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The coronavirus crisis not only creates losers, but also some winners: online retailers and delivery services in particular, as well as online platforms for tutoring, fitness or cooking are all currently experiencing a massive sales boost. Social distancing is shifting both shopping and communication even more towards digital, which offers great opportunities for providers of such online services. However, even German SMEs that have found themselves in crisis, should perceive this as a digitalization push and initiate the necessary, in some cases long overdue transformation processes.

What does that mean in concrete terms? What steps should companies now take to digitalize their product portfolio and compensate for lost sales? Both B2C and B2B companies have a range of e-commerce measures available to them that make sense in the current situation.

In the B2C sector, action must now be taken quickly.

1. Discounts as an effective means.

Massive discount battles can currently be observed in the B2C sector. In the fashion industry especially, suppliers are currently trying to get rid of their seasonal goods. In addition, price reductions are also ensuring the liquidity that is urgently needed at the moment. The highest possible surcharge can be achieved with the right support through special newsletters and an increased and effective use of social media.

2. Through interactive features directly at the customer.

Keyword: Social Media. If a certain type of customer communication has been given a major boost as a sales channel during the crisis, then it is interactive features such as live chats and sales via live streaming that are most effective. These should definitely be integrated into the e-commerce strategy. The case of the Chinese cosmetics brand Forest Cabin, whose sales had slumped by 90 percent, shows what a great opportunity this offers. After a radical change of strategy with live streaming as the central sales channel, not only were all previous losses made up for, but just two weeks after the initiative was launched, the daily sales of the previous year were exceeded.

3. Digitalising loyalty systems.

Another tool that can be easily digitized are the well-known loyalty systems. For example, a well-known German perfumery chain has over 44 million loyalty cards on the market. These are well suited for contacting and retaining customers during the crisis. This applies in particular to older customers, whose willingness to use digital loyalty programs is significantly higher due to the crisis.

4 Exploiting the online marketplaces boom.

It’s well-publicized that Amazon, Alibaba and Co. are the big winners of the crisis in terms of increased market share. And others can also profit from this. These marketplaces should now be used as (additional) sales channels to take advantage of the current boom in digital marketplaces for their own business.

The Crisis as Digitalization Excellorator

Typically, transformations in B2B business are somewhat slower and are not implemented as quickly as in B2C. However, due to the massive impact that the Coronavirus crisis is also having on B2B companies, rapid action is now also required. The following four points are particularly important and effective.

1. Move Customer Services personnel to Home Office.

Customer services such as call centers and sales services must be made fit for the home office in order to continue to offer all necessary customer services and to be able to generate new business digitally. The fastest possible implementation is crucial here, since such services are needed at all times and this transformation is complex and extensive.

2.Digitalization of the Customer Journey,

The entire customer journey is currently shifting to online business, also in the B2B sector. As a result, all companies whose business model was primarily or even exclusively offline now have to invest more than ever in building their own service platform. This is the only way they can absorb the losses in offline business through online trading.

3.Agile working methods are more efficient than ever.

The crisis requires faster action, and budgets are now only planned in the short term and screened several times. To meet these requirements, agile working methods are a very good tool. A joint sprint every 14 days to redefine what is important facilitates an effective response to all eventualities and developments.

4.Sufficient server capacity is the A&O.

However, implementing all these measures is of little use if the website or even the web shop collapses during a run on your own sales platform. It is therefore extremely important to ensure sufficient server capacity and performance, either in-house or with an external service provider.

Companies that have already implemented some of these measures before the crisis are currently finding it easier to master them. However, the crisis mode in which our economy is currently operating should be seen as an opportunity to make up for lost time or to build on the digitalization steps taken so far. It is now more important than ever to implement the above-mentioned measures and to perceive this crisis as a catalyst and accelerator, because those who take the right steps now can emerge stronger from it.

It will soon be time once again for us to take out our Advent calendars and start opening another little door with each passing day. Meanwhile, Google is announcing acquisitions and partnerships at almost as rapid a rate – and with the biggest players in the most important industries and sectors. Here to explain what it all means – and why we should be giving Sesame Street another watch – is the November edition of SEO News.

BERT and ELMO from the big brain factory

The best school for life is a happy childhood. Despite being barely out of puberty at 20 years old, Google too now seems to have cottoned on to this piece of universal wisdom; what other explanation can there be for the Mountain View-based search engine’s decision to name its new colleagues from its artificial intelligence department after characters from Sesame Street? Helping machines to understand people better is now the responsibility of BERT and ELMO. Both are acronyms for digital manifestations of machine-learning processes (“Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers” and “Embeddings from Language Models” respectively). If that all sounds rather complicated, we can use more analogies from our childhoods to help simplify things: For one thing, sheer human curiosity is overwhelming the abilities of Google’s impressive tech stack. The company reports that, more than two decades after the search engine was founded, it still can’t understand even the gist of around 15 percent of search queries. The extension of input technology from text to speech has made this problem even more acute. For another thing, the complexity of speech, reality and life can only be accommodated by organising the learning process of machines in the same way that we approach the education of a child. This means that every individual expression of a search query has to be considered and understood in context. It’s only in this way that accuracy can be reliably predicted. 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. Compared to artificial intelligence used by its competitors, this represents a decisive step for Google, because Facebook, Microsoft, Alibaba and Tencent are all working away on the same problems.  Although this doesn’t mean any direct transformations for SEOs and website operators, for Google’s vision of developing an omnipresent information, solutions and convenience machine, BERT marks a ground breaking turning point.

Google’s transition to portal status

Even though Google’s motto for its first twenty years was “Don’t be evil”, the search engine giant from Mountain View appears to have a harsh future ahead of it. Increasing numbers of public voices are now saying what daily use of the search engine and an enlightened glance at the columns of the business press should have made clear long ago: that Google is presently undergoing a backwards metamorphosis from a search engine to a good old-fashioned Internet portal. The inflation of so-called “no-click-searches” – search queries that are answered on Google’s own pages and no longer generate any organic traffic for third-party sites, the aggressive dismantling of sales verticals in such areas as travel, medicine and finance, and the upcoming relaunch of the Shopping division, including payment processing with Google Guarantee, leave us wondering just where this journey is headed. At his recent talk at the “Transformation of Search” conference, CEO of analytics firm Jumpshot, Stephen Kraus, personally awarded Google the title “AOL of the Year 2020” (5:50 minutes into the video). In his keynote address to the “SMX East” conference, veteran SEO expert Rand Fishkin bemoaned the fact that the sector would have to adapt in the future to optimising in Google’s direction in order to meet its customers’ expectations. According to Fishkin, brands are being caught in a kind of prisoner’s dilemma by the fact that, rather than positioning itself as a moderator and provider of relevant traffic (and of turnover with it) as it did before, the search engine is now positioning itself as a market participant in almost all areas of the sale of products, services, and information. The result is that brands are finding themselves obliged to choose between click-free visibility and avoiding the competition in unused keyword niches. The outcome is sub-optimal in both cases.  Fishkin’s answer to this predicament, which he calls “On-SERP-SEO”, can be understood as a form of brand building on Google’s search results pages in combination with widely distributed awareness campaigns. The consequence of these developments won’t be the much-desired “death of SEO”, even in 2020, but instead a signal for closer cooperation between the search sector and conventional marketing channels, and for the need for the technological professionalisation and automation of SEO in order to make it possible to keep up with the search engine’s evolving complexity. Google hasn’t turned evil overnight; it’s just grown up.

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.