Eli Schwartz

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SEO

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SEO

Interviewing SEO candidates

Once you have decided what type of SEO person you want on your team, you will have a better sense of the skillset you want to ensure they have. With this in mind you can begin crafting an interview process and questions to ask during the interviews.

Process

Any SEO candidate should always meet with all of their potential counterparts even if they are not on the same team. Interviewers from these respective teams should assess both hard skills – can they do the job and soft skills – will they be able to work with them. The number of actual interviewers will depend on the norms for a company, but if a large number of interviews is standard, here is my take who should assess SEO talent.

  • Product – Meeting someone on a product team is mostly applicable to hires who will focus on product and technical aspects of SEO. For these hires, product will usually act as a hub between all the different stakeholders and therefore the product person should interview the SEO candidate as if they are being added to their team. They should probe on a variety of soft and hard skills.
  • Business intelligence or data science – this is the team that will be responsible for reporting out on SEO metrics and more than likely will have to build measurement tools. This team should assess the SEO candidates analytical abilities as well as whether they will be easy to work alongside.
  • Marketing counterparts – It’s always helpful to have potential team members confirm that they are able to work with a new hire and those that will be working the closest with them should participate in the interview process. If the company is large and having many marketers meet with candidates is not feasible, at a minimum the person responsible for paid marketing should meet with all potential SEO hires. SEO and paid marketing are very similar from a performance standpoint and the paid marketer would be best positioned to assess their search skillset.
  • Content – Depending on the company, an SEO team might own the content team, be on the content team or just work adjacent. Regardless of whether the SEO candidate a technical, product, content or link hire, writing is a critical skill. The interviewers should assess the candidate’s writing abilities and soft skills on how they communicate with writers.
  • Senior executives – This is not applicable for all hires, but senior hires should be assessed on whether they have executive presence. Will they be able to communicate with executives directly or do they need to go through their manager? Most importantly around the executive interviews is that SEO should be considered a mission critical process within a company and having executives sign off on SEO hires keeps that sense of mission on the radar at the highest level.
  • Engineering – front end – Front end engineers will be building and fulfilling the requests from the engineering team. These interviews will determine the candidates abilities to communicate their requests to engineers and their abilities to make complete asks that don’t require engineers to continuously request more details. All SEO candidates except those on the link building side should meet with engineers.
  • Engineering – back end – Back end engineers are responsible for building server side code as well as handling any redirects. Only the technically minded SEO candidates need to be assessed by back end engineers and the questioning should probe how much they understand about various technology and tools.
  • QA – Any technical or product centric SEO needs to be detailed oriented and no one is better at fleshing out details than quality assurance employees. The interview should focus on whether they are a big picture thinker or can they think very granular about how things might work.
  • Design – Meeting with design is more of a soft skill interview to see whether design can get along with SEO. Rarely will SEO hires have design talent or designers have SEO talent, so they will need to work together very closely as they build sites and pages.
  • Sales – for an SEO hire that is primarily going to be focused on link building, it would be ideal to have someone from sales assess whether the candidate actually has strong sales abilities and instincts. This can be a very short interview and this can be a quick first impression on whether they have the communication abilities to make people act.

Timing

As these are a lot of people to meet, the process should be broken into at least four stages.

  1. Recruiter screen – a recruiter can ask questions about resume experience and ensure that the candidate uses the right language to proceed through the hiring process
  2. Hiring manager screen – the potential manager of the SEO hire should talk to the candidate either in person or on the phone. Aside from questions around how they will work together, the hiring manager should determine whether the candidate will be able to add value with their SEO skillset or will the manager need to fill in a number of gaps.
  3. Provided that the candidate passed the first two stages they should now be brought onsite. On site they should meet with product, content and an engineer.
  4. If they pass the first three interviewers, they should then meet with second round which should another engineer, marketing counterparts, design and business intelligence.

Stages three and four can come on the same day, but if possible, they should be split to save time for both the hiring organization and candidate if there isn’t a mutual fit. This gives the first round of interviewers time to circle up and discuss the candidate before forcing them to spend even more time with a company that may not hire them.

A bad hire is always more costly than not hiring someone, so although this may seem like a lot for one hire, SEO can end being responsible for most of a company’s revenue and the right fit will make all the difference in the world.

SEO

SEO reporting – Google Search Console is all you need

The primary success metric for SEO is whatever the business uses to judge any other marketing channel. Therefore, regarding reporting on SEO, there doesn’t need to be a specific SEO tool to prove that SEO is working. Either there is sales/revenue/leads attributed to an organic channel or there isn’t.

There should of course be an analytics tool in place which can show whether traffic is contributing the goals of the business, but this tool should already be in place for every other channel. Ideally, the tool should use weighted multichannel attribution as in our fast-paced world a customer will always have multiple touches with a website and credit should be shared across the whole journey.

Even without a full multichannel attribution setup, there should still be indicators that SEO is driving the business forward. If it is too difficult to attribute a sale to an organic source, the lead source can be tracked back to organic touches through a tool like Marketo. If that is also too challenging a simple analytics report on pages per visit or bounce will show if visitors to the website are engaged or if they just leave without doing anything.

Using traditional analytics or business intelligence is the best option for reporting SEO progress on existing SEO efforts, but this will not work as well when a campaign is brand new.

Reporting on early progress

For brand new SEO efforts, my favorite solution is Google Search Console. Google Search Console is a peek under the hood as if you can see Google’s own analytics. This is the only tool that shows queries that a website is receiving impressions on even if the searcher does not click. This is a far better option than any SEO tool which makes a best guesstimate on SEO visibility based on the millions of keywords that they crawl. Google Search Console is not guessing, these are real words that users type to see a site.

Using Google Search Console, you can see early progress on SEO even as the pages are just getting crawled by Google. Newer pages and sites not be positioned very highly in Google, but even at lower positions they will be getting eyeballs from Google’s billions of users. At those low positions they may not get meaningful clicks, but even so I think just seeing the impression count grow is the best early indicator of SEO growth.

3 stages of SEO

I like to think about SEO performance in terms of three levels.

  1. Impression – this is the first level of SEO growth, each eyeball on a URL in Google search is considered an impression. Obviously at higher positions the impression number on a keyword will be higher, but even at lower positions there will still be users that do search deeper into Google and will see the website’s listing. Impressions are indication that a website or page is in a consideration set for search and growth in this metric is positive and declines are very negative.
  2. Clicks – A click is when a user clicks a search result and go through to a website. (This number may not always match visit data in analytics or logs packages as Google is just measuring how many clicks there were on a specific listing regardless of whether the webpage even loads. Short visits will not be picked up by script based tracking systems). Clicks are a factor of impressions as well as clickthru rate. As clickthru rate from search improves, the clicks/users will grow without any subsequent change in impressions.
  3. Conversions – this is the final and most important result from SEO traffic and is how SEO campaigns should be judged. If clicks are arriving to a website from search but not converting, this is when a conversion rate optimization effort would come into play.

In summary, these are all stages in an SEO effort. Impressions means a website is on the field, and eligible to play. Clicks are hits and progress towards an ultimate goal, but what really counts is the winning that happens from conversions.

In addition to search reporting, there are other great features in Google Search Console.

  1. Coverage – there are many gaps in this reporting, but it is the only source to know how many pages of a website are included in Google’s index. On the inverse when pages are being dropped out of the index from an error or other issue this is the place to find that out.
  2. URL lookups – On a URL by URL basis, Google Search Console has the option to see whether a URL is indexed, whether Google accepts a canonical suggestion, and you can even see how the page was rendered by crawler.
  3. Data comparisons – There are now 16 months of data in Google Search Console, so there are many possible comparisons you can make with data. For example, traffic can be compared year over year or week over week and you can even drill into specific URL’s and queries.
  4. Filtering – This leads into one of the best primary features of Google Search Console. You can compare sets of URL’s, keywords, devices, countries and many more options. You no longer need to just trust aggregated charts, but you can dig into the numbers behind the graphs

With these reports, here are some important things to look at in Google Search Console.

  1. Brand vs non-brand – many people might assume that they are doing well in SEO based on just looking at the total number of organic visits coming to their site; however, what they may miss is that much of this could just be branded traffic. While brand traffic is great, it does not indicate SEO success. The click for brand arrived organically simply because the user clicked through from Google rather than directly typing the domain name into their browser. Growth of branded traffic will plateau at the natural penetration level of the brand. Branded SEO  traffic will only grow at the same rate that a brand expands its awareness. On the other hand, non-brand traffic could grow infinitely if a company continues to imbue creativity in their SEO efforts.

Knowing the ratio of brand to non-brand traffic is critical to assessing current progress on SEO efforts. For companies that have not yet invested in SEO, its not unreasonable that their brand vs non-brand ratio would be 90/10 whereas a company that has smaller brand footprint investing in SEO for many years might be closer to 20/80.

  • Comparison report – Using the comparison tool, it’s important to do frequent year over year checks on important pages to ensure that they are continuing to accrue more traffic than the prior year. The same should be done for brand and other important queries. There may not always be something to do about it, but it’s important to at least know.
  • Canonicals – As a canonical link is only a suggestion to Google, knowing whether those suggestions have been accepted by Google is very useful information. It is helpful to sort through URL’s receiving traffic to ensure that they match the expected URL’s and if there is a canonical issue.
  • Errors – Unfortunately there are many errors that Google Search Console reports on which aren’t really concerning, but there are issues that are worth addressing. Some of the ones that are important are schema, crawling and definitely anything related to robots files.

In reporting on anything related to a business, you always want to connect the outcomes to the input. HR is not measured on the quality of sales produced by the employees they hire, while sales people are not compensated directly based on the performance of the accounting team. Likewise, SEO should not be measured on how well sales teams close the deals created from organic traffic sources, but they should be tied to goals on how that organic traffic performs once it arrives on the website.

Tools which show the growth of traffic as well as the next point where that traffic goes is really all that is necessary in order to show success at SEO. Extraneous tools like keyword research, testing, and crawling tools are helpful but they don’t truly elucidate the performance of SEO.   

SEO

Site updates and migrations

Much like any offline business that likes to refresh the paint, reorganize a storefront, or renovate the same is applicable to online businesses or just the web presence of a company. However, when reconfiguring an online presence there is a lot more that must be considered especially when it comes to SEO.

Choosing a new technology vendor, folder structure, or just a homepage update will most likely have an impact in the way that Google or other search engines perceive a site. This isn’t to say that change should be avoided at all costs just to not upset the apple cart; rather, certain precautions should be included in the plan.

The biggest concern when updating a site is that search engines will no longer be able to find the old pages where they used to be and will also have a harder time finding the new pages. This will have a double impact of lost visibility on old pages and not recovering that visibility on new pages. Therefore, the goal in any update is to maintain the structure of the old and nimbly pass users and crawlers on to the new.

The best practice to achieve this goal is to set up permanent redirects from the old page location to new URL. Technically, this is referred to as a 301 redirect which will force browsers as well as crawlers to update the cache for the new URL. This is in contrast to a 302 redirect which is considered to be just a temporary redirect. Temporary redirects are very useful in passing users to a new URL as a result of a particular state (login cookie, time based, location) but the primary URL still remains the same in the memories of a browser and search engine.

Due to the complexities that might arise with a permanent redirect, a temporary redirect ends up as the default redirect option in many popular CMS (content management systems) tools. As a result, setting up this permanent redirect must be a deliberate exercise.

In theory, this redirect will also pass forward the earned equity that is acquired from external sites linking into a URL as well as internal links that used to link to the URL. Additionally, when a site is rolled over a new website or merged into an existing site this redirect should also help pass forward users as well as authority.

Steps to avoid breaking redirects

Regardless, even with this best practice followed to the letter there will still inevitably be complications with the redirects. Many of the issues stem from missed redirects which end up as broken pages. The most sure way to avoid missing any pages is to have a comprehensive list of every URL on a site placed  in a row on a spreadsheet and in a parallel column there will be a row with the new URL location.

Since the redirect file will not be a 1 to 1 old to new map and will likely use algorithmic rules on redirection, pages can still be missed. Before launching the new build of a website, the entire site should be crawled and verified that old URL’s correctly redirected to new URL’s.

Even with the best laid plans, there can still be issues with how redirection plays out. When a redirect instruction is given to a search engine, the engine is being requested to consider the new URL as being equal to the old URL. In practice, that decision is completely up to the search engine like all things related to their indexes.

As the redirect is a change being introduced to the search engine, it is possible that the request is not adopted, and the previous authority is not passed to the new URL. This is a not an insignificant risk and therefore complete site restructures and site migrations should not be taken lightly.  A full site migration should only be undertaken when absolutely necessary for legal purposes or branding needs. In these instances the primary business need will overshadow the potential loss that could come from a migration that leads to a loss in traffic from the migrated URL’s. If the business need could not trump a migration that leads to a loss in traffic, alternative plans should be considered.

I have overseen redirects that have managed to maintain traffic to a new location exactly as it was before, but I have also worked on projects where there was a 50%+ loss in traffic after the redirect. There is no real way to know whether the redirect will be accepted until it is rolled out.

Even redirects within a site have the potential to cause unfavorable adjustments in rankings and a full site rearchitecture should be undertaken carefully. Again, if traffic loss is an unacceptable cost to an overarching business need, then alternatives should be found. An option in this scenario is to use a staged approach where parts of the site are redirected and once traffic has stabilized, the next tranche of the site will be redirected. This process can continue tranche by site until the full site has been updated.

One major consideration to keep in mind with all redirects, is that the redirects likely have to be maintained in perpetuity. For as long as there are backlinks or users that might find the old URL, the redirects have to remain in place to avoid sending users and search crawlers to the wrong location.

These best practices to proceed cautiously when doing redirects and to maintain the redirect mapping forever will apply in any scenario where URL’s are changing, including a site update that just moves a handful of pages.

Even with all the associated risks, change should not be avoided just out of fear. Even if there are temporary drops in traffic, traffic may recover slower or there will be an even more substantial growth in traffic due to a better site structure. The primary takeaway on updates and migrations is that they should be done carefully and slow

SEO

Content is NOT king

In 1996 Bill Gates coined the phrase “Content is King” in an essay where he explained why Microsoft was partnering with NBC. He predicted that content providers would be in the best position to monetize the nascent Internet, and he wanted to put Microsoft in a position to benefit from what he perceived to be the greatest profit potential.

One of the exciting things about the Internet is that anyone with a PC and a modem can publish whatever content they can create. In a sense, the Internet is the multimedia equivalent of the photocopier. It allows material to be duplicated at low cost, no matter the size of the audience.

The Internet also allows information to be distributed worldwide at basically zero marginal cost to the publisher. Opportunities are remarkable, and many companies are laying plans to create content for the Internet.

On this specific topic, his prediction was only partially right. Yes, content producers can harness the vastness of the internet for financial gain, however some of the webs biggest companies earn vast sums from other’s content they just aggregate: Google, Facebook, Spotify, Netflix and the list goes on.

Low quality content

The fact that Bill Gates’ thesis was on the type of high quality exclusive content produced by a media conglomerate like NBC makes it even worse the way the phrase “content is king” has become a part marketing lexicon. All sorts of marketing books, conference presentations, and trainings exhort marketers to focus on content as it is the most important component of any marketing effort.

Somehow this idea that content must be created became a call to arms to just create without any bar of quality. And, marketers have fallen in line flooding the Internet with the kind of garbage that makes you dumber for reading/viewing it and wishing you could turn back the clock to reclaim the minutes you wasted. The world is awash in rambling audio, shaky video, and the worst travesty of all: poorly written long form content written for SEO.

Does it even work?

The belief is that somehow this content will draw people in from various channels and then once they are on the site they will be trapped into buying, calling, filling out a lead or whatever the KPI might be.

This problem is endemic across all verticals.  Do a search on Google for luxury hotels and then read the descriptions of the rooms. You will find more than a few examples of content that reads as if it was written by someone with a keyword goal. Try the same for local jewelry stores. It gets even worse when you look at websites for local small businesses.

Bad content isn’t confined to a specific marketing medium, but it is less prevalent on paid channels. Paid and brand marketers are smart enough to know that if you spend money on your marketing, it would defeat your purpose if customers were then repulsed with useless content.

Content  worked to the bone

To achieve this goal of crowning content as king, content producers (whether in-house or outsourced) are given the kinds of goals that might be given to a warehouse worker packing boxes. X amount of content needs to be produced per day which must contain Y words and use Z keywords.  This kind of content is not royal, it is indentured servants expected to work the magic it is simply not equipped to do.

Imagine if some of the greatest media stories of the last century had been written in this framework. Or if the TV shows of the previous decades had been walk and talk videos, would TV watching have become a family affair? Or if newspapers were filled with infographics that forced you to turn page after page just to get to the end and see all the advertisements.

Content is selling

I assume creating content for content’s sake works for some websites and products, but offline it would never be the preferred way of selling anything. Using low quality content as a teaser is like walking into a high end store and first being shown the cheap knockoffs as an enticement to keep going deeper into the establishment where someone might reveal something real.

Instead of declaring content to be king and then prescribing impossible requirements, I think content should be considered with the same gravitas as deploying a highly paid salesperson. Just like no business would allow themselves to be represented by a slurring sloppy drunk, they should feel the same by any content they produce.

As another corollary to sales, businesses are always diligent to track the performance of every salesperson and pay out appropriate commissions, content should be treated similarly. Content should never be deployed and then not measured. Unlike other marketing methods, content is inherently trackable.

User centered content

As with sales, a salesperson targets their approach with a user in mind, content needs to be written with the end user in mind. If there is no added value for a user, then the content should be deemed useless. Smart readers will see through the veil of sentences strung together for no purpose other than to garner a click.

I think we need to put an end to the idea that content is king and therefore writing content is an end unto itself rather than just a means to achieve a goal. Content is a business tool much like any other. content is correctly viewed as a tool, setting arbitrary goals on content seems even more ridiculous. Only a fool would mandate spending a set amount on paid advertising even if it never converted, but yet these kinds of objectives are commonplace around content.

Content is a tool

Not every tool is applicable in every scenario and content is not always required. Restaurants don’t need long form content describing their ingredients just so they might get SEO traffic. Not every doctors office website needs to replicate the medical library of WebMD. Small service-based businesses do not need a blog. Not every business needs an active social media following. This might be digital marketing heresy, but not all businesses even need a website. A local business will get more customers on Google My Business than they might on a poorly built website with weak content.

The resources that are wasted on bad content are better spent in channels that will actually reach the right customers and bring in revenue. Deployed effectively content can have an ROI in the thousands of percent over many years, but content with no purpose will never have any return. Content is a tremendously powerful tool in the hands of the right marketer. It should be wielded effectively and revered, not given a fake royal title and depressed to the role of an indentured servant.

SEO

SEO is top of the funnel.

Within marketing teams the most attention both good and bad is paid to the initiatives that cost significant sums of money. There will be frequent executive check-ins, quarterly reviews, detailed reporting and of course an attribution system that relies on something a lot more sophisticated that a gut belief. In fact, the entire company wide attribution system might be tightly tuned to have a deep line of sight into all paid efforts at the expense of other channels.

In this world view, organic search channels could end up with the short end of the stick both from a resourcing standpoint and on attribution. Everyone sort of has a belief that SEO works and is overall beneficial to the bottom but there’s not as strong of a drive to understand exactly how the traffic performs. Without accurate reporting executives and SEO teams could end falling back on useless metrics like rankings.

Even worse, a natural consequence is that when budgets are tight the channel that “kind of” works will fall behind the channel or channels with deep visibility. This leaves SEO teams always strapped for resources and scrambling to prove their efforts are worthwhile. In a weird script twist, the paid team only has to defend their budgets not their jobs while the SEO team without the budget has more existential issues.  

I think the root of this issue comes from a fundamental lack of understanding of where SEO fits in the marketing mix. Unlike a performance channel which is designed to go direct to conversion, SEO is a hybrid between branding and performance traffic. Judging it purely as a brand channel would overlook the tremendous impact it will have on the bottom line, but at the same time it can’t be viewed as just a performance channel.

SEO in the marketing mix?

By its very nature SEO will typically live a lot higher in the buyer funnel and in many cases users will not have any buying intent whatsoever. Stepping back from being marketers for a moment and thinking about our own search activities, much of it is just research and curiosity. Queries about weather, information, sports scores, stock prices and the link have no commercial intent.

On the flip side, organic traffic on the brand name will be a lot lower in the funnel, but to be totally honest, its not really even organic traffic. A brand should rank for its own brand name or something is very wrong.

The real SEO

True SEO efforts will have a site earning significant visibility on the long tail – the types of words that it would be hardly profitable to put paid dollars behind simply because it would take too long to convert. As the user moves down the funnel, their queries will skew closer to head terms or this is when they might engage with paid advertising.

Once the user gets to the bottom of the funnel and has buyer intent, they are more likely to click a paid ad – either on the brand name or retargeting on another site. A last click driven attribution system will then give 100% of the conversion credit to paid channel and completely discount all the organic clicks that happened over the prior time period.

Organic is an assist

Applying this to a sports metaphor, that last click might be the basketball slam dunk or the hockey goal, but it was all the other prior clicks that set up the perfect sequence for someone to bring the ball or puck home.

In reality, changing attribution systems is complex and unlikely to happen in a short period of time just because someone wants to. However, there is still no excuse for not having a better view on the performance of the organic channel and why to invest more into it. To that end, executives need to be aware of where SEO fits in the funnel and manage expectations accordingly.

To illustrate this with an example, let’s look at someone using search to plan a vacation.

The first query might be very general just to get ideas.

As they move further down the funnel they settle on a place to travel.

Assuming they know the dates they want to travel they start exploring transportation.

They also check out their hotel options.

Throughout this entire process they may have visited many various sites from local chambers of commerce, review sites, hotel sites, online travel agencies and aggregators.

As they finally decide on their options and get any necessary traveling partners on board, they are ready to purchase. They search directly for the site where they found the best deal.

If a paid ad comes up first, so be it; they are clicking. In the last click attribution world most less sophisticated sites use,  all of the credit would have gone to that very last click. The potentially months- worth of effort on planning that vacation through various pathways would have all fallen by the wayside from an attribution standpoint.

The ultimate goal of every site should be to use a multi-touch attribution model, but getting to this ideal is not as simple as changing a t-shirt. There is a significant amount of effort to gather data, build data lakes, test out models and buy the tools necessary to support the process.

There may never be a perfect way to attribute organic traffic, but at least with the knowledge of where SEO traffic really fits in the marketing mix, the best integrated marketing strategy can be built. SEO should carry the baton on all the deeper research efforts, but the baton can be passed to performance channel when customers are ready to pull out their credit cards.

SEO

Mobile SEO is just SEO

With the rise of mobile in the collective marketing consciousness, there are some that might think they need a separate mobile SEO strategy. For most sites, this approach would be entirely unnecessary and in fact might even force them to split their resources unnecessarily. At its core, any mobile marketing strategy is just a traditional web marketing effort made for a smaller screen.

When it comes to SEO this reality is the same. Google ranks websites on mobile the same way they do on a desktop. The nuances between SEO for desktop and mobile are in how users interact with search and websites after they click.

From a search perspective, websites that rank highly for a query on desktop are going to rank equally on a mobile screen; however, the downside is that there are less results meaning a number five slot is essentially like being on page two of results.

Google announced last year that they are using a mobile first index which isn’t as ominous as it sounds. This just means that they are ranking the content of  a website that is visible to a crawler which emulates a mobile browser. If a website were to have content that is only visible to desktop users AND the website was included in Google’s mobile first index, this desktop content would be invisible to Google.

Google’s motivation behind having a mobile (first) index is that in a mobile first world, webmasters should make every effort to make all of their content or at least their best content visible to mobile browsers. Google recommends having a mobile responsive site that will look and function great on a mobile, tablet or desktop environment. Longer menus should be collapsed rather than hidden completely. Content should be paginated or scaled rather than removed. Although it might take some effort to implement a responsive site, this approach might end up costing significantly less than having a mobile-only and a desktop-only site or worse just not having a great mobile experience.

In this light a mobile SEO strategy is really just optimizing content as anyone might do on a desktop only site, but ensure that the technology serving the content is friendly to mobile users.

User experience optimization

The second part of optimizing for mobile is where the focus is on the user, and this is far more critical. If a significant portion of the users are going to be using mobile devices, the entire layout and content have to be mobile user friendly. This means that buttons have to be easy to tap, images should load quickly, and the page should scale to the size of the screen.

Optimizing for user experience is a key part of any SEO strategy and this should be done for any user regardless of the device they use. In scenarios where there are more mobile than desktop users, optimizing for smaller devices should take precedence.

In this light, there are going to be sites that should not bother with any mobile optimization at all. If there are primarily desktop users – something like a complex web utility or a B2B tool, it may not be worth the effort and resources to optimize for mobile. Not to say if a website was started from scratch that mobile should not play a role, its more that in an existing website the tradeoffs to optimize for mobile may not be worth the expense.

I find it hard to believe that there will be sites that could completely ignore mobile, but if expenses and resources are a concern it is worthwhile to calculate the ROI before making a substantial investment in mobile.

SEO

Voice search is not going to take over text search

Given all the attention voice search gets in the media, you wouldn’t be alone in thinking that traditional search is going to cease to exist in the very near future. This prospect is terrifying for many that rely on organic or even paid search as a primary source of online users and customers.

In my opinion, we will never see a day where search has completely moved to voice only and there are number of reasons why.

Financial

First and foremost is the profit motive of Google and other search engines. If Google were to give only a single result in response to a voice query and that result was organic, Google could no longer monetize those queries. From a raw financial perspective, it is unlikely that Google would ever give up any of their juggernaut of paid advertising.

In addition, Google has increasingly moved in the direction of more paid search options and not less. Over the last few years, Google has placed more of search engine page layout in the hands of advertisers. Throughout the history of search and especially paid search, there have rarely been instances where there have been just one paid result for a query. Even if Google were to give a paid response (and it’s unclear how that might work) for a voice query, that would have to be just one paid advertiser and not the multiple they do now. Google would essentially be making the top advertiser the only advertiser.

Auction

This could possibly increase the price per click a site might pay to be that top advertiser, but it could just as well very likely destroy the auction as advertisers not willing to pay for the top spot would not participate in the auction at all.

Second, while there is a lot of pressure in the organic world to obtain a top ranking on a Google query, by no means do the lower ranking results get zero clicks. There are even clicks that happen on search result pages beyond the first one. This is because search is far from perfect. Even though uses artificial intelligence to read minds and understand what a user wants, many times even the user doesn’t even know what they are looking for.

Refined searches

A user will search, click a result, go back, click another result or even conduct another search in their quest to find the information they seek. The very diversity of multiple results is what help the user determine the best result. This process cannot ever be reproduced purely by voice simply because giving a single result to a query would mean that Google would have to know EXACTLY what the user wants.

This is a very easy thing to do when there’s only one possible result like a query on weather, numbers, directions or the names of sports players. This get much harder when the results are completely subjective like finding the best vacation spot, the latest play by play of a game or an opinion piece on the news.

Even with full personalization it is theoretically impossible to know exactly what a user wants unless the user explicitly said what they want. This of course happens at times, but usually that is the final query in a series.

Imagine this query train:  “Best hotel in Miami”, “Best Marriott hotel in Miami”, “Marriot hotel in Miami with free parking” “Marriott hotels with suites and free parking”, Marriott hotel with suites and free parking that have a lounge” and finally you might get to “address of Marriott Biscayne Bay Miami”

What you might notice is that all of the queries in that chain have multiple answers and would be completely impossible for Google to give just one response.

In the future, we might see voice search prompts after a query is done, but that might only be applicable in a place where a user can’t do a full desktop or mobile search like in a car. More than likely this whole clarification process will take so long and be so cumbersome, users would prefer a visual search with multiple responses rather than a smart device that prompts for clarifications.

Essentially, the number one reason that voice search is never going to replace multiple results is that voice must be perfect and perfect is never possible in our changing world. Perfect will always change as users realize how much information is possible to obtain by just conducting an online search for information.

Ten years ago who could have ever imagined that people would be able to ask their phones to read them a recipe or tell them whether they need to go out with an umbrella. In the future, we may be able to ask our devices if we have the flu based on a number of symptoms, but we are not going to be able to find the perfect gift idea for a special someone.

SEO

The head keyword is obsolete

Initially, Google’s core algorithms were focused on ranking its index of websites in an ordered list in relation to a user’s query. As the algorithms matured, Google incorporated artificial intelligence to try to better understand what a user is seeking and to help them search better.

(Tangential note: Google recently announced they have deployed a neural learning algorithm called BERT which is focused just on better query matching. )

With this goal in mind, Google uses a few very visible tools:

  1. “Did you mean” – When Google believes you meant to search for something other than what you typed, they will suggest another query. Depending on how certain they are of this other query, they might show the new query’s results by default or just give a clickable link to run that new query. This feature frequently comes up on misspells, but it will also be triggered by other signals like word combinations or location.
  2. Google suggest – As a user types a query, Google will be one step ahead of the user and try to determine what the user is seeking. Naturally, this will push users down certain query funnels that they might not have used if they were left to their own devices. Google suggest is constanty running and you can see how useful this is just by typing one letter into Google and not hitting enter. The engine for Google suggest comes from real time queries of other users and not simply a guess on what Google thinks users should be searching. This feature was recently dissected in a Wall Street Journal investigative report which claimed that Google scrubbed Suggest to push people down paths that they (Google) wants. In my opinion, this is highly unlikely, but nonetheless the power of this feature in directing search users.
  3.  Related queries – Very similar to Suggest, Google helps people discover new queries that might better help them to find what they seek, but instead of doing it in real time, Google just links to other queries that will kick off a new search.
  4. People also ask – This is a new feature in Google’s results which both kicks off a new search and will also (many times) display a featured snippet response to the question. This is a particularly interesting feature in Google search and highlights the answering feature of search that Google might prefer.

Ranking

In the early days of search and SEO, websites were very focused on ranking at the top of the results page on specific terms which were assumed to have high monthly search volume. Due to the immature (at the time) algorithms of search engines, users had been trained to only use those big head terms if they wanted to find useful results.

With all of Google’s features aimed at getting users to search better, I would argue that the entire idea of a head keyword is obsolete. Generally, super head terms like “hotel”, “car” “restaurant”  and similar will yield such useless results that Google already modifies the results for these queries based on location. This means that no single website could rank nationally (or globally) on these terms for all searches.

Head search is a waste of time

Additionally, if a user were to search these terms, Google would push them down a more specific path that better matches what they are seeking. I have also noticed that all of these search suggestions are completely personalized based on my past search behavior.

There was a time when Google personalized search results based on specific users past searches but they deemed that to be unsuccessful. Instead Google uses past search behavior to help a user search better.

Here’s an example of personalized “People also ask”. If I search for things to do nearby on a rainy day, Google will help me to refine my query with locations I have actually been.

If I conduct the same query in an incognito window, my suggested questions are completely different

The same would also apply for Google suggest. Suggested queries will change based on time of day:

Location

And past search behavior as I was just search food, the first suggestions are food related.

I have not seen related queries change that much, but that is likely because they are part of a query set. Once Google pushes a user into one query set the related queries are already relevant for that query and don’t need any further personalization.

What this all means, is that the idea of trying to rank on a single popular head term would likely not work out as intended by the website. Due to the non-specific nature of their search, the users that might click through on such results would just be tire kickers rather than actual buyers.

Rather than trying to rank on head terms, websites should focus on understanding their users just the same and target the keywords that they would search in reality. A novel concept for sure, targeting users instead of search engines.

SEO

SEO is a continuous process

Within large organizations where SEO efforts belong to a dedicated team, there’s a common misconception that SEO is an action that needs to be conducted as one-time event during a product process. It may be that products “need to be cleared with the SEO team” or once they are complete the are “sent to SEO” as if SEO just need to sprinkled like seasoning.

SEO is not marketing

Part of the reason that there are those who think SEO needs to happen at the end of a product building process is because SEO is considered to be marketing instead of product or engineering. Typically, when a product is ready to be launched it is shipped over to a product marketing team to create a marketing plan who then place responsibility with the marketing team to generate users. While at times product marketers might be participate in the product creation phase, it would never occur to anyone to bring traditional marketers into the tent at that time. There’s likely not much that a paid, email, or brand marketer might add to the product plan.

This is not the case at all for SEO. This misconception to bring SEO in at the end is founded on a common lack of understanding of what SEO is. Before understanding what SEO is, it’s important to clarify what it is not.

SEO is not magic – if there is no search interest for a particular topic, no amount of SEO can create search volume. There’s also no silver bullet to ever guarantee that a page or site will generate search traffic. Apply SEO processes to something does not equate to generating traffic.

SEO is not a singular task – How to optimize a page or site will vary widely depending on what is being optimized. Therefore there is no allowed time frame for how much SEO efforts there can be or should be.

SEO does not operate in a vacuum – The very processes of optimizing a page or site for search is not an independent action which can be divorced from everything else that goes into writing content, constructing a site and laying out a page.

With this in mind, it’s easy to elaborate what SEO is in the context of building something new. SEO is a process of building in best practices for how a piece of content or website will get the highest visibility and traffic from search engines. These best practices could be anything from doing research on what the best way to word content might be, how lengthy content should be, and even the grade level of the content.

These best practices can’t be sprinkled in after the content is already written. Sending something over to another team for an SEO approval after the fact is a recipe for creating internal conflict. The SEO team will provide recommendations that will make the product team who initiated request feel like the SEO team is creating unnecessary bottlenecks.

On the engineering side, sending something over the SEO team after the fact is even worse. Finding out that a page or website will not generate any search traffic after hundreds of hours have been invested is not ideal. The engineering team might want to shoot the messenger – the SEO team, but that will not change the reality.

Solution

The solution is to incorporate SEO best practices at every stage in any process. If search traffic is at all a priority knowing what the best practices for achieving that traffic should be paramount to include before it’s too late. Some of the decisions I have seen made prior to even knowing about the product have either caused expensive redos or have forced the product and engineering teams to accept that they will unlikely ever see search traffic to their pages.

One example was where a product intended to drive all of its users from organic search was built using client side scripting. It had not occurred to the team to check with anyone knowledgeable on SEO until the product had been completed – one year after it started!

The solutions offered at that time were to rebuild entirely, use a headless browser or create static versions of some of the content. All of these options were considered to be too expensive and they would be fixed in the beta version of the product. It took six years to revamp the product for SEO! Since the product didn’t generate any search traffic, it was unable to get the engineering resources it needed to fix the product. It was caught in a vicious cycle that would have been avoided had the product been built right from the start.

Where SEO can help

Some of the areas where the SEO team can provide input early on might be very simple at the outset but complex later on. These are some examples:

URL structure – there are best practices on URL’s that can be incorporated as the product is being built, but after launch this can be very complicated

Content structure – Knowing what content will achieve the most visibility from search before content is written is a lot better than writing content for search that will not generate traffic.

Forecasting – Many times product managers will make unrealistic forecasts for how much search traffic might utilize a particular product, but they may lack the knowledge to understand the inputs of their forecast. Partnering with someone who spends all of their working day in search could help them build a more bulletproof estimation on growth potential.

Engineering choices- As a product is being scoped this is the time when engineers weigh in on how they suggest the product be built. If there is an approach that is not friendly to search engines, someone knowledgeable about SEO could encourage it to be rejected immediately. This will allow the product and engineering teams to focus only on solutions that will achieve their desired objectives.

SEO process

SEO is an optimization and debugging process just like software engineering. The same way a product can’t be built and never debugged SEO should be a constant at all phases of development. Understanding that SEO is a process that contains a touch of engineering, product and marketing should lead to a different approach  and expectations of SEO.

SEO

SEO is not dead nor is it black magic

What is SEO?

When search engines were first unleashed on to the world, early technology adopters quickly realized the tremendous economic windfall that could be realized from search engines sending traffic to their websites. Initial versions of search engines were essentially  online yellow pages, but at the same time early web users were infinitely more curious than yellow page book readers and were apt to click on lots of result.

The convergence of a growing swath of users and the profit potential gave birth to search engine optimization. At its core, the efforts behind search engine optimization were as benign as a Wall Street trader hunting for a trend that will lead to profits. However, unlike stock trading search engine optimization earned itself a negative reputation as many times the people on the receiving end of these optimization strategies were regular people just trying to use the Internet.

Someone looking for a vendor on a search engine could potentially land on an unscrupulous website simply because that website employed optimization tactics that allowed them to compete against the legitimate vendors. In this case, the characterization of SEO (search engine optimization) is entirely fair; however, it has been more than a decade since these kinds of operators dominated the web.

Today’s search landscape is dominated nearly in entirety by Google and they spend their vast artificial intelligence resources in neutering illegitimate tactics to win search visibility. SEO in this paradigm is both incredibly different than it was in the early days and vastly more valuable for nearly every website.

SEO of today

The SEO individual or team is the person responsible for understanding what search engines seek in websites and for translating that knowledge into recommendations and actions for product managers and engineers creating web interfaces that will be consumed by search engines. In smaller companies, the person that understands SEO might also be the product manager or engineer, but in larger organizations this will be a role on its own.

Paralleled with the misconception that SEO is a dark art is the idea that Google and SEO practitioners are at odds with each other. This may have somewhat true many years ago, but not now. Today Google relies on SEO practioners to incorporate the best practices Google needs in order to have the best search engine. Without the conduit of SEO, Google would have to work much harder to index a web that is not in line with the way they crawl.

As an example, Google has repeatedly said for years that they crawl Javascript. However, they also wink-nod at the SEO community while sharing that they may not yet crawl Javascript as efficiently as they would like to. As a result, SEO practitioners have done Google the favor of steering web designer and product managers away from pure Javascript websites. This allows for much of the web to be still produced in a way that Google can efficiently index the web.

The value of SEO

The collective value of all organic traffic in the world is a $Trillion+ opportunity that cannot and should not be neglected. For many websites and products, organic is one of the only ways to generate web traffic – short of building a massive brand that drives direct traffic. Even building a brand is prohibitively expensive and may never be profitable. Organic search efforts on the other hand is significantly less costly than any other acquisition channel.  

Google is not just going to automatically start sending boatloads free traffic to a website just because it exists. One day that may be the case, but we are a long ways from that. The solution is SEO.

Using SEO methodology, websites will construct a website in the ways that will most effectively maximize their visibility in organic search.

Relying on someone or multiple that will help guide the building of a website that will best positioned for search traffic will ensure that users are not being left on the table. Without SEO, a site would just be relying on dumb luck and Google’s good graces.

SEO in the future

For as long as people use search engines to find information, there will be a need for SEO efforts. Search is very much zero sum, so if one site is getting the click inevitably another site can’t. One day there may be even more artificial intelligence involved in the search ranking process which will make optimization even harder, but why would a website give into the AI? Even in that world, they will want to best understand how that algorithm works and try to put their best efforts into getting the traffic.

People complaining that SEO is only getting harder is a byproduct of all the AI that is already included in the algorithm. Whereas early in the history of search and SEO it was somewhat easy to “game” search with creative strategies or budget, AI and better search algorithms have negated these tactics.

Google’s algorithms continue to improve to an ultimate goal of ranking the web as a human might. SEO becoming more difficult means that the loopholes and hacks that are a feature of a software driven ranking will continue to close as Google becomes smarter. Yet, SEO is still necessary because someone does need to translate the search engine’s desired state into a coherent SEO effort.

SEO will never cease to exist; rather the efforts that make up SEO will change.

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