2012 SEO & Inbound Marketing Outlook
The Year of Big Changes
2012 is going to be one of those years: pivotal in many ways.
For many companies in the tech and social networking industries, 2011 was a year of tremendous growth. This was made possible in great part by bringing further innovations into almost all areas of our lives, including communication, media, jobs and families.
By contrast, traditional media companies continued their struggle for survival in a world of quickly changing norms. 2012 will be the year that the contrast between the distribution model of old media and the new internet based model comes to a head, with far-reaching political and financial implications.
We finally saw real signs that support from Adobe for Flash was in decline (in favor of HTML5), bringing the company, I believe, much closer in truer form over the long run to its original mission of making it easy to produce high quality content across many different devices. This alone will account for vast improvements in the overall usability of the web as those with creative talent are encouraged and enabled to produce high-quality experiences using open, standard technologies.
It is a complex time and all of the things going on, I believe, will have an impact, in various ways, on our industry. I’m going to spend the next few sections talking about some of the key trends that we’re paying attention to and provide the same insights that we provide to our customers when we advise them. In particular, this report is aimed at marketers who want fewer technical details and more insight on the major trends affecting how digital marketing over the next year.
We’ll have all of next year to see if I’m right about any of this stuff.
The recently updated US Interactive Marketing Forecast by Forrester is definitely worth a read. They provide the most relevant statistics and growth estimates for the next 4-5 years on the SEO, social media marketing, display and paid search marketing industries. Of particular interest to us at Ginzametrics are the search and social media marketing estimates. Based on our own research and estimates, we generally agree with the direction of Forrester’s own estimates.
The interactive marketing industry as a whole continues to grow strong and remains relatively unaffected by the economic slump affecting so many other markets. 2012 will be the true test of this. Given that this is US Presidential election year, real issues surrounding sovereign debt both in the US and Europe, and growing sentiments of unrest over the way the US government is dealing with these crises will affect the businesses that we all serve. Our general position is to continue to invest heavily in growth and to take big risks but do so in such a way that lets you stay agile enough to adjust to large changes in the market.
Google continues to print money and has had serious victories on many new fronts including, most notably, mobile and the browser market. Facebook is going public this year and I predict a big IPO and successful offering over the long term.
SEO is (Always) Evolving
2011 was a year that brought Panda, queries hidden via SSL, an increasing suspicion (though denied by Google) that Google Analytics data plays a role in determining rankings, an increased importance of social signals on rankings, new changes in universal search results and much more.
One of the reasons we love SEO so much at Ginza is precisely because it is an industry in which the rules always change. Our team in the past has built large-scale solutions for many different advertising channels including paid search, display and more, but SEO and, by extension, content marketing, by far, remains the most intellectually challenging marketing channel.
On that note, social as a marketing channel, is equally challenging and worthy of investment for many types of businesses. We’re focused on the enterprise market and, to be honest, many large companies are still trying to figure out SEO but social KPIs are something companies should be paying close attention to.
SEO and social share many traits: success depends on having lots of quality content, engagement influences how successful the major platforms in question — Google and Facebook in this case — treat your content, and figuring out how to create leverage with your content is key to long term success. Additionally, the signals in both SEO and social play well off of each other so we see 2012 as the year in which SEO and social marketing efforts really begin to converge. Search and social are forever cojoined.
But this evolution goes beyond SEO and social.
It’s (Probably) Going to Be Called Inbound Marketing
The term SEO itself is useful because budget line items exist to fund SEO operations and the market understands what it means, but the word itself is also showing some wear. We’re starting to see terms such as inbound marketing and content marketing gain critical mass, terms that encompass not only SEO and social media marketing but also many other types of content-oriented marketing like email, Q&A sites and presentations.
Many of these individual marketing activities are nothing new, of course, but managing all of these activities under a single orchestrated set of operations is a relatively new concept, especially as an in-house operation. In this context, the term inbound marketing is probably the most intuitive. Originally coined by the folks at HubSpot, in order to gain more legitimacy as the word we use describe all of the above, we believe the association with HubSpot will need to fade into the background. (Nothing against them, of course, we’re big fans. We also respect the fact that they never tried to trademark the phrase.) We have been inspired by Rand Fishkin’s and SEOmoz’s full embrace of inbound marketing as the way to describe this larger movement.
Content Marketing is another term that is used to shift the emphasis away from SEO-only to a broader, content-oriented approach to reaching new customers. It is probably easiest to understand Content Marketing as being under the umbrella of inbound marketing as inbound marketing encompasses more than just content creation and marketing. Finally, a third term, Content Optimization, is one that I used as recently as a couple of months ago to describe this overall progression but have since come to see content optimization as part of content marketing and, specifically, is the set of things you do to ensure the content you’ve spent so much effort producing actually gets discovered. It includes everything from on-page optimization for SEO, OpenGraph and EdgeRank optimization for Facebook, Landing Page Optimization and more.
The positive development in all of this is that as we start to focus on Inbound Marketing vs. Outbound (or Paid) Marketing, it places the emphasis, rightly, back on the goal of reaching consumers through content that appeals to them. Inbound marketing is a radically different model than paid advertising and yields far more longer term benefits, demonstrably, for many businesses both in terms of branding and measurable ROI. Which brings us to the next section of this article.
If You’re Not Producing Content, You’re Not Doing SEO (or Inbound Marketing)
Most companies, still, are not producing enough content.
Here is a quick test that everybody in SEO knows but illustrates a point that is easy to forget.
Say you’re serious about SEO. Take your domain name or URL and enter site:www.domain.com on Google. How many results do you get back? It’s not 100% accurate but it’s a rough indicator of how many pages Google has indexed on your site. Now, do the same for your competitor’s domains. Who has more? Who is winning at SEO? There is not, of course, a strong correlation necessarily on a keyword-by-keyword basis, but in aggregate, those sites that have lots of content are more likely to do far better than those who don’t.
So how is this a trend to discuss in an outlook report? Because it’s important for companies of all sizes to understand in 2012 the impact that regular, high-volume (whatever that means in the context of your SEO strategy) content production is crucial to success, not only in SEO but all online marketing. It’s a trend, because more companies (including your competition) are learning about inbound marketing as an alternative to paid advertising and entirely new industries are developing to help companies more efficiently produce lots of well-targeted, quality content at scale.
This is a lesson that companies of almost any size, from startup to Fortune 500, can take to heart. Truly understanding how the long tail works in search is a big step in the right direction. In our experience, the companies that really win with SEO succeed here. There is just so much raw, untapped opportunity.
In order to succeed on the long tail, you need to be creating lots of content and you need to figure out a scalable way to get links to that content. New searches are happening on Google all the time but the majority of those searches are for what we would consider long tail phrases.
If SEO is a goal for your company and your content strategy for Q1 doesn’t include figuring out how to produce hundreds or even thousands of new content pieces, you’re probably not going to see much change in your core SEO KPIs. This remains the hardest part about SEO and is the one area in which most companies’ SEO operations remain fundamentally broken.
Once you’ve determined your strategy for scalable content creation, then determining your traffic segmentation strategy should be your next priority. Because, as important as the long tail is, it’s not only about the long tail. There are probably plenty of “head” or “middle” terms that your company could potentially rank for, but in order to figure out which ones, you need a set of tools and processes in place to do this well. This will be a separate topic that we will write more about.
The Browser Wins
I remember well a conversation I had with the CTO (my boss at the time) at one of my former employers. We were in the process of redesigning the UI of our enterprise software product and one of the other engineers recommended the use of Adobe’s Flex framework as the underlying framework of the new UI and had even built a prototype using it. The benefits he proposed were clear: the framework’s many out-of-the-box components looked great, the development tools were solid, and he happened to be an expert using it. I was not in favor of using it but at the time, I wasn’t able to articulate well why I thought it was a bad idea. Basically, it just felt intuitively wrong to me. What I said at the time was something like “it’s not how web apps are supposed to work, you can’t view the source and it’s only cross-platform to the extent that Adobe has drivers for the devices in question.”
From management’s perspective, that wasn’t a great argument when compared with the benefits it promised, and so the project was green-lighted. It never sat well with me though.
Fast forward to 2012, and if that company still relies on Flex, they are missing out on being able to deliver a quality experience on the iPad and many other mobile devices in the future as Adobe transitions towards more support for HTML5. Even Adobe now recommends using HTML5 for building enterprise applications.
So what’s the point of this story? The point is that, as a general recommendation, that anytime you see or hear about a technology or tool that fundamentally breaks the way the web works, you should distrust it in favor of standard, browser based technology. This was quite a challenge until the last couple of years, because browser-based technology lacked so far behind what you could do, creatively, with Flash.
There are examples of how even standard web technologies can be abused. One recent example that I came across is a company (who shall go unnamed) that provides an iPad friendly website experience to newspapers. For newspapers, it offers a compelling benefit: take your existing site, let this app transcode the content and – voila – your site looks beautiful on the iPad.
…Until you click around on the site a little. Or receive a link via email to that site and try to open it on your iPad. When you do either of those two things, the experience reverts to the normal website, poorly formatted for the iPad. Even worse, the transcoding engine creates an entirely new URL for the purposes of rendering the mobile content and keeping it separate from the main site. If they are adding canonical tags to the new page, then it partially solves the immediate SEO problem, but creates all sorts of additional, cross-device complications. What if I send an iPad link to my friend who is using a laptop? Yet another breakage point and there’s no need for it.
The much discussed NYPost paywall stir is another great example of how short-term thinking can break the web. If I’m on my iPad, reading a story that links to the NYPost, and I get the iPad paywall instead of the URL I clicked, I’m not going to make the context switch to go install their app. Even if I did, how do I find the story I wanted to read again? Go back to the site I originally clicked on? Do a search within the app?
We are in a time of great transition in how content is created and distributed, and it is difficult for site owners to keep up. There is always going to be a temptation to invest in technologies that promise a shortcut. In general, our advice is to avoid them. Stay away from transcoders, App-install requests redirected from links, and anything that fundamentally breaks how the web works. The browser is going to win. Build a team that understands how the web works and embraces it in everything you do. That will put you on the winning side.
Responsive Web Design
One of the clearest examples over the last year of the triumph of the browser is the emergence of responsive web design. Responsive web design enables It definitely isn’t perfect, but it moves the state of the art forward so much that it’s well-worth taking the time to understand. Responsive design is the most mature approach at this point in time that lets a publisher, using a single URL, deliver content that is formatted to display well for most mainstream devices (including PCs / notebooks, tablets, and smart phones).
There are many examples on the web, but one of the easiest to demonstrate is the hailed BostonGlobe design, perhaps because news sites have such complex display requirements. Spend some time (if you haven’t seen responsive design in action before) resizing the web browser. As you approach the screen size of a smart phone, notice how the elements all rearrange themselves to display cleanly on small screens as they do on large screens. Without getting too technical, this is possible through responsive web design.
The adoption of responsive web design, and a related concept mobile-first design, has been helped along greatly by the emergence of many new HTML5 & CSS frameworks. These frameworks are often called boilerplate frameworks because they provide an easy starting point for web developers with most of the important content infrastructure in place, allowing developers to focus on adding their own content and customizing the visual design.
Some of these frameworks, such as 320 and up, are quite minimal, with a focus purely on allowing developers to create responsive designs with little fuss (plus additional features). Others, such as Zurb’s Foundation, provides a more complete suite of both a responsive design framework plus a rather complete set of user interface elements and layout tools.
All of these frameworks were either nonexistent or in their infancy just 12-18 months ago and we expect 2012 to be an even bigger year of innovation in this area. We also expect to see web app developers, publishers and designers begin to adopt responsive design tools in droves. In fact, if I were to bootstrap a new business at this time, it would probably be as a design and development agency focused specifically on creating CMS and ecommerce sites based on responsive web and mobile-first design. Companies are going to be spending a lot of money in this field over the next 2-3 years.
But comScore Says Apps are Winning?
I just spent the last few sections dealing with the eventual triumph of the browser and open technologies and yet comScore has released data showing that mobile app usage is higher than mobile browser usage. This obviously doesn’t take into account desktop and notebook usage. It also doesn’t factor in iOS device usage, a gaping but unavoidable hole in my opinion, but it does make intuitive sense that mobile app usage would be higher, for a number of reasons. Think about the various types of activities such as looking up maps and directions, searching for restaurants, doing email, social networking, etc. it’s obvious that all of these activities are easier in individual apps than within the browser. I don’t expect this to change anytime soon.
That said, given the tools made available by the responsive web design, site developers now have far more options than they did even a year ago to avoid the expense and hassle of developing device specific apps for many kinds of content and even apps. I expect that we will see far more mobile apps delivered as web apps than as device specific apps, in as early as a year or two.
International Search and SEO
Something that we thought would happen much sooner than it actually did has been the industry’s growing recognition of the challenges and opportunities surrounding international SEO. Part of it is probably just the due course of globalization but there is no question that this has become a hot topic. In the last twelve months, many of our customers have either expressed interest in building international SEO campaigns or actually investing the resources to do so.
The international markets that we hear most about from are customers are:
- Japan – traditionally strong and a big second market for many companies. Interest continues to grow.
- China, but difficult, as always for foreigners with no physical presence
There are many others,of course, but these are the ones we hear about most frequently.
Challenges in International SEO
I was fortunate to gain very early experience in this way back in 2006 in building automated technology to help large FMCG, tech and ecommerce firms manage SEO campaigns that spanned hundreds of websites in dozens of countries around the world. I’ve seen firsthand the many difficulties in attempting to manage centralized branding and revenue goals in diverse markets with remote in-house and agency teams, different best practices in each market, localization and translation issues, CMS issues, inaccurate data due to the systems not accounting for local IP-addressed based reporting and more.
The funny thing is, in the last five years, these challenges remain fundamentally the same and there are very few companies adequately prepared to deal with them. 2012 is going to be a year, in my opinion, that more companies recognize the opportunity in global SEO and start making plans to solve these challenges.
Shameless plug: Meeting the challenges of international SEO is one of the reasons we built Ginzametrics.
SEO Technology Market
For an industry as old as SEO (almost 15 years, by some counts), the technology market is still relatively fragmented and immature. It has only been in the last few years that we have seen high-quality SEO management tools such as SEOmoz, Raven Tools, BrightEdge, Conductor and (though we’re biased) Ginzametrics appear on the market. If you look at the overall revenues from these companies (and the rest of the industry, in aggregate), we’re talking maybe $100-200M USD annually. (Forrester estimates $211 in 2012). By almost all standards this is still a relatively small market, especially when compared with the size of the SEO industry as a whole, which is roughly $2.2B USD in 2012.
According to the same Forrester report, the size of the SEO technology market will be about $640M USD in 2016. I think the market is going to change significantly by then so that this number will not be an accurate reading of the shape of the market because of the following section, Social Management Technology.
Social Management Technology
In the Forrester report, Social Management Technology has a similar, though slightly steeper growth curve, to SEO technology. The current market is sized at $389M USD in 2012 and is due to grow to $970M USD by 2016.
The things is, in 2016, there probably won’t be separate categories for SEO and Social Media Management technologies. SEO will not exist without Social Media, and Social Media that doesn’t take into consideration the importance of content optimization will also be irrelevant. I do agree that the market will be roughly $1.5B~$2B annually by 2016, if not larger.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. 2012 is going to be a year of fascinating developments and we’re looking forward to playing a role in the community.
About the Author: Ray Grieselhuber is CEO of GinzaMetrics, an enterprise level SEO platform based in Mountain View, CA. GinzaMetrics is a 2010 Y-combinator graduate company and backed by several individual investors as well as 500 Startups and Venture51.