Looking back at 2018 in search: A time traveler’s year in review

Back To The Future

Greetings from the future! I’m writing to you from January 2019. Since search is such a dynamic space, with every year bringing unexpected developments, I thought it would be helpful to use my knowledge as a denizen of the future to give you a glimpse into what’s to come in 2018. So for you, this is a look forward — but for me, it’s a year in review. And let me warn you, you’d best buckle up!

(Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Sorry folks, I can’t tell you which cryptocurrencies take off, as I promised some guy named Doc Brown I wouldn’t, but I can say that AI-investment programs sure do a number on it.)

The top stories in search in 2018

The big question for Search Engine Land readers, of course, is, What the heck will happen in search in 2018? Obviously, I can’t cover everything, but here are the top stories that will make the news for you this year.

1. The mobile-first index rolls out

Mobile First Indexing

As we were all promised, the mobile-first index rolled out — and it did not go smoothly. In fact, after some limited testing in which they rolled it out and pulled it back a couple of times, they finally just tore off the Band-Aid and decided to sort out the remaining problems while folks scrambled to figure out why their rankings were fluctuating so much.

Despite Google’s best efforts, it hit major issues with mobile-specific sites that had structures that were different from the desktop versions. Many sites experienced a huge loss in search visibility, particularly for long-tail queries, as Google struggled to find the less-linked-to mobile counterparts of previously high-performing desktop pages. Some pages were being dropped from the index entirely.

When asked about it, Google reps blamed developers and SEOs not crawling their sites with mobile crawlers. SEOs, on the other hand, pointed out that they were doing what Google asked (building sites for users based on their devices) and were being impacted negatively by that decision in a lot of cases.

Responsive sites were less impacted by the mobile-first index, as their mobile and desktop content were already one and the same, but the ranking fluctuations certainly affected them indirectly.

Google did ultimately iron it all out, but it was not a fun couple of months for many, and even the folks who gained ground weren’t happy when those gains were rolled back.

2. Voice-first devices continue to grow

Voice-First Devices

As predicted, voice-first devices grew in popularity, as did the use of personal assistants. Homes and Echos filled twice as many nooks and crannies by the holidays in 2018 vs. 2017, with both Google and Amazon both literally giving them away to critical user bases (including Prime Members by Amazon and Pixel phone users by Google).

The downside of this for the search community was that the adoption of the technology was happening faster than the optimization strategies for it were evolving. Yes, folks knew to use structured data to boost their odds of being selected as the answer for some voice queries. But Google was relying more on early-generation machine learning algorithms to glean answers from sites, leaving SEOs scrambling to figure out how to optimize for voice — and how to use that voice interaction to somehow move someone towards a conversion. To make matters worse, due to the infancy of all the related tech, voice search results were changing incredibly rapidly throughout the year.

Warning! By Q3, you’ll be sick of hearing about the changing ways to “rank” on voice-first devices, and you’ll be resigned to simply waiting until Google is sophisticated enough and has enough experience to provide a consistent set of results based on a consistent set of principles.

3. Machine learning takes off

Machine Learning

Equally unsurprising was the growth in machine learning, specifically its application toward guiding purchasing decisions via search.

Unfortunately, this proved a pro and a con for Google. On one hand, by the time Black Friday was upon us, Google’s systems had grown quite adept at not just understanding our own behaviors but also connecting our profiles with those around us. This proved incredibly effective — Google was able to steer consumers away from Amazon and toward its own advertisers by delivering gift ideas when the receiver was known to be away from the purchaser, and the suggested ideas were often spot-on.

On the downside, stores saw a lot of returned items post-holidays, as Google didn’t properly coordinate the ads — often, the same gift suggestion was sent to multiple people, who then purchased the same product for the same person. Unfortunately, Google only knows what Google knows, so when users left the search engine to make the suggested purchase on a non-Google property, Google didn’t register it and offered the same suggestion to others.

Perhaps more interesting in 2018 was the growth in counter-search algorithms. That is, black-hat SEOs began developing their own AI and machine learning systems to exploit similar holes in Google’s own system. Basically, where once black-hat SEOs were pitting their own tactics against engineers to find the holes, in 2018 we saw the emergence of black-hat SEO as a battle to develop machine learning systems that would isolate and exploit those left out by other machines.

I suspect we’re going to see a lot more of this as we head into 2019 and beyond, though I don’t buy the rumors that Amazon is developing their own exploits; I suspect they’re more focused on developing their own systems for product suggestion and conversion improvement.

4. Backlinks lose ground as a ranking signal


Saving the best for last, probably the most interesting shift in SEO we saw in 2018 was the increasing number of reports that skewed rankings away from pure links. To be sure, links are definitely a strong signal in 2019 — but the types of links and how/if they are weighted has produced a scenario where, for many query types, links don’t even factor into the top five most important ranking factors. Even when links are among the top factors, how they are weighted has become very difficult to isolate.

Interestingly, there were query types for which it appeared that links typically considered “low-quality” — such as forum comments — carried weight over a link in Forbes. And there were instances in which links to a specific page seemed irrelevant, but overall, links to a domain were huge.

Reportedly, this was an extension of the RankBrain algorithm into links and other signals. After a tumultuous integration and testing phase, it does appear to produce more relevant results. Google spokesperson Danny Sullivan did confirm that links will likely be a factor for the foreseeable future, but their weight would be skewed in a variety of ways dependent on various contextual factors for a given query, such as searcher intent and industry vertical.

What I would have done differently

Given the opportunity to redo 2018, there’s one thing I’d do differently — and that’s trying to follow Google’s progress in a case-by-case way. Following news and developments within the search industry is important for staying informed, but a trap I fell into throughout 2018 was constantly trying to adjust strategies based on major updates pushed by Google.

Basically, with things moving so rapidly, it became increasingly important to give each adjustment time to settle. For example, Google’s initial mobile-first push in 2018 proved to require a lot of tweaking post-rollout, which meant that initial analyses of the mobile-first index’s impact were obsolete by the time anyone had time to fully process them. Such is the state of SEO in a world of such rapid adjustment!

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