The Future of On-site SEO (in 2016 and Beyond)
SEO is always in a state of fluctuation, but most of the updates and changes we pay attention to are ones that affect some small component of our overall strategies. For example, the Panda update of 2011 affected how the algorithm evaluated the quality of content, and the Penguin update the very next year changed how Google evaluated links. What if there’s a change coming that fundamentally overhauls one of the biggest pillars of successful optimization?
The Role of Onsite Optimization
“Onsite optimization” covers a lot of ground, but essentially, it’s a system of constructs, rules, and tactics that you can use to modify your site and make it more visible to search engines, as well as more authoritative in those engines’ eyes. Historically, there have been some significant changes to how onsite optimization works—for example, a decade ago, it was neither imperative nor even appropriate to optimize your site for mobile devices. Today, having a non-optimized mobile site is archaic, and can significantly stifle your potential growth. However, by and large, most onsite optimization factors have remained consistent.
(Image Source: SearchEngineWatch)
The bottom line for onsite optimization is that it sets your site up for the search engine rankings you want. If you’re interested in a fairly exhaustive guide on the subject of onsite optimization, you can check out AudienceBloom’s (Nearly) Comprehensive Guide to Onsite Optimization.
Why Onsite SEO Could Be in for Massive Changes
So why are we on the verge of a potential disruption in the world of onsite optimization? There are three factors working together here:
- Different forms of search. First, you have to recognize that there are different types of search engines entering the game. Personal digital assistants, which would have been considered impossibly futuristic just a few decades ago, are now commonplace, and users are searching in new ways—mobile devices alone have had a dramatic impact on how people use search in the modern world.
- Advanced data interpretation. If you’ve been plugged into any tech news in the past few years, you know the power of big data and how much insight we’ll be able to gather on users and systems in the near future. More user data means more sophisticated ways of evaluating user experiences, which could lead to further refinement of onsite ranking factors.
- New types of “sites.” Finally, we have to recognize that what’s considered a “site” may be undergoing a significant evolution. I’ll touch on this more in the next section, but suffice it to say, the traditional website may be on its last legs. How can you perform onsite optimization where there is no site? We’ll explore this idea later on.
With that being said, let’s explore some of the potential game-changers in the onsite optimization world, some of which could start having a massive effect on how we optimize websites as early as this year.
The first and potentially most significant trend I want to explore is the development of app-based SEO. Obviously, apps have permeated our society thanks to the popularity of mobile devices and the convenience of app functionality. Since apps don’t require the intermediary step of firing up a web browser, they’re becoming a more popular means of discovering online content and using online-specific functionality.
What does this have to do with onsite SEO? Everything.
Existing App SEO
First, it’s important to acknowledge the amount of app SEO already relevant to today’s users. Apps are starting to serve as an alternative to traditional websites, occasionally offering what websites can’t, but more often offering what websites do, but in a more convenient, device-specific package.
The fundamental crux of app SEO is optimizing your app to be indexed by Google (and other search engines), much in the same way that onsite optimization ensures your website is indexed. For most apps, this involves setting up communication between your app listing and Google’s search bots, so Google can draw in information like your app name, a simple description, an icon associated with your app, and any reviews. Google can then provide your app (along with an “install” button) in SERPs whenever a user types in a relevant query.
(Image Source: Google)
There’s also an app SEO feature known as “app deep linking,” but I’m hoping there’s a catchier name for it in the near future. This functionality allows you to structure links that point to interior pages or screens of your app, giving Google the ability to link to those pages or screens directly in search results.
(Image Source: Google)
There’s one limitation to this process: users must have the app already installed to see these deep links in their search results. But there’s a solution in beta!
Google’s latest brainchild is a functionality called “app streaming,” which allows users to access deep linked content within apps, and sometimes entire app functions themselves, without ever downloading the app to their devices. The premise is somewhat simple; Google hosts these apps, and allows users to use only the relevant portions of them, much in the same way that Netflix streams movies and shows as you’re watching them.
(Image Source: TechCrunch)
The concept is even expanding to advertising, which is great for companies that revolve around the use of mobile apps. Companies may allow for an in-results “trial” offer of their apps, giving users a chance to stream the app before they buy it:
(Image Source: SearchEngineLand)
So what does all this mean? It means that apps are developing their own “kind” of onsite optimization, unique from what we’re used to in traditional websites. For now, it might seem like a gimmick, but there’s reason to believe this change could be coming to all of us, sooner than we might think.
The most important factor to remember here is the way consumer trends are developing. Mobile traffic has rocketed past desktop traffic, and there’s no signs of its momentum stopping anytime soon.
(Image Source: SearchEngineWatch)
App adoption is also on an upward trend, correlating strongly with mobile traffic data (as you might have predicted). Because of this, users will demand more app functionality in their search results (however those results might be generated), and search engines will do more to favor apps.
Could Apps Replace Traditional Websites?
The most important question for this section is whether all these fancy app SEO features and rising app use could eventually replace traditional websites altogether. Conceptually, apps are just “better” versions of website. They’re locally hosted, so they’re somewhat more reliable, they offer more unique, customizable experiences, they can be accessed directly from your device, sparing you the intermediary step of using a browser, and there’s nothing a website offers that an app can’t.
But just because apps “can” replace traditional websites, it doesn’t mean they inevitably will, especially with older generations who might be reluctant to adopt apps over the traditional websites they’ve known throughout the entire digital age. Still, even if apps don’t replace traditional sites entirely, they’ll still be significant players in how SEO develops in the future.
Does Your Business Need an App?
As a related note to this discussion, you may be wondering if your business “needs” to adopt an app, since they’re becoming so popular and influential in the SEO realm. The answer, currently, is no. Traditional websites are still used by the vast majority of users, and the cost of developing an app is often only worth it if you have a specific need for one as part of your business model, or if there’s significant consumer demand.
Rich Snippets and Instant Answers
On another front of development are rich answers, sometimes referred to as instant answers, or Knowledge Graph entries. These are concise answers that Google provides users who search for a simple, answerable query, and they come in a variety of forms. They may be a few lines of explanatory text describing the solution to a problem, or a complex chart, calendar, or graphical depiction, depending on the nature of the query.
Take a look at these examples:
Note how the answer in the bottom example contains a citation, with a link pointing to the source of the information. Google draws all its Knowledge Graph information from external sources, and if yours is one of the contributors, you’re going to earn this visibility. Since users are getting the answers they’re looking for, you may not get as much traffic as an ordinary top position, but you will be the most visible in the results.
The Rise in Rich Answers
The most important optimization influencer here is the sheer increase in how many rich answers are provided. Google is developing this functionality at a fast rate because it understands the sheer value to users—getting the answer you wanted, immediately, without ever having to click a link, is the next generation of search engines. Just in the past year, there’s been a massive surge in the number of queries that are answered with rich answers, corresponding with Google’s increasing ability to decipher and address complicated user queries.
(Image Source: StoneTemple)
Personal digital assistants, too, are capable of providing more direct answers to users. So what does this increased ability to provide direct information mean for onsite optimization?
Structured Data as a Ranking Signal
The first possibility is that structured data might become a ranking signal. Google and other search engines depend on websites to use a specific architecture, a structured markup, to provide information that can be used for such answers. Schema.org is a great resource for this, and even amateur coders can implement this markup on a site in relatively little time. Accordingly, Google may start rewarding sites that offer more completely adherent pages, or ones that offer better information.
John Mueller addressed this recently:
(Image Source: SearchEngineLand)
Competition and Complicating Factors
There are a handful of factors to consider here that complicate the relationship of onsite optimization to rich answers:
- The competition factor. There’s only one spot for the top position in a rich answer situation, which means competition is fiercer than ever. You have to provide not only the most relevant answer for a user’s query, but also earn the highest authority out of anyone competing for the spot. This demands more offsite optimization and authority-focused SEO.
- The decline of organic traffic and traditional SERP entries. The provision of instant answers makes it somewhat less likely that users will click through links. They will also be less likely to see organic search entries further down the list, decreasing the significance of the “traditional” SERP layout, and possibly affecting the relevance of existing onsite factors like title tags and meta descriptions (more on this later).
- Alternative targets. In the short-term, it’s better to target and provide complex information that Google may not currently be able to provide answers to. However, as the Knowledge Graph becomes more advanced, this will be harder and harder for businesses to do.
The bottom line here is that directly provided answers are morphing the traditional SERP, the average user experience, and are changing what it takes for your site to be perceived as an authority.
User Experience Factors
The bottom line for search engines is to make users happy, and they’re going to evolve as they learn more information about what workers want and need. Technologies are becoming advanced enough to draw in big data about huge swaths of users; this will soon make it possible for Google and other search engines to learn even more about how their users interact with sites. This, in turn, will force webmasters to adopt more onsite changes that favor beneficial user experiences.
User Behavior and Engagement
Currently, user behavior serves as a peripheral ranking factor; longer time spent on page is a general indicator of a high-authority or otherwise high-value site, while higher bounce rates is an indicator of much lower authority. In the near future, Google may be able to look at even more specific usability factors as ranking signals, such as how quickly they scrolled through the site, whether or not it appeared as though they were reading content, and in what order they clicked your links.
User engagement factors may similarly come into play. For example, how quickly a user moves to leave a comment on your blog, or what other apps the user connects to may indicate how authoritative your site is.
These new features, combined with other applications of big data, will make onsite optimization more qualitative in nature. In addition to hitting the mark with the “fundamentals” (some of which are described in the next section), your site will be required to qualitatively please your user base, which will require significant testing and adjustment. For some webmasters, this is nothing new; it’s what’s required for conversion optimization, but soon, search engines may demand it.
So far, I’ve mostly been exploring how new technologies and trends will influence the development of new additions to the onsite optimization world. But what about the onsite optimization strategies that already exist? How are they going to be affected over the next few years? Will they remain the same? Disappear? Evolve? I want to take a quick look at some of the most important factors, and how they might develop with the times:
- Basic functionality. The “basic” functionality of your site refers to users’ ability to access your site, load all of its content (including videos and images), and consume that content without any significant barriers, across all devices and browsers. As a general concept, this is going to remain identical—you’ll always need your site (or app) to perform. However, those performance standards might change with consumer adoption of new technologies, similar to how mobile devices spurred the necessity of “mobile optimization.”
- Mobile optimization. This is the perfect segue for mobile optimization, another major tenet of modern onsite optimization. What’s going to happen to mobile optimization? For starters, it’s probably going to stop being a term. We’re a few years away from mobile devices becoming so entrenched in our society that we stop seeing them as “new,” and start seeing mobile optimization as a standard by default. From there, there will probably be even stranger devices and user experiences to start worrying about.
- URL structures and sitemapping. Currently, search engines demand some level of sitemapping to easily categorize and interpret your site, and a URL structure that’s easy for users to follow (with appropriate names to help search engines understand your page intent). For as long as traditional websites remain alive, URL structures will remain important, and it’s doubtful these standards will change. However, apps will likely demand a new kind of infrastructural mapping, and a replacement for URLs (as all content is hosted within the app).
- Internal links. Internal links make it easier for users to navigate your site, and help search engines understand the unique relationships between all your pages. I imagine these will remain important to some degree, but with increased emphasis on user experience, this will have to evolve. Your anchor text and link placement will need to be further optimized to improve user experiences (not just stuffed in to make your site a tighter network).
- Site speed. Site speed is always going to be important, even if traditional websites die and apps take their place. Users are impatient and demanding, and I can’t imagine them becoming less so over time. Regardless of whether they’re trying to access a traditional page of web content or they’re trying to use your app, they need their experience to be immediately gratifying, and it’s up to you to provide that to them.
- Encryption. User security concerns are growing somewhat consistently, thanks to data breaches and similar scares. Combined with increasing sophistication of cyber-security and ever-evolving threats from hackers, it’s likely that encryption and user security will become greater ranking signals over time.
- Title tags and meta descriptions. Title tags and meta descriptions are features I’m divided on. On one hand, search engines needs some kind of concise data to let them know what a page’s intention is, and what kind of content a user might expect on that page. On the other hand, traditional SERPs may start to evolve beyond the need for any title and description entries. This is thanks to the rising trend of voice-based search and the provision of direct answers. There will probably be some form of titling and describing, but it may decline in significance since it will influence click-through rates less.
- Onsite content. Finally, there’s onsite content, which is the amount and quality of content you have on each of your internal pages. Users will grow accustomed to faster content consumption experiences in the near future, so onsite content may start coming into play less when it comes to evaluating the quality of a site. It will always be important, but apps may make content less structured by necessity, and users may prefer more concise experiences.
These are mostly speculative, based on historical patterns and possible technology developments, so take these predictions with a grain of salt.
Over the course of this article, we’ve taken a look at some of the boldest new technologies and consumer trends shaping the future of search, and how those changes could impact what we currently identify as onsite optimization. These may be enlightening, interesting, or amusing to you, but remember the only way to earn the practical value from this piece is to leave with actionable takeaways. If we’re truly on the verge of a new search disruption, you need to be ready for it. SEO favors the competitors who can adapt to the latest trends quickly, and that means taking action with every new development or revelation.
Key Changes to Watch For
In an effort to stay ahead of the competition, you need to remain vigilant and keep watch for how these onsite trends develop. Overall, the changes in onsite optimization will reflect a change in the role of traditional websites in general. In the next few years, this change will manifest in three key areas:
- The rise of app importance. Apps are starting to become more important to users and search visibility in general, and that importance is only going to increase in the next few years. Eventually, that may lead to the demise of the traditional website, leaving “onsite” optimization to the realm of “app” optimization.
- Prioritization of information. Users are hungry for faster, more accurate, more immediate information, and tech companies want to provide that. Rich answers and personal digital assistants are two examples of technologies attempting to bring this information to users, and future onsite optimization techniques will likely require some provision of this fast, concise, accurate information—even more so than today.
- Sophistication of user insights. Search engines will have more information on users, which will make the process of onsite evaluation far more complicated (and rewarding for users). That means more experience-based ranking signals, and possibly more ranking factors beyond our direct control, such as greater SERP personalization.
How Quickly Do You Need to Adapt?
It’s hard to say exactly when or how these changes will develop—app-based SEO is already alive and well, and companies are starting to take advantage of it for their businesses, but we’re not in any immediate danger of traditional websites going extinct yet. Technology tends to develop faster than most consumers and business owners anticipate, and you certainly don’t want to get left behind, so err on the side of caution by hedging your bets. Invest in select new strategies you feel are pertinent for your site’s visibility, but don’t be too quick to abandon your old techniques. If I had to guess, these changes will probably manifest gradually over the next five years, so you have plenty of time to make your evaluations.
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