2013 was been something of a ‘positioning’ year. We know where we’re going (queries not keywords, adwords encroaching more, structured data & knowledge, quality content) – but we’re not there yet. We know SEOs should be marketers, but far too many are not. And never will be.

2014 will be a consolidation year, in my opinion. We’ll get closer to all of the above – we’ll see the impact of on-page keyword targeting reduce, and Google will better understand natural language.

We’ll see our organic listings shrink even further, and we’ll see structured data get easier & better. We may even get rewarded for our ‘great’ content, without having to resort to SEO tactics.

My look ahead to 2014 combines my two personalities – the pessimist and the optimist. In order for the optimist to get a say, let’s allow the pessimist its voice first, shall we?

Penguin 3.0 rolls out in April or May

As predictions go, this is one of the easier ones. It’s like saying “there’ll be an FA Cup Final in May”. You know it’s going to happen – you’re just not 100% sure who’s involved.

My opinion is that Google is nowhere near finished with Penguin – it may even be that they’re only 20% down the road. You can interpret that one of two ways:

  1. There’s a lot of spam around
  2. Google aren’t very good at detecting spam

Their recent mocking of Anglo Rank, a black hat link network, was crude PR at best. If Google were any good at “busting” link networks, they’d visit Black Hat World and sign up for everything being advertised. I could do that. Therefore, I lean towards the second interpretation, while accepting the first.

There is a lot of spam, and let’s not pretend that it’s all casino or payday loan affiliates buying links. The top travel and insurance firms, lured by the thousands of monthly organic hits, are inveterate spammers themselves. They’ve spammed more than a casino or payday loan affiliate could dream of, and most of them have not been punished. They’ve used article marketing and link networks, they’ve dropped anchor-text-rich links all over the web – and yet they survive on the strength of their brands.

Penguin 3.0 will just be another iteration, and it will hit people hard. It may even hit people who thought they had recovered. I have one client who we helped recover from an algorithmic penalty, only for Google to turn around and say “ahh yes, but you didn’t remove these three links, did you” and apply a manual penalty for links we couldn’t have removed. And yes, they had been disavowed.

You think you’ve recovered? Watch your back.

Press releases and guest blogs will be targeted

The problem with SEOs is that if you give them (us) an inch, they (we) will take a mile. We were gifted guest blogging – a wonderful way of building authority, making friends, trying out new writing styles, gaining new audiences – and we turned it into a link farm the size of Russia.

It’s relatively easy to discern good guest blogging from bad guest blogging. There will be collateral damage, however – anyone caught up in that hazy zone of dubious guest blogging (you know, those sites that let you post automatically) could find their perfectly ethical articles caught in the cross-fire.

However, if you’ve been writing regular columns for contextually relevant, industry-leading websites, you’ll be fine. Won’t you.

If you’ve been pumping out press releases, though, it’s high time you were strung up by your algorithms. The best PR professionals have long since stopped pumping out press releases in the hope that it’ll get them more exposure – and the best SEO professionals have never even touched press releases.

Every now and again, I meet an SEO who believes that press release submissions work, and I concede that yes, they do. They work because Google – again – isn’t very good at its job. 2014, surely, will be the year that the tactic of pumping out press releases dies its death.

The following may also be targeted:

  • People who are trying to game Authorship with fake personas
  • Fake social personas & like-buying
  • Responsive sites that load adverts which ‘shift’ the content around the screen while loading
  • Excessive internal linking with anchor text (if it hasn’t already been targeted)

An e-commerce update will hit people hard

Ecommerce has already been hit hard – that update was called Panda, and hammered sites who had been copy-pasting manufacturer product descriptions. Subsequently, Google has decided to take up more and more of the first page for its own advertising – so ecommerce sites have had to

  1. pay, and
  2. be more creative

Ultimately, though, Google appears to be working on a Merchant Quality update, and that can only be worrying to any merchants who are, erm, not very good.

Matt Cutts spoke about it a while back, and even promised it. Subsequent articles in the SEO blogosphere have alarmed readers with talk of “Google Zebra”, but the truth is that ecommerce owners will increasingly have to look at the two options above.

An update will probably focus in on reviews, but also other signals of a poor-quality merchant, whatever they might be. Rumours that they might use data from Google merchant centre are probably off the mark.

Panda may be the ultimate determiner in this case, matching up queries to drop-off rates and penalising sites that users don’t engage with. It seems to me the fairest way of dealing with ‘poor quality’ ecommerce sites.

Google’s coming after your industry

Moneysupermarket complained earlier this year that their revenue was down due to a drop in keyword positions. And this was probably partly true.

However, they forgot to mention that they had a new competitor. One that was able to gain number 1 positions for every keyword it wanted. A competitor so good at SEO, you’d have to ask whether they were cheating.

Yes, it was Google. Again.

If Google can capture Car Insurance traffic for itself, then you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll capture any other form of insurance, too.

Hotels, check. Flights, check. Car hire – obviously. What’s next – Payday loans? Well, it would be one way to clean up the SERPs.

Google will never rest, and it will never stay the same – and while it is creating knowledge graphs and comparison widgets, it is in fact becoming a one-stop shop. You want to know the weather in Blackpool? Google will tell you it’s raining. Every day. You want to convert £10 into euros? Google can do that for you.

Whatever you do, you have to keep two steps ahead of Google. Sure, they can provide handy comparison widgets, but can they send you a cuddly meerkat? They can convert currencies, but can they give you advice on the best places to exchange currency in Paris? (tip – I used to live near Pigalle, the bureaux de change might look dodgy but the exchange rate is always better and commission-free).

Google’s coming after you, whatever you do. Start running.

That’s it for the Google-fear. We really shouldn’t be approaching 2014 in a state of fear, though. Updates will happen – they always do. Let’s be positive.

Structured data grows along with Hummingbird

I love Google’s structured data highlighter – and schema.org is a great way of getting little things into results pages that have a nice incremental impact.

But it’s still technical. Often too technical for many people. The breaking point often comes when it’s made accessible.

And, as Yandex have shown, structured data can provide many other more interactive benefits. For instance, you could use structured data to pull through a booking form to the search results. If someone really, really wants to book an appointment at the dentist, why make them jump through hoops?

2014 could be the year when structured data really starts to make a difference to the results pages – and that could be in the form of an improved Knowledge Sidebar, or something completely new that takes us all by surprise.

And Hummingbird pops its noisy head up here. Understanding data – and queries – is the big challenge Google has set itself. There is a big shift away from keywords towards topics, led primarily by the rise in voice search which is more random than the keyword-based typed queries. If Google is to present the best search results for voice search (i.e. mobile), then it has to “get” complex queries and provide the best results.

Data and Intent will be two huge considerations in 2014.

The rise of Yandex

The news that Yandex is going to exclude links from its algorithm took a lot of people by surprise. It delighted many, prompting some to ask why Google doesn’t just cut links out altogether. This is probably not going to happen, because:

  • Yandex has more of a machine-based algorithm, and understands user experience better than Google can
  • Yandex are excluding links because Russian spam is worse than any other.
  • Yandex have a bit more agility in the marketplace, and this also makes great PR for them.

It’s funny that we’re looking to Russia for our escape from the clutches of a behemoth organisation – but Yandex are offering innovation in its core product (search) on a consistent basis. Their “islands” idea is several steps ahead of Google’s use of meta data, and offers webmasters more interactive ways of presenting search engine results to their benefit.

They are expanding into a number of countries – with “more to come” – it may not be long before we see them encroaching further westwards, and we would welcome them with open arms.

Apple will try again

Why on earth did Apple buy Topsy? Well, nobody knows. And Apple are being all coy about it, saying “well, we do this kind of thing every now and then”.

It’s an incredibly brave strategic move from Apple. Topsy doesn’t fit into anything they already do without some kind of lateral thinking – it may fit into Siri, it may fit into Apple Maps, but remember – Topsy is a search engine. It searches tweets and provides social analytics. As a search engine, it can give you the most topical search engine results you could ask for.

Does this mean that Apple are making a move into search? Real-time, social search? For a hardware & software company, that’s quite a gap to bridge, but it’s not a totally unrealistic one. To blend Topsy into social applications on Apple devices wouldn’t be wildly unrealistic, and this may be Apple’s first proper foray into search and social. It may, as some have suggested, end up as part of the fabled Apple TV project. The ‘second screen’ is much sought-after.

Of course, it may not work out. No one’s sure. But given the value of search (advertising, that is), and the increasing maturity of Apple’s market, it’s a good way to go.

Authorship, at last

I’ve been quite vocal about authorship for a while now, and I haven’t seen much impact other than photos in the results pages. Sometimes. If it works. Oh, and more articles from an author.

What we do know is that Google can track who you write for, what you write about, how popular your writing is, and how good your writing is.

It would only be logical, therefore, to reward those writers who meet some or all of those criteria. It would only be logical, of course, to demote those writers who meet none of those criteria.

Again, this is technical – rather too technical at the moment. You can test the rich snippet tool as much as you like, it doesn’t always work. And there’s a convoluted process behind it that we, as SEOs, might understand – but does every marketer or every writer? It’s unlikely. The proportion of writers who have claimed their authorship is going to be low.

That’s either an opportunity or a problem.

Google will have to find a way of attributing authorship without asking us to jump through technical hoops. I have no doubt it will, and I have no doubt that authorship will have a tremendous impact on search engine results. And if you want to know your “Author Rank”, try Virante’s little tool which is in beta at the moment.