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2010: The Search Marketing Year in Preview

by Bruce Clay, January 15, 2010

As 2010 dawns, each day brings some discovery, and every week SEO becomes a new industry. Certainly SEO just one year ago is not the same as today, and looking forward, the only thing that is certain is that the future remains uncertain, as is traditional with everything search. The new year will bring substantial changes to our search engine optimization world worth calling out, and it is time once again to dust off the crystal ball and expound on the yearly trends we expect to see.

2009 was a year of evolutionary changes by the search engines in two key areas: the continued customization of search results for the individual user based upon behavior, location and query intent, and the introduction of new technologies as well as the modification of older techniques.

Personalization changes have improved the overall search experience for users by making results more relevant and more engaging, while the technology changes have added complexity and confusion to the entire search marketing industry and made many clients question the viability of the SEO investment. The introduction of canonical tags and the nofollow whiplash stand out as two prominent tech changes. Throw in a year of recession with inherently tight spending habits, and the ability of any company to remain current in this rapidly-shifting SEO world was lost.

Few of us in the search marketing space had the resources to perform the research needed to understand the changes, and even to question the claims. The result was that many smaller SEO firms had to stop performing testing and research and had no choice except to take the search engines at their word. That proved to be a mistake.

Conference and training budgets were hit hard, and many companies chose to go cheap instead of pursuing value. Unless you had no clients to begin with or had only long-term contracts, every SEO firm lost clients in 2009, revenues were impacted, and belt tightening was the rule and not the exception.

Where Online Goes, So Goes the Economy

In general, the economy will force some high-level problems and create opportunities.

I predict that in the first quarter of 2010 — in particular in January and February — there will be a lot of brick-and-mortar stores going out of business, mostly those that used up their war chest to survive an especially difficult first quarter in 2009 and those with consumers slow to return even as the economy recovers.

This period will see a general economic downturn as a result, as well as an awareness by merchants and manufacturers alike that online grew as a platform and will continue to dominate from now on.

It is a new economic fact: businesses must have an online presence or face slow but certain extinction. I think that manufacturers will seriously consider the "direct sales" opportunity, although many will fail to react for fear of alienating their channel.

Bing and Yahoo!'s partnership will shake up search market share. Users of one engine who don't like the other engine will switch to Google rather than sticking with the new hybrid engine. Once again the Search Engine Relationship Chart will see a significant change. But once that shift occurs, it will remain steady for the remainder of the year, barring any slip-ups by Google.

I predict that by mid-March, we'll enter a very long multiple-year economic recovery, with the online sector leading the way. There will be an increase in online marketing activity due to increasing online consumer spending, driving an explosion in local businesses finally entering the online marketing space. Please recall that June is a month that brings vacations, and along with vacation, a flattening of the growth curve. But with the storefronts diminished and well-heeled competitors getting ready for the 2010 holiday season, there will be a very high interest in small business SEO. SEO snooze, SEO lose.

I think that in the latter half of 2010 we will see the search results page massively changed and, of course, we will help with that facelift, offering SEO tools that annotate and enhance the mundane SERP. Rather than being wiped out, real-time search results will be implemented as an expandable and configurable engagement object (assuming the spam can be cleaned up). Social networks will not be a big play for organic rankings, though they will be used as a marketing tool for an effect similar to a press release or for reputation management.

Although organic search won't change much as a result of social media and real-time search, what will change the results will be new SERP presentation for creative videos and the massive number of localized map and 7-pack entries appearing for almost all search results by year end. During this period we will see personalized search and intent-based search force local search results, followed by an exponential increase in mobile search activity. There will be greater energy and spending in organic SEO and PPC, and both will see a shift toward localized and behaviorally driven results. Small businesses will be small-budget PPC players, and localized results will allow the small business Web site to become the dominant SEO project before year end.

We already see, and will continue to see SEO as a mandatory defensive move, part of every business strategy and absolutely a discussion at the Board of Directors level.

Mobile search integrated into all phones really gets big before year end — I can see the December 2010 TV commercials now. I'm not ready for a phone that has a ring tone going "bing... bing...."

Search Industry Evolution

That is how I see the industry (other than search engine technology) shifting. As early as December 2008, I predicted the death of ranking as a significant measure of SEO success. Analytics would be critical in the year ahead.

As I wrote in last year's Preview 2009 article:

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 was right. Because of personalization, 2010 is the year Web analytics becomes a necessary part of SEO for everyone.

As I did last year, I predict that pay per click bids will go up sharply as small businesses enter the geo-targeted advertising space. PPC ads will also be influenced by behavioral search, causing them to appear to a better-targeted audience. Because of the higher ROI and increased targeted competition, 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.

A massive growth in competent SEO training courses will be necessary to educate the marketing world on how Internet marketing works, making 2010 the year of education. We are already the SEO training partner for SES, SMX, and now ad:Tech, and offering open-seating courses each month as well as client-location custom courses. It will double in 2010.

We believe strongly enough in these predictions that we are already developing tools and research programs on these areas, and encourage you to stay tuned to our newsletter throughout the year so you will be ready when change occurs.

Crystal ball by BB_Matt on Flickr, via Creative Commons

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