I’ve been asking a number of search experts to look back to last year, as well as giving their predictions and hopes for 2012. 

The growing influence of social signals on search features heavily in the predictions, as do concerns about cookie compliance laws and SSL search…

What were the most significant search trends in 2011?

Teddie Cowell, SEO Director, Guava:

Mobile: The traffic is now there in significant volumes across most sectors but unfortunately far too many websites are not geared up to really maximise the value from mobile customers yet. The growth has been phenomenal and looks set to continue that way.

Google+ : finally Google has a social platform worth talking about. It’s not a Facebook killer though, but it’s a good start.

Will Critchlow, Founder, Distilled

It’s tempting to say Panda, but I’m going to go with the increasing socialisation of the search results. I’m not particularly talking about direct ranking impacts of tweets etc but rather the inclusion of results that have been shared by your contacts.

As a searcher, I’m finding them incredibly useful and I think that it’s going to represent a major shift in thinking for marketers.

Kevin Gibbons, Founder, SEOptimise:

I recently ran a poll to ask the same question on SEOptimise. The results were as I had expected, with the most significant change being voted as Google Panda, which began it’s attack in February and has been causing SEOs lots of headaches ever since, with many having to accept that they needed to change whole business models in order to overcome this.

But 2011 has been a year of craziness in terms of trends and events, just some of the highlights include SSL search (probably more of a lowlight?), social signals and integration, Google+, Google freshness, the removal of Yahoo Site Explorer and the continued roll out of the Bing/Yahoo! search alliance.

Andrew Girdwood, Media Innovations Director at Bigmouthmedia:

It was a busy year. Google stepping into the social game was significant. The Google+ interface itself is not as significant as Google very clearly saying that social signals impacted rankings. 

The investigations into Google’s practices with respect to competition are also significant. They mark an all-time high level of government suspicion of the search engine and may well have encouraged some unusually open posts from Google that headlined a series of algorithm tweaks and modifications. 

The day your boss bought a tablet was a very significant day for any search marketer, in-house or agency, as it was the day that proved mobile was here and important.

The economic climate set the trend for procurement and finance departments to be heavily involved in search pitches or sign-off for internal projects. This has put the emphasis very strongly on accountability and ROI. As a result PPC budgets, which are nice and accountable, remained robust but less easy to track and predict efforts – mainly SEO – grew by less than they could have done.

Brands continued to fight with tagging and we saw a trend towards tag management and de-duplication even if fully fledged attribution models remain relatively rare.

Alex Moss, Partner at Pleer:

The most significant would be the increase in social impact on search. In hindsight it was clear Google wanted to do this in preparation for Google+, which was a significant event in 2011 – only for Google!

Have a look at Google Insights for search to show the natural decline. Its two biggest rivals aren’t having the same issue.

Rishi Lakhani, Search Strategist:

I think Google’s stance on “Poor Quality Content” vis a vis Panda or Farmer update has to be the most significant change to the SERPs. The whole Panda drama and debacle opened up the eyes of the world on just how much businesses are reliant on Google, when they shouldn’t.

It also showed just how much Google has been struggling with dealing with spammy content, and how content farms, both small and large are churning copious amounts of pointless information just to gain revenue, not surprisingly from Google’s own Adsense program in my opinion.

Lisa Myers, CEO, Verve Search:

So much happened in 2011, from the big crunch of the massive Panda update (with its zillion versions), further developments of previous updated and the big launch of Google Plus. As Blackadder would say “Clucking Bell”, a lot has happened in 2011.

I would hazard a guess that most SEOs would probably name the “Panda” update as the most significant in 2011, but for me I think I would choose the launch of Google+. Not because of the current impact on the SERPs but for what it means for the future.

Whether Google + will be successful or not is irrelevant to a point as the proof of how much they have tried to make this successful is a big beacon of read arrows to point out the importance of social signals for the future. 

I also believe that further developments to previous updates such as Caffeine from last year will have a bigger impact on the SERPs than we think. Basically any search terms that is “time sensitive” and relies on “freshness” will see a major change in the SERPS. There are also several updates related to the look of the SERPs that has come into play in 2011, including G+ sharing info, rich snippets and further development of site links.

These might all seem like small changes but they have a big impact on how people interact and actual CTR. I would say 2011 has been the year of the most developments in search engine algorithms, exciting times!

Jon Myers, Director, Account Management UK and Ireland at Yahoo!:

2011 has seen a boom in rich-media search adverts and App Search. Images, videos, game and social media have become more influential in search results and search advertising.

Also, with the growth in the number of apps, search is no longer just about finding web pages. Yahoo! launched the first desktop search engine for both iPhone and Android apps in 2011. This is significant for users and advertisers as only Yahoo! is device agnostic and has the powerful search technology to be able to offer users a search experience across Android and iPhone.

What will the major trends be in 2012? 

Teddie Cowell:

  • Social Signals: Google+ will finish its rollout across all its products and will heavily incentivise users to always be logged in for searches so they can authenticate your activity across the web.

    More and more social graph data will be used to serve up personalised results, and SEO will by the end of 2012 be heavily focused to getting your content shared rather than linked to. The link graph will further degrade, but reliance on English semantics means techniques won’t heavily affect non English Google results.

  • New Markets: As was the case last year Google will continue to move into new commercial territories which is an ongoing threat to many online businesses and services. We’ve already had hotel finder and Google Analytics Premium; and the UK version of Advisor firmly rumoured to be on the cards for the New Year. What next?
  • Web 3.0, Data and Devices. If Web 2.0 was about social; for webmasters and SEOs, Web 3.0 is all about better managing content delivery and user experiences through data syndication and multiple types of consumer devices. 
  • Just for fun lets have some crazy left field prediction that sounds good but has a 1 in 1,000,000 chance of being right: SpendRank.

    Continuing the support for large brands and to stem the tide of link buying, Google launches a new algorithm called SpendRank that takes account of media buying activity associated with your Google account (Display, Paid Search – Adwords).

    The more you spend the higher you rank. SEO’s worldwide move their media and creative budgets back to Google, and Google’s investors are happy again.

Will Critchlow:

I think we will see a “Panda for links” where the user signals get incorporated more directly into the link algorithms and I think we’ll see even more social impacts across the SERPs. Oh, and I’m quietly rooting for G+. I’m actually turning into quite a fan.

Kevin Gibbons:

Looking at the most significant changes in 2011 which are yet to have a full impact, I would have to say the biggest two are likely to be social integration and how analytics reacts/suffers from both SSL search privacy, and even more significantly the cookie compliance law.

Everyone has seen the uproar from the SEO industry over what this means by classing logged-in search visits as “(not provided)”, Google say the overall total will remain as a single-digit percentage, although this will vary from site-to-site.

But if the cookie law directive goes ahead, the implications of this will be much more severe. So that’s clearly a huge challenge for the future of measuring online performance if the cookie law decision isn’t overturned and as the ICO says, this isn’t going away. It’s the law.

Andrew Girdwood:

  • Many brands will need to move swiftly and forcefully against the discount culture that festered so strongly throughout 2011. These brands will push for loyalty instead and we will see this coming through in both search tactics and in analytic modelling.

    We’ll see greater emphasis on lifetime value. We’ll see a drop in the percentage of PPC ads that push discounts and a rise in social SEO campaigns that blend linkbait, social signal building with loyalty rewards and other marketing efforts.

  • Search and new Display will move more closely together. The differentiation of bid management software and Demand Side Platforms will blur even more than it currently is – and a far greater number of people will become aware of the overlap.
  • SEO campaigns will have to tackle a greater range of quality signals than ever before in order to be successful. As a result we’ll see SEO efforts that painstakingly take mobile, user behaviour, author authority, social signals, real-time signals and many others into consideration.
  • We will see more titles like “Earned Media Director” or “Head of Biddable Media” in 2012. These people will be hard to recruit.
  • Lastly, there will be a major trend towards a complicated, confusing and poorly though out legal landscape around privacy and tracking. The ePrivacy directive, in particular, will trend high for “pain” in 2012.

Alex Moss:

Search and social becoming a more unified strategy; and Facebook’s new Open Graph. With the latter, this is something I thought would have had more impact in 2011 but it seems that the new timeline has not been rolled out internationally and has slowed down some progression.

When it does, Facebook apps will evolve into something much more interactive and something much more fulfilling for the end user.

Rishi Lakhani:

I think for 2012, there are four key things I am planning on doing differently:

  • Content. Building authority content, with references, reviews, alternate views etc. Before, we just used to knock up any old content, throw a few links and let it rank. Now the depth of the content, the sources it’s linking to etc are all going to start getting more and more important.
  • Link building. We used to phase high volume, low authority links to deep content, to pull that content out into the SERPs, going forward, I think I am going to experiment with only high authority links to primary landing pages within a site, and then use those pages on the site to link to inner content, a better on-site architecture. I also intend to use only social signals to get inner pages indexed as opposed to low quality links.
  • Pay attention to Markup, and Mobile. Some SEOs have been going on about HTML 5, Schema.org etc. I think it’s time we started really paying attention to these. As search algorithms become more complex, the signals about our content to spiders should equally mature.
  • I think optimising for Mobile, making sites more accessible to mobile is no longer a thing to consider, it’s a thing to be done. But when I say mobile, I don’t just mean phones, I mean tablets, gaming consoles, pretty much anything that can be used to access the internet. One client I have worked with gets orders from Gaming consoles with some interesting regularity…
  • Paid Search. Unlike previous years, I intend to scale up Long Tail Paid Search. This is because increasingly Google is taking over the first six positions with its own properties when it comes to long tail. Which means that the few areas that a business has of appearing above the fold are the paid placements. It’s sad, but it’s true. I suspect Google’s profit is going to skyrocket as more and more online marketers realize this.  

Lisa Myers:

The 2011 SEOmoz ranking report saw most SEOs agreeing on social signals “crashing in” on the top ten ranking factors and becoming the biggest trend for the future. I totally agree, I know it has been said a lot but social signals WILL merge with the technical algorithms of organic results.

I would go as far as to say that the next few years will totally change the way we view SEO. We are already seeing SEOs reinventing the way they describe what they do, words like inbound marketing and earned media is being used more frequently. I don’t think it will change the skillset, neither do I believe SEO will ever “die”, it just changes that’s all.

I’m super excited about 2012, bring it on!

Jon Myers:

I expect to see greater integration between search and display as advertisers experience the benefit of using search marketing to build brands as well as an acquisition tool. New sectors, such as luxury goods, are seeing the value of search as research shows search marketing is effective in reinforcing emotional connections with a brand.

We will also see greater understanding of which display targeting tactics are successful in driving branded search lifts which in turn, drive strong sales.

On the innovation side, the search experience will continue to evolve. Search is longer about typing text into a box and receiving a list of text-based results. We’ll continue to see pictures, videos, apps, and even Facebook results, evolve on the results page.

As a search marketer, what would be on your wish list for next year?

Teddie Cowell:

Towards the end of 2011 Googlers established an excellent level of communication with webmasters via Hangouts on Google+, if you’ve got a question or concern I suggest you get onto this channel right away.

However, Google has also released a lot of new features (Authorship, Rel-Alternate-Hreflang) which in some cases don’t appear to be as well thought out as they could be. This appears (in my humble opinion) to come from a skewed perspective of the way businesses trade online and the issues webmasters have.

I would like to see Google establish an external working group of agencies and individuals to help participate in the creation of these new feature specifications and protocols before they are released. 

Will Critchlow:

I want my keyword data back. I’m (not provided) unhappy about the change. Also, as a Google apps user, I want G+ to add public / shareable circles so that I can manage circles centrally within my domain.

Kevin Gibbons:

There’s a huge amount to come next year in my opinion, especially when looking at all of the challenges that have been thrown at us in 2011. Many of the implications haven’t taken effect yet. 

So for 2012, my wish would be a quieter year! Very unlikely though and where’s the fun in that, so I’d just go for a quick fix to Google panda, Google and the ICO to step-down on SSL privacy/cookie directive law and finding an answer to potential new marketing opportunities such as Siri. Not too much to ask is it?!

Andrew Girdwood:

I’d like to wish Europe’s ePrivacy directive away or, better still, into something that looked practical and helpful.

On my wishlist would be even greater API access from Google, Bing, Facebook and other significant platforms. I will include the affiliate networks in this as they play an important role in either performance based PPC or the ability to analyse the effectiveness of search against channels such as affiliate marketing.

I would like to see a rise in the number of digital marketers with expert level search knowledge.  Recruitment is an on-going battle for agencies and client teams alike.

More competition in the search landscape is a good thing to wish for. I hope Bing has a good 2012. Equally, I look forward to a juicy mobile war between Apple, Microsoft and Google that fuels mobile search demand and inventory.

Finally, as every good search marketer should wish for, an end to black hat inspired site hacking and the sort of skulduggery that endangers the reputation of the whole industry.

Lisa Myers:

The same thing as on my list every year, for Google to sort out its quality and support issue with Google Places. I.e. actually implement a easy way of bulk uploading and verifying (not via damn postcards).

I also would like Google Products to be improved, uploading your feed every 30 days is SO old school. Sort it out Google.

Alex Moss:

Reading higher quality content on blogs, less monetisation from Google, Google+ to die, and to receive a tablet (I’m open to offers).

Jon Myers:

I am looking forward to seeing the transition to the Yahoo! Microsoft Search Alliance complete and deliver a powerful new choice in search by driving greater efficiencies for advertisers to deliver a strong return on investment.

Rishi Lakhani:

Id like to seee more research on +1 impacts on ranking, as well as serious investigation by capable organisations on the Google Monopoly of the search market and its anti-competitive behaviour to various niches.

I don’t think it’s fair that Google is allowed to bring out products and services that are simply clones of businesses it’s been taking money from to market, and using its data to build and market their own services.