Episode 2 of our “SEO in 2020” podcast interviews Bas van den Beld from State of Digital; getting his views on how he thinks SEO is likely to evolve over the coming few years.

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DAVID BAIN: I’m joined today by the European Search Personality 2015 and the founder of State of Digital. He’s worked, trained and consulted with some of the biggest brands in the technology, travel and entertainment industries. And he also lectures at several leading business schools. So welcome, Bas van den Beld.

BAS VAN DEN BELD: Hi, thanks for having me David.

DAVID BAIN: And thanks so much for coming back, it wasn’t so long ago that you were on our TWIO show, so it’s good to have you back here.

So SEO – will we even still be calling it SEO in the year 2020 do you think?

BAS VAN DEN BELD: That’s a good question. Probably some of the old folks will still call it SEO but I’m not sure if it’s going to be called SEO in the general terms. Although I think a certain part of it will still be called SEO, which is what is today the more technical part of SEO, that will probably still be called SEO. I think other parts of SEO will probably (as we’re already seeing) be moulded into other parts of the digital marketing jobs that we have right now.

As we discussed on your show before, job titles are changing and there are fewer jobs in SEO I think. The article that we talked about, which did not acknowledge that it’s fewer jobs in SEO, it’s just fewer jobs named as SEO, which I think is a big difference.

As I said, the term SEO, if it will still exist in 2020 – I think it probably will still exist but mostly for technical SEO work.

DAVID BAIN: Do you think it will be reasonable to expect an SEO to do all the activities under whatever umbrella it is in three or four years’ time? UX and good website experience? Or will an SEO then just be about technical SEO, do you think?

BAS VAN DEN BELD: I think that when we’re talking about SEO’s in 2020 it will be about technical SEO. I don’t think you can expect, right now even, for any SEO to do all of it. It’s just too broad.

I think it’s interesting though, that if you look at it from a historical perspective, then probably an SEO is the first actual digital marketer. So they already get a lot of stuff, but the web has grown, the reliance on the web has grown so we rely on what happens on the internet much more than we did ten years’ ago. So the stakes are much higher, which means it’s not a one-person job anymore. But it all comes from the job of the SEO. At least the major part of it comes from the job called SEO.

UX didn’t exist ten years’ ago – it exists now, partly because we’ve gone from getting people to the website to having them stay on the website and it’s become a part of SEO.

Also the different parts of digital marketing are from an SEO perspective actually. Social media, in a way, comes from SEO as well because we try to optimise for the users in the end and I think every part of the digital marketing sphere is doing the same thing but SEO is the original.

DAVID BAIN: So what SEO strategies would you say work well now in 2016? But are unlikely to work well in 2020?

BAS VAN DEN BELD: That’s a good question! Well I think it’s the evolution you can see from the shady tactics that have been working for about a decade and stopped working in the last couple of years, or not even entirely stopped working in the last couple of years, they were just less effective. I think that will continue. The stream that we’re in now, where you can see that tactics that are not beneficial for the end user, those will be problematic. So those will probably disappear because either Google, or maybe a new search engine that may pop up in the next four or five years will have a different approach to it. So actually trying to gain the system will be much, much harder every time because the systems are getting better at tracking it and finding the changes.

But there will always be tactics that are a little bit shady. That will always exist, that actually keeps us alive to be honest because that’s what takes us further and takes search engines further as well, because if we didn’t cross those lines then they wouldn’t change a thing. And everything would remain the same!

DAVID BAIN: You mentioned the possibility of Google having a competitor or a bigger competitor, do you think it likely that in the next four years or so, we may see another search engine either appear or grow to become a realistic, significant competitor to Google?

BAS VAN DEN BELD: Yes, because I think search is going to change. The way that we do search will change. I don’t see a competitor in the way that we’re searching now with the (well one-in-ten these days), but with the search engine results pages, the way they are right now. Do you see how search engines are slowly changing from a list of results into a Personal Assistant? That means there are different competitors possible and there are different competitors who are already there. That’s the only way the Apple could compete with Google when it comes to a search engine.

It’s Siri – now Siri is not right now a very good search engine, but it is a help, it is a Personal Assistant. And I think search engines will evolve much more in that direction, which means that Google is going to get much more competition in that area. If you look at Siri, and if you look at Cortana as well – I think Microsoft Cortana is showing that it is entirely possible to compete with Google in a way that is features-wise. So features-wise – Cortana is as good as Google is with regards to Google Now. It’s just that Cortana doesn’t have the platform like Android has, so that’s been a good choice from Google, in that several years’ ago they actually went with the mobile angle. But I think there is a potential competitor for Google out there. If you look at it from a Personal Assistant angle.

DAVID BAIN: That’s the evolution of search, I guess, the potential of search being integrated into devices, almost, rather than actually through a browser. But the actual SERP that we’re seeing at the moment – Google Search Results Pages, do you think that’s still going to be very important, and if so, do you think it will evolve much over the next few years?

BAS VAN DEN BELD: It’s going to be less important I think. It will evolve without a doubt, because it’s been evolving forever, since there were search engine results pages. But I think some of the results are not going to be on a page that we’re looking at, so we’re not going to be making a choice, we’re just going to get the results, which means that we’re not going to make a choice ourselves. So we don’t need a page for that.

Those types of searches, if we ask for example, ‘Where is the closest Barber’s shop (a bit strange with my haircut!) near to me?’ Say if I’m taking a trip in three weeks’ time to the US, to New Orleans, for example, and I’m in my hotel room and I’m doing a search for the nearest Barber’s shop. I don’t need a set of results for that. I can just get an answer to that question. So we don’t need pages for those types of results.

When it comes to, ‘What are things that I should be looking at when I’m going to New Orleans?’ Then that’s a different type of search, because that’s going to give me more general things that I like, that I can choose between. So that means that I need a page to land on. But the actual results that are directly there, that are direct answers, involve direct answers, those will be different.

DAVID BAIN: So in relation to that, do you think that the need for a local business to have a website will become less because, perhaps, the user can get all the information they require directly from the search result rather than having to actually visit a website?

BAS VAN DEN BELD: No I think it will become more important.

DAVID BAIN: Yeah?

BAS VAN DEN BELD: So the website as we know it now will become less important. It’s not about a, ‘Look! This is us!’ Kind of website – it’s about helping to get the searcher to their answer as quickly as possible. It will be important for branding, it will be important to have a home base where you can try and give answers to the people searching, and feed the search engines at the same time. It’s not just the fact that it’s a Barber’s shop near me, but it should be a Barber’s shop that fits my needs. So how to handle a guy with not much hair so that I don’t end up in a Barber’s shop which is for women with long hair! I’d be uncomfortable there! The Barber’s shop has to make sure that it shows what type of Barber’s shop it is. And I think the personal website from that business will be very important for that.

DAVID BAIN: So Schema will obviously help with that as well?

BAS VAN DEN BELD: Yeah. So I think Schema is the start of all those things. Schema is hugely important in that, but it will evolve into being more than that. Because I don’t think Schema is something that every small business is going to implement, or even understand how to implement it. So the search engines will try to figure out more of that stuff themselves. And that is the content that people put out, that is the content that the businesses put out on their own websites and also outside of their own websites. So you have to make sure that you show not just that you are a Barber’s shop or what kind of Barber’s shop, but you are branding-wise, doing a lot more so that it shows that you are the right fit for the searcher.

DAVID BAIN: Okay.

So you mentioned at the beginning that SEO almost evolved into digital marketing, in general, or that SEO’s were the first digital markers and then social evolved from that. Now that Google has Google+, and there are lots of other social networks out there, what do you think may happen with Google+? And what do you think Google may do with other social results in order to actually perhaps improve its own results?

BAS VAN DEN BELD: Google+ has been debated since it started, and I think the debate has always been wrong. I don’t look at Google+ as a social network. I know there is a social network element there, so the fact that you can go to Google+ and share updates and all those kinds of things, that is the social network part, but that’s the least important part of Google+.

Google+ in essence is what’s going on behind the scenes so it’s the fact that’s Google is getting a grip of who are the people who are searching, who are the people online. So they are personalising our experience based on what’s happening with Google+. So every time you visit a website the Google+1 button sends back information about us – how much time we spend on that page, what we’re doing. And because it’s connected to a profile because they know it’s a certain person, they can then start personalising more.

I don’t think that will go away. So Google will always use the backhand stuff from Google+. It’s just that the name Google+ is a bit stupid. They shouldn’t have named it Google+ because the Google+ social network is something else. That probably won’t cease to exist. That probably will either die at one point or will be one of the smaller social networks. It’s not going to be another Facebook. Even though functionally it might do great things, I don’t think it will actually be a competitor in the space of social media. The stuff behind it – that’s what Google+ is really all about.

DAVID BAIN: And will Google need to, or want to, purchase an other social network?

BAS VAN DEN BELD: I’ve been thinking about how Google might buy Twitter, because they’ve been getting closer to Twitter in the last couple of months, maybe a year. And it would make sense for Google to buy Twitter because it would give them more insight into our behaviour, and it would get them closer to the newsreel stuff as well. So it would benefit them to buy Twitter. I’m not sure whether they are actually going to do it.

It’s a tough question to answer. I don’t see any other social network right now that Google should buy. Even though if you look at applications like Snapchat for example, they show how the young generation is working and how they are behaving online and through networks. And Google doesn’t have that. So that could be something that they could be looking at as well, because in the end it’s all about the data.

For Google, the interesting part is, ‘Can we use the data behind it?’ It’s not about, ‘Can they spread as much information as possible?’ Or, ‘Can they make money from it?’ It’s about, ‘How much data can we get from the social network that we acquire?’ And data means behaviour of people and how they can use that.

DAVID BAIN: And one of the social networks with probably the most data at the moment is Facebook. Are Facebook going to become a serious player in the search engine industry as well?

BAS VAN DEN BELD: I don’t think so, to be honest, no. They should have been already, and they haven’t succeeded on that. And if they haven’t succeeded by now, I don’t see them actually succeeding in becoming a big search engine. I might be wrong, you never know, but the way that Facebook is going at the moment – it’s becoming more and more like a publisher. It’s the online version of a TV channel. Socialised TV channel.

But if you go to Facebook you only see parts of what you actually could see because you’re only seeing a few friends that pop up all the time. You hardly see the right brands anymore because it’s only the brands that advertise. So it means that the only thing that you’re actually seeing on Facebook, when it comes to brands, are the ones that are spending a lot of money on Facebook.

Which means that it’s not very attractive to go there and I wouldn’t know what to search for. And they’re not pushing towards other websites as well. So they’re not trying to get content on Facebook that shows other websites, they’re trying to get everything on the platform instead to stay on the Facebook platform. Which means search is only interesting inside the platform. And there’s not really much to search for. And the search itself is rubbish, to be honest.

DAVID BAIN: What about the actual experience of viewing websites or webpages? Do you think that people are more likely to use much bigger screens? Do you think that screens might shrink and actually become watches? And if so, what may happen to the average website to ensure that it maintains a good user experience?

BAS VAN DEN BELD: That’s connected to the user itself. As you said, it has to have a good user experience. So it’s about the experience part. A website that is not about showing, ‘This is what we are.’ The website is giving the people the right experience. That’s what it starts with. If you look at all the stuff going on with virtual reality at the moment, that’s probably what the newer websites will look like.

So taking the Barber’s shop as an example again, I want to look inside the Barber’s shop, I want to see what’s going on right there and I want to know that it’s a place that I want to go to. And that’s what’s website will probably be in the future whether it’s an application that you can only see through a virtual reality device, or that it’s on a website, you want to be able to see those kinds of things. It’s about giving people the experience that they want and need.

DAVID BAIN: And in terms of the way that Google perceives the value of other websites, the authority of other websites, at the moment it still very much relies on links and citations and onsite optimisation as well. Do you think that the way that Google decides to rank webpages in its SERP is likely to change significantly?

BAS VAN DEN BELD: No, I don’t think in the short term it will change significantly, on the grounds that they’ve had the opportunity to change that around several times in the last couple of years and they only made minor changes in the end, if you look at all the changes they make, they are relatively minor changes.

So I don’t expect too big a change there, especially when it comes to the results like what we talked about earlier – the results that actually need a results page. I don’t think those will change that much in the short term. In the end it will be about how close can you get to your audience, whether you rank well or not. But that’s a long off way from where we are now because it’s really difficult for Google to figure that out as well, because everybody is different.

DAVID BAIN: And one thing that we’ve seen fairly recently is the removal of right-hand Ads on the SERP and for many commercial firms, for Ads on the top. Do you think that paid-ads and organic listings will get more integrated in the future and if so, how do you see that evolving?

BAS VAN DEN BELD: I’m a bit afraid for Facebook, for what’s happened to Facebook will happen to Google as well. In that mostly results pages will be Ads and that it will turn into another type of TV channel – you will just see a lot of Ads. That is what I am afraid of because the growth of the number of Ads that we’re seeing in the search.

DAVID BAIN: Do you think it’s going to be still mostly text-based? Or is it likely that we may see more graphics or videos on Google SERP?

BAS VAN DEN BELD: No, I think we’re going to see a lot more videos and a lot more images. But those can be Ads that have become images. Something that Bing is working on as well, is specifically for users of the surface. They get Ads that you can flip through. You do a search and you can see those are very visual and the first part that you see are Ads and then you usually have a couple of organic results and then a couple of Ads again and then another set of organic results. I think that’s probably where Google will go as well in the future. So it’s much more visual, and less textual.

DAVID BAIN: And do you think, in the future Google, and perhaps other search engines, will continual to get better and dealing with negative SEO? Will it still be possible to participate in negative SEO in the future?

BAS VAN DEN BELD: It will still be possible because as with everything, as soon as you fix something there will be someone who will try to break it again. And succeed at it as well. So it will always be possible – it may be more difficult, and that’s the only thing a search engine can do, to make it as difficult as possible. To have that work.

But don’t underestimate the power of negative SEO. Beyond SEO. Now that might sound strange but negative SEO comes from negative PR and that’s been around since even before PR existed. That’s basically the whisper campaigns – something that happened 2000 years ago. That’s just basically people gossiping about each, that is negative SEO as well. And that’s very easy to do without actually even having to do any type of SEO. If you can only make people talk negatively about other people or businesses, then that’s going to generate negative results in the search results as well.

So it’s really hard to tackle that as a search engine. It’s not a technical thing, the negative issue. It’s more a PR thing.

DAVID BAIN: So it’s in human nature? It’s in a marketer’s nature, possibly?

BAS VAN DEN BELD: I wouldn’t say a marketer’s nature because that’s probably bad-mouthing marketers too much! But it is in human nature, yes. If you want to read a good book on that by the way, it’s Trust Me I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday. That’s a great book. He explains, for example, how in former jobs he got small bloggers to write about stuff, which then was picked up by the bigger websites and actually newspapers. Just because he implemented the negative SEO into the internet and it’s scary, but we can also learn from it. It shows it’s very possible to get everything on the web without even having to touch your own website or your competitors’ website.

DAVID BAIN: It is scary, yes.

One thing that SEO’s also struggle with is cross-device tracking and multi-touch attribution. Is that going to get easier? Are we going to be able in a few years’ time, more likely to be able to say, ‘This visitor searched for an organic keyword-phrase on this particular device and then ended up purchasing on this device through an affiliate link or a pay-per-click link,’ so we can then give the organic search traffic some credit?

BAS VAN DEN BELD: I hope so. But I doubt it, to be honest. But I hope so. I doubt it because there is the privacy issue and we’re going to get less and less information, as SEO’s, about what people search for and how they behave. Even though we want that information it’s going to be less available, so it’s going to be more difficult to actually see where the attribution comes from. So that’s going to be more difficult in the future. It will be really good if we can figure it out, but it’s difficult I think.

DAVID BAIN: And just to conclude, what do you think businesses need to be doing now that is likely to be still a positive, valid strategy in 2020?

BAS VAN DEN BELD: Getting as close the customer as possible and your audience. I think that’s the thing that no matter what you do, no matter what changes Google makes or Facebook makes, as long as you know what drives your customers and what drives your potential customers, then you can get close and you can create content, you can optimise SEO, you can use all the different tactics that you can’t use if you don’t know about your customer. So get as close as possible to your customer. Understand exactly what their needs are. And play on that.

DAVID BAIN: Great, okay. Bas, thank you for joining me. Where can people get hold of you again?

BAS VAN DEN BELD: Thank you for having me.

They can get hold of me on Twitter of course, @basvandenbeld. It’s just my full name.

My personal website is www.basvandenbeld.com and www.stateofdigital.com is the place where I spend a lot of time publishing content and helping other people publish content as well.

DAVID BAIN: Wonderful. Thanks again!

BAS VAN DEN BELD: Thank you! Thank you for having me, David.