In this edition of Digital Marketing Roundtable, we look at Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and I’m joined by 5 leading figures within this space from across Europe. They are:
– Federico Rebeschini (Global Head of SEO at Luxottica)
– Asad Imam (Head of SEO at Loveholidays)
– Michelle Wilding-Baker (Senior Marketing Consultant at Oh Mishy)
– Lukasz Zelezny (SEO Consultant, ex SEO Director at ZPG)
– Olga Szoke (Head of SEO at Tourlane)
Here’s how it went down…
Alex Marriner (AM): Thanks for joining me today. What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in SEO during your career?
Federico: I’ve seen the social media SEO craziness take the industry by storm and then suddenly disappear when it was obvious social media links were not that impactful. At one-point Facebook links (not mentioning google+) was the most important ranking factor, and SEO managers, me included, had to spend their time working more on social media strategies than pure SEO activities.
Asad: The biggest change for me is the transition from spam being rewarded to genuine (on most occasions) quality content being rewarded. My SEO career has been guided by many dos and don’ts that Google has almost forced everyone to follow through a series of updates and penalties.
Michelle: I can still vividly recall Google’s Panda algorithm update rolling out in February 2011. So many content farms went out of business overnight as spam, thin, duplicate content was put to bed. Penguin soon followed to tackle manipulative linking. However, more recently the string of Core updates in the last year has truly shaken up the industry; a mix of speculative chatter and data-backed analysis ensues.
Lukasz: Constant algorithm changes and updates around Google TOS. Some things that were part of SEO tactics were ok in the past. Now, these things are not ok. Some examples can be guest blog posts or directories. In early 2000 that was absolutely fine to submit a website to directories. In 2011-2012 guest blog posts were used extensively for link building. Today in 2019 I would not recommend these tactics at all as its the fastest way to penalty.
Olga: There have been a lot of changes in SEO over the years. These changes are especially true if you think about how many times the search engine result pages have changed since 2010, or the rise of the Knowledge Graph in 2012. Every year, Google makes hundreds of changes to their algorithm, and the aim of any update is always to improve the relevance and quality of the search results, with most changes focusing on one or more particular features. Two words have been the driving wheels of all areas of SEO: QUALITY (E-A-T) and RELEVANCE.
Nowadays a solid technical set-up is a must. I think the biggest change I have seen in the industry is the shift towards a more user-centric approach. Mobile prioritisation, high-quality content, and natural link acquisition will earn you the authority you need to be competitive. SEO is a long-term investment, where gimmicky content strategy and corner-cutting link building tactics just won’t cut it anymore.
AM: Why is voice search taking so long to gain traction?
Federico: You can’t do that much with voice search apart from asking for the weather, the latest news, or who’s Winston Churchill. We’ll talk about it again when you’ll trust your voice assistant to choose the right evening dress for your body shape or the right boutique hotel in Nepal for that holiday of your dreams.
Michelle: In my experience, it’s not simple to implement advanced elements on platforms in terms of cost, duration and the resource to do it. It’s difficult to track performance and be able to show value back to decision makers; currently also still fiddly to identify voice queries in Google Search Console without the rumoured dedicated report that we’re all waiting for. Also, if you look at how people search… it’s not practical for 100 people on the tube to all be asking their search query out loud due to courtesy and/or privacy. In saying that, I do encourage embracing conversational search as it’s come a long way. More people are using it and AI is making it very accurate. And schema mark-up has a wealth of SEO benefits beyond aiding voice search.
Lukasz: Because voice search is crap 🙂 I am always saying that voice search will never take over typing/writing. Imagine… its Monday, 08:00 am, on the train from Dagenham to Central London and everyone is using voice search. Or voice search in the office. I would go completely mad listening for 8 hours people talking with computers and mobiles. Voice search is a gimmick. I had Alexa and after few days I turned this off. During these test-days I was mostly asking some really stupid questions like “Alexa, do you have a boyfriend?” Or “Alexa would you lie to me?”. I found that device pointless. But let’s get serious here… typing and writing has a level of privacy. Nobody hears what you are writing about until they get next to you to see your screen. Also, voice recognition is far from perfection. English is not my mother tongue and I know how hard is to use voice search on my Samsung TV to find something on YouTube. I almost always need to switch to typing.
Olga: One limitation with voice is the accuracy in speech recognition. Commands are easily misinterpreted, and even the most advanced audio processing still relegates us to a slower, overenunciated speech. Voice is just one way for users to communicate their intent, but its suitability very much depends on the situation and the type of the query. It works at its best when a query has a single and precise response, or in specific scenarios such as driving. In other circumstances, a standard web or mobile interface is more efficient.
AM: What’s your biggest hurdle when it comes to doing great SEO?
Federico: Convince the business that hiring an SEO Manager is not enough to fix their Google issue, but they will also need to allocate other company employees’ time to support the requests coming from the SEO team.
Asad: Amongst the HiPPOs (highest paid person in the office) there’s still an issue where they measure SEOs success based on rankings of a few hero terms. This thinking has to stop. If you are not 10th the biggest fashion retailer online in the country, then don’t expect to rank on-page for these hero terms. Other than that, accurately measuring ROI for SEO still comes in the way of great SEO.
Michelle: Definitely technical SEO – which is such an integral part of SEO. It takes time and headcount to remedy existing issues, make improvements as well as trying tests and new technologies. Getting stakeholder buy-in and the resource required to fix problems is a challenge, as the benefit isn’t always quantifiable, or uplift can be very long burn. It’s usually when algorithms are updated that quick band-aid fixes or the lack of remedying anything at all is exposed. Great SEO is a combination of relevant, quality content and a technically sound site, and the latter shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Lukasz: Time. Clients often want immediate results. I am working with some customers for months and years. And they see and understand that SEO is a marathon rather than a sprint. It needs time because it needs to be done right. Another thing that makes me really upset is when I am hearing some business owners or even mid-size companies talking about domain or CMS migration and they are doing this without SEO support. Often, they are saying “well we will need SEO but not yet as we are doing the migration first”. This is a huge mistake because a migration without SEO in consideration may kill a significant chunk of revenue and traffic.
Olga: Right now, my biggest hurdle is the lack of brand awareness to leverage for link acquisition and media coverage. If you’re trying to get media coverage in a big publication, it helps greatly if they’ve already heard of your brand or if you have a bunch of data to analyse and create data led story.
Data and great storytelling go hand-in-hand. When you are a young start-up, you have limited data and little or no brand awareness which makes link acquisition more challenging.
AM: What are the biggest opportunities & threats to SEO right now?
Federico: Google gives, Google takes. It’s no mystery it’s more difficult every day – especially on a mobile device – to spot a natural result. But while the traffic from Google will keep shrinking, new search bars keep showing up where you can practice your SEO skills and drive additional streams or revenue. From YouTube to Amazon, wherever there’s a search bar there’s something you can do to bend the results towards your products.
Asad: The biggest opportunity and threat is the same for me. It’s Google’s ambition to become an answer engine than a search engine. While it opens opportunities for a whole new set of strategies, it’s making a lot of current perfectly valid strategies redundant.
Michelle: Structured data and site speed are a big opportunity. Don’t skip marking up content for both bots and human eyeballs to understand topical relationships and digest the information, and do this in the fastest possible way for processing. Make it a priority to view code every quarter and try to improve on it.
Secondly, SEO has become more than just Google or ranking in Google’s 10 blue links. Other search engines exist (Bing, Yandex, Baidu et al) and devices (mobile, home assistants et al). If you have an app, you need to be on top in the app’s store; likewise, if your products are on Amazon or Apple. One must be visible where their audience is searching and provide a slick experience in return.
A big threat to our industry is the rise of no-click organic searches. As the presence of featured snippets and micro search engines (e.g. Google’s Hotel Finder) increases and searcher behaviours shift, trends show that organic UK/EU clickthrough rates have declined by almost 10% in two years (45% to 36.7%), according to Rand Fishkin’s 2018 vs 2016 SERP analysis using JumpShot.
Another threat is the outdated tactics from eight years ago that were once okay and worked are still being voiced as best practise and followed upon. In the end, these tactics and lack of focusing on user relevance only harms website performance and the credibility of SEO both as a marketing channel and as a profession.
Lukasz: Opportunities are that more people are aware of how powerful SEO is. Start-ups, small/mid-size companies, one-man bands. There are fewer people who want to be #1 on “Loans” on Google in next 2 weeks 🙂
Threats – I don’t see much maybe except for AMPs. Accelerated Mobile Pages I consider as a threat as websites using AMPs are technically serving content on Google infrastructure.
Olga: I think opportunities and challenges can be different based on what industry you are in. In the online travel space, Google leaves little real estate on the 1st page for businesses providing flights, hotels, maps, trips. Having said that, one of the advantages of working at a start-up is flat hierarchies, as opposed to a more pyramidal structure in more traditional companies. This organisation, in turn, allows more flexibility to target untapped areas without the limitation of going through unnecessary bureaucracy.
AM: If you had a crystal ball, what are your predictions for SEO and how do you think it will look in 5 years’ time?
Federico: Websites that rely on client-side scripting and single page apps will grow in number, meaning that SEO technical skills will become more important than ever and that just to make sure your website is being indexed. Of course, Google will improve the way that content is understood, but will keep struggling keeping pace. Link building won’t change much, although I expect pure mentions will grow in importance while actual links will decrease their value. I don’t expect voice search to be meaningful yet.
Asad: In 5 years, I believe lines between a search engine and answer engine will be very blurred. We will be living in a world search will increasingly function with the absence of queries. Think Google lense searches.
Michelle: Five years is a very, very long time away! SERP personalisation is no doubt only going to get better as algorithms advance thanks to machine learning/AI. I think growing branded search will become very key, considering 54% of UK/EU mobile searches receive no clicks. Brand could be a way to stand out, diversify strategies and show trust through search volume demand.
Lukasz: Very similar to where we are now. Google may want to try entering other markets like they were trying with credit cards comparison and car insurances comparison a few years ago. Aside from that organic listing will be still there as this is a root of how search engine works. On the other hand we, SEOs will need to learn faster as the SEO industry has fast dynamics.
Olga: With AI, deep learning and natural language processing search algorithms will only become more complex and more diverse, eventually being able to form conclusions far more advanced than any human being can. Google is not only looking at links and keywords on a page, but also user intent. It understands the meaning behind user queries and understands the meaning behind a piece of content – whether it’s text-based or visual. SEO professionals have to do a better job at creating content that meets user intent and put themselves in the shoes of the user when developing a campaign instead of thinking about what kind of links they should build, or what type of keyword density they should be aiming for.
AM: How can those working in SEO prepare themselves to stay at the top of their game?
Federico: SEO Managers will need to diversify their trade to cover more platforms and not only Google. New opportunities will arise for those who’ll focus on optimizing the personal brand of other people and for those that will focus their craft on sensitive data deletion on behalf of other companies/entities.
Asad: Many things and it’s difficult to summarise here. One thing I would do is educate the length and breadth of your company that they need to change the way they about SEO and that it’s perfectly normal to expect less clicks yet be relevant and successful in search.
Michelle: SEO is a science, but it’s also an experiment. What works in one industry may not work for a different industry, page type or site. It’s definitely a rapidly evolving and exciting career path where webmaster guidelines, behaviours and technology change. So definitely build your own site and test away new tactics and tech. Constantly learn; I’m currently studying some web development and advanced Google Data Studio bits myself. And read up on the latest industry news, attend events, form your own opinions and most importantly try new things.
Lukasz: Always learn. Read about new things. These don’t have to be about SEO. Try to understand the basics of coding, statistics. Try to find other analytical skills. Tableau and Data Studio platforms are these days often a must in mid/large size companies. Without them, it’s hard to be what everyone used to call number-focused and data-driven. Also, invest in your personal branding. Try to attend conferences as a speaker. Share your knowledge on meetups. Join groups on Facebook. Don’t underestimate LinkedIn – it’s a powerful social media channel to find fantastic business opportunities.
Olga: SEOs will need to step up their game by understanding search intent, optimising for more specific search devices, and eventually voice searches. Instead of thinking from the perspective of a search engine, you must think as the person typing the query on the search engine.
It is fundamental that we get smarter at keyword research as well, tying in content with search intent, and injecting more meaning into it.
Artistic professionals will have to tread where content writers have in the past: they’ll have to think about the optimisation of visual content for SEO, as it will become increasingly more important.
Some exceptional insight there from some true pros of the SEO world. Whether you work within Digital Marketing or SEO specifically, I hope you’ve gained some knowledge to take back and put into practice.
Many thanks again for the 5 who contributed towards this piece. If you’d like to get in touch with any of them, they can be found on LinkedIn, and below are links to their profiles.
Keep your eyes peeled for future editions of Digital Marketing Roundtable hosted by Acquire Digital Talent where I’ll be speaking to channel experts within other areas of Digital Marketing.
Thanks for reading!