Episode 8 of our “SEO in 2020” podcast interviews Ian Lurie from Portent; getting his views on how he thinks SEO is likely to evolve over the coming few years.

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DAVID BAIN: My guest today speaks regularly at events around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon and ad:Tech. He’s CEO of an online marketing services firm that’s been established for more than 20 years. Welcome, Ian Lurie.

IAN LURIE: Thanks David.

DAVID BAIN: Well thanks Ian, thanks for joining us.

Ian, if I could first of all maybe take you back to your 1996 self? And if we could imagine that we catapulted you forward to the present day – do you think the younger you would still recognise SEO today?

IAN LURIE: I think so. In 1996 there was no real SEO but I think so because the basic principles are still the same. People search for stuff and you want to make sure that you are found for stuff.

The rules have obviously changed a lot. Like searching for a thing in 1996, but I think the basic principles are the same.

DAVID BAIN: Yeah, maybe I went too far back then. 1996 is obviously way before Google, it’s possibly about the birth of AltaVista or something like that.

IAN LURIE: I think AltaVista was around. I think I got my first ban around 1997.

DAVID BAIN: First ban!

[laughing]

IAN LURIE: I just didn’t quite know [what I was doing] – I was done with bans by 1998, so I behaved myself from then!

DAVID BAIN: [laughing] Okay!

And where you seriously involved in search engine optimisation as far back as the late 1990s, or did you not really pay much attention to it until Google released and came on the scene?

IAN LURIE: I think pretty close! Searching started about 1998, I would say. That’s when we built our first real estate site. It was a virtual tour site and at that point, getting a decent ranking on Yahoo was pretty important, that’s when we got into it.

DAVID BAIN: Okay great.

So, obviously we’ve covered the fact that you’ve got an extensive background in digital marketing, in SEO – so maybe looking forward into the future now. Do you think that SEO in the year 2020 might change significantly or are the basic principles likely to stay the same?

IAN LURIE: I do think that the basic principles will be the same but I think that it will also change significantly. How’s that for a total cop out!

DAVID BAIN: That’s alright – as long as you expand on it! [laughing]

IAN LURIE: Yeah, I think we’re going to see a lot more passive search. I think we are going to see now search results increasingly happening because of the person’s behaviour, because of their location, because of preferences that they’ve indicated expressly. I think we are already starting to see that happen. Just as an example, I’ll get a link on my phone – actually let’s back up, maybe that’s the best way to go, as the biggest change right now is that search is increasingly focussed on mobile. I know that has been talked about a lot but I think we are finally really seeing that.

Search has been a utility for ten or fifteen years and if it went away then people would definitely notice. But now mobile searching has become really intelligent. If I’m walking around in London, then I can look down at my phone and it will say, ‘Explore restaurants near you.’ And I can just click that button and immediately see places to eat that are right near me.

I’m starting to see Google Now, their cards that show up and tell me things – showing news, showing them by locations, or whatever. I’m starting to see Google on my android phone tell me that because I’m about to commute home there is a place where I can get gas nearby.

So you are starting to see little things like that, and I do think that’s a bigger changed in how search works.

DAVID BAIN: So, we often hear the phrase Mobile First, and we’ve seen Google really put that into play even in their desktop search results, do you think that Google are going to continue to do that or do you think that they may actually distinguish a little bit more in the future between the results that they offer on their desktop or larger screens and mobile?

IAN LURIE: I think they will continue to work with large screens. But I think Mobile First is where they are going. What screen to people look at the most? That’s the real question. For Google especially, and I think for most social media. If they are going to have any kind of search or passive delivery of the most useful content, which to me a form of search because they have to figure out which is most useful.

I think it’s going to be in mobile devices. I think it’s going to increasingly move also towards the internet of things, the refrigerator or whatever works out to be the best price for something. The Amazon Dock – maybe it does something based on the Echo, where it’s connected to the lights – I think we’re going to see more and more of that.

But right now, mobile is where this is pushing and I think in five or six years’ from now, mobile will still be the biggest driver.

DAVID BAIN: So sorry to use the phrase again, but do you think the internet of things will lead to a reduced quantity of searches? Active searches, being done in the future?

IAN LURIE: Can I just say, I don’t really hate the term, it’s just one of those broadly applicable things. I’m all about specificity.

I do think it’s going to decrease the number of performed searches. I also think it’s going to change what we consider to be a search. So for example, with the Echo, I can say, ‘What’s the weather going to be like?’ And it comes back and says, ‘The weather will be, etc.,’ you are still doing a search, but you’re speaking it and the answer is being delivered to you through audio not through video. Not through a screen. So I think that the way we do explicit searches, the way we actively go and search for something is going to change.

DAVID BAIN: So what might be an example of one or two markets that are more likely to be more affected by this presumed search behaviour? And what can businesses within that type of market actually do to prepare for that?

IAN LURIE: Well I think local retail is already being impacted. And I think they have to start looking actively at technologies like Beacons. Obviously they have to clean up their local search app. I still see lots of retailers and local businesses that just don’t have their local search house in order. They need to do that. They need to take ownership of their listings. They need to stay on top of that. It helps you rank in the 3-pack or the 7-pack or whatever it becomes.

It’s going to change. Work with an agency, they are not too expensive, or do it on your own. It’s not that hard.

But I also think that looking at beacons, looking at geographically-driven search, being aware of that, and just being aware of how you can provide data to people based on their location and context. So I think that’s one really big place retailers have to look.

And I think news is the other one. I think proper tagging and delivery of news. You can’t actively optimise the news. You can optimise news for delivery in Google search within news and in similar search engines but you can’t necessarily actively optimise for delivering news-specific search engine tools.

What you can do is make sure everything is tagged the way it should be. Just make sure that everything is put together the way that it should be. Make sure that your content is properly organised. But that’s really what you need to be doing when it comes to news.

And then almost anyone on any site or in any circumstances are going to pay more and more attention to how they go for content. They are going to talk about it, but things like in Answer Box, things like the Knowledge Box, those are places and ways that search engines are going to experiment with that information and content delivery – you need to make sure that your content is organised. When I say content, I mean everything. Product data etc. – and again, properly tagged, properly structured. That’s really how you want to future-proof yourself.

DAVID BAIN: I’m pretty sure that for the ad boxes, for the answer boxes, for the Knowledge Graph you are referring to Google search results. Is that the only place that local businesses should be concerned about? Do you think that something like a Facebook could move into the search space and actually become a more important place for local businesses to optimise their listings in the future?

IAN LURIE: That’s an interesting question. So far Facebook is a lousy search engine, and I don’t know how they’re going to fix that. I will say though that as a passive search, they are pretty powerful in the way that they organise their newsfeed. And I do think we have to be ready for that. But right now in the search world, Google dominates. Even the comScore numbers that are out there aren’t necessarily accurate. Bing may have 5% or 6% of the market but that’s it. So in the search engine space, it’s purely Google. After Google you want to look at things like Facebook, anything that has a feed, that is algorithmically determined. You want to make sure that you are pretty well set to have the best possible optimisation of that content.

The difference is that on Facebook, it’s much more, again, about tagging, and it’s about engagement interactions – seeing the world that’s on your content, that’s on your site.

DAVID BAIN: And what about the way that Google’s algorithm might evolve in the future? Do you think that links will still play one of the most important parts in it? In four years’ time will social signals play a greater part? Is there anything else like AI, like RankBrain that is going to become essential? What are your thoughts on the future of the algorithm?

IAN LURIE: I try not to predict where Google’s going because you never know what’s going on in their heads. They seem to be stuck on links. Links seem to be a huge part of their algorithm. I would love to see that change because it is still far too easily gamed. All of our clients seem to be stuck on links. I don’t know if Google will stay stuck on links but right now they are a pretty big ranking factor.

I would hope that they would move more towards not so much the social signals but again, contextual signals. For me, Google just wants to deliver the most perfect information. That’s how they make money. So the more sophisticated they can get at determining what perfect is, the better off they’re going to be and the better off we are going to be. Right now, links are their best guide I think for offsite, and then for onsite I would say it's the way that information is tagged, they way it’s written. Probably that information is free for delivery. I hope they are going to move more towards that.

RankBrain is really an engine that helps guide the algorithm. I suspect if they see the engine become more and more accurate then they may let RankBrain play a bigger part in determining how rankings are built. But RankBrain is not something you optimise for. It’s not an algorithm in and of itself. So I think the big change for Google will be moving more and more towards – not so much Artificial Intelligence but – well I guess, yeah, Artificial Intelligence, letting things like RankBrain make more and more recommendations to Google as to what best rank you get.

DAVID BAIN: Okay, and as far as social signals go or the importance of different social networks, if you want to call them that, do you think that Google will start to include more other social network results?

It has a bit of a partnership with Twitter, as we speak. Will Google actually want to include social results more in its search results to actually try and be more relevant with regards to the discussions that are currently going on in that moment?

IAN LURIE: I think the social graph really interests them. There is a very high correlation between social results and rankings, but it’s hard to tell whether it’s because lots of people start being interested in the content as opposed to expressly tracking social signals.

I think they are interested in the social graph. I think they are interested in behaviour around content. I think that they have left a lot more in place of things like Author Rank and Publisher Rank than we may understand.

Whether they will start tracking social signals precisely – I think social signals have to get a lot harder to gain than they are right now.

I think right now maybe social velocity has an effect. I’ve seen some of that happen but I don’t know so much about actual social, ‘More likes on Facebook.’ I don’t know whether that’s a direct signal.

DAVID BAIN: By social velocity, do you mean the speed of uptake in the number of likes and shares of a particular piece of content in a short period of time?

IAN LURIE: Yeah. The best case studies I’ve got for that; the best evidence is that we’ve had a couple of times when we’ve had a piece of content go ballistic on Twitter. And start ranking very, very quickly for a pretty challenging keyword. For example, I gave a talk about agency tips for running an agency. I did a blog post on it at the same time, it started getting dozens and dozens of tweets in the course of ten or fifteen minutes and it ranked number one for agency tips on non-personalised search within ten minutes, which is – well, you know?

DAVID BAIN: Wow, yeah.

IAN LURIE: I don’t know how exactly that happened, I don’t know what else it could have been. It’s not like links were appearing all over the place. That was pretty powerful velocity. Again, correlation, maybe not causation but that’s a pretty strong correlation.

DAVID BAIN: Yes, it’s quite incredible that the impact that certain things like a sudden increase in click-through rate, or Rand was saying, a lot of traffic from a source like an email newsletter can be seen to sometimes impact rankings significantly as well.

IAN LURIE: Mmm-hm. Again, it’s hard to know for sure. It’s hard to test that particular measure, but we do know that Google looks at things like click-through and that they do track absolutely everything that we do. They are certainly using GRAS. It’s hard to believe that they are not looking at some of that data to figure out what a really remarkable piece of information is.

So, yeah, I would suspect that they are looking at that somehow and that really good newsletter results seem to have an impact more quickly than Google is crawling content and looking at links. So a newsletter may impact rankings within a few hours and certainly it’s not like there are links being built within that time period.

DAVID BAIN: I also believe that you mentioned something to do with clients being focused on metrics that possibly you would prefer them not to be focused on. Is it the case that certain clients have too great a focus on tracking core keyword phrases and their rankings still at the moment?

IAN LURIE: Yes, I, they’re obsessed. And I understand it. It’s one of those metrics – because we can’t track keywords in Google Analytics, or in any other analytics software anymore. They want to see something. And looking at organic search results, or organic search traffic, may not be enough for them, because they are looking and saying, ‘Well that may all be branded.’ And even if the traffic goes up they might not attribute it directly to non-branded organic search.

DAVID BAIN: So do you think this is likely to change in the future?

IAN LURIE: No.

DAVID BAIN: No! [laughing]

IAN LURIE: I think that plus links – we get call after call after call from clients and potential clients of all sizes, and they all ask, the first thing they ask is, ‘What keywords can you help us rank for?’ The second thing they ask you is, ‘How many links can you get us?’ The third thing they ask is, ‘Can you get us results within four weeks?’ Those three questions are all common. And the fourth question, which they’ve just heard about, is ‘How much content will I need to…’ and then whatever it is.

DAVID BAIN: Yes. Those kind of challenges have been around for quite a long time and it doesn’t sound as if they are going away.

IAN LURIE: No.

DAVID BAIN: And what about the future of website design itself? Obviously with the increased use of mobile, responsive design has just about become the norm. Is that the way to go for most websites? Can you see anything significantly different coming down the pipe in terms of how a website should be designed in terms of maximising, optimising user experience?

IAN LURIE: Well there’s no downside to responsive design that I can think of, and I’m not a web designer. I’m sure there is significant disagreement with me out there. Obviously, we need some control over our site looks – once you’re doing responsive.

I don’t see a downside to it. I do think site performance, as things like click through become more and more important, and bounce back becomes more and more important, in your rankings – again, I know it’s correlation not causation, but I think it’s really about correlation. We haven’t tested that very directly.

But as those things become bigger and bigger factors, I think website performance has become even more important. I think that designers and developers need to now look away from just reducing the overall weight of a page, the size of a page in bytes. They could put a little more effort into speedier delivery of large chunks of content. So, doing some kind of phased delivery of content, deferring the really big stuff. Those things can be almost as impactful as just compressing your images. Compressing your images is easier but I do think site speed is something you want to emphasise in the design.

And then of course Google and Facebook are coming out with things like AMP – right? And Facebook Instant Articles. And you have to look at those. I don’t actually think AMP has a huge future for a lot of reasons, but I do think that some of those very channel-specific sites, venue-specific delivery platforms are going to start to become a bigger and bigger deal. If you can, you may as well work for them. I think those are pretty important factors.

DAVID BAIN: So you don’t think that the majority of businesses should be looking to publish their blogs as AMP pages as well?

IAN LURIE: I’ve already got myself into trouble because of a prediction I made at SEMpdx SearchFest, but I just don’t – I never see platform specific delivery acceleration platforms do all that well. I just don’t see them perform that well. Facebook is not opening instant articles up to everybody. At least not last time I checked.

AMP doesn’t allow you to use Google Tag Manager, so that already complicates things. And if I’m a small business I don’t think I would go for AMP right now. I don’t think I would put in the extra resources.

If you’re a publisher, then absolutely do use AMP. But remember you are only appearing in the carousel. You can’t be assured that it is going to improve your overall ranking. It will give you that key position if it’s being used to deliver into that carousel. If you’re doing AMP right. If Google continues to support AMP and if it hasn’t sucked your entire budget to the point where the rest of your website sucks, so you end up with a lousy experience.

I will say I’ve tested it, despite my scepticism, and it is fast. AMP enabled pages are nearly instantaneous. Which is pretty cool.

DAVID BAIN: And do people tend to when they actually interact with AMP pages just view that page and then go back to the Google results? Is that one of the reasons why commercially it could be a challenging decision to take to decide to publish them?

IAN LURIE: I certainly don’t have any information or data on that. I do think AMP is – well Google is becoming an aggregator, a publisher (if they weren’t already). They don’t necessarily want to leave Google. And if they don’t want to leave Google, then they are going to do anything they can to keep you on AMP pages. And not have you leave and go back to the main website.

DAVID BAIN: Yeah.

IAN LURIE: That doesn’t matter if Google makes AMP. If AMP becomes the dominant feature in the rankings you are still going to have to optimise for it just to get your content in front of them.

There is one other interesting angle that I have that I just want to put out there, which is that it could make it harder for ad blockers to block advertising. And if that’s the case, then there is an upside for Google, and everybody else – everyone except the user, because you can push your ads in front of everybody.

DAVID BAIN: That’s possibly a conspiracy theory there! [laughing]

IAN LURIE: It’s just that ad blockers are a major problem, they’re going to be a problem. One way around them is to come up with other ways to get the marketing message in front of people native content, sponsored content. The other way is to develop technologies that just can’t be blocked.

DAVID BAIN: And talking about ads, how do you see the future integration between paid ads and organic? Do you think the number of paid ads are simply going to increase in number over the years? Will we see a greater integration between paid and organic over the years?

IAN LURIE: Well I think smart publishers are going to reduce the number of ads and go for higher impact per ad, but I think we just saw Google do that because they took away the right rail. And that’s partly because if they were making money from the right rail then they never would have done that, so presumably the right rail isn’t making them as much money as they would like.

So I think going for fewer and more impactful ads is going to be the trend. I do see a lot more sites using pop overs and lowering the bottom half of the content to input the ad and doing things like that. That’s a terrible experience. Just because it’s a terrible experience doesn’t mean that it’s a failure, it’s just a terrible experience and it’s going to become a prisoner’s law where someone is going to defect eventually and stop doing that. And then everyone else is going to have to follow suite. But I think so long as those ads still perform then you are going to see more and more of them, aside from a very small number of engines like Google.

DAVID BAIN: So we’re talking about ads a bit here, but the framework of the discussion is the future of SEO. Do you think that means that SEOs in general need to be aware of as many different forms of digital marketing activities as possible or is it still possible for an SEO to be very successful and will it still be possible for an SEO to be very successful in the future by just focusing on maybe one aspect of SEO – like technical SEO?

IAN LURIE: No. You have to understand all of the aspects. When it comes to advertising you have to understand how you can use advertising to promote the content assets that may or may not help you rank. You have to understand the impact of lots of ads on your rankings. You know that Google or whichever engine you are using at this point, does look at the number of ads on a page and if they see a poor user experience because of the ads, it’s going to be harder to rank.

And then generally, SEOs have to be well rounded. I also see offsite SEOs and content marketers who have no idea how the technical side works. So they will put tonnes of effort into links and content when there are complete deal-breaking technical problems on the site.

So transitioning away from ads for a minute, I think SEOs have to have a pretty solid understanding of onsite/offsite and the best places to go to outreach through advertising.

DAVID BAIN: Lots of wonderful interesting insight there that you’ve shared. But just to conclude, what would you say in summary, that businesses need to be doing now, which is still likely to be a valid strategy in four years’ time, in the year 2020?

IAN LURIE: The only good sites, (where I fit stuff), make sure you’re clear and understandable, these are things that have always worked in marketing. They will continue to work, no matter how Google messes with their algorithm, if your site performs well, it works, it’s properly tagged and configured and your content is compelling, all of its content – you are going to do well, no matter how Google changes their algorithm.

DAVID BAIN: Wonderful. Okay, well thanks so much for joining us. How can our viewers and listeners get hold of you Ian?

IAN LURIE: You can find me on Twitter @portentint. And you can visit my company’s website at www.Portent.com.

DAVID BAIN: Superb! Okay, well thanks again.

IAN LURIE: Okay, thanks David!