First of all, can you provide a flavour of your presentation this year? 

My sub-title this year was “artificial intelligence, robots and hummingbirds”. I’m trying to join the dots between the cutting edge R&D that Google is doing, its advanced acquisitions and its core business that still makes the lion’s share of the money.

I hope that we’ll get to discuss some theory and some of the implications for us as marketers.

Last year, you looked at voice search. How important is this for Google? Are you seeing greater usage of this? 

Google has continued investing heavily in voice search and shipping updates for all its platforms. It has been bragging about the results but we don’t actually get to see any usage statistics.

I believe it’s still a small effect. I think that the natural language processing that underpins the capability is a much more important short-term factor than the input method.

The area where voice becomes more important in the medium-term is in devices without keyboards (or where the keyboard isn’t readily accessible).

Anecdotally, we are not yet seeing large numbers of people walking around using Glass or communicating with other wearables so I don’t think it’s having much of a real effect yet. 

You also mentioned that, with knowledge graph results, Google was training users to look to the right of the results page. It has since used this space for paid placements. Do you think Google will try to make ads less ‘ad-like’ in future? 

Yes. This article from Pete'”Dr. Pete’ Meyers on the ‘future SERP’ combined with this one showing the evolution highlight some of the changes we are already seeing.

The move to the mobile-friendly ad labelling that uses the small yellow boxes next to the ad rather than a coloured background is an interesting example of plausible deniability where they can look as though they are unifying web and desktop but actually are cherry-picking the version that gets the most clicks (= the one that looks least like an ad) and deploying that everywhere.

Google has an attitude (which is not entirely unjustified) that its ads are so relevant that they shouldn’t really be thought of as advertising in the traditional sense.

The regulators in the US and the EU disagree however ,and so I imagine we may see some ongoing battles over the transparency and labeling.

To what extent do you see social signals influencing Google’s search results in the next year or two? 

From first principles, I don’t really see the difference between a link and a social share in terms of the information it imparts about a person’s trust of the target website.

The fact, however, that strongly-weighted social signals haven’t rolled out as a major factor on a par with links implies to me that they aren’t yet turning out to be as useful.

I can’t imagine that there isn’t a Google engineer running a social-signals-driven algo over a private index.

Whether we see anything like this roll out more widely will depend entirely on whether the end results turn out to be better or not. 

With ‘not provided’, a clampdown on guest blogging for SEO and various algorithm changes, has SEO become more challenging? How should SEOs adapt? 

Change has been the only constant in the tactics and execution over the decade we’ve been involved in this stuff.

(not provided) is a step backwards in my opinion – while I understand the privacy concerns, I don’t believe they are truly the guiding factor in the decision and I think that Google risks devaluing one of the most powerful features of digital marketing if they can’t find a privacy-friendly way of continuing to attribute results to campaigns.

Strategically though, little has changed for us – we are continuing to focus on building great platforms, great content and valuable audiences, measuring the outcomes and driving conversions.

Search is just one of the channels that benefits from this balanced approach.

Do you see Google’s focusing more on mobile than desktop over the next few years? 

Oh yes. Google takes such a large share of the entire digital ad spend in the developed world that it literally doesn’t have the headroom it needs to grow as fast as the market requires the company to do.

Mobile generally is an area that can provide the growth it needs (and that risks cannibalising its existing market if Google isn’t careful).

But the bigger picture is when you realise that much of the growth isn’t just “mobile first” but “mobile only”. With the growth of Android as the rocket engine, the vast majority of new Gmail users must be signing up on their phones and a large chunk of those will never sign in on the desktop – especially in the developing world.