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2009: The Year in Preview

by Bruce Clay, January 15, 2009

As 2009 dawns, change is a given. Actually, in the world of search, as any day dawns change is certain. The new year will bring substantial changes to our search engine optimization world worth calling out, and this is our moment to dust off the crystal ball and expound on the yearly trends we expect to see.

2008 was a year of giant strides by the search engines in two key directions: customization of search results for the individual user based upon behavior and preference, and blended (or Universal) search results. Together, these have improved the overall search experience for users by making results more relevant and more engaging. And the SEO industry has so far taken these changes in stride.

I predict that in the first quarter of 2009 that there will be an increase in do-it-yourself PPC spending on advertising, thus overall advertising spend will go up, but this is not going to be spend placed through agencies. As companies have their Yellow Page ads expiring, a fair share of companies will opt for smaller ads and will switch spending to online. This shift in spend results in increased revenues for search engines, but little for our industry. Spending on SEO where results are not immediate will generally result in a delay in those projects, companies will be opting for the reduced risk of PPC out of a need to know that each dollar spent is on near-term revenues. With 28% of all businesses at risk of closure, only the companies with a war chest can afford the necessary investment to get ranked organically. As such, I am predicting that in the first quarter of 2009 agencies will see decreased services spend per client, tougher collections, and in general that this will be a tight 3 months.

I predict that in the second quarter those companies that have survived will recognize that online is a growing revenue source, and is quite frankly cheaper to operate than storefronts. We have businesses that are getting a larger share of their business from the Web and are closing storefront operations. The toy industry is a tiny example of that. Unfortunately this is a two-edged sword because as storefronts close there will be fewer wage earners, and they are the consumers online. Those businesses with vision and funds will increase their online spending to grab market share and position. The second quarter will see a general upturn in online projects and spending comparable to 2008.

June is a month in transition. Summer brings vacations, and along with this is the beginning of panic. The storefronts are diminished and your well-heeled competitors are getting ready for the 2009 holiday season. You snooze, you lose.

The latter half of 2009 will see chaos in the online marketing area. Everyone will need to spend online, meaning that PPC fees will be too high for those that have not tuned their conversion funnel to maintain. As such, the traditional last minute rush to the congested SEO project space will be much higher than normal. As companies consider that the major chains are online, that manufacturers are online and competing against their own retail channels, and that the lessons of 2008 where Amazon posted record sales is understood by the small proprietor, everyone will want to be ranked for their target market right then. Unfortunately this SEO-feeding-frenzy for the few top spots in an ever increasing competitive landscape will not be enough for some businesses. Search engine marketing emerges to be a competitive sport, and agencies with professional SEO athletes will win and amateurs will lose. Unfortunately, by the end of 2009 many companies will find themselves nowhere online, wishing they had started their race in March instead of July. The poor business decision of hiring cheap amateurs will cause businesses to fail. Those that understand that hiring the best is always a smart move, especially in 2009, will be winners.

During this period we will see the resurfacing of local search as a power. As geo-targeted businesses go online there will be an opportunity for competition at a level never before seen. The trained and competent semi-pro search engine optimization athlete will emerge as a dominant player within a city or vertical. Not all businesses are national, and consumers will see an advantage to online purchases from local merchants, especially if there is an internet sales tax (and there will need to be if stores close).

By the end of 2009 we will see SEO as a mandatory defensive move, part of every business and absolutely a discussion at the Board of Directors level. Quality agencies will thrive and amateurs will revert to selling local projects. Online web sites will be a massive growth opportunity for Web designers, and online starts to be a measurement of economic health just as housing starts are today. Where online goes so goes the economy.

A massive growth in competent SEO training courses will be necessary to educate the marketing world to how Internet marketing works making 2010 the year of education.

That is how I see the industry (other than search engine technology) shifting.

From a technology standpoint I predict that search engines will greatly expand behavior-centric, intent-centric, and even geo-centric customization in 2009, and all SEO professionals will need new ways to get around it. Even the level of customization already implemented caused me to say in an interview at the PubCon and SES Chicago conference that ranking is dead as the main measurement of SEO success. Driven by behavior, personalization, and intent, two people can no longer run the same search and come up with the same results. As a result, ranking alone is no longer a reliable measurement of SEO success. You must use your Web site analytics to measure traffic, bounce rates and conversions to determine whether your search engine optimization efforts are delivering as hoped. The days of "how high do I rank" being the measure of doing SEO right are essentially gone in 2009.

I predict that user behavior and related community tracking will be expanded (collectively "personalization") and increasingly applied Web-wide to all search results, paid and organic, regardless of whether the user is signed in to Google or not. By looking at the user's recent searches, visited sites, bookmarks, communities (common behavior groupings) and other online choices, the search engines adapt the results to what will be most relevant to that individual. So if a user searching for "java" had earlier searched for programming-related terms, or visited a programmer's forum, the results would be personalized to show sites related to Java the programming language, rather than coffee or travel. As for community, search engines observe patterns of search behavior across like groups of people, and then predict what results a similar searcher would be interested in. The similarity could be as small as all users that search for a single keyword, or it could combine multiple factors. Google understands what communities, loosely speaking, a searcher is part of. They're getting better at predicting what else the person is interested in.

I predict Google will implement Universal Search-driven algorithm changes most likely during the first quarter of 2009. Engagement Objects™ such as images, videos, Flash objects, audio, maps, news, books and blogs will weigh much more heavily than ever before as ranking factors. It will take a while to balance out the weighted averages in the algorithm, and for sites to imbed Engagement Objects into their sites, but it will clearly emerge as an influence in the first part of 2009. One advantage of this is that it would make it economically difficult for spammers to SEO 500 sites by adding Engagement Objects to all of them. Affiliate and lead generation sites will be collateral damage.

Many indicators point to this coming shift. Soon after launching Universal Search, Google claimed that its algorithm contained "over 200" ranking factors, compared to the previous 128-ish. Though Google keeps its algorithm largely a mystery, it's logical to conclude that the additional 70-ish ranking factors would in considerable part be related to Universal Search elements - things like the number and size of images on the page, whether there's an embedded video, and so on. So far, in part due to the need to change the spider to identify such factors, search engine optimization and rankings have not changed to the extent you would expect from such a large expansion of the algorithm. 2009 will tell another story.

Google's ability to "read" and index rich media has definitely leapt forward this year. Googlebot is now able to spider non-moving text within Flash files, and has begun to apply voice recognition to soundtracks of videos and MP3 files, converting them to text that can be indexed. There's a lot of effort being expended to get the meaning out of Engagement Objects.

Another factor at play is intent-based search. The search engines, after resolving personalization factors, will determine if the intent of the query is research, or if the intent is shopping. This was easily seen in Yahoo Mindset before it was withdrawn, and clearly showed that the search engines will present different pages after the query based upon the search intent. Obviously the page and site content and presentation contribute to understanding the proper pages to be in the search results. Added to this is the automatic inclusion of geo-targeted bias. If you are a shopper, then local shopping-oriented sites become much more prominent in the results, whereas the researcher simply wants the best answer without localization concerns. We have seen this many times, and know it is currently in production. Results localized by searcher IP are already common.

In 2009 we will see these factors cause increasing volatility in search engine rankings in turn causing SEOs to wrestle with the new algorithm factors. With Web pages jumping up or down in the rankings, only to resume their original positions 20 minutes later, the game is going to be much more complex than most can handle. This volatility while Google is testing the new algorithm and gathering data by turning one variable at a time on and off will make the marketplace question whether SEO is a viable program compared to PPC. Those with vision will stick it out; those SEOs who understand this shift will win, and those slow to adapt will suffer. Yes, 2009 will be an interesting and fun year for the search engine marketing industry.

I predict that pay per click bids will go up sharply as Web site rankings destabilize. However, PPC ads will also be influenced by behavioral search, causing them to appear to a better-targeted audience. This improved targeting should reduce click fraud, since competitors will have a hard time seeing an ad if they don't personally fit the targeted profile. It will also become more difficult or expensive to buy keywords that don't naturally fit with a particular behavioral demographic. PPC advertisers will experience higher conversion rates, since searchers clicking their ads will be more likely to want what the site offers, and Google will benefit by increased profit.

We see and believe that this is the way 2009 will happen enough to include appropriate features into our new tools. 2009 will see the launch of our new SEOToolSet® which will address many of the changes to technology outlined above. Our new tools have many updates to the current presentation and content functionality, a more efficient database and an easy-to-navigate interface. Our first new tool is the Search Engine Optimization/KSP tool, available free on our SEO methodology page.

A new SEMToolBar component will be available free. The toolbar enhances search results pages with keyword and page statistics for each result. As the user works on the Web, the PageRank, backlinks count, pages indexed, and other information displays in the toolbar for convenient reference. The new integrated tools will equip SEOs to deal with the changing search engine methodology and the increased globalization of Internet marketing. Over twenty different languages are supported, so you can run a search and view it in one language while your client simultaneously views the same report in another. For those selecting this option, the proxy search feature will soon overcome localization issues by letting you run a search as though you were in another city or country. Using the toolbar, you could be in California and run a proxy search as if you were in New York City or Australia or any other location you choose. You can also soon specify which search engine to query, picking from a growing list of up to 200 engines from around the world. So if you're working to optimize a UK Web site for users in Thailand, proxy search gives you a way to run those searches through the search engine of your choice, from anywhere. The new toolset works on the Microsoft Internet Explorer browser. We're working on a version for Firefox due out second quarter.

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