2014, much like the last few years in SEO, was eventful for a number of reasons. From Google updates and changes in best practice, to tools that help us do our jobs, hardly a week went by without something of note happening.

For those reasons, we at Vertical Leap are expecting more of the same for 2015.

The hard part, however, is knowing exactly what is going to change. We can make educated guesses and we can predict trends, but unless you’re Google it’s impossible to know exactly where SEO will be in a year’s time.

One thing is for sure; whatever happens in SEO we will keep our finger on the pulse, constantly aiming to improve our methods of delivery and end results!

Without further ado, here are our thoughts and predictions on what might change and evolve in SEO next year. Enjoy…

Technology, tools and innovation

Matt Hopkins – Managing Director

Matt HopkinsThe digital marketing industry is drowning in data currently. It’s not just the volume that is becoming problematic, it’s that it exists in so many different places. Digital marketing experts typically use more than a dozen platforms to gain insight about their campaigns and then implement their plans on yet another dozen.  I see 2015 as a year where data aggregation becomes a real priority for marketers.  This will take form in both dedicated aggregation platforms and independent dashboards.

Aggregation platforms will combine and warehouse information from disparate systems so that it can be analysed in more depth – this is your data after all and so taking possession of it has its own benefits.  These platforms will also provide reporting and dashboard tools so that the marketing team has a better understanding of their audience, their digital assets and the performance of channels and individual campaigns.

Dashboard platforms already exist and I see their use growing over the coming year.  They provide a single view of how your marketing is performing without the need for storing the data internally.  They integrate with dozens or hundreds of different data platforms and combine the top level stats and trends in one place.

The automation of marketing will also continue.  This is not just the growth of Marketing Automation platforms such as Pardot, InfusionSoft, etc. but services such as IFTTT.com and Zapier.com have demonstrated that you can create independent, rule-based automation to link different systems together easily.  I see marketers using more of these sorts of independent platforms but also see marketing automation developers boosting their own services by expanding this type of integration functionality.

For example, when you use EventBrite to manage your next regional seminar you might want your CRM updated with contact details as people register. A couple of days before the event you may want to email them via your email marketing service with directions that are personalised to guide them from their own address taken from Google Maps. When they check in at the event, you may want to use Twitter to welcome them. And finally, this sort of automation and integration is not limited to digital services – a few days after the event, you could automate the creation and physical delivery of a real, handwritten thank you note utilising what are now called “physical APIs”.

So for me, 2015 will be an exciting year for the continued overlap of marketing and technology (my two favourite subjects).

Rankings vs visibility

Steve Masters – Services Director

Steve MastersNo longer can we focus on one fixed keyword and track its ranking. We need to look for a wide range of variants of phrases.

Where we rank for “red widgets” is a good indicator of overall authority for that core phrase, but visibility does not come from only one exact match phrase.

There are many ways people search for red widgets, or information about red widgets, and the Hummingbird mindset of considering context and intent can help us identify how to serve content to users based on their varied needs.

Google updates, penalties, trends and signals

Eli Zheleva – SEO Campaign Delivery Manager

Eli ZhelevaA lot has changed in SEO in the last few years. Google keeps improving way it crawls websites and the way it ranks them. Keeping up to date with all the changes can be challenging, so it’s important that what we, as SEOs, are doing is future proof.

In 2015, things will be different, yet the same. Search engines will continue to promote sites that provide a good user experience; specifically, those offering well written and relevant content, that load faster and provide good user journey.

References will become as important (or even more so) than links. The more websites have a reference to your brand, the more trusted your website will be deemed to be, therefore offering more visibility. I wouldn’t be surprised if sentiment and reviews are added as ranking factors, as search engines strive to serve their users the best possible results. Let’s face it, like in the days before digital marketing, if you wanted to get more customers, you have to make sure you maintain a good standard of service.

As to the penalties, they will be only manual; the rest will be built in as part of the algorithm, like it’s already happened with Panda and Penguin.

Steve Masters – Services Director

Steve MastersI expect Google Hummingbird to become a talking point during 2015, with semantic search catching on in a big way, as the wider marketing community catches on to the idea of search being about context plus intent. Google has made major changes with its knowledge graph and the Hummingbird launch was a big step towards search engines reflecting what people are actually looking for.

Also, because so many of us now use the suggested phrases in the search bar, semantic phrasing will become more common and content-driven SEO professionals will need to adopt a Hummingbird mindset.

Dan Callis – SEO Campaign Delivery Manager

Dan CallisI was surprised that the Penguin refresh in 2014 was just an update and didn’t add any new signals into the mix, especially considering Matt Cutts had been vocal on his blog about guest post abusers before he went on leave.

I can see a new link penalty being added to the Google algorithm soon, and predict it will tie in with heavy backlink footprints relating to low quality guest posting or purchased links. When I say “purchased” I don’t specifically mean money either; there has been a huge number of blogs pop up in recent years that exist solely to give out review links in exchange for free products. Whilst this is a legitimate PR approach, abusing it leaves a huge footprint that doesn’t take long for a human to uncover, let alone a complex algorithm.

Technical SEO

Sam Osborne – SEO Campaign Delivery Manager

Sam OsborneEach year new, features are released by the major search engines that fall into a ‘technical’ area of SEO. This could be anything from robots.txts to hreflang sitemaps, but the defining factor is that they are used appropriately and add value to your website.

SEO is not just about content (well it is a little) but a technically sound website ensures the search engines are able to find that content efficiently and deliver it to the right audiences. A simple ‘disallow: *’ in your robots.txt can mean the difference between high visibility and no visibility in the search results. All gone, kaput. The resolution is a similarly quick fix, but not everything is quite that simple.

In 2015, certain aspects of technical SEO will come into play more and more. With hummingbird and Knowledge Graph becoming heavy hitters in the search results structured data, Rich Snippets is going to be a big deal. With a wide variety of possible functions already available and more in the pipeline, any website can provide the search engines with a defined set of data which can help it achieve visibility. Be careful not to spam Google with Rich Snippets though, you could pick up a penalty.

Another core area that is growing at a steady pace is page speed. Simple five minute changes to a website can improve the average page speed by a considerable amount and the more advanced techniques can achieve even more. Ensuring that everything is technically sound and the site is hosted effectively will ensure that the search engines receive high quality engagement signals.

Stu Clark – SEO Campaign Delivery Manager

Stu ClarkIn recent times, Google has focused more on learning the intent behind search queries and less on returning websites based on traditional techniques such as finding a keyword within titles, headings and anchor text. This became particularly obvious with Google Hummingbird, the major update towards the end of 2013. With Hummingbird, Google started deconstructing your search, listing websites based on those it felt would be useful – not those that matched the words you type.

My predictions for 2015 are that keywords will continue to become less prevalent and that website owners will start to realise they must look beyond rankings to understand if their SEO is working. Major techniques that will become a driving force in the SEO industry will include defining themed areas of content in different areas of your website and using site architecture to tell Google which areas relate to which service; which pages are important. Rather than targeting specific keywords, we will start targeting a combination of themes and personalised scenarios, so our customers’ websites appear based on a specific criteria such as industry + location.

Does this make SEO harder? No, it makes it easier. Traditionally, many SEO techniques have caused the internet to be littered with hideous directories, comment spam and article sites, while our websites have been cluttered with ugly attempts to crowbar keywords onto every page.  This will no longer be needed, and instead our efforts will be split between providing the best possible user experience, giving clues to Google about what type of services we offer and building authority. This is better for the web, better for Google, and better for us.

Link building and citations

Dan Callis – SEO Campaign Delivery Manager

Dan CallisLinks will remain of value to SEO in 2015. Matt Cutts even admitted they tested a version of the algorithm that excluded links as a visibility factor, though the results were worse for end users.

However, I could see the threshold of what is a valuable link changing yet again. The elephant in the room in 2014 was guest posting. I often get unsolicited spam emails offering me linked articles on numerous industry-themed blogs, and could see Google targeting these guest post networks in the same way they do other link networks.

Local address citation is another area I could see shifting towards a higher quality gauge, in regards to the difference between a good and bad citation. I know this area isn’t as spammy as link building has been in the past, but it’s interesting that address listings are still a quantity free-for-all when it comes to off-page SEO value.

On page SEO

Sam Osborne – SEO Campaign Delivery Manager

Sam OsborneWorking with content on a website isn’t as clear cut as five years ago. You used to be able to add your primary keyword to title tags, Header tags and mention it with a nice density in the content and off your go. Even page rank sculpting was a thing, nowadays page rank barely exists!

The new SEO evolves around relationships, not just in external factors and relevance but in how specific words are related on a page. There are a variety of methods to analyse the importance of a search query within a single web page or the entire website (TF-IDF Term Frequency – Inverse Document Frequency) as well as improving keyword research tools. To really create quality onsite SEO there is a baseline that should be followed:

  1. Think about the purpose of the page (commercial, informational)
  2. Identify a variety of search queries that would be suitable for that content (research and analysis on new and existing search queries impressions)
  3. Write the content with a suitable structure and layout (Calls to action, headings, structured data, rich media)
  4. Monitor the page once live for improvements (new content, revisions, click through rates, call to action placement)

Ultimately, ensuring that you include themes of search queries on each page will ensure that it performs well, not just for that single query required but for a wide variety of search queries. This starts at the top with title tags and goes right through the page for images and structured data.

A well-performing web page is a web page that has all the answers, not a single answer.

User experience and conversions

Dave Colgate – SEO Campaign Delivery Manager

dave-colgateSeveral years ago, if you asked a search engine marketer about conversions, user engagement, experience and other similar factors they would probably wonder why you were talking to them about stuff that didn’t make a difference to what they do; driving traffic to a website. Today, it’s a very different story and throughout 2014 we’ve seen a big increase in content across the SEO industry and the chatter about user metrics making a difference. With Panda stomping across many websites and tearing down old school on-page tactics we’ve turned our attention much more to the user than the search engine.

As we move into 2015 I’m pretty confident this will get bigger. More emphasis will be placed on user signals which indicate to search engines content quality. Quality is the optimum word here. With more and more information coming to light about what Google is looking for (some of the confirmed things are good comments to blogs, clear page design differences, social shares of the page, even having date information on page) when it measures page quality, we as search engine marketers are going to be watching and be influenced by a wider array of metrics. We will also be paying more attention to metrics we already watch, including whether call to actions are actually delivering conversions, bounce rates and time spent on page.

Content creation and outreach

Lee Wilson – SEO Service Manager (Full SEO)

Lee WilsonI cannot remember a time when content has not been seen as an increasingly valuable part of SEO. For 2015, however, I can see how the role of content can become even more intrinsic to SEO success. The growth and value of personalised search, location, spoken search, audience intent and persona targeting has all contributed towards the continued growth of content for SEO.

When looking at the untapped potential from wider adoption of the above areas (and more) it’s easy to see how the value placed on content creation will directly grow with this.

The move away from single keyword focus (and the implementation of ‘not provided’ data) has also placed content towards the realms of necessity for search success rather than an optional value addition.

Tom Chapman – SEO Content Specialist

Tom ChapmanIn 1996, Bill Gates declared that “content is king”. Whilst a famous quote, it might seem strange to start a prediction for 2015 by looking at a comment which is almost two decades old. Regardless, while we can debate the meaning and the message behind those three small words, those who specialise in outreach must remember that content is still extremely valuable on the internet – but only the greatest thrives.

We live in a time where hundreds of SEO agencies, content marketers and media professionals produce substantial amounts of content on a daily basis, all of which are vying for audience attention.

Consequently, in my case certainly, I expect outreach to focus on producing the best quality materials possible – whether this is in the form of a press release, survey, or evergreen content.

The days of individuals just writing up any old article are long gone. Content must be special, unique, and engaging. Content is king – but if you aren’t producing materials which are fit for royalty, you will be left behind.

Schema mark-up and structured data

Jack Cooper – SEO Content Specialist

Jack Cooper2014 has been a big year for structured data regarding updates and new features. The most recent update released in the early part of December was Schema v1.92 and included many new features such as item lists and breadcrumb list changes; sports-related improvements; a music vocabulary and video games. Also, weight and height; control and RSVP actions; role names and dated monetary values.

Schema v2.0 is due for launch in early 2015 and is set to bring a host of major new features for webmasters, including many improvements, bug fixes and clarifications. I anticipate we will see the addition of more niche industry-specific mark up and a wider set of guidelines to increase the effectiveness of it. Thus far rollouts have been heavily weighted towards the sports and entertainment industries, 2015 could be an exciting time for many more markets.

2015 will almost certainly see webmasters looking at the use of structured data in more detail, although it is only a matter of time until over-optimisation begins to occur and sites become penalised for misuse of structured data.

Ecommerce SEO

Kerry Dye – SEO Service Manager (SMB)

Kerry DyeBecause ecommerce can be seen as one of the purest expressions of SEO success (they search, they find, they buy), a lot of effort will continue to be put in by ecommerce sites in 2015.

What has been a surprising trend in 2014 is the number of leads coming in for people starting new ecommerce sites. This trend will no doubt continue into 2015, with small retailers launching sites that go up against some of the biggest names in online retail. I hope in 2015 for a bit more forward planning from those people to understand that SEO is not a magic bullet to get their site to compete overnight.

There will be more of an emphasis on mobile friendliness for ecommerce sites. In the past there were hurdles to buying online that the industry had to overcome, like people not liking typing their credit card details online. Now, people are happy to buy online, particularly from sites they trust, and the explosion in smartphone volumes will mean increasing numbers of people choosing to buy from their phones whilst out and about. Along with Google’s new Mobile Friendly label, this might mean a lot of changes to how sites are built, with SEO having to get involved in areas previously unexplored.

Local SEO

Lee Wilson – SEO Service Manager (Full SEO)

Lee WilsonLocation specific optimisation is something that is still massively undervalued and I feel this stems from the underlying sentiment that location is restrictive rather than being a site and search fundamental.

The growth of mobile in search and associated device value (especially from tablets) can only lead to increasing value in 2015 for local SEO. When taking this a step further and considering the aligned value of personalised search results and Google Now, it doesn’t take a great deal of hypothesising to see how local SEO can enhance the gains from these specific opportunities.

It is often the obvious things that get overlooked in marketing and localised search certainly falls into that category. From the setting up of Google My Business pages and name/address/phone (NAP) details wrapped in structured data on websites, right the way through to dedicated onsite location content and offsite external trust signals, there are many local SEO wins to be achieved.

The biggest misconception with local SEO is that you would only optimise for location if your goal is to increase footfall – this cannot be further from the truth.

Business requirements and customer communication

Chris Pitt – Customer Experience

Chris PittMarketing is becoming more and more sophisticated, as software and big data provides ever-growing insight into how customers engage with our businesses.  The online environments are more complex too. The old metrics of rankings, single channel conversions, likes and followers lose their importance as each day goes past, and let’s not forget how much more expectant our individual customers are of being provided with what they want, when they want and how they want.

In 2015 I predict that businesses will require a more complete picture of their online presence – including individual online touch-points, the breadth of their offline and online marketing performance; and the cross channel ROI that arrives as a result. The challenge that businesses will face is collecting and packaging the data to provide valuable insight that can both inform marketing going forward but also secure buy-in from end-point stakeholders in the decision making process.

Were we right? Were we wrong? Were we close?

Of course, being a prediction post, none of these are set in stone, so let’s revisit this post in December 2015 and see how close we were.

Merry Christmas and a happy new year from everyone in the Vertical Leap SEO team. See you in 2015!