Episode 4 of our “SEO in 2020” podcast interviews Andrew Steel from Equator; getting his views on how he thinks SEO is likely to evolve over the coming few years.

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DAVID BAIN: I’m joined today by one of Scotland’s leading SEOs. He leads a large and great team for the agency Equator. Welcome Andrew Steel.

ANDREW STEEL: Thank you. How are you?

DAVID BAIN: I’m very good, thank you. You were wondering where I was going to go with the introduction – fairly short and sweet.

ANDREW STEEL: I was expecting a wee jingle or something there, at least the jingle of This Week in Organic.

DAVID BAIN: Okay, well you’ll have to come on again on the other show, This Week in Organic, just because you enjoy them.

ANDREW STEEL: Yeah, always a pleasure.

DAVID BAIN: So you’re Head of SEO in terms of job title at the moment in 2016. If you’re were doing a similar kind of role in four years’ time, long way to look ahead in the future, do you reckon it’s still going to be called Head of SEO, or maybe something else?

ANDREW STEEL: Good question. I think potentially something else because I think search engine is always changing quite a lot in terms of what we do, but I think SEO will still exist as a channel, and a role basically in terms of the role type things, Head of SEO, I couldn’t say with any certainty because I think, and this is obviously something that we’ve discussed before, SEO does continue to kind of mushroom out into so many other areas and disciplines as well, whether it stays specifically SEO as a role itself, it’s hard to say.

DAVID BAIN: So I mean one thing that I’ve seen you mention in your own blog is that you believe that user experience is going to be something to expand in significance in 2016. Is that going to be even more important looking forward into 2020 do you think?

ANDREW STEEL: I think so, definitely. I think if you look at search engines, and in particular I guess Google because it’s the one we all tend to mean our reference when we talk about search in general, certainly in the UK anyway. I think if you look at what they’re doing at the moment, they’re clearly trying to look at other ways to start being able to understand what users want from search results that doesn't necessarily rely on links being the primary ranking factor. I know obviously they came out the other week and confirmed, as we all kind of knew anyway, that links are still currently the primary ranking factor, but I think they’re not the best measure in terms of what people actually want from a website. If anything, they’re probably one of the poorer ones, whereas Google has access to all kinds of kind of click stream data, and interaction data, and they can see if someone clicks on this search result for this query, how long is it before they bounce back to the same set of search results if they do at all, and if they do, what do they do from there? All those kind of measures would seem to be looking at saying that they’re progressing towards being able to better understand and use so that they can optimise their own end results, and how they organise them. And even things like RankBrain as well, and using artificial intelligence gives them great potential to be able to combine a lot of these different data sets, and are much more kind of intelligent and intuitive way than perhaps they would have been able to in the past, just because they’re already dealing with that huge volume of detail anyway. But trying to make results search specific to such a broad range of queries that will be going on out there at people’s particular intents, and how well they’re able to formulate that into a query, there are so many things that user experience metrics definitely offer a better solution, I think, than links for them.

DAVID BAIN: But I mean, as intriguing as you say that Google have said that links are still essentially the most important factor at the moment, and if we would have been having a conversation say five years ago, say back in 2011, do you think that looking forward, you would have thought that links would have been still so quite important as they are now?

ANDREW STEEL: Yeah, good question. I think it’s obviously hard to look back, and put myself in that position without the benefit of hindsight now, but I think at that time research was what the conversation was at the time, I can recall anyway, was around how content is becoming more important than quality of links, and that the relevancy of them were becoming more important, and we know has borne true. And as more important, I think there’s always the classic statement of is SEO dead? And what people tend to mean by that is, is link building dead, is link value dead? It’s not, obviously in the fact that they came out and confirmed that pretty much in that week. Will it be dead in another four years’ time? I don’t think so, but I just don’t think that links will be the same kind of number one ranking factor, number one or number two ranking factor, that they are at the moment in four years’ time because of things like user experience metrics allow them to provide a better experience. Because you know, at the end of the day Google’s all about, and has always been about, providing the best experience of a search engine for its users, and that’s how they became the dominant search engine in the first place was they build up a ranking algorithm that, better than anyone else, satisfied what people’s queries were with the kind of results they were looking for. I think the user experience metrics, and being able to involve those are a much more sophisticated way in determining the results will help them continue to do that again.

And you know, that’s hugely important to Google because they’re keen about providing their users a good experience of Google because it’s what helps them sell advertising space in the simplest sense. I think links probably still will be something we look at, but might be in a bit of a different way because to build user experience metrics you need to be getting people back to your website, and again it’s the kind of classic content marketing. Links is obviously a part of that because it helps people discover content to build their own user experience, rather than just looking at user experience purely as people coming in to your site from Google search results. I think they’ll be potentially, I’m not sure there, pure data will be utilised in that.

DAVID BAIN: It looks like Google have struggled to rely on other metrics with any significant degree of confidence, so that’s why they retained links as being such a prominent factor in their algorithm. So if they were to move to relying on user experience metrics, which metrics specifically do you think will become more important over the next few years?

ANDREW STEEL: I think a couple of ones that I mentioned at the start there certainly are likely to become increasingly more important. So things like bounce back to search because you could probably use that as a good measure across most verticals anyway, that if someone clicks on the number one results, and they don’t find their answer within the first ten, fifteen seconds, and they bounce back to the same search results, and then click on another result further down on the page of results, then that’s probably a good sign of what happens in enough volume, and there’s enough trends there, that the first result maybe wasn’t the right result then for that query, so they can start to move it down, and look at the placement of it.

So I think that would be one that they wouldn’t actually surprise me if it’s already a part that’s played in search results, but I could expect that could potentially become more prominent. I think hand in hand with that would be looking at what would people come back to search results – did they search again for a different query type? Because there will be some answers that people will be looking for from their queries that probably will be answered within fifteen seconds on a page, and then there’s no reason to really continue to look any further on a site. But again, there’s always the argument that as a site owner yourself, what do you want to do with that person once you’ve got them on your site? So even if the query that they were looking for is answered in fifteen seconds, how quickly can you then capitalise on that to engage them in some other area of your site? But that’s kind of a separate channel. I think that kind of dwell time metric almost, has a value already, and probably increasing value.

Over and above that, I think you could start looking at any of the classic metrics that probably all play a part, but the importance is maybe a better license for things like the number of pages deep into a site that people go to, because again, I think you’d have to start looking at that on a query type by type basis, and probably a vertical by vertical basis as well because again, there’ll be some things, like if you want to know the score in the football, for example, you need to go on the first result and find the current score, and then you’d probably bounce away from search, and not really have any real reason to go any further on that site. So those kind of metrics would the ones certainly to me at the moment that seem to stand out. And again, in terms of looking beyond just the metrics that you require from search result interaction with people in that way, I think it will be kind of visitor volumes in general across all channels, because I suspect that part of the user experience kind of thing would be pulling in a lot more metrics from social media interaction because they are without a doubt growing areas of marketing – continuing to become a bit more sophisticated than they had been in their earlier days when Google originally had its relationship and partnership with Twitter that went for a while, and is now back on. So I’d imagine the interaction and engagement metrics from there might feed a bit more of a dynamic result set, a bit like the classic query search freshness where if a site, or a particular topic is becoming a trend on Twitter, for example, maybe it gets a temporary rankings boost for the terms it’s related to in a broader sense than it does at the moment. Those would be the important stuff.

DAVID BAIN: Okay. Now you talk about social there quite a bit. Can you see more social results being integrated as part of Google’s SERP over the next few years?

ANDREW STEEL: Yeah, I don’t see why not. I know that even within the last couple of months or so, a number of the kind of queries that we’ve been looking at for clients have had results pages that continue to become more and more informationally represented on the results page themselves in terms of Twitter feeds, and related topics being pulled through in results, and those kind of things would seem more likely to. But again, I guess it just depends how the social platforms that Google would partner up with for this kind of data want to be featured as well, and whether they want to give Google that access because I think a big concern for them would have to be well, if Google starts pulling all this information through, then does it reduce the likelihood that you would need to be going onto Twitter and checking for it, or if you can just search in Google and get a better experience of finding what you’re wanting to see someone talking about. So it takes away one of the elements of Twitter almost, in terms of the information discovery has become a big thing for it, and there are a number of other social platforms as well.

DAVID BAIN: So when you talk about search engines, it seems that you just use the word Google. Do you think that’ll be the case in a few years’ time? Can you see other search engines becoming more prominent in the future?

ANDREW STEEL: I’d love to see – I could see some really putting up a challenge, but I think Google have hit almost a monopoly point where even their early days of searching was a lot more possible because there was no one who had the sheer resource and wealth behind them that Google have now. You know, their ability to feed data from so many sources. So they’ve got Chrome as a browser, they’ve got Android as a mobile platform device that can feed data that they can utilise. Sure, then you could argue have some of those same elements to them, but they don’t really seem to be trying to compete as much now, which makes me suspect as the next biggest challenge in Western searching at least that they’re really going to put up much of a challenge. Beyond them I wouldn’t have thought there was a whole lot there. So unless there was a new search engine to come along, which would seem unlikely again, just because I can only imagine the kind of innovation you’d have to come up with to really challenge Google on that front.

DAVID BAIN: I mean there are perhaps more specialist search engines now. You know, people obviously go to Amazon if they’re looking to purchase a physical product. People go to iTunes to search for a lot of music or podcasts, and also you’ve got Cortana, and default search facilities within devices now. Perhaps over the long term that could be more of a competitor.

ANDREW STEEL: Yeah, I suppose in terms of, I guess, the fragmenting or fracturing of search for particular intents or types of search, yeah there could be a challenge from that certainly because I think, you know, mobile applications, and the kind of better experience almost that you can get through applications is probably a challenge that’s a concern to Google right now. And you can see a lot of that in the fact that they have become so mobile focused as of late. But in terms of the scale, I guess, of search, I can’t really see a challenger to Google. And that definitely could be the start to lose, I guess, dominance or ownership, if you like, of particular spaces or verticals, or intents and types of search to some of these challengers who are in the front as well. But they are obviously, like I said, putting a lot of focus on mobile, and how they can involve and sell you more in that, and I guess continue to control that space a bit more too.

DAVID BAIN: Have you talked to any clients about optimising app content at all? Is that the kind of thing that will follow under an SEO’s remit in the future?

ANDREW STEEL: We have a number of cases, and I think you’re absolutely right. It could be something that becomes again a part of SEO as a whole, increasing down the line just because again it’s about that discovery really of content, and we are seeing that Google leads straight in terms of index and app content, and deep into that content, things like that, over the past year or so. I think ultimately anything where you’re talking about feeding content, and feeding your presence into search engines is probably false within the remit of an SEO, and the role as well. It’s whether as a discipline, SEO continues to become more fragmented, and specialist in that nature because it’s mushrooming into so many disciplines that you can’t always be a jack of all trades, master of none sort of thing. Yeah, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be.

DAVID BAIN: And can you see websites themselves changing significantly over the next few years? Because probably in the last three or four years we’ve had a significant move towards mobile, a lot more responsive design, and consideration for obviously user experience in relation to whatever device that user happens to be on. Can you see the way that we consume the web changing significantly, and if so, will that adjust the way that we have to design websites?

ANDREW STEEL: Yeah, absolutely. I think in terms of how significantly, I don’t know on that because I mean, even if you think back to the changes to websites over the previous four years, so if we go back to 2012, for example, I don’t think that they’re massively different over that time. I think one of the bias that tends to be for significant advancement in general across the web to take place takes time and web development because it’s ultimately, with clients anyway, they tend to be taking on these projects where you’re looking to build something that lasts for a couple of years at least before you’re rebuilding it again. So I think that kind of thing probably slows over four years how much that would change. But I think there have definitely been a number of advancements even within the last two, three years in terms of things like HTML5, and how much more has been done with that in terms of websites and experiences there. And there’s a number of changes that Google have made in terms of how they’re able to understand sites that are built with a JavaScript based coding that allows you to do so much more sophisticated interactional experience. And then I think even if you look at why we consume websites that will continue to change because Google are pulling the information more and more into search results; that will change what people actually then go through to websites for. So websites might become the place where you’re only really going for more kind of deeper, value added content over and above a topic that you’ve expected to be pulled through in search, but that can highlight information that if you back four years was probably quite common to pull a lot of traffic through from that kind of stuff’s probably going to be featured either in search results themselves, or through social platforms potentially, or through app experiences as well. Whereas websites might just be the place you go to do that deeper, more substantial reading in line with the kind of knowledge based type stuff.

DAVID BAIN: And what about Google’s SERP itself? Can you see that changing significantly? Because it has changed a bit over the last few months. Are we likely to see any video, any images, and what would your thoughts be on the future of the integration of the paid and organic results? Are you still confident that we can drive a significant volume of traffic from the organic results in the future?

ANDREW STEEL: I think increasingly some of them we’ve seen ourselves, that you have to be taking an antiquated approach to pretty much any marketing in terms of a particular search, and the changes recently in a lot of the spaces that we operate and excel have been significant to that. So hotels and travel space, for example, so over the last year or so Google have introduced a number of changes there in terms of they’ve got their hotel price ads, kind of paid platform that pulls through now in knowledge graph type results, where even if you’re doing a search for a particular brand of hotel, it’ll pull through that. It’s a challenge because it allows the classic kind of competitors, the hotels, the online travel agents, or OTAs as they’re typically referred to, to be visibly competing in your brand search space as a result of these changes to the search layout, and then again the recent changes in the right hand side, and adding an extra result above organic results has pushed organic further down the page on that. You know, there are challenges from that.

But from all these challenges being organic as well, it creates challenges to paids, and PPCs as a channel because it increases by the prices for those possessions, so it means you have to either be a bit more technical with your budget, or spreading it less, and also again, if there are other challenges like hotel price ads, or Google continually pushing and advertising into spaces like mortgages and things like that, and certainly states seven results there. I’ve seen one today about they’re starting to push even things like fuel prices, and things like that into Google results. And I think it approaches an absolute paramount to me at the moment. But whether the results continue to change, absolutely, I would expect that they’ll continue to pull more and more educated information through there because by parts of how Hummingbird works was to be able to go out and understand intent queries, and align that to finding data in a much more structured form across the web, even where people aren’t using structured data to mark it up. So if you’re put in a query now, the result that’ll pull through won’t bold the keywords that were part of your query, it will bold the answer because it can understand this is the answer to this question. And to be honest, I think those kind of developments will just continue to take place.

I think you said an interesting one yourself there in terms of will video be pulled through into search results? That one you could argue may be a bit contentious because then they’re competing with their own other highly successful searching of YouTube, but maybe it’s a case that YouTube’s supposed to be more integrated into search results, and we see almost a bit more of a social element in search results as well if you can see comments, and things like that. Because you can already see review data in the form of stars, and snippets there.

So yeah, absolutely, I expect it to change, and the nature of that change. It’s hard to predict, obviously. But I’d say a simple answer, I guess, is that there will be more information, almost definitely, come through into results.

DAVID BAIN: It seems like they want to move it in a direction where they’re offering an answer service as opposed to a search service, and an answer service based upon knowledge that they know about the person, so a very personalised one based upon their search history, and what they know about the person based upon obviously them being logged into different Google services as well. But you talk about integrated marketing there as well – paid marketing, and other forms of marketing as well. Is it reasonable in the future to expect an SEO to have reasonable knowledge of all of these areas? Or do you think it’ll fall more on the responsibility of a head of digital in general to actually know about all these areas, and then manage an SEO, and then an SEOs still to be very focused on the technical aspects of that job?

ANDREW STEEL: I think you have to know about them at least at a high level to be able to know how your role integrates in, or where the opportunities tend to be with them are. So in our team here for example, we do a lot of crossover learning sections to ensure that everyone across my team and the SEO team knows and understands the other channels, and they work together collaboratively for all our clients where we do multiple channels for them because you need to know how can we benefit from the insights that we can get in each search for example, or how does an SEO’s performance benefit from display activity, in terms of it can help brand search volumes, and how do we go about generating more of that to generate a greater volume of traffic there, and again, potentially generate more user interaction with our client sites off of the back of these other channels as well.

So I think the people who will be leaders of those type of teams definitely need to have a good understand across all the channels, and I think even at base level, even if you’re just at an SEO, you would need to have an understanding of what are the opportunities that you can tie in with those channels, which probably requires a base level knowledge at least.

DAVID BAIN: Okay, so we have quite a few interesting thoughts there on the future of SEO. But it’s just about time to conclude, I reckon. So just as a final question, what do businesses need to be doing now that will still be a valid strategy in 2020?

ANDREW STEEL: I think from an SEO perspective, definitely looking at the content that you create, and how that aligns with your audience for a start, and the needs of your audience as well, and then how you promote that aligns with those things as well. So promoting it to other places where your audience actually are, because I think a lot of connections with link building in the past have particularly been that it’ll just be opportunities looking at the perceived strength of a site rather than alignment to the audience. I think other things will be using structured data mark up, and trying to take advantage where possible of the information that is continually being pulled into search results, so that it’s not just that you’re losing something by losing someone’s answer, but that you’re providing an answer that also then has some information in it ideally that leads people into the next step of their search, which hopefully pulls them through to your site. Because one of the good things there, at the moment anyway, that Google are doing is that they are featuring the sites that they’re pulling a lot of these answers from into it. And then a final one I’ve touched on, with what we were just talking about in terms of ensuring that you are looking at your marketing activity, and joined up, when you’re looking at integration, and how you tie things together overall for overall benefit, and looking at things in a kind of siloed channel by channel, and measuring performance by each individual channel. Because at the end of the day it’s about driving more customers for most businesses, so integration is definitely the thing that I don’t think will go anywhere.

DAVID BAIN: Okay, I think that’s probably the most often used word – integration. So it seems to be the direction to go in. Wonderful thoughts there. Thanks for coming on, and how can people get a hold of you, Andrew?

ANDREW STEEL: You can get a hold of me either through the Equator website, which is www.eqtr.com, or on Twitter @andrewjsteel, or through LinkedIn, Andrew Steel.

DAVID BAIN: Great stuff. Okay, thanks again, Andrew.

ANDREW STEEL: Thanks, David.