Predictions Roundup: Organic Search and Cookie Deprecation

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Tis the season for annual predictions. As we promised in our monthly theme for January, we at Street Fight are projecting outcomes in local commerce, media, and advertising for 2021. Following Part I last week, we continue the narrative here in Part II with a fresh batch of projections on cookie depreciation, local search, and Google’s moves in 2021.

Here they are in no particular order.

Andrew Shotland, Founder & CEO, LocalSEOGuide, on Google and SEO

I generally don’t like to overhype organic search and its impact on businesses, but I think 2021 is going to be the year that culls the herd so to speak. In other words, Schitt’s getting real. Why is this?

The December 2020 Google update was kind of a big deal for Local SERPs. Local business queries tend to be either for brands (e.g. “Walmart near me”) or products/services (“DUI attorney,” “cake,” etc.). The December update took a huge chunk of traffic away from a lot of sites that were targeting brand queries. Look at the SERP for any well-known brand, and page one of Google is typically filled with the brand’s site, the brand’s GMB pages, social media profiles, news, and products.

If you are directly reliant on hijacking brand queries for a lot of your traffic, the game just got harder. The good news is the vast majority of Local searches are not for well-known brands. This is where sites that add value (e.g. Yelp, HomeAdvisor, Thumbtack, etc.) can still play, but as more and more SMBs get their digital marketing act together, they are going to have a lot more control over page one of their brand SERPs.

This leaves the products/services SERPs as the main targets for customers and revenue. Yet Google continues to encroach on these with its own “zero-click” properties and ad units. Over the past few years, GMB has added all sorts of functionality to help Google monetize Local Packs, which are the dominant SERP features for these types of queries.

In 2020, several of our multi-location retailer clients got “Free” product listings added to their GMB pages. Simultaneously we are seeing Local Packs appear for more and more product queries. Besides some ads here and there, the Local Pack is one of the last standing major Google SERP products that are not fully monetized. They have been playing around with it on the margins, but I expect that to change in 2021. It just seems inevitable that Local Packs/GMB will become one of the key transactional features in Google.

So how is this different/more competitive than any other year? More businesses than ever are “doing” SEO. Simultaneously, we have access via Google, third-party tools, etc., to more data than ever. The winners will be those who learn how to harvest that data to fuel their SEO strategies to adapt to Google’s ever-changing ways. Oh yeah, and make stuff that’s good for users. Should be fun. See you in the SERPs.

Raquel Rosenthal, CEO, Digilant, on Cookie Depreciation and Measurement

As advertisers settle into the new year and face the depreciation of third-party cookies, we’ll start to see other forms of measurement, like econometric or media mix modeling, rise in importance. Standard online measurement has been built around 1:1 measurement using a cookie or a device. With third-party cookies largely going away in the next year and the “walls” of walled gardens like Google and Facebook getting higher, the traditional forms of measurement will become more difficult.

We’ll see more measurement solutions that are underpinned by identity resolution come to market. The Trade Desk, LiveRamp, and MediaMath are some examples of companies jumping in on this. Similarly, we’ll see advertisers themselves making internal changes to their tech stacks and marketing programs to support identity resolution, whether that’s adopting a CDP, investing in a data onboarding partner, or running campaigns specifically designed for list building.

Greg Sterling, VP Market Insights, Uberall, on Cookie Depreciation, Privacy, and Local

I would point to the impact of privacy on location data access and the changing definition of “local” itself — as the boundaries between online and offline continue to blur.

Just as third-party cookies are disappearing, smartphone location data has the potential to act as a replacement in many instances. But Apple’s iOS 14 gives consumers more veto power over use of their data and requires an opt-in to IDFA tracking. It will be very challenging for the majority of publishers to get consumers to say “yes” to tracking and the release of their location data to third parties.

Brands and publishers will need to drastically change their approach to gain consumer trust for other than first-party location data use cases. Otherwise, marketers will see a dramatic loss of location data and will be modeling audiences and outcomes based on Android users and small iOS data sets.

Beyond this, the definition of “local” is in flux. The COVID-driven pivot to online by traditional retailers and local businesses — online scheduling and ordering, BOPIS, virtual services delivery — has upended the previously separate worlds of online and local commerce. Consumers are very interested in keeping money in their communities but are buying much more online. Those aren’t necessarily a contradiction.

Think of local businesses selling online to people in the same city or delivering virtual services within communities (e.g., local doctor visits on Zoom). And then there are retailers that offer curbside pickup: the transaction is online but fulfillment is local; it’s a hybrid model that doesn’t qualify as offline nor purely e-commerce. These blurring categories beg the question, “What does local mean today?”

Mike Blumenthal, Founding Partner, GatherUp, on Google and Local Search

For the past five years, Since Google Local freed itself of the shackles of G+, they have aggressively moved local forward with increasingly immersive search (aka Google as the new Home Page); increasingly transactional search with both category-specific CTA and a transaction processing backend; and a more visual search. All of these developments paved the way for their late 2020 rollout of free local product listings and their increasing transactional capability in the local product space.

All of the previously mentioned trends will continue with one new twist, an increased focus on real-time communications between consumers and the business via Local to facilitate the ever-increasing transactional and product nature of local.

These activities will position them in their ongoing struggle vis-à-vis both Amazon and Facebook as they all look to make their mark in the local product and communications space.