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Predilection for Prediction: Which SEO Experts to Listen to in 2014

by Jimmy MacGregor on January 16, 2014

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It’s that time of year again.

The annual SEO land-grab for valuable new-year real estate is in full swing, with everyone offering their predictions for the year, whether we asked them to or not. Some of these articles are fantastic; wry, sly and intelligent. Many more are… less good. Or at least, less interesting.

You don’t have time to read through every prediction list out there, so here’s what we think about the most common types of SEO prediction for 2014.

“Machine Learning Will Become a Bigger Feature of Google’s Algorithm.”

In this sort of prediction, machine learning can really stand in for any big, impressive-sounding approach to programming or data analysis which Google have probably adopted.

This sort of statement is a big gesture. It’s supposed to say I have insider knowledge. I’m technically competent; I know exactly what’s going on underneath the hood.

It’s important, if you’re reading about this kind of thing, to think critically about what this sort of development might mean for us — if anything.

If I know how Google are going to modify a k-means clustering algorithm to help them identify and punish link networks, and group similar sites together, is that going to affect my decision on whether to join some shady link network?

Hell no. I’ll avoid link networks because they’re awful, hack-ish, unhelpful SEO solutions which can permanently harm your site and are going to result in some seriously awful conversion rates even if they do send you some ill-gotten organic traffic.

This kind of prediction, on its own, doesn’t tell us anything about what we should be doing. As such, it’s ultimately a bit of a cop-out.

Robotic toy

Image by Jack Newton

“Keyphrases Will Stop Being the Main Focus of SEO.”

Keyphrases have been declining in relevance for a while, with the advent of (not provided) being a pretty clear indicator of Google’s disdain for keyphrase targeting.

Links have also been becoming much less valuable in-and-of themselves, partly due to the voracious link-building practices of SEOs.

Google is already pretty heavily into natural language processing and contextual semantics. This naturally contributes to a shift away from specific keyphrases, as equivalent phrases can easily be parsed and more attention can be paid to quality metrics rather than relevance.

Further, there’s an organic incentive for Google to move away from precise, reliable search rankings for individual companies for individual keyphrases; AdWords.

This is not a prediction as much as a description of what’s already happened, but it’s a pretty important description so I’ll let it slide.

“Google Will Be More Evil.”

Google Gargoyle

Image by MrHicks46

This is pretty inevitable, now that Google is a major corporation. After all, any charitable gesture or useful tool released can now be seen as a cynical PR exercise, while any genuinely cynical move on their part will be condemned as the most abhorrent event in the history of ever.

It’s difficult to see where Google can go in terms of bad ethics, though.

They’ve accommodated political censorship in China, expanded their advertising so that it contravenes their own guidelines on screen real estate and provided all sorts of data to the NSA. They’ve even proven themselves to be vulnerable to a bit of venture-capital-backed-begging, when for some reason or other they allowed Rap Genius back to the top of the SERPs after they took part in black hat SEO which would have killed any smaller business.

Perhaps they’ll simply serve pages and pages of ads rather than ‘true search’? That’s about as close to a believable suggestion as I can find, at any rate.

Despite how this may sound, I’m really largely indifferent to Google – I suspect they’re exactly as amoral as any other company, and exactly as moral as any other company, and I do believe that many within the company genuinely try to balance profit and ethical motives.

However, I still have to ask – what can they realistically do in 2014 that would be more ‘evil’ than what they’re already doing? I’m fairly confident that they’ve hit their limit.

“Social Media Will Become More Important.”

If a reliable signal of quality exists, Google will make it more important.

If a signal of quality is more important, SEO types will find ways to mimic it, or give it undue weight.

If a signal of quality is given undue weight by SEOs, its reliability as a signal of quality falls, and Google will reduce its importance.

In other words, all SEO signals arrive at a natural equilibrium, dependent on how easy it is to fake the signal in question. SEO requires a really broad skillset, and it’s incredibly unlikely that a professional SEO will want to pay a disproportionate amount of attention to any one area.

Improvements in sentiment analysis might enable social media to be more reliable, to the point that it becomes more useful than it is at present – but it’s already pretty useful.

It’s best to approach SEO as a holistic exercise, not getting hung up on individual metrics, and this will remain best practice throughout 2014.

“If You’re so Smart, Why Don’t You Predict Something?”

Don’t worry, I’m not smart – I just think that predictions are very easy to make, and very difficult to make well. If there exists a convincing prediction which is easy to make, it’s because it’s already happening.

That said, my own prediction for 2014 is that SEO will continue much as it has over the past couple of years. High quality content will get the best results, and good promotion will amplify that effect.

In terms of specifics, I’ve been surprised that there’s so little integration between Google’s search offerings and Android so far. Enabling companies to mark up their apps and websites to indicate a connection between the two might go some way to close that gap.

Summing Up

Don’t listen too closely to the predictions people make, even when they’re very smart and experienced.

Common sense dictates that when there exists a large organisation entirely dedicated to providing the most appropriate web page for a searcher to land on, if you want searchers to land on your page then you should provide the most appropriate web page.

Using anything other than this as your main focus may work better in the short term, and it might be important to carry out some promotion for your super-appropriate web page, but over time simple, hacky metrics and one-size-fits-all approaches will become less and less useful.

The rest of SEO will be about making sure your site is clean, clear and works as expected, as it always has been.

 

Featured image by Steven Snodgrass

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