Episode 7 of our “SEO in 2020” podcast interviews Eric Enge from Stone Temple; getting his views on how he thinks SEO is likely to evolve over the coming few years.

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DAVID BAIN: A prominent SEO and Digital Marketing Industry Thought Leader. He is the lead author of the book The Art of SEO and he is a speaker at many top industry conferences and founder and CEO of Stone Temple Consulting. Welcome Eric Enge!

ERIC ENGE: Yes, thanks for having me, I’m looking forward to this.

DAVID BAIN: Thank you so much for joining me. It’s great to have you here.

So Eric, you first had The Art of SEO published back in October 2009, so I was wondering, to start off with, looking back over the last few years of SEO, is there anything maybe in that edition that you think is completely irrelevant now that we are in 2016?

ERIC ENGE: Well there are certain obvious things, because in 2009 we had an independent search engine called Yahoo.

DAVID BAIN: [laughing]

ERIC ENGE: And so we did spend some time talking about that. And now we don’t have an independent search engine called Yahoo, so that’s one of the obvious things.

Other things – there was a brief window of time when the search engines said that they were experimenting with social signals as a direct ranking factor. At the current point in time, Google says that is no longer the case. It was a very brief window and then they pulled back from it and there is a whole set of conversations that we could have about that, all by itself.

And nowadays (it remains my opinion that it’s a not direct ranking factor by the way)…

DAVID BAIN: It was interesting that in your phraseology, ‘Google says,’ but do you want to expand on it?

ERIC ENGE: Well yeah – there are two big issues that people overlook when they get into that conversation, one is that all the links from every social media site, basically are now followed, and that already says something. Then there is a more strategic problem for Google, and that is that if Google made their search engine algorithm dependent on activity on Facebook, for example, keeping in mind that Google and Facebook aren’t friends, then Facebook could cut that off at any time and blow up Google’s algorithm. So they can’t have a major part of their ranking algorithm, or any significant part in any way dependent of a third party data source that could get cut off.

But that’s a whole other set of conversations right there.

That’s one of the other areas that now, the way we talk about that and the art of SEO is completely different.

DAVID BAIN: Do you think it’s inevitable that social signals in some form will make its way back into the algorithm in the future?

ERIC ENGE: Only if Google feels like they have complete control over it. There are lots of other things that Google could be using as ranking factors that we know that they aren’t. I’ve used the word know with some trepidation there, because what you know and don’t know is always a tricky thing in the world of SEO.

You know, like click-through rate. We have an article being published tomorrow on the Stone Temple blog about how Google uses click-through rate in search quality. There are a lot of people who speculate, ‘Well, gosh, if my listing gets more clicks so I’ll move up on the rankings.’

Here’s the thought experiment that I’ll urge listeners and viewers to consider. If you are a publisher of a website, then you probably get those frequent emails pitching you on links and you can buy link packages. Not as often as you used to, but you do still get them and you do still get those people begging you to write a guest post on your site or offering you guest posting opportunities. They say they’ll get you on Huffington Post for $35, or something like that. So you get those emails all the time. How many emails do you get offering you to jack-up your click-through rate?

DAVID BAIN: I don’t believe…


DAVID BAIN: …I’ve seen one, no.

ERIC ENGE: You get none! And the reason why you get none is that the spammers don’t even think it works! And believe me there are people who have tested this to the nth degree.

There are certain industries that we know who are really good at these things. The porn industry, whether you like it or not, they do massive experimentation around ways to jack-up rankings, and people would have discovered it and proven it by now. And it hasn’t happened.

DAVID BAIN: Do you think it can work for a short period of time but it tends to then find the correct norm and take the listing back down to where it thinks it should be?

ERIC ENGE: Yes. Rand Fishkin has run tests at conferences where he has shown what looks to be a brief temporal disturbance in the force – in the rankings, through getting lots of people to click on something, and it’s resulted in a short-term increase in the ranking of some content. Some of the time. Like if he has run the test maybe ten times and there in maybe six of those where the ranking appeared to move up and a few other times it didn’t. But it didn’t sustain itself. But maybe there is something at that level, and that would probably be coming out of a Google algorithm focused on what they call Query Deserves Freshness, or news-oriented type content, or trending content.

DAVID BAIN: Is that anything to do with RankBrain at all?

ERIC ENGE: Well RankBrain is something completely different. RankBrain is really focused on better understanding natural language. The way I understand RankBrain, and I’ve had the chance to have quite a few conversations with Googlers about this and let me stipulate clearly that doesn’t make me an expert on RankBrain because I haven’t worked on the algorithm or anything like that, but I have an understanding from what they have communicated that is at least consistent with what I have observed in our tests. And that is that RankBrain really analyses language across the entire web with a goal of better understanding the relationship between words and phrases in what we call high dimensional vector space. That’s a machine learning terminology.

But the way in which they are applying it today is to better understand user queries. Let me give you an example of one. And that is one that was shared with Gary Illyes on a live event that I did with him on the 11th February, and that query was, ‘Can you get 100% score on Super Mario without walk through?’ So the user is really asking, ‘Can I get a perfect score on this game without having to go through a complete walk through of the entire game?’ Now it turns out that the traditional Google content parsing algorithms strip certain words out of queries as a natural part of how they behave to make them easier to understand. And one of those words is the word without. So consider my query without the word without, ‘Can you get 100% score on Super Mario walk through?’ Oh my God, the intent of the query was fundamentally changed! Because now what Google will do if you drop the word without, is it will give you a walk through, it will give the users their walk through instead of telling the user that it’s possible to do it without a walk through or to give them a way to do it without a walk through.

So that’s just an example query where the user’s intent was not served by traditional parsing algorithms. And as a result of RankBrain they are handled much better.

But the important thing to understand about RankBrain – and there have been articles written about this which are just completely incorrect – RankBrain didn’t take over the entire ranking algorithms, it didn’t replace the links algorithm, it didn’t replace basic relevance functionality, it didn’t replace locations stuff, it didn’t replace query deserved freshness type stuff. It just helps them to understand the user’s search query better.

To the people out there who think that’s a small thing, from a computing technology point of view, it is a massive accomplishment to do just that.

Sorry, I rambled for a long time!

DAVID BAIN: No that wasn’t a ramble at all! [laughing]

Is there anything that an SEO needs to do on the site in order to give themselves a better opportunity to start appearing for more conversational phrases?

ERIC ENGE: Yes, it’s the classic question. Did this change SEO?

Not really.

Well for some people it probably did. If you’ve been over focused on a keyword by keyword model, then the need for that is lessened. And I say less – it didn’t go away, you still do need to understand keywords for many reasons. And this sort of relates to thinking about 2020 and what’s going to change between now and then.

No matter what happens with search, you are always going to want to know what language your customers use to talk about your products. So keyword research is unchanged, by anything. That won’t change. And the way I like to help people to think about this – if you were a marketer 30 years ago when there were no search engines, and someone had come to you and offered you the kind of data that keyword research tools offer, then you would have thought that you had died and gone to heaven! Because you would have had all the language that potential customers use.

Continuing to do keyword research is important because you do understand the language your customers use. You want those words on your pages. But if you were still rooted in a model where, ‘I’ve got to use this word X number of times,’ or you were hesitant to use logical synonyms of the main keyword, then you should stop thinking that way because Google’s sophistication has moved beyond that.

And you should make sure that you are writing natural, high quality copy on your pages.

DAVID BAIN: So it’s not necessary to change the copy to include conversational-type queries that people may start using if they use voice search more in the future?

ERIC ENGE: I don’t think so. Not at all at this point.

That is sort of the antithesis of Google’s intent and direction with this. Google wants to better understand what the user wants so that the publisher doesn’t have to do that.

So if my question is, ‘Can you show me the latest reviews for Bertucci’s on Route 9 in Framingham?’ That’s my query. And Google basically wants to break that down to pull data from their database of reviews from Bertucci’s on Route 9 in Framingham. That’s what they want to do and there is no need for the associated webpages to have that whole phrase on there.

The point is to get less specific about matching the language and less mechanical about it. There is a secondary thing that can happen, which is that you can imagine Google doing things with this to better assess page quality because if you are over repetitive and over mechanical in your phraseology then they could detect that as over optimisation.

(The light here is terrible; do you want me to put on another light quickly?)

DAVID BAIN: (No, that’s okay, that’s okay we can see you fine, and quite a few people will be listening to the audio so [laughing] that’s good.)

In relation to optimising your site further for this kind of thing, is it simply a case of actually doing thorough analysis on the intent behind the user and trying to match that as an experience on your website, as opposed to optimising it for certain keyword phrases?

ERIC ENGE: Yes, I think you need to be spending a lot of time thinking about what the users’ real intents are. I’m going to take this in a slightly different direction, which is not necessarily RankBrain, but relates to exactly what you just asked David, because the way I like to talk about it is, imagine you have a page about oil filters. And one way that you could design that page is to at the top have a button saying, ‘Buy oil filters now.’ And then below that a wonderful testimonial that says, ‘The best (blank) oil filters on the internet.’ And then below that another button that says, ‘Buy oil filters now or leave.’ That could be your entire webpage. That’s what I call, ‘A buy now or leave experience.’


ERIC ENGE: So if somebody wants oil filters (I’m being a little extreme with my example, imagine they can pick their oil filter and be off to the races), you could argue that that is a good experience for someone if all they want to do is buy an oil filter. The problem is that that isn’t the way in which the real world works. Most of the people coming to that page need to be able to do things like, (at least one of these things), well they all need oil actually, if they don’t have an oil filter wrench then they need an oil filter wrench. They might want to find the manual for the car to make sure they are buying the right oil filter because that’s not something that is intuitive or obvious. They might want a How To video on how to change one. And those are the obvious things that need to work into a page.

What I’m triggering on – you used the word a moment ago – what was the user’s intent? Well, when they buy an oil filter, their intent is to change the oil filter, which involves a lot more than buying just the oil filter – the oil, the wrench, making sure you have the right one, making sure you know how to do it. And, you can go a little further with this, which is, ‘Gosh, I’m going to be working on my car, I might be doing some other things the same day, like changing the windshield wipers.’ So that speaks to the user’s intent. How well do you design your pages when people arrive on them to meet the complete user intent? Which is rarely just the one individual thing.

DAVID BAIN: To meet the user’s future intentions, ideally, as well, I guess?

ERIC ENGE: Yeah, exactly. Even if you’re on a sneaker page, where you’re selling sneakers, there are still related needs. You do want to actually see the reviews of the sneaker; you want to see other options – I might have arrived at a particular pair of basketball sneakers but I actually want to see the competitive options. And other things that are kind of obvious – I want a shopping cart, I want a privacy policy. Users have other needs on those pages other than just executing the purchase.

Getting better at mapping the user’s complete intent is to me, a big deal. When you look at where search is heading.

DAVID BAIN: So what about the experience of the user on the Google SERP? Can you see the Google SERP changing significantly over the next few years? We’ve seen adverts removed, we’ve seen a greater focus on mobile certainly as well. Do you think it likely that this may change significantly further over the next few years?

ERIC ENGE: I do. One of the big trends that we see is the rise of voice search. It’s increasing in a big way.

Going back again to the keynote event that I did with Gary Illyes, he told us during that, that Google saw twice as many voice queries in 2015 than they saw in 2014. So a pretty big increase. And that on the phone, queries were 30 times more likely to be action oriented. The 30 times number seems really large to me but put that aside for a moment, the point is, it’s definitely increasing dramatically. People are getting more comfortable with doing it. And the way they behave in that environment is different.

All this suggests to me that they’re going to continue to see a lot of evolution of how people choose to do search queries and what those intents are when they are on phone. And that they are going to do more and more design around better meeting those intents. So that will impact the SERP in some fashion.

So when you see that they killed the right rail, and had more ads at the top, at least some of the time (sometimes there are more ads down at the bottom now), it’s because for Google, mobile is already first. They have already been there. They have been working on a mobile-first mind set for some time.

That’s possibly one of the reasons why they killed the author photos thing. They reduced the number of images and videos they show in search because it slows down mobile devices. They are investing a lot in the mobile-first mentality and as they gain more and more experience with that, they’ll make more changes.

And the other thing that’s true is that the way that users are using mobile devices is evolving. So even if Google catches up with the way they are using them today, the users’ patterns are changing. A perfect example – people are getting more comfortable doing voice queries in public. That’s an example of usage change that is in the process of happening.

DAVID BAIN: So do you think the desktop SERP experience will continue to follow mobile? Mobile will lead the way and desktop will continue to mimic what happens in a mobile environment?

ERIC ENGE: I do think that Google has made that decision. They’re not really looking at having desktop alignment, they will be different experiences. And they are going to have the desktop at least be very close to the mobile experience.

DAVID BAIN: Okay. And just to conclude really – what would you say an SEO needs to be focusing on in the future? Will it be possible, for instance, for an SEO to be working largely silo in an SEO department? Or will it be essential to work effectively together with paid search and social at the same time?

ERIC ENGE: To me SEO is marketing function. And I’m a technical guy! I was a software developer very early in my career, I did that for a number of years and I managed a software development team.

But the task [in SEO] is to bring in more customers and you have to operate from that point of view. And I do think there will still be a strong technical component to SEO and you can’t lose sight of that. But to me it’s a marketing function and it’s being part of a larger team. You have to be holistic in your view.

There are strong levels of interaction with social media, even though I just said early on I didn’t think social was a direct ranking factor. There is an indirect factor. It’s a big deal. And I think you have to look at it that way. Those two departments have to have a lot of collaboration.

And then there is interaction with PR. So I think there is a lot there. This idea of being siloed is dead and dying, or dying and dead – or whatever the right order is for that phrase!

It’s going to be a thing in the past. So it’s going to be very important to have a broader marketing understanding. And to be able to – maybe not in each individual but in whatever department handles SEO, you have a mix of marketing knowledge and technical knowledge that’s needed.

And then the answer to the $1,000,000 question – it isn’t going away! SEO will still be with us in 2020. There will still be a need to understand how to deliver traffic in response to people’s search queries and how to get yourself set up and prosper in that.

Because it isn’t going to be takenover by paid search, by the way, because no search engine that was 100% paid will happily exist.

DAVID BAIN: Eric, the term thought leader is used for a reason, and it’s certainly applicable to yourself. So thank you so much for joining me.

Where can people continue to find out more about you on your website?

ERIC ENGE: Well first of all on Twitter it’s @stonetemple, is my handle.

The website is www.stonetemple.com.

And at www.stonetemple.com/blog we publish major marketing studies on a regular basis, there is currently one a month that we are putting out. And all of these are based on volumes of research, so there is lots of information available there for people.

Those are the main places to find me.

DAVID BAIN: Wonderful, thank you so much for joining me.

ERIC ENGE: Alright, thanks for having me.