Episode 14 of our “SEO in 2020” podcast interviews Sean Si from SEO Hacker; getting his views on how he thinks SEO is likely to evolve over the coming few years.

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DAVID BAIN: Today I’m joined by Author and Editor-in-Chief of SEO Hacker, a blog all about providing the world with the latest information in the SEO industry. Welcome, Sean Si.

SEAN SI: Thanks for having me here David.

DAVID BAIN: Thanks for joining us.

SEAN SI: How you doing?

DAVID BAIN: Yeah, very good thank you. You’re joining me all the way from Hong Kong aren’t you?

SEAN SI: No, not really. I’m meeting Hong Kong time because we don’t really say Philippine time, but I’m from the Philippines.

DAVID BAIN: Ah, I’ve got you. You’re trying to throw me out there and pretend you’re from a different country!

[laughing]

DAVID BAIN: Well, thanks again for joining me. Just with regards to SEO over the last few years, first of all, what would you say are the main ways that you think that SEO has changed over the past few years?

SEAN SI: Well I would say that it has changed a lot. I wasn’t really a pioneer in this industry. I started in 2010, so you could say that I’m one of the new waves of SEO. Because SEO specialists before me, such as Michael Gray, Rand Fishkin – they were able to see SEO evolve from metatags and all the technical SEO stuff that was happening back in Yahoo’s heyday. I really wasn’t able to join that wave.

So 2010, it was Google’s age. That was the time that they dominated. And basically, I got into SEO when white hat SEO was the craze. And content was key, even in the SEO. So you could say that I am not really well versed in black or grey hat tactics. Although I have read some, I have tested some, but I wouldn’t say that I am the best person to consult about that.

So all of the strategies that we use for our clients (and most of my clients are local) are white hat strategies, which is all about creating content, making sure the landing pages are well written and very informative.

Our link building is all manual. I have people in the link-building team and all they do, every day, is build links.

DAVID BAIN: So that’s funny that you focus on white hat and that white hat is really what you know, with a name like SEO Hacker you would think that that’s a little bit more black hat or grey hat.

SEAN SI: Yeah, well SEO Hacker, the name really originated from a blog that I was following before – which is Lifehacker. This was a popular blog before and I was very interested in why they chose that name. So I researched around it and I realised that they chose the word hacker because it means, ‘Someone who wants to improve things,’ or to tweak codes. And I wanted to apply that to the way that I’m learning SEO.

SEO Hacker didn’t start out as a business. It began as an online journal. So I just named it SEO Hacker, I wasn’t really serious about carrying that name over to a business, which we did, consequently. But really, it was supposed to be an online journal.

And to continue on with your earlier question about how SEO has changed – this year was the greatest move, in my opinion, that Google has made. Because of RankBrain. I don’t know if you have observed how search engine results pages fluctuate these days? But they fluctuate a lot, especially in the top one-to-five spots. They fluctuate almost to the minute. If one minute you type in a search query, and then repeat that query five or ten minutes later, then the rankings are different.

DAVID BAIN: And do you think that’s Google testing different things? Or do you think that’s the algorithm that is changing much more often than it used to?

SEAN SI: I think that’s RankBrain at work. Because Google claims that RankBrain is a self-learning algorithm. So what it does, right there and then it’s testing which of the search engine results in the top five or ten spots would get more click-through’s if it plays with it. So I think that’s really RankBrain playing with the results and seeing who gets more clicks and who stays longer with that click or who pogo sticks back to the search engine results and clicks on another link.

So the testing that RankBrain does is in real-time, and we could feel it, and then it learns from that. But the other thing is – then it doesn’t really solidify ranking. So once you’re in the first place of that keyword, you’re always in danger, because RankBrain is always trying to test and switch. So it really is a game changer.

I haven’t seen a lot of articles written about it yet, because Google has not really made anything about it too public. I mean, they just said that it’s the third most important ranking factor. That’s it. It’s the most qualitative thing that they have ever said about RankBrain. So, there’s not much written about it, but as far as I can see, it is very powerful indeed.

DAVID BAIN: Certainly in the past, it used to be possible to rank as number one and then stay number one for a long time. I remember that I’ve been number one for maybe two years for competitive keyword phrases in the past, but by the sound of what you’re saying, that is going to be much more difficult in the future. How do you think RankBrain may impact results over the next few years?

SEAN SI: It will be able to qualify better who stays on top and who doesn’t. So with all of this testing, I’m sure RankBrain is gathering data, every day, every single minute it’s gathering more and more data about more and more keywords.

If there is an obvious winner – much like A/B/n testing – if there is an obvious statistically significance in one test, then you declare that as the winner. And if the significance is so high – and I think RankBrain is just looking for that very high significance – it may declare one result as king for quite some time, I think that is possible.

But that would be very difficult for us webmasters. That includes not just SEO as a practice, but now it also has a lot to do with user experience and conversion rate optimisation and strategies of making the user stay for the long click and perform a lot of user activity inside your website. I think it goes all the way to that.

So now SEO is not just about backlinks and schema tags and metadata and site speed, it’s about all of that plus the experience, plus how do you make people stay and how do you make them engage with your website? It’s a lot more difficult.

DAVID BAIN: And also, obviously, optimising the traditional aspects, such as your page title, your meta-description, your click-through rate to begin with, but once people come through to your website, what kind of experience do they have? Is it relevant to the search results and the performance of your website as well?

SEAN SI: Yes, exactly. Exactly.

DAVID BAIN: Okay. Are there any other aspects of the RankBrain algorithm that you think we haven’t talked about so far that are very important for webmasters to be looking at now with a view to the future?

SEAN SI: Well it’s based on what I said earlier, which is just an observation of mine, I can’t really prove that yet because I haven’t run any tests, but I have seen it more often than not, that a search query has switched in a matter of five to ten minutes. It has switched places. With that in mind, I think that one of the things that webmasters can do is to make sure that their click-through rate from the search engine results page is as high as possible. It doesn’t have to be their organic listing. It can be a Knowledge Graph listing. It can be a Local Listing. It can’t really be a Search Ad listing because Google’s AdWords team is very different from their organic ranking team.

I think all of the organic factors, such as the top ten organic listing, the Rich Snippets – once you get the click, what you need to do is make sure that your audience stays. So the webmaster can optimise the title tag, the URL, the meta description.

When people land on the page, serve them exactly what they are looking for. This is where I don’t agree with the long content, which is gaining more popularity. Long content is good, but you are trying to cram everything into one page. So if the user has to scroll a lot in order to find what he or she is looking for, then chances are then if that user is lazy or does not want to go the extra mile to search for that information, then he or she will just bounce off. Then that becomes a problem, because you don’t want users to pogo stick out of your website, especially now with the knowledge that RankBrain is checking click-through rates and is checking the long click, and it’s checking user activity.

So do everything to serve the exact content that your visitors are looking for from whence they came from the search engine results page all the way until they download that catalogue or they run the tool on your website. If you’re able to do that consistently, then having a statistical significance that will merit the first place does not seem so hard anymore. But if you’re not able to do that, then the chances of you getting ranked down are also very high.

DAVID BAIN: Okay, so getting there isn’t very difficult, but staying there is harder?

SEAN SI: Yes, yes.

DAVID BAIN: I’d like to get a few predictions from you about what the future web might look like, with regards to social media and website design, and areas like that. I notice that you are quite active still on Google+, are there merits still, from an SEO perspective, to being active on the social aspects of Google+?

SEAN SI: Well I think it’s more about the community, the reason why I’m really trying to be active there. It’s not really for any ranking factors per se, because I have no real data for which Google+ has a ranking advantage, although that would be the obvious case, because Google owns Google+. But we really have no concrete data for which being on Google+ will give a more positive ranking than being on Twitter or on Facebook.

So the reason why I’m there is mostly because the community there is more interested in digital and marketing. And in what I have to say. My Facebook is more for my personal life and my Twitter is more for, well it’s a little like Google+ but then I get to interact with more influencers of Twitter. That’s really why I’m in Google+. Like a secondary Twitter of mine, where I get to keep everything because my Twitter feed is very fast – I really don’t know what happened yesterday because it’s tiring to scroll down a lot with Twitter, but with Google+ I can see the history.

DAVID BAIN: So do you think you’re still going to be using Google+ is four years’ time?

SEAN SI: Oh I think so, especially when the announcement came that they are switching strategy. They are making it more community based. I don’t think that Google+ will fade off. I think it has strong communities in there, and one of those is for digital marketing. And I don’t see myself leaving Google+ either, so I would say that in four years’ time then yeah, sure, I think I’ll still be in Google+.

DAVID BAIN: And from a web design perspective, what do website designers actually need to be thinking about to ensure that their website is as relevant and useful and user friendly to users as possible in four years’ time? Is it mobile first? Or are we also going to have to think about really big screens in the future, maybe?

SEAN SI: Well the data now suggests that mobile users spend a lot less than desktop users. And that’s really because, in my opinion, desktop users have in general, more money. That’s why they were able to buy desktops. And mobile has been increasing a lot because mobile is super cheap compared with a desktop computer, and it’s available. For example, here in the Philippines people like Security Guards have Smartphones, and maids have Smartphones so now they can access the internet. So the reason why desktop spending is much higher than mobile spending is because the people with desktops are the guys like me, the guys with the credit cards, the guys with the ability to spend online.

So I think mobile first is good if you’re trying to attract eyeballs, like if you’re in the publishing industry. But if you’re trying to make a sale, if you’re trying to sell a product, if you’re trying to sell a subscription, then the market to go to is really the desktop users. That’s not to say that you should make your website mobile responsive, because we all know that Google does not like non-responsive sites. And it was very evident especially in the latest study by SEO Sherpa, where in they said that, ‘Having a non-mobile friendly website will really get you down gradually, in ranking.’

Now I can’t really say what web designers should do, but I can say that what they shouldn’t do, moving forward, and that is – try to keep away from homepages that have little to no content. And from homepages that try to grab the content out of the other supposedly subpages.

One good example is the Parallax homepage. When all of the other supposed inside pages – the contacts form, the about us, some of the products, they are already in the homepage. So what happens is that people don’t link to other pages in the website, all you have is one homepage, it’s just too thin. So that one definitely do not do, because you’re not going to win an SEO. And SEO is just getting more and more competitive because everyone is going to the web, everyone is going online. That one I think they shouldn’t do, moving forward.

Another thing that I think web designers shouldn’t do, moving forward, is (I don’t know if you still see these kinds of websites) create the websites that load, before you can use them. For example, there is a literal loading bar on the screen. And that’s really not good because what Google wants is for the website to be used immediately after loading. How we can prove that is through the studies for site speed – we can see that Google really prioritises websites that users can interact with immediately, rather than websites where users have to wait a long time. There is the Time to First Byte study, where the ones that were able to load to time for first bite gets a higher ranking.

DAVID BAIN: You started off there by saying that you thought users with bigger screens had more money to spend, there were fewer of them, but potentially, financially beneficial for the business, does that mean that you think that SEO in the future will be more quality focused rather than quantity focused? In the past it used to be about getting as many users as possible ranking general keyword phrases at the top and just driving volumes of traffic to the site. Will we be seeing SEOs more focused on just a few targeted visitors being driven to the website?

SEAN SI: I wouldn’t say that it’s not going that way, because with some industries here in the Philippines alone, I have already experienced that. If it says that the industry has become so competitive, so it can’t really vie for first place, but we’re in the first page. So we don’t get as much traffic as the ones on top. But the websites of those who are ahead of us in rankings, they look a little bit worse, and the user experience is a little bit worse. And we make sure that ours is almost perfect, I would say, but again that’s my opinion. So we can prove the conversion rate of our website and we get a lot of leads. Even with the small amount of traffic that we’re getting.

So I can say that SEO isn’t really 100% moving to being quality driven, because quantity is still important. There are two ways to increase your leads and that is either by increasing your traffic or by increasing your conversion rates. I would say that now, it is a combination of both, because before, people were so focused on just increasing the traffic. But really, when you try to increase your conversion rate, then your traffic makes more sense because the results of your website become colossal and I can only say it in words right now, but when you see the numbers, it really makes a lot of sense to increase your conversion rate.

So it’s not really just about having so much search traffic coming in, although that is sweet, because the search traffic is always relevant. But increasing conversion rates now becomes more than just making more money, and just making more leads. Increasing the conversion rates now means that you also increase your search rankings, because now when you try to increase your conversion rates you improve the experience of your user. Consequently – it’s the natural consequence of it, you improve the experience for your user then they will stay a little bit longer on your site, they will share your site. And they will do a lot of things on your site that are signals to Google and maybe even to RankBrain.

DAVID BAIN: You talked about still getting some traffic from appearing on the first page of Google there, but certainly in mobile we’re seeing ads at the very beginning and then you almost have to scroll to see the organic results. We’ve seen the ads removed to the right-hand side of Google. So a few changes in the SERP over the last year, or few months in 2016. What are your thoughts about how the SERP might evolve over the next few years?

SEAN SI: Well, here’s the thing, I think people are generally getting smarter. And I think ads are just not catching up. What I mean is, for example, my one-year-old son, he already knows how to navigate the iPhone. I don’t know how that happened! But he does know. So he knows what applications trigger his baby music, for example. Kids are smarter today. I could say that my generation – I’m with the Millennial generation, I’m 27, our radar for ads is very strong, we just know when it’s an ad, and we won’t click it, and we won’t go to that.

No matter how Google tries to attract clicks from ads, from us, I don’t see it happening that they ad click-through rate will just increase. Because we know that it’s an ad and Google has to disclose that it’s an ad. And so people in the future will be able to perceive more readily that, ‘No, I shouldn’t be clicking on this, where are the organic results?’

Organic results will always have traffic, they will always have a need, especially because people are getting smarter. In addition, with the advent of rich results, like local listings, star ratings, even the Knowledge Graph, when Google is serving all of these organic results it is also counter intuitive to how they earn revenue. Unless of course, they can make a way for people to run ads in the Knowledge Graph, or to run ads in the star ratings or in the local results itself, which is crazy! Because right now those rich results have very limited spaces. I can only see that Google will allow ads in those Rich Snippets. Because they really have to earn from that. And it’s counter intuitive, because it’s killing their ads as well.

So someday, not too long from now, they will allow us to run ads from those spots. But because people are getting smarter, they just won’t click that. And I think that ads are important now, just for branding recall. Like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this organic result somewhere!’ And then we remember that, ‘Oh, it’s from an ad.’ So I think that ads will be important for recall, not really for click throughs.

DAVID BAIN: So when you talk about organic results, I notice that you only talk about Google, do you think that we will see more competitors in the search space? Will we see more users using Bing, and other search engines in the future?

SEAN SI: That’s a very interesting question. I think that the only reason why people will switch to Yahoo or Bing is if Google does something really nasty. Or Google trip, they make a huge mistake. And the reason behind that is that we all know Yahoo and Bing are just trying to copy what Google is doing.

There are very, very small breakthroughs that they are going with in terms of innovation. Almost everything that Yahoo and Bing have done, is because Google has done it before. The links, the pogo stick study, the long click study. They are just catching up. That’s also the reason why, I think, Google is still very dominant in the search space.

I think that competitors will crop up, but not in the sense of trying to compete in the global search space. Maybe in the local or in the niche search space, like DuckDuckGo, or Baidu and Yandex, and Naver. So I think it’s very possible to compete with Google in terms of having a local search engine, maybe if it’s in a different language then it makes sense. But if you’re going to compete with Google globally, I think that’s a very, very tough thing to do and people who are starting to do that are light years away from what Google has. They have it all set up.

DAVID BAIN: And one thing that SEOs struggle with at the moment is cross-device attribution. So, you have users using loads of different device – mobiles, tablets, desktop, perhaps even some big screen in their living room to view the same website, do you think that it will get any easier for SEOs in the future to actually be able to measure which visitors are the same ones? And credit finding out about a website to an organic visitor who visits your website first of all through a mobile and then purchases later on via desktop or vice versa?

SEAN SI: I hope so. I honestly hope so. That’s my answer. Because it really is a pain point today. I think everyone will agree it’s a pain point today to identify who, where, how, what medium. I hope that Google will be able to find a way to do that. I definitely love the customer analytical tools that we have on the market right now. Such as Mixpanel, Kissmetrics, although they are very expensive (if you ask me), but they can identify who the user is. So long as the user logs in. That’s a difficulty right there, because we need the users to log in, in order to identify their journey.

I have used Woopra, I’m not sure if you are familiar with it, but it’s like Kissmetrics and Mixpanel?

DAVID BAIN: Sure.

SEAN SI: And whenever someone logs in to my software, I run a SaaS company, whenever someone logs in, what Woopra does is record it and put a cookie in the user’s browser. The cookie would also translate to the user’s mobile and tablet browser, if he or she is using the same browser, for example, if he or she is using Chrome, and he or she is logged in, on all devices. There is also the setting – if the user has allowed the cookie to be the same in all browsers then we would be able to identify that user, whether he or she is using a desktop, a tablet, or a mobile. But that’s a best-case scenario, because not everyone is logged in on all of his or her own devices using the same browser.

I think it’s going to be very difficult and I think that’s maybe, give-or-take, three to five years from now, hopefully not but I definitely don’t see Google Analytics being the one to do it, because Google has already known about Kissmetrics and then Mixpanel and www.intercom.io. They already know it. But they are not doing anything to replicate customer analytics the way in which all of these other private companies are doing it. So I don’t think that Google Analytics will do it. And I think if they will do it, they wouldn’t give it for free. Then there is the difficulty of having a budget for that.

DAVID BAIN: Well it’s all a big challenge for us SEOs but it’s good fun at the same time. Perhaps we need to continue doing best guess scenarios, rather than accurate data as well.

Thanks so much for joining us today Sean. Just to conclude, what do you think that businesses need to be doing now, just as a summary, that will still be valid in the year 2020?

SEAN SI: Well, I don’t think Google will go anywhere. In fact, I think Google is a company that is here to stay, unless the internet is suddenly destroyed by a nuclear disruption, which is very unlikely! I think by 2020 people will be still searching using Google through the internet.

So businesses today, what they can do in order for them to be successful online, is to tune in to what Google is doing, the algorithm changes they are releasing. And try to be on top of that. Try to be on top of their game, because SEO is a zero-sum game. When someone’s going to rank up, someone else is going to rank down.

You always want to be optimising. Everyday. That’s what is important about SEO. The moment you start optimising, don’t stop. The moment you stop, then your competitors are going to take your ranking. That’s fact. That is the truth.

So for businesses that have already started - keep doing what you are doing. Make sure that you’re doing your SEO legitimately, following Google’s guidelines.

One other thing that you can do if you are already doing good SEO is to try and focus on conversion rate optimisation. Study your visitors. There are lots of tools out there that you can use for user activity capture, such as Inspectlet, Hotjar, Advanced, Optimizely. Definitely Google Analytics. We use Qeryz for surveying our customers, that’s a stats company that I started.

Use all of these tools to learn more about your users and how you can serve them better and how you can make them stay. And how, of course, you can turn them into a lead and get ROI.

There are so many things, plus in order to retain customers you need to make them sign up in a newsletter, or there are Push Note notifications – we use PushCrew for that. If you notice, we go to www.seo-hacker.com – the website asks you if you would allow us to send you notifications. And so we use PushCrew to do that. I think in three months we already have 3000 plus subscribers. So it’s a lot easier to get subscribers from there than from an email opt in. But there is no offer. We can’t offer them an eBook or anything! It’s just that you are asking them to allow you to send notifications to them. But that is definitely something you can do to retain visitors.

DAVID BAIN: What kind of impact does that have? How do people interact with the notifications after you send them?

SEAN SI: Some of them have no idea how to opt out! So that’s funny! Because they opted in by clicking an OK button, but then they have no idea how to opt out. So I receive very few enquiries asking how to opt out of there. And it’s just as simple as going to your settings with whatever browser you are using and then turning off notifications from a website.

But generally, how people interact with that is that they actually go back to my website. So out of 3000 subscribers, I think 20% actually click back to my website. So that’s 600 people at any PushCrew notification that I send at a time. That’s a lot. That’s very interesting because it can almost compete with my email newsletter. That is one quick hack that business owners can do right now.

DAVID BAIN: That’s intriguing.

I’m sure you could share so many more invaluable thoughts, but you have offered a lot of great information, so where can people go if they would like to find out more about you?

SEAN SI: Well www.seo-hacker.com is definitely the resource to visit if they want to pick my brains. Everything about SEO, conversion rate optimisation, and retaining users, is there.

If they want to know more about me as an entrepreneur, how I started up my company, how our core values have failed and why we needed a new one – all those start-up blog entries are on my personal website. That is seansi.org.

Those two are the main places where they can find out more about me.

If they want to use the software that I am using for customer feedback, go to www.Qeryz.com. It’s a free tool, and we use the Freemium model, so if you need more responses then the upgrade is very cheap, it’s just $15 a month.

DAVID BAIN: Lovely, brilliant. Okay, thank you so much for joining me Sean, that was great.

SEAN SI: Thank you for having me David.