seo in 2016

Ever watched a big SEO update roll out? Most of the stakeholder community commentary splits two ways: The first group feels like they’ve been caught unawares. The second group explains how Google has been telling us the update was coming for months.

I most certainly cannot promise to reveal which updates Google (or Bing) will roll out next year. I have no crystal ball. But there are several SEO trends that continue to gather more and more steam, and they will probably shape 2016 in one way or another.

1. User engagement is SEO 2.0.

This has two aspects to it:

  • User engagement signals are becoming more and more important as ranking signals. The SearchMetrics 2015 Ranking Factors Study introduced a new section this year called “user experience”. It included content formatting, readability scores, and other design and usability factors.

Whether it’s clickthrough rate in the search results or time on site, how people interact with your pages has major consequences for your traffic. That’s only going to get more important.

  • Good – or even great – content is essential. As SearchMetrics says on their study’s landing page, “The importance of good quality, relevant content cannot be understated. Ranking factors including word count and Flesch readability both increased this year, indicating in general longer texts that are easier to read.”

Or, as Search Engine Land puts it, “Get your content right, and you’ve created a solid foundation to support all of your other SEO efforts.”

What does this mean for 2016? Content creators, marketers, and SEOs need to get friendly. And learn more skills from each other.

Larry Kim, Founder and Chief Technology Officer of WordStream, also supports this prediction that user engagement will influence SEO.

Here’s how he responded to iMarketingCafe’s request for a prediction about SEO in 2016:

Larry Kim twitter response

Image from

So how do you deliver this good or “great” content? Well, we’ve written eBooks and several posts about how to plan and execute content that’s both SEO-friendly, and that creates ROI.

But there is one other source…

Google recently published their new quality guidelines. It’s a long read, but if you want to get inside the heads of the people who assess the quality of your pages, this is their manual.

Here’s what a rich answer looks like:

rich answer example

Rich answers don’t have to be just text. They can be charts, tables, maps, and even forms or sliders. Here’s an example of a map and a text answer:

google map and text answer

And here’s another rich answer with a form:

google rich answer with form

The number of rich answers in the search results is rising – rapidly. The SEO firm Stone Temple Consulting did a study to prove it. Their results are in the graph below. If the number of rich answers continues to grow at the rate Stone Temple describes, by around May or June of 2016 half of all search results will have a rich answer.

stone temple consulting graph

Image from Stone Temple Consulting.

Structured data.

While rich answers appear to be a big deal, they’re just a part of an even bigger deal: Structured data. Basically, if we want our content to be found, we’re all going to need to get better at formatting it. The sunnier side of that is if you can get good at marking up your content, you might see a big boost in traffic.

How do you do that? Format your content using “schema”. It’s a form of HTML markup. If code is not your thing, fear not: Google has a tool created just for marking up content:

google content markup

3. Keywords will continue to shift from fixed things into concepts.

I’m sure you’ve heard about “the death of keywords”. It’s been grossly exaggerated. But how we use and think about keywords needs to shift. That’s because how the search engines use and think about keywords has shifted.

The days of keyword stuffing and over-optimizing content are way over. The days of building for people’s search intent are here. Google is no longer just treating keywords like ID codes; it’strying to understand the meaning of words, and what we want when we use them.

Want a terrific lesson on how to do keyword research according to current SEO best practices? See the Moz WhiteBoard Friday talk, “Why We Can’t Do Keyword Research Like It’s 2010”.

I’m sure you all remember Mobilegeddon (when Google modified its algorithm to favor mobile-friendly sites) from earlier this year. That was one update we did have plenty of warning for. But if you threw all your resources at preparing for it, you might have been disappointed at first. It wasn’t quite as apocalyptic as we were expecting it to be.

But that was only the beginning. A couple of studies have found mobile-friendly sites to be dominating the SERPS. And it’s universally agreed that if you want a profitable business, you’ll ensure a mobile-friendly website.

mobile friendliness

Mobilegeddon ended up being more of a slow burn than we expected. But studies from both Moovweb and Stone Temple Consulting have shown it did indeed have a major impact on search results.

But even that is only part of the story. We’ve written here about how critical site speed is. It boosts user experience, conversion rates, and search rankings.

Well, site speed is even more important on mobile devices. It’s so important there’s a new web framework project out specifically designed to make mobile pages so fast they basically load instantaneously.

Accelerated Mobile Pages, aka “AMP,” is an open source project Google appears to have embraced. Learn more at AmpProject.Org.

Oh yes – and don’t forget voice search, either.

Voice Search and Beyond from Search Marketing Expo – SMX

5. Deep learning – machine learning – is here. It’s already writing its own algorithms.

The shift from human-written algorithms and human-evaluated pages to a Google run by machine learning is a subtle, but profound evolution. Many at Google held back from artificial intelligence for years due to various concerns. Both Elon Musk and Bill Gates have expressed concern about letting the AI genie out of the bottle. But it’s out already. Bloomberg describes Google’s new RankBrain as using “artificial intelligence to embed vast amounts of written language into mathematical entities – called vectors – that the computer can understand. If RankBrain sees a word or phrase it isn’t familiar with, the machine can make a guess as to what words or phrases might have a similar meaning and filter the result accordingly, making it more effective at handling never-before-seen search queries.”

We don’t actually know a whole lot about RankBrain yet. But we do know it’s out of the bottle – it’s already affecting the search engine results pages (SERPs). And we know it is indeed AI. It is at least in part focused on understanding the meaning of keywords, and it is also involved with the 15% of searches that completely new every day. As you SEO wonks will remember, 15% of the searches that happen on Google every day have never been searched before. RankBrain aims to grok them.

If you want a deeper dive into RankBrain, see Gianluca Fiorelli’s blog post, “RankBrain Unleashed”. Also read the definitive document on how Google views machine learning. It’s Jeff Dean’s Large Scale Deep Learning presentation. Add that and the new Google content quality guidelines to your reading list.

Large Scale Deep Learning Jeff Dean from Jun Wang


I see 2016 shaped by two fundamental things. First, there’s the shift away from the desktop to new devices (I didn’t even mention wearables…). Then there’s the myriad consequences of RankBrain and its brave new world.

Of course, there are also the ongoing changes with links and link building. And there’s another Panda update coming. But that’s really more of a continuing trend than a new thing.

And there’s the wacky world of social media.

Social signals have been important for years now. That’s even more true now that Google has started indexing tweets and Facebook posts. In May 2015, Google announced that it was bringing Tweets to Google Search on mobile devices. In August, it expanded that into desktop. Between that, and the reasonable argument that social media is a search engine unto itself, no SEO in their right mind would completely dismiss the social web. Facebook is less important; Google can’t see into accounts or activities very well. But if you’re making your content consistent (and you should be) your Facebook content will have the same strong SEO signals as the rest of your content, so you’ll be prepared should that ever change.

For more information about how SEO will change in 2016 and the tactics you need to master in order to be successful, check out Act-On’s webinar – 8 Tactics to Master in 2016 for Inbound Marketing Success.

What do you think?

‘Nuff about what I think! What are your predictions for SEO in 2016? Have I missed a SEO mega-trend? If you think so, or want to weigh in on your own thoughts, give a shout-out in the comments. We want to know where you think SEO is going.