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The Future Is Now: SEO 2020

Right before the new year I had the pleasure to host “The Future is Now: SEO 2020” webinar with two of the brightest minds of search: Stephan Bajaio, Chief Evangelist and Co-founder at Conductor and Duane Forrester, Vice President of Industry Insights at Yext. If you know these guys, it should be of no surprise we ran out of time as we covered data hygiene, mobile friendliness, security, and other fundamentals to your future search success and experimentation.

We promised our attendees we would follow up with more of their insights, predictions, and recommendations, so I sat down with them again to ask more questions straight from our webinar audience. Let’s dive in!

The Number One Tactic for 2020

Q: What is the #1 Local SEO tactic to focus on in 2020?

DUANE: Focusing on a single tactic means you often overlook the bigger picture, leading to more problems overall. 

The truth is, there is no single tactic or silver bullet that will improve your SEO. It’s all an incremental game of improvement these days in search — local or otherwise. 

Quote: The truth is, there is no single tactic or silver bullet that will improve your SEO. It’s all an incremental game of improvement these days in search -- local or otherwise.

But if I were to focus on a theme for 2020, I’d say it’s managing misinformation. Ensuring that my data is accurate everywhere, that I know where data about me exists (everywhere) and I have a plan to maintain it frequently is a lot of work, but long gone are the days of “if I change think in my title tag, I’ll rank higher.”

STEPHAN: I have to agree with Daune here. Data hygiene (AKA “managing misinformation”) is especially important when it comes to local search. 

Now I know that’s nothing new, and in fact there are many services (such as YEXT) that help manage that data at scale, but that’s kind of my point. With the relatively wide and accessible solutions to help organizations solve for this, there isn’t an excuse in 2020 not to be on top of it and, frankly I believe Google and other engines feel the same way.

Q: What is the difference between local SEO and national SEO keywords rankings? How can you improve SERP rankings for one or both?

DUANE: At some point, it blends, meaning that local is local. It’s about a product or service location versus a searcher seeking that product or service. So whether it’s a national brand focused on a local keyword (nationally) or a smaller shop focused on the same keyword locally, they’re after the same client and need to do the same work. 

In some ways, this may be easier for the local business as they understand the nuances of their area, communities, history and how locals react to things. The national business may not understand nuance at the local level (though many do). On the other hand, national brands can bring with them brand recognition, trust and the weight of more reviews. Each has strengths and weaknesses; the key is to identify your weaknesses and bolster them. 

For a local business that may mean building a dedicated campaign to drive reviews. For the national-level companies, this may mean gathering more local intelligence at the store level and using that to more individually target work by region or city.

STEPHAN: As the acronym of SEO has become less “Stephan’s Employment Opportunities” and more universally understood by businesses both large and small as a necessary marketing tactic, so have the SERPs become more crowded, especially at the local level. However in many location-based industries where SEO is relatively mature (not the more advanced local SEO spaces like travel or auto) local search isn’t being done very well. 

It often feels more like local SEO is being done with a template or not at all. There still seems to be a lower barrier to entry in terms of low quality tactics that work. Be it the small, local businesses that are often misinformed or simply trust template SEO that comes with automated website builders. Duane is right the smaller local businesses should win here is they are well informed as to what terms to use/actions to take (they technically can focus on their well known audience better than national brands that often are trying to appease local search at scale).  

National brands playing at the local level tend to fill a void of local SEO or frankly get a brand pass in the SERPs as they help validate results as well.

Quote: You need to ensure you are 100% mobile-friendly. And not just “we’re mobile-friendly”, but “we couldn’t possibly be any more mobile-friendly.”

Q: What would you say are the top five strategic initiatives that SEOs and content marketers at B2B organizations should consider in their 2020 plan?

Structured Data 

DUANE: You need to understand the full library at Schema.org and how any elements can be applied to your business — from people to places, from products to reviews and everything else. If a tag exists and you have content that matches, use it. While not every tag is in deep use by the engines today, they will be over time. And thinking beyond just Google and Bing, other services use marked up data as well (Amazon, Facebook, etc.), so doing your best now sets up success in the future. 

STEPHAN: I’m on the same page with Duane. As search engines continue to look for new universal, UX feature enhancements to infuse into the SERPs, I can see them depending more on structured schema data as time goes on and as it continues to be adopted. Essentially, schema is there to help you provide a better understanding to engines about your content and data. My real question is why wouldn’t you be focused on that in 2020?!

Mobile friendly

DUANE: You need to ensure you are 100% mobile-friendly. And not just “we’re mobile-friendly”, but “we couldn’t possibly be any more mobile-friendly.” This is an area the engines focus on because consumers engage there first and most. New technologies like 5G are growing in adoption and will make consumers even more mobile-centric.

STEPHAN: I was searching for a winter coat the other day on my laptop. A major retailer showed up in my desktop results with an M.dot site… WTF… Seriously? How is this still a thing? Responsive sites are now the rule and there is no trying to get around it. 

We can’t guess the next size of screen your customers/prospects will be using to view your site, but we can guarantee it will be on their terms, when and where they want, so greeting them with anything less than a great, fast UX and UI isn’t an option anymore. 

Security 

DUANE: This should be table stakes these days, but you should be running a fully secure setup across all elements of your web presence. If you control it, secure it. Takes a few extra steps and is a bit more involved, but security is a hot topic these days, and with new privacy rules coming inside the U.S., your security is about to see increased scrutiny.

STEPHAN: I guess my question here is why isn’t being secure everyone’s top priority. I’m glad to report that I’ve seen this become fairly standard practice, but there are definitely still too many laggards out there and you shouldn’t be one of them! This is one of those great times when the proper search friendly practice should cleanly align to the undeniably best practice for your business (or at least one you shouldn’t have to fight so hard about).

How to Manage Misinformation

DUANE: A growing problem today is inaccurate information about a business. This can be simple errors the business makes, or misinformation posted online by competitors or even customers. You are the best source of truth for your business’ information, so you need to maintain it. Everywhere. The engines watch a wide range of locations across the web for information about, well, everything. So a random review over there, hours of operation in a third-party directory or post on social media can all be sources of incorrect information. 

While it may be impossible to catch every single instance, you need to have a plan in place to catch as much as you can. Thinking you can just focus on a single area (Google, for example) and leave everything else alone is not a recipe for success.

Quote: You are the best source of truth for your business’ information, so you need to maintain it. Everywhere.

STEPHAN: It’s funny how you see this problem at both sides of the spectrum: the huge national brand trying to manage all of its local data to ensure cleanliness and accuracy, and the smaller one location only business that doesn’t even know what GMB is, let alone how to update it. 

Yet in both cases the user dissatisfaction of misinformation transfers to the brand. For example you drive to a local liquor store on a holiday to pick up wine to bring to your inlaws. You google it, it definitely says it’s open and you set the directions in google maps to get there. You get there only to find it closed, sure you could be pissed as google but more likely the store for being closed… ps the next thing you do is go back to google to search for another store that’s open. 

Apply the same above scenario to a national chain pharmacy when trying to get a prescription filled. Bunk data equals lost revenue, user frustration and potential bad brand sentiment. You’ll never really know how much it’s costing you, but as a user who’s been through it (and we all are) you know it’s a problem and needs to be addressed.  

Intent/Answers

DUANE: Understanding the intent of your customer at any point on their journey is a critical component of every marketing plan today. When you know that, you’ll know if you have the right answer for them, and when to show them that answer. By being “useful” at just the right moment, you stand a much better chance of driving engagement. Consumers identify this usefulness and it helps build brand trust and affinity.

STEPHAN: My favorite work T-Shirt reads: “If you’re not helping people you’re just selling stuff”. 

I wear that shirt almost daily (don’t worry, not the same shirt 🙂 I have a bunch of them… sheesh I’m not an animal), I believe that in my bones. I don’t think anyone sets out to be sold to. 

Stephan Bajaio of Conductor speaks and wears a marketing t-shirt that reads "If you're not helping people, you're just selling stuff."

They hope to learn, gain value, and make great decisions in spite of the overwhelming amount of information available to them at a couple of keystrokes. The more your brand can assuage fears, build understanding, and help without forcing expectations in return, the more trust and goodwill it will garner both on and offline.

The great news is Google is the world’s largest leather analyst’s couch/intent engine and you have access to what people are searching for, how frequently, and what they find! That is a great power, not only for your ability to create meaningful content and experiences, but to ensure your business really gets them and solves their needs beyond rankings.

Really get to know your audience and provide them with the help they need they will love you for it.

… more than ever, SEO is a combined effort including content marketing, review management, technical SEO, user experience, conversion optimization, and social engagement.

SEO, Marketing and Content Challenges for the Next Decade

Q: Are we at a place today where we can say that the SEO role has transformed into a Content Marketing role?

DUANE: Not really. SEO today still very much involves the technical side of optimizing a website. I would suggest, however, that more than ever, SEO is a combined effort including content marketing, review management, technical SEO, user experience, conversion optimization, and social engagement. 

Absolutely we can say that the job of an SEO has never been more complex, as they are often tasked with influencing others inside their organizations who run programs. An SEO may not run content production, but they need content produced with SEO factors baked in. The SEO may not run the review management program, but that program directly affects ranking, so the SEO is involved.

STEPHAN: I completely understand why this is becoming more common a question. In our 2019 Inbound Marketing Job + Salary Guide there are two key findings that may be causing this impression:

1. In 2019 there was an 81% increase in SEO Job openings over 2018. So the need for SEOs is clearly there.

2. 56% of content jobs require SEO skills in 2019. That means for the first time the majority of content marketing jobs require SEO skills.

If we break this down, we can see there is more need for SEO as a skill and as a position, but then the question becomes, what does it mean to have SEO as a skill versus a full time position? 

SEO as a skill can vary greatly in one’s understanding, expertise, and practical application. Some folks know strategy and very little tech, others know tons of technical tactics but couldn’t put a strategy together if their life depended on it. And then there are people that think this is a skill like excel. I hate saying it, but that is the struggle and the struggle is real.

SEO as a role is much like Duane said — it’s a project manager of sorts. A herder of cats, a gerbil wrangler, a builder of consensus, a combination of internal and external marketer with as deep an understanding of the marketplace they compete in as the limitations both technical and political of their organizations and its web properties.

So, long story long, I think content marketers should understand search and the role they can play to impact its outcomes. But in no way are they here to replace the SEOs.          

Q: With Google continuing to improve their ability to understand context and their focus on avoiding backlinks from spam, how important will traditional mass Name-Address-Phone Number (NAP) directory local citations be?

DUANE: Very important. More, now than ever, it’s critical that businesses manage their data and ensure that data is accurate and fresh. Precisely because the engines are doing a better job, it means you need to stay focused on driving and maintaining things like local citations directly to your own NAP data.

The engines will always source data about an entity from as wide a possible range as they can, so thinking you should skip smaller directories is self-defeating.

Quote: As higher speed mobile connections become more prevalent like 5G across the country, the need for a pre-cached version of your mobile experience may not be as important as it once was.

Q: How much of a role will AMP play in 2020? Will sites who do not have an /amp/ version be penalized by Google or in rankings? Will we see more /amp/ vs. desktop results in Google SERPs?

DUANE: It’s important to understand that not having AMP is NOT a thing that invokes a penalty. It may seem that way if a non-AMP result is outranked by an AMP result, but it’s not a penalty situation.

Having an AMP version of your pages is, however, an “advantage” situation. The advantage here being that AMP pages are generally seen as “faster” than a traditional page. The reward being faster pages tend to rank better for mobile queries (and more). Therefore the goal should be to improve the user experience through faster page load speeds overall. 

Whether that’s through AMP or not really doesn’t matter — faster is better. Google doesn’t reward just because you’re using AMP. That said, it’s possible we’ll see more limited tests where AMP is used as a carrot (if you go AMP in X category, you’ll be included in Y types of results).

STEPHAN: I’ve always seen AMP as a bridge or bandaid to the need for a higher speed mobile internet. As higher speed mobile connections become more prevalent like 5G across the country, the need for a pre-cached version of your mobile experience may not be as important as it once was. 

Now that doesn’t mean if you’ve already invested in AMP you’ve made a mistake as it definitely provides a faster user experience; however, I wouldn’t suggest investing a ton of time and resources into deploying AMP versus many of the other things you could be doing to optimize mobile experience and overall site speed.  

The 2020s Will Be All About Going Local

Q: Will the impact of Local Pack on SERP results be important going forward?

DUANE: Local Pack results (a box of results that show local information at the top of a SERP) will continue to grow in prominence. 

More and more, consumers are turning to “Maps” to find answers to everything from the usual hour of operation questions to product-related questions (whether it’s in stock, where to find it, etc.). Because “local” and “near me” is so important to consumers, the Local Pack will remain an important staple in the SERP, deployed more frequently as the engines believe it fits.

STEPHAN: Local Pack isn’t going away, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some significant UX/UI changes with it this year, especially in the mobile experience of the SERPs. It currently owns so much of the page one real estate, that I can only see optimization of the experience to be the most beneficial for Google and its users. It will also be interesting to watch what Google deems as a local search terms, deserving of serving up a Local Pack. 

Q: How much value do you place on local citations as it related to competing for national keywords? Have you seen success with local citation services such as YEXT? What online tool would you recommend to build citations and or links?

DUANE: Full disclosure: Yext is an affiliate of Conductor. That said, a lot of Yext’s clients achieve measurable success using our services and platform. 

Local citations have an inherently high value for anything related to the locale of the query. So whether you’re a national brand targeting a specific location, or a single-doorway-shop targeting a neighborhood, things that look, taste and smell “local” are deemed to be of more value in that locale.

Whether you’re a national brand or otherwise has less effect, though it can bring the advantage of being able to drive more reviews in a given location through brand recognition.     

Q: What are some places besides Google we should consider optimizing for? Especially as Google delivers more organic clicks to its own sites.

DUANE: We  Love this mindset! 

Looking beyond a single source for traffic/conversions is key to long term success. My shortlist here includes Bing, Amazon, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, FourSquare, and Yelp. That list could be longer, but even just this represents a ton of work to cover. 

We need to define “optimizing” here, because this isn’t like SEO in many instances, with a pre-defined set of touchpoints we can go work on. How you “optimize” for Amazon product and service listings is very different from standard SEO, for example. Optimizing for YouTube is different again — each needs to be researched and planned for. 

One good thing, however, is that you can start by combining some platforms. For example, if you’re going to produce video content for YouTube, you can use it, edit it and reuse it on Instagram and TikTok. You want to produce content in a way that works on all three platforms (record a 3-minute video for YT, in that video you read off a checklist of things the watcher should do (for example) and that checklist segment becomes what you post to TikTok and Instagram in a shorter, 1-minute video.) 

STEPHAN: I agree with the above. Make sure to add Quora and Pinterest to that list too. Also consider that while you can optimize to show up in these search engines (that are sites in their own right), you can also end up having the content and optimizations you build on/for these sites be what makes those pages worthy of page one of Google. And that ends up driving sales and brand equity for you via these third parties.

Q: If an SEO needs to do one thing to prepare an e-com business for voice search, what should it be?

DUANE: Focus on structured data usage and how you design content to answer the question properly. This includes the actual content itself. Basically, you want to thoroughly answer the question as posed, at an expert-level. Google has released a Voice Quality Rater’s Guidebook and understanding how they train their people to determine if something is a good spoken answer, or not, is critical. 

Assuming you can answer as an expert, the next step is to determine the best structure for that answer. Is it a paragraph of content? A list of bullet points? Maybe a video is the best way? Clues to this can be found in looking at current results. 

If a result is spoken now, there is a high probability it has a matching Featured Snippet in a search result. Looking at those results can help you see what Google currently feels is the “best” answer. Your goal is to exceed that current answer in some measure that will convince Google that your answer is superior. Not an easy task, for sure, but one you need to crack.

STEPHAN: For now Google relies a great deal on answerbox content to drive voice search. Over time I can see that evolving to much more structured data especially as personalization of voice search results start becoming more prevalent and we start seeing more compounding sting queries being answered. The same should hold true for voice assistants. It’s important to also note that voice as an input increases the variety of query strings making it more difficult to interpret without structured data to help define it.

So focus on structured data, not simply because it may serve voice search (which if you watched the webinar you’ll note I’m not currently a big fan of people spending too many calories on right now) but because structured data helps simplify the interpretation needed by search engines and other data providers. 

The Biggest Question for the 2020s: The Data Privacy Movement’s Impact on SEO 

Q: How will SEO respond to the challenge of gathering tracking log data in a world increasingly hostile to cookies?

DUANE: This remains largely unknown right now, but we can point to a few indicators that may help us understand the trend. 

In the first place, most businesses are slow to adapt to new changes, and the move to greater privacy should not be very different. The SEO’s role has never been to police data privacy; rather an SEO’s job is to generate inbound traffic. 

SEOs and marketing professionals generally do want increased, not decreased ways of tracking and attribution. That said, answers to this problem remain scarce. Ultimately, I suspect SEOs will remain downstream, forced to “do more with less” effectively and we may well see a rollback to the industry’s earliest days when broader metrics were our only guideposts (Did revenue go up? Did we get more signups to the email lists?). 

What is clear, however, is that investing in a more direct connection to your customers will be more powerful than ever. In a privacy-focused world, having someone’s permission to directly engage them is key. 

This means the average SEO better be friendly with the folks running their company’s email programs, socials programs and any other program that has a de facto approved connection to customers.

Quote:  
We are an industry built on constant change. This will become another war story told over beers at a conference bar in five years starting with ”remember when…”

STEPHAN: We as SEOs are unfortunately (and perhaps fortunately) have become accustomed to losing access to data (see not provided, bucketed MSV etc.). The good news however is we have weathered such situations. There are entire tech solutions that depend on these cookies far more than us, and in fact this may serve as an opportunity for SEO to step up and fill those voids. 

Don’t think by any means that I’m saying we will have it easier. But in this struggle there may be an opportunity for us to shine. While much of the broader impact remains largely unknown right now, we are an industry built on constant change. This will become another war story told over beers at a conference bar in five years starting with”

Q: What are the best tactical strategies for zero-click searches, getting featured in rich snippets, and tracking the ROI value of such?

DUANE: There are a ton of resources available online today that list the best tactics to rank in search. Featured Snippets have been around for years now, so check out this page as a good starting point.

After that, more direction is available from a variety of sources, and while the details may differ a bit, generally they say similar things. 

On the tracking side, it comes down to understanding which featured snippets you rank for and digging into your analytics data to build reports that show direct connections. From that, you’ll see the traffic flow, if any. It’s important to remember that if the question is answered upfront, you may receive no clicks from a Featured Snippet, so it’s important to understand the broader story. 

Does being a featured Snippet help branding? Are conversions increasing related to the product and / or service the Featured Snippet talks to? And while the Featured Snippet will rarely ever be about a specific product or service, if you have a product/service related to the topic, and the content is a Featured Snippet, it could be the case that increased engagement is happening after consumers do their research. Therefore direct traffic may not happen, but indirect traffic could easily happen. 

This is much harder to track in a direct sense and you may need to get creative to fill in those blanks. It’s not easy being an SEO today given how complex these things are.

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