Executive Summary

What is the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) success "x" factor? It has become increasingly difficult to find a path to guaranteed results. Industries are being transformed amid technological advancements and rising competition, while stakeholders and customers are always demanding more.

Conventional SEO practices, often synonymous with technical SEO, are either no longer relevant or in themselves, do not provide a competitive advantage. Expanding touchpoints, emerging channels, moment-to-moment trends, decision ecosystems, and buying cycles continue to increase the complexities of targeting and predicting customer behavior and patterns.

More than 75 percent of CMOs now admit that past formulas are no match against the new breed of disruptors that seems able to win, time and time again, by delivering more relevant customer experiences. Furthermore, ninety percent of today's CEOs and CMOs believe that the function will change fundamentally over the next three years. Accenture Research

Successful search marketers are rewriting the best practices by taking a more holistic approach to capitalize on crucial transformational trends. They are bucking current SEO trends by aggressively pivoting and adapting search engine expertise, technology, and practices to target and predictive customer preferences, patterns, and behaviors.

These trends and best practices converge under two overarching themes for 2020 - Operational Agility and Customer Accuracy. Customer Accuracy defined as an organization's ability to dominate a market through precision and predictive customer insight. Insight-driven organizations integrated critical and active listening practices into their marketing culture. Operational agility is an organization's ability to dominate a market through continuous innovation of internal processes and strategic thinking. Agile organizations react more quickly to evolving customer needs and changing market conditions.

Ultimately, customer accuracy optimization provides customer insights aimed at identifying and securing profitable customers, keeping them longer, and growing their lifetime value. Whereas, operational agility optimization provides data-driven operational flexibility to reconfigure, and retool as these customer insights change and new threats and opportunities emerge.

2020 is shaping up to be a watershed year for search engine optimization, with many of these trends forming the foundation for the future. Marketers should be looking to upgrade and hone their skills or run the risk of finding themselves obsolete. Capitalize on these trends and overturn search engine conventional legacy thinking and processes. Re-orientate and re-invigorate your search engine optimization and marketing plans around these trends and themes to unlock competitive differentiation and growth.

In this article, we will attempt to maintain a balanced technology and marketing viewpoint. Most optimization content focuses on the computer science aspect, and although an essential factor is less of a driver and more of an enabler. Marketing sciences is the other half of the success equation. Marketing provides proven practices for innovative and predictive insights into customer behavior. Mastering a blending approach is the "x" factor for SEO and SEM success.

Below are the top 10 Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) trends for driving business growth in 2020.

Customer Experience & SEO

Most marketers agree that future growth depends on their ability to deliver high-impact mutually-rewarding and personalized customer experiences (CX). All research points to customer-centric experiences as a cornerstone for competitive differentiation and sustainable growth.

Customer experience goes hand in hand with performance but often overlooked, sacrificed, or deprioritized. The flawed assumption being that modern design, cool features, and "eye candy" will offset poor performance. However, mountains of research, across all industries and measurement dimensions, proves the positive correlation between experience and business performance. Consider some of the following data points:

  • 53% of mobile site visits abandon pages that take longer than 3 seconds to load. (DoubleClick)
  • Bounce rates increase by 123% as page load times deteriorate from 1 to 10 seconds. (Google)
  • In retail, for every one-second delay in page load time, conversions can fall by up to 20%. (Google AdWords)
  • Extra 1 second in loading time can result in a 16% decrease in customer satisfaction. (Aberdeen)

Surprisingly, despite the overwhelming research, tools, and expertise, performance continues to lag. In 2018, the average time it took to load the average mobile landing page was 22 seconds. Two years later, despite increasing pressure, the average time for a web page to load is currently fluctuating between 6 and 13 seconds. A few extra seconds hurt traffic, conversion rates, revenue, rankings, and customer satisfaction.

Google has made it clear that site performance is a priority for them and a signal that now factors into their algorithm. Google actively rewards and penalizes performance in the form of ranks and SERPs. Furthermore, poor performance results in fewer pages indexed within the search engines allocated crawl budget. Most importantly, poor user experience equates to less traffic, higher bounce rates, and reduced conversion rates.

Google's push for a frictionless mobile experience is, in part, quality of experience-driven, as discussed above, but it is important to note that it is also in part, coupled to their growth. Statistics such as Google's mobile search ad clicks increased by 300% YoY, and in the second half of this year, they saw mobile dominate zero-click searches. These statistics have Google's attention. Focus on performance optimization will only heighten with mobile-centric voice and visual search becoming mainstream.

Google's mobile search ad clicks increased by 300% YoY Google

We can see this focus play out in performance-centric innovations, investments, and tools. For example, Google recently announced another resource for monitoring page speed on sites with page speed report now built into the Google Search Console. Furthermore, Google launched a revenue impact analytics tool to quantify the revenue impact of website performance. Moreover, Google created an entire #AskGoogleWebmasters series video-focused purely on page speed.

Google has also invested in Chrome features to manage and monitor page speed and overall experience. PageSpeed Insights tool has matured and now measures page speed based on the median value of your First Contentful Paint (FCP) and DOM Content Loaded (DCL). These "mobile-first" metrics measure the quality of experience and interaction. The benchmarks are taken directly from the Chrome User Experience Report (CrUX), aggregated from millions of real-world users using the Chrome browser. These trends impact Google's top-line growth, and therefore we should expect to see further rewards, tools, and penalties.

Google took it a level further with its Google Revenue Impact Analysis tool to help marketers quantify the business impact of performance investments and improvements using variables such as average deal size, conversation rates, and monthly traffic forms the foundation for this research. Millions of users' experiences across millions of sites across the globe form the data basis for this analysis. The simple premise is that pages with a longer load time have a higher bounce rate and lower average time on page. Each incremental second of load time harms conversions.

Recently, we had an opportunity to use a number of these tools to compare the CMO Solution site against the top 10 performance marketing agencies (ranked according to The Forrester Wave Performance Marketing Agencies, Q3 2019). The objective was to benchmark ourselves against some of the leaders in this space. We performed these tests using GTMetrix, a leading performance experience measurement tool, which also includes Google Pagespeed data in its audit and analysis. Our site scored a perfect 100% (A+) across all metrics, with a load time of 2 seconds. What was surprising is that the top ten averaged a C score, with an average load time being 9.6 seconds.

Below is a screenshot of the GTMetrix performance scores for all agencies. CMO Solution is on the far right. Excluding CMO Solution, you can see the scores range from F through to B, surprisingly no performance agency, other than us, scored an A. The chart is a bit of an eyesore, but we included it as more of a quick gauge heat chart.

Table pagespeed comparison of US top 10 performance marketing agencies with scores and load times
GTMetrix performance comparison of CMO Solution and top 10 performance marketing agencies

We won't drill into our findings in this article, but we will publish a detailed technical report early in the new year. Even more surprising is that structured data implementation was poor across many of these sites and in some cases, none or with errors. Many of these sites use WordPress as their CMS, which, when not optimized correctly, is where customer experience goes to die. We included a screenshot of the CMO Solution GTMetrix performance report below. We are confident that we can get this close to a full load time of around one second. Is it an apple to apple comparison? Yes, even more so as very little of our site is static content. We have several development initiatives for upcoming features, supported by over 50 SQL tables on the backend, along with JS libraries, for charts, animation, and state management.

GTMetrix 100% score page speed report for CMO Solution website including YSlow score and 2 second load time
GTmetrix 100% Performance Score report For The CMO Solution Website

We then ran these results through Google's Revenue Impact Calculator to quantify the difference. We assumed a small to medium-sized business with average monthly visitors of 5,000 and average order size of $2,500. We also factored in an industry average conversion rate of 3%,

Improving website performance by 7 seconds equates to a potential increase in annual revenue of $787,710 for a small to medium-sized business. Google Revenue Impact Analysis Tool

Improving performance by 7 seconds, which is the difference between our site's 2 seconds and the top ten 9.6 average, equates to a potential increase in annual revenue of $787,710! That is significant for any small to medium-sized business.

Google Revenue Impact Analysis report of $787,710 for 7 second performance improvement with 3% conversion rate and 5000 visitors a month
Google Revenue Impact Analysis for a 7 Second Performance Improvement

The intention of sharing this benchmarking exercise was not to undermine these agencies. These are some of the best agencies with highly talented people, and we acknowledge that optimization has a far greater remit than just performance. It does, however, speak to the complexities and investment required to achieve what might seem like table stakes optimization. Even for experts, factors are influencing the score that is often outside of their control, including legacy design, rich media, or CMS platforms that don't avail themselves to further performance optimization. Even Google's analytics script will hurt a site's page speed score.

Pagespeed and overall performance marketing should be a top 5 priority for 2020, given the tidal wave of emerging and shifting trends that run the risk of failing if built on a poor performance platform.

TIP 1: companies serious about mobile performance experiences should look to platforms like Google Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) for highly-optimized mobile sites. TIP 2: performance optimization is often complicated and technical, with more than a hundred different variables. Google PageSpeed Insights, GTMetrix, or Edgemesh are some of the tools that can help measure, optimize, and automate web performance.

Zero-click Searches

Zero-click searches are searches satisfied without having to click any actual search result link or redirect to another page. Zero-click searches result in users remaining on search engine sites without ever landing on your page.

In June 2019, for the first time, the majority of Google searches (50.33%) ended without a click on an organic or paid search result. Rand Fishkin, founder of SparkToro

Thanks to SERP features such as featured snippets, PPC, Google's local packs, knowledge graphs, structured data, and OpenGraph, the user's search is satisfied without having to click any search result. Examples of zero-click searches include currency, conversions, movies, maps, people, and products, to name a few.

Google Zero-click example for search term - What is Digital Marketing?
Google Zero-click example for search term “What is Digital Marketing?”

The proportion of zero-click searches continues to rise with more searches ending without users clicking through to a page, resulting in less organic traffic, and potentially fewer marketing opportunities.

The zero-click trend has sparked much debate with terms like "antitrust" and "monopoly" thrown around. How this trend ultimately plays out will take some time, and in the absence of any catalytic event like the US government intervening, it is business as usual. In Google's defense, this trend is user-driven, with Google responding to new search behaviors, patterns, and mobile constraints. However, with users never actually landing on a site or parsing through any analytics engine, it stands to reason that traditional site-dependent optimization will suffer. That aside, where there is a change, there is an opportunity. Marketers have a chance to capitalize and this trend as well as diversify to mitigate potential risk.

Search metrics are the first areas that require tweaking. CTR (click-through-rate) and CPS (clicks per search) will need to factor into search volumes, keyword difficulty, and current rankings to normalize ROI, PPC, and other operational metrics. Leading search solutions offer a CTR, and CPS is a better dimension for predictive traffic analysis as opposed to relying solely on search traffic volumes.

The "x" factor for dominating the zero-click trend will be hyper-targeting through segmentation, analytics, and data intelligence services. Long-tail search strategies for keywords, phrases, and intent capitalizes on Google's latest algorithm, and therefore, the best path to SERP success. However, a sustainable plan to ensure a leading market share-of-voice will require a holistic on and offsite approach to your SERP strategy. Comprehensive in that the optimization strategy should include components for user-generated content (UGC), structured data, influencers, data services, social media, and backlinks, to name a few.

Google now displays featured snippets for 12 percent of all their search queries. Ahrefs

Best practice of winning real-estate on Google's search results is to adopt a conversational approach to content development, which has many benefits, including aligning with intent-based search patterns and algorithms. These "Content atoms" should be self-contained pieces that follow a question and answer format. A content atom or collection thereof can be configured and optimized for a featured SERP query. To create a SERP context, pull a ranking report for relevant keywords. Filter out existing first page positions and those already displaying in featured snippets, and the remaining keywords will provide a good jumping-off point.

Ensure that content is marked up for structured data. Structured data will help you with rankings and ensure the search engine consumes content with its original intent, e.g., a product is not confused with an article. Structured data also helps with crawl budgets and other black-box search engine algorithms features. However, structured data and schemas are not in themselves, the secret to SERP success. The analogy being that agreeing to a topic, forum, and language does not win a debate. It is well structured and research content that wins debates.

Search marketers should also diversify their marketing budget and digital marketing strategy to mitigate potential risks. Moreover, diversification in areas like paid social media or niche search, like Pinterest or Amazon, will also help with Google's organic search results. Look to expand investment and broadening your content marketing, revenue marketing, and social media marketing strategies. Also, explore emerging optimization trends and technology such as voice and visual to get ahead of the competition.

TIP: Ahrefs, Screaming Frog, BuzzSumo, and SEO PowerSuite are just some of the tools that can help marketers take advantage of this significant shift to improve your SERP SEO strategy.

Structured Data Explosion

Structured data is a standards-based schema approach to marking your search optimization for more effective and efficient. Structured data helps search engines to understand website information better. The semantic structure approach normalizes and classifies information for search engines, thereby improving the consumption, context, and presentation accuracy.

Structured data is a standardized format for providing information about a page and classifying the page content. Google

Traditional keyword or page-centric parsing approaches ran the risk of not being indexed as search engines don't do well with ambiguity or subtle nuances. If it cannot classify or parse the information with a certain degree of certainty, it will not index the information. This gating factor makes perfect sense as the quality of the experience would dramatically decrease if a user is consistently presented with fragmented, misspelled words, or incorrectly classified content, which would harm Google's business. For example, structured data question-answer content requires schema classification as either a FAQ or Q&A Page. No schema will most likely result in poor rankings, and incorrect categorization or schema could result in a penalty. In fact, on Google's rich snippet page, this penalty for abusing this schema and others can result in Google penalties, which at the very least are a pain to undo.

Google, OpenSource, and CMS solutions offer great plugins and tools to make this relatively painless and relatively easy to implement on static or conventional websites. Advanced implementation for applications or multiple webpages, such as eCommerce and social applications, require developer expertise. Search, and socials engines expect a hundred percent compliance with their structured data API, which has subtle implementation differences. For example, schema.org Organization logo property type calls for an ImageObject or URL. However, Google will only accept certain mime types, excluding SVG. In some cases, it results in a cryptic admin console error message or excluded without any notification.

Google has standardized on JSON-LD but does include other markup formats. Facebook and most leading vendors have also gone the JSON-LD route. We standardized on JSON-LD across all our custom SEO development libraries and would recommend this to our clients.

Use the Google Structured Data Testing Tool to validate your schema markup. JSON-LD will stand out as a superior approach when compared to inline microdata and other markup formats. Important to note that if there are errors that the item will not show up in indexing without any warning. You are required to validate markup and a tool like a search console or just site:cmosolution.com query to get an idea of what is indexed.

Recently, Google announced their new Structured Data Codelab. This tool walks you through adding several types of structured data to a simple HTML site, including where to place structured data on a site and how to validate it.

Below is a screenshot of Google's Rich Snippet (structured data) testing tool. You enter in a URL or code snippet to begin. The audit will then generate a report like what you see on the right-hand side with any warnings or errors. The example blog markup is for our blog page. We dynamically create all markup for pages and all types across multiple formats. As per the screenshot, you can see we have several parent schemas, and in some cases, they will have number subschemas.

Google Structured Data JSON-LD test summary for CMO Solution blog page
Google Structured Data JSON-LD test summary for CMO Solution blog page

The above schemas might many child schemas. In the case of a blog schema detail below, it will have blog posting or article child schemas, and in each of those, you might have Organization schemas for a publisher, Person schemas for an author, and ImageObject for image objects. In turn, they can have child schemas.

Google Structured Data JSON-LD detail report for blog and article schema
Google Structured Data JSON-LD detail report for blog and article schema

Ultimately structured data provides accurate information to the search engine, which is the foundation for any digital marketing and optimization strategy. Accuracy yields better rankings, traffic increase, and higher conversion rates, but with the added benefit of featured snippets, improved click-through rates (CTR), knowledge graph cards, and panel attribution.

However, beyond basic, it can quickly get technical, especially with dynamic markup or voice, visual, or commerce search. For example, Google’s makeup rules for identifiers, images, reviews, and offers to name a view. There are numerous schema extensions for services and products, even schema.org provides schemas for a range of businesses and product types, but these types are currently not supported by Google, Facebook, and most leading vendors. We support over 600 schema types. These are dynamically populated and generate our sites meta, JSON-LD, OpenGraph, and Twitter card markup. We use OOP and typecasting for schema relationships, with abstract classes for vendor-specific implementations as with Google and Facebook. Below is an example of a base product class schema. We have a class extension for a manufacturer, PIN, sales channels, business types, and contact points, to name a few. It is easy to see how this can you can end up with more lines of markup than HTML. All of this dynamically generated from databases and cached.

Custom code example for advanced Google product structured data developed by CMO Solution.
Custom code example for advanced Google product structured data snippet, developed by CMO Solution.

Google structured data support is far ahead of any other vendor. There are many features and types supported under the hood, but not officially documented. For example, the CMO Solution schemas libraries use more schema types, and a much deeper property set than Google' documentation stipulates. However, their makeup test tools have no problem with the classes, relations, or nesting. It even supports the graphing of types, which is a JSON-LD 1.1 spec feature.

Keep in mind the exponential rate at which information is growing. The onus is upon the marketer to find practices, trends, and technologies to stand out against the competition. Structured data is a best practice approach to search engine optimization and a 2020 priority. It also future-proofs against most search engine algorithm changes as industry-standard schemas don't make drastic shifts to accommodate single vendors.

Sites that implemented structured data found that their CTRs improved by at least 10%. Search Engine Land

Google's release of new structured data types is accelerating as well as property extensions to existing classes. Google now uses them across almost all of its search-related products. Everything from YouTube videos, Ads, Business, featured SERPs, voice, video, or even create Google Assistant Actions.

Structured data is relatively straightforward for most websites. Complex types of content, like that found in eCommerce or social applications, require deep technical expertise. Structured data will help with all aspects of optimization across current and emerging trends. Ultimately structured data will increase traffic, rankings, and conversions. This practice should be a top 3 priority for 2020.

TIP: There are a variety of approaches for adding schema markup to your website. There is an inline schema markup that is added as attributes to HTML elements and follows the flow of the DOM structure. Google and OpenGraph vendors have standardized on JSON-LD. We recommend this to our clients as it is much easier to read and debug, especially for deeply nested data like products, forum threads, and posts. TIP: there are numerous tools to help create, test, and implement structured data. Google provides structured data markup helper and testing tools to get started. Google Search Console will also help expedite the indexing once tested. Other tools include Google CodeLabs' structured data guide, Merkle's Schema Markup Generator, and RankRanger's Schema Markup Generator.

Search Intent Optimization

Google Hummingbird and Google RankBrain algorithms were architected for semantic search intent. As search engines become more adapt to natural, more speech-like content and interpret the meaning behind a search query, we will see keywords becoming less critical, and intent more emphasized.

"User intent" refers to what a user was looking for when they typed their query into a search engine. Our daily search patterns reflect this change in search patterns. These patterns are evident in voice-based search queries, which naturally gravitate to conversational intent.

Apple's Siri, first words, "How can I help?" captures the essence of intent-based search. Voice recognition has pushed interaction to intent-centric, as it is both natural and more effective. Mobile voice search illustrates the power of intent-based constructs, for example, "find a ..." immediately establishes search context intent versus "what is ... ". As we expanded this further with a complete query like "find a bakery near me," we can quickly see how a search engine can apply predictive AI to that query string. As opposed to a more conventional text keyword approach, for example, "bakery" or "bakery in New York," where the results would be of little practical use.

Siri offers a great example of an intent-based approach because a conversational question-answer format works best for search intent optimization. Suffice to say, without getting into a semantic search structure that this approach is beneficial for predictive intent-based queries. A heightened appreciation for this approach is found when writing search, queries, or analytical code. The question-answer approach ensures the content is self-contained, concise, configurable, conversational, and optimized for subject matter keywords.

Every intent optimization exercise should map to a hyper-specific audience persona. Get sharply focused on your target buyer and develop a deep understanding of their behavior, search patterns, and their buyer journeys. It should also entail establishing the right conversion goals, determining how to create content that will drive those conversions, and mapping intent keywords to the array of conversions necessary to reach a sale. There is a significant difference between general conversational intent content and content created with context, relevance, and performance in mind. Intent equates to gratifying the expected outcome, and without this insight, marketers run the risk of gravitating back to keyword optimization or content by the pound.

All too often, marketers forgo this research believing that keyword, optimization, mind map, and other tools will offer a quick fix. The majority of failing SEO strategies are the result of poor or no customer insights. A recent example comes to mind, "how can email marketing help my business?" is an unlikely search term for marketers. Marketers are more likely to search for "best practices", "top trends", "benchmarks", "campaign ideas", or "drip campaign examples". The search query focuses on context, pain, and expected outcome or value add, i.e., intent.

BuzzSumo Question Analyzer and other tools can help with this level of optimization. AnswerThePublic is an excellent resource for discovering keywords based on an initial search. Also, look to semantic tools, such as Text Optimizer, to help explore and cluster search query intent options.

We recommend analyzing competitors, target customers, and industry pundits websites to uncover intent opportunities. Testimonials, case studies, reviews, and customer successes provide a smorgasbord of jumping-off points. These are often in the target audience's own words, making them invaluable for any intent research.

Intent optimization is a top 3 priority for 2020 because connecting with search engines requires content they understand and crave. Conventional content and optimization techniques run the risk of content getting "lost in translation" as well as lost opportunities found beyond the text.

Understanding semantic search and then building out content topic clusters around relevant, intent-driven keywords, produce content that the search engines crave.

Voice Search Optimization

Voice search will continue to be a significant priority going in 2020, primarily for mobile-centric applications, such as eCommerce. Innovation in voice recognition, AI, natural language, machine learning, deep learning processes, and voice-activated devices are some of the catalysts behind the meteoric rise of voice search. Voice lends itself well to intent-centric search patterns and mobile users. Arguably, voice is cognitively more pleasing and natural, especially with millennials and Generation Z.

20% of searches on its apps and Android devices were performed using voice search. CEO Sundar Pichai, CEO, Google

Voice optimization should begin with intent-based optimization. This conversational question-answer approach lends itself well to both voice search patterns and the latest search engine algorithms. Semantic tools are a natural starting point for clustering, prioritizing, and research these intent search patterns.

The rise of voice queries is a forcing factor for longer tail conversational keywords and location-specific searches. Voice optimization adheres typically to a conversational answer-questions format optimized with long-tail keywords and natural language phrases. Apple Siri "how can I help .." is an excellent example of voice optimization. Look for highly targeted and relevant references, such as "Near Me," location, landmarks, and other targeted phrases. Focus on content that is action-orientated and with a clear objective or outcome in the customer experience or journey. Structure content much the way you would have a conversation with a customer prospect, i.e., you ask a question, receive and answer and continue to build on that dialogue with the intent to conclude or mutually agreed-upon action.

Roughly 75% of voice search results will rank in the top 3 positions for a particular question on a desktop search.. Deloitte

Recent studies show that voice optimized and search answers rank higher than conventional text optimization techniques. FAQ pages are great for voice search SEO, and make featured snippet a priority. Start with Google's Rich Snippets for FAQ or Q&A Page Voice assistants typically read out featured snippets DOM structure and layout become even more critical in structuring content for question-answer formats, as we've said before search engines crave content and data that is accurate, concise, context-centric, and well-structured.

54 percent of voice search users most frequently use this medium to "search general information. Deloitte

Optimize for voice search is very much centered around content optimization for the mobile experience. Additional voice search optimization priorities include:

  • Use structured data on all relevant elements of your content.
  • Schema markup and rich snippets.
  • Optimize for question-based keywords - "how-to," "why", "when", and "where",
  • Optimize for featured SERPs (position 0) using question-answer format.
  • Using natural language with direct answers to specific questions.
  • Domain authority and traditional search rankings play a big role
  • Create FAQ & Q&A pages for unique subject matter.
  • Optimize your Google my business listing.
  • Focus on the use of long-tail keywords.
  • Local SEO Implementation
  • Optimize for the mobile experience.

It is worth keeping an eye on innovation to either simplify or give you a competitive advantage. Solutions like Amazon Polly, a speech recognition tool, will read content on your website out loud for you. It's available as a WordPress plugin, so it's easy to integrate with blog posts and articles. With Amazon Polly, a user has the option to read or listen to your content.

Marketers should take advantage of this emerging trend. Any inroads in 2020 will return dividends later down the road. It will also offer a competitive advantage to your overall search optimization strategy.

Visual Search - The Dark Horse

Despite being in its infancy, visual search has the potential to disrupt the search industry completely. The amount of information submitted in visual search from a simple point and click far exceeds any other medium. For example, the time and effort to describe an ideal home in an image is a fraction of what it would take in text or voice. Visual search stands to change the face of eCommerce and social applications. Search engines are getting better at understanding the components of images, resulting in more reliable results and heightened usage.

The future of search will be about pictures rather than keywords. Ben Silbermann, CEO, Pinterest

Recently Pinterest announced its visual search technology can now identify more than 2.5 billion objects across home and fashion Pins. Pinterest Lens uses optical search technology to power ongoing recommendations based on these images, curated to your style, which drives their commerce business.

Pinterest is not the only vendor making strides in this area. As mentioned, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google have made significant investments in visual search. Snapchat and Amazon partnered in 2018 to give users the ability to search and purchase an Amazon product visually. Visual search technology is continually improving and usage expanding.

Pinterest visual search example for fashion on mobile phone
Pinterest visual search example for fashion on mobile phone

Visual search will allow users to identify products, landmarks, and points of interest by merely pointing a phone camera at the subject matter. There are endless applications and opportunities for highly-disruptive innovation, especially in visual-centric industries such as retail, travel, social, fashion, dining, and real-estate will begin to see mass adoption and innovation in 2020. For example, download the Google Lens app and then point your point camera at text, plants, places, or objects around your house, and you will be surprised as to how many it intelligent recognizes and options available to you.

According to the Search Engine Journal, BloomReach found that visual search is associated with 48 percent more product views. Consumers are 57 percent more likely to return and spend, on average, 9 percent more on mobile than those who do not use it.

Optimization is different for individual search platforms. However, for this article, let’s focus on Google, given it is a natural extension to conventional search optimization.

Google uses AI (artificial intelligence) and image recognition to understand the content and context of images. The algorithm combines the image information with the schema or structured data.

Google provides some insight, “The images that appear in both the style ideas and similar items grids are also algorithmically ranked, and will prioritize those that focus on a particular product type or that appear as a complete look and are from authoritative sites.”

Therefore, the first optimization step is to implement Google rich snippets (schema markup) to win badges for image-related search items, such as recipes, video, and product badges. Getting badges is relatively easy. However, getting into similar and related Items sections is more challenging. Identical to conventional practices, Google will include certain EAT factors, but schema markup is essential. It does require experience and expertise to implement these correctly. For example, without a review, it will expect an offer and aggregate rating. However, everything from ImageObject schema to ISO date formatting can result in an error and, therefore, not indexed.

Target retailer visual search example for home decore on mobile device
Target visual search example for home decor

Initial visual optimization for existing images and videos is relatively straightforward. Ensure each asset has a descriptive filename, alternate text, titles, and optimized for responsive. Make use of the HTML picture tag for responsive designs. Use structured data schemas like JSON-LD and OpenGraph for a deeper set of properties information. Google, Facebook, and other vendor's visual assets higher that include ImageObject and VideoObject properties. Include transcripts, comments, reviews, and aggregate ratings along with video submissions. Make full use of YouTube and other video platforms, SEO features, categorization, and overall best practices. In the case of the Google search engine, make an effort to include images and videos in the sitemap submission. Unlike other search engines, Google allows for visual assets to be submitted and indexed.

Ensure the video is including user-generated content (UGC). For example, search engines love verified testimonials and reviews. Most forms of user engagement make a huge difference in optimization. Another optimization opportunity is repurposed content and formats for social stories and vertical video. Look to retargeting ads to maximize return for repurposed content.

Visual search is here and will only grow in popularity and adoption. Text and voice will take center stage in 2020, but the possibilities and opportunities with the visual search are endless. This trend should be in your 2020 plans if you work in a visual-centric industry. Examples include retail, real estate, fashion, home decor, or travel.

Amazon SEO & Niche Search

Amazon Search Optimization will continue to grow in 2020. Amazon is already the predominant e-commerce search engine search. From this high ground, Amazon has continued to widen and deepen its search market footprint with aggressive moves into voice and visual search.

Amazon, like many niche search engines, is looking to take Google market share by dominating consumers' product searches altogether and capitalizing on emerging trends. NIche search engines are definitely on the rise and a potential competitive advantage in the search engine optimization arsenal. Niche search is often brushed aside as a real competitive threat or opportunity by many marketers. However, in many cases, this is because the comparison mindset is universal general-purpose search engines.

Dethroning Google from the general-purpose search is not a reality. Niche engines are those like Amazon and Pinterest, where their core value proposition is outside of search. Their search technology is tightly-coupled to their business model, e.g., Amazon search is predominantly product for commerce purposes, and Pinterest is image-centric. It just so happens that the niche search volume equates to billions a day. In the absence of these companies, those searches would theoretically go to another search provider like Google. Therefore, these niche search players are positioned competitively with Google. However, that is somewhat flawed as these niche players' search engines are not well-suited for general-purpose search and vice versa.

For example, the Amazon A9 search engine uses a conventional keyword search approach that includes commerce metrics. If you removed the commerce aspect and did apples to apple comparison, the Amazon A9 engine would be massively outmatched by Google's engine, which has matured over 20 years to become a very advanced AI engine.

In many ways, Amazon SEO is very similar to Google SEO. However, it stands to reason that there are some differences due to the commerce transactional nature of Amazon. First, let's briefly touch on the macro similarities and differences. Both Google and Amazon are both search engines in that the higher you rank, the more traffic you earn. Organic and paid performance search results are available for both search engines. Both are proprietary "black box" algorithm-driven and subject to constant vendor shifts. However, they are fundamentally different in that Google is a universal general purpose traffic-centric engine, whereas Amazon is a commerce conversion-driven engine.

As stated beforehand, Google's search is far more advanced and sophisticated. As a general-purpose search engine, it is well suited for the early stages of the buying cycle. Amazon is a niche commerce search engine architected for conversions, i.e., later stages of the buying cycle. Successful optimization for either engine is fundamentally the same. Meaning, the degree of optimization success is tightly-coupled to the experience, expertise, and knowledge of target markets, audiences, behaviors, patterns, and buying cycles.

Amazon's A9 search engine with a relatively small number of configurable optimization areas makes it much easier to reverse engineer the algorithm. Unlike conventional SEO, rankings cannot be achieved solely through keyword or content optimization techniques.

That might sound complex, but to their credit, it is relatively straightforward. However, the A9 engine is brilliant — for example, Amazon's A9 algorithm factors rankings on the probability of purchase and lifetime value. The A9 engine accomplishes this through CTR (Click through rate) and CR (conversion rate) measurement dimensions, such as sales velocity, conversion rates, and profitability. Amazon rewards good business practices, i.e., product, price, place, and promotions. Primary purchase probability ranking factors include positive customer reviews, query relevance, sales ranking, conversions, pricing, categorization, and contextual information. There are no real hacks to Amazon optimization, but integrating it into a holistic and diversified digital marketing strategy will yield a better result.

Amazon extrapolates these metrics to a set of sales velocity metrics, which they then compared against other vendors in the same category. Negatively affecting these scores are quality of experiences, products, and services. Again Amazon has brilliantly distilled this down to a core set of metrics. Inversely, factors negatively impacting purchase probability include poor reviews, inventory issues, order defect rate, pre-fulfillment cancellation rate, late shipment rate, fluctuating sales volume, sales deceleration, and reduced conversion rates. Therefore, delivering the best-priced quality product along with the best services are the most critical optimization factor for Amazon SEO.

56% of consumers begin searches around products on Amazon. Each day, more than 2.65 billion users search Amazon for online products Kenshoo study

Amazon does allow for a certain amount of conventional keyword optimization. It does differ with universal search engines in that searches are only satisfied when all the keywords match the query. Product title, product description, URL, bullet points, images, and reviews are some of the keywords optimization areas for Amazon listings. Additional optimization areas include, but not limited to, category and subcategory, brand registry, cart abandonment monitoring, inventory monitoring, user engagement, and brand management. Inventory management is a listing factor often overlooked, i.e., in-stock, perfect order, and order defect rate monitoring. As stated, these will negatively affect reviews and rankings.

Like with Google, marketers should formalize review and reputation management. Specifically, look to (UGC) content programs to identify, secure, reward, and promote positive testimonials and reviews. Reviews are an A9 Amazon Ranking factor, but these are also proof points for a prospect, which are instrumental in accelerating the sales cycle, boosting profitability, maximize conversion, and increase rankings.

Amazon is the third most significant and fastest-growing advertiser. Amazon ads are displayed both on and off the Amazon site. If you are an Amazon partner or seller, you should include paid ads in your 2020 plans. The conversions are much higher than search PPC as the average Amazon users are ready to purchase.

With the advent of voice and visual search, we can expect the competition between Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Pinterest, and social media players to intensify, but we should expect to see more niche players make an entrance while market share is in flux and up for grabs. Overall, a positive trend for consumers as it boosts innovation improves service and drives down prices.

Agile Content Framework

The holy grail of SEO is quality content. What is quality? It is vastly more complicated than just production value. Many optimization articles are often vague, using it as a catchall term that effectively equates to "better marketing."

Quality content is defined as relevance, authenticity, and credibility. Accenture

That means delivering the right content, at the right time, to the right person, at the right stage of their journey to orchestrate a successful purchase event. Consistent, repeatable, and predictable execution is increasingly more challenging with expanding touchpoints, emerging channels, moment-to-moment trends, decision ecosystems, and buying cycles, continue to increase the complexities of targeting and predicting customer behavior and patterns.

Conventional content practices, focused on the format and types, are rapidly becoming less relevant. Modern content marketing incorporates strategies for segmentation, distribution, personalization, enrichment, narratives, and content supply chains or ecosystems. Even content production is no longer a linear creation process. Production now includes sophisticated collection, curation components, and ecosystems. That said, most of us have experienced content excellence, and some have even been part of a strategy that moved the needle across brands, leads, conversions, and sales. However, even in these cases, the "x" factor is almost impossible to replicate, and it cannot be bought or faked.

Business-to-business (B2B) content marketing is the orchestration of content creation, distribution, and personalization to reach different organizational decision-makers and influencers across multiple touchpoints, channels, and stages of the buying cycle. Furthermore, content consumers are now more sophisticated, and demand trusted, domain-specific content that conveys genuine expertise. B2B marketing teams need to reconfigure and retool for always-on agile capabilities that allow for dynamic, personalized narratives, and contextual conversations. Factor in emerging trends, like voice and AI, and we quickly find ourselves in uncharted waters.

Quality content is content crafted, optimized, and mapped to customer journey touchpoints and all the interactions and conversations that add up to a purchase event. Content in context maximizes moment-to-moment relevancy to educate, entertain, and ultimately ignite action towards a purchase event. Once again, we see the same core themes - Acceleration through Operational Agility and Customer Accuracy. Mastering an Agile Content Editorial (ACE) framework relies on an iterative operational model, a publishing mindset, editorial talent, and technology well-suited to the task of dynamically personalize and reconfiguring content assets to produce a unique customer journey narratives.

In 2020, marketers need to begin the process of rewiring existing processes and systems as they are transitioning to ACE publishing. Below are the pillars:

  1. Content production and supply chains - look to content supply chains or ecosystems to produce and deliver compelling human-centric and data-driven creative experiences with speed, efficiency, and agility. This on-shore, near-shore, and off-shore expertise pools dynamically scale to resource and changing market conditions. Always-on ensures a consistent flow of content. For example, BizSwipe enables marketers to build B2B connections for content co-creation and marketing collaboration. It can also allow to source partners and influencers.
  2. Content publisher - evolve from conventional in-house linear content production to publishing best practices. Publishing abstracts content production, distribution, and consumption into distinct components dynamically reconfigured for narrative, themes, trends, and market opportunities. Look to editorial calendars for collaboration and publishing practices.
  3. Customer journey narratives - mapping self-contained content "atoms" to customer journey touchpoints and stages are now considered best practices. This approach lends itself well to complex context and state management. Start with optimization of existing content for conversational question-answer format.
  4. Build user-generated content (UGC) engines - customers and search engines crave UGC. Reviews, datasets, and case studies generate the highest ROI of any content type. Look to social or community platforms and programs to jumpstart the engine.
  5. Master data sciences - agile content frameworks rely on data and analytics capabilities for precise and predictive customer insights. Data management platforms are a practical approach to outsourcing data management and analytics.

Agile content marketing models and systems should be architected from the ground up to align with their customer's journeys and experiences. Experienced marketing teams look at data management platforms, analytics, and programmatic platforms.

EAT Quality Links

Links are still the number 1 ranking factor in search. The number of referring domains and their domain ratings (DR) correlates strongly to higher organic positioning in SERPs. To rank first for a highly competitive keyword would require more than 500 quality backlinks to a specific optimized page. Even with all the influencers, brand sentiment, SEO, and content tools, link management is arduous and time-consuming.

However, links are the most accurate method for Google to measure Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (EAT). In the absence of more abundant data, for example, Amazon's commerce probability of purchase metrics, universal search engines will look links as an effective method of comparing and ranking content, keywords, and sites.

Authoritativeness ranks off-site factors, such as higher domain rankings, industry pundits, and influencers. Trust is transparency, readily available content, and accurate information about your activity on your website. Quality, length, and keyword-focused blog posts and pages tend to receive 70% more of the clicks on the first page, increasing your organic search traffic.

The formula for success is not a secret. Consistent high-impact quality content optimized for customer context drives traffic and links. Search engines crave user-generated content (UGC) that performs well because it is authentic, pragmatic, and useful. UGC includes reviews, case studies, testimonials, and FAQs are just a few examples.

Deep domain expertise generates authentic value-add content, essential for increasing organic traffic, creating links, and maximizing conversions. Targeted customer-centric quality content invites engagements and shares because sharing adds value to the target audiences' peers and so the value creation cycle continues. Also, as we've discussed, content should create a specific business outcome in mind and mapped to the customer journey or buying cycle.

Quality content and agile content editorial (ACE) processes should be the backbone of your 2020 SEO strategy. UGC in long-form, i.e., blog posts, guides, infographics, articles, and videos.

Long-form content gets an average of 77.2% more links than short articles. BacklinkO

To produce high-quality content, you also need documenting link-building strategies in place to amplify your content's reach and generate authority signals. Organic traffic based on quality content, but gaining external links can be the difference between owning a search term or falling below the fold in SERPs.

Programmatic PPC

Marketers are unlocking new revenue generation sources and maximizing conversions by unifying creativity and analytics to provide innovative and predictive customer insights aimed at identifying and securing profitable customers, keeping them longer, and growing their lifetime value. Insight-driven organizations ingrain critical and active listening into the marketing culture to continuously and rigorously mine customer insights to improving customer experience and operational agility.

Unifying creativity and analytics provide marketers unchartered SEO & SEM capabilities. For example, the automation of the bidding process and targeting of advertising via automation and programmatic ad buying using SEO data, as opposed to conventional techniques.

Numerous tools, including Data Management Platforms (DMPs), are a mostly untapped and underutilized optimization practice. These solutions deliver in-depth segmentation data that enable search marketers to identify and act on customers' behaviors, decisions, and search patterns. This type of data is essential to ensure that Google's machine learning capabilities are learning, adapting, and targeting your most profitable segments.

Google has reportedly generated $32.6 billion in revenue from advertising, a jump of around 16% over the same period last year. Alphabet

The right solution for your company depends on many factors. The spectrum of tools runs wide and deep. Google Analytics 360 is one of the many solutions available to marketers. Analytics provides a suite of data solutions for data collection, management, activation, analysis, and visualization. Analytics also integrates with Google's advertising and publisher products, such as Display & Video 360, Google Ads, AdSense, AdMob, and Ad Manager. Analytics integrates with several leading 3rd party CRM, point of sales, and even Google search tools, such as Salesforce, Surveys, Google, and Search.

APIs provide custom and advanced automation, personalization, and predictive insights. Expect this approach to become more prevalent in Google's ecosystem. Programmatic PPC powered by data intelligence will end up eclipsing manual bidding and provide innovators with a clear competitive advantage. Dynamic data-driven programmatic advertising is the future of display, social, and search advertising, as it offers predictable outcomes, increase profitability, and maximize conversions.

Market leaders will combine various data sources and analytical techniques to mine for conversations and then dynamically personalize and target ads, not only to audiences, but across channels, communities, and stages of the buying cycle. This approach is also agile applicable for rapid prototyping, design, and testing.


Keeping pace with ever-changing SEO trends and best practices is going to become increasingly more difficult and resource-intensive. 2020 does offer an opportunity to capitalize on these areas of innovation and trends. Getting ahead of the curve will have a significant impact on your SEO results in 2020 and beyond.