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In Search [Episode 50]: Looking Back at SEO in 2019





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Summary of Episode 50: Looking Back at SEO in 2019




In Search SEO Banner 50


Ross Tavendale of Type A Media joins us to reflect back on the major trends in SEO brought to us in 2019!

  • Where we’re at with links, nofollow hints, news links, spammy links, and the future of links
  • Featured Snippet clicks, no clicks, more clicks - everything clicks in 2019 and how to move forward
  • The role of the Quality Raters Guidelines, links, and technical SEO in ranking now and going forward

Plus, what you can learn from Google when designing and creating content for your site!




A Site Design Lesson from Google Itself! [00:04:27 - 00:17:56]



Did you know that Expedia’s stock crashed hard on November 7th and as of the recording this podcast it has not recovered?

And this connects to SEO how?

Well, there’s a lot of speculation that the stock loss is due to Expedia losing out to Google’s travel properties.

Now, you might think this is due to whatever travel features Google shows on the SERP, but no, it’s because Google has this pretty comprehensive travel site.

In fact, local SEO expert and friend of the In Search SEO Podcast, Sergey Alakov, discovered all-new filters within the hotel section of Google’s travel site. There are three new filters on Google’s travel site called, ‘Where to stay,’ ‘When to visit,’ and ‘What you’ll pay.’ With the filters users can find the top areas to stay in a city, the cost of hotels in that area, when a city is more and less popular with tourists, and the weather during each month of the year as well as the cost of hotels in the location per star rating.

That’s a lot of information (as expected of Google) which is easy to access, easy to digest, and just easy in every way imaginable. Congrats, Google, it looks like you won. We could just sit here and complain about what Google did here or we could take what Google did here and steal it for ourselves!

I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience, but when Mordy writes web pages (not blogs), he always feels like the format and the method of information dissemination just doesn’t click no matter what elements he uses. It’s like there’s a piece missing and Google may have found that piece and filled it in for us. That is, maybe the way we think of a webpage, its UI and UX, are outdated and Google discovered a new take that makes a lot more sense.

Let’s try to spell out what Google has done with their travel site and why Mordy thinks we should learn from it.

Here’s why Google’s travel site offers a superior user experience: 

1. It offers information right off the bat. All you have to do is enter the city and boom...tons of information, well-organized snippets, and boxes that lead to deeper content. Contrast this to sites like Skyscanner where you first have to enter data into a slew of fields to get access to information. To get tons of insights and info right off the bat and then use filters to narrow it down is better than being forced to first narrow down your search to get the same info.

It’s the same with the college feature Google has on mobile. You get a list of unfiltered colleges with a bit of info right away.

What Google’s doing here is showing you information, telling you we are the authority, we have the information which then makes you more willing to fill out some additional fields to get more information.

2. Let’s say you don’t have a site that’s a search tool. Let’s say you offer accounting software. What can we take from Google’s travel site in this case?

First, let’s think about how we generally structure the user experience on these kinds of sites. Usually, you go to the home page, you see a header, some snippets of content and corresponding CTAs to go deeper. It’s not exciting, it’s not dynamic.

What does Google do in the hotel market? They don’t start selling hotels. They don’t describe the nature of the site or its products in detail. Isn’t that weird? What they start off with is information via the filters we mentioned. In doing so, Google lets the consumer pick what’s important to them about the product thereby letting the consumer go on a journey to get more information on that specific product. This stands in contradistinction to what we generally do with our pages... and we’re all guilty here, we focus on showcasing the product, on telling the user what the product is.

Now here’s a crazy assertion. Mordy would say by the time most folks get to your page they already have an idea of what you offer and if not, you can get that done real quick. But imagine that instead of focusing on the product you primarily focused on the user and outside of a bit on what you do and who your site is you started to give the user access to information that lets them start their own journey through your product.

So how would that look in our case of accounting software? What will happen is a user will go to the site, see a blurb about who you are, etc. and then see some sort of option/functionality that gives them a bit of information on what your accounting software offers to small businesses and another option offering a bit of info on the software for individual tax returns which then contains a CTA that leads them to get more info on that specific aspect of your product.

In other words, be like Google. Offer the user a way to see information on their specific profile right away. Google lets users choose the information they think is important right off the bat and then explore further from there. Imagine if you did that for your site how powerful it would be!




Reviewing SEO in 2019: A Conversation with Ross Tavendale [00:17:56 - 01:04:43]



[This is a general summary of the interview and not a word for word transcript. You can listen to the podcast for the full interview.]


Mordy: Welcome to another In Search SEO interview exclusive. Today we have a famous face for you. You might have seen him host webinars, speak at conferences the world over, he’s the host of the Canonical Chronicle and the managing director of Type A Media. He is, Ross Tavendale!

Welcome!

Ross: Hi Mordy, thanks for having me.

M: Okay, so let’s look back at some of the bigger trends and themes in SEO that shook things up a bit. When looking back at 2019, what’s your take on what’s worth noting and what’s not worth noting?

R: Well one of the big ones was when Google stopped using links altogether in the algorithm. Oh wait, I mean they absolutely did not do that.

Joking aside, Google has painted itself into a corner with the nofollow stuff over the last few years. They had to renege on that and add different ways to markup links (sponsored, user-generated content, etc.). I think they’re having a problem with the link graph. Machine learning is having a major impact on the SERP. It looks like they are testing, clearing the cache, testing, and clearing the cache because we’re seeing extreme volatility. And to get the machine learning to get you onto page one you still need the traditional factors as well.

In 2019, I’ve seen clients with extreme impression increases on Search Console, but no clicks as Rand Fishkin’s research on zero-click searches showed.

I read your article on the difference between desktop and mobile Featured Snippets. I actually featured it on the Canonical Chronicle. Do you want to go over it?

M: Yeah, we can. A quick summary, if you win a Featured Snippet on desktop it’s not necessarily the case you’ll win it on mobile. We looked at a 30-day period of 250 keywords and what the scoring was for each day. There were days where there was a desktop Featured Snippet, but not a mobile one. When you include days where there was a snippet on one device but not the other, you had a 30% schism between desktop and mobile. When you take out those cases and you only look at the days where there was both a desktop and mobile Featured Snippet, those URLs didn’t match 10% of the time. For some people that I spoke to, 10% feels like a small gap, but for others, it felt like an enormous gap. My personal take is the latter. You might say that people don’t do as much purchassing on a phone, but a Featured Snippet is meant to give information so why should there be any difference?

R: Yeah, it’s a big head-scratcher for me as well. After reading your article, we looked at the data we were pulling in for our clients and we found it to be an even higher 30% discrepancy which explains a lot. For example, when you get a Featured Snippet on desktop (which 9 out of 10 times the desktop gets it more than mobile), your impressions will go up, your average position will be higher, but your clicks will drop. And then on mobile, the impressions will be slightly higher, the clicks will be up and your average position will be lower. Huh? Try explaining that to a client.

M: So you’re saying you see less Featured Snippet clicks on desktop?

R: That’s correct. I’ve always been anti-Featured Snippets. Our entire industry is digging their own graves to hang themselves just so we can get these tiny little wins. This is spineless account managers trying to explain things to their clients. SEO is hard and it takes time so we want any little click to show that our work is bringing a positive effect. What can we do? We markup everything as Google asks, they put it up in a Featured Snippet and we don’t get the click. Is that good? I don’t know.

M: Yeah, and one can argue that Featured Snippets are good for your brand. I get that argument as it’s not valueless, and if you win the Featured Snippet it’s wonderful. But to say it’s a win because your brand is featured so prominently feels like something you’ll say just to make yourself feel better.

R: And your brand isn’t being featured prominently, your result is being featured prominently. On mobile, you’re not getting your brand name, your logo, or even a blue link. You do get the favicon.

M: Yes, but favicons only help if you’re a big brand. If people were only comparing favicons, they would choose the ones they recognized. That’s terrible for smaller brands.

R: Yeah. All the SEO rules of having great meta titles and descriptions apply in getting great clicks, but you have to worry about getting the Featured Snippet. Even recently I was searching for information on a diet and I got my answer on the SERP and I had no idea what site it came from.

M: And that’s what’s it all about. It’s about Google having authority and being the provider of all information.

R: You should definitely check out Aaron Wall’s latest post. He was talking about the divergence between an organic result and an ad and how Google is putting things up. But I don’t believe being a Debbie Downer will help matters. We still need to rank, we still need to drive traffic, and still need to give clients results.

M: On that, I have a theory but bear with me as it is daring. I think the era of top-level content is dead. I compare it to Napster and iTunes where the music industry totally changed. I think we’re at a point of a natural evolution of content and you must do what Google can’t do. Google can show the weather, but it can’t show trends and analysis. Basically, give up on the direct answer and focus on something else.

R: Yes, it’s the value-adding content that you need to focus on now. You can’t just answer a question in one shot. The thing is for all of those things that can be answered in a Featured Snippet, to rank for that you would write a 2,000-word article and leaving the answer at the bottom (which is actually a bad user experience). The reason we’d do this is that we believe Google’s algorithms aren’t as far advanced to detect the text, but Google does. Cindy Krum has done amazing work on what she calls fraggles (fragments of articles) where Google categorically knows the exact bits of information. So now Google removed this way of ranking. The way to rank now is through using a real user intent and a real user journey. It used to be a dirty word where you would just use some keywords related to the query, add some links and you’re off to the races. That doesn’t really matter now. Now you would do an "informational headcount” where if you can answer a query with a single sentence, then try and write for it.

M: I was telling technical content creators that what they’re doing is great. If you have a 30-step guide, Google might show 5 of the steps, but the user will still click to see the rest. So there are verticals where it works, but usually, if your content is being shown in the Featured Snippet, a user won’t click anymore because it’s really precise. I even proved how paragraph Featured Snippets are getting smaller because Google is getting better at refining query answers.

R: Right, it’s something you can’t fight. I see a lot in video content flags in Chrome taking you to the exact part of the document. They’re answering questions by taking you to the exact same point in the video where the question was answered.

M: And don’t forget the promotional ads at the beginning of a video will be skipped over.

R: That’s very true, but people always triangulate. SEOs are like cockroaches, they’ll survive every single nuclear bomb that Google throws at us and keep on moving.

So that’s been 2019 for me. I made a joke about links at the start and while that hasn’t changed the way we build links will slightly change. I’ve seen a lot of regional PR where we create a piece of journalism that can be cut by region, town, or city so that we can have multiple places for outreach. I’ve seen a lot of local press that have completely changed their outbound linking policy. So now before we do any outreach the first thing we do is target websites even if they’re massive domains and for each site we have to get all the outbound links. And if there are no outbound links (which in the UK is 40% of online media now), we don’t talk to them. I feel like they’re shooting themselves in the foot by cutting the supply of content to regional places that don’t get content anyway.

M: I want to ask about links. You say they’re still a thing, but do you believe one day in the future they won’t be. Links point to what might be authoritative but they don’t understand the content. Google might always use links, but do you think at some point Google won’t have to rely on them to a certain extent?

R: Yeah, I think entity authority is going to be a big thing. And because Google can understand entities in text much better, there’s no reason why they can’t look at an unlinked mention of an entity in a newspaper and start using that. John Mueller said that they’ll use it to understand brand signals.

Will links go away in 2020? No. Will they go away in the next 5-10 years? Probably not. I think it’s telling when they’re asking people to mark up links because they rely so heavily on links because the amount of information in Google’s index is so high that it’s too hard to police properly. For those reasons, it’s unlikely links will go away.

M: I don’t get that the reason Google now looks at nofollow links as a hint and not a directive was because there were so many publishers that were automatically nofollowing their outbound links. Even if CNN nofollows their link to me, they’re still other websites linking to me, no?

R: It’s the whole gangster problem. If you’re a gangster in the neighborhood you do not have a money problem or a power problem, you have a trust problem. If you look at the people in the SEO world who use links to manipulate, a lot of us don’t have money or power problems, we have trust problems. We’re not going to rank for certain things if we’re not close to a trusted seat of websites like Wikipedia, CNN, etc. Now if all that stuff becomes nofollow, it becomes very hard to differentiate what is actually good quality and a vote of confidence. As a company, there’s only so much bandwidth Google has to review over sites and as new websites continue to come into the fold it’s getting harder as the media landscape is changing to such an extreme. I don’t think I need to tell you about the poor quality websites in Google News. In fact, Google is struggling with who is the original source of the news.

M: By the way, if you search for something like ‘big news’ or ‘important news,’ Google is still relying on the meta title. So you’ll find an article from The Nowheresville Times instead of CNN because they used the words "breaking news” in the title. It’s a joke.

R: Right, there’s so much new content that it’s hard to police. And this what people don’t realize. The number of queries that Google’s never seen before is going up and up and that’s not because we’re getting more sophisticated as searchers. It’s mostly to do with these events that have never happened before and the way in which these words were put together never happened before.

M: Do you find it funny that the fact CNN is following a link and it is considered an endorsement at the same time? In other words, why is it part of CNN’s linking juice now? Those are two separate parts of the process that don’t necessarily have to follow.

R: They want to get you into the consideration set in some way. For every query, there are a bunch of URLs in the consideration set. How do you get in the consideration set? It’s like why do people get degrees before they get an interview. Links are like the degrees. In Google’s world now, the ruler is machine learning which is user interaction. If the query has enough volume it’s relatively easy to get a good SERP because you have a lot of people testing out your SERP. If it’s a smaller query it’s much harder. And if it’s a question with multiple answers for different people it’s almost impossible. So the link helps you get into a consideration test then it’s up to what Google is seeing people interact with.

M: My original point of why Google is considering it part of your link juice and not necessarily following it and considering it as part of your profile is from a theory of mine. I think they’re doing it because they intrinsically don’t like nofollow. When you think about it, nofollow makes no sense. Either I follow it or don’t, why is there this quasi-association? If I think it’s valuable I’ll link to it, if I don’t think it’s valuable then I won’t. I understand in certain cases it makes sense, but as a general rule, from their perspective at least, it doesn’t make sense to have it.

R: Google is in a way outsourcing competency to the website owners, but the problem is there are no set of instructions on what competency looks like and it could mean completely different things to different webmasters.

M: But you can figure it out, no?

R: You might know, but does your grandmother know?

M: She knows nothing. She’s using Bing because it came with Microsoft Edge.

Let’s go back to the news. The original reporting algorithm is interesting because Google sometimes has difficulty with knowing which one is the original because of the canonical. Reuters might put out a piece and CNN, ABC, CBS, etc. will pick up the news and they canonicalize to themselves. My question is why is this confusing Google? Google can make a self-driving car that can differentiate between a human and a squirrel yet it can’t differentiate between the original content source and the syndicates?

R: They should just put API in all the content and that will solve all the problems. They have something called News API so why they don’t set up custom APIs so instead of doing it through sitemaps you’re crawling API with submission dates.

M: Well, it is timestamped. I asked Alli Berry how quickly an article of hers can be syndicated. Is it instantaneous and Google can’t tell the difference of whose article came out first? She said, no. They’ll create content and the syndication will see it and make a decision if they want to syndicate it. Because of this, there is a couple of minutes delay. So why not see the timestamp unless Google is so worried CNN is going to manipulate the timestamp.

R: If Google is looking at identical information they’re going to need something more than the timestamp.

M: Like the author. And when they syndicate Reuter’s content they’ll say it’s from Reuters.

R: But Reuters isn’t an author, it’s an originator. I wonder if because Google can’t attach it to a human they’ll look to the next and it’s from someone else entirely.

M: There’s got to be a better way. That’s the only reason I’m upset.

R: I think the only reason they’re doing it is because of money. Because these news publishers put Google AdSense on their sites if Google makes them upset, those are their customers, that’s Google’s ad revenue.

M: Just to back that up, if you want to see how powerful the media industry is vis-à-vis Google, just look at AMP. I’ve never seen any other industry or vertical have so much sway over Google to tell Google that they better figure this out because we are losing it. If you (Google) don’t figure it out, we’re out. And you see Google bending over backward trying to figure it out.

R: The way I see it there needs to be a radical change in the way the news industry advertises because that is just water circling the drain because it’s not looking good in the next 10 years.

M: I’m not so upset about that. I have no affinity for the media.

R: This is something interesting. You don’t like the media because you don’t trust them, but Google is putting the media on the SERP to show trust.

M: I know. I’m a real cynic so I think everyone has a bias no matter you’re left, right, up, or down. It’s like The Wall Street Journal article on Google recently. What was that?

R: That was a badly put together piece is what that was.

M: Even if you think Google sucks you should at least do more than 17 searches in your research!

R: I feel bad for some of the SEOs that were misrepresented in the article and the WSJ just cherry-picked what they wanted to hear. That’s a classic example of putting your spin and bias on it.

I’ve actually changed my browser from Chrome and Firefox to Brave because I need something to drown out the extreme noise. I love it. It is actually based on Chromium so you can’t get away from Google at all. It’s still Google’s property but it’s still open source and there’s nothing fed back to the mothership. They have something called Brave Rewards which shows non-targeted advertising where either you get cash for (i.e., you get paid to see advertising) or you can tip the people who are actually producing the content whether it being the YouTubers or journalists. That feels better. It feels like more of what’s going to happen in the future.

M: Are you a DuckDuckGo fan?

R: No, it’s just a bad search engine.

M: Yeah, that’s a problem. But I feel there’s going to be more traction with that site than Bing and Yahoo going forward. If I had to put my money on another search engine other than Google I would put it on DuckDuckGo. [Do not take Mordy’s investment advice.]

R: Most people aren’t concerned with their privacy. Over 60% of Americans feel like they’re being tracked by big corporations or the government and either they’re fine with it or they feel they can’t do anything about it. And that won’t be just the States as everyone follows America. We may in England poke fun of them for some of their political decisions, but we’re just as bad in the UK.

M: Sticking with the news, I found a strange coincidence that around the same time Google announced they’re changing their algorithm to rank original news creators higher that Google’s Quality Raters Guidelines were updated to weigh original creators more highly for authority and what a good website should like. Coincidence or is there a real connection between the Quality Raters Guidelines and the Google algorithm?

R: The guidelines to me are just a big nothing burger. Danny Sullivan said in the last update to just improve your site which is just the vaguest advice, but that’s what they’ve always been like. When it comes to looking at the Quality Raters Guidelines as a bible of what to do, I think it helps for the thinking process, but there’s more to it than the content on the page. Links still play a major role.

M: I agree that if you’re only looking at the author’s bio then that’s dumb, and Google will instead look at the links. But I’m asking when Google is doing something more holistic and qualitative to develop an understanding, how does that stack up to links?

R: Holistic on-page changes have been a big thing we’ve been starting to do. The most basic things like siloing information can make huge changes. With regards to the Quality Raters Guidelines, we can’t freak out every time there’s a minor change in a line in it. We tend to hang our hats on one thing we found easy to understand. For a group of SEO people that tend to start each answer with "It depends” it seems ridiculous for things like E-A-T and the Quality Raters Guidelines to have hard rules on what’s right and what’s wrong. It depends on the vertical. Are some of the Quality Raters Guidelines major ranking factors? Probably, but I hate to be the guy at Google who tells SEOs to create good content and we’ll figure the rest out. That’s becoming truer as time goes on as a link builder it pains me to say that.

M: Going into 2020, what do you think will be the "big thing”in SEO?

R: I’m really getting on to the speed train which I never used to. Before in our technical audit, the performance was the last thing we’ll look at because typically in a large organization getting them to increase site speed means to do rebuilds, but we’re really banging that drum really hard. We recently did speed optimizations for a publisher and we got their time to interactive down to 0.2 seconds and got their first contentful paint to 1.5 seconds which is fast and they’ve seen extreme levels of traffic growth from a couple hundred thousand clicks to close to a million per month.

I’m not saying it’s the be-all and end-all, but to quote my good friend, Arnout Hellemans, "Follow the money.” Think about where Google needs to save or make money. How do I save money? By understanding your page better so they can get your information, that’s structured markup. Also, it’s harder to read your page when it’s in Javascript, but I think they’re getting better. And of course site speed because the faster your page loads the faster they can read it.

Basically, every little carrot they dangle above us is the hot new thing and it will remain to be and the things they’re trying to get us to ignore or scare us about are usually things that are easy to manipulate so that should be something you should look into. They push their general interests in technical (schema and speed) and then they scare you on things that are bad for them (link graph).


Optimize It or Disavow It

M: Walking into 2020, if you had to choose between focusing on the more holistic side of SEO (content, SERP features, competition analysis, keyword research, trends in SEO) or technical SEO, which would you focus on?

R: If I could only do one it would be content. With content production, the more you produce at a higher quality you will accidentally fall into a bunch of SERPs and getting no clicks and accidentally being linked to which Google then self-perpetuates. So in this case creating a bad content strategy seems worse than not working on technical because how bad can you mess up your Wordpress install?

M: Thank you, Ross, for coming on!

R: Thank you for having me. 




SEO News [01:01:14 - 01:07:20]

 

Google Recipe Bug Continuing: The bug removing image thumbnails from recipe results is still ongoing. As of now, the only recourse you have is to get the page recrawled and reindexed via the URL inspection tool which is just a terrible option when you have tons of pages.

Google says they are working on the issue.

New Google Hotel Filters: As mentioned above, Google has added a few new filters for easy access to hotel info on its travel website.

Google Testing Arrows by Titles: An interesting test has Google showing a blue arrow next to each URL. Sergey Alakov, who spotted it made the point that ad URLs get the same arrow and thereby distract the user by making the ad seem more like an organic result.




Fun SEO Send-Off Question [01:07:20 - 01:10:20] 




Who would Google marry? 


Mordy thought it will be a great idea for Google to marry Amazon. It will be a political marriage. What better way to kill the competition than moving in with them? Sapir though the only person Google will marry is itself. It’s on too lofty a level to marry anyone else.

Tune in next Tuesday for a new episode of The In Search SEO Podcast.



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