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Many website owners were shocked by the news earlier this week (perhaps reading this article) revealing that Google was “planning its biggest algorithm update in five years”. According to the information provided, a new technology called BERT (which stands for “Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers”) is set to provide better recognition of search queries.

With horror we remember that in 2015 the search engine released its mobile index, which was dubbed “mobilegeddon”, and which was dragged by the press. Just a few months later, hardly anyone remembered this paradigm shift on Google and the effects of the update were, thanks to diligent search engine optimisers, barely noticeable. A similar situation is expected when it comes to BERT.

It has been several years now since modern SEO work has been focused purely on keyword optimisation. The focus has rather shifted to the coordination of search intention with digital offers. The new BERT algorithm enables Google to more reliably identify different intentions in a search query based on language constructions and changing contexts, and associate them with the most relevant results. When it comes to artificial intelligence competition, this is a big step for Google. Website operators, on the other hand, do not have to respond immediately to the announcement from Mountain View. The creation and optimisation of relevant content for human users should continue to be a top priority in order to build authority and trust for generic searches in key target groups with their own offerings. This content should provide appropriate results for high-volume search queries for maximum relevance and engagement. For websites that primarily benefit from brand searches, the BERT update is unlikely to have a significant impact. What’s more, the company also states that the new algorithm will initially only be rolled out for the English language. A date for its launch on the German market has not yet been announced.

In any case, it is a good idea to regularly monitor your organic traffic when a search engine update like BERT has been rolled out to detect mid and long-term changes. However, there is no need to blindly take action, as Google usually extensively tests its updates, rolls them out slowly, and regularly re-calibrates them after they’ve gone live.

Climate change is blurring the boundaries between the seasons, and the search engine business is also facing major upheavals. While autumn still feels like spring, we are looking to the future with SEO News for the month of October.

The profanation of search engine optimisation

Fire has set us apart from the rest of creation, the steam engine has accelerated our lives, artificial intelligence is killing millions of jobs and the mysterious world of search engines is finally becoming a self-service store. From the outside, our SEO industry is still surrounded by an aura of mystery.  Search engine optimisers always enjoyed playing the part of a sort of guardian of this powerful knowledge, who, with the help of magical formulas and actions, could influence the abstract nature of the search engine, at least to a certain extent. An ability that required a minimum level of secret knowledge and a huge wealth of experience.

But now both Google and Bing have announced that webmasters will have more control over how their content is displayed on search results pages. In a blog post, Google has announced a new set of attributes, which enable concrete restriction of the content shown on the results page – the so-called snippet – and can define them in advance for optimal presentation. This is all covered under the title “More controls on searches”. Using structured data, content providers hosting news sites and video portals in particular can more precisely control the preview of their offerings. In addition to a better display in search results, this step is also a peace offering in the conflict between search engines and website operators when it comes to the use of content in snippets and the growing number of ‘no-click-searches’. These allow user’s information requirements to be satisfied on Google’s pages already, without the click being forwarded to the source page.

Microsoft moved on to offer a feature that will help website owners to not just submit a list of URLs directly to the BING search engine, but that will also push content such as text, images, and videos directly. Again, this marks a departure from the two-decade-old paradigm that search engines trawl through content itself to assess relevance and timeliness.

Organic searches in the auction process

So, is it the case that the profanation of search engine optimisation is creeping into our house, in the course of which organic results will not be more than the sum of webmaster submissions through various self-service tools from the major search providers?

At the Bay Area Search Meetup search engine conference in San Francisco,Google’s house-elf Gary Illyes surprisingly outlined an interesting analogy that fits well with this development. According to Illyes, organic searches can be considered like an auction model similar to paid search ads. Instead of a monetary bid, each search hit provides a combination of different arguments that qualify it for the results display. After examining these signals for intention, relevance and quality, the available organic search positions are distributed using these non-monetary bids. Only a limited inventory is available in different intentions categories. For example, if it is a transactional search, such as “Samsung Galaxy S10 without a contract”, a site with a purely informational bias and no opportunity to convert will be excluded from the auction in advance.

Of course, the comparison of paid ad auctions and organic searches is exaggerated, and SEO will not be reduced to clever use of the right tools from Google, Bing, etc. in the future. However, the organisation of information is the central task of search engines and the influence of artificial intelligence on these processes can already be seen to a huge extent today. The boundary between paid ads and organic search services will continue to blur both technically and economically. Monitoring the resulting opportunities for synergy will be one of the key challenges for search engine optimisation in the coming years.

“We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO,” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings wrote in a letter to investors at the end of 2018, pointing out that gaming, far more than cable TV, will be a major competitor for Netflix in the future.
The video game industry is posting record-breaking revenues year after year and attracts players across all demographics on every device, from dedicated gaming consoles to personal computers and smartphones. The more gaming is growing, the stronger a contender it becomes in the fight for three scarce resources of our modern, connected world: time spent consuming media, audience attention and share of wallet. And it’s not only about gamers playing themselves – the e-sports industry is also growing massively and watching professional gamers compete in tournaments has become a popular source of entertainment for many interested in the medium.

However, one of the biggest shifts for the industry is looming on the horizon, a change so significant to the established ways of doing business, that gaming might never be the same again, neither for hardware makers and game developers, nor for the players.
Shortly before this year’s E3, the gaming industry’s annual trade show in Los Angeles, Google announced its plans for a new type of gaming service: Stadia. For decades, video games were distributed on physical storage media like cartridges, DVDs, Blu-Rays and later online downloads, to be installed and played on powerful hardware in the form of consoles and personal computers. Stadia is Google’s attempt to change this by moving gaming into the cloud.
Games will be streamed over the internet to any device with a screen that has an internet connection and is capable of running Google’s Chrome web browser or compatible with Google’s streaming technology Chrome Cast. All the heavy lifting in terms of graphical computing and processing will happen in Google’s data centres.

What is rather trivial for a linear content like a movie or piece of music, is a lot more complicated for the medium of games. Unlike movies or TV shows streamed from Netflix and other services, games rely on rendering their environments in real time, constantly adapting to player movement and viewing angles. Additionally, they require precise player input through controllers or a mouse and keyboard that must be reflected on screen with minimal delay. The massive processing and networking infrastructure required is something only a handful of companies can provide, Google being one of them.
The benefit for the players is that they no longer need to purchase expensive gaming computers or consoles to play the best-looking, most complex games, but can simply stream them to their TVs, tablets, laptops or even phones.

The business model behind Stadia, which will launch in November 2019, requires users to pay a monthly subscription fee to use the service. And this is where things get complicated. Unlike video or music streaming services, Stadia will not launch with a wide catalogue of old and new games, but a very limited selection of mostly older titles that are included in the monthly package. If players want to access other games as part of the service, they will have to purchase individual games digitally from the Stadia store or pay publishers such as French company Ubisoft a monthly subscription fee to gain access to their catalogue of games.
In a market where numerous large game publishers and hardware makers are already in fierce competition over gamers’ wallets with myriad subscription services to gain access to publisher games catalogues, microtransactions for in-game items, fees for online multiplayer and the purchase price of many games themselves, it is questionable whether Stadia can succeed without going the traditional route of platform owners gaining a market share in the gaming industry: exclusive games and discount pricing.

All major console makers own several development studios that are creating games exclusively for their platform and, in Microsoft and Sony, pay hefty sums for timed exclusivity for high-profile third-party titles. Another tech company that recently adopted the model of selling exclusive games for a subscription fee to interested audiences is Apple, their service Apple Arcade is launching later this year.

In the meantime, Sony and Microsoft are also working on cloud-based gaming platforms which are expected to launch along the release of the next generation of consoles. Sony has even entered a strategic partnership with Microsoft to develop their own future cloud gaming solutions based on Microsoft’s Azure cloud technology – a move that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, but new competition in the gaming space seems to foster new alliances.
The streaming future of gaming is not without obstacles, however. The traditional core target group of gaming enthusiasts is growing increasingly frustrated with the fragmentation of platforms, exclusivity of content and publishers transforming their games from a one-time purchase to service-models with the aim of increasing long-term revenue through microtransactions and paid additional content.

Although the same cannot be said of movies and music these days, many gamers still feel the need to “own” the games they paid money for, instead of simply buying the right to access them temporarily through a streaming service. And as the younger generation of players grew up with mobile games and free-to-play titles financed through microtransactions, it is uncertain that a streaming service with fixed costs and more traditional games is even attractive to them, especially when pitted against the many different forms of competing entertainment available. As much as Netflix sees games as a competition over its audience’s time, attention and money, games face competition from video and audio streaming services as well.

It will be exciting to see how the industry transforms over the next few years and if streaming and subscriptions are truly the future. The thought of being able to play any game, anywhere on any device without having to buy a console or PC is certainly appealing. Even ad-supported models don’t seem to be too far-fetched in this scenario, which would provide attractive opportunities for brands to reach young and affluent target groups. If the industry is successful in bringing their core target groups with them into a streaming landscape and if ease of use and lower cost of access can even attract new target groups, gaming could cement itself as the leading form of entertainment among younger target groups for many years to come.

At 40 degrees in the shade, Germany’s favourite pastime – watching television – is suddenly becoming irrelevant. A shame, because just as the summer heatwave is setting in, the relationship between TV devices and search engines is being newly configured. Find out why this is, and why special consideration should be given to voice-based search technology when it comes to younger and older target groups, in July’s edition of SEO News.

TV and search engines – two very different siblings on a bonding session

As we swelter our way through the summer of 2019, the global economy is beginning to look distinctly overcast, with world export champion Germany particularly badly hit. These developments force many companies to review their spending on marketing and advertising. Digital advertising channels provide the advantage (at least in theory) of permitting a direct comparison between costs and benefit, with the price of a conversion or ROI and ROAS with respect to budget allocated being generally straightforward to plan and calculate. This is less easy in the case of TV campaigns, however, which have an extensive reach that cannot be assessed with the same precision.

That’s why it’s in the interest of the advertising industry to start paying closer attention to the interplay between the two channels, in order to explore possible synergetic effects.  Although the question of how TV/display devices and search engines impact on one another is by no means a new one, the interesting thing is that both organic and paid searches are increasingly coming to be seen as the link between a sometimes diffuse TV impact and a company’s actual turnover.

Calls-to-action as a tool for generating higher demand

As New York trade journal Digiday reports, increasing numbers of American companies are beginning to examine their attribution models in order to establish how their TV presence is reflected in organic search requests and in the performance of their paid search campaigns. An increase in search requests for brand terms in particular can be stimulated not only by increased investment in TV and display device campaigns, but also by direct cues to search such as “Just Google XYZ”, or “Search for XYZ”, which can significantly increase search volumes via conventional media channels, the report reveals.

Although this creative approach has been in use for some years in the USA and the UK, in Germany it remains the exception rather than the rule. The setup enables analytics data from searches to be harnessed to optimize cross-media campaign planning throughout the customer journey. The approaches that enable conventional high-reach campaigns to stimulate awareness can be measured in the form of changes in search volumes, and the cost of paid search conversions used in turn to deliver the TV campaign’s ROI/ROAS. Sustained SEO work also enables newly-gained organic search volumes to be directed to landing pages with high conversion rates in a targeted way. This makes it possible to ensure an optimal user experience all the way from couch to conversion. As agency Mediaplus has established in a joint study with SevenOne Media and Google, similar advertising effects can also be achieved with the help of Google’s video search engine YouTube. This is why it’s high time that the long-standing competition between marketing siblings TV and search engines was ended, so that tight budgets can be used more effectively and efficiently in times of economic difficulty. After all, family needs to stick together.

Who’s talking to Alexa?

Even in an industry as latently hypereuphoric as ours, the tense hype about the possibilities and blessings of voice search technology has finally given way to a sober realism. We’ve pointed out here many times in the past that voice search is little more than an extension of the human-machine interface for search engines, and that its substantive developments in terms of new forms of interaction would most likely be unable to satisfy the high expectations surrounding them. As is now being reported, the expert prediction that by 2020 around 50% of all search requests will be made using voice technology was simply the result of an incorrect interpretation of data from the People’s Republic of China.

Voice search user numbers are also growing independently of this minor market research fail, of course. This is primarily due to the likewise inflationary market launch of dialogue-capable devices. US marketing agency Path conducted a global survey to investigate how the new technology is being used by different target groups on different platforms. The study delivered multifaceted results: Around 70% of participants reported using voice search on a weekly basis. A quarter use the technology as often as three times a day. When the respondents are divided into age groups, it’s striking that users at the lower (13-18 years) and upper (65+ years) ends of the spectrum in particular report using voice technology on a regular basis.

A glance at the used search systems reveals that the oldest user group communicates most often (approximately 57% of all group respondents) with Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa. Around 28% of respondents in the youngest target group aged between 18 and 22 likewise prefer the Echo/Alexa family produced by the technology giant from Seattle. This suggests that the best way to reach these especially solvent and tech-savvy groups is to employ a combination of conventional voice-based SEO with structured data and product data automation, like Amazon SEO. Such a combination is something that many agencies on the German market have yet to offer.

There can only be one search engine! This statement does not sound very much like diversity and transparency, but rather monopoly, one-sidedness and dominance. But the reality is that Google has unrestricted control over the global search market. Whether this will remain the case depends largely on global competition. This issue of SEO News for the month of February is dedicated to the challengers and eternal second-placers in the global search market.

No choice but to be happy with Google

Data protection is not just a local issue, a fact which has recently come to the attention of Silicon Valley. In the last few years, European and national competition authorities have put massive pressure on Google and Facebook with sensational rulings on the collection and use of personal data.

According to recent figures, Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. had to spend more money on fines last year than the company paid in taxes. The justification for bringing these successful proceedings is always the same: abuse of a dominant competitive position in the provision of services or products.

There are many causal factors influencing the often quasi-monopolistic market shares of search or social media platforms in the digital world. But the search industry is more than familiar with examples of how former market leaders (Yahoo, Alta Vista) can be overtaken by an unknown competitor (Google). So what about competition in organic search in 2019? Is there a contender for a post-Google world? And is it worthwhile for SEOs to take the broader view when it comes to competition?

You don’t have to spend much time checking the numbers to demonstrate Google’s market power, which currently stands at around 90 percent worldwide. The company’s professed goal is to combine the industry’s largest data mine with artificial intelligence to form an invisible and omnipresent information, solutions and convenience machine. The voice-controlled Google Assistant is an important cornerstone for Google. But when we look closer at the issue of Voice Search, we see that the subject is more complex than it may seem. Those grey talking boxes are just the information middlemen in a larger game. Usually, the search engine inside is not a product of the brand on the case. For example, Microsoft’s search engine Bing is the actual supplier behind the search results for Amazon’s bestselling voice assistant Alexa. Up until the end of 2017, Bing was also behind Apple’s language assistant Siri. More recently, the company based in Cupertino has started using Google search results, with the exception of image searches, which continue to be supplied by Microsoft. In particular, as local searches on smartphones or in the car are increasingly conducted via speech, Bing should not be written off or disregarded as a search system.

Expansion is creating a more diverse search market

The search market continues to expand as a result of technological evolution, so that even small search providers can show surprisingly good results in their own niches. “Duck Duck Go“, the search engine for anonymity and the protection of personal data, claims that the number of searches carried out on their platform has almost doubled since 2016. According to an analysis by the analytics service SimilarWeb, the provider from the Midwestern United States leaves even industry giants like Bing in its wake when it comes to bounce rates and user engagement. According to the study, this is in part due to the fact that DuckDuckGo users are more technologically aware and sensitive to data protection issues.

The fallen giant Yahoo is not planning to make a search comeback

With just under four percent of the global market share, the former search pioneer “Yahoo” is still in the game. However, for several years its search technology has been provided by Microsoft, and since the portal was sold in 2016 to the US telecommunications company Verizon, a return to a separate search business is no longer on the agenda for the company founded in 1994, although the service is still quite popular in Japan.

Similarly, even the small search engine “Ask.com” is still in business, and is holding onto a stable market share of around four percent, at least in the US. Ask started in 1996 with their own search technology, however, around 15 years ago, it morphed into a social question-and-answer portal that attracts a relatively stable core audience, though this never got past the beta version in Germany.

The real challengers for Google are in the Far East

You have to look all the way to Asia to find a potential challenger for Google: China has developed into a search engine market of its own with a similar economic potential to that of the West. However, under the conditions of national censorship, it operates according to its own rules, and Western corporations are systematically denied access. But companies like Baidu or Tencent are in no way inferior to Silicon Valley in terms of technology. The race between the USA and China in the fields of artificial intelligence and quantum computing will also be trendsetting for the global search market.

Christmas Day 2018 will see any number of brand-new voice assistants take their very first glimpse of the world. Plugged in to charge for the first time, their cameras will take in the cosy candlelight of the Christmas tree while their microphones pick up the voices of their future, human families. Find out which manufacturers are seeing this marketing dream become a reality, as well as how Bing is transforming itself in the world of assisted shopping, in the last SEO News of 2018.

Voice assistants amid the Christmas madness

Christmas is a celebration of love for all the family. This year too, we can expect to see that circle of loved ones grow a little wider, with the addition of more omnipresent voice assistants. And if Alexa and the like were among the top picks to grace last year’s Christmas tree, with market leader Amazon reporting the sale of several million Alexa models in time for Christmas 2017, this year likewise finds us glued to the sales figures in anticipation. At the same time, we find ourselves wondering whether the trend will solidify to seal the devices’ status as a staple product, and who will finally emerge victorious in the race for market dominance. For now, 2018 has seen the competition grow stronger, with some of the biggest rivals succeeding in significantly expanding their market share. According to corporate consultants Strategy Analytics, the world’s largest shopping platform from Seattle remains the market leader for the time being, accounting for around 75 percent of all smart speakers. When it comes to year-on-year growth, however, Amazon’s lead is threatened by Google with its Google Home assistant. After managing to increase its sales by more than 420 percent, the search engine giant from Mountain View now holds second place in the ranking, with just under 16 percent of the market. Especially striking, though, is the fact that the joint market share held by Amazon and Google has fallen year-on-year from around 90 percent to just 69 percent, with competitors from Asia gaining the most ground. China’s answer to Amazon, Alibaba, for example, presented an assistant at Canadian AI conference NeurIPS which seemed to match technology leader Google completely when it comes to the range of abilities featured. Just as Google made the headlines at its development conference with a spectacular phone conversation between man and machine (see our report), Alibaba too chose a human conversation to demonstrate a development version of its own assistant, AliGenie. Put to the test arranging a delivery date, Alibaba’s machine kept a cool head even when hit with interposed questions. The system was even able to draw the correct conclusions about the delivery destination from indirect hints supplied by its human conversation partner – a challenge which has so far proven to be more than other voice assistants can handle. Unlike Alexa and Google Home, which are intended to establish themselves as smart speakers for our living environment, Alibaba is directly integrating its own voice assistant into the business processes of its own corporation. According to the company, telephone orders, price comparisons and delivery management are set to be the first areas of activity to benefit from the assistance of the AliGenie system. And just how far the digital world is split, even in the realm of voice assistants, is demonstrated just as much by sales figures from China as it is elsewhere. According to data provided by Strategy Analytics, in 2017 Google managed to sell the world’s biggest market just half a million of its voice assistant devices. By comparison, the number of smart speakers sold in the USA is already nearing the 50 million mark. The race is therefore still far from decided, and the future of voice search technology as open-ended as ever.

Shopping over searching

Microsoft has fitted out its search engine Bing with a range of new functions intended to help support users who are looking to make a purchase. The tech giant from Redmond chose Black Friday as an ideal opportunity to present these new capabilities. Some of the new functions had even been conceived especially with Black Friday in mind, and were only available for this day. While the majority of the functionalities will be available all-year-round, they are intended to be especially helpful in the pre-Christmas period. With a product comparison function created specifically to compare mobile phones, Bing displays ratings, expert reviews, and product highlights prominently over organic search results. According to Microsoft, this will make it easier to follow the latest hardware trends on the mobile phone market.

A second function presents products in a table comparing featured snippets. Searching for the superlative “best laptop” (see our report), for example, results in a comparative overview that includes product pictures, a list of functions, and links to further information. This is not an extension of Bing Shopping, however, but instead deals in organic search results. Only the exclusive Black Friday function was available via Bing Shopping, enabling users to rummage through local and interregional flyers filled with offers for the biggest discount battle of the year. While Google is attempting to remove its shopping product from the supervisory authorities’ firing line with the help of dubious competition, Microsoft is putting its money on organic search innovations as it has often done in the past. This goes to show that whether or not a search engine is entirely dependent on advertising revenues does make a difference, after all.

As Christmas trade slowly gathers pace, this year too it’s mainly prettily wrapped electronics that we can expect to see under German Christmas trees. November’s instalment of SEO News examines why we should keep a critical mind when it comes to technology, and also considers the possibility of Google’s homepage relaunch going awry.

Google is becoming a long quiet river

So, it’s finally happened. The last 20 years have seen Google not only set the standard for web-based search engines, but also lead the way with the minimalism and efficiency of its homepage design. During the Internet boom of the early naughties, Google’s simple search field with just its logo – or doodle – and two buttons underneath was the welcome antithesis of labyrinthine jumbles of links and tedious Flash intros. Much has happened since 1998, however, and the market leader from Mountain View is now finally bowing to the trend for constant and personalised stimulation. “Discover feed” is the name of a new feature which has been in the process of a progressive worldwide roll-out on desktop and mobile devices, including search apps, since the end of October. The first of several new functions announced by Google to celebrate its 20th birthday, Discover feed marks the first step towards an individualised response engine that delivers results without even needing to be asked questions (see our report). Although Google has experimented in the past with new homepage features that allow users to enter into popular subject areas, and with its assistant service “Now”, this is the first time that relevant content in the context of personal search histories is being presented in endless stream form. And, just like on YouTube, the whole experience is also available in a Night Mode which comes in special muted colours.

This design overhaul – the most comprehensive since Google’s very beginnings – has clearly been a difficult step for the decision-makers in Mountain View, even though the competition at Microsoft have taken a different visual tack from the start with their search engine Bing. With a striking new image to greet visitors to its homepage every day and the latest news, Bing has always provided more points of entry for its users than the market leader. It’s also interesting to compare Google with Amazon: for the Seattle-based retail search engine, content personalisation is the obvious starting point when it comes to homepage design. Perpetual upsell with the help of the A9 algorithm means that users are presented with countless individually-tailored offers. On the other hand, recent integration of increasing numbers of new features and placements has resulted in user experience and usability of design suffering significantly. The consequence seems to be that Amazon’s homepage design is devolving back into the confusing times of fragmented front page websites. Neither does user experience appear to be too great a sacrifice as long as takings are good. And for Google too, integrating paid ads into the Discover stream is naturally providing new forms of monetisation.

That said, the homepage itself may ultimately turn out to be a doomed model. Voice and visual search capabilities are now providing countless touchpoints for search engines, which may soon enough ditch classic web or app-based presentation formats to offer users a tailor-made answers and solutions package in their place. Until that time comes, SEOs will need to wait and see whether the new Google stream gains acceptance among its users, and what criteria Google’s Discover feed uses to generate its responses. This new, larger stage certainly shouldn’t go unused.

Led around by the nose

Technological progress is a function of modernity – it’s both its cause and its consequence. One of the clearest examples of just how deeply technology has embedded itself into our lives is the phenomenon of the search engine. Whether it’s Google’s vision of an invisible companion for the challenges of the unplannable outside world, or Amazon’s promise of immediate consumer satisfaction, neither project would be conceivable without the technology that functions as its beating heart. It was no different with the steam engine or with internal combustion. The difference is that the machinery driving the present chapter of modernisation is far harder to see inside. If the new diesel generator was something that you could take apart with your own hands, the same can hardly be said of algorithms and artificial intelligence, which exist only in distant clouds of data. And sometimes it’s difficult to shake the impression that the bombastic promises and visions of the high-tech industry are little more than a glitzy marketing show for a helplessly naive public.

This is why it’s always reassuring to catch the technological elite showing a more fallible side. To this end, the SEO Signals Lab Group announced a competition which challenged contestants to achieve a high ranking among responses to the search term “Rhinoplasty Plano” within the space of 30 days. The term was one that users might enter in order to locate plastic surgeons in the greater Dallas area of Texas who specialise in sculpting noses. This was a query that had not formerly been the subject of a great deal of competition, and which had high local relevance. The small-scale challenge delivered some unexpected results, however. Google’s mantra for success in organic searches can be broken down into three key points: relevant content, a friendly user experience, and clean technical compatibility with all platforms. That’s why it’s more than surprising that the winning website of the Signals Lab competition is written entirely in Latin – right down to its URLs, headings and footers. The use of Latin dummy text in website production is nothing unusual; in this case, however, the ancient language wasn’t just found in a forgotten placeholder for content in production, but throughout the site, as part of a strategy to reveal the fallibility of search engine algorithms. On top of that, the website was also packed with made-up local information, forged reviews, and substandard backlinks. That Google allowed what is clearly a fake website to rank second among responses to the search term in question can only be explained either as an anomaly, or as a blind spot in the omniscient Googleverse.

Two lessons can be taken away from this little experiment. The first is that it’s a comfort for the search engine sector to know that, even with the supposedly mature level of its technology, Google can still be caught out with classic old-school fake spam SEO. The second is that users need to stay vigilant, and try to establish how far they can trust technological progress before letting themselves get swept up in all the excitement. Although search engines are certainly extremely practical, they will never become part of human reality. Whether it’s Google or Bing, at the end of the day, search engines are no more than database-supported ways of selling advertising which offer a compact and free version of real life to tempt users in. By the way: if you’re looking for Latin-speaking surgeons to operate on your nose, apparently Florida has what you need as well.

These days, it’s hard to shake the feeling that everything is changing. Unfortunately, we cannot provide much more stability – because things are about change. This edition of SEO News for the month of October asks the question of whether the Internet as we know it will still exist in ten years, and explores what Google has planned for the next 20 years.

1) The Brave New World of Google

Major birthdays are a welcome occasion to take stock and look ahead. It’s no different for companies and institutions. The search engine Google is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary. Consequently, the Head of Search, Ben Gomes, who was promoted just a few months ago, has attempted to construct a grand narrative in the form of a blog post. Gomes’ story begins with his childhood in India, when his only access to information was a public library, a remnant of Britain’s long-vanished colonial power, and finishes with the modern search engine. Gomes suggests that personalisation, automation and relevance are the cornerstones of a quality product that, according to him, still follows the original vision: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. But is this goal being sacrificed globally on the altar of proportionality? SEO news will take up this question again below, with regard to the double standards in dealing with China.

An interesting issue for everyday SEO work, however, is a paradigm shift which Gomes believes will be groundbreaking for Google over the next 20 years. The Head of Search confirms the vision of an invisible and omnipresent information, solutions and convenience machine. According to Google, the transformation to this ubiquitous service is to be followed by three fundamental processes of change. First, it’s about even stronger personalisation. At this level, Google wants to try to evolve from a situation-dependent provider of answers, into a constant companion. According to Gomes, users’ recurring information deficits and ongoing research projects will be recognised, taken up and handled. This is to be achieved, above all, by a restructuring of the user experience on the Google results page. All sorts of personalised elements will be found here in the near future to help users make their journey through the infinite information universe more efficient. The user not only gets to know themself in this process, more importantly, the search engine gets to know the user – that goes without saying.

But before any criticisms can arise, we move swiftly on to the second paradigm shift: The answer before the question.

Google has set out to identify and prepare information relevant to the individual user, even before they have formulated a search query at all. The key element here is technological. Following “Artificial Intelligence” and “Deep Learning”, a technique called “Neural Matching” should be especially helpful: It links the representation expressed by text, language or image with the higher-level object or concept. This represents the continuation of the concept of semantic searches and entities with new technological concepts, and is exceptionally consistent from a business perspective.

The third pillar of the change should be a greater openness to visual information in the search systems. The visual search has great potential for users and advertisers, as we have already discussed several times before. Google is immediately taking action, introducing a complete overhaul of its image search, as well as the integration of its AI-driven image recognition technology “Lens” into the new generation of in-house “Pixel” smartphones. The interesting thing about Google’s anniversary publication is what it doesn’t mention: The voice assistant Google Home. This is a good sign that, despite all market constraints, Google is not distancing itself from its technological DNA and allowing itself to be pushed into a competition with the voice market leader Amazon. Contrary to the publicised hype, voice software is yet to create a huge stir in the search world.

2) The end of the networked world

Oh, how everything is connected: The individual, the world, technology and democracy. More and more aspects of our existence are digitised or transmitted via digital channels. In this process, it always comes back to bias. The well-known tech companies are acting as the pacesetters of this upheaval with their platforms. It may not be too long before Facebook, Amazon or Google establish themselves as the quasi-institutionalised cornerstones of our social and economic systems. Even today, the real creative power of these companies often exceeds the capabilities of existing state regulations. And search engines are at the centre of this development as a human-machine interface and mediation platform. The most relevant shopping search engine Amazon, for example, is changing not only our personal consumption habits but also the appearance of our cities and landscapes, with its radical change in the retail sector. The convenience for the consumer has resulted in empty shops in the inner cities and miles of faceless logistics loading bays in the provinces. Meanwhile, global populism has cleverly used social and informational search systems to accurately position and reinforce its messages. Facebook and Google have contributed at least partially to the sudden and massive political upheaval in one of the largest democracies in the world. Maintaining their self-image as pure technology companies, Google, Facebook and the like, however, have so far persistently refused to accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Apart from public repentance and the vague announcement that they are looking for “technical solutions”, they have shown little openness to adapting their strategies to the intrinsic systemic dangers. So the interesting question is: do global technology companies have to represent those values of freedom and democracy that have laid the foundation for their own rise and success in the US and Western Europe? Or can companies such as Google or Facebook be flexible depending on the market situation, and utilise their technological advantage in dubious cases in the context of censorship and repression? Currently, the state of this debate can be seen in Google’s project “Dragonfly”. Since Mountain View has refused to censor its product content, the global leader has been denied access to the world’s largest and fastest-growing market. When Google ceased all activities in China in 2010, the People’s Republic was forced to do without it, and managed pretty well. China has managed just fine without competition for its own flagships Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba. According to consistent media reports, Google has been working for several months to restart involvement in the Middle Kingdom, with the blessing of the government in Beijing. Under the working title “Dragonfly”, Google is reportedly planning to launch a Search app and a Maps app. Working closely with the Chinese authorities, and under state control and censorship, these apps are expected to pave the way for future, widespread activities for Mountain View in the People’s Republic. It just goes to show that Google is prepared to play the game, if the price is right. This approach can be seen as pragmatically and economically motivated. Particularly in light of the fact that the Chinese authorities recently granted Google’s competitor Facebook company approval, then withdrew it after only one day. Rampant discord in the West and cooperative subordination in Asia: former Google CEO Eric Schmidt outlined the consequences of this double standard a few days ago in San Francisco. Schmidt told US news channel CNBC that he expects the Internet to divide over the next decade. He predicts a split into a Chinese-dominated and a US-dominated Internet by 2028 at the latest. Apparently, Silicon Valley has already given up on the vision of a global and open network for the world. However, the consequences of this development will be felt by every individual.

At last, summer is here. But artificial intelligence doesn’t take summer off, so it can be the ideal babysitter in the car, especially when stuck in a traffic jam. That is, as long as the language assistant actually has something to say. That’s what our SEO News for the month of August is all about. And of course, we can’t avoid the notorious silly-season monster.

1) Speaking notes for Google Home

Dialogue with machines is still a hot topic. Last month, we reported to the workforce on Google Assistant’s automated voice commands. Now, Mountain View is substantially simplifying the world of voice assistants, which is ideal for those content publishers who are trying to get started in this area. “Speakable” is Google’s first semantic markup that identifies text clips for voice output. The company states that the markups were provided through the industry initiative “Schema.org” and are still in the beta phase. With “Speakable”, news publishers and other content providers can mark up short, text-optimised sections within an article or webpage, so they can be used directly by the Google Assistant. Google advises that the text should be a maximum of two to three sentences long, similar to a teaser. This way, the assistant’s speech output has a talk time of 20 to 30 seconds. For optimal use, the content of the text should present the topic informatively and in short sentences. Google also suggested that headlines should be used. Content selection must ensure that technical information, such as captions, dates or source references, does not interfere with the user experience. In the age of artificial intelligence, the optimised use of markups is becoming increasingly important for search engine optimisers, especially as the number of delivery platforms is also increasing. The standardisation of supplemental information in the source text enables all systems involved in selecting and displaying the search results to reliably collect and optimally process the data. The “Speakable” feature will initially only be available for the English language in the US market. However, Google has stated that it plans to launch in other markets, under the condition that “a sufficient number of publishers implement Speakable”. So the SEO industry will certainly have its work cut out.

2) More opportunities for Amazon Alexa

When it comes to the future of digital searches, the focus is slowly shifting from analysing requests and intentions to reflecting on answers and output systems. The key challenge for successful human-machine communication, alternating between interactive displays, augmented reality and voice assistants, will be to provide the best possible result for each channel. Is there one answer, multiple answers or does the initial question then lead to a conversation between the search system and the searcher? In principle, the process is the same with a virtual assistant as it would be with a physical advisor: Do you want a quick result or a full sales pitch? Do you want to be left alone to browse quietly or do you need the help of a sales assistant? Is a brief answer enough or do you want to break down your query into more specific stages until you get the right result? The American company “Yext” has now introduced a collaboration with Amazon, which enables the import of NAP data (name, address and telephone number), as well as allowing the language assistant Alexa to import opening hours directly from local companies. The New York-based company told journalists that they plan to further integrate their interface with Amazon Alexa in the future. Product data and catalogues may be included at a later stage, but this has yet to be decided. The automation of the data exchange between the owners of digital offers and search systems is already a key component of success in modern digital retail. The goal of this is to create an optimal user experience at the point of issue, as well as valid measures of success. Providing and optimising data feeds is key for optimal functionality of Google’s PLA (Product Listing Ads) or the use of price search engines and affiliate networks. In the world of Amazon, the necessary interfaces and tools are only gradually being created. And when it comes to profiting from the growth of digital voice assistants, that’s exactly where the greatest potential currently lies.

3) An SEO Rabbit goes on a SERP Rampage

Do you still remember Lotti the snapping turtle, Yvonne the elusive cow, or Sammy the caiman? Fortunately, there are search engines that give us the opportunity to relive the stories of these adventurous, silly-season animals. And even years later, we are still captivated by them during the summer-holiday slump. In this latest ‘animal’ news sensation, it was a virtual rabbit that brought the world’s largest search engine Google to its knees. The story was published under the headline “Rabbit Bug” by the Spanish programming collective “La SEOMafia”. According to their information, a table was inserted into the source code of a website in order to deliberately manipulate Google’s SERPs. The bug was based on the fact that Google cannot interpret this formatting when displaying the search result, leading to the sudden termination of the search result display after the manipulated entry. This bug was implemented on a top-ranking site for the keyword “conejos” (Spanish for rabbits), with the result that only one, manipulated, search hit was displayed. It is easy to imagine the incredible click rates that could be achieved by using this strategy. It’s always a pleasure to see some creative spirits shake things up in the now mature and grown-up world of the SEO industry. Eventually, even Google’s SEO liaison officer John Müller became aware of the Rabbit Bug and reported on Twitter with a wink that he had circulated the sighting of the rabbit in-house. The rabbit is now threatened with the fate of all silly-season animals. In the end, most were captured or killed.

Summer is finally here and the nights are long, which gives us plenty of time to think about the fundamental questions of life. That’s why the July issue of SEO News examines not just the forthcoming Google updates, but also the cognition game show and the future pecking order on our planet.

1) Achieve good rankings quickly and securely

Once again, Google is focusing on the convenience and security of Internet users. The company (which in its own words aims to do no evil) is launching not one, but two updates in July – whose effects will be of equal benefit to Internet users and website operators alike. Both of these changes were announced a long time ago and have already been partially implemented. The first change will see the loading speed of mobile websites become an official ranking factor. Loading speed is already listed as a quality criterion in Google’s top 10 basic rules for website quality; however, it has taken a very long time for it to become a genuine ranking factor. The change was originally introduced based on studies showing that slow-loading websites experienced direct impacts on their clickthrough and conversion rates, and the speed argument was also repeated like a mantra by Google representatives at various search conferences during the 2018 season. The subsequent introduction of the Mobile First Index (see our report here) means that the rule has now been made official for mobile sites too. Google recommends that website operators analyse their domains using Google’s own “Page Speed Report” and “Lighthouse” tools and make the necessary changes for mobile websites. Alongside its speed update, Google is also getting serious in July with its announcement that websites which are not converted to the encrypted HTTPS protocol before the deadline will be marked as “not secure” on Chrome. This change also marks the end point of a campaign that was launched over two years ago in 2016, when Google began its awareness-raising work with a small ranking boost for secure websites. Google has described that measure as a success, with the company stating that around 68 per cent of all Chrome traffic on Android and Windows now occurs over HTTPS – and there is plenty of scope for that percentage to grow. The fact that Google is leveraging its market power to implement technical standards with the aim of improving the user experience is a step in the right direction. Many companies were only prepared to invest in faster technology or secure licences when threatened with reductions in traffic or sales. In order to prepare for future developments, it is advisable to keep an eye on new technologies such as AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages), mobile checkout processes, and pre-rendering frameworks that allow content to be pre-loaded. These innovations can help you keep pace, especially when it comes to improving user perceptions of loading rates on all platforms.

2) Life is one big game show

This bit will be tricky for those of you who didn’t pay attention in maths. Remember that moment back at school, somewhere between integral calculus and stochastic processes, when you belatedly realised that you’d completely lost the plot? Well, in the age of algorithms that will come back to haunt you – especially if you work in online marketing. In everyday terms, an algorithm is nothing more than a carefully ordered chain of decisions designed to solve a problem in a structured way. The crucial innovation in recent years is the advent of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Nowadays, the individual links in the algorithmic chain are no longer assembled by people, but by programs. When you ask a search engine a question, the information is taken in, its core information object (the entity) and intention are identified by means of semantic analysis, and the most empirically appropriate result (the ranking) is returned in the correct context (e.g. local and mobile). However, a group of seven Google engineers presented a research project at the ICLR Conference in Vancouver that turns the question/answer principle on its head. For their project, the researchers used tasks taken from the popular US game show “Jeopardy”. On this show (first aired in 1964), contestants are required to provide the right questions in response to complex answers. In their study, the Google engineers exploited the fact that Jeopardy tasks involve information deficits and uncertainties that can only be resolved by formulating the right question. In other words, the question needs to be adapted until the information provided in the answer makes sense in its specific combination and context. The human brain performs this task in a matter of seconds, and is able to draw upon a comprehensive range of intellectual and social resources as it does so. However, if you ask a Jeopardy question (such as “Like the Bible, this Islamic scripture was banned in the Soviet Union between 1926 and 1956”) to a search engine, you will not receive an appropriate answer. Google returns a Wikipedia article about the Soviet Union, meaning that it interprets this search term as an entity or a core information object, and thus falls short. Microsoft’s search engine Bing comes a little closer to the obvious answer from a human perspective (“What is the Koran?”), but is likewise unable to deliver a satisfactory result. This little trick involving Jeopardy questions makes clear what the biggest problem is for search engines (even though it is marketed as one of the main markers of quality for modern search systems): how to accurately recognise the intention behind each search query. The idea is that what SEO professionals in companies and agencies currently work hard to develop should be reliably automated by the search engines themselves. In order to achieve this, the Google researchers developed a machine-learning system that reformulates possible answers to the Jeopardy question into many different versions before passing these on to the core algorithm itself. In step two, the answers obtained are then aggregated and reconciled with the initial questions. The results are only presented to the user once these two intermediate steps are complete. The self-learning algorithm then receives feedback on whether its answer was right or wrong. The AI system was subsequently trained using this method and with the help of a large data set. As a result of this training, the system learned how to independently GENERATE complex questions in response to familiar answers. This milestone goes far beyond simply UNDERSTANDING search queries, which are growing increasingly complex under the influence of voice and visual search. Although this study was carried out by Google, we can assume that Microsoft, Yandex and Baidu are also working on equivalent technologies designed to further automate the recognition of search terms and to automatically generate complex, personalised content in the not-too-distant future. At present, however, it is impossible to gauge what effects this might have on the diversity and transparency of the Internet.

3) Google Assistant sets the tone

While we’re on the subject of automatic content generation, we also have an update on Google’s uncanny presentation of two phone calls between the Google Assistant and the working population. Back in May, the search engine giant from Mountain View presented a video at its “IO” developer conference in which an AI extension to the Google Assistant named “Duplex” booked an appointment at a hairdresser’s and a table in a restaurant entirely on its own, all while perfectly imitating human speech. The human participants in those conversations were apparently unable to recognise that they were interacting with a machine while they went about their work. Close collaboration with robots and AI systems has long been familiar to industrial workers in the Western world, but now this development is also moving into the service economy, and therefore into our day-to-day lives. At first glance, the Google scenario was astonishing and convincing; however, the unnerving initial impression was swiftly followed by a number of pressing questions. In particular, the fact that Duplex failed to identify itself as a machine to its human conversation partners was the subject of considerable debate. Google has since responded and published a new video in which the Google Assistant identifies itself at the start of the conversation and states that the call will be recorded for quality control purposes – similar to a recorded message in a call centre. Taking a more detached view, however, one wonders whether this responsiveness on the part of the artificial intelligence is actually completely superfluous. The restaurant employee in the video follows the Google Assistant’s instructions obediently, as if he is talking to a human being – there is no difference whatsoever. In search marketing, we attempt to further our own interests by reflecting the intentions of target groups and consumers in the content produced by search engines (the results pages). In voice search, we issue commands to a machine – and a number of years will pass before we learn how that will change us. And in Google’s future scenario of an invisible, omnipresent and convenient system that allows users to organise themselves and solve problems, the human simultaneously becomes both the subject and the object of the technology. Our data was used to create, feed and train the system, and so we may briefly feel ourselves to be its masters; however, given the current state of affairs, we can and should seriously question whether we will recognise the point of no return once the balance finally tips.