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FEATURE: Bruce Clay’s 2014 Predictions for the SEO Industry

by Bruce Clay, January 28, 2014

Audience: SEOs and Internet marketers

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes


  • Bruce Clay makes six predictions he expects will come to fruition in the online marketing industry during 2014.
  • His predictions touch on how technology and user behavior will affect mobile use, local search results, voice search and video content.
  • He also explains specific ways he predicts Google's handling of spam will change.

What follows are six predictions by Bruce Clay on mobile, local, video and voice search, spam treatment, and expected changes to SERP makeup. But first, a note from the editor …

Bruce Clay thinks about SEO a lot. He reads announcements by search engines like a meteorologist watches shifting air currents. Will the changing winds usher in a bitter cold polar vortex or a drought-relieving shower?

Since 2006, Bruce has posted annual predictions of what he expects will jostle the Internet marketing industry in the year to come. A quick glance at the archives reveals a humorous pattern. Check out the opening sentence or two of each year’s predictions:

2006: I am certain that 2006 will behave in a traditional manner, and be unlike any year before it.

2007: I am certain that 2007 will NOT behave in a traditional manner, whatever that is.

2008: We have an official saying when it comes to yearly predictions and it goes like this: 2008 will not be like the year before it. The only thing that is certain is that it will be significantly different from 2007.

2009: As 2009 dawns, change is a given. Actually, in the world of search, as any day dawns change is certain.

2010: As 2010 dawns, each day brings some discovery, and every week SEO becomes a new industry.

2011: As we entered 2010, we discussed how change is accelerating. Yes, every week, if not every day, this is a new industry.

2012: Another whirlwind year in Web marketing is behind us, and the one ahead seems just as exciting.

2013: 2013 will be a year with a faster pace and more innovations in search and social than we've seen yet.

You get the picture. Change is a given in SEO. Even the term “SEO” may be going out of vogue in favor of “Internet marketing optimization” – a term that gives a nod to a holistic approach to marketing, inclusive of many channels and content types.

But here we are, at the start of a new year looking back at one of the wildest rollercoasters the Internet marketing industry has ever seen. And by analyzing the events of the past, considering the technology of the future and weighing the motivations of those in power, Bruce has predictions for the loops and turns ahead. Here's Bruce.

Search and Online Marketing in 2014: Bruce Clay’s Annual SEO Forecast

In keeping with our annual tradition here at Bruce Clay, Inc., I'd like to share with you my forecast of the search climate in 2014. I predict:

1. Searches done on mobile devices will exceed searches done on desktops (to the tune of 60% or more) by mid-year.

A widely cited 2012 report, The U.S. Local Media Forecast by leading research company for the local ad marketplace BIA/Kelsey, projected mobile searches to overtake desktop searches in 2015. Bruce’s prediction bets on an accelerated trend.

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2. Google will introduce enhanced features to local results that businesses can buy, much like exists with PPC, or coupons with local listings. Local search results will be displayed for more than half of all searches across all devices.

I predict that local results will become the next segment of the SERP Google will monetize. Within Places listings, businesses will have an opportunity to buy ads and/or listing enhancements. If executed like PPC, ad results will appear at the top of the Places entries. Or perhaps Google will offer special offers, coupons, rich snippets or additional information that local businesses can include on their local listings for a price.

Today the carousel allows Google to render more businesses on a local search results page. In my predicted scenario, if a business opts for a paid enhancement on their local listings, Google may list that business closer to the front of the carousel.

With local results becoming a Google revenue stream, expect to see an increase in the percentage of SERPs that include local results. Transactional (purchase-oriented) queries will see a rise in results from sites with location proximity to the searcher, but even results for informational queries will show a bias for sites near the searcher.

This comes at a trade-off for big brands. For example, instead of a WebMD result coming up as the top answer for the query [do I have a cold or the flu] a searcher will see more results from high authority organizations located near them.

You already see it for a query like [SEO]. If Google knows you’re in New York, they insert into the organic listings some organic New York sites. If you’re in LA you’ll get LA sites. In short, local entries will be more prevalent in the standard organic listings section. I believe that Google wants to localize all searches, ultimately.

3. Google will continue its crusade to root out spam and in doing so may extend the breadth of its net so even “minor offenses” will be identified and punished. Negative SEO will be treated by Google as a major penalty offense, with Google detecting it and punishing it at the highest end of the spam severity scale.

I expect that over the next year we’ll continue to see Google expand its sights on spam in two directions: 1. A decrease in tolerance of those spam tactics already identified; 2. Expanding the definition so that ever-more tactics are publicly known to be ranking manipulation.

In one direction we’ll see Google lower the tolerance of currently understood spam tactics. For example, in many of the initial iterations of the Penguin update, Google decreased the tolerance of spam link percentage of a backlink profile. The first version may have penalized sites where 80% of their backlink profile was spam, while Penguin #5 may have turned up the volume so that sites with just 20% spammy backlinks were penalized. Where spam tactics are quantifiable, Google will turn up the dial.

Google may also add to its spam hit list. In the last two weeks Google added a new public enemy: guest blogging for links. Guest blogging for the benefit of backlinks is officially a no-go in Matt Cutts’s book. It seems to closely mirror Google’s attitude toward press releases; businesses should approach a guest post or a press release as a means for increasing branding and visibility, but don’t think twice about squeezing link juice from it.

Google will offer Google+ Authorship and publisher markup as the recommended means for guest bloggers and press release publishers to clear themselves of spam flags. Don’t link to your site, but instead link to your Google+ profile or business page, and altogether avoid suspect backlinks for guest blogging and press release attribution, Google will say. Google wins as it becomes the de facto judge of identity and authority. Everything filters through Google+ and from there they vet links and profiles to measure authority.

I predict that Google will expressly identify negative SEO as a punishable offense. As negative SEO tactics are manipulations of the search ranking and indexing system, it falls under the definition of spam. Within the SEO industry, negative SEO is a problem, and Google will choose to address it as it is a black hat intentional tactic of index/ranking manipulation.

Google views spam tactics on a continuum based on the spammer’s intention. If someone has a backlink profile with 20% bad links, it’s hard for Google to tell if it’s just scraper sites and if it was done by the site intentionally. There are some kinds of spam that you know are intentional. If you’re a depective cloaker it’s bad; if you’re doing negative SEO it’s the top of the bad spam scale because that’s always done with intent.

Penalties will be levied but the severity will vary based on how intentional Google deems the spam attempt. People who are still implementing spam tactics today, after a year and a half of penalties from Google, will be considered severe spammers. If you’re doing something considered spam by accident, you’ll be found on the mild side of the spectrum. And a website’s history as a spammer will certainly be taken into account. The time it takes to recover from any penalty will drop as the severity of the infraction drops, but the worst offenders will take longer.

4. Google will drop the number of “blue links” organic listings on the first results page to 5.

There were originally 10 blue links. Recently Google reduced the number of standard organic listings on product pages to 7. Google wants to decrease the number of free organic / standard (non-blended) web links in results because they don’t make Google money. I expect the attempts to decrease the number of free standard organic listings will start on desktop results, and once accepted by searchers as normal, will become the accepted norm in mobile results.

Ultimately Google wants mobile results to be filled with listings that make Google money. Between PPC, PLAs, ads in local/Places, there’s going to be more opportunity for Google to make money from a results page. Add to that all the Google properties and Google is capable of dominating a whole page of results with monetized content. They wouldn’t want to eliminate all standard organic listings, but I expect them to drop the number until they find the tolerance threshold, which I think will be between 5 and 7.

5. Video will be more important as a content type and SEO ranking factor and will appear more often in Google results.

Video is engaging, and it is ad space. Increasing video results supports YouTube which I think Google would like to convert into a content delivery network for all video. Video has the opportunity to evolve into the primary communication medium.

6. Voice search will rapidly grow, passing 30% of all queries across all devices.

We’re going to see voice search for all kinds of computers, and touch screen interface goes with that. Google is already involved in hardware. Google Glass, Google’s move to buy Nest, and other mobile interfaces is a strong signal that Google wants to standard technology to evolve to voice activated controls. Google is moving toward the Star Trek computer of the future.

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