For businesses wanting to grow their web presence, the mobile dimension can't be ignored. Ensuring that a site is mobile friendly and tablet friendly through responsive design, is only the start of the journey. The vast majority of us use our mobiles every day to browse the internet, search for answers to questions, get things done and make purchases – but there's sometimes a disconnect between what we expect from other people's sites, and the standards we demand of our own.
"Consumers will allow only a few seconds for a mobile site to load up before trying another option from search engine results."
In today’s competitive market, it's not enough just to have a site that displays reasonably well on mobile – pages must be fast-loading, easily navigable and surface the most appropriate content for mobile users.
Google is heavily pushing accelerated mobile pages (AMP) as a form of mobile optimisation. AMPs allow select pages to load especially easily on (often slower) mobile internet connections, meaning the time between a potential customer making a search and browsing on your site is minimised. We know that consumers (and think of your own browsing habits here) will allow only a few seconds for a mobile site to load up before trying another option from search engine results if they can't see the information they require.
Optimising for mobile is as important for user experience as it is for search engine optimisation (SEO) – Google and other search engines increasingly evaluate your site in the same way that humans do. That means fast loading, relevant content, ease of use and low bounce rate will reassure Google that your site deserves to be a top result.
2. Multi-channel marketing and customer communications
Related to mobile-first strategy is the increasing requirement to develop a multi-channel strategy to customer engagement. Previously, businesses would have had perhaps one way of engaging with their customers, through a bricks and mortar shop, a physical office or maybe a website. Now there are so many ways people can interact with a brand online and through social media, and many would rather engage via Facebook or email than pick up the phone.
"The fact that there are more ways to interact with customers also means there are more ways to look bad or to damage your reputation."
Understanding the customer journey – which may involve a range of online and offline channels – is vital to meet customer needs and support growth.
Customers, particularly millennials, are often happier posting queries and complaints on Facebook than picking up the phone, so you must have a strategy for managing your brand – and customer requirements – in the public arena of social media. Whether its through well trained community managers, chatbots or loyal brand ambassadors, we’re finding more companies investing in customer service on social media networks.
To strike the right chord with existing and potential customers. it’s vital that businesses understand the different tone and personality of each platform. The fact that there are more ways to interact with customers also means there are more ways to look bad or to damage your reputation – so it's not a task to be taken lightly.
3. SEO in 2017
Equally we must remember SEO, which is a well-established business priority, but perhaps more important than ever in today's crowded and complex marketplace. Google continues to change its algorithms to decide how to filter organic search results and produce the best answers for users.
The cliche that SEO never stands still happens to be true, so it’s vital that businesses invest in their search strategy and keep completely up to date with new developments to ensure they remain visible.
As I mentioned earlier, Google is rewarding sites with AMPs, that meet customer expectations and offer good user experiences. SEO isn’t something you do once – it’s an ongoing task and once built into the rhythm of how you do business, is the best source of visitors your site could hope for, generating 'free' traffic rather than surrendering spend to advertising.
4. The rise of video
There’s a lot of talk about online video, particularly for SEO and this use of video will grow in line with hype, but most of what we see will be offensive to the eyes.
The unfortunate fact is that due to time limitations, lack of resource or a reluctance to talk about what customers care about (rather than what the company cares about) most organisations are terrible at creating content. Producing your own video can be tempting – like getting a non-professional photographer for wedding – it's just point and click, right?
The lesson that goes unlearned too often is the need to invest in professionals (either in-house or agency) to maximise marketing effort to drive online growth – that goes for video, content marketing, SEO and more.
Video specifically will become a priority area for those looking to increase online growth. It all comes back to giving customers choice in this multi-channel world – some people prefer to watch and listen to content, and so your well crafted video can separate you from the pack – and of course there are huge opportunities for the few brands who can produce high-quality, shareable content. In SEO terms, it is worth noting that Google owns YouTube and so favours the platform in search engine results pages (SERPS).
Using video can help maximise the amount of real estate you take up on the SERP, and make the difference between your company getting that sought-after click, or a competitor.
All in all there are more tools and approaches than ever to drive online growth – but just as many opportunities to use them wrongly and push customers away. Game-changing online growth is won by companies who not only keep up to date with trends, but recognise how to use them strategically for the benefit of their brand and their customers.
I'd like to add a few more points to Martin's excellent round-up.
Artificial intelligence, deep neural network, machine learning technologies are advancing at an incredible pace. Google have confirmed that RankBrain, their AI algorithm used to help process search results, is their third-most important ranking factor.
Its initial, and main, purpose is to help present relevant search results for never before seen or unusual queries. But like most neural networks, RankBrain doesn't stand still. It keeps learning and getting better at analysing and ranking pages. In practice, this means that relevant and truly useful content is becoming a more important factor than strategically placed keywords.
6. Voice search
Again, thanks to advances in AI, voice recognition technologies are maturing and spreading. According to SEO expert Sam Hurley, "Paired with RankBrain, the most fascinating side to this [voice search] trend is that Google will begin to display results based more on user intent rather than the face-value of words that are entered into the search bar. That means keyword optimization will become more conversational in 2017."
In my opinion, the ever expanding ability of AI to understand natural language will eventually lead to a human-like search engine algorithm. Something that will be like that walking encyclopedia friend many of us have. It will understand your questions as you meant them, and give the most relevant results regardless of keywords, rich snippets and whatnot. Probably not just in 2017 yet.
7. Rich Snippets & Structured Data markup
We've already gotten used to practical bits of extra information Google presents for many search queries - like live flight information, company contacts, Wikipedia facts, etc. These are not yet automagically retrieved by a potent AI. They are called Rich Snippets and can be achieved by using Structured Data markup like Schema.org or Microdata. Their main advantage is that they save time. It's like getting an answer before even asking the question. Rich Snippets are definitely a trend, and will soon become indispensable for a good CTR.
This is probably the most important trend these days. People are tired of faceless corporations with robot-like sales and customer support officers. Cliché positive statements and fake smiles don't work any longer. And somehow you can feel that fakeness over the internet. People want a real person on the other end of the line. Openness and personality build trust. So whether you're a one man show or a big corporation you need a real human face to represent you online. Someone your customers can relate to, someone they will be comfortable dealing with.