Episode 15 of our “SEO in 2020” podcast interviews Stephen Kenwright from Branded3; getting his views on how he thinks SEO is likely to evolve over the coming few years.

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DAVID BAIN: I’m joined today by the Agency Director at Branded3 and the author of The Drum Search Report. Well, Mr Stephen Kenwright.

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: Hello?

DAVID BAIN: Hello, Stephen, how are you doing there?

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: I’m really good thank you. How are you, David?

DAVID BAIN: Yeah, great thanks. Good to have you on board for this and I was reading one of blog posts recently and you actually said that Google had lost the war on web spam and were heading for a new age of user signals. So I was wondering, to begin with, what you meant by that?

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: It’s an interesting point to start because certainly since I’ve been doing SEO, I started doing SEO in 2010, in the days before penalties, so to speak. And the whole conversation really while I’ve been doing SEO has been dominated by Panda and Penguin, that’s been the key things that people have been writing about, have been speaking about and it’s got a little bit overwhelming with the amount of information out there, but I think what’s really interesting is, is as much as there is a lot of chatter about it, the algorithms don’t seem to be updating as often as they used to be and it doesn’t seem to be as big a factor in many people’s planning from an SEO perspective than it used to be. So I think some really good points made recently that people only really stopped doing link spam and content spam not when they started getting penalised for it, but when it stopped working.

So what people really seem to be doing a lot more of now is more around trying to build engagement, trying to improve the quality of content, not just in a sense of more words or anything like that, but actually trying to think a little more holistically about what that content is going to give to people and, more importantly, where it’s going to send them next? Are they going to be a converting user? It’s not just about as much traffic as you can get, it’s really about what’s that traffic going to do now? So I think one interesting thing, particularly around the link penalties, is that Google just does not seem to be rolling them out as often as they used to. And they’ve been penalising different people, they’ve been penalising people that have been effectively selling links more than they’ve been penalising the people that have been buying links. And I think it’s just got a stage where Google is starting to realise that it can’t police the web anymore like it used to.

DAVID BAIN: Intriguing, yes. Do you feel it was trying to actually control everything or was it simply actually always just trying to use specific high profile websites as examples and scare the rest of us into not doing certain things?

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: I think it’s definitely about changing behaviour rather than it is around specifically taking out all web spam that they can find, just because that is never going to be manageable. That’s not something that across the whole internet they would be able to do. If you think about the number of scrapers and the amount of analytics referral spam that you get, there is just too much of it for a search engine to handle. So I think there is definitely a larger element around changing the behaviour of people than there is around specifically hitting everyone with this kind of penalty.

DAVID BAIN: So we’re heading to a new age of user signals. Are there any user signals specifically that you can actually pinpoint and say as a website owner, as a business that has a significant presence online, are there specific areas within user signals that you need to do a good job at?

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: Yes, absolutely. I think one of the more interesting ones, some of them have forgotten metrics a little bit, but some are much more prevalent in other channels, so click through rate, particularly, is one that we can correlate really closely to rankings. We have clients now who instead of the past few years where meta descriptions haven’t been a ranking signal so we’ve not really been too fussed around it, we’ve got clients now who are actively testing meta descriptions on a weekly or even daily basis and seeing huge click through rate increases and, of course, huge ranking increases off the back of that as well. But it is obviously not just about clicks through, but also whether you’re keeping people there. And I think if you’re looking at analytics platforms as a benchmark, yes bounce rate and yes time on site and yes number of pages clicked are really good metrics, but not necessarily in a silo, they’re really just a signal of wider metrics that search engines are using around dwell time. I think the two things that you really need to influence now are click through rates, so where are people clicking and dwell time, are they staying there or are they going back?

DAVID BAIN: So dwell time on the site as a whole, or on an individual URL?

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: I think on the site as a whole, really away from a search engine. So I guess Bing have a really, really good definition of dwell time, I think it’s fair to apply to Google as well, where what they’re actually looking at is not necessarily the amount of time spent with a particular website or a particular business, but the amount of time that that business has sent someone somewhere. So if you’re writing a blog post that someone’s found via search and it’s got some links in it to external publications, you might not have been seen to be really answering the question, but you’ve been helping someone to find the answer to their question in sending them through to a place that’s going to be a better answer. So you get some credit for that and I think that’s a really good, positive signal that Google is likely to be using as well as Bing search engines. So it’s not necessarily dwell time on a website, it’s time spent away from a search engine.

DAVID BAIN: So user signals doesn’t sound like conventional, traditional SEO. Are you still going to be calling what you do SEO in four years’ time?

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: I think so, yeah. I think there is a lot of debate around what things actually are and you know that difference between say link building and PR is another good example of semantics and what people are actually saying. From my perspective, if you’re doing any kind of activity where the primary purpose of it is to acquire traffic and you’re not paying for that traffic, I think in a lot of senses that is SEO, so one thing that’s changed dramatically already and one thing that I think is going to be a lot different in the future is you can do SEO for Pinterest, you can do SEO for Facebook, you can do SEO for any number of different channels who have search functionality. And as you know, Apple starts to put search ads into its app store and all that sort of thing. I think SEO as a discipline is going to expand and I think especially when you start to look at what Facebook is doing with algorithms, I think everything is going to be SEO at some point.

DAVID BAIN: Are you, within Branded3, actually proving SEO services for the app store, for instance?

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: Absolutely, yeah, yeah. Of course. Apps generally have been a bit of a growth area for us overall. Part of the group that we work in does build apps for businesses and we are tying more and more closely with app store optimisation for Android and Apple, but also app indexing. We are just doing a click through rate study at the minute, particularly tailored for mobile which we think will probably be one of the first that includes app click through rates, as well as actual mobile responsive websites, mobile ads and all that sort of thing. So I think apps actually are a huge growth area. And I think search engines are cottoning on to that fact as well, which is why they’re really pushing the app agenda as much as they’re pushing desktop mobile results now.

DAVID BAIN: And of course for a few years now Google have started trusting certain domains more, more domain authority for, obviously, Amazon and other domains like that. Is that something that maybe some of your clients are starting to ask you about? How to actually rank on Amazon, maybe by publishing a Kindle book or something like that and increasing their brand footprint and driving traffic back to their ultimate destination, their own domain, after that?

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: Not as much as you would expect. With sites like Amazon in particular, it’s not something that seems to be on clients’ radars as much. EBay as well, that sort of thing, you know it’s not something that they are particularly asking us about. We are getting asked more and more around domains like LinkedIn and Medium and particularly publishing websites, you know whenever there’s a question, ‘Should I publish something on Medium or should I publish it on my website?’ Those are the kind of conversations that we are getting more and more involved in.

DAVID BAIN: Interesting that you mentioned LinkedIn and Medium. Does that mean that there’s an argument for businesses not having a blog on their own website nowadays and actually using third party networks instead to publish a blog on?

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: I think when we’re talking to our clients about Medium and LinkedIn, it comes as much as anything down to frequency and other activities going on. So particularly if we’re working with a business with a smaller budget or a business that’s not necessarily going to be as active in marketing channels generally, I don’t it’s necessary to have a blog as it was and publish on LinkedIn and Medium because there’s a captive audience there. There are already people that you’ve put yourself in front of without having to go through that slog from a SEO perspective of building up authority and all that sort of thing. But then if we’re working with an SME who has, for want of a better word, a lot of hustle and wants to stick themselves out there as much as possible, I would always suggest you need a blog on your website or you need a personal blog, a personal brand, that you use to promote your influence as well. So it really does depend on what the overall marketing feature is, rather than just the SEO requirements from this.

DAVID BAIN: Okay. What about the role of SEO in general? Do you think that moving forward to the future more SEOs will have an in-house role, or do you think that it’ll stay roughly as it is at the moment, with an important requirement from agencies as well?

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: I would say, what we’re seeing a lot of is a shift in how agencies are billing and a shift in how clients are paying for SEO as well. So I think that is already happening. I think clients are expanding their in-house teams already and I think that you are starting to get more and more disciplines involved in SEO from an in-house role. One thing that has changed a huge amount for Branded3 over the past eighteen months or so is a shift from retainer work to project work. And I think that makes a lot of sense for businesses, they have the SEO resource in-house, they have an overall SEO plan and it’s led by an in-house SEO rather than a digital marketing manager necessarily, but someone who is a channel specialist. And we’re engaged more and more from a project basis for link building or some CRO work or something more specialist. So I think what you’re going to see a big difference in, is the size of in-house teams, particularly for really big business. I think you’re seeing the end of hundred thousand pound a month SEO retainers now. I think that’s something that’s going to disappear and what you’re going to get more of is execution, more creative work being outsourced. I think SEO agencies are actually well-placed to develop as well.

DAVID BAIN: Okay. A bit of a prediction in terms of what you think the future web might evolve into a little bit more. So in terms of the SERP itself, we’ve seen a few changes recently with the removal of search ads from the right-hand side, certainly mobile results seem to be a little bit more focused on paid clicks and perhaps even tougher to get organic traffic because unless you’re in the first few positions people have to scroll quite a bit to find you. Have you any more thoughts on what may happen in terms of changes to the SERP itself?

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: I think that organic traffic is going to grow. Generally the amount of traffic you can get organically is going to increase over a period of time. But I don’t think that’s necessarily your ten blue links organic traffic. I think that’s going to come from additions to SERP such as you’re looking at the local pack and think where can I get more clicks?’ I think you’re looking at app results – where can I get more clicks? So when I’m talking about organic traffic, I’m not just talking about traffic to a website that you’re not paying for, but traffic to a brand that you’re not paying for. Everything that you’ve got out there, I think that quantity of traffic is going to go up and up. But, having said that, I think paid is going to increase as well. So I think you’re definitely a long way off seeing the death of search engines, you’re a long way off seeing Google being challenged as well. I think it will eventually get to a stage where Bing is a much more major player than it is now, but right now I think the way that Google’s going, you’re likely to see these experiments come and go. I think there’s going to be, say in the AMP project for example, definitely possible to get a fair bit of traffic from it and definitely possible to get a lot of impression. Richard Baxter put a really cool post on builtvisible over the last week or so that shows how many impressions you can get just by being listed in those AMP pages. I think that there is a huge opportunity around that right now, but I think this is one of those projects that Google is going to see as a little bit more short-term and ultimately the goal of the search engine is not to take away organic traffic, but to try and get more people clicking on those paid ads. So I think that’s definitely always in the back of my mind.

DAVID BAIN: And we’re seeing a significant growth in other forms of content, video, do you think that the SEO will be more involved with optimising other forms of content in the future like video.

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: Absolutely, yeah. I think it has been a little bit of a, again a short-termist view from SEO, so when you’re talking about content marketing, content marketing has apparently replaced link building, what people seem to be referring to as content marketing is copy, blogging, for want of a better word, in a lot of senses and maybe so infographics. And I think what you’re seeing now is media networks, huge, huge agencies and clients of course starting to realise that they can do some really cool stuff with content and they can do huge projects across different channels and that can all be optimised. When you’re talking about search engine optimisation I don’t think that’s necessarily optimising a website to get traffic from a search engine, but optimising a whole campaign. How can we do anything from a TV advert that drives traffic and you’re starting to see that with people using CTAs or of search for this brand and this keyword and that sort of thing. And then you’re looking at YouTube and other video networks that people are getting more involved with, with an SEO perspective as well. So I think brands are certainly starting to optimise everything, as you would say.

DAVID BAIN: Do you think SEO in general is still a bit of a dirty word to regular marketers?

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: That’s a bit of a tricky one, because I think yes it is, I think people still have a perception of SEO and I think that they always will do as long as there are still agencies and still spam emails coming through and saying we can do this and we can do that and it’s going to cost you nothing. So I think it’s always, always going to be an uphill battle for the SEO industry. But at the same time I think brands are being forced to do it. I think you’ve got more and more top level marketing directors who have been at brands, agencies and so on who have used this as a channel very successfully. So I think where we’re getting to at the minute is where people are starting to realise they have to do SEO whether they like it or not. It’s never going to be anyone’s favourite channel, but I think at the same time it is always going to be a channel that’s going to derive huge value for brands. And long term value as well.

DAVID BAIN: How do you think Google are using social media at the moment to actually give its signals with regard to how it should rank certain domains and how do you think that might evolve over the next few years?

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: One thing that I’ve always said is that social media is really difficult to integrate into search, simply because Google can never use the full picture, so Google can never use Facebook for example, to accurately modify its algorithm, simply because there is basically a chance that Facebook will shut off Google entirely and it won’t be able to crawl anything and even if that doesn’t happen, it’s never going to be able to see everything because of the privacy settings of a hugely significant proportion of users. So I think Google is reluctant to use Facebook in that way and obviously there are other central networks, and Google+ is a really good example, where they do want to integrate that, but at the same time can they accurately gauge whether something is possible, something is really popular, whether a brand is really a big brand if they’re only using Twitter and not using Facebook? You start to get into a world where B2B is maybe a little bit more heavily regulated than it should be; you’re starting to get to a world where older people don’t necessarily have a say in the algorithm when you crowd source data. I think Google is really going to struggle to integrate social in its current form into the current algorithm and I think we’ve seen various studies debunked about whether plus ones affect rankings, whether tweets affect rankings, so I think we’re a long way off it, being able to actually do that. What I think is probably more likely is it will work out a deal, obviously it’s worked out a deal with Twitter already, but I think it will start to work out a deal with some of the social networks that look at how many people are maybe searching for something to try and gauge a bit more of an interest around a topic, rather than the actual content that’s been produced there. So you’ll start to see so many people are publishing stuff around this particular brand, entity, so many people will be searching for it every month and that’s potentially going to affect the algorithm a little bit more. I think that’s likely and at the same time I think you might see, particularly brand pages with star ratings and reviews on Facebook, I think reviews are going to be a huge ranking signal in the future and I don’t think Google is really able to ignore Facebook in that respect and at the same time what brand has a private brand page, no one does that, so I think you would start to see that integrated a bit more as well.

DAVID BAIN: So you mentioned Google+ and plus ones in the same breath as Twitter and tweets, does that mean that Google+ is still a very important social network and what’s the future for that?

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: The first thing I would say is that there’s no future for that. There is no way that Google+ has much of a future at all. My advice on Google+ has been pretty consistent for probably at least a year now, which is if you’re doing Google+ already and you’re doing really well on it, carry on. Just do what you’re doing, maybe don’t up your budgets, but you know do what you’re doing, and reap the rewards while you still are able to. If you’re just starting a brand, if you’re just starting at a brand, even, I think it’s too late for Google+ and I don’t think that that’s probably something that should really be on your radar. You can do a huge amount more with other social networks. And they’re just as easy to manage, just as potentially lucrative as Google+ promised to be. So I don’t think there’s a long term future in Google+, I think Google is still looking at maybe an acquisition or maybe starting again at some point over the next five years.

DAVID BAIN: Do you think that it’s essential for Google to make an acquisition or start something again in order to still be relevant in four years’ time?

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: I think Google has recognised that social media is sticking around quite a long time ago. So, obviously, before Google+ they’ve done Buzz and they’ve done various other failed projects before that. So I think Google knew a long time ago that social media is not going anywhere, but at the same time it might be a case that Google is not necessarily sure that social media is for Google. It might not be the right channel for them to branch out into. I always think that they will keep trying new things. I don’t think that using the same strategy for the next social network as they used for Google+, which is effectively relying on the traditional Google audience of SEO agencies and PPC agencies and practitioners, both of those channels, to drive forward its social network is necessarily going to work. I think Google is always going to face a challenge of being able to build an audience before they monetise it and that’s why I think they’re going to have to look at an acquisition if they do want to do something serious about it. I think Tumblr is up for sale.

DAVID BAIN: Okay, that could be an intriguing one. I don’t recall people talking about Tumblr a great deal over the last six months, or even a year or so. Is it still fairly successful as a blogging, image-sharing network really?

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: I think the fact that the marketing industry is not talking about Tumblr too much is a really good indication that Tumblr is still viable. I think if you had marketing publications hammering on about Tumblr now and how everyone should go on it, that’s when you start to get absolute spam on there and that’s when users are going to start being driven away. I think if you’re looking at the really lucrative social networks in terms of what people are publishing about, your Snapchats and your Instagrams, they’ve both been very clever in restricting brand access to them, which has got the press hyped up even more, but when you’re looking at Tumblr, you can do stuff with it, but I think you have a lot of opportunity that’s just not been really mentioned anywhere. It’s something that we’re keeping an eye on generally.

DAVID BAIN: An interesting left-field shout there. I like that one there. And I’d like to get a couple of your thoughts on how Google are likely to try and rank and perceive authoritative and relevant content in the year 2020. I mean it’s obvious that links are a very significant part of its algorithm even now in 2016. Is it going to be able to move away from that? What are some other ways that Google may be likely doing in trying to determine what is authoritative and relevant content?

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: I do think that Google is trying to move away from links. I think you see some industries now, some verticals in search results where I’m very sceptical about how much emphasis is placed on links in the ranking algorithm. So if you’re looking at iGame, you’re looking at things like bingo. If you’re looking at payday loans and that sort of thing, I don’t know exactly how important links are compared to maybe something that’s a little bit more maybe B2B or maybe something that requires that measure of authority. So I think they are able to move away from links at some point. I don’t think they’re there yet. And I think that PR, the whole positive aura around a website, around a brand, I think that is still going to be quite significant. So mentions of a brand and general search and interest in it is always going to be a huge signal. I think things like brand search are going to be more and more significant and they’re probably very significant now, but I also think that ultimately what Google really wants to use as a kind of metric, for want of a better word, is satisfaction. So if I’m thinking about what are going to be the big ranking signals in the next five years, I would say user reviews, star ratings, that sort of thing. Exactly the same way as PPC. Google wants to send traffic to a website that’s going to make good use of it. It’s a bad use of everyone’s time and always going to put users off if they’re sending those searchers to a website that’s just not a very good business. So I think you’re looking at reviews and star ratings and that sort of thing as going to be one of the ranking signals of the future.

DAVID BAIN: Great. Well many interesting thoughts. Thanks for that there. Just to conclude, what do you think are a couple of things that businesses need to stop doing now and maybe start doing now in order to futureproof what they’re doing from a content publishing and an SEO perspective moving forward?

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: I think it’s fine to say what’s going to happen in the next five years, but I do think that there’s still a lot of really, really shoddy link building going on at the minute. And I don’t think that is necessarily going to put any users off from that perspective, but at some point there is going to be some damage, some fallout, from that. So I would say that whilst a lot of very big brands are getting away with some absolutely atrocious link building right now. I don’t think that’s going to last, so to be here in five years, you’ve got to be here in two years. So I would say that that’s something that needs to be stopped as a priority.

DAVID BAIN: Even if you’re competing in an industry which is very aggressive and you feel that all your competitors are achieving good results by what looks like shoddy link building?

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: Yeah. I think absolutely so. We certainly work in a lot of verticals and I know a lot of other good agencies that do work in similar verticals that don’t do that kind of stuff and still compete. So it’s not a necessary thing to be able to compete right now. It’s obviously, certainly from an agency perspective, it’s a difficult conversation with a client who says this brand is doing this, so why can’t we? That’s always going to be and it has been for a long time, a difficult sell. But at the same time if you are competing with those brands and you are staying in there or thereabouts or even higher, I don’t see a good reason to move into those kind of tactics.

DAVID BAIN: Great. Well, Stephen, thank you so much for joining me. I know we could continue debating these things for hours, I’m sure, but where can people get hold of you if they’d like to find out more about you?

STEPHEN KENWRIGHT: The best places are definitely on Twitter, so I’m @stekenwright or my email [email protected] or just www.branded3.com and just leave us a message.

DAVID BAIN: Great views. Thanks again, Stephen.