I'm going to start my prediction by winding back the clock a bit, to July 2009, when Google launched its so called "brand algorithm update" (officially titled "Vince" for the trivia buffs amongst you). This update attempted to incorporate user search behaviour and click patterns directly into the algorithm, so that searching for keyword X, not finding anything of interest, then immediately searching for a particular Brand Y, would help Brand Y rank for keyword X even in the absence of the usual ranking signals. As it happened, at the time Google turned this new algorithm element up too high, resulting in too much emphasis being put on user search behaviour and causing some very strange search results, such that Vince was rolled back in fairly short order.
What does any of this have to do with SEO in 2012? Well, even though Google bungled the implementation of Vince I think the intention was pretty clear: what users search for can tell search engines about the strength of a brand, because the strength of a brand directly influences those searches.
What is the best means of influencing brand perception online? Right now I would argue social media. At the same time, more and more marketers are cottoning on to the fact that social media can dramatically catalyse SEO campaigns, by increasing the speed of accrual and volume of natural links pointing to a site, as I wrote about at length in the last issue of the Greenlight magazine.
All of this is known information, so here's my prediction: next year, the confluence of user signals influencing search engines' perception of brand strength, and everyone being on the "social media helps us build links" band wagon, will make 2012 The Year of Social Link Building.
You could argue that this has already happened, but I don't think I'm alone in believing that collectively we've barely begun to scratch the surface of what's possible when SEO and Social are properly integrated. Sure, people have been creating infographics and promoting them virally for two or three years (to the extent that many infographics these days are starting to seem a bit "me too"), and the idea of link bait of all stripes has been around for considerably longer. Don't get me wrong, that kind of activity is still important as part of a campaign, but what I'm talking about are full blown, off the wall campaigns that integrate innovative content, competitions, blogger outreach, social, PR... the lot. In fact, why stop at online? Make TV shows! Throw events! I know from some of the stuff being planned with our clients that we will be, and I'm very excited about it.
It's time to stop thinking of SEO as a bubble, time that SEO becomes more than SEO, more than just links. It's SEO = Digital PR. SEO = your brand. Next year marketers who think like that when planning their campaigns will win, and those who do not will be "also-rans".