8 Predictions for SEO in 2017

Posted by randfish

It’s that time again, friends… That time where I grade my 2016 predictions to see whether I’ve got the clout and foresight to get another shot in 2017. This year is gonna be really close, as I was more aggressive last year than in prior ones, so let’s see where we end up, and what I’ve got to say for te next 12 months.

As always, my predictions will be graded on the following scale:

  • Nailed It (+2) – When a prediction is right on the money and the primary criteria are fulfilled
  • Partially Accurate (+1) – Predictions that are in the area, but are somewhat different than reality
  • Not Completely Wrong (-1) – Those that landed near the truth, but couldn’t be called “correct” in any real sense
  • Way Off (-2) – Guesses which didn’t come close

If I’m at breakeven or above, you can have more trust for what I’ll posit for the year ahead. If not… Doom! Well, OK, maybe not doom. But at least shame and embarrassment and what I hope are lots of hilarious tweets at my expense.

Grading Rand’s 2016 Predictions

#1: Data will reveal Google organic results to have <70% CTR

+2 – I won big with this one, though it was one of my more conservative projects. According to our clickstream data gathered in the summer, approximately 40% of Google searches do not garner any clicks at all. Granted, some of those are probably Google autocompleting a query before the searcher has finished typing, but given the threshold of 70%, I’ve got plenty of room to spare.

#2: Mobile will barely cut in to desktop’s usage and its growth rate in developed countries will slow

+1 – I’m giving myself a conservative point here because while Google’s mobile growth has appeared to have slightly more of a plateauing impact (data via SimilarWeb Pro, which shows Google on desktop at ~51% in 2015, down to ~49% in 2016, with mobile the reverse) on desktop search volume in the US, I have been unable to find data on the growth of mobile/desktop in developing countries. If someone has a source to help me better refine this prediction, please leave it in the comments.

BTW — I’ll grant that SimilarWeb’s data on Google usage probably isn’t perfect, but they have enough of a sample set that the shift in mix from desktop to mobile is likely statistically significant and thus, the trend’s probably accurate.

#3: Twitter will figure out how to grow again

-1 – While Twitter did indeed grow monthly active users in 2016 (from 305mm to 317mm) compared to 2015 (when they only grew from 302–305mm), that was a very low bar. Growth is growth, but I don’t think Twitter has truly “figured out” how to grow yet. Maybe they’ll take a page from Hunter Walk or Anil Dash.

#4: Social content engines will become a force

-1 – This is a tough one… SimilarWeb shows Pocket down in the overall app rankings but up as a referring source, and up on the mobile & desktop web with more engaged users on the platform. Meanwhile, Nuzzel has grown ~30% on the web (again, according to SimilarWeb). Instapaper and Feedly seem to be doing well, but not exceptionally so. I think these apps are a force in the influencer world, but their success breaking into the mainstream seems, as yet, limited.

#5: Yext will IPO, prompting even more interest in the world of local listings

-2 – I’m shocked I missed this one. I think Yext is probably still a likely IPO candidate in the next 12 months, but credit to them for staying private longer and building up for what I’m guessing will be a strong public offering.

#6: The death of normal distributions will hit both publishing and search results hard

+2 – Tragically, we did indeed see more consolidation, the loss of more news sources and networks, and the continued domination of Google’s search results by the few over the many. I showed off our clickstream data on this in my MozCon intro:

#7: The rise of adblocking is going to trigger attempts at legislation and incite more sites to restrict adblocking users

-1 – One out of two isn’t bad, but since my primary prediction was around legislation, I’ll stay conservative and deduct a point. We did certainly see more sites, particularly ad-driven sites, shifting to subscriptions and getting much more aggressive in their treatment of adblocking users. Mashable wrote about how it appears, from many reports, that adblocking itself seems to have leveled off in 2016, which few would have predicted. Maybe the savvy users who wanted to avoid ads have all done their bit and most of the rest of the web’s users don’t mind ads all that much? Or maybe just not enough to do anything about it.

#8: DuckDuckGo will be the fastest-growing search engine of 2016

+2 – Barring perfect data for things like Amazon’s Alexa/Echo (which is arguably a personal assistant, not a search engine) or for Google itself (which probably grew searches in the 10–15% range), it looks like this was spot on. Pretty impressive to see DuckDuckGo go from 8,606,321 searches per day on January 2nd, 2016 to 11,183,864 per day on January 2nd, 2017 — 30% year-over-year growth.

#9: Content marketing software for the non-enterprise will finally emerge

+1 – There’s no clear, breakout market leader in content marketing software for SMBs (Canva might be on the brink). But, there are a lot of players and a few in strong positions. I’m not seeing any with tens of millions in pure SMB revenue, hence only one point, but this is a market space that even today is hotter than the SEO software space has ever been. There are at least 50 content marketing software companies with VC backing who have SMB offerings. In SEO, I don’t think more than 5 companies have ever raised VC (versus private investment). And those 50 companies (plus the many private and unfunded ones) probably combine to serve a lot of customers, possibly more than the few SMB-focused SEO software companies ever have.

#10: The “big” trends for 2016: Wearables, VR, smart home, and Internet of Things will have almost no impact on the world of web marketing (yet)

-1 – I’m going to say that voice search applications that circumvent the web (and, thus, web marketing) are at least on the verge of having an impact on at least search, and possibly other channels soon too (“Alexa, read my Facebook feed to me so I don’t have to see the ads.”)

FINAL 2016 SCORE: +2

Whew! Just made it… Let’s see what’s on deck for the 12 months to come.


Rand’s 8 Predictions for 2017

#1: Voice search will be more than 25% of all US Google searches within 12 months. Despite this, desktop volume will stay nearly flat and mobile (non-voice) will continue to grow.

I’m going out on a limb with this by predicting what most aren’t — that voice search won’t actually cannibalize desktop or typed mobile searches, but will instead just add on top of it. Today, between 20–25% of mobile queries are voice, but oddly, Google said in May 2016 the number was 20% whereas in September 2010, they’d said 25%. Either voice has been relatively flat, or the old number was incorrect.

KPCB’s 2016 Trends report suggests the growth in voice search is higher, using implied Google Trends data (which, as those of us in SEO know, can be a dangerous, messy assumption). Clickstream data sampling and sources that track referrals (like SimilarWeb Pro) are likely better ways to measure the impact of cannibalization, and hopefully Google themselves (or third-party data sources with direct access) will report on the relative growth of voice to validate this.

In my opinion, voice search is the first true high-risk technology shift ever faced by the SEO world. If we see it cannibalize a substantive portion of search activity, we may find a pot that’s been growing for 20 years is suddenly (possibly rapidly) shrinking. I’m still bullish on search growing for the next 2–3 years, but I’m watching the data carefully, as should we all.

#2: Google will remain the top referrer of website traffic by 5X+. Neither Facebook, nor any other source, will make a dent.

Here’s SimilarWeb‘s breakdown for who sends traffic on the web:

I’d generally ignore “direct” as those include HTTPS->HTTP referrals that pass no referral string, every opening of every browser and browser tab, bookmarks, links from apps that don’t carry referrals, etc. The data below is where I pay attention. There, Google is ~11X bigger than Facebook, which is ~1.5X YouTube.

My prediction is that Google continues to dominate, no matter the prognostications about Facebook or Snapchat or Amazon or anyone else making inroads to the overall traffic pie.

#3: The Marketing Technology space will not have much consolidation (fewer exits and acquisitions, by percentage, than 2015 or 2016), but there will be at least one major exit or IPO among the major SEO software providers.

Scott Brinker has been helpfully tracking the growth and changes to the marketing software landscape over the last decade, and there’s been a metric ton of new entrants.

But, oddly enough, SEO has always remained a small player in the software world. The vast majority of the companies and tools in the list below are private, unfunded, and have annual revenues of <$1mm. A few larger players exist, but in every other marketing tech category, there’s at least one player at 2–10X the size of our entire market combined.

Part of this is because very few entrepreneurs in the space have chosen to go the VC-backed, billions-or-bust route vs. pursue the relatively higher success and survival rates offered by small investors or bootstrapping. Part of it is because SEO as an industry is dependent on Google, which creates risk that many entrepreneurs and investors dislike. And part is because SEO has a bad reputation thanks to its shady past and a few spammy operators.

In 2017, I believe we’ll see very little acquisition or IPO activity from martech players. But I think we will see one of the major SEO software players (most probably Yext, Searchmetrics, SEMRush, Brightedge, Conductor, STAT, Rio SEO, Sistrix, Yoast, or Moz itself) have a major exit. An IPO would make our field vastly more interesting to analysts and potentially investors and entrepreneurs, too. A large exit could start a wave of consolidation.

#4: Google will offer paid search ads in featured snippets, knowledge graph, and/or carousels.

In 2016, Google put shopping ads in image search, rolled out ads in local packs, and increased the number of top ads in AdWords to 4 (which can dominate many top-of-fold SERPs). Despite this, paid CTRs have been pretty flat.

Merkle/RKG data is awesomely transparent, but of course biased by the sites that use the agency and share their analytics/AdWords data. Directionally, it’s usually solid, particularly on metrics like paid CTR, and I trust that it’s rarely going to be way off. Their data also matches nicely to our own clickstream analyses, showing that 1.5%–2.5% of all search queries result in a click on a paid ad.

#5: Amazon search will have 4% or more of Google’s web search volume by end of year.

You might have seen a report noting that Amazon is “beating” Google as the place consumers start their product searches. Unfortunately, that report used survey data, and we’re all familiar with how poor web users are at estimating how they actually behave online.

Moz’s clickstream data was more revealing here, showing that Amazon’s probably ~2% the overall search volume of Google. You could certainly make the argument that perhaps only 4% of all Google searches are for products, and thus, Amazon is neck-and-neck. I suspect Google’s still winning here, but my prediction is that Amazon will grow their search penetration and volume, in part thanks to Alexa/Echo, and in part because of their formidable Prime strategy, to be 4% or more of Google (doubling where they were this past summer).

#6: Twitter will remain independent, and remain the most valuable and popular network for publishers and influencers.

It’s very in vogue to rag on Twitter — their share price has sunk. Their growth has been tepid. Trolls and abuse plague the platform and many of Twitter’s leaders are culturally locked-in to a focus on “free speech” over improving the platform for abused and marginalized groups. Buzzfeed’s report on these trends reveals a deep cultural rift that seems to be hurting the platform still.

Despite this, I’m bullish on Twitter remaining the most powerful way for publishers and influencers to connect, share, and converse. The platform’s open systems (versus the closed ecosystems of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc) and its huge media presence give it a hard-to-catch lead in this field. That, and no one else seems to be trying, possibly because Twitter hasn’t shown the growth that closed networks like Facebook have.

My other prediction, that Twitter remains independent, is a thorny and unpopular one. Supposedly, Twitter’s put itself up for sale, but the bidders have been less than excited (or perhaps the premium the company is seeking is simply too high). In 2017, I think we’ll continue to see an independent Twitter, growing revenue and users slower than Wall Street wants, but maintaining their cultural and influencer status.

#7: The top 10 mobile apps will remain nearly static for the year ahead, with, at most, one new entrant and 4 or fewer position changes.

Mobile apps have been a bugbear for many big brands, marketers, and app creators. While apps have dominated time spent on mobile, apart from games, the money to be made and that precious time spent is almost all flowing to the top few apps.

Nielsen reported that Amazon broke into the top 10 this year, but apart from that, it’s been fairly quiet in the rankings shakeups at the head of the app curve. What’s scarier is that Google and Facebook own a full 8 of the top 10 apps, and those apps are responsible for more than 90% of all app activity.

This is a winner-take-all market, and one with a surprisingly short tail to its demand curve. I’m predicting almost no change in 2017. Apps will be dominated by these few. For SEOs, apps continue to provide some extra ranking opportunities, mostly in mobile on Android (and a little less on iOS), but the “App Takeover” of SERPs and mobile search never appeared. Hopefully, you didn’t over-invest in the trend!

#8: 2017 will be the year Google admits publicly they use engagement data as an input to their ranking systems, not just for training/learning

2016 saw Google backtracking a bit on the issue of search/visit/click/pogostick data, most saliently via Paul Haahr’s excellent slide deck, How Google Works: An Ranking Engineer’s Perspective.

Since then, there have been fewer dismissals of this fact than in the past, but some Googlers have maintained in public talks and on Twitter that query and click data cannot influence rankings (which we’ve proven over and over is highly improbable).

I’m proud of Google for, over the last few years, being generally less misleading and more open on issues of how their search engine works. I’m hopeful this extends into the realm of engagement data because I believe it would have a real and positive impact on how many brands, publishers, and content creators of all kinds on the web think about what they create. The story in many circles is still “links + keywords,” and the nuance that low-engagement content (and sites) will, over time, underperform even if they do these right, would be a great nudge in a positive direction.


Now it’s your turn — where do you think I’m right? Wrong? Crazy? And what predictions are you making for SEO and search marketing in 2017?

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