Many of you know I spent a good chunk of the past year away from the search industry, recharging my batteries and trying to gain a little perspective on how to align my professional passion (helping small businesses thrive) with my expertise (digital marketing for said businesses).

Part of that exercise was analyzing the position of local SEO in the context of Google’s strategic moves over the past three to four years, and this year’s predictions are based on that extended analysis.

Historically, I’d like to think I’ve been pretty accurate:

2014
Mobile payments and content marketing gain adoption among SMBs, while the market frenzy around loyalty programs starts to subside.

2015
Email marketing makes a comeback, while big competition develops for on-demand home services.

2016
Store locators/location pages, citations, reviews become table stakes, while brand and customer engagement become competitive difference makers.
Bonus: Beacons fail to get off the ground because they don’t solve a consumer problem.

My 2017 predictions are less conservative than those I’ve made previously, but it feels like we’re going to see a huge year. My only hesitation is whether we’ll see it in 2017, or it might be 2018-19 before we really start to see the effects I detail below.

Regardless of the timing, the pressure’s on more than ever to be right! I’m putting my money where my mouth is and launching an entire new company in 2017 on the basis of what I outline below.

You can be the first to know about it here.

And now, without further ado…

SEO will not die in 2017. But the number of beneficiaries of organic visibility from Google will decline dramatically.

Many local marketing practitioners continue to use the adage “if you aren’t on the first page of Google results, you’re invisible.”

That’s already out-of-date and about to be wildly out-of-date.  We’ll soon be saying–maybe not by the end of this year, but soon enough–“if you’re not the first result on Google, you’re invisible.”

Here’s my view of the local search landscape in 2017, and my advice on maintaining a fighting chance at being that first result on Google.

PAID > ORGANIC ON MOBILE
More mobile clicks for commercial local keywords will go to paid results than organic by the end of 2017, partly to the new chimera ad units we’ve already seen in the home services vertical, and partly to traditional Adwords enhanced with things like reviews and location information.

KNOWLEDGE GRAPH (NEARLY) EVERYWHERE
Organically, we’ll see widespread single-answer Knowledge Graph results across an even broader range of keywords, and voice queries will return only the top-ranking business. Meaning the number of available slots, even for well-optimized websites, will drop precipitously.

AMPLIFIED AMP
Google will double-down on the presentation of web content within search results, not just for recent news articles, but for all kinds of content.

ATTRIBUTION BECOMES THE NEW CLICKTHROUGH
Businesses lucky enough to rank organically for high-value terms will see fewer and fewer website visits coming from Google as attribution becomes the new clickthrough in voice search.

KEYWORD STRINGS GET LONGER
After years of shrinking due to the pain point of typing on mobile devices, the average keyword length will get longer from here on out as more people get comfortable asking natural-language queries via voice search.

RANK-TRACKING BECOMES FOLLY
The trend toward personalization will accelerate with all the additional data Google gathers from Home and Pixel phones. The variation in result types and positions across specific keywords and locations for specific users makes any tracking of individual keywords pure folly.

A TIPPING POINT IN RESOURCE ALLOCATION
Late 2017 will be a tipping point of sorts for a substantial segment of small businesses, who have historically done well with SEO but not dominated their market. They’ll begin to realize that the return on their historical investment is diminishing, even if their rank tracking software says they’re maintaining or even improving their organic positions.

Local SEO Demand vs Return

A paradigm shift

For my entire career, local SEO has been the low-cost, high-return marketing option for the overwhelming majority of small businesses. We’ve seen the practice get harder over the last three to four years, but the size of the market has grown as awareness and demand has increased among local businesses, and many of Google’s moves such as Venice actually accrued to the organic benefit of local businesses.

But for the reasons I laid out above, I think those businesses who rely on SEO, and as a result the SEO industry itself, is in for a very rough ride over the next three to four years. The few companies that succeed in the new rich snippet/voice search paradigm are going to be rewarded, for sure. But for many local queries we’ve gone from 10 blue links to one Knowledge Graph result in the last 10 years, sometimes placed below four ads. That’s a 90% decrease in the number of businesses who’ll see meaningful benefit from their organic search position, and the competition for that remaining spot is stronger than it’s ever been.

Demand will remain strong among (late-adopting) small businesses. But even with properly tempered expectations, many of those clients are going to be frustrated when the techniques and strategies you’ve honed over the last 10 years aren’t returning anywhere near the results they used to.

As a small business, or as a search-focused agency serving local businesses, how can you adapt?

STUDY SNIPPETS ASSIDUOUSLY
I’d be watching Dr. Pete’s research like a hawk, and augmenting it with several hours of my own, every month. The goal is to become intimately familiar with how publishers like this and this and this are earning snippets for competitive, commercial local keywords–even if these aren’t industries or markets that you or your clients serve.

THINK OF YOUR WEBSITE (OR YOUR CLIENTS’ WEBSITES) AS AN API
Even if you’re not a publisher in the traditional sense of the word, you should prepare for a time when no one ever visits your website. Awareness, research, and conversion will all happen in search results, and the companies whose websites facilitate that paradigm on the leading edge will be rewarded with more customers while competitors scramble to catch up. This means as much Schema.org and JSON-LD markup as possible, and partnering with third-parties that have cut deals with Google to facilitate transactions (see: OpenTable and ZocDoc).

DEVELOP A COMPETENCE IN CHEAP, QUICKLY DEPLOYABLE ADWORDS CAMPAIGNS
Pay particular attention to how you can attract traffic from mid-tail terms on mobile devices. At the very least, it’s likely you’ll need to augment the organic traffic your SEO efforts used to supply your clients. And even if I’m completely wrong about everything above, you’ll be providing your clients with an additional service benefit.

DIVERSIFY YOUR PLATFORM FOCUS
Savvy businesses–or at least those represented by savvy agencies–will shift more and more resources towards SEO on other platforms including Facebook, Siri, and Alexa, which relative to the investment will drive higher returns than traditional SEO focused on Google.

START POSITIONING YOURSELF AS MUCH MORE THAN A SEARCH AGENCY
For areas where you might think about positioning yourself, see Part II of my 2017 predictions.