Big updates from Google have always had a major impact on the world of search marketing, and 2021 feels like it’s been a big year for Google updates and announcements.

2021 was slated to bring the arrival of Google’s Page Experience ranking signal (originally due to roll out in May, the update finally arrived in the middle of June), adding a new urgency (and an SEO incentive) to the task of optimising a site’s user experience. Around the same time, Google announced the advent of a new ‘AI milestone’: MUM, or Multitask Unified Model, which vastly improves Google’s ability to understand complex search queries – across a wide range of languages and even search inputs (such as images). Google followed this up in September with a demonstration of how the technology can power multimodal search – allowing users to carry out searches across multiple ‘modes’, such as by combining an image and a text query.

Combine these developments with other, broader trends in the online world such as lockdown-induced changes in consumer behaviour and the shifting conversation around data, privacy and advertising (explored in more depth in our data and digital advertising predictions roundups), and there has been plenty to keep search marketers on their toes in 2021. What will 2022 bring? We turned to a bevy of experts for their predictions…

For more on what’s on the horizon for 2022, don’t miss Econsultancy’s upcoming briefing, Digital Marketing and Ecommerce Trends For 2022 on 26th January at 3pm GMT/10am EST. Register your place now!

  1. MUM: Taking searcher intent to the next level
  2. The rise of video search
  3. Technical SEO
  4. Voice search: still niche, or about to have its time?
  5. PPC
  6. Other trends in search

MUM: Taking searcher intent to the next level

The MUM algorithm promises a huge leap forward in Google’s ability to parse user intent across all types of searches. Where will that leave search marketers in 2022, and what will it mean for their ability to market to consumers?

Google will enjoy greater context for intent – but is it going to share the data?

Clark Boyd, Head of Strategy at multimodal search provider Cadeera:

“We could say that Google’s core aim remains similar, in that it wants to understand and then serve search intent as effectively as possible. Yet if we place this in a wider context, we can see why Google’s means of achieving this aim are changing.

“First, developments in multimodal search technology make it possible to blend image and text to form one query. This entails a subtle shift away from a keyword-only approach to search, towards a focus on attention and intention.

“It also means Google is not dependent on images alone to decipher user intent. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but that’s not much use when you need to figure out exactly what the searcher wants, immediately. In truth, one or two words would be easier to deal with.

“Giving the searcher the option to add this context disambiguates the query, while still providing Google with the information contained in the image.

“The challenge for search marketers here is that this may muddy the waters as they try to decipher user intent from their end. Will Google share the data created by multimodal search? Or will we be left with fuzzy concepts like E-A-T, while they know exactly what our customers want?

“What we do know for sure is that if Google is setting up to capture the full customer journey, there will be plenty more contexts in which we can reach our audience through search. This idea of contextual targeting over invasive tracking will be increasingly prominent; we should create content that can be served in a range of intent states to take advantage.”

A visibility opportunity for niche brands

Niki Grant, Search Director at media agency The Kite Factory:

“MUM is such an interesting step for search, as the medium itself has always relied on the user having an idea of what they’re looking for before they find it. With MUM’s capability to contextualise a question and provide what may seem to be ‘peripheral’ information, it’s possible to provide the user with what they need, even if they have no idea what that is. This could open up opportunities for brands with more complex or niche offerings, providing visibility they may otherwise have not been able to secure.”

(Quality) content is king

Joe Comotto, Director of Search Experience at digital advertising agency Incubeta:

“The announcement of MUM should really be seen as an opportunity by SEOs, to leverage an extremely powerful piece of technology. Its introduction means the way SEOs think about user intent will need to change. This includes how we approach content ensuring the user experience remains unaffected while seeking information.

“Those who are creating quality content that serves a purpose will have nothing to worry about and everything to gain. In short, I certainly don’t think that there is any reason for SEOs to panic or start proclaiming that SEO is dead.”

A more personalised search journey

Matt Read, Business Director, Head of Digital and Training at growth marketing agency Space & Time:

“The search algorithm has tried to become more and more personal and useful on an individual level for years now, meaning that two people may go on very similar paths but be shown completely different results based on their location, search history and demographic makeup etc.

“[MUM] takes this AI driven approach to the next level, taking in thousands of signals to try and really get to grips with the unique context of your individual journey. The hope is to make complex, research based searching easier and create shorter and easier search journeys. Our focus should be on continuing to create content that answers these questions, but also uses multimedia to do so as Google will recognise the value to the user in all forms of content.”

A bigger change for the user than for the marketer

Will Critchlow, CEO of enterprise SEO testing platform SearchPilot:

“I’ve been bullish on intent for a long time, and talking about the impact on even casual searchers. What I’m less clear about is the impact on search marketing. At the margin, it pushes SEO closer to other forms of marketing and away from tricks and technical optimisations, but at the same time, the amount of work you have to do in SEO that isn’t directly related to searcher experience is higher than it has ever been (think: XML sitemaps, hreflang, structured data, and more).

“So, while I’m bullish on the technology, and on the user experience for the searcher, I don’t forecast it making radical changes to the way that search marketing works in the next 12 months.”

Focus on multimedia content for success in 2022

Crystal Carter, Senior Digital Strategist at digital marketing and web development agency Optix Solutions:

In the next year we are likely to see increased diversification of search engine results pages driven by changes to Google’s algorithms and new features from tools like Google Lens. As a result, SEOs and SEM should be thinking about more thorough content optimisations for images, video, and audio in order to keep pace.

MUM helps Google to better process information in multimedia content like video, images and, soon, in audio. This means that we are likely to see an increase in visual content being shown in the SERP and being created by brands. This also means that brands should take a strategic approach to multimedia content optimisation and creation.

Lemuel Park, CTO and Co-Founder at enterprise SEO and content performance marketing platform BrightEdge:

“With the advent of MUM, we expect 2022 to be a year where all forms of digital content will be discoverable. Content marketers will focus on conversational content and elements of their site like Schema to ensure the context of their content is clearly communicated. This will create a need for digital marketers to prioritize and place greater precision on the types of schema and content formats being deployed in their content strategy.

“For example, as MUM helps Google understand how content answers questions regardless of whether it’s a video, image, text, or audio, digital marketers will need to ensure these formats have the necessary Schema to denote how they align to the theme. An upside of this is that digital marketers can prioritize what format will be the best experience for the user and then leverage content elements like Schema to help search engines make the content discoverable in the right moments for the user.”

The rise of video search

In 2021, Google began to roll out video ‘chaptering’ – a feature first introduced in 2021 in which videos are divided up into more accessible chunks – by default across all eligible videos.

In addition to making videos more digestible to the user, chapters have an SEO benefit, as chaptered videos are eligible to appear as rich results on Google search on mobile, and enjoy more real estate when they appear as featured snippets. And our experts believe this isn’t the end of Google’s plans for video in search…

Video to the fore in 2022

Will Critchlow, CEO of SearchPilot:

“The vertical where I wonder if we might see the most innovation in 2022 is in video search. … [I]t feels to me as though video hasn’t quite hit the mainstream, but might be about to. I remember seeing Microsoft demoing automatic highlight detection and other video summarisation technologies nearly a decade ago, but video search has felt closer to transcript search than image recognition.

“It’s clear that Google’s understanding of video has been growing, and innovations like suggested clips have demonstrated the power of video search. I can’t be sure that it’ll happen in 2022, but I’m going to go with the bold prediction that this is the vertical where we will see the most innovation in the coming year.”

Matt Read, Business Director, Head of Digital and Training, Space & Time:

“As the old SEO saying goes “content is king” and right now that content is video. We’ve seen brands see a ranking benefit when producing high quality video in recent years and this looks set to continue as users are showing just how important it is in their journeys.”

Podcasts may follow a similar path

Crystal Carter, Senior Digital Strategist at Optix Solutions:

“In 2021, we’ve seen many developments with regards to Google image search via Google Lens and video search via video chapters in YouTube videos. MUM is an incredibly powerful algorithm, so I think we could see a similar approach to audio content like podcasts in the near future.”

Technical SEO

2022: The year of reckoning for page performance

Lemuel Park, Co-Founder & CTO at BrightEdge:

“After nearly two years of announcements, Google’s Page Experience finally rolled out in September of 2021. While many search marketers worked to improve things like Core Web Vitals in anticipation of this update, many of the bigger websites go into code freeze during the fourth quarter, which means the full impact of this rollout will not be fully realized until 2022.

“Of the more than 750 SEO and digital marketers we recently surveyed on the Future of SEO in 2022, 75% indicated they would be increasing their SEO investments and efforts, which is a crucial area for that investment. We expect 2022 to be the year page performance and site speed truly impacts the organic channel.”

More to come for Core Web Vitals

Joe Comotto, Director of Search Experience at Incubeta:

“We can expect to see a continued focus from Google in Page Experience and user engagement. The Google Core Web Vitals represented a significant step change in how Google thinks about the results it’s returning, not just satisfied with returning the most relevant result but also providing a better experience for the user. Google ultimately wants to provide a better web experience and we saw the start of that in 2021. Whilst the impact of this change has been relatively limited thus far, I expect we will see further additions to the CWV metrics and their weighting.”

Matt Read, Business Director, Head of Digital & Training, Space & Time

“Page load speed, mobile friendliness and user experience have been crucial to SEO success for years now, but with the introduction of Core Web Vitals, Google really put the spotlight on these areas. Although the Core Web Vitals update was over a year ago now, I still think it’s going to be a key focus area in 2022 as Google continues to highlight the usability areas that are so important to consumers.

“If you haven’t been looking at Core Web Vitals, then why not? If you have, then great, but don’t stop now!”

Voice search: still niche, or about to have its time?

I’ve made scepticism about voice search (and voice apps) something of a beat here at Econsultancy, and I’m still not convinced that there are enough genuine use cases for voice that other types of search can’t fulfil well enough. Some of our commentators agree with me – but others think voice is about to break through. Will 2022 be a pivotal year?

More to be achieved – if Google will provide the data

Niki Grant, Search Director at The Kite Factory:

“Voice search is still an area that appears as yet largely unplumbed. With the increase of voice assistants and the situational insights available through this medium it feels there’s a lot more that can be achieved here. Search terms reports within Google ads provide no insight to the advertisers as to the mode of the search. This kind of information can provide huge context to brands in terms of how consumers interact with them and when certain ‘need states’ occur. For example, we could see search campaigns optimised to voice with longer tail keywords and less formality in language.

“It’s one thing knowing a user searched your brand name on their mobile phone, but it’s quite another knowing a user asked specifically about your eco-credentials whilst they were in a stockist’s store. The ease of longer queries through voice search provides much more context to the user’s query, especially when overlaid with previous purchases, or location.”

LaMDA may advance the rise of voice

Joe Comotto, Director of Search Experience at Incubeta:

“In 2022, SEOs should start thinking about how they can optimise voice effectively in their strategies. There have been some major advancements in this area and it will be very interesting to see how Language Model for Dialogue Applications (LaMDA) is used to help facilitate this. While we’re a long way off from using voice in a quotidian way, there’s huge potential in its offering.”

Voice to remain on the margins – but search will get more conversational

Will Critchlow, CEO of SearchPilot:

“Although I’m amazed by the technology of voice search (and while we have seen incredible strides in the technological side of both image search and voice search), I’m sceptical about it as a marketing channel.”

Clark Boyd, Head of Strategy at Cadeera:

“Voice will remain a fringe element of search that drives incremental, rather than disruptive, change. That said, search will certainly become more conversational – even if the user is only typing their side of the conversation. We see this in the chat options provided in Google’s local results, for example.”

PPC

Automation to take centre stage in paid search

Emma Welland, Co-Founder at digital marketing consultancy House of Performance:

“As we enter 2022, the focus in the paid search space is going to continue to move away from manual optimisation into algorithmic machine learning based automation. This is a positive move for many reasons, including machines abilities to adapt to many more data signals than humans ever could ensuring that every possible lever is pulled for each unique auction.

“However, a car is only as good as its driver and if every car has exactly the same driver, the output for each advertiser is going to be similar. We believe that if the paid search industry becomes fully reliant on algorithms alone advertisers will see less efficient performance through their paid search campaigns. In 2022 paid search managers need to apply a hybrid approach to paid search management – maximising the opportunities available with automation whilst controlling the machines with their own strategy and tactics.”

Clark Boyd, Head of Strategy at Cadeera:

“Automation has been important in search marketing for years now, but in 2022 it really will take centre stage for all brands. The transition to Responsive Search Ads will be complete and those that have not embraced automation will have to do so pretty quickly.

“This should create a new relationship between marketing and machines. All too often, when machines start taking over our routine tasks, we can grow complacent. In reality, this only heightens the importance of human inputs.

“It is likely that search marketing will get to grips with automation in 2022, but we will only scratch the surface of what machine learning can do for the industry. Nonetheless, advanced search marketers will find new ways to incorporate AI into their strategies. With technology like GPT-3 now open to all developers, there are ample opportunities to experiment.”

Other trends in search

A reassessment of behavioural trends

Niki Grant, Search Director at The Kite Factory:

“Next year promises to be a really interesting one across media in general, as we’ve increasingly found that Covid has changed the face of behavioural trends indelibly. In 2022 I’m expecting brands to focus much more on behavioural and situational search signals (device, location, demographic) to re-evaluate how consumers are interacting.

“These are all the trends we thought we had nailed (mobile searches increase during commuter hours, certain demographics having limited access to connected devices) but thanks to the Covid-driven digital revolution, working from home, and the changes this has caused to consumers’ routines and behaviours … brands will need to reassess any assumptions. With fewer concrete search trends to rely on, I’d expect an increase in third party data overlays such as weather or stock markets to make the most of more secure seasonality trends.”

New challengers in vertical search?

Clark Boyd, Head of Strategy at Cadeera:

“There is … the potential for challengers to attack parts of Google’s core search business. Google’s dependence on Search for its advertising revenues means it will always have to balance this need with the user’s best interests. Increasingly, that balance tips in favour of its own desire to increase ad revenues.

“Google is also fighting on a number of fronts. Microsoft has launched some intriguing new, vertical-specific search experiences – for example in credit cards. There is certainly room to innovate in these areas as Google broadens its remit.

“It is unlikely that even Microsoft, never mind smaller players like DuckDuckGo, will seriously threaten Google’s hegemony. Yet consumers may gravitate toward simpler solutions that answer their search queries directly, if Google strays from its own core value proposition.”

A closer alignment between product and SEO – and publishers ditch AMP

Will Critchlow, CEO of SearchPIlot:

I’m going to go with a big trend, an approach, and a specific prediction:

  1. Big trend: we will see closer alignment between product and SEO teams, and an increasing focus on UX metrics in SEO campaigns (this is at the root of our focus on full funnel metrics – evaluating the SEO impact and the CRO impact of user-facing changes)
  2. Approach: we’ll see more edge SEO – in particular using these approaches to achieve the closer alignment I just mentioned
  3. Specific prediction: we’ll see a decline in AMP usage at publishers through 2022.

Search in the metaverse?

Olga Andrienko, VP of Brand Marketing at SaaS marketing platform Semrush:

“It will be a bit too early, but there will be talks about using search in systems like Facebook’s new Metaverse. This will likely be a 2023 thing, however, and unlikely to see a lot of other movements in 2022 with so many things currently being fleshed out.”

Google to make a bid for super app-dom

Clark Boyd:

“The impact of the mobile-first, social media-driven age will be evident in the Google search experience. We will see shoppable images in SEO and PPC, as well as Shopping listings. YouTube will add new livestream commerce features and this could be integrated within the core Google search experience. In short, Google will make its own play to be the West’s super-app, taking a cue from China’s WeChat.

“We see some evidence of this already in Google Ads, where advertisers can place their creative across a number of Google properties within one automated campaign.

“Just as brands are trying to gather first-party data, so too is Google. Search results will be more interactive, and they will cater to the full customer experience, all the better to capture this valuable data.”

A bigger role for Google Business Profiles

Crystal Carter, Senior Digital Strategist at Optix Solutions:

“In local search, Google Business Profile is likely to have increased relevance as we see increased integrations across Google marketing channels like Google Merchant and Google Ads.”

Marketers will need to pre-empt, not react

Lemuel Park, CTO and Co-Founder at BrightEdge:

“In 2022, SEO and Digital marketers will need to become more pre-emptive – rather than reactive – in their approach to understanding and identifying factors that will drive a search rank improvement and competitive wins. This will include utilizing machine learning technology to better understand how search engine updates impact performance and what types of content resonates with both a user and a search engine.

“This means fixing website errors, automatically adapting to algorithmic changes – where possible – and updating website structures. Digital marketers will have to look at new ways to embrace technology and SEO data to help provide vital consumer and business intelligence to scale their programs more effectively to take the guesswork out of campaigns to fast-track their success.”

Want more 2022 trends and predictions? Read our other expert roundups…