SEO was a roller coaster in 2019 to say the least.
Structured data-powered rich results helped to push zero-click searches to an all-time high. Regulatory scrutiny heated up as numerous antitrust investigations of Google were announced domestically and abroad and the BERT update in October 2019 brought enhanced natural language understanding to search engines. Google+, the company’s biggest push into social media, faded into history and, to top everything Google off, after 21 years, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin stepped down and appointed Google CEO Sundar Pichai to lead Alphabet.
Bing turned 10 and has been more disruptive than ever. Most SEOs still have no real clue just how Microsoft’s search engine actually ranks pages as you can still do 10 searches and come up with 10 different results.
And that is just the tip of a rather big iceberg. So let’s take a look at SEO in 2019.
In 2019, Google was a little more forthcoming about big core updates. On top of confirming the March core update, the company introduced a naming convention and, starting with June, Google began giving SEOs and site owners a heads-up before rolling out core updates. It did the same with September’s core update.
Google also made other, more specific updates, including one to give more weight to signals that indicate expertise, authority and trustworthiness along with a diversity update aimed to limit listings from a single domain to two results for a given query. In August, a recency update emphasized more timely featured snippets and another, introduced in September, was designed to give more preference to original reporting. Most significantly, in October, Microsoft and Google both introduced improved natural language understanding via BERT.
Searches ending without a click to website content hit an all-time high this year, now constituting more than 50% of Google searches, according to Jumpshot data. The decline of organic clicks has been brought on by UI changes on the search results page. For example, rich answers, which often eliminate the need for users to click through on a result, have more than doubled in mobile search results since 2018, a Perficient Digital study found. The introduction of support for FAQ and how-to structured data drew mixed reactions from marketers for its potential to increase their visibility on the search results but at the cost of possibly disincentivizing the click. The prevalence of rich results has affected the way people navigate search features, giving rise to the “pinball pattern,” in which users bounce their attention between elements in a nonlinear fashion. If this is representative of the way users interact with the search results page, there is a clear incentive for brands to optimize for Google’s ever-growing number of search features.
Google rolled out a mobile search result redesign with black “Ad” labels for paid listings and favicons for organic results. Some members of the SEO community pointed out that the redesign was likely to lead users to further mistake ads for organic results. All sites previously unknown to Google prior to July 1 are now indexed using mobile-first indexing. However, older sites are still being moved over to mobile-first indexing when Google deems them ready.
Google employs human contractors to evaluate its search results and, although they do not directly influence rankings, they provide feedback that helps Google improve its algorithms. In 2019, the guidelines that these people are instructed to follow were updated three times. In May, the guidelines were refreshed with more explicit references to E-A-T (expertise, authority and trustworthiness) and provided directions on evaluating interstitial pages and content creator expertise. The September guideline revisions added more emphasis on vetting sources, particularly for news and Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) content. It also added the potential to spread hate as one of the grounds for which a rater might apply the lowest content rating. Google attempted to encourage impartiality with its December update to the guidelines, in which it reminded evaluators that users come from diverse backgrounds and that ratings should not be based on “personal opinions, preferences, religious beliefs, or political views.”
Googlebot/Bingbot, new and improved?
In May, Google amd Microsoft launched evergreen versions of their web crawlers, Googlebot and Bingbot, meaning that the crawlers will stay up-to-date with the latest version of Chromium. Although some limitations still exist, evergreen web crawlers based on the same Chromium platform mean more of our content can be seen by Bing and Google with fewer instances of troubleshooting for a particular crawler will be needed.
As of September 1, Google withdrew support for unpublished rules within the Robots Exclusion Protocol, putting an end to noindex as a directive within the robots.txt file. However, it is recommended to leave such directives in the robots.txt file as other search engines, such as Bing, have not followed suite.
Further changes announced by Google introduced rel=”sponsored” and rel=”ugc” to indicate paid and user-generated content, respectively. On the heels of that announcement, it also said that it would be treating all link attributes, including rel=”nofollow,” as a hint for ranking purposes rather than a directive. The “hint” treatment and the optional nature of the new attributes had many SEOs contemplating who was likely to gain from their adoption and the value in implementing them at all.
Google My Business added more tools for business owners, namely bulk review management, a new screening program called Google Screened and searchable short names while Yelp launched paid profile upgrades, including verified licenses for local providers, business highlights and a portfolio section.
Members of the SEO community witnessed local rankings volatility in early November.
Joy Hawkins, owner of Sterling Sky Inc. and the Local Search Forum, suggested that the changes were mainly related to relevance and that Google seemed to be doing a better job of understanding a broader set of search terms as they might be applied to a single business. Contributor Craig Mount, founder of Classy Brain, said that the update doubled-down on proximity signals. Google confirmed the update in early December, referring to it as the “Nov. 2019 Local Search Update,” following the naming convention it uses for core search updates. In its announcement, the company stated that update was related to neural matching, which would help it understand when a query contains local search intent. This update has rolled out to all countries and languages worldwide. Local listings are a valuable channel for many businesses, but the system is far from perfect and many are concerned by the direction that Google seems to be headed.
In April, the company sent out a survey to local businesses asking how much they’d be willing to pay for some of the features they were already receiving for free. Local SEO practitioners’ responses ranged from excitement at the prospect of better customer support to criticism for abusing its position in the search market. Competitor ads began appearing on local profiles in August, reminding businesses that Google is the true owner of their My Business listings. The option to remove these ads has not been made available.
On top of this, businesses in need of immediate help with their Google My Business listings found themselves with one less resource when the company shut down its toll-free customer support line in November. Anyone wishing to speak directly to a support specialist must now fill out a form to request a call back.
In addition to the changes in Google’s local service offerings, spam listings have plagued local results. Local SEOs have been keen to point out that Google stands to gain even with the spam problem, as legitimate businesses may be driven towards paid ads to regain visibility. Google has highlighted its spam-fighting efforts, but they have done little to alleviate concerns from the SEO community and business owners.
Antitrust and privacy at home and abroad:
State attorneys generals from across the U.S. announced investigations into Google (and Facebook) in September over alleged anti-competitive behavior. The multi state investigation will be conducted with the cooperation of federal authorities and focus on the degree of control Google exercises over the digital advertising sector and whether it acquired companies to stifle competition. On top of its legal troubles in the United States, Google continues to face regulatory scrutiny in Europe. In March, the company was fined $1.7 billion over “abusive” AdSense publisher contracts, pushing the total fines from three antitrust complaints spanning 2017–2019 to $9.3 billion. And, in November, EU antitrust regulators announced that they were investigating Google’s collection and use of data, with a focus on “data related to local search services, online advertising, online ad targeting services, login services, web browsers and others.” Around the same time, complaints against Google from rival shopping comparison engines also caught the attention of the European Commission. As part of one of its earlier settlements with the European Commission, Google will be prompting Android users in the EU to select a default search provider beginning in 2020. The bidding process it’s using to select which competitors will appear on the search engine choice screen has drawn complaints from critics.
All in all, 2019 has been a very stormy year for SEOs with lots of changes and more mostly likely to come in 2020. Google remains the driving force in SEO and SEM however so, be sure to get your FREE Google Top 10 SEO Checkup from SEO Web Services. There is no obligation what so ever and at the very least, you will have the information on your website’s basic SEO health based on Google’s top 10 points.