Ever wondered where search is heading?
In this episode of the Search Engine Journal Show, I had the opportunity to interview Michelle Robbins, Head of Digital at Milestone, to talk about the future of SEO – what is important, what you should be focusing on, and where things are going.
Where are we going with SEO?
Michelle Robbins (MR): That’s a very big question, and the answer is it’s going in a lot of places. There’s not just one place that search is going.
Because I do think that as Google’s own technology stack has evolved, and the way they’re evaluating the data they’re consuming has changed, that’s tied to the way devices have changed and the way people are consuming the information.
Everything’s tied together.
I think that Google has done a better job of getting to where they had always hoped to be.
Google’s mission has been to be the one that produces that one best answer.
Now, for a lot of things, there are a lot of good answers, and that’s why we have such a diverse set [of] search results.
But ultimately, if you think about where they really want to be, and how they’re going to get there, then you back off from that to see where we are now. We could be in another year. But everything’s tied to:
- How are devices changing?
- How are people’s interactions with devices changing?
Because Google has to respond to all of those.
It’s no longer just, you need some information. You type a query into a search box.
People are getting information from a lot of different places.
People are consuming information in a lot of different ways.
So, a lot of the changes that we’ve seen in Google, especially over the last, I’d say, 12 to 18 months are a reflection of that behavior change. It’s not just that Google is driving this bus solely.
They have to be responsive to what’s happening in the real world – with users and with devices.
So, it’s a lot of give-and-take in that, I think.
Do you think there’s going to be multiple years left of the traditional SEO practice? Or do you feel like we’re looming a significant, massive change that’s going to happen almost overnight?
MR: I think that [Google] gives us the information they want us to have.
I don’t know that they’re necessarily more transparent than they have been. I just think that they probably have realized that they can get better results from us if they give us more information.
But they’re only giving us what they need us to have and what they need us to understand.
The reason why the mobile window was so long wasn’t that Google couldn’t handle it or adapt to it or iterate on it, it was because the market couldn’t.
It was because you had so many sites that had just never caught up. Google’s gotten a lot more… specific about, if your site’s not fast, you’re not going to rank.
They finally just ripped the band-aid off and said, “Now, we’re going to judge you and don’t complain if you’re slow.” They’re very explicit about that.
They can absolutely push the market forward by doing these kinds of things, and they know it, but they have to be careful about it.
Because again, they still have to serve the users, they still need to have the best information. Sometimes, the best information may not be in a very mobile-friendly site.
All things being equal, know that a fast site is going to win in that search result. But all things being equal, and they’re all slow, Google still needs everybody to be faster.
We have a bar right now and we think, “OK, we looked at the speed tool and we’re doing great.”
But once 5G gets rolled out and people start adopting it and have devices that can work at a much faster rate, that needle is going to get moved again.
So sites that previously were considered fast, will no longer be fast. You need to fine-tune it again.
It’s never going to be set-it-and-forget-it kind of world on our end of it and for the work we do with our clients. It’s going to be a constantly evolving state.
I think that Google is going to drive it because they can. They’ve got the reach that we all need. So, we need to respond.
But I think they’re going to be measured as they can be in pushing people forward. Because again, they still have to serve good data.
With respect to AI, obviously, there’s a tremendous amount of AI controlling the servers right now. Which is why you see good and bad results.
Brent Csutoras (BC): If you’re thinking about where we’re going, I definitely would say the future of search is really being more holistic and involved in all aspects of marketing in a high-quality way.
That really requires you to evaluate yourself and determine:
- What are you expert at?
- What are you good at?
- What is really meaningful that you can provide?
- Then how do I put that to all the different channels?
MR: Exactly. How does that fundamentally extend to everywhere you are?
Your messaging could be a little different because you’re going to have a different message for an audience on Tik Tok, than you are, say, for doing a four-color ad in Vogue.
It’s going to be a little different message, it’s going to be different imagery.
But your brand should still come through no matter what channel you’re on.
If you have a strong sense of what your brand is and how to communicate that, you can communicate that across multiple demographics (if your brand targets multiple demographics).
So, understanding who your customers are, and meeting them where they are has always been key.
I feel like in SEO, we’ve been so focused on just Google instead of thinking holistically.
What are some of the things that you think businesses and SEOs really should stop focusing so much on?
MR: Oh, keywords. If I have to have another conversation about keywords, I think I might stab myself in the face.
It’s really hard to move people off of something that for one thing you can easily track, understand, and look at.
People have gotten very good at using search and understanding that if they want to narrow, they do narrow.
I had a conversation with someone last week where they talked about keyword density. I was like, “OK, we’ll not be hiring you.”
This was somebody who, if you looked at their resume, you would have expected that they’d have been beyond that because they had enough time in the business.
But sometimes I also think time in the business might be against us. Because if you started out back in the day when it was all about keywords and that was the focus and you never moved on from that, then you’re definitely getting left behind.
I think people need to understand that the opportunity in SEO, and with the way that Google has evolved and changed, it really is an opportunity to be more creative.
When we talk about content especially, to understand that the best content is content that is going to resonate and make sense to a reader. That’s never something that has a bunch of keywords in it.
You don’t actually have to stuff your content with keywords anymore.
Talk about topics, talk like a real person.
Write your content the way writers write stories.
What do you think about link building?
MR: I have the world’s most unpopular opinion on link building.
Everybody says “links still matter” because they can produce all of this in “data” demonstrating without really understanding fundamentally all of the other things that play within Google’s very sophisticated algorithm.
I think that link building is something that should happen rather naturally. I think it really is more of an exercise in outreach and PR.
There are a lot of agencies doing really fantastic work in this because what they’re doing is they are developing really great content.
Then they are promoting that content to the right outlets with the right audiences and getting links that way.
But they don’t focus on links as a number. They focus on the quality of traffic, those links are going to generate.
I think they’re two different disciplines. I think one is really just PR.
When we talk about link building, we’re really talking about promoting great content.
If you’re thinking about it in terms of how many links can I acquire regardless of the quality of those links, then you’re doing it badly. I believe Google can sniff that out, and I don’t think that’s a good long-term strategy.
On producing content…
MR: The key is creating valuable content. I know people hate to hear that, that because the challenge with it is, good content’s hard.
When you have something to write about, when you have a unique perspective to share, when you’ve got some valuable information to share, that’s when you should write.
Think about the frequency that Bill Slawski writes. He writes when he has something good to write about. It shows because he’s able to really dig deep on a topic, he’s able to provide a lot of really great information.
I think that’s the frequency that people should aim for, and that’s the kind of content that ultimately will get discovered, will get shared, and will win the day in the long run.
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Featured Image: Paulo Bobita
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