The Future of Local Search: 20+ Predictions for 2020
With the decade having drawn to a close, here at BrightLocal we’re preparing to don our flapper gear and sashay our way into the Roaring Twenties 2.0 in style.
To celebrate the end of a very eventful year — the year in which that Google My Business survey, BERT, and of course, the Bedlam Update, took place — we’ve reached out to some of the industry’s leading figures.
Read on as we bring out our crystal ball and discover what the top experts in local are predicting for the year ahead.
The return of Google+? (Kind of)
As Google continues to introduce new functions (such as the ability to follow Local Guides) theories of the resurgence of Google as a social network have begun to emerge. Spam-fighting pro and latest addition to Sterling Sky’s expanding team Jason Brown speculates:
Google will launch a new service similar to G+ and a new community will be built around Local Guides and reviewers.
This ties in particularly with his second prediction, that Google will rely more heavily on user-generated content (UGC) than ever before:
Google is going to increase its demand and push for UGC, photos, reviews, Q&A and ‘Know this business?’
And Jason’s not alone in his thinking – Local Product Strategist at Rio SEO and GMB Gold Product Expert Krystal Taing predicts that if local businesses don’t start playing the UGC-game, they’ll miss out in a major way:
All brands need to get up to speed on the many different ways user-generated content can impact your local visibility and rankings, from consumer reviews to suggested updates to local listings to GMB Q&A and beyond. Active listening, the ability to respond in real-time, and then using that UGC to drive greater visibility and engagement are key.
Spam be gone!
When we reached out to the experts for their 2020 predictions, there was one word on everyone’s lips – spam (no, not that kind). Sadly, despite the Nov. 2019 Local Search Update (aka the Bedlam Update), it doesn’t look like we’ll be seeing the back of GMB spam just yet. Local SEO Consultant at Online Ownership Tim Capper shares his thoughts on the controversial issue:
Google has attempted to get [spam] under control but I don’t see it getting better in 2020. If Google does want to get a handle on this they need to close API loopholes and expand ‘bad’ address databases to other countries, not just the US – there is spam outside of the US too!
Meanwhile, Crystal Horton of Accelerate Marketing remains optimistic about the spam outlook come 2020…
I’m hopeful that fake listings and fake reviews will start to decrease in rankings once data from review place topics and service area specificity become more prominent.
…AttorneySync’s Gyi Tsakalakis offers a happy medium…
I hope 2020 will bring major improvements to Google’s ability to fight spam in local packs. It’s absolutely out of control. Unfortunately, I neither predict nor expect that much to change. While there’s been a ton of local flux recently, there’s still no shortage of spam, at least in legal SERPs.
…And Location3’s Matt Lacuesta suggests taking things into your own hands:
Spam in GMB is rampant and I think we’ll see Google try to address it more in the coming year, but don’t plan on that solving the problem. In 2020 business owners and agencies alike will need to actively monitor their local search landscape and report suspected spam.
Finally, GMB Gold Product Expert, Steady Demand’s Ben Fisher – an ever-shining light of optimism – told us:
2020 will be the year Google catches more spam than ever before…
…Just kidding! If anything, I think spam will increase. While Google states that the spam that is in the system is small compared to real data, the system is too easily gamed and fake listings along with fake reviews are on the rise. Will Neural Matching help curtail it? Maybe, but even so, spammers will find another way and Google is always a step behind. The redressal form was a great first step, but it is not enough.
Pay-to-play and ads, ads, ads
Last year, one of the most prominent topics among local SEOs (partially owing to that GMB summer survey) was pay-to-play. In 2020, director of SEO at Postali Dan Foland continues to anticipate the rising popularity of paid options:
I see the future of local SEO going more towards paid offerings which will make it more difficult for businesses relying on organic visibility. Google has been aggressively testing more local ad placements and even sent out a survey asking GMB users their opinions on making aspects of GMB paid. It’s clear that Google is starting to focus more on monetizing local search and GMB and I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon.
Meanwhile, Tim Capper warns GMB users to keep an eye out for ads making their way into more and more places:
You should expect this ad encroachment to increase and to keep an eye on what is being displayed in your business’s knowledge panel.
In fact, it’s entirely possible that the first page of SERPs will be entirely filled with various types of paid ads – at least that’s what Kick Point’s Dana DiTomaso is anticipating:
Paid search is going to continue to take over more of local SEO when it comes to the ‘traditional’ SERP. We’ll see results where paid is the majority of the first page, along with Google specific products, such as Local Service Ads.
Given the increasing frustration with Google My Business (summarized nicely by Optimisey’s Andrew Cock-Starkey as a “great big dumpster fire”), can we expect paid features to emerge? According to Andrew, this might be the only way for Google to feasibly clean things up:
One way Google could clean up GMB is to make it a paid for product – or at least parts of it. Most people in local SEO saw the survey which slipped out from Google, asking about which services you might pay for, how much, and which packages you’d get most value from. I’m going to stick my neck out and say before 2020 is done there will be some form of ‘pay to play’ system in Google My Business.
Similarly, co-founder of Ignitor Digital Mary Bowling anticipates more ads within Google Places, stating:
We’ll see more ads and more types of ads in more Google Places and Google will continue to find ways to insert itself into the online sales processes of local businesses.
Alexa, tell me about voice search
As if the year ‘2020’ didn’t sound futuristic enough, it looks like we’ll be seeing even more of an increase in the use of voice search, AI, and other similar techniques. Digital Strategist Shane Barker predicts voice search will have increasing importance in local:
There will be an increased focus on optimizing for voice search, even by local businesses.
Though you might think machine learning happens mostly online, we can expect it to have some very real-world consequences. VP of Search at SearchLab Chicago Greg Gifford explains:
Google is going to really push the entity angle in local even harder. We’ve seen so many patents around entity analysis and the newest patent involves using quality ‘repeat visits’ to a location as a ranking factor. I think Google (especially in local) wants to use real-world signals to rank businesses instead of links and content. Machine learning has finally allowed Google to gain a better understanding of entities, and those real-world signals are much more reliable than links and content. We’ll see physical visits, unlinked mentions, and reviews become some of the most important ranking factors.
Making the most of GMB
Two well-loved UK SEOs, Claire Carlile and Andy Simpson both touched on similar points when asked to get their crystal balls out. Referencing the myriad new features introduced to GMB in 2019, Claire commented:
In GMB, new functionality will continue to roll out and businesses will need to take advantage of existing opportunities such as photos, Q&A, Google posts, product editor, short names, messaging, and reserve with google, as well as keeping an eye on new features as they emerge. Businesses will need to actively engage with GMB as a communications channel to reach and respond to clients and potential clients. The importance of GMB will continue to grow and small businesses will do well to think of it as a CMS separate to that of their website.
Similarly, Andy emphasized the importance of taking control of what’s visible to users on the SERPs:
Taking control of how your business’s brand is displayed in the SERPs should be on everyone’s radar for 2020. When potential customers search for your brand by name, what appears on the first page of Google? It should almost be a given that your Google My Business listing should appear. In 2020 business owners large and small have to be aware and ‘take control’ of what is displayed on the first page of Google about your business and make sure it’s the best it can be.
When it comes to the conversation of link building, it’s hard for Gyi Tsakalakis’s famous catchphrase not to be the first thing that comes to mind – and really, we couldn’t justify calling this section anything else. But in all seriousness, here’s what Gyi had to say on the matter:
I predict: Meh, links.
Well, what did you expect?
Continuing with the theme, owner of Rickety Roo Blake Denman shared his thoughts on the age-old practice:
Meh, links (hat tip to Gyi for coining this).
All jokes aside, Blake suggested that local businesses should focus on “topically and locally-relevant link building.”
Zero is the loneliest number, actually
Towards the end of the year, the local search community was rife with talks of the elusive ‘position zero’ and zero-click searches. PatientPop’s Joel Headley anticipates:
With the broader SEO community focused on the growth of zero-click searches, local SEOs know that zero-click is the bread and butter of bringing customers to the front door of storefronts through phone calls and driving directions.
Andy Simpson elaborated on the current state of so-called zero-click SERPs, outlining the consequence we might expect it to have for local businesses:
Users are finding what they need to know about your business directly from the Google search results. Your business address (including directions to it), phone number, and even customer reviews, so the user has no need to click through to your website. This could mean fewer clicks through to your site, less traffic and perhaps lower sales/bookings in some cases. Way back in early 2017 Mike Blumenthal called it “Google as your new homepage”, but should we now be thinking of it as “Google IS your homepage”?
Long live schema markup
In addition to the state of SERPs, spam, and GMB features, our experts had plenty to say about the future of schema markup. Of course, when it came to discussing schema, CEO of Schema App Martha van Berkel, was the first person we turned to:
2020 is looking to be the year of schema markup (aka structured data). Why? Throughout 2019 we’ve seen an acceleration of features released and announcements pertaining to schema markup. On November 4th at the Google Webmaster Conference, one of the top trends was schema markup, with Google stating that they will be investing in more features in 2020. As we see more searches be for questions on mobile, desktop, and through typing and voice search, schema markup will make sure that the content, services, products, and locations are fully understood and stand out in these search channels.
Shane Barker also anticipates that schema will be a prominent factor for local businesses in 2020:
Local businesses that use structured data, especially for business information, will be more successful in their local SEO efforts.
We received so many insightful predictions from our experts in local, we couldn’t possibly fit them all in (on that note, be sure to follow us on Twitter where we’ll be sharing exclusive snippets from our conversations with the pros).
But what else can we expect from Google in the year ahead? Ending on an optimistic note, Head of Search at Local SEO Guide Dan Leibson predicts we’ll have even more communication from the major players in 2020:
Now that Danny Sullivan is providing comms for Google’s GEO products (like the Google My Business September Core Update), I would expect to get more information from Google around that product. Now how accurate it is is an entirely different discussion.
He also suggests that Google will continue to localize SERPs in general:
I think the biggest trend in all of search, the one no one is really talking about except AJ Kohn and myself, is that Google wants to be able to localize parts of all SERPs and SERP features. I expect this trend to aggressively continue in 2020.
Join the conversation
Now the experts have spoken, why not have your say? Will 2020 be the year spam is eradicated from GMB? Will the rise in no-click SERPs increase? Drop us a comment below with your predictions — if nothing else, we can all return to this post next year and laugh at the inevitable naivety and optimism a new decade brings with it.