Les Hostetler is MMi's Paid Search Insights Lead

Around the holidays every year – every normal year, that is – the search industry’s thought leaders begin publishing their opinions on what the next year in search will look like. What trends will impact advertisers and agencies? What will Google do? It is important information: no one, advertiser or agency search team, wants to get caught off guard and end up hurt by unexpected changes.

When it comes to predicting the future, all of us can agree that it is an inexact science. We have reviewed as many experts on search in 2021 as we could find, compiled the results, and present here an overview of what most industry leaders are expecting as we enter the new year.

First, we will examine at the top four things that almost everyone says will be significant or important to search in 2021. Then we will look at  items that some - but not all - industry insiders think will be impactful to search next year. A couple of quick summary observations:

  • There was wide diversity of thought. It has been said that you can ask a question to ten search marketers and come away with twelve answers, and a challenging 2020 has exacerbated that. Even some of the most popular entries on industry leaders’ lists were mentioned by less than 2/3 of the articles we reviewed
  • There is a strong “back to basics” ethos running through many of the opinions we read. This is nothing new – search evolves quickly, and new tools materialize often. But after 2020, industry leaders are calling for a return to best practices and to eschew novelty in favor of solid strategy, sounds tactics, and thoughtful optimization.  

The top four:  

Machine learning, Smart Campaigns, and automation (61% of reviewed articles).

Despite the sheer diversity of opinions voiced by industry leaders, most agreed that search marketers would need to engage more with search engine account automation in 2021.  Google had made a variety of automation options available to marketers and promoted them heavily, all while reducing the volume and detail of data they provide. Search marketers will almost be compelled to utilize these technologies, or at least test them for effectiveness. Search Engine Journal’s quotes Pauline Jakober, Founder & CEO, Group Twenty Seven, on this matter: “For areas of automation where we have lost control, PPC pros will likely have to accept, adapt, and move on.”

Hot take: increasing automation is inevitable, forced on marketers by the engines as a solution to downgrades in available data the engines themselves have instigated. But agencies should be warned that blithely opting into search automation can result in some unintended consequences. Last month, Lior Krolewicz of Yael Consulting said to Search Engine Land’s Ginny Marin that Google’s Auto Applied Recommendations were adding keywords to client accounts, and in one case a keyword that was overspending their target budgets by 50% and the additions were unaccounted for in the change history.  

Voice Search (50%).

Every year recently, the world of search returns to the idea that voice search is an industry-transforming technology, and this year is no exception. So far, this breathless prognostication has yet to come to pass, but here is it again, mentioned in half the articles we reviewed. Both Google and SEMRush are saying their data shows 20% of global searches are now done via voice, with the bulk of those focused on local searches. Most experts call for reviewing query reports (which are growing increasing shallow) for key voice indicators, like lengthier “natural language” queries (especially queries using who-what-when-where-why terms), or searches that begin with device activation words like “ok google,” then adding these terms to client accounts. The bulk of voice search recommendations have to do with search engine optimization (SEO), but the litany of experts saying that the future of search is voice continues unabated.

Hot Take: Anecdotally, the volume of voice searches taking place has always seemed overstated, and the growth in adoption of voice-enabled devices has waned. Google has gained market share against Amazon in the smart speaker, and even during 2020 global speaker sales have risen about 10% year-over-year (mostly in Asia) despite increasing privacy concerns. Most voice usage is device specific commands – not search. And even more telling is the fact that Google has not yet developed a paid search offering specific to voice. Search marketers should continue to develop and abide by sound matching strategies that will capture voice search (as well as all other relevant searches) while investigating options that make sense for their clients using SEO.

Visual Ads/Video Ads (43%).

YouTube is still the second largest search engine on earth. 500 hours of new video are uploaded to it every minute –  and in 2020, nearly 40% of Americans reported they used YouTube “significantly more” due to isolation and quarantine. With vaccines being distributed slowly, it will be a while before consumer behavior returns to any sort of previous baseline. That means video will continue to be an opportunity for advertisers. And with Google lead extensions capable of tallying leads from YouTube, advertisers can take better advantage of video as well.

Hot take: Video ads are a good idea to take advantage of new opportunities. More people are using it, more people are seeking out information online via video channels and adding or increasing investment in video can pay off significantly.  Brand safety and brand suitability continue to be challenging, particularly in user-generated content, however the industry is making inroads here.

Search Engine Diversification will become more important (36%).

Especially Amazon search: advertising on Amazon jumped 47% year-over-year in 2020, to the tune of $21B. At least part of that influx of advertiser dollars was Amazon’s ability to deliver goods to quarantined and home-bound people that retail outlets were unable or precluded from serving… but even more important is Amazon’s ability to give advertisers something approaching ROI, which traditional engines struggle with. In light of Google’s sustained efforts to deprive search marketers of actionable data, Amazon increasingly looks like a good investment.

Further, there are some notable companies that are making overtures toward entering the search engine market. Throughout 2020, Apple has dangled the possibility that it will build or buy a search engine, and more recently Marc Benioff, founder of SAAS titan Salesforce, released you.com, an AI-driven search engine with significant funding and talent behind it. With Google’s historic dominance in global search, the barriers to entry are high, but neither Tim Cook nor Marc Benioff are known for making bad business decisions.

Hot take: Despite the obvious pipeline to sales and ROI, transferring search budgets to Amazon may not automatically be a great idea. Amazon has proved themselves more than capable of matching Google in taking advantage of its size and importance to constituents (in Amazon's case, 3rd party sellers). That said, more options are always a good thing, and new engines with solid user bases could provide a good counterweight to Google’s dominance and provide advertisers with some much-needed alternatives.  

Rounding out the top 11:

Less data and reductions in marketer control (29%): 2020 saw more reductions in the data that advertisers and agency search teams can get from engines, and that’s likely to continue. The fact remains that the less data those who buy search media have, the more likely they are to either make mistakes or be swayed by bad advice and subsequently incur increased costs. Poorly informed search marketing results in increased search engine profits, but less effective paid search initiatives for advertisers. Likelihood: almost guaranteed.

More Responsive Search Ads (25%): another option in the expanding volume of “AI” helper, responsive search ads (RSAs) essentially build ads for you on the fly from a pool of headlines and descriptions, relieving you of the vexing job of writing complete ads and examining the data over time to see which performs best. Expanded text ads can still be “pinned” and (despite some kvetching on Reddit) no one seems to think that ETAs will disappear anytime soon, but some have seen Google testing RSAs as the default ad text type in the wild. Likelihood: already here and being used.

Disrupted data sources and the complications of relying on first party data (25%): GDPR is 2 ½ years old now and apparently somewhat toothless, but the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) has, after some dithering as to what companies are affected, already forced some large advertisers to enact limits on what their media agencies can do with that data. The official grace period ended on July 1, 2020, but a lot of advertisers are still wondering how to proceed. Considering that Google Analytics data is considered personal data under CCPA, search will be affected. Likelihood: inescapable.

Focus on mobile (21%): with over 50% of global search traffic coming via mobile device, if an advertiser doesn’t have a search strategy or isn’t specifically optimizing mobile traffic, you should skip lunch today and sort that out. But for 2021, advertisers should take time to enhance their customer’s mobile experience. After living with SEO-unfriendly and generally disliked Accelerated Mobile Pages for the last four years to ensure speedy load-times and privileged positions on the search results, publishers are seeing Google back off on AMP to avoid exacerbating charges of monopoly behavior. Google has assured everyone that they have no desire to kill AMP outright, but they could garner some goodwill by being more generous in the organic rankings with sites that do not use AMP. This in turn could provide options for publishers who are cautious about letting Google dictate site structure but do not want to forgo good search results.   Likelihood: certain for advertisers and publishers, probably less so for Google since they are pretty good at politics.

Increasing use of personalization techniques (18%): tailoring ads as closely to the searcher’s intent has been a goal for years, and as more emphasis is placed in audience targeting and more tools like responsive search ads and dynamic search ads are available, putting more energy into the right customer-right message-right time process makes a great deal of sense. As Jonathan A. Kagan, VP of Search at 9RoofTops, explained in Search Engine Journal: “The number one thing for everyone to do is get control of your audiences,” Kagan said. “Know who your target audience is. Know who is worth prospecting versus who is most likely to convert. Separate them and manage them independently.”

Focus on local (11%): like mobile, local search and especially local SEO has always been a part of a comprehensive search effort for advertisers with retail locations or similar opportunities.  Advertisers hurt by online purchasing patterns changed by COVID-19, or looking to recoup 2020 sales declines in 2021, might look at capitalizing on local search.

Conversion rate optimization (11%): converting clicks to sales is a complex business even for the most sophisticated of search marketers, but post-COVID-19 it is an increasingly important part of small- and medium-businesses trying to extract value from their campaigns. Using Google Analytics to track site side activity and correlate it with paid search is a start; having clear calls-to-action, properly tagged conversions and automated optimizers to enhance conversion rates are great next steps. But more than anything, the mundane adherence to search best practices – customer focus, testing, ongoing optimization and analysis – is always the best path to search success.

This past year has been an eventful one, and despite our entering the new year the legacies of 2020 will continue to complicate search marketing for months to come. The items listed above are not a guidebook, just educated guesses, but they provide some insight into the direction that industry leaders believe search is heading.

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