Episode 6 of our “SEO in 2020” podcast interviews Duane Forrester from Bruce Clay; 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 a man who’s the former Senior Programme Manager of SEO at Microsoft and the current Vice President of Organic Search Operations at Bruce Clay. Welcome Duane Forrester.

DUANE FORRESTER: David, thank you very much, from the sunny West Coast of America.

DAVID BAIN: And I’m reporting here from semi-sunny London.

DUANE FORRESTER: Excellent. Excellent.

DAVID BAIN: You thought I was going to say rainy, didn’t you?

DUANE FORRESTER: I don’t know, but that’s okay. So you get that kind of like variation weather. I laughed the other morning – my wife woke up and she looks and she goes, ‘What’s the weather going to be like today?’ And I was like, ‘What do you think the weather’s going to be like today?’ It’s clear.

DAVID BAIN: Yeah, you stop talking about it, don’t you?

DUANE FORRESTER: Exactly, it becomes a non-issue. Oh, I did talk about it yesterday, because I drove home last night in my convertible with the top down and it was 65 degrees, so that’s about twelve/fourteen degrees Celsius or so and I actually had to turn the heater on, because it was cold. So we talk about the weather in terms of adjusting to the weather.

DAVID BAIN: But you still had the hood down as well? Yeah?

DUANE FORRESTER: Yes totally, of course, right. You drive your convertible with the top down but the heater up. That’s what we do in the Pacific North West, so you can take the boy out of the Pacific North West, but apparently the Pacific North West sticks with the boy.

DAVID BAIN: Apparently so. So Duane, when did you first become aware of SEO?

DUANE FORRESTER: You know, I became aware probably about three months after my birth, I had predicted it back in the early ‘70s and my parents thought I was crazy – but no, I’m kidding. This would have been, I was working for Caesar’s Palace in Canada and it would have been a couple of years before I was married, so ’97, somewhere in that range. And I remember I was running events and an old family friend and I were talking and he had a business and part of his business was event management, which was why I was talking with him, but then he was telling me about this new thing that he was doing which was building websites for local businesses and how he thought that was going to be a big thing in the future. And I remember coming home, he and I talked for a couple of hours and I came home that night and I looked at my wife and I was like, ‘You know what, there’s got to be a way to make money on the internet.’ And little did I know it turns out, yeah, there are several ways. And within about a two to three year period I’d left the Casino, started working for a sports betting company in a nearby community that I lived in and really got onto it then, I’m not going to lie, the beginning of all this for me was paid search, way back in the days of GoTo.com and Penny a Click and all that kind of thing. And it was fantastic and then the bids started to increase and then we were in AdWords and then AdWords didn’t want gambling related stuff, so we needed to seriously consider other things. And that was the beginning of going deep in SEO and within about two months I’d hired somebody to take over all of the rest of the marketing work and I focused solely on SEO and I really haven’t taken my head out of it since then. It’s been almost twenty years.

DAVID BAIN: Wow. So looking back to what you were doing then tactics wise, is there anything at all that has stayed the same in the world?

DUANE FORRESTER: You know it’s funny, early on we all hid behind user names and wouldn’t say who we were and then the first major conferences came out and you realised that wait, I’m going to meet all these people and I don’t care, whatever, so we just started putting our names on it. But some basic stuff, like your title tags, your meta descriptions, those are still something we focus on today to make sure they’re done correctly, because there is still value, not just in terms of SEO but beyond that now. At the time my personal focus, one of my focuses, was useful content. Because we’re coming at this from a time when I had grown up where you couldn’t just go to a search engine and ask the search engine to find you something of interest. If you asked it for mountain bikes, you didn’t get results that were mountain bikes, you had to know the URL you wanted to go to to look at content about mountain bikes. So the web was still very much controlled by word of mouth. If somebody told you about a mountain bike website, then you would go and check it out.

DAVID BAIN: You probably spent more time on the Yahoo directory?

DUANE FORRESTER: Oh yeah, absolutely. And then you get the advent of this really early stage search engines, like Dogpile and AltaVista and these kinds of things. And that’s when it started to get fascinating for me, when you would right click view source and see how many times the person had the word cars written in their keyword tag and then you tried to do it more and all of that. And it became fascinating when you realised that moment there’s an inflection point where innocence is lost. Because you realise you’ve now discovered a way to gain something. And you don’t know what the advantage is, but you suspect there is an advantage. And so it goes from becoming a fascination to a business pursuit. And you didn’t expect it. It happened to you at one am, this realisation hit you and then you pulled an all-nighter and you just didn’t sleep since then. That’s kind of how it hits you.

DAVID BAIN: So you’re talking about things like title tags, like meta descriptions that you’re using now and that you were using back then. Are those still going to be essential elements of good SEO in the year 2020?

DUANE FORRESTER: Yeah, I think so, but again you’re going to see these things twist. Like the title tag will still be useful to the search engines, it’s going to be a difficult signal for them to walk away from. And so I still think there’s value in that. We’ve long since passed the heyday of spamming that tag, so now we’re in the everybody is creating, but the quality isn’t quite there, so there are still dividends to be paid by focusing on the quality and these kinds of things. But these are very baseline. These are very elemental items and what’s going to happen to them over time is they will get to the point of total automation. We’re pretty much there right now. You’re writing in WordPress and you’re writing the title of your blog post, it’s automatically the title tag that’s going in there. And so if you string together a coherent relevant sentence with the right keywords in it, you’re title tag is primarily taken care of. It doesn’t need a lot more than that. Things do get a little bit hairier when you start looking in the e-commerce world because everything is duplicated and there are opportunities there to separate yourself and manufacturers sharing the information through their feed with all their information. They’re in no way focused on your SEO efforts. So there is room for improvement in those areas. So I think they’ll still be around. The meta description tag really hasn’t been about SEO for a long time. Its real focus is the call to action in the SERP and so I don’t know that that changes. Unless the meta description tag goes away entirely and maybe that gets replaced with visuals. I don’t know, maybe we’ve morphed to this idea where it’s title tag and thumbnails and that’s what people are looking at and the landscape in the SERP changes completely. Maybe everything is embedded and the first answer to the first question is always in the SERP and the value to the business is as the person explores more. And while people may say, ‘Oh, no, my content is being used and I’m not getting value for it.’ Slow your roll a second there. What’s happening here is a filtering layer is being created where the only people coming to you are highly qualified. Because they’ve taken the action, they self-filtered themselves out. The people looking for the quick hit of free information, they’re gone, they’re not tagging your servers, there’s no bandwidth cost, there’s no page load issues on it. Speed becomes less of a concern and in that instance bounce rate goes down and the people coming to you are people that have expressly said, ‘I want more of what you have.’ And that means conversions are a lot easier.

DAVID BAIN: When you were talking about the page title, you still use that word, keywords, is it, do you think, in the future, going to be important to have a keyword phrase in there that is highly searched for or will it be just as sufficient to actually include phraseology that is just as relevant to what the user is looking for? Just as relevant for the user, but doesn’t happen to be searched for as many times? Will it be just as successful to form your page title like that?

DUANE FORRESTER: You know this is a really interesting nuance on this, David. I’m fascinated with it because we see more and more of this happening, you should dig into the data. Pure keyword research on one side telling you this is what people are searching for. But then when you actually look at engagement data, you find a very different story is being told. This is what people click on, this is what people spend time on, this is what people purchase on. And I think if you’re a smart business person in 2020, you’re looking at completing the user journey. You’re looking at plugging into the user journey and whether that is pure volume keyword and sticking that in there or playing to the intent of the user, both of those are going to have a place. And if you think about how the browsers have evolved over time, I remember a time when you would see the title tag across the top of the browser and you would read it and then people started to read it and all of a sudden we went to tabs and now you can’t even see the title tag. Woe be the business that puts their business name first, because humans will never see whatever was written after that. So I think that as these interfaces start to change over time, the tag becomes what it was in the beginning which was something in the background, in the code. The engine will continue to reference it. Continue to pull what value they can from it, but of course you as the SEO have that opportunity and if you know, if your testing and information tells you intrinsically that the next step in this journey for this person is X then it pays to move yourself in that direction. To be waiting for them when they come around the corner to say, ‘Hey, you’re almost there, I’ve found you a good deal, click here, I’ve got your back.’ That is a hugely powerful moment in connecting with a consumer and I think that will have more importance to businesses than just high volume keywords. Let’s put an artificial intelligence skew on this. So keyword research that we used to do that is the high volume, the low volume and that kind of stack thing, that’s like a calculator wrist watch. For its time, pretty good technology. But what we’re moving toward is like HAL from 2001 without the bad attitude. That’s the type of thing that’s going to be making the difference. And we see that already. We see that with things like Google moving into RankBrain. You know that Microsoft and Bing are moving into their own versions of this. Facebook’s got it, Amazon’s got it. Businesses that aren’t even search engines are looking in these directions to solve problems. It makes sense that we align ourselves with that type of flow as SEO.

DAVID BAIN: So if we’re moving towards trying to ensure that all our users have a great experience on our sites, what happens if we end up ranking for keyword phrases that don’t bring really relevant, authoritative traffic and that traffic only stays for a few seconds or so? Does that actually potentially have a detrimental impact on our rankings in the future?

DUANE FORRESTER: Wouldn’t it suck if one of the next updates we found out was not only do you have to optimise to rank well, but you actually have to optimise for the user experience? And if you don’t you’re penalised for that. And what you’re describing right now, David, is kind of a nascent version of that. We see that now bounce rates are having an impact on things. I knew it inside Microsoft as a concept known as desat or dissatisfaction and you always want them to lower the dissatisfaction quotient, that was always the job. No project moved forward without having a desat conversation involved with it and that is something that the engines will look at. If you click on a search result, go to a page and we’ve all had this happen, we know instantly that page isn’t what we’re looking for and we immediately hit the back button and you’re back at the SERP and then you go to the second one. That entire chain of events is captured and that is then applied to the knowledge about you in relation to that actual search. Next time that happens you may not rank at the top. You might rank bottom of the page. Because they’re testing to see whether people are interacting with something else more and better. So we already have a version of this now. As the engines become more adept at understanding intention and the cause and effect scenarios that happen when they serve something to a user, whether it’s in a mobile device, the type of content they’re getting, video, vocal, whatever. When they see those patterns develop to a trustworthy level, they’re going to start rewarding the sites that are checking out more of those boxes. So we talk about these concepts like keyword research, SEO, usability, conversion – we talk about them as if they’re single entities still and that is not going to be the case at all. We don’t have the ability to preview our own websites live on the internet without a search engine ingesting them instantaneously anymore, which means testing is difficult. But we’ve got to figure that out, we’ve got to go to private environments where we test everything beforehand and we do the usability testing and we bring in focus groups and we do all of this work. Because he who does that wins the day and he who does not is left behind in the digital dust. So all of these concepts we talk about now, these are not standalone items. I can imagine we’re, let’s say, three and a half years out from this, we’re going to see these skill sets continue to consolidate. The most successful people in the digital marketing world are not standalone skill set people. They are people with multiple disciplines who understand how all of these work together and can bring them to bear on the product they’re working on and move the needle for the business. Because at the end of the day businesses only care about one thing – money.

DAVID BAIN: So what about the metrics that businesses measure to determine whether or not SEO has been a success in the future – will there still be a great focus on whether or not certain keyword phrases are at an average ranking of X or will the fact that so many people are being delivered personalised results for just about every single search query start to make that meaningless?

DUANE FORRESTER: It’s interesting, because this conversation that we are about to embark on is one that happened five years ago and ten years ago with the advent of GA and all these different things. And ultimately the answer is yes and no. And the reality is that there will always be a need for in-depth data and analysis of that data. Because that’s how you uncover really good nuggets that you can use to either improve things or that identify what the actual problem is. So that data layer never goes away and luckily for us the internet is the perfect place for this data layer. Super easy to implement, super easy to track, super easy to visualise. After that you do have to think a little bit about how you solve the problem, because now you’re into asset allocation and you’re into how you employ your resources, your people, your servers and whatnot. But the fact is here that more and more businesses are coming online and they’re all wanting to simplify it. That is a very human trait. So what you see is a lot of these businesses are sticking with the old school metrics. So if I was concerned about people coming through the door to my store, how long they browse in my store and how many purchases are made every day, those metrics translate directly to the internet. And so at a top level I think we’re going to see this simplification happen because businesses will require it. On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, we are living right now in the golden age of data and toolsets and this is huge for anyone doing SEO. So again back to that multiple disciplinary concept – you’ve got to be able to dig in the data and the data has to be there. I see this all the time. I just did a favour for a friend the other day. He knows a gentleman who has a website. I went and looked at the website, they gave me the log-in for Google Analytics and I was like, oh, okay that’s a nice plum, I mean you normally don’t really get that right away and it can give you insights. Except these guys hadn’t connected any of the Google Search Console information into Analytics, so a lot of the reports were just dead ends to me, telling me to sign this up and I’m like, I could actually give you a lot more insight if you got out of you own way and that’s the state of the union today. The adoption of these technologies generally happens over about a five to seven year curve and if you think about that in internet time, that is forever. You have businesses that start, go public, are consumed by another one and are shut down inside a five-year window. So you might have a business that completely misses the solution they need and it is what it is. But that’s the reality. We see that, when I was at The Search Engine we would talk about this where the adoption rates of things like Schema.org and items like this and if you project the plot, you see how long it’s going to take at that pace to reach the critical mass and so then the conversation becomes well how long do you support this? Because it costs money to support an initiative. How long are you willing to support it in the hope that it hockey sticks up and that you get that critical mass? Or are you willing to go long game on it and just wait for the inflection point to hit, where you reach critical mass and now you start deriving value from it and so on. And that happens with every single thing. It happens with analytics. I was an Urchin user from way back and now you talk to most businesses, they’ve at least heard of Google Analytics if they’re not using them. And that’s taken years and there are still plenty of businesses out there, you ask them what their analytics are and they look at you and they’re like, ‘I check my bank balance every week’. Alright, well that’s a start, you’re not completely in the dark, but let me introduce you to world of data and that’s never going to go away. If anything, we’re going to get more refinement, we’re going to start seeing crossover from other areas so this whole dual screen scenario that we have going on or if you’re in my house it’s like seven screens. You’ve got your television, you’ve got your laptop, you’ve got your tablet, you’ve got your smartphone, the dog has a phone, everybody is online. All of that data gets collected and aggregated and then it actually can be served back and business people can understand that. They can start to understand things like the time of day people in this zip code are most likely to engage with their products on the website. And then if you overlay that with demographic information on income, on what the business cycle looks like for where they work, because that information is available through credit histories. Now suddenly you know the fiscal year in which a business is running, so then you can project things like when bonuses are paid out and if you know that your product is an expensive product, when’s the best time to advertise it? Probably about two months out from bonus time, they’re putting it in their head. And you can do those kinds of things now. Facebook is an early proponent of this real psychographic targeting that lets you literally find the one guy on the web who has the money to buy your product. And then put the ad in front of him. That’s going to be expand, it’s going to be huge. I have a personal vendetta against the cable industries if you will and I’m not alone in this. Most people hate their cable company like they hate their mobile provider and it’s made me focus on this industry a bit more of late and what I’ve realised is we’re seeing a lot of consolidation and part of that is driven by the fact that more people are choosing to use mobile as their access point for the internet over a wired cable set up in their home. And right now over the last two years, the number has grown exponentially. One fifth of homes in the United States choose to use mobile for their internet connectivity only.

DAVID BAIN: You’re talking about so much involvement that an SEO has to have nowadays. You also moved on to paid search there as well. Does an SEO have to be aware of and quite good at all these things in order to be a successful SEO or will it be possible to be a successful SEO in the future just narrowed in their focus in terms of a certain niche within SEO?

DUANE FORRESTER: There will be a level of success attainable by everyone if you focus solely in one area, technical SEO for example. There are decades of work to be fixed and that isn’t going anywhere. And if you’re a really good technical SEO, you’re going to be able to help a lot of businesses and you’re going to be able to help a lot of the big businesses that have screwed things up and their legacy systems are just a disaster. And that is going to be a lucrative career. If you are the type of SEO that is more generalised, but has fingers in many pies, you’re going to be the leader of people. Because you will be the person who has the opportunity to sit down and craft the strategic plans for these small and large businesses. To put the chess pieces in the right locations on the table and to understand that they’re moving in the right direction, at the right pace and at the right moment. Your job isn’t going to be to go execute these things, to go digging through code and figuring out why this piece of node.js has busted this, or who cloaked what and for what reason. That’s not your level. You’re level is going to be helping the company transition to what it could possibly be as a digital entity. And so I see a huge future for people in SEO. I think there is going to be a lot of crossover. We’re going to see a lot of people that are traditionally technical SEOs, as they mature they’ll reach a point where they’ll be like, ‘There’s not much new happening.’ And they’ve trained themselves how to consume new information so if something new does pop up on the technical side of things, they will be able to assimilate that information so fast and put it back out again. It doesn’t feel like learning for them, it’s just consumption and utilisation. So they will then be looking for other challenges and they will expand their skillsets. They’ll take that same analytical approach and realise, ‘Hey, you know what? What made me a good technical SEO also makes me an excellent user experience person.’ Because it’s about the details, it’s about the nuance. And then they’ll see how those two things fit together. There is a bright future if you’re in SEO right now. My recommendation and I’ve told people this for years now, is you need to understand all of these areas. Because the first time you encounter a situation where someone says to you, ‘This is brilliant, this is excellent, we are going to see 10 x the number of visitors to our website. We are so excited about this. Awesome. How do we increase conversions?’ To the person asking the question, it’s the next most logical thought in their head – ‘We’ve got all these people, how do we get more money?’ And if you hear them going ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’ and you’re, ‘I don’t know’ that’s a career limiting moment and so you can proof yourself for that. All the data is out there, all the information is out there, it’s free to learn and while we still think of these as separate disciplines right now, we’re not going to see businesses creating SEO departments in the future. By 2020 all of these things are going to be much more mainstream and much more assimilated into the norm of marketing and it just becomes a part of the workflow. So I guess the heartening takeaway from this is – and this is my fervent belief and prediction – is that by the time we’re sitting here in 2020 reviewing this, having this conversation again, SEOs are going to have a lot less experiences that are what they’re experiencing today, which is the, ‘Oh, we launched a website, can you take a look at it and SEO it? Have a seat at that table, they’re going to be a part of that conversation. Because businesses know they can’t do it any other way. SEO is not that arcane, dark art that you put in the back of the closet or the basement and you know it’s kind of like IT, so put them in the server room. It is not that now and the spotlight is only shining brighter in this direction.

DAVID BAIN: And talking about other marketing activities, what impact do you think social is likely to have on the algorithm in the future?

DUANE FORRESTER: Huge, huge and it’s not going to be something that’s like a, ‘Oh look we have social data signals. How many followers, how many tweets, time of day, like this kind of stuff.’ That’s the easy stuff to bake in if matters. What’s going to happen however is social is the domain of generations. That’s what it is. So this brings us to millennials, this brings us to Gen Z, this brings us to newborns today and what their experience is going to be like in the next five to ten to twenty years. And the influence they have, so whether Snapchat survives or does not, whether Meerkat survives or does not is entirely dependent on whether a generation likes it. So you have to, as a social medium, engender yourself to them, have them like you, have them engaged. You have to understand the buttons that make them tick. That is extremely difficult, because the people building the products are generally a generation older and they have to somehow develop a magic power to be seen as peers by the younger generation. It’s not impossible, but it’s not easy either.

DAVID BAIN: And by the year 2020, will the algorithm be led by artificial intelligence?

DUANE FORRESTER: You know this is a fascinating one. We see RankBrain coming out and people like to simplify and say it’s artificial intelligence being applied to SERP rankings. There is so much more to that and it’s not that. It’s an early version of this, but we will start to see more of that application. Don’t kid yourself it’s huge costs savings for the business, if they can get a computer thinking about this instead of having to use human minds thinking about it. Because the high Dollar human mind can be applied to other more critical things, whereas the machine can deal with the mundane and all this background stuff and maintaining an algorithm and growing the algorithm. But we are a long way from that. We’re a long way from that. Right now AI struggles to understand basic things that we understand intrinsically as human beings. When it reaches that level of proficiency, it still has to deal with change in those states and again this is something where the human mind is elastic enough to adapt to it. The algorithm that is behind the AI actually has to learn through experience. So that takes longer for them to do. However, all of its ability to deal with the subtle nuances, the little details and the volumes of data, that’s going to start playing a role well before 2020 and by 2020 we are going to be aware that there are signals in play that are subtle and that we do not have an immediate, direct action to take on them, that are influencing the rankings. And I’m thinking about the more nebulous things like sentiment via social media at any one time and what that looks like. We can track sentiment right now, but it’s really difficult for us to track it over six years. Because that means a really big spreadsheet, all kinds of expensive data and so on. And that is going to be something that is very valuable to a search engine. It’s being able to look back at that data and search engines never forget, so once they capture the data, they’ll always be able to look at it again – instantaneously I might add – and that will be able to help them understand, ‘Hey you know what? Every time you do something, people love you.’ Generally, people love you and when you do something they don’t love, they really don’t love you. So now what we’ll start to see are things like if Apple does something, produces a product and puts it out there and it upsets people, we may see a shift momentarily in an algorithm where Apple is less likely to be shown, because the consumer is less happy with them and therefore is not likely to click on it and have a satisfactory experience, because let’s face it, they’re as pissed off with Apple today. And therefore it’s in the best interest of the search engine who’s selling advertising and wants a good user experience. It’s in their best interests to take the offending, the offensive item and lower it down. So we could see that type of thing happening in the future.

DAVID BAIN: That’s superb thinking, Duane. Just leave us with one takeaway. What is something that businesses can be doing now that is still highly likely to be a very valid strategy still in the year 2020?

DUANE FORRESTER: Okay. Mobile. People need to get their heads around this, right. I talked earlier about, when I’m talking cord cutting with this move in the cable industry where people are wholly mobile for their internet. This is the next generation. They’re not even getting the cord in the first place to cut it. So mobile, if you have not paid attention to this, is extraordinarily important. Everybody is sick of hearing that it’s old, it’s trite, blah, blah, blah. Look at the investments that Google, Facebook and everybody are making. Look at how they’re going to float Wifi over the entire continent of Africa. Why? Because it’s exorbitantly expensive to put cables in the ground there. But to float Wi-Fi means everybody has access. And how are they going to access it? From a mobile device. So mobile is extremely important, but here’s why mobile is important. Mobile is important because none of us at any time are without our device. It is our lives. It can be used to locate you. We can understand where you are physically located. Businesses can then target you as you walk by them, because you are giving off that location signal. Even if it’s encrypted, they will be able to tell that you are emitting a signal. Therefore they will know you are in play and they can start sending out that information to you. So I see a shift in ad industries here, where people will opt in to the type of advertising they want. And then as they walk around town, only the things that they’ve signed up for become items that come their way. Again, huge needle mover on this one for conversions and engagement. That’s going to be huge for you. That type of thing and mobile in general, it’s already changed things. The next three years it’s going to be unrecognisable where we’re at with our ability to reach out to people and use that medium.

DAVID BAIN: Superb. Thank you so much for joining us today, Duane. Where can people get hold of you?

DUANE FORRESTER: Easiest way to track me down is @DuaneForrester on Twitter. I’m there 24/7. I watch it and I respond, so if you want to talk to me, get me on Twitter.

DAVID BAIN: Great stuff. Thank you again.