Episode 3 of our “SEO in 2020” podcast interviews Greg Gifford from DealerOn; 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 the world’s leading SEOs, who specialises in the automotive industry. He’s an experienced conference speaker, who loves to entertain the audience with his movie slides. Welcome, Mr Greg Gifford.

GREG GIFFORD: How are you?

DAVID BAIN: Wonderful, thanks. How you doing, Greg?

GREG GIFFORD: I am wonderful. I’m getting ready to head over to Brighton, so I’m looking forward to some good fish and chips.

DAVID BAIN: I’m looking forward to seeing you there, yeah. That’ll be great. But with regards to SEO in the year 2020, would you call yourself a local SEO at the moment? Is that how you’d describe yourself?

GREG GIFFORD: Yeah, definitely.

DAVID BAIN: And do you think you think you’re going to be describing yourself as that, in the year 2020?

GREG GIFFORD: You know, I don’t know if we’ll still call it that. There’s always going to be a need for people that know how to manipulate signals for a business’s property, and I don’t necessarily say a website, ‘cause it could be an app, it could be whatever, but there’s always going to be a need for people like me, to be able to influence the invisibility of a business, online, on an app, in a speech, in glasses, who knows what’s going to be available in five years, four years, two years, but there will always be a need for that type of job description, to be able to do things to increase the visibility of a business.

DAVID BAIN: There will always be a requirement for manipulators.

GREG GIFFORD: Exactly! Don’t tell my wife we’re calling me a manipulator now though, that could get pretty ugly, quickly.

DAVID BAIN: So, SEO involves so many things now, do you think that it’ll still be realistic for an SEO to do everything that falls under the SEO umbrella? Will SEO’s name be changed, because there are too many things as part of the game?

GREG GIFFORD: I mean, there have been people trying to change the name, or the job title of SEO for a couple of years now, because it’s moved so far beyond optimising for search engines, but you know, with the rise of voice search, digital personal assistants, whatever you want to call it, the way that people are searching is changing, we’re getting apps, you know, we had Google Glass that failed, but there’s all sorts of patterns, prototypes for contacts with augmented reality, you know, maybe now, something in that direction comes out, we’ve got VR coming out now, there’s so many different modes that people can be using to search, maybe it’s not SEO anymore, maybe it’s online visibility coordinator, I mean, who knows what it’s going to be called? But regardless of what you call it, like I said, we’ll still be the people out there, manipulating those signals, helping those businesses get more visibility.

DAVID BAIN: And helping those businesses, so do you think the majority of businesses will still be relying on external consultants or services in order to actually help them to appear higher up in the search engines or...?

GREG GIFFORD: I think, on a small business site, which is primarily what I’m used to dealing with, since I do local, I think there’s always going to be a need for an external consultant, just because things are so complicated, and I don’t see them getting any easier as time goes on, and the technology advances, it’s probably going to be more complicated. Now sure, we’ve got RankBrain and machine learning, and all these things coming up that are going to influence what those ranking signals are, and humans won’t really know anymore, but there’s still going to be all of these tinker guys out here that are going to do tests and figure things out, we’re still going to be able to determine what signals matter the most, and we’re going to... you’ll have the big brands that are always going to have people in-house that figure things out, but for the small mom and pops, doctors, lawyers, plumbers, electricians, pizza delivery guys, car dealers, that sort of thing, I think there’s going to have to be an external person helping them out, because it’s just too much for the small business owner to have to figure out, learn and keep up with.

DAVID BAIN: So in terms of the activities that an SEO does, what are the things that you’re doing now, that work effectively now, that you think are unlikely to work in four years time?

GREG GIFFORD: I would love to be able to say, ‘links won’t matter in four years’, it would be a wonderful world if we could switch off of that, ‘cause it’s still too easy to game, but I just don’t know how quickly they’re going to be able to figure something else that works better. I think social signals are definitely going to be more prevalent, more important, more weighted in the future, we’re already seeing them get a little momentum, I think click-through rate and personalisation, and all those localisation, personalisation factors are going to play a huge influence, so it’s going to be less and less about what you can do for everyone, and more about, what you can do specific users. I think, honestly, my favourite wild, wild west to play in right now, is Facebook advertising, I think there are incredible opportunities there, you can do some really amazing things there, I think that’s going to just continue to mature and you know, whether Facebook’s still around in four years, who knows, it probably will be, it seems to be pretty big, or it is at this point, but there will always be Facebook, Snapchat, ways, there will always be these applications that people interface with on a daily basis that we’ll be able to advertise in and gain more visibility. Beacons, I mean, we’ve got beacons now, I mean, this is the beacon system that we use, I mean, this little device here, can make a huge difference for a business, if you’ve got that running in your business and you’re tagging people, and popping up messages on their phone, or you’re tagging people and you don’t care about the phone message, but you’re tagging them because then you can load it into Facebook or Instagram, or Google, and create a custom audience and then run your retargeting at actual foot traffic that was at your place of business. So there’s a lot of exciting things going on, that I think are going to change how customers interface with businesses, and how the businesses target those customers, but luckily, there are smart people around figuring these things out, and sharing the information with everybody.

DAVID BAIN: So you mentioned possibly an increase in social signals, as a ranking signal, if that was the case, I assume you’re talking about authorities and relevant users within an industry, talking about something, as opposed to simply, number of likes, or retweets, or something like that?

GREG GIFFORD: Yeah, I mean, number of likes is a pawn to chase after, that’s way too easy to game, number of retweets, obviously very easy, I don’t think it should be very hard for them to determine a way to figure out if these social signals are legitimately honest, real profiles talking about engaging with the business. You can also tell if the business is interacting with their customer base on social, or if the business is broadcasting out. Obviously, a business that has followers or even, people that aren’t following them but that, interact with them, maybe on Twitter, but the business isn’t interacting back, that’s going to be bad, but if people are interacting and the business interacts back, back and forth, and there’s a lot of that social integration going on there, between the two, I think that’s going to be a powerful signal. I think the sentiment on social media could be good, because you may have a business that’s just getting absolutely trounced, because they’re getting so many bad comments online, that’s going to have to play into it as well, so it’s difficult, but it shouldn’t be too hard to, obviously, hey, these are a bunch of fake profiles that are just retweeting everything, okay, those won’t count the algorithm, or hey, this is a local business in Dallas, Texas, but they’ve got 5,000 followers in Bangladesh, okay, those 5,000 followers, nothing of that is going to count towards the algorithm, so I would think it should be pretty easy, but hey, I don’t work at Google, so...

DAVID BAIN: So, I mean, Google, over the last year or so, have developed a bit of a relationship with Twitter, obviously incorporating some tweets in the search result, is it going to incorporate more social results into its search results?

GREG GIFFORD: I would think social would be an important signal, I think... you know, they were talking about it years ago, I mean, Matt Cutts was talking about it at SMX West three or four years ago, how they’ve been trying to figure out how to use social signals, and it just makes sense, because everybody is on some sort of social media, almost all the time, I mean, everybody’s on Facebook, everybody’s on Twitter, everybody’s on Snapchat, or you know, WhatsApp, or whatever these different apps or venues are that are coming out, people are playing on social, people connect on social, it’s a much more realistic signal of the popularity of the site, if it’s got a lot of buzz on social than if it’s got some links from some directory sites that some SEO’s set up. So, I think it’s an important signal, it’s just, they’ve got to figure out a way to determine if those signals are legitimate or if they’re manufactured, or gained, if they’re profiles that somebody can go set up, so that’s the difficult part that I don’t think they’re really cracked the code on yet, but it’s got to be something that... it’s got to be coming soon. I mean, you said you interviewed Rand on this. Rand has done click-through tests, a million different times at conferences where click-through rate bumps somebody up in the search ranking, so we know that’s definitely important, that’s the social signal; there’s social interest, it gets bumped up. He’s also done some experiments where they’ve got an island page that has no links to it, doesn’t exist anywhere, except for, in and of itself, and then people go out and share social links, and all of a sudden that page starts to rank, well, if Google’s not using social signals, how does that happen? So we know that there’s something there already, they’re at least playing with a little bit, and I think that it will become more important as the years go by.

DAVID BAIN: Are we likely to see a significant competitor to Google, emerge over the next couple of years?

GREG GIFFORD: It’s going to be tough, I just don’t know... I mean, the only way I could see Google losing audience share is if they go so far in the direction of monetisation, with paid local results or all of the different shopping ads, and Google just continues to scrape content and show Knowledge Box, and one box answers, just keep customers on Google, and buying from Google, and booking flights, booking hotels, doing all these things, actually on Google, if they move too far in the direction of, ‘Hey, we’re trying to make money and we’re not trying to provide good results’, then that could start to aggravate people and maybe people start jumping ship and going somewhere else, but I mean, it’s so ubiquitous right now, they’d have to really screw up, I think, or something amazing would have to come out, with some piece of new technology that we don’t know about yet, that just changes the way people interact with the web and the online world, maybe that could happen, but otherwise, Google’s going to have to really screw up, to lose out on what they’ve got.

DAVID BAIN: You also talked about apps earlier on as well, and people are starting to search with voices, you mentioned as well, Siri, Cortana, could the next serious search player that competes, possibly with Google, be that kind of search engine, as opposed to more of a traditional search engine that produces some kind of SERP in a webpage?

GREG GIFFORD: Yeah, I mean, definitely so, I can definitely see it moving in the direction, I mean, we’ve got Siri, we’ve got Cortana, we’ve got the Amazon Echo, where people are starting to... the companies are heading in the direction of voice search, you’re asking the computer something instead of typing it in, like Star Trek style, you’re like, ‘Computer, tell me this’, so you’re no longer, necessarily interacting directly with the search engine, you’re interacting with personal, digital assistant on your device that will then query something and give you results. Whether we’re talking about the search engine or the app, or... you know, there’s people out there that specialise in Amazon and how to optimise your products to show up better in Amazon, there’s people out there that specialise in how to optimise your apps, so they show up better in the app store in Apple, there will always be people that know how to optimise for whatever venue people are searching in. So yeah, it could be possible that the digital assistant-type voice search overtakes Google, as time goes by, but you’ve got Google now, and you’ve got Cortana, and then you’ve got Siri, so you’ve got those three big players, right there. Who knows which one’s going to win out, I mean, it kind of depends on the device adoption, but regardless of what that venue is or what format those searches are taking place in, there’s still going to be a need for people to understand how those digital assistants, if we call them that, work, and how they’re searching and what factors they’re looking at, so that then, you can go and manipulate the signals to make sure that your site, your app, your information, is more visible to potential customers, using those SERPs.

DAVID BAIN: But at this stage, it still looks as if Google’s SERP results page, is still probably going to be in existence in four years time, so I mean, if that’s the case, what do you think that might look like in the year 2020?

GREG GIFFORD: All paid ads. It’s getting pretty ridiculous, who cares if the right rail disappeared? Whoopy-fricking-do, nobody ever clicked on it anyway, but with that fourth ad up top, pushing things further down, I play in a local arena, so whenever you’re doing local searches, you’re going to have the stack pack, so you’ve got a map and then the three results underneath that now got bumped down even further, so a lot of times on local searches, everything is below the fold except for the paid ads, and then a little slither of the map, so I think... I mean, Google’s a company, they’re out there, they’re trying to make money, and as they continue to monetise, I think we’re going to see more and more paid options for search, there are a lot of tests at automotive right now, where you search for a specific vehicle, say you search for a Chevvy Comaro, and then over in the knowledge box on the right, it’s going to say, ‘Here are some dealers near you’, and show nearby dealers, but that’s a paid option, it’s not an organic play of, ‘Here’s your location and here are the dealers nearby’, it’s a play of, ‘Here’s the car you’re searching for and here are the dealers that want to pay to show up as a nearby dealer’, I think there are going to be more and more things like that, these paid search results that appear to be more of an organic type of thing, but in reality, they’re just trying to make more money, so I don’t see that changing, I see that extending even further as time goes on.

DAVID BAIN: So will Google Plus still exist in four years time?

GREG GIFFORD: Does Google Plus exist now? I mean, really. Now that Google is pulling of all the location information off of Google My Business profiles, all those profiles that you spend so much time building up in places, and then building up in Google My Business, are now simply a social presence on a social network that like, five people outside the SEO industry use. So they’ve pulled back so hard on it, and decoupled Google Plus from all the Google log ins, now just recently, they have allowed us to leave... people can now leave reviews for business, with only a Google account and not a full Google Plus account, I think it’s pretty clear that they’ve given up on Google Plus. I wouldn’t be surprised if it just doesn’t exist in another year or two.

DAVID BAIN: So does Google need more of a social layer? Might it buy something like Twitter in the future?

GREG GIFFORD: I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried. I mean, it would make the most sense for them to buy Facebook, I just don’t think they’ve got the ability to and I don’t think Facebook’s going to sell, but I think for them, it was a smart play to try to compete in that arena, tying in all of that social information to your user profile and gathering all that data, would be incredibly valuable for them, both from serving up relevant search results to make sure that you stay on Google and serving up relevant ads to you because now they’ve got so much more information of you, it’s just at the point that they tried to jump into the pool, Facebook and Twitter were so far ahead in the race, they were never going to catch up.

DAVID BAIN: So what does a website designer need to do to stay relevant over the next few years? We’ve seen the rise of responsive design, we’ve seen AMP pages come up over the last year or so, what else is likely to happen, in terms of actually, impacting the overall look and feel of pages?

GREG GIFFORD: Well, as we see a continued increase in the availability of just ridiculous bandwidth, I think we’re going to see more and more video everywhere, video is just so much more engaging, so much more interesting, so I definitely see... kind of like when Flash came out and everybody was so excited, ‘cause you had Flash intros that subbed, I don’t think we’re going to have video intros, but I think there’s going to be more and more of video everywhere. Video converts better and that’s something I talk about in my thing in Brighton next week, is just how great video is and how awesome it is to convert more people to do things on your site, so as bandwidth becomes less and less of a barrier, I see a lot more of video coming, I see a lot more interactivity on the website, because you can do so many more cool things when you don’t have to worry about bandwidth and what you have to load in.

DAVID BAIN: Yeah, I mean, hopefully it’s going to be clever video, and part of relevant user experience, not forcing users to go through something before getting to where they want to get to.

GREG GIFFORD: Exactly! Yep!

DAVID BAIN: Yeah. I remember many years ago, the website Boo.com launching and it was a lovely, beautiful fashion website, but this was in the year 2000, and no one had the computers, no one was able to actually deliver the user experience that they wanted to at the time, but hopefully, as you say, bandwidth is coming along and going to be able to support so much in the future, 4K video, just around the corner for everyone.

GREG GIFFORD: Yep!

DAVID BAIN: And, what about user behaviour? So that’s generally referred to as going to be an increasing part of SEO in the future. What kind of user behaviour metrics are Google likely to be looking at in the future?

GREG GIFFORD: Well, we already know that click-through rate is influencing search results, I think that’s going to be more and more powerful, especially as, we’re really moving into the direction of... we’re already at the point where, you can’t be successful anymore just having a website, you know, ten years ago, hey, if you had a website, you were cutting edge and you were going to be great, but now everybody’s got a website, so now it’s got to be, ‘What’s different? What’s better? How are you a better website? How are you better at user experience?’, and as that continues to happen, everybody now knows, ‘Okay, you’ve got to have good content, you’ve got to have links, you’ve got to have social mentions, blah blah blah blah blah...’, but click-through rate’s really going to be telling to Google, for forever, because if you’re clicking off of a search result or if you’re on Cortana and you’re clicking into something, and then you come back out and ask another question, there’s that click-through rate, view-through rate, time on site, that’s a really telling metric, because you can see, ‘Did that person have to continue their search and refine their search, to find something that was a better answer to the question that they’re asking?’, so I think that’s going to definitely increase in importance. I think localisations are really going to be even more and more exact, as you know, we moved from iPhones that just have triangulation of cell phone signal to every phone and every mobile device has a GPS chip in it, and now it’s not triangulating and knowing sort of where you are, now it’s, they know where you are within a couple of inches, and as those things happen and as we have the RFIDs, and all these different things, it’s going to be a lot more, kind of like the Tom Cruise movie, oh, what was that, I’m so awful, I can’t even remember... Minority Report, where he’s walking through and once he got the guy’s eyeballs, all the ads flashing up, were related to the guy that he got the eyeballs from, because it was doing the retina scans on the ads and showing you ads based on your specific need. I think we’re really going to see a lot of that, moving forward, where a lot of the AdWords, the display, the retargeting, all of that’s really going to be based on your past user behaviour, and so, the web or the search experience, or the app experience, or the voice search experience, is going to be incredibly tailored.

DAVID BAIN: Okay, you also mentioned click-through rates that are on there, does that mean if your site currently ranks for broad terms that are to do with your industry but not precisely to do with products and services necessarily that you sell, and you’re bringing in traffic that’s not the most relevant, then that’s actually possibly more negative than having less traffic but much more targeted traffic?

GREG GIFFORD: Well, I think, what’s important about click-through rate is, if you’re showing up in the search results, and let’s say, you’re on the bottom of page one, but you’re getting more click-throughs at the bottom of page one than the guys at position five or six, then that’s going to bump you up, Google can tell, ‘Hey, look, I’m serving up these options, but the guys at the bottom of the list are getting a lot more clicks than the people up above, or the people up above are getting clicks, but those people are coming back out and clicking on something else, so obviously they’re not finding what they’re looking for on that site’, and then that’s going to shift the order of things, so I think, bringing the traffic in at all, as long as that traffic is engaged and spend some time on your site.

DAVID BAIN: So titles, better descriptions, URL format, are probably the most important parts of an on-site SEO?

GREG GIFFORD: Yeah, engaging content once they get there, you don’t want to have all this great stuff that shows up in the SERP, and then once they click over, it’s a crappy page. It’s got to be an engaging experience, once they reach your website, or your app, or whatever it is that we’re looking at, obviously, five years down the road.

DAVID BAIN: Great! Well, okay, just to conclude, what do businesses need to be doing now, that would still be a valid strategy in three or four years time, do you think?

GREG GIFFORD: I think content is never going to go away, as being probably the most important signal, ‘cause I mean, everything else we’ve talked about, user experience, all these things, are based on what kind of content experience you’ve got on your website, having just a kick-ass content experience on your site, will never decrease in weight, as far as any search algorithm or search experience goes. Currently, links are still really important, I don’t know how soon they’ll be able to move away from that, they will always play some sort of a role, so acquiring good links, being a part of the community, getting relevant links from local businesses, incredibly important, and then, when we’re talking local search, your citations; your name, address, phone number, need to be consistent, that’s never going to go away, so you’re always going to need to make sure that you’ve got great content, great links and a clean citation profile. The weight of those things may change over time, but those three things will always be incredibly important when it comes to local search.

DAVID BAIN: Greg, thanks so much for joining us. How can people get hold of you?

GREG GIFFORD: You can follow me on Twitter, @GregGifford, or you can shoot me an email, at [email protected]

DAVID BAIN: Great stuff! Thanks again.