Episode 11 of our “SEO in 2020” podcast interviews Barry Adams from Polemic Digital; getting his views on how he thinks SEO is likely to evolve over the coming few years.
DAVID BAIN: I am joined today by someone who describes himself as a man who enjoys a good rant. Someone with over seventeen years’ experience in SEO, he’s a regular speaker at events like Pubcon, SAScon, and Friends of Search. Welcome to founder of Polemic Digital, Barry Adams.
BARRY ADAMS: Thank you very much David. Yes, Polemic Digital. People struggle with that name, don’t they?
DAVID BAIN: I practiced a few times beforehand, but it didn’t quite work out actually.
BARRY ADAMS: I always thought it was a perfectly common English word, but ever since I launched Polemic Digital people are like what does it actually mean? I’m the Dutch man here; this is my second language. I have to explain this to you, how does that work?
DAVID BAIN: And you’ve got that on your website. I was reading that as well. Would you like to explain to everyone what it means?
BARRY ADAMS: Yes, polemic is a strongly worded argument usually taking a contrary opinion to what is commonly known as the standard wisdom, which more or less describes what I say and do in the SEO blogosphere quite regularly. I’m not one who follows the herd of lemmings as it were. I’m not the only one who does it. There are plenty of other SEOs out there with contrary opinions, just nobody else seized on the name Polemic Digital yet so I thought fine if it’s available, I might as well take that for myself.
DAVID BAIN: And do you think that you will be taking up strong opinions in four years’ time in a field called SEO, or will it be called something else?
BARRY ADAMS: I think we’ve been having a discussion about what SEO actually is, and what it should be called since the late 2000s really, so I don’t think in four years we will have moved away from that term in any meaningful way. As long as people will still have a need for search to find content online, there will always be some form of SEO applicable. It’s just that the way people search will evolve, which hasn’t really changed in the twenty years that SEO has been around. We’ve always managed to adapt and change accordingly, so no, I don’t see SEO disappearing, and I think I’ll still be calling myself an SEO guy in another four years from now.
DAVID BAIN: So what may change, as you’ve said, is SEO may be done in different ways, or at least the facets that make up perhaps Google’s algorithm, or the way that websites are ranked continually change. Which areas of SEO do you think are going to become more important over the next few years?
BARRY ADAMS: Well, I suppose I can flog the dead horse and mention mobile first and foremost because it does present the most substantial paradigm shift for SEO and search in general in these last twenty years. I think it’ll become more of a zero sum game in that mobile search, especially, will be heavily skewed towards the top ranked results in one way, form, or another. So you need to claim that top space as much as you can. When you look at for example voice page searches, where software like Siri and Google Now will deliver your answers straight away based on what you say into your phone, which is something that will become more and more ubiquitous. A lot of that will be driven by the top ranked organic result, or the top ranked result, where these search engines can algorithmically extract information from. So it becomes very important – even more important than it’s ever been before – to claim that top spot, or to at least be the first result that can be machine readable for these answer engines that use voice based search. It’s changing user context.
DAVID BAIN: Of course even nowadays in 2016 we’re seeing, for a lot of search queries, you don’t even see any organic results until you actually scroll down further down the screen. Will it be necessary to have a better combined pay per click and organic search strategy moving forward? Or will it still be possible to drive significant volumes of traffic in the future just through organic, do you think?
BARRY ADAMS: I’ve always been a fan of a multi-channel approach. I mean I’m an SEO guy through and through, don’t get me wrong, but I always tell my clients diversify your traffic sources, and that is only going to become more important later on where you have all these different touch points to get in front of potential customers. Paid search will be a very important aspect of that, but not just paid search. There are all these other advertising channels you can tap into, like keyword sponsored promotions and interest based advertising. I think you do need to invest in that properly, and work with experts in that particular field. As long as you don’t put all your eggs in one basket – it’s a combination of factors that you see enhancing each other if you do advertising right, and organic search right, and email marketing right, and social media marketing right, it’ll have an additive affect that will help your online presence become as powerful as it could possibly be. I think the mistake that a lot of people make is that they think they’re more cost effective by just focusing on one channel to the detriment of others. Whereas the exact opposite is true; you can do a little bit in each of these channels, it’ll have an exponential effect than if you just do one thing really in depth.
DAVID BAIN: So do you think you’ll still get highly technical SEOs in the future that only focus on technical SEO and don’t want to understand other channels as still being very effective in their field?
BARRY ADAMS: I do think that will continue because each of these channels in their own right will become ever more specialised. SEO now compared to ten years ago is almost unrecognisable. I mean that’s one of the things I see changing in SEO in the next four years is the importance of integrating more in depth with existing platforms. Google accelerated mobile pages being a prime example of this. That’s a technical SEO exercise at its core that allows you to integrate your website’s content with Google’s own mobile platform to a certain extent. And integration in general with other platforms – Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News connect to other ones is going to be an ever more important element of capturing your share of online audience. The same where you talk about advertising platforms, they are becoming more complicated and more integrated all the time, which means you need specialists to help you navigate that landscape and allow you to become successful in those areas. So while you want to have a diverse, general presence online, you will probably need specialised resources, specialised help for each and every one of those separate channels.
DAVID BAIN: So in terms of publishing content there, you talked about Facebook and AMP by Google, will it be necessary in the future to try and syndicate your content to as many places as possible or if you’re working in a business that has limited resource in terms of what it can throw out in terms of publishing content, is it better to actually focus on one particular network or place to publish and try and do as good a job there as possible?
BARRY ADAMS: I think it always comes down to where your audience is. You want to make sure your content is seen by the right people, so rather than just try a scattershot approach and get your content syndicated everywhere, you going to have to do some basic research and see what kind of platforms are my customers using? And those are the sorts of platforms you want to integrate with. It’s no use putting a lot of money into Facebook Instant Articles if, for example, your audience is heavily B2B skewed. You’re better off working with LinkedIn Pulse Articles or something like that. So it all starts like all good marketing I suppose, it all starts with understanding your audience and working from there.
DAVID BAIN: Over the last few years, we’ve probably seen a greater employment of SEOs in-house, heads of SEOs and directors of SEOs starting to appear in big organisations. Is that going to be a continued trend do you think? Do you think the majority of roles, SEO based roles in the future are going to be in-house, or are we going to see agencies still having that pivotal role within the industry as well?
BARRY ADAMS: I think they’ll always be a case to be made for in-house versus agencies and the other way round. I do feel it’s important that large organisations especially take us to the level of internal ownership of their own SEO and digital marketing efforts in general and that does require developing in-house resources and hiring in-house SEOs. Having said that I work with a lot of large clients who have their own in-house teams, but need extra specialised knowledge not on an on-going basis, but on an ad hoc basis for, for example, site migration projects and it’s not cost effective for them to either train up internal staff or hire a full time technical SEO. It’s rather than they can tap into these agency-based resources whenever it’s required. You see the same in classic above the line marketing that a lot of organisations build their own in-house marketing teams but then are still partnered with things that media agencies and creative agencies to develop campaigns as and when the need arises. So, yes, in-house is only going to grow as more and more people take online more seriously and digital claims a larger share of marketing budgets in general. But agencies will always have a space. I do however think agencies will need to differentiate themselves and become specialists in specific niches where they can easily prove their added value rather than being an all-in-one, generalised agency, because I do think the market is full of those. It’s going to decrease and shrink, rather than grow.
DAVID BAIN: So what would you say are a few SEO strategies that are still working really well now in 2016 but are less likely to work effectively in four years’ time, in the future?
BARRY ADAMS: Well we already see the decreasing value of just spamming blogs. We need content nowadays to keep it ticking over. You’re going to have to invest more and more in semi-high quality content to attract eyeballs to your website. The whole thing about content marketing as a separate hype-word I think that is going to disappear, because it becomes just marketing. Marketing without content has never existed. Marketing has always been about content, be they really good advertising videos or interactive online pieces or whatever you want to call them. So I think that content marketing buzzword is going to dissipate into the background and just become associated with good online marketing in general.
DAVID BAIN: Intriguing. Okay, so paid and organic is going to become one as well, do you think?
BARRY ADAMS: I hope not. I don’t like giving money to Google and paid search is not really my speciality, nor do I have any interest in developing a speciality in it. I think Google will always have to make that distinction between paid listings and organic algorithmic listings to a certain extent, which is actually currently the focus of a European Commission investigation anyway and I think they’ve been rapping Google on the knuckles a little bit for blurring the lines between paid and organic listings. And I think Google realises that the organic listings are why people keep coming back to Google. The audience that Google has developed off the back of organic search is their main product and that’s something they want to make sure they keep looking after because that’s the product that we want to sell to advertisers on an on-going basis. It’s not under any real threat at the moment, because people still just Google stuff, but there is a bit of a risk that if they go too ad heavy and are being forced by, for example, the European Union, to mark those ads very clearly, then people will be turned away by Google a little bit and might, maybe, start looking around for other search engines. I don’t expect that to be the case in the next four years, I do believe Google will continue to dominate search as it has for the last ten years, but I think Google is very wary of finding that right balance between the organic results, which is why people use Google and the advertising which is the life blood of Google’s revenue stream.
DAVID BAIN: You almost answered my next question by saying that Google were going to continue to dominate. Do you think there’s any chance that another search engine like Bing could increase its market share significantly?
BARRY ADAMS: I don’t think Google is under any real threat from any of the main established players at the moment. If Google is going to have an existential crisis and someone really is going to compete with them, it will be something we won’t see coming. It’ll be either a new app or an entirely new mode of search that will come from an unexpected angle and suddenly take the world by storm. I don’t expect any established search engines to be able to compete with Google and be able to claim any significant amount of market share away from them in the near future.
DAVID BAIN: So you don’t think that on device search – Cortana and Apple search, Siri, has the potential to change users’ behaviour so much that they’re less likely to go to Google in the future?
BARRY ADAMS: Well it all comes down to the quality of the search results and I’ve tried using Bing for quite a while to be honest. It doesn’t really do it. I hate to say this because I’m far from Google’s best friend, but they are the best organic search results out there at the moment. Even privacy-conscious search engines like DuckDuckGo, I have to do quite a lot of search refinements before I find what I’m looking for, whereas in Google usually the first or second query I’m there, I’m straight there, what I’m looking for. And even in voice-based interactive search experiences, that quality isn’t going to go away. People can fool around with Cortana all they want, but the moment they realise that by just installing the Google app on their phone they get much better results, it’s going to change the dynamic. Siri, in this context, is struggling a little bit with any form of search that requires Siri to talk to a search backend that Apple doesn’t have on its own apps at the moment to supply that. But the quality isn’t quite there, people just open up their mobile browser instead and just type something in. It’s more for searching your own apps on your mobile phone and integrating it with the content already on your phone that these voice-based search at the moment is really working well. It’s about taking search to that next level where you can have that sort of interactive search experience with accuracy on the entirety of the indexed web, which Google is really trying to do, but I don’t think Siri and Cortana have a real hope in achieving in the short term.
DAVID BAIN: Okay, so it looks like certainly in the short term that Google are going to continue to dominate search, but one area that Google have struggled with significantly is actually trying to achieve dominance in social media. What do you think might be the future of Google+?
BARRY ADAMS: Google+ has been dead on its feet for years really. Google trying out social is a little bit like Facebook trying search. Best of intentions, because they feel they need to claim that space, but it’s not really going to work. I’ll be honest with you, when Google+ first launched I was quite enthusiastic about it. I thought it really had potential, but the adoption rate just hasn’t been there. I think Google has probably done the right thing by splitting out hangouts and photos into different apps and leaving Google+ there mainly as a community platform. I predicted a couple of years ago Google+ would just die out of the pool, but it’s a big pool, I don’t think actually now it’s going to happen, I’ve changed my opinion on that. I do think it’s going to have a niche appeal as a community platform, which it currently more or less is. Whether or not Google will keep that running indefinitely really depends on how much Google is going to keep using it internally. The moment Googlers themselves are going to stop using Google+ as a community platform, that’s when you know it’s just inevitable for them to pull the plug and throw it away.
DAVID BAIN: So does Google need to make some kind of social purchase? Maybe even Twitter or something like that to try and actually utilise all this data out there?
BARRY ADAMS: I actually think Google has been turned away from social a little bit to a certain extent. I think they’ve tried several times with Wave and Buzz and Google+ and they’ve burned their fingers every single time. Even with Google+, which was by far the best social platform they’ve launched to date. So I think they are stepping away from the social to a certain extent and are happy to leave that to the likes of Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and maybe trying to find another way to gather that sort of interesting interconnection data, maybe by making deals with the likes of Twitter like they have already by plugging into the Twitter files. I’m not sure they’re ready to buy a company like Twitter yet, because I don’t think that they see growth potential of it outside of the narrow scope that Twitter has at the moment, which by the way is an entirely separate discussion but it’s interesting to note I don’t think Twitter is in any real trouble I say that people have too high expectations of Twitter. It makes like 500 million a year, which I think is a perfectly respectable turnover, but people expect it to make 500 billion a year, which is entirely unrealistic, which is where the whole fixing comes from, but that’s a side point. In terms of Google and social, I think Google has realised you can’t force that down peoples’ throats and is maybe trying to find ways to have that grow more organically unintended. I do think they have on the way to do that yet, like I said, I think they’ve lost the appetite for it in the short-term.
DAVID BAIN: And what about websites? Website design, future-proofing your website to ensure that hopefully Google doesn’t dislike what your website looks like in the future. What can businesses be doing now to ensure that the website design is as future-proofed as possible?
BARRY ADAMS: Keep it as simple as possible. I think websites tend to go wrong when they try to put too many bells and whistles on it. If you keep your website simple, straightforward and easy to use, you tend to build it future-proof by default by not doing anything that might stop being supported at some stage. Having said that, I do believe that the look and feel of websites is going to become increasingly less important over the coming years. Again, we’re talking about these integrated technologies like Google AMP which strip our all the superfluous stuff from your website and focus purely on displaying the content as clearly and easy to use as possible. So what your website really looks like on the desktop will become less important that how well the content is presented or presentable or extractable. And for platforms like AMP or Instant Articles, Apple News and things like that, the interactive elements that, for example, drive e-commerce and things like shopping carts and catalogues, that’s where things will get interesting, because I do think there will become a point where e-commerce retailers integrate with existing platforms directly maybe into Google shopping as a whole e-commerce check out process in Google shopping. Maybe even on social platforms like Facebook and Instagram allowing people to buy clothing and other things that are being shown on social media with a simple click. So that is, I think, the next technological disruption of the current web as we know it – that people still have to go an e-commerce website and buy. I do think that the next generation of integrated systems will allow people to buy stuff where they are on established platforms like Google or Facebook.
DAVID BAIN: And what kind of changes might we see to the SERP over the next few years? We’ve obviously seen the removal of the right-hand ads quite recently, so four ads on top, a lot of organic results not appearing until you scroll, certainly for mobile devices. Are we likely to see a greater integration of images and video into the SERP do you think?
BARRY ADAMS: Yes, because already you see that if you search for a specific trailer you can view the trailer right in Google results for movies. Music will be a next step, where people play music hosted on Google, maybe integrated with streaming music platforms in Google’s search results. For Google it’s all about delivering the best possible user experience with as little interaction as possible. You see that with Knowledge Graph, you see that with everything else that they’re doing. So whenever Google gets a chance to integrate an experience into search results, that will deliver value for its end users, they will seize on the opportunity and do that. So, yes, I do think we will see more of those sorts of integrations in search results and we’ll see it integrate more and evolve more into becoming an end destination in and of itself where you don’t have to go through to the actual website or platform that generates the content but Google will serve you the content straight away.
DAVID BAIN: It’s been talked about for a while that Google want to move away from links as a significant algorithm signal. Is this realistic and what do you think might be more primary factors within the way that Google determines authoritative and relevant content in the year 2020?
BARRY ADAMS: I’ve been putting a lot of faith over the last few years in sentiment analysis as a possible replacement or amendment to the pure links signal in Google search results, but in hindsight it’s probably put too much emphasis on it, too much faith in it early on as immature technology, because in theory with good sentiment analysis we can analyse every time a brand is mentioned on the web whether it’s a positive or negative context and even what kind of emotions are being associated with that particular mention. However, I don’t think that has really matured yet to such a level where it can serve as a reliable signal to rank search results or rank web content on; the signal to noise ratio is not positive enough, it’s still too fuzzy a signal to really rely on. I do think it has potential for the future though, but I don’t expect it to make any real headway in the short-term, I think Google is more or less stuck with the link signal for the foreseeable future and you see that with the recent announcement that they’re asking bloggers to no-follow links to companies that give them products that Google is still struggling to keep that link signal clean and they really want to keep the link signal clean because it is still the cornerstone of the ranking record.
DAVID BAIN: So what do you think are some of the more effective ways to go about building links now and in the future with a view to hopefully Google not disliking that?
BARRY ADAMS: Well, you know, the key personal scalable tactics have never really gone away. As long as you accept the risks that are involved with that then those risks are only going to grow. Building links as such it still works to an extent, you just have to be a bit smarter about it and, like I said before, have something worth linking to. The best link building campaigns that we tend to mention and that you see mentioned in conferences and on webinars aren’t actually meant as link building campaigns, they’re meant as just attention grabbing campaigns that get people talking about your particular brand and as an extra result you end up getting a load of links pointing to your website. So that’s the sort of thing, brands will need to refocus on again because historically that’s the way to intervene with the classic market, we’ve sort of forgotten how to do that with digital marketing that we thought all these technically interesting tactics would take the place of that, but it’s not really true. We have to go back to building those sorts of interesting marketing campaigns just now using the internet as a medium to promote those campaigns, rather than just using above the line channels historically. And that really is the future of link building to the extent that it becomes a happy by-product of all the old marketing activities that you engaged in.
DAVID BAIN: Is it still possible to do negative SEO quite effectively? And do you think that this may still be an issue moving forward in the future as well?
BARRY ADAMS: Oh yes. Very easily you’re going to get comparative websites indexed with Google. I mean just hacking a website or planting some malware on it, there’s a 50:50 chance of getting the website de-indexed. Building a crap load of spammy links to a website with exact match keywords will have a temporary ranking boost, after which they will either be slapped by a Penguin filter or get a manual penalty. So, yes, negative SEO is still possible. However, most of the time it’s actually done by people working for that organisation trying to find a shortcut to Google rankings rather than by an external competitor who is trying to be nasty in any way, shape or form. With the exception of hacked websites of course, nobody wants to see their own website be hacked, but we have seen several cases in recent months where a website was hacked, Google didn’t recognise it as malware but saw it as an attempt at cloaking and instantly de-indexed the entire website. So web security as such is going to become more important to protect yourself against those sorts of attacks.
DAVID BAIN: Right. And what about AI? We’ve heard RankBrain over the last year or so – was that more of a PR type thing for Google to be talking about artificial intelligence, or is artificial intelligence really going to drive the algorithm moving forward?
BARRY ADAMS: That’s a very good question. I don’t really have an answer for you there. I don’t know enough about machine learning to have an informed opinion about RankBrain, so I’m just going to leave that to people who do have machine learning backgrounds or at least sufficient knowledge to be able to dissect what RankBrain actually is or what it actually does. I mean there is so much being written about RankBrain and 99% of it you can just chuck in the bin because nobody actually has any idea of what RankBrain actually is and how it actually works. I do think those sorts of machine learning elements in search are going to become more emphasised. I mean to a certain extent the entire Google algorithm to date has been a machine learning exercise – engineers trying to algorithmically tweak the systems to present the best possible results and then looking at user feedback to determine if those results are actually the best possible results or not. I think they’re just trying to automate the process a little bit more and calling it RankBrain so that rather than by engineering interference in the back end, you tweak the algorithms and get high quality results, they’re going to directly connect the user signals to the rankings and then let the machines handle the problems really. That is only going to grow, because the web is becoming too big and too unmanageable for Google’s engineers to manually tweak the algorithms all the time just by getting a positive result here with a negative result there. The exact mechanisms with which they use that will be far out of comprehension for mere mortals like you and I, I’m afraid.
DAVID BAIN: Well, Barry, you’ve offered some wonderful advice and interesting thoughts. Thanks for sharing that. But just to conclude, what are one or two things that businesses need to be doing now that are still likely to be a valid strategy moving forward in 2020?
BARRY ADAMS: Build something worth visiting. I mean I see too many websites and I actually speak to some of my clients who feel that they deserve to be number one in Google because their businesses is 30/40/50 years old and they’ve always had a really good customer experience etc. etc. But if that doesn’t reflect your online presence, then you’re going to lose out. You need to have something on the web that is worth visiting that adds value to your market place and to your customers’ life, generally speaking. If you don’t have that, then no amount of marketing efforts are really going to make up for that.
DAVID BAIN: Wonderful stuff. And how can people get hold of you, Barry?
BARRY ADAMS: Follow me on Twitter @badams or just visit www.polemicdigital.com.
DAVID BAIN: Great stuff. Okay, thanks again.