The Future of Google’s Search Algorithm: Refinement Vs. Overhaul

the-future-of-google-s-search-algorithm

Today I want to take a moment to discuss Google’s search algorithm. Specifically, future changes to Google’s search algorithm, and the signals it relies upon.

Where is Google search headed? This is a vital, burning question not just for SEOs but also for businesses across the globe.

The reason it’s so important to consider the future of Google and its search algorithm is because it affects our actions today, and our planning for the future.

SEO is a fairly tumultuous profession (or is it?), according to most SEOs. We’re constantly wondering about the future, and how new algorithmic changes and updates will impact our livelihood.

Despite the rapidly changing nature of technology, Moore’s law, and the fact that key members of Google believe its biggest competitor is not yet around (or perhaps starting even now, in a garage somewhere), it’s nonetheless important to consider the future of search and the search algorithm. If we don’t plan for the future, how can we be prepared?

But to be perfectly blunt, predicting anything further out than five years is a fool’s errand. There are too many shifting, evolving, unknowable elements.

And Google’s not exactly the model citizen of transparency.

Given our limitations in predicting the future, the question is, does it make more sense for Google to completely change its search algorithm, or to further refine the signals it uses?

Will Google introduce new, large, impactful core signals into the algorithm (as SEOs are constantly predicting), or will it introduce signals intended to further refine already existing elements of the algorithm?

I firmly believe it would rather refine its algorithm than completely change how it operates.

Before we go much further, I want to admit my biases. I’m the chief executive (CEO) and co-founder of an SEO link-building agency.

I believe in the efficacy of links, and that links will remain an important ranking signal in Google’s search algorithm.

I believe within the next five years Google will continue to refine its algorithm as opposed to introducing completely new elements, because:

  1. Search is responsible for the vast majority of Google’s revenue, which it’s unlikely to risk with large, important changes.
  2. Google already owns the search market – its algorithm is already working well.
  3. Google has already spent unfathomable resources into refining the algorithm, versus complete change.

The basis of my reasoning is that incremental upgrades make much, much more sense when you consider Google’s perspective.

Let’s discuss each point.

1. Google Search Is Responsible for the Majority of Google’s Revenue

Google search is Google’s premier product.

When people hear the word “Google” they immediately think search. Not self-driving cars, Internet weather balloons, machine learning, glasses-turned-computers, Internet browsers, fiber optic gigabyte Internet, or even Android phones.

Google is involved in all of that, but it’s not what makes Google Google. Search is Google’s backbone, DNA, foundation, whichever metaphor you’d prefer.

But search isn’t just what Google is know for. Despite its wide-flung side ventures, search is currently far and away Google’s breadwinner. Search makes all other ventures possible. Without the stability of search, Google would lose its reputation as a trendsetter, tech giant, futuristic, innovator, etc.

Looking at Google’s own financial data, in 2012 Google made $46 billion in total revenue. Of that money, advertising (read: search) accounted for a whopping $43 billion – all but 5 percent. In 2013 advertising still accounted for a majority of revenue: $50 billion of $55 billion, or 90 percent of Google’s total revenue.

Although unreported as of yet, Google displays unaudited Q1-Q3 data, with advertising still holding the lion’s share at 89 percent.

Long story short, by far the majority of Google’s revenue is generated by advertising, primarily within search.

Search is Google’s main product. Nothing else even comes close.

If search were threatened, Google would have to put everything else aside. If search were threatened, Google’s very existence would be threatened.

When you’re making a billion or more a week, you’re not going to do anything to risk your revenue flow. Google is like the titanic at this point – a single move from them sends ripples throughout the Internet, but they’re not capable of large, swift changes. They can’t do a 90-degree turn with any speed.

That doesn’t mean Google is incapable of making large alterations to its core product. It just means Google is not going to willy-nilly introduce such alterations. Any change to the search algorithm will have to be tested a thousand times, proven to be a favorable, user-generating, user-pleasing update.

SEOs are quick to predict new algorithm signals such as social, user-engagement, Author Rank, and the like. We do it year over year. But the reality is not so simple. Google would need significant time, testing, and evaluation before release.

That doesn’t mean that Google sits on its hands and doesn’t make any changes. Google has even admitted to testing large changes.

Matt Cutts less than a year ago shared that Google had tested a version of search without links as a signal.

The results? Poor. Search was actually much better with links as a signal. That’s because the search algorithm still works. And you don’t make major alterations to something that isn’t broken.

2. Google Owns the Market – Search Works

Google has far and away the majority of the search market share.

As of May 2014 Google held 67.6 percent of the U.S. search market, with Bing running a very distant second at 18.7 percent.

I’m not sure about you, but I don’t remember the last time I heard someone say “I’ll Bing it” when they needed to look something up.

And search isn’t exactly an easy business to get into, either. The scope of the Internet and technology required to build a search engine is nothing less than staggering.

Google spent $7.3 billion on its data centers in 2013 alone.

That’s not to say a new company will have to spend $7.3 billion just to get in the game. But it does give Google a significant advantage.

Google is the dominant search engine currently.

As SEOs we often complain about Google search engine results (SERPs), but average user sentiment is far from negative. As Eric Enge said, Google is not broken. No one in their right mind would make such an assertion.

Who else remembers when Google went down for approximately two minutes and 40 percent of the Web’s traffic went with it?

Why then, considering Google’s dominance in the search market, the amount of revenue that search generates, and their algorithm being far from broken, would Google completely change how its algorithm works?

I firmly believe they’ll keep testing and improving search – no doubt about that. But incremental upgrades make much, much more sense. I believe Google will continue to improve existing search signals.

Especially since they’ve historically invested unfathomable resources into refinement.

3. Google’s Spent Considerable Resources to Refine Current Signals

If you look at the history of Google updates, you’ll see a common theme: the refinement of current signals. The best example of this is Penguin itself.

Penguin, one of the largest updates in recent Google history and definitely one of the biggest shakeups in SEO history, isn’t the introduction of a new core ranking signal. Penguin was the refinement of links as a signal.

Specifically, Penguin helped Google’s search algorithm better identify manipulative and low-quality links.

Penguin was such a big shakeup precisely because it worked, and it worked well. It defused the link-building arms race that was happening within the SEO industry. Link-building fundamentally changed away from building hundreds or even thousands of meaningless links, to building real links. Links meant for humans. Links meant to be an endorsement.

Penguin wasn’t an easy release for Google. It was a difficult and expensive allocation of resources. It caused a serious stir in the search community. Releasing an update like Penguin, which refined an important signal in Google’s search algorithm, was a serious undertaking. It’s continued to be a major undertaking, with each update.

Refinement is almost always easier than introducing a brand new element. If Penguin was so game-changing, and required so much investment, could you imagine if Google were to introduce a new, strong signal into the search algorithm?

Think about the introduction of other new signals. Even lightweight signals, such as HTTPS.

Or that mobile search would take into account a site’s mobile friendliness. Or that site speed had a small positive impact on search performance.

Each and every announcement caused a serious stir. SEOs always fear these announcements, and the misinformation that inevitably spreads.

Could you imagine the reaction of a new important signal?

That’s not to say that a new signal is impossible – just very, very difficult. And what could that new signal even be?

Well, SEOs like to theorize about social, user engagement, Author Rank, and a multitude more.

Social? Nope, not according to Google. User engagement? Easily gamed, says Cutts.

Not to mention user engagement assumes a certain amount of visibility already necessary.

AuthorRank? Well, the future isn’t too bright since Google had to scrap Google Authorship.

It seems much, much more likely that Google would continue to invest into the signals that have helped them become the dominant force within search.

Conclusion

My best guess is that Google will further refine and improve the important signals it uses in its algorithm today.

Of course, that’s speculation on my part – but educated speculation. I would encourage you to join me in speculation. What do you think? Will Google introduce a new core signal to the algorithm sometime in the next five years? Will the algorithm change in other, unpredictable ways? Will Google search fundamentally change in the next five years? Why?

Personally, based on my experience and understanding of Google search and the SEO industry, I think Google is much more likely to further refine and improve the quality of current signals already important to the search algorithm. I believe this because:

  1. Google search is integral to Google as a company – it represents the large majority of its revenue.
  2. Google’s algorithm isn’t broken, search works, and it continues to dominate the search market.
  3. Google has historically invested into further refinement, as opposed to entirely new signals.

In the next five years, I have no doubt we’ll continue to see change and evolution within SEO. But my bet is on the refinement and improvement of current signals – not the introduction of new, unknown signals.

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