2020 promises to be a hugely important year for how your business or organisation performs online. Now is a good time to take a good look at your SEO strategy to see where your investment will bring the best results. You may very well be wasting time and money or missing out on valuable new opportunities. This post will help you to get up to date and will give you the resources to ask questions of your SEO agency to ensure you are working with people who have your best interests at heart.

To create this post I have used the expertise of a number of the top SEO experts in the world and have added my thoughts where they give additional clarity or value. I have broken the insights down into “New and shiny stuff”, “Still good stuff” and just in case you are considering working with a new agency or you are unsure about how good yours is, the “No longer worth doing and please avoid stuff”.

Let’s go for the shiny stuff first.

New and shiny stuff

1. Optimising for user intent

Last year, Google launched a new algorithm called BERT that focuses on user intent in a more sophisticated way. That means that more than ever, SEO should be focused on the user and not the search engine so we need to optimise for what they want. This means a big shift in how we approach keyword research. This is something that we have been transitioning to for a couple of years now as Rankbrain (a previous Google update) alerted us to a shift in strategy. In our opinion, this is a good thing as it eliminates clunky, exact match targeting and allows us to be completely natural in the creation of content. It is no longer about a keyword per page or post but about the long tail potential of multiple associated phrases. It also brings UX to the fore with speed of delivery and appropriate content at exactly the right time for every user.

Look at the mechanics of how something is crawled, indexed, and served in a variety of different search settings. With users having more options than ever in how they search for things, it’ll be even more important for SEOs to bear in mind the fundamentals of clean architecture and content delivery. Kelly Stanze – Search Strategist, Hallmark.

Content will truly have to be written to user intent rather than just strings that a user might search. Keyword research tools may even become less relevant with the primary dataset for content creation coming from suggested queries. In 2020, the really smart SEOs will get up from their desks to talk to customers so they can find out what their audience really wants from them. Eli Schwartz – Growth Consultant and Advisor.

This is interesting and should be a given. Who are your customer facing staff? What do your customers ask your customer service or other representatives regularly? How can you give searchers/customers the information they require before they have to ask for it?

There’s no sign of [neuro-linguistic programming] NLP and deep learning research slowing down anytime soon, and you can expect search engines to shift even further from keywords to intent in 2020. Both practitioners and tooling providers will need to shift their efforts towards ‘intent research’ and fulfilling user needs. Frédéric Dubut – Senior Program Manager, Bing.

This demonstrates how quickly artificial intelligence is starting to influence our daily lives. We don’t need to implement NLP or deep learning as such. All we need to do is focus on intent and the engineers at Google can worry about the effectiveness of their algorithm in ascertaining intent using NLP and whatever other tools they have within their reach.

Google is continually updating to optimize search results based on user intent rather than a focus on content/page to keyword matching. SEOs need to understand the nuance of what this means with their content as well as have a firm grasp on Google’s past updates leading to this trend. Jenn Matthews – Senior SEO Manager, Groupon.

If you focus on the customer’s intent, you’ll clearly understand where you fit on that path. By providing the best answers for questions on that path, you can more reliably capture and convert customers. Duane Forrester – VP Industry Insights, Yext.

Focus on how our users talk about their issues, problems, and needs at each aspect of the buyer’s journey much more. Additionally, we’re going to have to extend our efforts far beyond the purchase in that journey to include content that addresses needs after the sale – support, opportunities to advocate, community-building and staying relevant for future purchases. Keith Goode – Senior SEO Strategist, IBM.

A very good point. I’m sure we have all had great experiences where strategists have carefully thought through every step of the customer journey including what happens after the purchase. Having a content and engagement strategy to enhance your relationship with a customer pays dividends in the long run and leads to valuable social proof in positive reviews.

2. Technical SEO

Although this has been an extremely important focus for several years now, I have added it into the new section as it has changed so much in the past 12 months and will continue to morph even more in the coming months. Technical compliance has become one of our primary concerns as without it, all your hard work on content will be limited in its results. Google likes error free, fast loading, technically excellent websites with great user experience so we must ensure our websites measure up. We also need to make sure we monitor technical elements closely as errors or issues can appear out of the blue.

Google has reinvigorated discussions and focus around site speed, with the new Chrome “slow warning badges,” and the speed reports in Google Search Console. This for many will reignite conversations with developers and in some cases lead to systems requiring almost complete redesigns of page templates and reengineering of how assets are loaded. Dan Taylor – SEO Account Director, SALT.agency.

Going further in the technical realm, , expect to see a further shift to a more technical SEO ecosystem, fueled by more JavaScript frameworks usage, PWAs, and a need for SEO automation for bigger websites. This already started a few years ago but has become far more obvious this year. In 2020, it will only get bigger with the popularization of JS frameworks, app first businesses that will also more strongly shift to the web due to the benefits of PWAs, and the need for SEO task automation for bigger sites where machine learning with Python can provide a solution. Aleyda Solis – International SEO Consultant & Founder, Orainti.

Technical SEO is a key piece of the UX discussion. While I believe Google will do a lot to compensate for our site’s own poor technical foundations (e.g., canonical corrections, hreflang corrections, etc.), it’s going to become increasingly more important for SEOs to focus on shoring up their technical foundations. I don’t think it’s accidental that Martin Splitt spends as much time as he does promoting good technical best practices from Google’s perspective. We should consider that a signal in and of itself.  Keith Goode – Senior SEO Strategist, IBM.

Yes, this makes sense. There are definitely websites that get away with shoddy technical practice simply due to the size of the brand. “Get away with” is the operative phrase, however. Imagine how much more competitive these websites would be if they implemented 2020 best practice. Ignore technical SEO at your peril.

3. Structured data (again)

This one has been around for a bit but the advances in implementation and variations in use have pushed this into the new and shiny section. Structured data allows us to give Google a lot more context and specific information about content so we have more opportunities for better visual results as well as optimising for Google features like Answer Boxes, People Also Ask and more. This will be very important this year.

Ultimately, you want to be understood, found by your customers through any channel and be well-positioned to take advantage of future features from Google and other structured data consumers like Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and AI Chatbots. Done right, structured data becomes your marketing data layer. It will allow you to publish your content for any machine/search engine/voice assistant/chatbot with context to provide service to your customers across any surface and at any moment of interaction. Smart SEOs will start leveraging their structured data to enhance their analytics so that they can gauge what part of their content is driving results and use this data to influence content strategy, marketing strategy, product features and more, across their companies. Martha van Berkel – CEO, Schema App.

Don’t assume that because you marked up all the most common data in early 2019, you are good. New types of markup are continuously being added or improved upon. I also expect to see a lot more manual penalties related to poor implementations of structured data. Don’t automatically trust some plugin you’ve installed to structure your data correctly. Shelly Fagin – SEO, Highly Searched / Brand Ambassador, SEMrush.

4. Knowledge Graph Optimisation

The Knowledge Graph results offer valuable visual representations of your brand and a multitude of features. This feeds into performance in local search for branded and non-branded phrases so offers businesses a powerful way to connect with a local market.

The search of the future increasingly is about real-world objects. Google is finding ways to include entity related information in search results through things such as augmentation queries. You can optimize entities that your site is about by doing things such as optimizing those for Google’s Knowledge Graph and making sure that they appear in Knowledge Panels. Bill Slawski – Director of SEO Research, Go Fish Digital.

Want your brand or business to be seen as an entity? If you publish original industry reports, compile new expert advice, and are among one of the dominant voices in the market, Google will start seeing you as an entity. It’s these entity-related signals that are going to help you keep ranking. Alina Benny – SEO & Content Lead, Nextiva.

You need to tie large amounts of your cornerstone content to definite entities, which Google either recognizes or doesn’t. Writing around semantically close entities helps to better answer user journeys not just through better content, but also content that Google can see will be a good result. I think in 2020, internal linking will come to the fore, but again based around things, not strings. Understanding the unique knowledge graph our web presence makes will empower us to be able to link those concepts together better within the content under our control, to the benefit of users and crawlers alike. Dixon Jones – Founder, DHJ Ventures.

Still good stuff

1. High quality, optimised content

Of course, this has been our focus for years now. A content marketing or SEO strategy is completely useless with cookie cutter or “same as” or churned out content. It must be unique, exceptional and offer memorable insights and information that directly addresses challenges or needs.

To succeed in 2020, you will have to write something that is relevant and valuable. This means that SEOs need to learn how to write or hire people who know how to write. Google’s editorial discretion isn’t perfect yet – there will still be content that ranks that shouldn’t. But the day is coming when the best content will win. Tony Wright – CEO, WrightIMC.

Make it your goal to have the best content on the web for your topic, or at least an important subset of your topic. By doing so, you will be future-Google-proofing your business. This allows you to compete effectively for long-tail searches (which still remains about 70% of all search queries), will help build your site authority and demand for your content, and can be done in a directly ROI positive way. In addition, this type of approach to content is exactly what Google is looking for to satisfy user needs and represents the type of market investment that Google will likely never make, because Google is about doing things with massively scalable algorithms. Eric Enge – General Manager, Perficient Digital.

Couldn’t agree more, Eric. It is also worth looking at content that is doing well for a topic you are considering writing about so you can see where you can create something that outshines the top results. This will depend as well on the authority of your domain but is a very useful long term strategy for gaining relevant and valuable long tail visitors.

Another thing to watch out for is content cannibalization. I’d recommend auditing all of your content for overlapping rankings and merging, redirecting, and archiving as needed so every page ranks for a unique set of keywords. If your website covers the same topics again and again, even if you’re covering these topics from different angles, your pages are going to knock each other out of the results. Aja Frost – Head of Content SEO, Hubspot.

There is some validity to this argument if you have had a strategy of targeting the same topic over and over again. However, you should have been examining related, useful information within a topic group which will rank for variations of the extended range of phrases. Which is why Aja talks about a set of keywords instead of a single keyword.

And one for global sites:

And in the world of international SEO, the time is now to invest in good localization of content. Many global websites have poorly translated content that hasn’t been edited for the local tongue. It’s not the placement of the keywords, it’s about how well your content is written for the local audience. Motoko Hunt – President, AJPR.

Multi region and multi language sites are a fascinating challenge. Totally agree on the content written for a local audience and most research tools are not particularly good at handling languages other than English. It is better to use a native speaker who understands the business comprehensively and to use best practice for optimisation allowing for local idioms.

2. E.A.T. – Expertise, Authority, Trust

Expect this to be even more important in 2020 and for good reason. Who wants to search for a solution only to be served content by someone who has little authority to speak on a topic. Google is getting much better at identifying those who have the E.A.T. attributes required to satisfy their searchers. Look at how much medical or financial results have improved in the past few years. Identifying “fake news”, misinformation, or conspiracy theories has been a challenge but overall, the intent of the search tends to align with the quality of the response in most cases.

Opening up nofollow as a hint was an attempt by Google to better understand the sources of news stories and references in large papers and academic study. Match that with the credentials of the author (which can be defined by structured data markup) and any fact-checking oriented schema, and we have an easier way for Google to weigh authority and trustworthiness of a piece of content, whether a news or publishing story.  Loren Baker – Founder, Search Engine Journal.

Put simply: The offline is coming online. Every business needs to find its unfair advantage. With entity-based search, the Knowledge Graph and the rise of E-A-T, our capacity to create an accurate and convincing online representation of our offline world will become a major differentiating factor. All those offline events, conferences, awards, partnerships, etc. that Google cannot see suddenly take on enormous importance. Pull them online and push them to Google to feed its need for understanding and credibility. Jason Barnard – Owner, Kalicube.pro.

Useful thought. If your business or organisation is not taking advantage of specifying to Google all of the activity you are undertaking as a company, you will be missing out. Find out how to bring all of these things online so Google can factor these into your E.A.T. Optimise your events, ensure any trade or op eds are digital as well as traditional, utilise company social media and ensure sponsorships, industry affiliations and media mentions are documented on your website.

3. User experience (UX)

We can no longer afford to have an outdated, slow, poorly performing website. Google is very good at analysing poor user experience signals and these can range from bounce rates to time on page to number of pages viewed and more. Each has multiple nuances as certain pages should feed others quickly and efficiently while others should take your focus for a generous amount of time. So, now is the time to move forward and bring your valuable assets up to a high standard. Every step of the journey through your website and what the potential actions should be must be examined and optimised for. Only then will you create a customer friendly, frictionless experience which will be valued by your visitors and by Google.

The biggest trend that smart SEO professionals should focus on in 2020 for greater success is UX – user experience. This includes the overall experience from the initial interaction in the SERPs, to the overall landing page experience, and even the experience after they leave your site (think remarketing, drip campaigns, personalization for returning users). Think about how you can help your users have the best possible experience while truly pondering what value you can provide to them during their visit. Brock Murray – Co-founder, seoplus+

4. Mobile SEO

This has continued to grow in importance in the past couple of years as more and more users browse and shop on mobile devices. Social media use is heavily dominated by mobile especially Facebook and people are using voice search and assistants more and more. Google shifted to a mobile first stance earlier in 2019 and ever since then websites that fail the mobile optimisation tests have reduced in visibility on both mobile and desktop. Is your mobile website version up to scratch?

If you don’t have a mobile-friendly and mobile-optimized website, you need to take action immediately. You can’t wait any longer. All of your online reporting must reflect insights into your mobile performance as a priority. Instead of visualizing a person sitting at a desktop computer you have to realize that most of the time people will find your website via a mobile device. Kris Jones – Founder / CEO, LSEO.com.

SEOs need to be looking at real, mobile search results, to know what they are up against, what kind of traffic they can expect, and what kind of optimization will actually be successful at impacting the bottom line. Cindy Krum – CEO, MobileMoxie.

5. Link building

Link building gets a bad rap thanks to the thousands of terrible, templated outreach emails we all receive. Polite as they often are, we really don’t have time to read your new article and we don’t really care whether your link is better than one we have in a 5 year old post. And the passive-aggressive followups when you ignore the first unsolicited email just irritate. Fortunately, link building is not all spammy guest posting and templated outreach. It is more and more about PR and branding opportunities.

Want to acquire top-tier links in 2020? It’s time to move link building from the dark ages into a consumer-first approach for 2020. That means focusing on three types of journalistic writing:
Planned editorial: Topics that are covered by journalists every single year at a given point (e.g., Black Friday, Valentine’s Day).
Planned reactive editorial: Features written by journalists on a topic that ties to a seasonal event or theme that we know is being covered due to time frame, but we don’t know the exact story until editors or journalists write it on the morning of their editorial meeting.
Reactive editorial: Features written in the here and now that are unplanned and can’t be predicted and are dictated due to a news story breaking. Shannon McGuirk – Head of PR and Content, Aira Digital.

Link building will be more about brand building in 2020. The responsibility will fall on SEOs to build links and media placements that drive traffic and push brand, not just links that help with search rankings. Now our link building activity has to be on-brand, or there’s a realistic chance that there won’t be any brand-building activity at all. Carrie Rose – Co-founder / Creative Director, Rise at Seven.

Building a brand people trust and want to do business with is essential. Customers are getting smarter and they expect more when it comes to marketing. The more they trust you, the more they are willing to share your content (links), talk about you (value), and buy your products (revenue). Casie Gillette – Senior Director of Digital Marketing, KoMarketing.

No longer worth doing and please avoid stuff

Here are a few of the things that those emails you receive promising to get you to number one on Google are likely to propose. SEO is an extremely fast game and any shortcuts are eliminated quickly, often with dire consequences. Remember, if you receive an unsolicited email or even a cold call, there is a good chance that the services offered will fall well short of the mark. Unfortunately, there is no bar to entry in this field. Anyone can call themselves an expert and many do who simply do not have the experience or the skills to look after your brand, your reputation and grow your business in an ethical way.

  • Spammy guest posting and paid links – that high DA link from entrepreneur.com or Huffington Post or Forbes means nothing. The links are not counted by Google. Delete these emails.
  • The SEO/website development  company that has 100 staff specialising in every CMS, programming language and SEO strategy but they need to send you a “Hi there” message through your contact form? Nope.
  • Native advertising – Outbrain, Taboola etc are irritating clickbait which results in terrible UX signals for Google through fast abandonment.
  • Seeing metadata as SEO – SEO is not about optimising metadata. This is not SEOing a website. SEO is about a large range of tactics and strategies that all focus on quality and brand reputation.
  • Thinking that SEO is a magic trick box. If your business has a bad reputation, your products are not in demand or if you are a tiny fish trying to compete with giants then no amount of SEO is going to take you to the top.
  • Exact match keywords – As explained above, Google has moved on from exact match a long time ago. If you are not thinking about context, intent and long tail opportunities you are not up with the play.
  • Spammy practices from yesteryear – article submissions, directory submissions, forum links, comment links, keyword stuffing, hidden content, low quality links, click farms, automated traffic and more should all be in the poor quality SEO dustbin of history.
  • Anyone who promises number one spots for your keywords without knowing what they are or agencies that charge per keyword. Run a mile!

My advice is to ensure you avoid archaic or damaging SEO work by researching your SEO company first. Here are some tips:

  1. Can you tell who they are? Do they have full profiles for the team on their website? Can you reach out to them?
  2. Do they share the clients they work with?
  3. Can you talk to these clients to see whether they are satisfied?
  4. Do they have a reputation for quality and are they recognised by SEO and business organisations?
  5. Do they have a physical address you can visit?
  6. Can you look at case studies of their work with results?
  7. Are they prepared to explain what they do and how they will help you in easy to understand language?
  8. Are they purely focused on technical elements or do they equally focus on brand, content and reputation?
  9. Will they tell you the specific tactics they will use?
  10. How long has their company been registered for?

That will eliminate a lot of the pretenders and believe me, there are a lot of them around.

I hope you have found this roundup of expert predictions on what to expect from SEO in 2020 enlightening. SEO is far from dead as the yearly posts often proclaim. In fact, it is evolving and growing in complexity as it shifts focus to what people want rather than what search engines want. These are extremely positive trends and we fully support any changes that benefit the ethical and thoughtful implementation of SEO strategy. Strategy that puts the customer at the fore and creates awareness and visibility of content and messaging that demonstrates the quality and expertise of what our clients have to offer. This is truly a win-win.

Expert opinions sourced from Search Engine Journal.

High Profile Enterprises is an award winning SEO and content marketing agency from New Zealand. Their focus is on high level, ethical SEO strategies and a commitment to exceptional content and performance. Over the past 10 years, HPE have worked on hundreds of projects in both Australia and New Zealand from Government projects to NGOs to businesses of all sizes to personal thought leadership projects and social media campaigns. You can contact us to have a chat about how we can help you here.