017 tactics and fix your mobile.”
What’s that mean?
“Build sites for mobile-first, then make them compatible for desktop,” Kindred said. “That way those sites don’t have to be optimized for speed after launch.
Kris Jones, Founder / CEO, LSEO.com, said if you don’t have a mobile-friendly and mobile-optimized website, you need to take action immediately. You can’t wait any longer.
“All of your online reporting must reflect insights into your mobile performance as a priority,” Jones said. “Instead of visualizing a person sitting at a desktop computer you have to realize that most of the time people will find your website via a mobile device.”
But mobile SEO doesn’t stop there. Study the mobile SERPs.
“SEOs need to be looking at real, mobile search results, to know what they are up against, what kind of traffic they can expect, and what kind of optimization will actually be successful at impacting the bottom line,” said Cindy Krum, CEO, MobileMoxie
Trend #6: Structured Data
We know high-quality content will be important in 2020. However, algorithms still don’t fully understand context.
So we need to give search engines “hints” to better understand and deliver results, based on a searcher’s intent, said Jeremy Knauff, CEO, Spartan Media.
“This means structuring the data in a way that helps search engines to better understand not only what is on a page, but also how each element relates to other elements on the page, and how that page relates to other pages within the website,” Knauff said.
Ultimately, you want to be understood, found by your customers through any channel and be well-positioned to take advantage of future features from Google and other structured data consumers like Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and AI Chatbots, said Martha van Berkel, CEO, Schema App.
“Done right, structured data becomes your marketing data layer,” van Berkel said. “It will allow you to publish your content for any machine/search engine/voice assistant/chatbot with context to provide service to your customers across any surface and at any moment of interaction.
“Smart SEOs will start leveraging their structured data to enhance their analytics so that they can gauge what part of their content is driving results and use this data to influence content strategy, marketing strategy, product features and more, across their companies,” she added.
Also, don’t assume that because you marked up all the most common data in early 2019, you are good, said Shelly Fagin, SEO, Highly Searched / Brand Ambassador, SEMrush.
“New types of markup are continuously being added or improved upon,” Fagin said. “I also expect to see a lot more manual penalties related to poor implementations of structured data. Don’t automatically trust some plugin you’ve installed to structure your data correctly.”
Trend #7: Entity & Knowledge Graph Optimization
The search of the future increasingly is about real-world objects, said Bill Slawski, Director of SEO Research, Go Fish Digital.
“Google is finding ways to include entity related information in search results through things such as augmentation queries,” Slawski said. “You can optimize entities that your site is about by doing things such as optimizing those for Google’s Knowledge Graph and making sure that they appear in Knowledge Panels.”
As pointed out by Greg Gifford, VP of Search, SearchLab Chicago, local search is the forefront of entity-based search, so everyone should pay attention to what’s happening in this space.
“Local SEO has been entity-based for years – you’ve always been able to rank local businesses even if they don’t have a website,” Gifford said. “Google is tracking real-world visits already and recently received a patent for using ‘quality visits’ as a ranking signal.”
Dixon Jones, Founder, DHJ Ventures, said you need to tie large amounts of your cornerstone content to definite entities, which Google either recognizes or doesn’t. Writing around semantically close entities helps to better answer user journeys not just through better content, but also content that Google can see will be a good result.
“I think in 2020, internal linking will come to the fore, but again based around things, not strings,” Jones said. “Understanding the unique knowledge graph our web presence makes will empower us to be able to link those concepts together better within the content under our control, to the benefit of users and crawlers alike.”
Want your brand or business be seen as an entity? Here’s some advice from Alina Benny, SEO & Content Lead, Nextiva:
“If you publish original industry reports, compile new expert advice, and are among one of the dominant voices in the market, Google will start seeing you as an entity,” Benny said. “It’s these entity-related signals that are going to help you keep ranking.”
Trend #8: Link Building & Brand Building
Want to acquire top-tier links in 2020? Shannon McGuirk, Head of PR and Content, Aira Digital, said it’s time to move link building from the dark ages into a consumer-first approach for 2020.
That means focusing on three types of journalistic writing:
Planned editorial: Topics that are covered by journalists every single year at a given point (e.g., Black Friday, Valentine’s Day).
Planned reactive editorial: Features written by journalists on a topic that ties to a seasonal event or theme that we know is being covered due to time frame, but we don’t know the exact story until editors or journalists write it on the morning of their editorial meeting.
Reactive editorial: Features written in the here and now that are unplanned and can’t be predicted and are dictated due to a news story breaking.
Carrie Rose, Co-founder / Creative Director, Rise at Seven, said link building will be more about brand building in 2020.
“The responsibility will fall on SEOs to build links and media placements that drive traffic and push brand, not just links that help with search rankings,” Rose said. “Now our link building activity has to be on-brand, or there’s a realistic chance that there won’t be any brand-building activity at all.”
Building a brand people trust and want to do business with is essential, according to Casie Gillette, Senior Director of Digital Marketing, KoMarketing.
“Customers are getting smarter and they expect more when it comes to marketing,” Gillette said. “The more they trust you, the more they are willing to share your content (links), talk about you (value), and buy your products (revenue).”
Trend #9: Focus on Visibility, Not Just Blue Links
Zero-click searches have been a big reality in 2019. On-SERP SEO will only continue to grow in importance in 2020.
Thus, adapting to zero-click searches will be key, according to Cyrus Shepard, Founder, Zyppy.
“More and more brand marketing is happening on Google itself, and not necessarily on your website,” Shepard said. “Smart marketers will need to learn how to adapt and take advantage of this by getting more strategic about the information shown in search snippets.
Shepard said this includes basic tactics to increase actual clicks over impressions, such as featured snippet optimization, using newer schemas (e.g., FAQ and HowTo), image targeting, and favicon optimization.
But it’s more than just zero-click searches we need to plan for in 2020. We need to optimize for much more than blue links, Krum said.
“Ranking number 1 under a Knowledge Graph, Found on the Web or a Featured Snippet is different than ranking number 1 without those things,” Krum said. “Similarly, even if you are not in Position 1, ranking just below a People Also Ask result or Interesting Finds will not get as much traffic, because those things look better and thus, drive more clicks in the search result.
“Further, I think we will continue to see more localization in search results, with more Map Packs, News and Events ranking and taking clicks from traditional organic rankings,” she added.
Trend #10: Programming
In 2020, you should tap into programming languages like Python and R to eliminate your most time-consuming and redundant tasks, according to Britney Muller, Senior SEO Scientist, Moz.
SEO automation will free you up to harness the power of marketing fundamentals:
Creating great customer experiences.
Speaking your customer’s language.
Listening to your target market & providing thoughtful/timely responses.
Providing easy to consume content (in the way in which your users want it).
As Paul Shapiro, Head of SEO, Catalyst, put it: Programming makes SEOs better SEOs. And we’re starting to really see increased adoption.
“There are real advantages to moving beyond Excel for analysis. It permits a more sophisticated analysis of your own data, as well as the ability to:
Incorporate other data sources for insights.
Apply machine learning to solve complex problems.
Make decisions that normally would be difficult and require human input (for which there is limited time to provide human input).”
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