Episode 10 of our “SEO in 2020” podcast interviews Ammon Johns from AmmonJohns.com; getting his views on how he thinks SEO is likely to evolve over the coming few years.

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DAVID BAIN: Hello. So rather than introduce my next guest, I’ll let Rand Fishkin do it. So here’s what Rand said about him: ‘One of the most legendary personalities in the field of search engine optimisation and online marketing. Without question one of the best SEOs in the world, Mr. Ammon Johns.’

AMMON JOHNS: He’s far too kind, really.

DAVID BAIN: He is. How much money was – no, no, no. That’s not a nice way to start off, is it?

AMMON JOHNS: We were together in the forms that create a site for quite a long time, and I have a slightly different way of looking at a lot of things, so I think that was kind of what he was referring to.

DAVID BAIN: Well it’s wonderful to get different perspectives from different people, and I’m certainly looking forward to hearing yours. But you’ve been involved in internet marketing certainly for about twenty years or so, so I’m really looking forward to getting your perspectives, and how that has impacted what people do online, and how SEO and data has changed over the years, and what your thoughts are for the future. But maybe with regards to where it’s come from, first of all, would you say that SEO is actually recognisable now from what it used to be quite a few years ago?

AMMON JOHNS: It’s certainly matured a lot. It’s where it was supposed to be going twenty years ago. Unfortunately there were so many shortcuts, there were so many ways of getting similar results without doing the work that it did mean that most people were prepared to take those shortcuts, and not necessarily think about the long term. However, only recently I pointed back to a discussion from 2003 in the old forums about how to link build properly, and every single part of it is applicable today. And it was warning of all the things that we warn about today.

DAVID BAIN: Wow, and has it just taken longer to come than you thought it was going to take?

AMMON JOHNS: Some parts, certainly, and other parts have gone a lot further than I thought they were going to go. Personalisation is one of the key ones there. I knew it was coming – wrote about it in 2004, 2005 – but I had no idea it would go as far as it has because I thought people would resist more the search engines getting that much data on them.

DAVID BAIN: Do you think there might be a backlash at some point in the future, or will it go even further?

AMMON JOHNS: It’s certainly going to go even further in the short term. I think, unfortunately, we have other things that we are giving a backlash to. So unless somebody manages to hack into Google and get that data, and hurt us with it, we’ve got other problems. You know, we’re more worried about what our government has got on us, and what hackers are able to get on us. And I think that distracts us from maybe wondering okay, we trust Google now, what about when Google changes hands?

DAVID BAIN: And you mentioned Google there – everyone mentions Google there when they talk about organic search. Do you think you might be talking about another search engine in the year 2020?

AMMON JOHNS: I think we will be aware. If you deal with other markets than the Western and English speaking markets, you already are having to think of other search engines. Certainly throughout Asia, Google doesn’t have the dominance there that it does here, and I’m including the greater landmass of Russia and Northern Europe there. There’s a lot more rivalry there. However, all of the main parts of Europe, all of the English speaking parts of the world, Google has huge dominance.

DAVID BAIN: Okay, and you don’t see that changing in the foreseeable future certainly?

AMMON JOHNS: No. The only thing that I see at the moment that’s in a serious position to rival Google with the changes that are coming in user behaviour is owned by Google – it’s YouTube.

DAVID BAIN: Okay, so it hasn’t got too much competition there, certainly in the realms of traditional search.

AMMON JOHNS: I think it must be very difficult for Google having so little competition. Certainly there’s some intellectual rivalry between them and Microsoft, Bing, but really they don’t have many companies that they can borrow ideas from, or see success from. They are pretty much having to innovate it all from scratch.

DAVID BAIN: Okay, okay. And talking about innovation, is it perhaps going to be innovation that might be the biggest competitor to Google in the future? I’m thinking of different types of SERPs such as in-device search, and perhaps Siri or Cortana could be greater competitors in the future, or would you not see it like that?

AMMON JOHNS: Siri is interesting. Apple are very good at locking people into their own ecosystem. But even so, if you look at the entire market for Android, and the entire market for iOS, Google’s already won that battle by more than it’s winning the Microsoft battle.

DAVID BAIN: Okay, and you mentioned at the beginning there that you made a forum post back in 2003, 2004 or so, talking about quality focused SEO, and the right ways to do things, and the right ways to do things hasn’t really changed that much. What are some of the things that a business can be doing now that is likely to still be working effectively, and the right things to be doing in the year 2020?

AMMON JOHNS: It’s all about traditional marketing. I was asked recently are there any courses in SEO? What should I be studying to have a good career in SEO? And I said take a marketing degree. If you’re going to do anything, take a marketing degree because that’s the field in which everything you’re going to do is playing. SEO, there’s a lot of technical involved. You should certainly know everything about HTML and CSS because you’ve got to spot the things that a professional developer didn’t. You should certainly be aware of the HTTPS protocols, and as much of that kind of technology as possible. But at the end of the day it’s marketing. The most important aspect of search is the search user – their psychology, what they’re after, what they want, and how they use the internet broader than that. So what they’re likely to talk about with their friends, what they’re likely to pass on, and that’s going to come into play more and more.

DAVID BAIN: You talk about a lot of different disciplines there really – understand the user’s psychology, traditional marketing, technical SEO. Is it reasonable to be expecting an SEO to be very comfortable in all those different areas, or should an SEO perhaps focus on one of those areas, and try to become an absolute expert in a very niche area of SEO in the future?

AMMON JOHNS: I always say I was very lucky to start when I did because the field has grown with me, and I’ve been able to absorb twenty years of development as they happened. I do think it’s very tough for an SEO coming in today, and I think they’re going to have to go into a niche. But they’re not going to be an expert. An expert is somebody who knows all of the basics, and then went further than anybody else in a particular area. If you want to be an expert link builder, you’ve got to be as good as the best link builders I can find. I’m not going to call you an expert because it’s the only thing you do; I’m going to talk about you as an expert because it’s the thing that you are unsurpassable on.

DAVID BAIN: And you talk a lot about link building there as well. Is link building – I mean it’s obviously still an integral part of Google’s algorithm at the moment – is that going to be just as important in four years’ time?

AMMON JOHNS: More. In a large extent more, but the nature of links is going to change. We’re moving into the mobile web, and the smartphone is only the first step in that direction. The wearable tech is certainly coming. A lot of the companies are looking at the idea of digital helpers, these unseen voices in our ear, and guidance that are monitoring what we’re doing in life, and helping us to. They’re virtual helpers, and that means they’re going to be aware of many more things. Google’s already got patents for hearing noise in the background while you’re making a telephone call, or knowing what TV channel or radio station you’re listening to, so that when you say, ‘What’s the name of this song?’ It can answer. When you have those watercooler conversations with friends, and mention brands, and companies, and entities, that too will be going into the database.

DAVID BAIN: So a lot about the personalised web. Will we still be doing things like tracking the rankings of keyword phrases in a few years’ time, or is that going to become more and more irrelevant over time?

AMMON JOHNS: Do you know what? I think it’s already completely irrelevant. We do it because some companies insist on it. Some clients, you know, that’s one of the metrics that they’ve been tracking, and they want to hang onto it. But in all honesty, what you’re ranking for is so dependent on what the mentality is of people doing that, especially with short keyword phrases. Three words still isn’t giving you very much intent. There are so many possible intentions. It’s much more important to look at the amount of traffic you’re getting, where it’s going, how it’s flowing through, most importantly is it converting into something valuable to your business? Main things don’t necessarily do that for correlation.

DAVID BAIN: So more important in the future to be thinking about marketing integration, thinking about how other aspects, other areas of marketing impact SEO. I would imagine social will play a big part of this. What’s your opinion of how important social is to SEO at the moment, and how that will evolve over time?

AMMON JOHNS: SEO, and marketing generally online is massively affected by social, but not in the ways people are using it. Social isn’t a broadcast channel. It’s not about putting your links out there; it’s much more about getting the feedback. It’s the feedback part of the loop. Your analytics can only tell you who came to your site. Social media can tell you who didn’t and why, which allows you to attract them next time. The most important use of social media is a social listening strategy where you are really getting insights into the customers because you used to pay £50,000 for a market research company to get a panel of people together to give you the same information that you can get just reading tweets in 30 minutes.

DAVID BAIN: Absolutely, and there are so many amazing sources of that kind of data out there. Do you think that most companies are doing that effectively, or doing a poor job?

AMMON JOHNS: No. Most are doing kind of reputation management, which is more listening for the brands and putting out fires, instead of listening to what their market that isn’t their customers are asking for, and feeding that into product.

DAVID BAIN: So how do you cut through all the noise, and know which people to listen to?

AMMON JOHNS: Well to an extent you’ve almost got to listen to everybody, and quickly filter relevance. But smart use of the words you’re looking for, the tags you’re looking for, will help you greatly. But you should know your market. You should know what kind of interests they’ve got at a particular time. If you’re a travel insurance company you want to be listening for people talking about holidays in general, not just when they’re talking about getting insurance for one. And understand a lot of those conversations will have whether or not they went with an insurance company, and if so why, or why they turned down a particular one. People are volunteering that information all of the time.

DAVID BAIN: And talking about social, Google have integrated more Twitter results into its SERP quite recently. How do you see Google’s SERP evolving in the future? Do you think it’s going to become more social led as well?

AMMON JOHNS: Yes and no. Social is excellent for quickly spotting trends, especially Twitter. So spotting that a big news event has come up, and therefore the use of this keyword now applies to that new story rather than what it used to apply to, can be key. I pointed out a few years ago that before Hurricane Katrina hit, if somebody searched for Katrina, they were probably looking for a model, or the group Katrina and the Whites. No two ways about it. And the results had been organised towards that for a long, long time. In 30 minutes the meaning of that word changed, and it suddenly only meant Hurricane Katrina. And the search engine has to be able to adapt to this, and this is looking at trends, especially on social media, looking at what they call ‘burstiness’ is a really important part because you also need to be able to track festivals. Every festival in the world, when that is running, that’s going to effect the context of certain words in that region.

DAVID BAIN: And of course with RankBrain, Google will be able to do that faster and faster in the future.

AMMON JOHNS: Yes and no. RankBrain at the moment isn’t plugged in in real time. It runs, and it looks at things, and it builds up a synonym list kind of thing itself, and it’s very, very thorough, but it kind of runs and is then applied rather than being constantly on. That’s the information I’ve been given. But that thinking, that looking ahead, some of that’s already in there. The ‘burstiness’ thing is Google’s project for a long, long time now.

DAVID BAIN: Yeah, you can certainly understand why it wants to do that. I remember looking at Google results before the Caffeine update, and they were largely based on authoritative pages, and number of relevant links to a particular page. And it seemed that Twitter, to a certain degree, helped push Google forward into more real time relevant results, and it’s been moving forward that way ever since really.

AMMON JOHNS: You mentioned the perfect thing there. I mean Caffeine was exactly the major turning point of knowing when the link count wasn’t going to help them. Links apply to things overtime. The kind of common knowledge stuff is greatly helped by an analysis of links. But when something’s new it hasn’t built up links yet, and all of those old links are talking of the old context. So understanding when freshness needs to come in, and this is when we’ve got fresh boost, and how to still have quality while discarding links is exactly where it needed to go back then, and started to go. There are still refinements to be made.

DAVID BAIN: So you mentioned that links will be even more important in the future. Will it be harder though to game the algorithms in the future?

AMMON JOHNS: Yes, definitely. At the moment it’s already so much more difficult than it used to be, and I would honestly say that most link builders, 95% of the links that they’re building are not worth a thing because they’re still looking at pixie dust, they’re still looking at page rank, they’re still looking at domain authority, they’re still looking at trust flow as if the links were going to have an equal share of that in all cases, and they’re not. We initially had what they call random surfer and page rank is a model that kind of predicts the random surfer. If you went forward and clicked links, what’s your chance of landing on this page in a given period of time? Well, page rank kind of showed that because it was a measure of the number of links from the places that had lots of links, and therefore had more chance of you landing on them.

We then had patents come along and processes, models like the intelligent surfer, which is where they wouldn’t just click any old link. They’re much less likely to click a link in the footer. They’re must less likely to click an irrelevant link or an ad link in the top when they’re reading an article. So understanding the positioning of the link got a lot better, and the most recent model I can think of is probably the reasonable surfer model, which is even more looking at the positioning, and even when a link is in the body, is this relevant? So think of those articles where it’s talking about a company, and then you’ve got a link to their stock page. How many people ever actually click on them? What’s the likelihood? Well, it can downgrade the link value by the fact that it knows what the probability of that link actually being clicked is.

DAVID BAIN: So do you think keyword rich links are dead?

AMMON JOHNS: No, they’ve still got a place as well, but it’s much more about getting the traffic now. Focus on links for traffic because that’s what Google’s trying to measure. It’s trying to apply analysis of whether this link is attracting people, and if it’s attracting people, those are the ones they are valuing. And there are a lot of engineers at Google. You can try and go against them, or you can try and think right, what are these guys all doing? Because the chances are with thousands of PhDs they’re probably ahead of me on this.

DAVID BAIN: So which social networks do you think are going to be particularly useful for SEOs to be aware of and utilise in the future? You mentioned Twitter there as well. I mean do you think Twitter will evolve much, change much over the next few years? Is there still a place for Google+?

AMMON JOHNS: Google+, I love it because it reminds me of the forums of old. I get level of conversation there that I don’t get on any other social network. You get long posts, you get long comments, you get serious engagement, and that’s why I follow it. It’s nothing about manipulating rankings. It’s simply about the fact that I can get genuine conversation there, and really detailed feedback on a lot of things. Twitter is the most important one for that whole news thing. Research found that people, when they complain about a company on Twitter, especially to that company, they expect an answer in one hour. You’ve got one hour to answer that query before they start to think badly of you.

So being aware of new trends, that’s exactly where Twitter comes in. Where you also want to also be keeping track of your competition is on LinkedIn. Who are they hiring? What jobs have come up? How’s their team changing? Because that’s going to change your place.

DAVID BAIN: I love all this integration talk, and it’s not just SEO as a silo.

AMMON JOHNS: No, it can’t be. SEO is not a bubble of its own. It’s not some make believe little world. It has to touch on everything else.

DAVID BAIN: So what about the Google SERP itself? Can you see it changing much over the next few years? We’ve seen the right hand ads disappear quite recently. Do you think images and video might play a much greater part in the future, for instance?

AMMON JOHNS: Absolutely. The results page is the main part that Google is constantly trying to adapt, and as devices adapt, so is that page. At the moment, I think we’ve got a bit of a hybrid. It’s kind of good on mobile, and it’s kind of good on desktop, but I don’t think it’s exceptional on either. And I think at some point they are going to have to completely split them so that they are completely different. And on mobile it’s much more look, give me the answer, or some very quick result, whereas on desktop we’re much more likely to open multiple tabs, and want to go through things in depth. And that means that the results have a different intention. You’ve got to account for that. As we get into the voice search, I’m not going to remember a list of ten things you read out of me while I’m in the middle of dealing with something that I need an answer to. I want you to give me one answer, or give me a very short list – three answers maybe.

DAVID BAIN: So will the majority or a significant quantity of search queries be voice based in the year 2020 do you think?

AMMON JOHNS: I think there’ll be switching. Things move a lot slower than we think. We’re on the cutting edge. We’re always looking forward. There are a lot of things where, let’s face it, all the white hats thought spam would be dead ten years ago, and then they thought it was going to be five years ago. And it’s still alive and well, and it’s always going to be there as long as it works at any level. People don’t change, and therefore the things that are related to those people don’t change as much as you think. I don’t think 2020 is still far enough away that anything is going to be unrecognisable from where we are, but there will be more people doing voice search, and there will be the first kind of devices that are much more a voice activated device without the idea of touching and clicking and tapping on things.

DAVID BAIN: So how do you optimise your site to be more relevant to voice queries?

AMMON JOHNS: Well, technically you should have already been doing this because a lot of business comes from word of mouth – it comes from referrals, it comes from people saying, ‘Oh, I really need a lawyer. Do you know any good ones?’ And them saying, ‘Well I don’t, but my cousin used one. That was really good.’ Those kinds of conversations have been going around for thousands of years. If you haven’t been optimising for those you’re going to really struggle in the future because that coming into the work world is no longer just going to be a typed thing. It’s no longer about the number of little blue links you can build up. It is about your ability to market.

DAVID BAIN: Okay. Are there any other elements that will become very important in the algorithm over the next few years do you think?

AMMON JOHNS: So many. We really are still dealing with context, and Google’s ahead of everybody else at the moment, but there’s still so much further to go. At the moment sarcasm is still very, very difficult to read, and if you can’t read sarcasm it’s very difficult to do analysis on whether people are positively mentioning something or negatively mentioning something.

DAVID BAIN: It’s very difficult for individuals to actually read sarcasm within an email, so I don’t know what hope Google has.

AMMON JOHNS: Yes, exactly. You kind of need past history. Now when it comes to past history, Google’s got a lot of it on us, but the machines are going to take a little bit of time. Sentiment analysis is going to become more and more important. Are those tweets positive? Are they negative? How’s the general gestalt of feeling about a thing?

DAVID BAIN: So can you see Google making any significant purchases, maybe purchasing Twitter, or something else like that in the future?

AMMON JOHNS: I don’t see Google buying Twitter. I don’t see it being at a price that’s valuable to them. While they’ve got the firehose I think they’re quite happy, unless the value of that firehose became absolutely critical to Google, and in a way that calling the site couldn’t do, I can’t see them thinking it was that necessary to their business. There will certainly be a lot of purchases, but I think more of them will be about speculation, and about attaining particular talents and particular core skills – the same as Google’s been doing for the past ten years.

DAVID BAIN: Okay, okay. So Google is all about getting data, and if it’s got the data from somewhere that it looks to power its information by then it’s not too concerned about being a leader in the social media marketplace basically.

AMMON JOHNS: Google’s had a couple of goes at social. Orkut was the first one, and that’s a very interesting case because it did well in South America – nowhere else, but it did really well in South America. They made a good play with G+. I don’t think it was ever meant to be a Facebook platform. I think this was pretty much an internal communication that they opened up to see what we’d do with it, and I think they’ve got fascinating data back from what we did actually do with it. But it still doesn’t have a clear identity yet. I think Google sometimes do release things and then decide what to do with them after they see how we play with them.

DAVID BAIN: So I mean looking forward over the next few years, what do you think the biggest challenge for SEOs is going to be? Is it the fact that there are so many different types of SEO, and maybe deciding on a specialism? Or is it simply that most businesses are doing SEO wrong, and it’s tough to actually change the direction of a juggernaut?

AMMON JOHNS: That’s a fascinating question. It’s one of those ones all of the above, and a few other factors as well. What’s been toughest in SEO is that up until very recently, the number of people coming into the profession who had less than two years’ experience was always more than the number of people in the profession who had more than two years’ experience. And sadly, with a lot of the companies out there that are kind of churn and burn, including with their own staff, that’s still true. There’s a lot of offshore SEO companies where most of their staff have not been in this field more than two years, and probably never will be. But I think we have reached a critical point at which now knowledge is starting to stick. Previously, people like myself, AJ Cone, Bill Slosky, people who’ve been around for long enough to really get a feel for the engines have been this small group of distant gurus. Oh, it’s not that small – there are hundreds of us, but hundreds out of thousands isn’t that many. I was at BrightonSEO last week, and you’ve got three thousand people there, and that’s just one town’s event. So it makes you realise that the scale of SEO is massive, and a few hundred people is a drop in the ocean. That’s starting to change now. I think we are going to get more and more people who have been in it long enough to have really learned, and have insights, and feel for where the general trend is going. It’s difficult to accept a trend when somebody else is telling you it, and you haven’t experienced it.

DAVID BAIN: And it’s difficult for an SEO to fully explain the true value of SEO when you use words like "feel". And I know exactly what you mean, but a lot of management expects everything to be delivered to them in the form of hard and fast data. But when you have to actually intuitively feel where is the right number of links to be building, or the right places to be talking about your goods and services in, then it’s a tough marketplace. Do you have any advice for SEOs in that situation? Maybe heads of SEOs in a fairly large company, but reporting back to a board who don’t get digital that much. What are some of the best ways?

AMMON JOHNS: The biggest problem is that people tend to do quantitative measurement instead of qualitative measurement. It’s all about how many, how much, instead of how good, how are we affecting this? What change are we making? And that’s really where companies who want to get ahead need to be looking is much more into qualitative data instead of quantitative. It’s much more about how much are we persuading here? How much difference have we made in what this person thinks? Rather than how many people have seen this thing and might or might not have been persuaded?

DAVID BAIN: Great, well Ammon, I really appreciate you joining me today. Just to conclude, what are maybe one or two things that a business absolutely does need to be doing now that is still likely to be a valid strategy in the year 2020?

AMMON JOHNS: That depends so much on company size, but the core things that are going to apply no matter what, and are the biggest strategies for the next couple of years, first brand. Brand does not mean a big company. Everybody has one. Anyone who thinks they don’t use brand hasn’t got a clue what brand really is. People have an idea of what you are, they pigeon hole you. You need to be part of that decision making. You need to be part of that conversation, and knowing where people are classifying you in their mental ontology, so to speak. You need to be a part of that, and to have a clear idea of what your values are, and how well you’re communicating them. So brand is absolutely key because it’s how people work.

And the other one for that is understanding that conversation is important, and the conversations you’re not part of. So have a social listening strategy, and treat these as something that – this is just the online portion. Think how many people are talking in pubs, and restaurants, and cafes, and at work. Understand those conversations as well. Twitter is just a glimpse into what they might be saying. But it’s really important that you have that word of mouth strategy right.

DAVID BAIN: Great advice. Brand and word of mouth. A lot of things that SEOs don’t traditionally think about, but a lot to think about there. So yeah, thanks again for joining me, and I see you’ve got your lower third on there saying ammonjohns.com. Is that the best place for people to get a hold of you?

AMMON JOHNS: It’s the default one. It goes through a lot of changes. It’s one of the sites I experiment with, so at the moment I was doing a thing. Everyone was going you must have lots of content, you must publish content, so I killed all of my old article, and went down to a five page site, and I’m doing fine thank you very much. So be careful what you listen to. Its the strategy that’s more important.

DAVID BAIN: Thank you again.