Episode 13 of our “SEO in 2020” podcast interviews Nichola Stott from theMediaFlow; getting her views on how she thinks SEO is likely to evolve over the coming few years.
DAVID BAIN: I'm joined today by a lady who's been head of UK search partners for Yahoo and, nearly six years ago, set up theMediaFlow, an agency that specialises in technical SEO and creative content. Welcome Nichola Stott.
NICHOLA STOTT: Thanks David, how you doing?
DAVID BAIN: Yeah, I'm good thank you. Thanks so much for joining me, I'm looking forward to today. You can find Nichola over at theMediaFlow.com but, Nichola first of all, looking back maybe when you started your agency in October 2010 I believe, what would you say are the biggest changes that you've seen in the world of SEO since then?
NICHOLA STOTT: The biggest change for us really has been device considerations. So 2010, mobile wasn't anywhere near as big as a consideration as it is now. So factoring that in from the get-go in terms of what mobile strategy is or the number of kind of migrations and associated projects that we've done, because of people getting up to speed in terms of device platform. When we started out, we were talking about it would be a really good idea to get a site that responds on a mobile and now par for the course. You forget how to improve an old mobile site or how to integrate a responsive design or how to solve a canonical issue of the versions of the site in terms of the different devices. So that's pretty much every project we're looking at now has some layer of that involved in it. That's what the biggest change was.
DAVID BAIN: I forget the percentages, but I would reckon it's got to be less than 10% of sites that would have been viewed on a mobile device or less than 10% of visitors back then in 2010. But now, many industries it's way over 50% of course.
NICHOLA STOTT: That sounds logical to me. I couldn't tell you myself what the stats would be but that's quite a rare change in just five or six years, isn't it?
DAVID BAIN: Oh yes, it's a lifetime or two lifetimes in internet years, certainly yes.
NICHOLA STOTT: Don't say that.
DAVID BAIN: But you've got many more lifetimes to go in terms of SEO certainly, so much more going to happen. It will be interesting to hear your thoughts on what is indeed going to happen, you think, over the next few years. But in terms of just maybe still initially just looking back over the last few years, what would you say has been the biggest changes in terms of the services that you've delivered to your clients, compared with when you started out?
NICHOLA STOTT: Well nothing for us, nothing's changed in terms of the services we offer. Technical SEO is always technical SEO. There might be more on the list in terms of activities that we do. Might be device consideration, semantic markup is going to get much more of a focus, speed and performance. More of a waiting in terms of the amounts of work we'll do on those, and creative marketing as humans haven’t changed much. We're still creating campaigns to market to humans so those aspects of it actually haven't changed at all.
DAVID BAIN: Just maybe the standards have had to go up even higher because...is there more competition in the marketplace now than there was five years ago?
NICHOLA STOTT: That depends on your perspective to be honest. For us, in the bracket that we come under, our competition has remained the same. There's a handful of really good quality agencies in our marketplace that we consider to be competitors, that we might come up against, and it's the same...those are the same companies now as they were then. We don't really compete with the link buying, link building SEO formula type of agencies. So that's never going to become a consideration really.
DAVID BAIN: Okay so you mix technical SEO and creative content. In terms of technical SEO, what do you think is going to be a greater focus in that area over the coming few years, compared with what has happened in the recent past?
NICHOLA STOTT: I think speed, performance, human feedback, those elements will become much more...or will move up the agenda a lot more. Semantic markup point two and then also I think device readiness. So things like voice search, thinking about capabilities around that and immersive devices so whether it's an Oculus Rift, whatever it might be. Whatever's coming, whatever's yet to be written in terms of immersive devices and other technologies. Whether it's 3D, whether it's augmented reality, who knows? I think there will be differences from the home to the workplace though when it comes to that sort of thing as well, because I can't...2020 is only three years away. So I can't really imagine that workplace will change huge amounts between now and then.
DAVID BAIN: So what do you mean by immersive devices?
NICHOLA STOTT: So like an Oculus Rift, something that's giving you a fully immersive experience.
DAVID BAIN: Okay.
NICHOLA STOTT: Like wearables, like augmented reality devices, 3D devices, stuff like that as opposed to mobile phones and things.
DAVID BAIN: Okay, okay and you said feedback from users would potentially become increasingly important. Are you talking about actually filling in surveys?
NICHOLA STOTT: No, data feedback, sorry, sorry, no. Data feedback that sort of thing. Engagement metrics, that sort of stuff that we might use, the user informed data.
DAVID BAIN: Okay, okay so, in terms of a few engagement metrics that are likely to be the more important ones moving forward, are we looking at something like dwell time or interaction as part of the funnels that you set up or something different?
NICHOLA STOTT: Well thinking logically, it would make sense to include as many human engagement feedback metrics as you actually can, if the goal of the search engine is to make more money for their shareholders and why wouldn't you do that? So I guess the complexities are just around legalities and how statistically robust the amount of data is. So with Google Analytics, is the source they're using for all of that data, there's all sorts of areas of fail there, isn't there? There's like how people set up their measurements and tracking, because that's up to the actual analytics package user to define certain tests and things like that. So there's margins for error and deviation of standard around that sort of thing but I guess once data can be statistically robust enough or is comparative enough, why wouldn't you use it? So, in my mind, I think all sorts of metrics, real-time, stuff like that. Some things I think already are in all algorithms to be honest with you.
DAVID BAIN: Yeah, there's so much data out there in terms of the degree of how it's actually used and the quality of the users, the quality of the tool itself. Is Google Analytics generally going to be enough for most businesses or are there going to be other up-and-coming tools up there that businesses will need to actually start utilising as well, to actually give them the best chance within their industry?
NICHOLA STOTT: I couldn't see that between now and 2020.
DAVID BAIN: Okay. So in terms of SEOs themselves, we've got different types of SEOs now. We've got, I suppose, overall heads of SEOs that will manage different aspects of SEO, but we also have very technical SEOs. We've got quite creative SEOs that perhaps might not have the same skill sets, but will be able to add in different areas. We've got strategic SEOs, are there going to be lots of different types of SEOs in the year 2020?
NICHOLA STOTT: I don't know. Maybe I disagree with you there but I think there's only really one type, and actually those other areas are different people. They're different job roles. An SEO, for me, is technical, strategic and analytical and the more day-to-day work is somebody else. Do you know what I mean? It's either a content writer or a designer or a content strategist, all of those are different things. I couldn't imagine what a creative SEO would be, actually wouldn't really be beneficial to somebody else.
DAVID BAIN: I'm guessing what I'm talking about is a creative who is more aware of SEO, and knows what to be writing about based upon thorough research, using different SEO platforms or will know how a certain piece of content actually is likely to relate to existing pieces of content. And semantically themed, they're probably a little bit more experienced at doing that from an SEO perspective or...
NICHOLA STOTT: No, I see where you're coming from. I guess, I think there's more room for structured cross-functional teams obviously depending on the objectives. If the objective is some kind of campaign, promotional campaign or marketing campaign with a creative element then it needs to have somebody steering the campaign objectives, a project manager. The SEO component, conversion optimisation component, front-end creative and then somebody that can build it all and do it all together so there's an element as well. So, in a way, yes I think there's a much greater case for greater collaboration between people who have those skills, and work to understand what's the bit that you do and how is it important to achieve our marketing objectives.
DAVID BAIN: And how will that knowledge filter through organisations in the future? Is it up to technical SEOs themselves to be conducting SEO training in-house? Are there a lot of agencies that should be doing it on businesses' behalf or is it perhaps actually individuals themselves that should be pushing themselves to learn more?
NICHOLA STOTT: I don't know. That's a really interesting question. I can't imagine there's any single one right answer really. It will be interesting to look back and think about other emerging professions, and how they have tackled or approached this need for internal communications. Because, I mean, we all know what an accountant does, don't we? We all know what HR does and we all know, largely, what a marketing team does within an organisation. So whether it just happens naturally over time or there's been similar form of repeating internal education programmes, couldn't say, couldn't say. I guess well you can say, 'Look we do that and the ROI is that. Please listen to us.' Because in a financial case, that always gets someone's ear, doesn't it?
DAVID BAIN: I'm going to guess is it that digital is radically changing the way that the majority of business has to be done, and does it really mean that marketing has to, to a certain degree, be part of every job function, department, within the business? Are you of that mindset?
NICHOLA STOTT: Do you know what? That's a really, yeah I guess that's a really interesting point. It's becoming its own mission critical that I think there is a case for that. There are a lot more organisations nowadays operating in that way, siloed, more open in terms of the way that they communicate with employees. And they communicate with divisions and how we all get there and all the rest of it. Facebook is good example of that, that transparent leadership and transparent goals and communication.
DAVID BAIN: It's...I guess many organisations are probably struggling with that and will continue to struggle with that. You've got customer facing departments of the customer service sales that can potentially impact the way that prospects and customers perceive a brand. And obviously those customers and prospects can leave reviews and say things on social media that can impact digital perception of that brand. And that, in turn, can impact click through rates, I guess, by in turn SEOs. So that's why I'm always intrigued about the interconnectivity between marketing that happens from a non-marketing department, and the results that come back and impacts that business from an SEO perspective.
NICHOLA STOTT: Yeah. It is an interesting one. I think there's no perfect answer. Sometimes defining...when a company really understands who it is and has that real sense of brand and identity, mission that's all shared and treats it’s employees well, then, there's a sense of belief and ownership then the rest of that stuff should fall into place one would hope. You know what I mean?
DAVID BAIN: Absolutely. If it's done right as a business, as a whole, if the ethos is there then yeah. It should permeate.
NICHOLA STOTT: Yeah, permeate. That's a good word, yeah.
DAVID BAIN: That's the word of the conversation. So what about the actual title, the word, if it's a word, SEO? Is that something that is going to stick about? Are we going to see heads of organic acquisition or other job roles that start to take over from SEO? Or will we see SEO stick around as a job function for the foreseeable future?
NICHOLA STOTT: I can't see why not to be honest. I mean I think a job...a title, in a way, is almost immaterial. You know what I mean? If the day-to-day activities, do not change. Ultimately someone is trying to optimise a site and keep to performance in search, that's the descriptor really, isn't it?
DAVID BAIN: And do you see that person being more likely to be in-house in the future, and agencies to be more consultative rather than actually carrying out specific services in the future? Or do you think there will be a role for services being provided by agencies, and a lot of SEOs still being outsourced in the future?
NICHOLA STOTT: I think there's been an interesting trend of late and the last couple of years, for more businesses bringing more specialist operations in-house. But then that's almost cyclical, isn't it? It happens all the time, it happens to the advertising, it happens with media, it happens with any kind of agent-based service provision. But then there seems to be a natural cycle where companies realise it can be, a, very expensive and, b, very difficult to innovate doing certain things in-house. So my short answer is yes but it won't last forever.
DAVID BAIN: So what about the actual SEO role itself? I'm trying to think in terms of the activities involved in SEO is starting to get too technical for marketing generalists to be able to do effectively. Because, perhaps in the past, you had entrepreneurs or small businesses that perhaps just had one marketer, and that was trying to do everything. And now you've got schema, you've got different forms of rich snippets, you've got canonical tags or whatever has come in over the last few years. And is that now too much to be asking a generalist marketer, do you think, to do?
NICHOLA STOTT: Well yeah, yeah, definitely unless someone is exceptionally smart and able to work very quickly. I mean it's about knowing your own strengths really because if you're super-smart, you can do everything. That's great but I don't think there's many people that can, I wouldn't feel confident in being brilliant at running a Facebook campaign right now without having quite a time investment in terms of a learning curve. So I think there's definitely...well you've got to just draw the line. You've got to understand either what you are capable of and when it's time to outsource, or what method is right for you. Not every small business can afford to have a PR agency so you look at alternate routes to market, don't you? Same for SEO, either spend no money or spend a couple of grand a month if that's going to be your primary investment, but don't have a dabble because then you'll mess up your site.
DAVID BAIN: Yeah, yeah, good advice. And I'm also interested in that obviously theMediaFlow focuses on both technical SEO and creative content, because I also think that sometimes SEOs who are very technical are very scientific and maybe by nature aren't as creative as certain other personalities out there. Do you disagree with that? Do you think it's quite possible to be technical and creative at the same time?
NICHOLA STOTT: Yeah, yeah I do, I do but I know what you're saying. Sometimes people can be quite data driven but I think creativity, you can get better at being creative. You can practice different ways of thinking and put yourself into different environments. It's not necessarily something that is completely innate, although I think some people are naturally more disposed to be more creative than others. You certainly can improve on that. Certainly I mean, in terms of our team's structure, the creators are not the SEOs. They're different people that deliver these services we've got.
DAVID BAIN: And what about in terms of SEO strategies in general comparing 2016 with 2020. What strategies do you think, that businesses are implementing at the moment in 2016, would be good long-term strategies that will definitely still work in 2020? And also what strategies may be working at the moment but will be less likely to work effectively in the future?
NICHOLA STOTT: There's quite a lot of questions in there all at once. So strategy, I think in terms of what should be on strategy which should be fairly future proof. Anything to do with making sure your site is structurally robust and well architected can be crawled, and the right pages can be crawled and fixed properly. That's never going to change. Moving on from that though, what I think should be more of a focus just to make sure that our strategies are a little bit more future proof, would to be to focus on semantic mark-up particularly when you're considering things like voice search. So understanding and interpreting what the hell your page is about in order to understand if it's a relevant match for voice queries. Things like semantic mark-ups, structured data in particular are going to become more and more important. So making sure that markup assessment and improvement is a huge part of strategy as well including the tactically technical side of things.
DAVID BAIN: Okay and maybe one thing that maybe working now, but is less likely to be working in the future?
NICHOLA STOTT: I couldn't tell you to be honest. There's not really anything that we do that I think is not particularly future proof. I guess...no I can't really think of anything.
DAVID BAIN: Okay, so only your maybe horrible link builders that just spend quite a bit of time and effort on building quite low quality links, and probably irrelevant links. That kind of practice maybe working short-term in some industries now, is that more likely to actually not work at all in the future? Or do you think there will be always a place for that, for the foreseeable future?
NICHOLA STOTT: I think there should be less room for that sort of thing because, logically, Google should get smarter at detecting and promoting that kind of practice. They have largely in the past few years so it's only going to get better, isn't it? It can't get worse.
DAVID BAIN: You never know, and it would be good to get a few thoughts on maybe the future of the SERP as well. There's been a few changes recently. I mean earlier on this year we saw the right hand ads disappear basically, and we've also seen the length of titles and meta descriptions just increase slightly recently. Are there any significant SERP changes, do you think, that are likely to happen over the next couple of years?
NICHOLA STOTT: Yeah, yeah, definitely. Well I mean actually really quite significant. The rate of change in the past few years has been really noticeable, remarkably so. It used to be that there would be months and months and months of a static layout, format, arrangement, that sort of thing, and there's been an accelerated rate of change. It seems like every couple of weeks or every month, there's a test going or something is immediately changed which leads me to think about why would you do that? What's the point? I wonder if there's a lot of uncertainty around the financial performance, the click through rate on the page inventory basically on the SERP, which is query driven or query dependent really in terms of how your CTR performs and what's optimal for a particular marketplace. So why the hell would you do it? So there must be lots of complexities around having all the devices and location, and how the algorithm drives different results. Otherwise why would they keep testing it so much? They're trying to find an optimal middle ground around what's best for revenue.
DAVID BAIN: Absolutely, yeah.
NICHOLA STOTT: There's going to be lots more changes. As to whether or not they're significant, I doubt they will be significant. They're all gradual really, aren't they? In terms of physical appearance.
DAVID BAIN: At the moment, we're seeing very similar styles of results for mobile, tablet and desktop. Do you think we're just seeing a long-term convergence there or are we still going to see separate styled results for desktop or larger screens in the future?
NICHOLA STOTT: Convergence, definitely. I'd say some sort of convergence, this middle ground, that's what I was trying to say. To suit device, to suit right down to handset to everything to physical location. All of that, browser, operating system, every individual variable right down to the keyword level to find the best fit layout.
DAVID BAIN: Do you think we're going to see any significant levels of images or videos incorporated in SERPS? Or is it still going to be largely text led?
NICHOLA STOTT: I think that's completely query dependent, isn't it? The best answer to the question.
DAVID BAIN: Absolutely and what about what might be introduced into the algorithm in the future? I mean is that going to be determined by RankBrain or are we going to see any significant new additions to the algorithm? Is social going to play a bigger part in the future?
NICHOLA STOTT: Logically one would think so. That would be my only real direction, would be more social signals, social components.
DAVID BAIN: It's been interesting that I have seen some studies published showing not a great deal of correlation between the quantity of links and the quantity of social sharers, and that, by and large, it's been one or the other.
NICHOLA STOTT: Yeah. I think what gets linked isn't always what gets shared. The two can be completely different things. If you link to something, there's a number of reasons why a genuine author would link to something in that sense, credibility, feedback in a platform, validity, all of that. Things that get shared don't always have to stay qualities or properties. The minute you share something all of the motives around, does it make me look cool? Is it funny? Will people laugh? Am I great by association. Do I want to make people tear up? What's the motive? What's the point of that? So if you think about a lot of the kinds of things that get shared, why would you want to link to them? It's not the generally the same sort of content, is it?
DAVID BAIN: That's a great point, yeah.
NICHOLA STOTT: Unless they do well and then it might be a write-up on the Authoritas blog saying, 'Here's a case study of why this went well as a social campaign.' Do you know what I mean?
DAVID BAIN: No, it's a great point because a lot of businesses actually, or SEOs, may be upset at the fact that certain pages have only a lot of social shares. Or only links built to them, but your point that actually perhaps it's a different type of page and it's likely to only encourage one over the other. And you just have to be satisfied with that and create different content for different things.
NICHOLA STOTT: Oh yeah the two totally do not necessarily follow at all, that you should get links and shares. I think, in terms of your campaign metrics, I generally say to focus on one or the other in your motive and goals.
DAVID BAIN: So in terms of, I mean just finishing up here, in terms of just a couple of things that businesses need to be doing now that will be long-term effective, I take it you would advise of just decently marked up sites? Telling search engines what the content is about, making sure your site performs well and publishing great, relevant content.
NICHOLA STOTT: Yeah, absolutely. Pretty much just that.
DAVID BAIN: Sorry, I should have asked you to say that Nichola, but it's the logical thing to do. There's no short-term tricks or you're just as likely to succeed long-term if you think long-term, and do things that are going to be right for your users as well as search engines.
NICHOLA STOTT: Yeah, absolutely. It's the smart thing, absolutely.
DAVID BAIN: Well thank you so much for joining me today Nichola. Can you possibly just remind our viewers and listeners how they can get hold of you?
NICHOLA STOTT: Yeah, sure. @NicholaStott on Twitter, that's my handle, or find me on LinkedIn or the company website is www.theMediaFlow.com. Thanks for having me David.
DAVID BAIN: Thank you.