The conference presence has been strong with the DragonSearch team this season, and in the last few months, I’ve had the pleasure of joining my fellow Dragons at both SMX East and MozCon. As a long-time attendee to SMX East (I think this was my sixth time at the event) and a first-time participant in MozCon, I saw striking differences in the way each was handled:
Of the two, MozCon was definitely the more “hip”, with sleek, entertaining presentations, charismatic speakers, and a lot of laughter. The convention also integrated a strong message of gender equality, and also brought some heart into the event by hosting an after-hours Ignite event, filled with touching and inspiring (read: often hilarious) stories of gained wisdom and life-changing experiences.
The sessions themselves were carefully constructed, well executed, and included plenty of big-time industry leaders. They focused strongly on current best practices and high-level concepts, more so than statistics, data, or case studies. For example, if you were a PPC expert, you may have zoned out a bit during the session titled, “Get Hired to Do SEO”. That being said, there was plenty to see here, and tons to be learned.
MozCon is a great place to bring your entire digital marketing team to help broaden their views and build a larger-picture understanding on how each team member contributes to the marketing vehicle. But for the specialist, bear in mind that the topics appealed best to a generalist in digital marketing, rather than someone who specializes in a specific area.
While not as refined in its presentation as MozCon, SMX East lends itself to a wide variety of networking opportunities. It’s hard to walk down the hallway between sessions without recognizing a face or two, and with so many more presenters at SMX East than MozCon, they’re not quite as swamped with people who are dying to talk to them — so you get a chance to shake hands and say hi. There’s long breaks between each session that you can use to look at vendors, chat about, get refreshments, or just catch up on some last-minute e-mails in your next session room (the wireless was the best it’s been, by the way), and all of this lends itself to a relaxed pace and a social environment.
Individual sessions are high quality, but they lacked the polish of MozCon’s presentations. However, SMX East is, “Choose Your Own Adventure” — you pick what’s most relevant to you, as well as your level of advancement, and choose sessions tailored to those needs. If you don’t like the current presenter, you’re free to switch to a different room or just wait a few minutes, since most sessions had four speakers instead of just one long presentation. And while there is some high-level content (and a few presenters that recycled a lot of their MozCon deck for SMX), the presenters were much more willing to get down to tacks — which means data, case studies, and “how-to” presentations.
Topics & Takeaways
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The fact that SEO has been moving in a more marketing-driven direction in recent days was never so apparent as it was at these conferences. The trendy, technical topics covered at SMX and MozCon this year focused more around enhancing marketing efforts and brand presence in SERPS, and less on things like canonical links and rel=”next” tags. However, the role of technical SEO also has a daunting and promising future full of devices, machine learning, and The Internet of Things.
The Knowledge Graph: Placement on the knowledge graph has become a Holy Grail for technical SEO’s. Marshall Simmonds (Define Media Group) points out that 24% of search results are not showing knowledge graph articles now; the potential to turn this into branding opportunities and traffic is enormous. Populating your website with schema markup, developing profiles on Wikipedia and Wikidata, and building citations across the web are key to nurturing your entry. Tony Edward (EliteSEM) recommends focusing your schema efforts on local business markup, and also adding rel=”publisher” linking via G+. He also suggested using the “Feedback” link shown below each knowledge graph article to proactively suggest changes and additions to your article. Additionally, expect to see a lot more happening with JSON-LD, and where it’s used in the future.
Clickthrough Rates (CTR): High rankings does not necessarily equal more clicks. Sculpting your listing in SERP for maximum clickthrough rates has become a powerful, data-driven art. At SMX, Casie Gillette (KoMarketing) told us how she improved traffic and conversions to a site simply by retargeting from “Cabinets” to “Industrial Cabinets”. Chris Pinkerton (Mediative) reminds us that front-loading keywords in SERP titles, as well as using words such as “review” and “rating” for products and business pages, helps draw clicks to your listing. Jaimie Abir (New York Times) reported that adding structured data led to a 27% increase in organic search traffic when she applied it to the recipe section of their site, a point supported by research from Chis Pinkerton, which showed that rich snippets draw a searcher’s eyes there first (and then either above or below that listing). When targeting mobile keywords, Bill Hunt (Back Azimuth Consulting) tells us that mobile searches are much more likely to be concise, and to use abbreviations. As a last point, Ehren Reilly (Glassdoor) shared tips on getting our traffic back from Google’s direct answers in SERP: when low relevance on shows with direct answers, clickthroughs to your site can double. Get your content in that box with a useful, authoritative, but incomplete answer — then make them click through to get the next step.
Response Codes: Using the right response codes at critical times can make or break your website. Christine Smith (IBM) shared a cautionary tale of website disaster when servers did not deliver a 503 code while in maintenance mode. Mike King (iPullRank) also points out that Google is properly handling redirects we never think about, like 304’s and 307’s. It’s time to sharpen our swords!
Data: Our data’s health and variety is shrinking, even as the sample sizes grow and diversify. Rand Fishkin (Moz) lamented the prevalence of “dark search” – where all the necessary info is drawn from the search results (or the answer box), and no clicks happen. Increasingly, search is growing, but people are not moving beyond the search engine to the websites providing the data and value they seek. As Marshall Simmonds points out, data can be lost or corrupted from (for example) apps, browsers, image search, secure search, misinformation, mobile devices, and from HTTP sites that do not pass along the meta referrer tag. More often than not, when iOS/Android provides a new release, referral data is screwed up. and while Google Search Console data trends accurately, the numbers never seem to match up. And finally, as Bing goes “not provided”, SEO’s have lost their last source of keyword data.
Also: Wondering if Google Analytics have any plans to fight referral spam? Adam Singer (Google) said at MozCon that Google was working on it. Months later, Gary Illyes (also Google) said the same thing at SMX. Don’t hold your breath.
Organic Search: The Internet is diversifying beyond search. For some verticals, Rand Fishkin has found that social traffic is beginning to creep up on organic search in total volume, and Michael Simmonds reports that users are getting their news through Twitter and direct navigation. Emily Grossman (Mobile Moxie) has found that Apple is hijacking search results altogether — using its search products to cut out the web to provide as much information as it can before a search is done. And when a search is being done, Apple is predicting their queries and suggesting results before the search is actually completed. Cindy Krum (Mobile Moxie) was on the same page, pointing out that while voice recognition is advancing, devices and Google are trying to predict what you need so you never have to talk. Speaking of voice recognition, Google can now listen to your TV show and give you information on the episode you’re currently watching. Things are getting creepy!
To compound things, search is moving away from organic results even when a search is conducted. Dr. Pete Meyers (Moz — not actually a doctor) predicts that we will see SERPS begin to disappear by 2020, replaced by Google-created content, content scraped from websites, carousels, ads, and similar results. The increasing presence of carousels in search is resulting in an increase in top-heavy search behavior — the user spends more time looking at the carousel (but not clicking on it) and less scrolling through the SERPs, according to Chris Pinkerton. He also reports that while 60% of users were fixated on the local pack during their 2015 study, 80% showed the same behavior in 2014. Oh, and as Michael Simmonds said several times at both MozCon and SMX: Image search is very, very dead.
Google Algorithms: Nothing, or almost nothing, was said about the following algorithms at any session I attended: Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird, Pigeon, or the HTTPS boost.
Digital & Business Strategy
“Build the thing that kills us, or someone else will.” – Rand Fishkin
Being always willing to adapt and change with the digital landscape was a theme across both Moz and SMX. “Smart companies disrupt themselves,” Wil Reynolds (Seer) told us, stalking the Moz stage with a sense of urgency. “Be ready at any moment to give up what you are, for what you might become.” The smartest companies are those that are willing to reinvent themselves as the company that would otherwise beat them. Sometimes these changes are new and innovative; other times, effective change means getting back to basics or looking at old tools with young eyes.
Productivity: On average, we’re interrupted seven times an hour, and 80% of those interruptions offer us little value, reports Marta Turek (ROI DNA). We check our e-mail up to 50 times a day, and nearly half (49%) of people agree that most of the meetings they have are time-wasters. It takes 21 days to develop a new habit: use that knowledge to build three-week segments where you train yourself into new goals, like creating blocked-off time where work can be uninterrupted. Switch off all popups and sources of interruption and get things done. While you’re at it, set 30 minutes aside every day to update your skills to keep yourself in top working shape.
Habit-Building: Speaking of habits, you can build them with your users too. Wil Reynolds uses Amazon Prime as an example — their client base has become so invested in the brand that fewer than 1% of Prime members are likely to consider other sites during the same online session (and they have a 74% conversion rate). Serve your users well, and seeking your brand will become second nature to them. For example, Airbnb has built such strong relationships with their visitors that branded search has taken over the industry vertical; they don’t rank for top keywords, the keywords rank for them. Think: “Kleenex”, “Scotch Tape”, or “Googling” something — their brand has become synonymous with the product.
E-Mail: Old doesn’t always mean busted; Rand Fishkin says that e-mail and SEO are the leaders in ROI. And, as Cara Harshman (Optimizely) insightfully points out, e-mail has evolved with the industry, becoming a powerful tool for retargeting and personalization in marketing. Tamara Gielen (TamaraGielen.com) encourages us to use e-mail to target users who’ve abandoned their shopping carts, and to upsell, garner reviews, and market content via “curiosity bait” (such as data, surveys, or white papers). And, she says, give them three things to do; people like things in threes.
CRO: You can increase the size of the nozzle of your water hose all you want — if you don’t have more water coming in the hose, no extra will come out. While more traffic is often a good thing, Leslie To (3Q Digital) says that closing the gap between conversions and non-converters is the best way to grow revenue. Purna Virji (Bing) advises us to look beyond the question, “Why didn’t the user convert?” and ask yourself, “What did they do next?” to gain insights on converting them in the future. She recommends UserTesting.com as an expensive, time-consuming, but also (usually) worthwhile tool and bandwidth investment for your team. (Somehow, she sounded more convincing than I just did.) CRO and conversion volume should also guide your site update schedule — but in the end, you’ll have to update your site sooner or later.
Ignoring Office Politics: When it comes to the role of an SEO in a company, Ian Lurie (Portent) said it best: “Our job isn’t about being right; it’s about being understood.” Leslie To builds on that by telling us that you can be the best SEO ever, but if you can’t navigate your organization, you won’t do as well as you should. While office politics are challenging — sometimes infuriating — for a conscientious SEO, it’s important to develop our soft skills and treat the team like a family. It also doesn’t hurt to work a little inter-office persona data into our strategy: Adam Proehl (NordicClick) points out that C-Level is going to care most about ROI, competition, risks versus upsides, visuals, and emotional triggers. Conversely, the IT department will want to know why it matters and where it fits in with their other priorities, responding best to proof and evidence when working with you. Learn how to work with them.
It’s finally come: Dr Pete reports that Mobile passed 50% of searches this year (at 51%). And while it continues to grow, Rand Fishkin tells us that desktop use has plateaued, neither growing nor shrinking. As mobile traffic rises, mobile devices increases in their number and variety, and Google shifts its prioritization from desktop to mobile users. We’re seeing a tectonic shift in the SEO and digital marketing landscapes.
Cindy Krum also recounted how search engines are beginning to understand how to deliver search results. For example, Google is now using your mobile device’s physical location to deliver custom search results when you’re on your desktop or laptop. Adam Singer advises us to think of the funnel as a multidevice platform, and assume that the user is engaging in sequential screening and using multiple devices (ex: a desktop and a mobile phone) simultaneously to accomplish a task.
Desktop-Centered Design: As the majority of the online audience shifts to mobile, Google is following suit. Dr. Pete points out that Google’s search results are now in mobile-first design, and responsive to desktop. Comments from Duane Forrester (Bing) suggest that Bing is still prioritizing desktop traffic (they consider above-the-fold content when crawling a page, for example), but that Bing is certainly paying attention to mobile behaviors. For example, Bing found that their users will scroll down on the page on desktop, but not on mobile devices.
Beyond SEO, Bryant Garvin (BryantGarvin.com) warns us of the dangers of ignoring mobile design for our users. It’s very common for a website to gain 60% of its clicks or more from mobile sources, while only drawing 15% of its conversions. Very small changes to improve mobile can have a tremendous impact in turning this around. For example, he updated forms on one website to include input type=”tel” on all number field in mobile forms, including credit card fields, and input type=”email” for all e-mail fields. These changes — with no other changes made at all, brought mobile conversion rates up from .6% to 1.4%. You can look at that as one small step for a digital marketer, but when you more than double conversions for a business, the client’s going to see a giant leap.
Brand & Community
More than ever before, social, brand, and reputation management have joined forces to create a powerful presence for Digital Marketing. At MozCon, Dana DiTomaso (Kick Point) said that a company’s brand is much more than simply its promise — it’s the future of marketing. With Matthew Brown (Moz) reporting that 79% of organizations are shifting their focus to branded content. As this happens, no brand is safe — Lexi Mills (Dynamo) told us how Reddit has lost 27% of its year-over year traffic. In the words of Wil Reynolds: “Be paranoid.”
Social Media is having a profound impact on society. Courtney Seiter (Buffer) said that social media is making us feel lonely, isolated, and depressed as we compare our regular days to other people’s best ones. 42% of mothers experience “Pinterest Stress”, and 74% of girls use social media to make themselves look cooler. As we continue to develop our social media marketing strategies, understanding the needs and sentiments that people feel on each social channel will help us enormously in creating more effective strategies. Matthew Brown recommends publishing content for the streams that work to best information the best way for that particular content piece. But don’t expect it to live on that network alone — as it goes viral, a tweet becomes a Facebook share, a pin, an e-mail, and so on.
Your Audience: Dana DiTomaso told us that good marketing feels right, to which Marty Weintraub (AimClear) later added, “Don’t make people feel like ‘I hit that page, and I’m going to be abused.'” The takeaway a potential customer has from a marketing experience can be very polarizing. Wil Reynolds tells us the choice is to make people feel great, or make them feel manipulated. Building a strong brand is powerful for gaining traffic and business — and when they see your brand in a search, that’s very difficult to disrupt.
Ultimately, your marketing strategy should be about your audience. Courtney Seiter notes that, face-to-face, people spend 40% of their time talking about themselves, but that number jumps to 80% when they’re online. Get your community involved by making it about them, and getting their opinion on things. Attack what most people take for granted — we know what colors are, right? Well, what color is this dress? (That’ll keep ’em talking for a while!) As for the alternative, Wil Reynolds put it in a nutshell: “Brand equals pleasing customers and going the extra mile. They don’t want to get to know your CEO.”
Communities: Building communities is tremendously difficult, tremendously valuable, and very unlikely to actually happen. Richard Millington (FeverBee) did a study of 957 communities — only 5 survived. The ones that made it each had a few basic things in common:
- The leaders invited their friends in to help make it successful
- They had a capable, credible founder who created content, interviewed experts, and/or participated in other, existing groups
- The community was immediately relevant to its new members, giving them something to do right away, and getting them hooked within 15 minutes
- There was a way for community members to gradually earn influence, power, and/or autonomy over time
- There was a social element that allowed users to make friends and come back to participate more, or even introduced new members to one another in an effective way
Additionally, the communities were not built around what its creators wanted the members to do. Instead, they were the answer to a problem or opportunity the creator knew existed — one that helped others explore a passion they were curious about. Even when you do everything right, 40-90% of members will be one-post wonders. And interestingly enough, a lot of the communities that survived were ugly – so often that he treated it like a best practice!
Faces: They’re more powerful than ever before. According to Courtney Seiter, Instagram alone has 300 million photos with the tag #selfies, and Facebook photos with faces gain 38% more likes, and 32% more comments. But the power of faces is more fundamental than a marketing strategy — Doctors who can see the faces of their patients, for example, are more sympathetic than those who cannot. How can you give your brand a face?
Similarly, emoji’s are alive and well. 74% of users use emoji’s and 6 billion of them are thrown around each day. They’re being used to replace slang and change our language patterns. Curious how they’re being used? Instagram has an index that lets you search their usage volume.
YouTube: Marshall Simmonds was particularly critical of YouTube – both at MozCon and at SMX. He reports that only 0.08% of traffic that goes out to YouTube comes back to your website, and that YouTube is purely a branding experience. But while traffic from YouTube is dead, hosting the video on your own site, with a transcript, can be powerful for ranking and traffic (but then again, that would work no matter how the video was displayed). If you do decide to make YouTube videos, Casie Gillette recommends taking a how-to approach, as queries related to that segment grew by 70% last year. Grant Simmons (Homes.com, and a VERY smart guy, by the way) also cited location-based videos as as a powerful and largely untapped frontier for new video content.
Content strategy has gotten much harder these days. The volume of available content online has ensured that virtually every general topic has already been covered, ad nauseum, but about a billion competitors. As it does, the need for resourcefulness, high-quality niche content, and accurate measurement becomes critical. However, as Adrian Vender (Ignite Marketing) observes, “We’re not very good at understanding how to measure content success.”
Kristina Halvorson (Brain Traffic) recommends taking your time and preparing before launching your content strategy. As smart questions now, and avoid those 11th-hour meltdowns later on. Build checklists that keep things running smoothly to help to avoid the most common pitfalls. And never be without something to write: Grant Simmons empathizes the value of the free demographic research and studies that are provided by entities such as census.gov, fedstats.gov, and bls.gov. As for thin (read:Panda-vulnerable) content, he recommends you cull out the ones that have no value and consolidate too-similar pages of value into one page. Alternatively, you could adopt Mike King‘s (iPullRank) philosophy: “Panda is an opportunity to say, ‘How do we turn this into something cool?'”
Relevance: Rand Fish opened his presentation with a dire statement: “Things that can’t be relevant can’t even leave ruins,” to which Tamara Gielen adds the grim reminder that with an 8-second attention span for Internet users, we have next to no time to establish our relevance. Be the content your users seek by building your it around the questions your audience is already asking. Jaimie Abir recommends using regular expressions in Google Analytics advanced segments to filter out site search data, and learn what your users are trying to learn when on your site. And make sure that your content is consistent with your metadata — bounce rate is widely considered a ranking factor now, and Justin Freid (JustinFreid.net) warns us that it can be damaging to draw people in with “false promises” from misleading metas.
Finally, looking forward, we also want to put the foundation in place for future relevance. To this end, Cindy Krum advises us to get content in place today for the future rise of the Internet of Things. It’s coming, and you want to be the first in there.
Intent: Make sure your digital marketing priorities are straight. Wil Reynolds asks “What do you understand better: How Google works, or how people buy?” Understanding a user’s intent on a website is key to matching your content to their purpose. And, as Casie Gillette begs us, don’t assume you know your customers — research! (She improved organic search by 53% with simple changes made after researching her audience.) And use keyword volume as a way to listen to your audience: Bill Hunt asks, “If 85% of search volume is ‘What is Cloud Computing’, what does that tell a tech company?” Answer their needs: less content is not more. Longer content is not more. Make it the right length to best serve what they’re looking for.
When working with your audiences, determine what frustrates them, and create content that addresses those frustrations. Bill Hunt tells us that people are not searching for solutions — they’re looking for problems. And they may not even know they had a problem: Wil Reynolds explained to us that who needs or buys your products is not (always) the person who searched for it. We often “happen” upon our purchases: if that weren’t true, Etsy.com may never have survived.
Personalization: “The one-size-fits-all web is dead… and lazy” was a core message of Cara Harshman at MozCon. Personalization of content is key to a digital marketer’s future success, but the key is how it’s wielded. Don’t slice your audiences too thin, and be realistic about the technical efforts needed to make your content ideas a reality. Casie Gillette explains that search queries are becoming longer and more conversational — 50% are four words or longer, and 27% are questions.
Building on that, Ehren Reilly warns us that the days of winning with high-quality, non-proprietary content are dead: Google’s answer box beats you to it. Dr. Pete advises us to build our content deep — don’t make it an easy answer, and don’t create stuff that Google can scrape out on us. And Bill Hunt reminds us: People aware (and unaware) of your brand and/or products, and also people seeking information about topics related to your niche. Each is unique.
The Answer Box: On the other hand, Google’s answer box is exposure, and we want as much good exposure as we can get. Eric Enge (Stone Temple Consulting) points out that being featured in the answers box can jump a #5 keyword ranking to the top spot — just underneath the content. They key to being featured in the box is to take a simple, common question and provide a direct answer. Offer value-added information, and build the technical foundation of your website to make it easy for both users and Google to find you. Ehren Reilly adds that the greatest factor for appearing in the answers box seems to be getting your information in the right format — not in having superior content. Build good SEO into your site and avoid unhelpful structure and markup to improve the odds.
Link Building: Traditionally considered a staple of SEO, the presenters in both conferences were very quiet on the subject. Rand Fishkin tells us that more time is being spent by digital marketers on virtually everything but link building, while Lexi Mills proposes a more effective approach: better content strategy. Why build links when you can hire some ducklings to test your bathtubs? It’s fun, it’s creative, and it draws attention to you magnetically, rather than forcing you to make a trek into the link mines, all while building brand love and enticing others to product engaging-off-site content about you and your products. If you haven’t seen her presentation, check it out now; it was probably my favorite one from MozCon.
There’s one thing that the 39 people cited in this article all seem to agree on: Digital Marketing and SEO are finally, permanently, inevitably, about the user. If your website is not designed to serve the devices, intentions, desires, and needs of your user base — and to continue to serve them unabused for the unforeseeable future, the Internet will move on. Research your visitors like crazy and market to their needs. Treat search as both an unexpendable opportunity and a deadly minefield. Build relationships, love, and strong habits with your user base, and promote your brand like it’s the lifeblood of your business.
And before you leave, a few, final words of wisdom from our thought leaders:
- “If you don’t break a few things, you’re not trying hard enough.” – Jason Fried (Basecamp)
- “If you’re ignoring mobile, you’re not a good SEO.” – Cindy Krum
- “The SEO is the bridge for departments and siloed information.” – Adam Audette (Merkle)
- “If SEO is not working with social, you’re missing out on a HUGE opportunity.” – Marshall Simmonds
- “Think: ‘How would I solve this problem if I couldn’t do search?’ Then apply that answer to search.” – Wil Reynolds
- “What car does Jesus drive?” – Dr. Pete
- And from our good friend Grant Simmons:
— Grant Simmons (@simmonet) September 30, 2015
Did you attend any key sessions that we missed? What were your takeaways? Share them with us in the comments!