Just like a US President gives Congress information on the "state of our union", Forrester has just released a state of the union on the search marketing world. But instead of constant interruptions for applause or the opposition's response to the state of the union, let's cut to the chase.

The state of search marketing is strong. But there are cracks forming in its foundation. That's not to say that search marketing is under immediate seige from foreign adversaries, but it is to say that there will be challenges and opportunities for agencies, vendors, and marketers that are tasked with owning SEO and/or paid search.

Change is nothing new in the search world — especially when you consider how often Google updates it's ranking algorithm. And 2016 was no different. There were a few major highlights in my eyes:

  • Google nixed right-hand rail ads. Back in February, Google confirmed that all ads (except PLAs and some knowledge graph ads) would no longer appear on the right hand side of desktop search results. The reason Google did this was to provide a more consistent experience across devices, which it did. The good news for marketers though? The decrease in total inventory didn't increase CPCs. In fact, CPCs on Google declined 5% since Q3 2015.
  • Organic search is still top of mind for marketers…and customers. Let's face it: SEO is not the sexiest digital marketing topic. But it works: according to Forrester's Consumer Technographics data, natural search engine results are the top way customers find websites. So it should be no surprise that my top inquiry topic in 2016 was on all things SEO.
  • Paid search ads increased in popularity (and clicks, again). We hear repeatedly how customers hate ads. But paid search ads are immune to such avoidance. Forrester's Consumer Technographics data showed a significant increase in US online adults who said they found websites through sponsored search ads. And clicks on paid search ads rose 11% year over year in Q3 2016. 

Looking ahead to 2017, it will be a challenging year for the search marketing world. That's because search continues to get harder and more complex. We've all observed organic search results getting pushed further down the page on Google. And our paid search review in 2016 found that search ads are becoming more sophisticated and more competitive. But there are even bigger battles looming. Two massive tug-of-wars will emerge in 2017:

  • Serendipitous discovery versus intentional discovery. We've previously stated that search marketing is more than just optimizing for traditional search engines (Google); it's about creating visibility in all the outlets, channels, and media where your customers find. But we've dug into this a little deeper and found an even more striking difference. Customers find in two ways: intentionally (search) or serendipitiously (TV, Facebook, etc.). And it's these serendipitous channels that are eating away at traditional search marketing. And we believe this trend will only continue as customers find information, products, and brands on channels where the customer doesn't overtly ask or search for anything. 
  • Google versus intelligent agents. My colleague, Jenny Wise, wrote about the rise of intelligent agents (IAs) in 2016. The takeaway? IAs like Amazon Alexa, Siri, Cortana, and others are here to stay, and will only become more popular. This means that voice search is going to become more prevelant. But it also means that these IAs will look to take marketshare away from Google in the way that people search and find information. I have a report planned for the middle of this year that investigates the impact IAs will have on search marketing. Stay tuned for that.

Needless to say, it will be an exciting year to see how things unfold.

Thoughts, questions, comments? What do you think will happen in search in 2017? Please let me know. I'd love to hear from you.