2016 has in many ways been quite a low key year in terms of changes to search marketing that have affected the search engine results pages.
What I mean by that is that the number of things changing dramatically has actually been quite small. We haven't had massive outrage, confusion and upset over penguin and panda updates that have blighted websites for several years, for example.
We haven't had so much talk of throwing a huge amount of content up, content for the sake of content. The idea of using content marketing to rank has become a far more streamlined and sane area of discussion.
And it looks like some of the worst practices of link building finally lost the power they once had, meaning that legitimate search engine optimisation processes have become clearer and also more technical.
But that doesn't mean there have not been changes, in fact there have been a small number of huge changes, and in this blog post I'm going to focus on the three that I think has had the largest impact in 2016, and that could have implications as we move into 2017.
Adwords: Google Removed PPC Ads From The Right Sidebar
Back in February it became evident that Google had removed all pay per click advert spaces from the right-hand side of its search engine results pages.
This led to a significant amount of speculation about what this meant for advertisers and the organic search results. The big fear was that it would mean organic listings were pushed further down the page, as it was becoming evident that up to 4 adverts were now showing above organic listings in search results.
The implications were that the four ad spaces above the organic results meant that in some commercial queries organic results were not viewable above the fold on a desktop browser at all.
So the loser from this change was organic search.
However, in terms of paid advertising, time will tell, but it appears that because adverts are appearing in a more "native" way, that it could encourage people to click on them more. Of course this will depend on whether the adverts delivered accurately deliver on the searchers intention.
Penguin: Real Time Updates From Penguin 4.0
Sometime around the end of September 2016, Google started to roll out Penguin 4.0. This was confirmed on its official Webmasters blog on September 23.
What made this update special was that it is the final Penguin update we will know about. That's because up until that point the filter that Penguin updates put on the Google index were periodic, which meant if your site was affected by it then you had to wait a considerable time for it to be refreshed.
This meant that penalised sites were left in limbo for up to a year.
In the official statement Google said that “Penguin's data is refreshed in real time, so changes will be visible much faster, typically taking effect shortly after we recrawl and reindex a page."
That was a godsend for Webmasters who had been hit by the ranking filter, because from now on the filtering would be more granular. Basically, rather than devaluing the entire website, only pages that triggered the link spamming signals would be affected.
But the important news in 2017 is that Penguin 4.0 is now a core part of the group of signals that Google uses to produce its search engine results pages. It's now more than a filter, and it will regularly take a look at your webpages, rather than only once in a while.
So if your link building is dodgy, you won't get a grace period, or be knocked out of the SERPs for months on end, you will get the opportunity to react more in real time for good or bad.
Mobile Search: Mobile-First Indexing Became A Reality
Despite most people now searching the Internet on mobile devices, ranking factors still tended to look at the desktop version of a website's content. During 2016 Google started to address this in order to evaluate and deliver better results to searchers using mobile devices.
This caused a lot of problems for businesses who had not kept up to date with website development. Some businesses had websites that only rendered properly on desktop browsers, while others had separate mobile versions which were incomplete and poorly structured.
And the message is that it will get even worse as we move into 2017. Google has made it clear that they are moving towards the mobile indexing being the priority, and the most up-to-date. They have clearly stated they have started experimenting in this direction.
Desktop sites will continue to be indexed and evaluated, but not the same frequency as they were. This means that it's essential you get a unified website structure going forward.
The message from Google going into 2017 is clear, a responsive website, or a dynamic serving website, where content is unified across platforms, is an essential strategy.
On top of that, you will have to make sure of, or have a discussion with your web developer about, whether your site is serving structured markup for both desktop and mobile users. Google supplies a structured data testing tool, so you can test the output right now to see where you stand.
When you add to this the move towards voice generated search queries and more localised search queries because of this move towards mobile search, it means that in 2017 the way we search and an increased local context on what we search for, will rapidly change the face of search forever.
And that's the takeaway point here. There are less big changes happening, but the changes that are happening are going to be fundamental.
Unified content, structured uniformly across all platforms, with great content and outreach, are the main messages for 2017.
But there is another message which I think will be important in 2017 in relation to the serving of webpages, so I'm leaving it is my last comment of the year. AMP - Accelerated Mobile Pages, will become more and more important.
I won’tl go into details here, but Google is pushing AMP hard already, and in the move towards faster loading mobile sites, with less than three seconds load time being the talked about standard, it may get to the stage in 2017 that you have to look at implementing AMP on your website to stay competitive.