- The pace of technological advances and progress in the SEO sector isn’t slowing down, and you should expect major changes and updates in 2021.
- Google has already announced two algorithm updates slated for March and May 2021.
- There are various trends for SEO in 2020 like UX SEO and feature snippets which appear to become more prominent in the upcoming year.
From the humble beginnings of the Internet and online advertising, we’ve reached an era where the Internet is an essential communication tool, and online advertising is valued at more than 400 billion dollars a year, more prominent than even the TV ad industry. The global pandemic only accelerated this trend and pushed more companies online. So, what can we expect out of SEO in 2021? Which trends should we be looking forward to? Which changes will impact the industry? In this article, we’ll discuss the main trends we expect to have an impact and change the direction of SEO in the coming year.
Direct changes to search engines
SEO is entirely dependent on the major search engines, primarily Google. Any changes to Google’s modus operandi, algorithm, and priorities will have direct, wide-ranging impacts on SEO in 2021. These changes lead to losses in billions of dollars for some businesses while leading to gains of billions of dollars for others. It is important to be aware of the upcoming changes and how to best prepare for them.
#1 Page experience as a ranking factor on Google [May 2021]
As of May 2021, you should expect what Google dubs as “page experience signals” to be a ranking factor. The page experience refers to the way the visitors feel as they interact with the web page. It is determined by a multitude of attributes from mobile-friendliness, safe browsing, HTTPS, and the others. These were already ranking factors previously, but they’ve been more institutionalized and work within the “page experience” framework. Furthermore, Google is introducing Core Web Vitals as part of ‘page experience’. They’re considered to be user-centric metrics that try to determine the quality of the user experience. These user-centric metrics will measure the loading speed (Largest Contentful Paint), interactivity (First Input Delay), and visual stability (Cumulative Layout Shift). The first two items that go into Core Web Vitals seem quite self-evident, so it doesn’t seem like a good idea to spend more time explaining them in this article.
Although, the third item might confuse some people. Visual stability refers to how much the layout shifts and jumps around. For example, imagine if a button tracks your mouse and jumps around whenever you get close to it, this is quite a self-evidently bad user experience, and this variable aims to capture this. The self-advertised purpose of adding an explicit page experience ranking factor is so that Google can provide higher-quality, more engaging content to its users. Considering the variables that it takes account of, a website with a high page experience score will load faster, be more interactive, more stable, more secure, more mobile-friendly, and much more. These all combined, admittedly, will lead to a superior experience.
Get featured in top stories without AMP
Another purpose of the introduction of the new page experience ranking framework is to make non-AMP content eligible to appear in the Top Stories feature for mobile phones. It is one of the main ways websites drive traffic to their content from mobile, so this could be a significant change that would disrupt the rankings of many websites on mobile. This change will also roll out in May of 2021, which makes May a hell of a busy month for SEO specialists.
We need to be ready for all the drastic changes this change in the algorithm can bring. We can’t possibly ascertain its impact at this stage.
#2 Mobile-first indexing for all websites on Google [March 2021]
Mobile-first indexing is certainly not new, Google has been using it for more than several years. It was first introduced as an answer to a widespread problem: more and more people are using their phones to look up stuff and browse the net. The problem is that the mobile and desktop versions of websites don’t always match up in content, and Google usually only indexes one version, which traditionally was the PC version. This creates a mismatch between the rankings on mobile and the content on these pages. To alleviate this mismatch as it was becoming a growing problem due to the increasing popularity of mobile, Google decided to implement mobile-first indexing. Mobile-first indexing refers to the practice of indexing the mobile version of the website first in Google’s databases instead of the desktop version. This would accurately gauge the amount of content on mobile sites and their relevance before displaying the results.
Going from an entirely desktop-first indexing scheme to an entirely mobile-first one would’ve been a massive step, however, and this is why Google has been taking years implementing this change. It started by allowing the option to webmasters to change their website indexing to mobile-first. It was followed by making mobile-first the default option for crawling new websites. The final and latest update is going to come in March 2021 when Google will start making mobile-first indexing the default option for all websites. This means that the way your website is indexed and the content that’s considered might change in March. It is hard to determine how big of an impact this will make beforehand, but you should expect some instability.
Thankfully, Google has published a basic guideline to ensuring the transition to mobile-first indexing goes smoothly on your website:
- Make sure the content of your website is visible to Google crawlers and bots.
- Ensure you fill out all the relevant meta tags on both the mobile and the desktop
versions of your landing pages.
- Ensure that your mobile website loads quickly by enabling lazy loading.
- Ensure that you are not blocking any relevant mobile-specific URLs in your robots.txt file.
- Although it is hard to ensure identical content, you should try to have at least identical primary content on both versions.
- Check the alt tags of both image and video embeds.
Wider SEO trends
Aside from specific updates to algorithms, we have prior information about, some wider trends in the sector that are going to change how we engage with SEO. Some of these trends have been going on for years and only just accelerating and others are new. Below, we’ll cover the most prominent ones.
#1 Voice search is becoming more and more prominent
Voice search was virtually non-existent just five years ago. Still, the development and proliferation of Alexa, Google Assistant, and a multitude of other voice assistants over the last few years have popularized voice search beyond our wildest dreams. According to data, voice search revenue will more than quadruple from 2017 to 2022 from just 2 billion to 40 billion dollars. This explosion in popularity presents opportunities and challenges to traditional SEO approaches. Just as an example, in voice searches, getting the first position is much more important than it is in traditional text searches. That’s why you need different approaches to capitalize on this new, emerging SEO arena fully.
#2 Feature snippets and microdata
Google is trying to introduce more and more types of featured snippets to its home page. These range from recipes to news and tutorials. These snippets aim to make searching faster for users and keep traffic on Google’s website. It is nevertheless beneficial for websites to implement it because you have a chance to be featured, which would drive a lot of traffic to your website.
Of course, getting featured doesn’t always mean you’ll see exponential growth in traffic, but data from Ahrefs shows it matters a lot! On average, getting featured means you’ll get, on average, around 8,6% CTR while the top ‘natural result’ will get 19,6% of the traffic. This is extremely impressive and shows that the featured snippet steals a substantial amount of clicks from the top position, which would get around 26% CTR in SERPs without a featured snippet. Although, you have to be careful about how Google features you. You should monitor your ranking and readjust your snippet and optimize it for more clicks.
#3 Non-textual content
As we move into the next year, we’re seeing an Internet saturated with blogs and landing pages. and it is becoming increasingly difficult to rank for noteworthy keywords with decent traffic. That’s why many SEO agencies are trying to expand their reach by diversifying the type of content they produce and publish. Infographics are one of the easier ways to create engagement and rank higher. Although, even they’ve been overused in recent years. A much more promising frontier for 2021 seems to be videos. These could be uploaded to Youtube as standalone content or embedded in your website too. It’ll help you gain more traffic from Youtube views, which seems way less saturated than Google’s traditional search engine currently. This doesn’t mean it is any less important. YouTube generates 15 billion dollars for Google each year. It is a platform you can’t afford to ignore.
It is also worth mentioning that there are specific video snippets on SERPs that you can only rank for through video content, and these video snippets are really prominent on search queries beginning with “how-to”, asking for tutorials, and other forms of educational content. They are prime real estate that you can potentially rank for with a reasonably produced video.
#4 UX SEO
The days where SEO was just about meta-tags and titles have long gone. Nowadays, SEO is an intricate subject that combines expertise from many different fields from marketing to software engineering and creative writing to achieve the best result. A recent trend in SEO that is gaining more and more stream is the UX SEO framework.
UX SEO refers to the practice of optimizing the user experience of a website to achieve better conversion rates and engagement. It isn’t only important that your site gets regular visitors, but it is also equally important to ensure that these visitors engage with your website. UX redesign success stories are almost limitless, for example, ESPN found out that just a homepage redesign increased their revenues by 35%. There is no reason why UX optimization could not be an integral part of your SEO strategy, and UX SEO gives you a framework to achieve this.
Each year, Google introduces more than 3600 small changes to their algorithms, and each year, trends emerge in this volatile sector that nobody has been able to predict. You need to continually keep up with the news to be on top of your SEO game, reading an article on the trends in the upcoming year isn’t enough. Nevertheless, I tried to make this article as comprehensive as possible, and you should be moderately prepared for the challenges ahead if you pay attention to all the trends that I’ve featured here.
Adrian Kempiak is CTO at Neadoo Digital – SEO agency. Adrian is a tech enthusiast, in the SEO industry for over 9 years. Consultations and audits for businesses from various markets. Responsible for running both worldwide SEO campaigns for ecommerce stores and local SEO for businesses worldwide (UK, USA, Australia, Spain, and much more).
- Google surprised marketers with a few changes in 2020 – an updated search query report, new ad extensions, and new audience targeting, to name a few — which forced advertisers to adjust their SEM strategies and tactics in order to maintain or increase their ROI.
- B2B advertisers are testing and investing in different campaign types besides the traditional search and display campaigns, and are seeing good performance with Discovery Campaigns.
- In the wake of the changes Google made to the search query report in September, Dynamic Search Ads can complement existing search campaigns and improve CTR, CPC, and ROAS.
- Expect to see higher adoption of auction-time bidding, dynamic extensions, and dynamic search ads.
2020 was a tough year for many industries, but for the B2B industry, demand remained strong. Paid search budgets increased in many cases, as B2B companies invested more in digital marketing. The end of Q1 hurt performance, but things started to normalize in Q2, and we observed the usual seasonality the rest of the year.
In addition to the pandemic, Google also surprised us with a few changes – an updated search query report, new ad extensions, and new audience targeting, to name a few. All such changes forced advertisers to adjust their SEM strategies and tactics in order to maintain or increase their ROI.
After an eventful 2020, here are 6 PPC trends B2B advertisers should watch in 2021:
1. SEM campaigns diversify
Given the high competition in the B2B space, advertisers need to differentiate themselves in order to get their target audience’s attention and drive demand. B2B advertisers are testing and investing in different campaign types besides the traditional search and display campaigns. B2B advertisers are seeing a good performance with Discovery Campaigns – with CTR higher than display, and CPL more efficient than search – so we expect them to increase their investment in this campaign type in 2021.
When launching Discovery Campaigns, be patient. Let them run for a couple of weeks without making changes as the bidding algorithm is learning during that period and you will see fluctuations in all metrics. After that, you can prioritize the audiences that are performing well. Performance improves consistently after 4-5 weeks of launch.
2. Dynamic Search Ads (DSA) gain in popularity
DSA campaigns will become even more popular with B2B advertisers after the changes Google made to the search query report in September 2020. Now that the report includes only terms that a significant number of users searched for, and with advertisers losing visibility into low-volume keywords that drive traffic and can generate leads, DSA campaigns offer an efficient way to find new keywords. Their search query reports can help reveal gaps in keyword coverage. DSA can complement your existing search campaigns and improve CTR, CPC, and ROAS.
For lead generation accounts that have strict lead and CPL goals, create separate campaigns for DSA so you have more control over the budget. Start by targeting your SEM landing pages so you can have some control over potential queries and headlines.
3. PPC managers embrace automation
More B2B advertisers are using automation tools and machine learning in order to improve performance, increase efficiency, and save time. Some of our favorite automated features – automated bidding strategies, responsive search ads, and the optimize ad rotation in Google Ads – will continue to gain popularity in 2021. We should also expect to see higher adoption of auction-time bidding, dynamic extensions, and dynamic search ads as B2B advertisers seek to optimize and scale their paid search campaigns.
When evaluating automated bidding strategies for lead generation accounts, don’t worry about higher CPCs as you will likely be paying more for higher quality clicks. If you are seeing a high volume of leads at a low CPL, you are going in the right direction. And always set your target CPA based on the last 30 days’ average, even if it is higher than your goal. Otherwise, you will see a decrease in lead volume.
4. YouTube ad investment increases
Online video ads have become more important for B2B marketers during COVID-19 times. B2B buyers are using online video ads more often to inform purchase decisions: 64% of B2B buyers have increased their use of online video and 51% have increased their use of search, according to eMarketer. We expect B2B advertisers to increase their YouTube investment in 2021 and to launch video campaigns both to generate brand awareness and to generate leads. In addition, B2B advertisers will invest more in creating video content — and YouTubes’ new betas will make that content easier to create.
For a full-funnel video strategy, prioritize videos that are 6-, 15- and 30-seconds long as short videos engage users the most. Also, avoid salesy videos and try to create videos that show the personality of your brand so you can connect with your audience.
5. Mobile investment drops
Lower mobility driven by COVID-19 has decreased the number of mobile buyers while increasing time in front of computers, leading to strong desktop growth. During the pandemic, paid search desktop traffic is up 60%, while mobile traffic has dropped 7% compared to the pre-COVID period. Moreover, the conversion rate for desktop has increased by 4% while the conversion rate for mobile decreased by almost 19%.
Leverage automated bidding strategies to save time and prioritize the devices that are performing best. And don’t forget to look at the assisted conversions report when evaluating mobile performance if you are still using last-click attribution.
6. Paid search messaging becomes increasingly customer-centric
B2B buyers are looking for new solutions as they accelerate purchases, and are expecting more from their solution providers according to the 2020 B2B Buyer Behavior Study. So, we’ll see more ads from B2B companies highlighting features, functionality, customer support services, product training, and implementation support in order to attract and engage B2B buyers. For successful SEM campaigns, promoting relevant content that speaks to industry needs will be a must.
If you have lead generation campaigns and prefer to drive traffic to a landing page with a form, use site links and callouts to highlight the additional services or training you have available for your customers.
With new campaign types and messaging to test, and more automation features and tools at hand, 2021 promises to be fun for B2B advertisers.
Lucia Rodas-Estrada is Senior Search Director at Merkle | DWA.
Between 2010-2015 the SEO industry went from being seen as a shady backroom box of tricks to a leading and essential marketing channel, driven by data, trends and user behavior statistics.
With ongoing changes Google kept SEO agencies, freelancers and internal teams on their toes by releasing update after update to hone and shape not only what they want search results to look like, but how they want us to act and work within them. This included the once-famed Penguin Update, aimed at webspam and link building practices, supposedly impacted around 0.1% of searches when originally launched, but went on to shape the importance of positive link building, utilization of tools and data and birthed job roles around SEO content strategy while strengthening the importance of content marketing.
Long term with the development of RankBrain and (perceived) closer to real-time algorithm changes, more core updates on a regular basis and the journey through ‘Content is King’ to UX – SEO has become theorized in some sense, with many of us having our own opinions and approaches to the same end result.
As we’ve reached 2020 we have in some parts see new developments from Google slow down, with the company’s focus seemingly on updating reporting suites and core updates that offer little more than ‘an improvement to search results’. We’re no longer beholden to the next big Penguin or Panda updates, but more to the inner workings of Google and sporadic updates to its Search Quality Guidelines – with this in mind, what exactly can we expect from SEO in 2020? Adhering to Google guidelines becomes harder, or easier?
We all know how SEO works and many of us will have specialisms or approaches to SEO we feel get results quicker, but with vague updates and unannounced tweaks to algorithms, is it becoming harder to adhere to Google’s guidelines?
Certainly, the unpredictability is a factor at times – with the recent updates to search guidelines on YMYL and E-A-T being announced, there’s a perception the goalposts are moving ever so slightly, every so often.
This means that if you’re scoring just inside the post on Monday, you might be wide of the mark by a fraction on Tuesday. For websites where the SEO team is at the mercy of web development or other factors outside of their control, this can prove a challenge.
Of course, any SEO agency or specialist worth their weight in gold will be able to outline and approach any issues with a solution in hand.
The flipside to this is, however, is that we all have a clear idea of what a good website looks like and what is going to rank page 1 for chosen keywords. With guideline updates, an industry that shares knowledge like no other and a focus on developing strategies that are future proof, there is no reason for every update to send SEO campaigns spiraling.
In 2020, we predict that the next wave of guidelines will be released, and our prediction is these again will be focusing on trust and authority – not a million miles away from where we’ve been for the last few years.
Actioning and adhering to search quality guidelines
Google Search Quality Guidelines regularly update – these guidelines reflect how Google wants you to work within a website and the process the search engine’s algorithm will take to evaluate the relevance of the website for keyword usage.
These guidelines take into account:
- E-A-T – The Expert, Authority, Trust of the website in relation to the target subject
- Page Quality – How the page is laid out, how it works and whether it has the user’s best interests at heart
- Needs Met – Factors around whether the page ANSWERS the needs of the query
The page quality is assessed to identify where the text is placed, the wording used, content used and the quality of the content.
Google’s most recent updates put E-A-T elements at the heart of the Page Quality section of its guidelines, based on industry and type of product.
The blanket approach, and the actions needed to adhere to (or in fact exceed) Google guidelines are that the page should be “more specific than the query, but would still be helpful for many or most users because” the company is reputable in the area.
Top nine factors content managers should audit for on-page SEO
|Element to Optimise||Definition|
|Landing Page URL||URL of the landing page (after the website name)|
|Meta Title||This is the blue link that shows in Google|
|Meta Description||The text that shows under the blue link in search results – to draw a user to click|
|Heading 1 Tag||A title that shows at the top of a page|
|Heading 2 / 3 Tags||Additional titles which are placed within the content of a page|
|Content||The physical content on the page needs to meet particular criteria|
|Keyword Density||The percentage of keywords to total text ratio on a page|
|Images||The size, name, and title of an image on the page|
|Internal Links||Links which point to other pages on the website|
Dependence on technical SEO reduced but is still important
Technical SEO has been on the rise for a number of years but the buzz behind it has somewhat plateaued in the last 12 months or so – although it is still essential to audit from a technical perspective regularly. Traditionally, technical SEO would include web structure, speed, hosting and so on – with JSON, mark up and structured tagging following on from this.
Across client bases we’ve seen the need for technical SEO regularly drop by just under 50%, with wider-ranging audits, working with web development on new site builds and regular crawls on health being the norm. Working in this way allows for time to be split effectively across multiple areas of SEO and better use of budget. Education on the technical aspects client-side also means SEO agencies and professionals can focus time elsewhere.
Within semi-regular technical SEO audits, there are some core elements to check, all of which will help identify issues and improve the technical performance of a website, without impacting the day-to-day of search marketing.
Top eight factors you should audit for technical SEO
|Element to Optimise||Definition|
|Web structure and URL Structure||Essentially the folders in use website is built|
|HTTPS/SSL||Security for customers or users visiting the site|
|HTML Build||Code-behind core elements of a website|
|Schema / JSON||Code that allows websites to send additional information to search engines|
|Server Speed||The speed in which servers respond to requests from users|
|Sitemaps/Robots||Used by Google to crawl websites|
|Accessibility||Are all pages able to be found|
2020 and beyond
As always, Google is likely to throw a couple of curveballs – However, the SEO industry is coming of age again and it’s no longer an area of expertise that “anybody” can have a go at. There’s a need to understand the market of your clients, their customers, their collateral and the demands of Google to achieve success. Following clear structure, regular audits and systematic approaches will allow all of the above to be achieved.
Keith Hodges, Head of Search at POLARIS, is an SEO expert with over eight years’ experience in the industry.
The post Word of advice on exactly what to expect from SEO in 2020 appeared first on Search Engine Watch.
As we start 2020, the media and entertainment sectors are in flux. New technologies are enabling new types of content, streaming platforms in multiple content categories are spending billions in their fight for market share and the interplay between social platforms and media is a central topic of global political debate (to put it lightly).
As TechCrunch’s media columnist, I spoke to hundreds of entrepreneurs and executives in North America and Europe last year about the shifts underway across everything from vertically-oriented video series to physics engines in games to music royalty payments. Looking toward the year ahead, here are some of the high-level changes I expect we will see in media in 2020, broken into seven categories: film & TV, gaming, visual & audio effects, social media, music, podcasts and publishing.
Film and TV
In film and television, the battle to compete with Netflix continues with more robust competition than last year. In the U.S., Disney is off to a momentous start with 10 million Disney+ subscribers upon its launch in November and some predicting it will hit 25 million by March (including those on free trials or receiving it for free via Disney’s partnership with Verizon). Bundled with its two other streaming properties, Hulu and ESPN+, Disney+ puts Disney alongside Amazon and Netflix as the Big Three.
Consumers will only pay for so many subscriptions, often one, two, or all of the Big Three (since Amazon Prime Video is included with the broader Prime membership) then a smaller service that best aligns with their personal taste and favorite show of the moment.
AT&T’s HBOMax launches in May with a $ 14.99/month price tag and is unlikely to break into the echelon of the Big Three, but could be a formidable second tier competitor. Alongside it will be Apple TV+. With a $ 4.99/month subscription, Apple’s service only includes a small number of original productions, an HBO strategy as HBO gets bundled into a larger library. CBS All Access, Showtime, and NBCUniversal’s upcoming (in April) Peacock fall in this camp as well.
Across Europe, regional media conglomerates will find success in expanding local SVOD and AVOD competitors to Netflix that launched last year — or are set to launch in the next few weeks — like BritBox in the UK, Joyn in Germany and Salto in France. Netflix’s growth in coming from outside the U.S. now so its priority is buying more international shows that will compel new demographics to subscribe.
The most interesting new development in 2020 though will be the April launch of Quibi, the $ 4.99/month service offering premium shows shot for mobile-first viewing that has already secured $ 1 billion in funding commitments and $ 150 million in advertising revenue. Quibi shows will be bite-size in length (less than 15 minutes) and vertically-oriented. The company has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into commissioning established names to create dozens of them. Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro each have Quibi programs and NBC and CBS are creating news shows. The terms it is offering are enticing.
Quibi, which plans to release 125 pieces of content (i.e. episodes) per week and spend $ 470 million on marketing this year, is an all-or-nothing bet with little room to iterate if it doesn’t get it right the first time; it needs hit shows that break into mainstream pop culture to survive. Billionaire founders Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman have set expectations sky-high for the launch; expect the press to slam it in April for failing to meet those expectations and for the platform to redeem itself as a few of its shows gain traction in the months that follow.
Meanwhile, live sports remains the last hope of broadcast TV networks as all other shows go to streaming. Consumers still value watching sports in real-time. Streaming services are coming for live sports too, however, and will make progress toward that goal in 2020. Three weeks ago, DAZN secured the rights to the 2021/22 season of Germany’s Champions League, beating out broadcaster Sky which has shown the matches for the last 20 years. Amazon and YouTube continue to explore bids for sports rights while Facebook and Twitter are stepping back from their efforts. YouTube’s “YouTube TV” and Disney’s “Hulu with Live TV” will cause more consumers to cancel cable TV subscriptions in 2020 and go streaming-only.
The winners in the film & TV sector right now are top production companies. The war for streaming video dominance driving several of the world’s wealthiest companies (and individuals) to pour tens of billions of dollars into content. Large corporations own the distribution platforms here; the only “startups” to enter with strength — DAZN and Quibi — have been launched by billionaires and started with billion-dollar spending commitments. The entrepreneurial opportunity is on the content creation side — with producers creating shows not with software developers creating platforms.
The gaming market is predicted to grow nearly 9% year-over-year from $ 152 billion globally in 2019 to $ 165 billion in 2020, according to research firm Newzoo, with more than two billion people playing games each year. Gaming is now widespread across all demographic groups. Casual mobile games are responsible for the largest portion of this (and 45% of industry revenue) but PC gaming continues to grow (+4% last year) and console gaming was the fastest growing category last year (+13%).
The big things to watch in gaming this year: cross-platform play, greater focus on social interaction in virtual worlds and the expansion of cloud gaming subscriptions.
Fortnite enticed consumers with the benefits of a cross-platform game that allows players to move between PC, mobile and console and it is setting expectations that other games do the same. Last October we saw the Call of Duty franchise come to mobile and reach a record 100 million downloads in its first week. This trend will continue and it will spread the free-to-play business model that is the norm in mobile games to many PC and console franchises in the process.
Gaming is moving to the social forefront. Many people are turning to massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) like Fortnite and PUBG to socialize, with gameplay as a secondary interest. Games are virtual worlds where players socialize, build things, and own assets much like in the real world. That results in an increasingly fluid interplay between socializing in games and in physical life, much as socializing in the virtual realms of social apps like Instagram or Twitter is now viewed as part of “real world” life.
Expect VCs to bet big on the thesis that “games are the new social networks” in 2020. Large investment firms that a year ago wrote off the category of gaming as “content bets” not fit for VC are now actively hunting for deals.
On this point, there are several startups (like Klang Games, Darewise Entertainment, Singularity 6 and Clockwork Labs) that raised millions in VC funding to create open world games that will launch (in beta at least) in 2020. These are virtual worlds where all players exist in the same instance of the world rather than being capped at 100 or so players per instance. Their visions center of digital realms where people will contribute to in-game economies, create friendships and ultimately earn income just like their “real-world” lives. Think next-gen Second Life. Expect them to take time to seed their worlds with early adopters in 2020 before any of them gain mainstream traction in 2021.
Few are as excited about social interaction in games as Facebook, it seems. Eager to own critical turf in the next paradigm shift of social media, Facebook will accelerate its gaming push this year. In late 2019, it acquired Madrid-based PlayGiga — which was working on cloud gaming and 5G technology — and the studio behind the hit VR game Beat Saber. It also secured exclusive rights to the VR versions of popular games like Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed” and “Splinter Cell” for Oculus. Horizon, its virtual world for social interaction within VR, is expected to launch this year as well.
Facebook is betting on AR/VR as the paradigm shift in consumer computing that will replace mobile; it is pouring billions into its efforts to own the hardware and infrastructure pieces which are several years of R&D away from primetime. In the meantime, the consumer shift to social interaction in virtual worlds is occurring in established formats — mobile, PC, and console — so it will work to build the bridge for consumers from that to the future.
Lastly, cloud gaming was one of last year’s biggest headlines with the launch of Google Stadia and you should expect it to be again this year. By moving games to cloud hosting, consumers can play the highest quality games from lower quality devices, greatly expanding the market of potential players. By bundling many such games into a subscription offering, Google and others hope to entice consumers to try many more games.
As TechCrunch’s Lucas Matney argued, however, cloud gaming is likely a feature for existing subscription gaming platforms — namely Playstation Now and Xbox Game Pass — more so than the basis for a new platform to differentiate. The minor latency inherent in playing a cloud-hosted game makes it unattractive to hardcore gamers (who would rather download the game). Next to Sony and Microsoft’s offerings, Stadia’s limited game selection fails to stand out. The competition will only heat up this year with the entry of Amazon. Google needs to launch the Stadia integration with YouTube and the Share State feature that it promoted in its Stadia announcement to really drive consumer interest.
Visual and audio effects
Make no mistake: Fresh battle lines are being drawn in the clash between data-mining tech giants and Internet users over people’s right to control their personal information and protect their privacy.
A fairytale ending would remove that ugly ‘vs’ and replace it with an enlightened ‘+’. But there’s no doubt it will be a battle to get there — requiring legal challenges and fresh case law to be set down — as an old guard of dominant tech platforms marshal their extensive resources to try to hold onto the power and wealth gained through years of riding roughshod over data protection law.
Payback is coming though. Balance is being reset. And the implications of not regulating what tech giants can do with people’s data has arguably never been clearer.
The exciting opportunity for startups is to skate to where the puck is going — by thinking beyond exploitative legacy business models that amount to embarrassing blackboxes whose CEOs dare not publicly admit what the systems really do — and come up with new ways of operating and monetizing services that don’t rely on selling the lie that people don’t care about privacy.
More than just small print
Right now the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation can take credit for a whole lot of spilt ink as tech industry small print is reworded en masse. Did you just receive a T&C update notification about a company’s digital service? Chances are it’s related to the incoming standard.
The regulation is generally intended to strengthen Internet users’ control over their personal information, as we’ve explained before. But its focus on transparency — making sure people know how and why data will flow if they choose to click ‘I agree’ — combined with supersized fines for major data violations represents something of an existential threat to ad tech processes that rely on pervasive background harvesting of users’ personal data to be siphoned biofuel for their vast, proprietary microtargeting engines.
This is why Facebook is not going gentle into a data processing goodnight.
Indeed, it’s seizing on GDPR as a PR opportunity — shamelessly stamping its brand on the regulatory changes it lobbied so hard against, including by taking out full page print ads in newspapers…
Here we are. Wow, what a fun thinking about all these years of debates with fb representatives telling me ‘consumers don’t want privacy rights anymore’ and ‘a startup (sic) like facebook shouldn’t be overburdened’. #GDPR #dataprotection #privacy https://t.co/gowYVvKjJf
— Jan Philipp Albrecht (@JanAlbrecht) April 15, 2018
This is of course another high gloss plank in the company’s PR strategy to try to convince users to trust it — and thus to keep giving it their data. Because — and only because — GDPR gives consumers more opportunity to lock down access to their information and close the shutters against countless prying eyes.
But the pressing question for Facebook — and one that will also test the mettle of the new data protection standard — is whether or not the company is doing enough to comply with the new rules.
One important point re: Facebook and GDPR is that the standard applies globally, i.e. for all Facebook users whose data is processed by its international entity, Facebook Ireland (and thus within the EU); but not necessarily universally — with Facebook users in North America not legally falling under the scope of the regulation.
Users in North America will only benefit if Facebook chooses to apply the same standard everywhere. (And on that point the company has stayed exceedingly fuzzy.)
It has claimed it won’t give US and Canadian users second tier status vs the rest of the world where their privacy is concerned — saying they’re getting the same “settings and controls” — but unless or until US lawmakers spill some ink of their own there’s nothing but an embarrassing PR message to regulate what Facebook chooses to do with Americans’ data. It’s the data protection principles, stupid.
Zuckerberg was asked by US lawmakers last week what kind of regulation he would and wouldn’t like to see laid upon Internet companies — and he made a point of arguing for privacy carve outs to avoid falling behind, of all things, competitors in China.
Which is an incredibly chilling response when you consider how few rights — including human rights — Chinese citizens have. And how data-mining digital technologies are being systematically used to expand Chinese state surveillance and control.
The ugly underlying truth of Facebook’s business is that it also relies on surveillance to function. People’s lives are its product.
That’s why Zuckerberg couldn’t tell US lawmakers to hurry up and draft their own GDPR. He’s the CEO saddled with trying to sell an anti-privacy, anti-transparency position — just as policymakers are waking up to what that really means.
Plus ça change?
Facebook has announced a series of updates to its policies and platform in recent months, which it’s said are coming to all users (albeit in ‘phases’). The problem is that most of what it’s proposing to achieve GDPR compliance is simply not adequate.
Coincidentally many of these changes have been announced amid a major data mishandling scandal for Facebook, in which it’s been revealed that data on up to 87M users was passed to a political consultancy without their knowledge or consent.
It’s this scandal that led Zuckerberg to be perched on a booster cushion in full public view for two days last week, dodging awkward questions from US lawmakers about how his advertising business functions.
He could not tell Congress there wouldn’t be other such data misuse skeletons in its closet. Indeed the company has said it expects it will uncover additional leaks as it conducts a historical audit of apps on its platform that had access to “a large amount of data”. (How large is large, one wonders… )
But whether Facebook’s business having enabled — in just one example — the clandestine psychological profiling of millions of Americans for political campaign purposes ends up being the final, final straw that catalyzes US lawmakers to agree their own version of GDPR is still tbc.
Any new law will certainly take time to formulate and pass. In the meanwhile GDPR is it.
The most substantive GDPR-related change announced by Facebook to date is the shuttering of a feature called Partner Categories — in which it allowed the linking of its own information holdings on people with data held by external brokers, including (for example) information about people’s offline activities.
Evidently finding a way to close down the legal liabilities and/or engineer consent from users to that degree of murky privacy intrusion — involving pools of aggregated personal data gathered by goodness knows who, how, where or when — was a bridge too far for the company’s army of legal and policy staffers.
Other notable changes it has so far made public include consolidating settings onto a single screen vs the confusing nightmare Facebook has historically required users to navigate just to control what’s going on with their data (remember the company got a 2011 FTC sanction for “deceptive” privacy practices); rewording its T&Cs to make it more clear what information it’s collecting for what specific purpose; and — most recently — revealing a new consent review process whereby it will be asking all users (starting with EU users) whether they consent to specific uses of their data (such as processing for facial recognition purposes).
As my TC colleague Josh Constine wrote earlier in a critical post dissecting the flaws of Facebook’s approach to consent review, the company is — at very least — not complying with the spirit of GDPR’s law.
Indeed, Facebook appears pathologically incapable of abandoning its long-standing modus operandi of socially engineering consent from users (doubtless fed via its own self-reinforced A/B testing ad expertise). “It feels obviously designed to get users to breeze through it by offering no resistance to continue, but friction if you want to make changes,” was his summary of the process.
But, as we’ve pointed out before, concealment is not consent.
To get into a few specifics, pre-ticked boxes — which is essentially what Facebook is deploying here, with a big blue “accept and continue” button designed to grab your attention as it’s juxtaposed against an anemic “manage data settings” option (which if you even manage to see it and read it sounds like a lot of tedious hard work) — aren’t going to constitute valid consent under GDPR.
Nor is this what ‘privacy by default’ looks like — another staple principle of the regulation. On the contrary, Facebook is pushing people to do the opposite: Give it more of their personal information — and fuzzing why it’s asking by bundling a range of usage intentions.
The company is risking a lot here.
In simple terms, seeking consent from users in a way that’s not fair because it’s manipulative means consent is not being freely given. Under GDPR, it won’t be consent at all. So Facebook appears to be seeing how close to the wind it can fly to test how regulators will respond.
“Yes, they will be taken to court”
“Consent should not be regarded as freely given if the data subject has no genuine or free choice or is unable to refuse or withdraw consent without detriment,” runs one key portion of GDPR.
Now compare that with: “People can choose to not be on Facebook if they want” — which was Facebook’s deputy chief privacy officer, Rob Sherman’s, paper-thin defense to reporters for the lack of an overall opt out for users to its targeted advertising.
Data protection experts who TechCrunch spoke to suggest Facebook is failing to comply with, not just the spirit, but the letter of the law here. Some were exceeding blunt on this point.
“I am less impressed,” said law professor Mireille Hildebrandt discussing how Facebook is railroading users into consenting to its targeted advertising. “It seems they have announced that they will still require consent for targeted advertising and refuse the service if one does not agree. This violates [GDPR] art. 7.4 jo recital 43. So, yes, they will be taken to court.”
Facebook says users must accept targeted ads even under new EU law: NO THEY MUST NOT, there are other types of advertising, subscription etc. https://t.co/zrUgsgxtwo
— Mireille Hildebrandt (@mireillemoret) April 18, 2018
“Zuckerberg appears to view the combination of signing up to T&Cs and setting privacy options as ‘consent’,” adds cyber security professor Eerke Boiten. “I doubt this is explicit or granular enough for the personal data processing that FB do. The default settings for the privacy settings certainly do not currently provide for ‘privacy by default’ (GDPR Art 25).
“I also doubt whether FB Custom Audiences work correctly with consent. FB finds out and retains a small bit of personal info through this process (that an email address they know is known to an advertiser), and they aim to shift the data protection legal justification on that to the advertisers. Do they really then not use this info for future profiling?”
That looming tweak to the legal justification of Facebook’s Custom Audiences feature — a product which lets advertisers upload contact lists in a hashed form to find any matches among its own user-base (so those people can be targeted with ads on Facebook’s platform) — also looks problematical.
Here the company seems to be intending to try to claim a change in the legal basis, pushed out via new terms in which it instructs advertisers to agree they are the data controller (and it is merely a data processor). And thereby seek to foist a greater share of the responsibility for obtaining consent to processing user data onto its customers.
However such legal determinations are simply not a matter of contract terms. They are based on the fact of who is making decisions about how data is processed. And in this case — as other experts have pointed out — Facebook would be classed as a joint controller with any advertisers that upload personal data. The company can’t use a T&Cs change to opt out of that.
Wishful thinking is not a reliable approach to legal compliance.
Fear and manipulation of highly sensitive data
Over many years of privacy-hostile operation, Facebook has shown it has a major appetite for even very sensitive data. And GDPR does not appear to have blunted that.
Let’s not forget, facial recognition was a platform feature that got turned off in the EU, thanks to regulatory intervention. Yet here Facebook is now trying to use GDPR as a route to process this sensitive biometric data for international users after all — by pushing individual users to consent to it by dangling a few ‘feature perks’ at the moment of consent.
Veteran data protection and privacy consultant, Pat Walshe, is unimpressed.
“The sensitive data tool appears to be another data grab,” he tells us, reviewing Facebook’s latest clutch of ‘GDPR changes’. “Note the subtlety. It merges ‘control of sharing’ such data with FB’s use of the data “to personalise features and products”. From the info available that isn’t sufficient to amount to consent for such sensitive data and nor is it clear folks can understand the broader implications of agreeing.
“Does it mean ads will appear in Instagram? WhatsApp etc? The default is also set to ‘accept’ rather than ‘review and consider’. This is really sensitive data we’re talking about.”
“The face recognition suggestions are woeful,” he continues. “The second image — is using an example… to manipulate and stoke fear — “we can’t protect you”.
“Also, the choices and defaults are not compatible with [GDPR] Article 25 on data protection by design and default nor Recital 32… If I say no to facial recognition it’s unclear if other users can continue to tag me.”
Of course it goes without saying that Facebook users will keep uploading group photos, not just selfies. What’s less clear is whether Facebook will be processing the faces of other people in those shots who have not given (and/or never even had the opportunity to give) consent to its facial recognition feature.
People who might not even be users of its product.
But if it does that it will be breaking the law. Yet Facebook does indeed profile non-users — despite Zuckerberg’s claims to Congress not to know about its shadow profiles. So the risk is clear.
It can’t give non-users “settings and controls” not to have their data processed. So it’s already compromised their privacy — because it never gained consent in the first place.
New Mexico Representative Ben Lujan made this point to Zuckerberg’s face last week and ended the exchange with a call to action: “So you’re directing people that don’t even have a Facebook page to sign up for a Facebook page to access their data… We’ve got to change that.”
But nothing in the measures Facebook has revealed so far, as its ‘compliance response’ to GDPR, suggest it intends to pro-actively change that.
Walshe also critically flags how — again, at the point of consent — Facebook’s review process deploys examples of the social aspects of its platform (such as how it can use people’s information to “suggest groups or other features or products”) as a tactic for manipulating people to agree to share religious affiliation data, for example.
“The social aspect is not separate to but bound up in advertising,” he notes, adding that the language also suggests Facebook uses the data.
Again, this whiffs a whole lot more than smells like GDPR compliance.
“I don’t believe FB has done enough,” adds Walshe, giving a view on Facebook’s GDPR preparedness ahead of the May 25 deadline for the framework’s application — as Zuckerberg’s Congress briefing notes suggested the company itself believes it has. (Or maybe it just didn’t want to admit to Congress that U.S. Facebook users will get lower privacy standards vs users elsewhere.)
“In fact I know they have not done enough. Their business model is skewed against privacy — privacy gets in the way of advertising and so profit. That’s why Facebook has variously suggested people may have to pay if they want an ad free model & so ‘pay for privacy’.”
“On transparency, there is a long way to go,” adds Boiten. “Friend suggestions, profiling for advertising, use of data gathered from like buttons and web pixels (also completely missing from “all your Facebook data”), and the newsfeed algorithm itself are completely opaque.”
“What matters most is whether FB’s processing decisions will be GDPR compliant, not what exact controls are given to FB members,” he concludes.
US lawmakers also pumped Zuckerberg on how much of the information his company harvests on people who have a Facebook account is revealed to them when they ask for it — via its ‘Download your data’ tool.
His answers on this appeared to intentionally misconstrue what was being asked — presumably in a bid to mask the ugly reality of the true scope and depth of the surveillance apparatus he commands. (Sometimes with a few special ‘CEO privacy privileges’ thrown in — like being able to selectively retract just his own historical Facebook messages from conversations, ahead of bringing the feature to anyone else.)
‘Download your Data’ is clearly partial and self-serving — and thus it also looks very far from being GDPR compliant.
Not even half the story
Facebook is not even complying with the spirit of current EU data protection law on data downloads. Subject Access Requests give individuals the right to request not just the information they have voluntarily uploaded to a service, but also personal data the company holds about them; Including giving a description of the personal data; the reasons it is being processed; and whether it will be given to any other organizations or people.
Facebook not only does not include people’s browsing history in the info it provides when you ask to download your data — which, incidentally, its own cookies policy confirms it tracks (via things like social plug-ins and tracking pixels on millions of popular websites etc etc) — it also does not include a complete list of advertisers on its platform that have your information.
Instead, after a wait, it serves up an eight-week snapshot. But even this two month view can still stretch to hundreds of advertisers per individual.
If Facebook gave users a comprehensive list of advertisers’ access to their information the number of third party companies would clearly stretch into the thousands. (In some cases thousands might even be a conservative estimate.)
There’s plenty of other information harvested from users that Facebook also intentionally fails to divulge via ‘Download your data’. And — to be clear — this isn’t a new problem either. The company has a very long history of blocking these type of requests.
In the EU it currently invokes a exception in Irish law to circumvent more fulsome compliance — which, even setting GDPR aside, raises some interesting competition law questions, as Paul-Olivier Dehaye told the UK parliament last month.
“All your Facebook data” isn’t a complete solution,” agrees Boiten. “It misses the info Facebook uses for auto-completing searches; it misses much of the information they use for suggesting friends; and I find it hard to believe that it contains the full profiling information.”
“Ads Topics” looks rather random and undigested, and doesn’t include the clear categories available to advertisers,” he further notes.
Facebook wouldn’t comment publicly about this when we asked. But it maintains its approach towards data downloads is GDPR compliant — and says it’s reviewed what it offers via with regulators to get feedback.
Earlier this week it also put out a wordy blog post attempting to diffuse this line of attack by pointing the finger of blame at the rest of the tech industry — saying, essentially, that a whole bunch of other tech giants are at it too.
Which is not much of a moral defense even if the company believes its lawyers can sway judges with it. (Ultimately I wouldn’t fancy its chances; the EU’s top court has a robust record of defending fundamental rights.)
Think of the children…
What its blog post didn’t say — yet again — was anything about how all the non-users it nonetheless tracks around the web are able to have any kind of control over its surveillance of them.
And remember, some Facebook non-users will be children.
So yes, Facebook is inevitably tracking kids’ data without parental consent. Under GDPR that’s a majorly big no-no.
TC’s Constine had a scathing assessment of even the on-platform system that Facebook has devised in response to GDPR’s requirements on parental consent for processing the data of users who are between the ages of 13 and 15.
“Users merely select one of their Facebook friends or enter an email address, and that person is asked to give consent for their ‘child’ to share sensitive info,” he observed. “But Facebook blindly trusts that they’ve actually selected their parent or guardian… [Facebook’s] Sherman says Facebook is “not seeking to collect additional information” to verify parental consent, so it seems Facebook is happy to let teens easily bypass the checkup.”
So again, the company is being shown doing the minimum possible — in what might be construed as a cynical attempt to check another compliance box and carry on its data-sucking business as usual.
Given that intransigence it really will be up to the courts to bring the enforcement stick. Change, as ever, is a process — and hard won.
Hildebrandt is at least hopeful that a genuine reworking of Internet business models is on the way, though — albeit not overnight. And not without a fight.
“In the coming years the landscape of all this silly microtargeting will change, business models will be reinvented and this may benefit both the advertisers, consumers and citizens,” she tells us. “It will hopefully stave off the current market failure and the uprooting of democratic processes… Though nobody can predict the future, it will require hard work.”
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