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2020 Prediction Month: An Expert’s Revealing Insights on SEO’s Future – Collin Colburn // Forrester

Episode Overview: Updates and changes in the search industry often hit fast and furious, and it takes a well-trained eye to quickly analyze them just to keep up with every new advancement. Join host Ben as he chats with Forrester Analyst Collin Colburn, a search industry expert, as he shares his experiences, research and industry insights on trending changes and new developments in 2020.

Summary

  • Colburn received a record number of SEO inquiries from clients and marketers in 2019, indicating widespread company trends of prioritizing technical foundational SEO excellence above content.
  • Colburn predicts companies will open and hire more internal SEO roles, namely analysts to own SEO and closely work with IT and web developers to ensure sites are well-crawled and indexed.
  • He also predicts Google will focus less on getting people from Google search results to a website, and will instead prioritize its own search ecosystem to fulfill different user queries.
  • Voice search is going nowhere fast in 2020 according to Colburn as few improvements have changed little in how consumers use voice assistance for commercial queries.

GUESTS & RESOURCES:

Ben:                 Welcome to 2020 Predictions Month on the Voices of Search podcast. I’m your host Benjamin Shapiro, and this month we’re looking into the crystal ball to tell you SEOs and content marketers what you can expect in 2020. Joining us today is Collin Colburn, who is an analyst at Forrester, which is one of the most influential research and advisory firms in the world. Collin’s research focuses on current and future trends in performance marketing, including strategies and best practices for SEO, paid search advertising, Amazon advertising, voice search, mobile advertising, local marketing and emerging marketing channels. Today, Collin is going to share some of his predictions for the SEO landscape for 2020. Okay, on with the show. Here’s my conversation with Collin Colburn, analyst at Forrester. Collin, welcome to the Voices of Search podcast.

Collin:              Thank you for having me. Awesome to be here.

Ben:                 Excited to have you here. Honestly, it’s an honor and a privilege. We’re big fans of Forrester’s work. You help us understand the lay of the land and you cover a lot of ground in marketing, specifically covering their SEOs. Just give us a high level, tell us a little bit about your work and about what you’re doing at Forrester before we get started with our predictions.

Collin:              Yeah, absolutely. Been at Forrester for a little over seven years, been studying largely the search marketing space, both SEO, paid search, and you mentioned a couple other factors within there, and also looking kind of broadly at the media landscape as well and the impact that players like Amazon and others are having as it relates to how advertisers are spending their digital advertising budgets and how they’re creating marketing strategy now with obviously some of this major transformation that’s gone on within digital over the past 10-15 years.

Ben:                 You as well as anybody in the world have a top down view of what marketers are doing and how they’re prioritizing SEOs. At the end of 2019 we saw a Google algorithm update season, lots of changes for Google. We’ve already seen an update in 2020 that was related to some of the sort of filtering and way people find sort of image content. Talk to me about, what did you see at the end of 2019 and what can we expect as we get into 2020?

Collin:              Yeah, I think that 2019 was a very interesting year in SEO, specifically because I took probably more what we call at Forrester inquiries, which is really just clients, marketers coming to us with questions that we address in a 30 minute call. I took more inquiries in 2019 than any other year about standing up SEO internally in a better way, so being able to better manage the process across all of kind of these disparate functional organizations within a company. What that says to me is that companies are actually starting to, I think, be moved more towards technical foundational excellence with SEO than content, which is sort of the inverse of what you hear at most conferences, most podcasts today, which is that “Content is king, content is king, content is king.”

Collin:              I actually think that that is partially true, but I think in SEO what we’re going to see in 2020 is, one, more companies start to hire for SEOs internally, whether we’re talking about an analyst, manager level, director level. I think that we’re going to see more existing roles at companies that might own paid search or digital marketing strategy or paid media strategy have to take ownership of SEO. I think that the second thing that’s going to end up happening in 2020 is a closer, more tightly knit collaboration with IT, web development sorts of roles within organizations because of the importance of being able to get your site well crawled and indexed. Not as much on the content side, I think, is going to be the big focus for most organizations going into 2020.

Ben:                 It’s interesting. The first takeaway here that I’m hearing is SEO is becoming, at least getting more visibility within the organizations that are related to Forrester or interested in Forrester’s opinion. I’m assuming that those are relatively large organizations, so from an enterprise level, my interpretation of what you’re saying is SEO is actually becoming more visible and more of a priority for some of the larger companies.

Collin:              I think so. I think that is partially because you look at some paid media channels, like paid search for instance, and many of these companies in the retail space and the financial services space who’ve been doing paid search for a really long time are starting to tap out. They’re starting to hit the point of diminishing returns. They’re looking for new areas to be able to invest and to be able to get greater return from their marketing investment. I think SEO is a benefactor of some of those diminishing return trends that we’ve started to see.

Collin:              I think the other thing real quickly here that’s helping SEO, you actually listen to some … I listen to Google’s earnings every quarter, but I also listen to some other companies. You’re actually hearing the importance of digital in so many of these companies’ earnings calls. One of the things that comes up most is the impact that site traffic is having for companies in the forms of leads, customer acquisition, conversions. SEO is obviously a big part of that, of getting people on site. You’re starting to hear in some of these earnings calls SEO get credited by the CEO or the CFO for growth, whether it be revenue growth or lead generation.

Ben:                 Positive news for the SEOs in terms of potential mobility, SEOs becoming more visible, more important at the executive level. Prioritization is starting to shift, I guess, let’s call it, our way. Let’s talk a little bit about the other comment that you made that technical SEO is actually getting more of a priority in your eyes than some of the content and content marketing efforts. Why do you think that large brands are more focused on the basic blocking and tackling of getting their content served, making sure it’s responsive, making sure it’s fast, than actually writing the right words on the page?

Collin:              I think there’s two main reasons. One is that it’s low hanging fruit. I think when most companies go about and do an audit of their website, I think they find in most part that their best opportunity and easiest, quick wins are from a technical perspective. I think that’s number one. I think number two is that it’s actually a lot cheaper. It’s a lot cheaper to make some of these technical fixes and have a well-crafted website from a technical perspective than it is to create net new content. I mean, high-quality content is expensive to create. I think for some companies this is more of just like a, “We don’t know what to do from a content perspective or we don’t have the funds or the investment to make from a content perspective so we’re going to place a bigger emphasis and focus on the technical side and making sure that Google’s even getting to our site and the content on our site in the first place.”

Ben:                 Interesting. This is really a cost savings and executives looking and saying, “I could make wholesale changes to the website as opposed to hiring content marketers and content producers.” As you think about how Google is interpreting some of the content and evaluating some of the technical changes that large brands are making to their sites, what predictions do you have for how they’re going to change the search landscape, how their algorithm might continue to evolve? If you had to make a guess, what do you think Google’s priorities are for 2020?

Collin:              I’ve been talking about this for a couple of years now and I think it is starting to come to a head. Maybe this is one of the other predictions for 2020 is that Google has no interest in getting people from Google search result pages to a website. They want to be able to serve people the answer, the content, whatever they’re looking for, potentially even the purchasing part depending on the industry, within Google’s ecosystem, within the Google.com site. That is something that I am consistently surprised how little attention that gets in the SEO world, because that has major ramifications, I think the biggest one being from a measurement perspective.

Collin:              I talk to marketers every day and the most frequently cited metric that marketers are tracking to understand success of SEO is traffic. How much traffic are we getting from organic search to the website? If Google’s entire strategy is to serve the customer within Google search result pages and not get them to click on the blue link anymore, that makes us as marketers have to evolve our measurement strategy. I think it actually makes SEO a better branding tool, I think. I think that no one’s going to like to hear this because they think branding and they think more squishy metrics, they don’t think about as quantifiable metrics like traffic and conversions and revenue, but I actually think that that is how SEO is going to start to evolve from a marketing strategy, is away from being a classic performance only style tactic to a performance and branding tactic.

Ben:                 It’s interesting. This is a prediction that Jordan Koene, Searchmetrics’ CEO, raised when we did his Searchmetrics predictions at the beginning of the year, was that the notion of the zero click and the concept of brand SEO, where Google is going to start surfacing more content or they’re just prepping for the next wave and next iteration of voice in the proliferation of voice search, which inevitably is coming down the road, it’s going to change how we need to evaluate the effectiveness of SEO. It is not going to be about the click and the traffic and conversions. It is more going to be focused on a brand-centric message. I’d love to hear your thoughts on where we are in the landscape of voice search. We’ve seen this, more and more of the Google UI changing towards zero click, towards them taking more real estate to promote their own properties, whether it be the answer box, YouTube is another one, the most searched for website now another Google property. Where do we stand in terms of voice search being popular and how do you view the proliferation of zero click searches?

Collin:              Yeah. I’ll separate those two things real quick. I think when it comes to zero click searches, this is exactly what I’m talking about in terms of having to change measurement style. I talked to a pretty large U.S. bank a couple of months back and they were telling me that they’ve had to completely evolve their strategy and measurement in SEO because all of their opportunity, all their white space opportunity within SEO, and they have a pretty mature SEO strategy and foundation, but all of their white space opportunity was from a brand perspective to own some of these keyword terms and phrases that aren’t necessarily going to lead to direct conversion right now but are going to help with things like awareness with brand perception, with being to control some of the conversation a little bit better. If it’s about topics that are more negative about the brand or the product, being able to put content in front of the user, hopefully that’s well optimized that will move those negative results further down.

Collin:              I think that that’s number one to me is that it makes SEO a little bit more of a truly strategic marketing strategy rather than just as this kind of like tactic that it’s been sort of seen and often like thrown to the IT or web development department to own. The second thing about voice, I’m just going to be blunt here, and I’ve done a lot of research about voice. Voice is going nowhere in 2020. From what I can tell in the data that we have, which I think is pretty accurate, there’s been little to no movement in terms of how consumers are using voice assistance in a commercial way. The top three things still that people use their voice assistant for are to check the weather, play music and set a reminder. None of those things, unless you’re Weather.com, are commercial in nature.

Collin:              I think that that sort of sets it right there. Yes, it’s something to watch for. Yes, it potentially could be revolutionary to the way that people search and discover and find products, information, brands, but right now in 2020 I don’t see any movement in terms of how consumers are using it. We’ll also see potentially through research I’m going to do later this year, how has the technology evolved? Because we did research last year that looked at how well are these voice assistants able to answer commercial questions and we found that only 35% of the questions that we asked that were commercial in nature across several different industries were answered by the voice assistants, so 65% they just didn’t have an answer to.

Ben:                 Anecdotally, I have all of the voice assistants at my house and I’ve found that Siri is actually the best for home controls, the things that I do most frequently. We have a Siri, a HomePod, next to our Google Assistant, which is great for answering questions. I do absolutely agree with you that this year is about continued development of the technology and deep language processing and understanding what the queries are and being able to present the right short snippets of information. It goes back into what’s the right sentence of information, not what’s the right webpage to present. As we think about SEO in 2020, are there any other predictions that you have for this year?

Collin:              I think the only other thing that I would throw out there is, maybe this isn’t a prediction as much of a hope, I hope that the technology landscape for SEO will start to consolidate a little bit in 2020. The reason I say hope is because I talk to so many marketers who are like, “There’s just so many technologies we need to use, vendors we need to use, to execute and measure our SEO strategy, and it becomes hard to manage.” Vendor management is a difficult thing for a strategy, for all intents and purposes, that is not heavily invested in by most companies.

Collin:              I think for some companies, when you’re investing millions and millions and millions of dollars every year into something like paid search, they can probably justify for why they need several different tools, but for the average marketer who’s spending somewhere between, I think it’s $150,000-$500,000 annually for SEO, it’s harder to say like, “Yeah, we do need all seven of these tools.” I’m hoping that there will be some sort of consolidation that will actually hopefully lead to better innovation in the SEO tool space, but we’ll see if that actually comes true or not.

Ben:                 I think it’s interesting to think about the SEO landscape from the vendor perspective, and also if your prediction is right that there’s going to be an increase in terms of visibility and priority for SEOs, that’s going to make some people clear winners and some people clear losers as more money gets pushed towards SEO, which will probably drive some consolidation as well.

Collin:              Right.

Ben:                 Okay. Collin, thank you for giving us your thoughts on the SEO predictions for 2020. That wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Collin Colburn, analyst at Forrester. In part two of this interview, which we’re going to publish tomorrow, Collin and I are going to discuss some of the macro marketing predictions that he has for 2020. If you can’t wait until our next episode and you’d like to contact Collin, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can contact him on Twitter. His handle is CollinColburn, C-O-L-L-I-N-C-O-L-B-U-R-N, or you can visit his company’s website, which is Forrester.com, F-O-R-R-E-S-T-E-R.com.

Ben:     Just one link in our show notes I’d like to tell you about, if you didn’t have a chance to take notes while you were listening, head over to VoicesofSearch.com. We have summaries of all of our episodes, the contact information for our guests. You can also send us your topics, suggestions, or your SEO questions, or you can even apply to be a guest speaker on the Voices of Search podcast. Of course, you can always reach out on social media. Our handle is VoicesofSearch, V-O-I-C-E-S-O-F-S-E-A-R-C-H on Twitter, and you can also reach out to me directly. My handle is BenJShap, B-E-N-J-S-H-A-P. If you haven’t subscribed yet and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, in addition to part two of our conversation with Collin Colburn, analyst at Forrester, we’re going to publish an episode four to five times a week so hit that subscribe button in your podcast app and check back on your feed soon. All right. That’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.