Episode 12 of our “SEO in 2020” podcast interviews Mike King from iPullRank; getting his views on how he thinks SEO is likely to evolve over the coming few years.
DAVID BAIN: I’m joined today by someone who describes himself as an artist and a technologist. He’s a passionate SEO speaker and a thought leader. Someone who consults to brands like American Express, HSBC and SanDisk. A man who’s the founder of boutique digital marketing agency iPullRank. Welcome, Mike King.
MIKE KING: Hi, thanks for having me. Always good to catch up with you, David.
DAVID BAIN: Oh, great for you to be along here, thanks for joining in. There’s a slight echo on your side there, Mike, actually. But hopefully it’ll be alright. So just before we think of the future, I mean thinking of maybe the past few years, is there any like Google algorithm update or significant change to how SEO is done that maybe you didn’t see coming yourself that surprised you a bit over the last few years?
MIKE KING: To be honest, no. I mean I think that Google has been pushing us in the direction of actually doing marketing for a long time. And it’s the type of things that people would always say as an aside, like you know in the future, this is going to matter more and things like that. So I think anyone who has been really focusing on creating things that people actually want and promoting it through multiple marketing channels, rather than just thinking about link building, not much has changed. But if you were basically a spammer, a lot of things have changed. You have to actually start doing marketing. So I don’t think I’ve been surprised by anything; what I’ve been more surprised about is how SEOs have reacted to all this stuff. Us as SEOs have just jumped on the content marketing bandwagon so hard, that we’ve forgotten about the technical end of what we do that have remained important have got even more important in the last couple of years. So I think it’s interesting more to watch the psychology of the people in this industry than what it actually takes to get things done.
DAVID BAIN: So do you think SEOs are now starting to accept that perhaps people in general reacted too much to, perhaps, scare stories and are reverting back to a greater focus on links and more traditional SEO practices now?
DAVID BAIN: You mentioned a lot of SEOs have started to focus on content marketing. Does that mean that SEO as an art form is fragmenting and it’s quite difficult, simply from a learning perspective, to be able to be very successful at content marketing and technical SEO and perhaps things like user experience all at the same time?
MIKE KING: I don’t know that it’s difficult, I think a lot of people have this siloed mindset. I mean, from my perspective I’ve been making websites since ’95, right? And back then there wasn’t like a UX person and then like a front end person and a back end person, it was just webmaster. So for me I’ve always been used to doing all these different components and stuff, but the people who came into working on the web later on, they’re like, okay, this is one thing I do and then that’s it. So there are definitely SEOs like that. There are definitely UX people like that, content strategists like that and so on and so forth. So I think it’s more difficult from a perspective that people who expected that their job would be the one thing, but I don’t think it’s difficult to do a lot of these things that we have to as web professionals.
DAVID BAIN: So you started designing websites back when you were five years old then? In 1995.
MIKE KING: I was fourteen, actually.
DAVID BAIN: Right.
DAVID BAIN: That’s interesting, because most people I’ve been talking to so far in terms of the future and maybe looking forward four years, so into the year 2020, were viewing it as it’s going to become more fragmented and there will have to be greater specialisation in each role. Do you think that’s the case or do you think that’s not necessarily going to be good to be successful in the future?
MIKE KING: Yeah, I absolutely disagree with that. And I mean of course I do because I’m somebody that a lot of these things. But I find that when you have these very specialised people, it’s kind of a weakness, because all you can do is your speciality. Whereas when you have your T-shaped marketers, they have a better understanding of what their piece of the puzzle does for the overarching picture. And so when we have all these people that just do one thing, it’s very difficult for them to T-up their one thing for these other people. And then what you have to have is somebody who sits over everything, but that person may not have enough of those skillsets to then bring it all together in the right, big picture. So I find it better when people have those multiple skillsets, because it brings that collaboration into more of a real-time thing, because, again, my UX designer and my front end developer, when the work together, my designer knows to build her design in such a way that it’s going to be translatable to what my front end developer needs to do and my front end developer can give insights on the design as it’s being designed. Or he can make the right make decisions while the design is happening or while his development is happening to further inform what my UX UI designer needs to do. So I feel like when you have those complete separations of concern what happens is the process becomes longer, it goes back and forth more than it needs to and some people in that process may not care as much when they get the project back the fifth time. They may just be like, ‘Why are we still doing this?’ Whereas when you have the people that speak both languages, it’s a lot easier for them to make the right decisions and make the project work
DAVID BAIN: So from a business perspective, do you reckon the average business owner will be more or less concerned with actively getting involved with SEO in the future, in four years’ time, or are they going to think, ‘SEO is baked into my website’s CMS and other things like that, so I don’t have to worry about it too much?’
MIKE KING: It think it depends on the size of the business. The smaller the business, the more they want that all-in-one solution, the SEO baked into my CMS type of thing where they don’t have to worry about it. But I think in bigger organisations they are always going to be like, ‘Okay, how do we get more out of organic search, what does it take to get more?’ So they are always going to have that concern, but I think that Rand brings up a good point that there are fewer people with SEO in their title and more people that are having SEO become part of their job function. So I think we’re going to see more and more of that, because people are going to get more value out of having people that, going back to the idea of, ‘Oh I have a content strategist, my content strategist should be able to handle SEO.’ They should. Because largely what we do for SEO in the content end is make sure we have a specification in place that people are following these best practices. Your copywriter should be able to follow those best practices, so your content strategist says, ‘Hey, copywriter, write like this. Adhere to this kind of meta data’ so on and so forth. And then your developers, primarily your front end devs, will have to, think about, ‘Okay, how do we build this in such a way that the site is as fast as possible? Making sure we have all the schema.org codes set up…?’ so on and so forth, all those R Paste best practices. It goes back to something, I think Adam Audette said a few years ago, you know, good SEO should be invisible. And it’s that point, if you have all these other people who you just make these best practice things part of their job, you don’t necessarily need an SEO manager, you just need the people that are already working on your website.
DAVID BAIN: Absolutely. I love talking about baking the SEO cake, so SEO is baked into everything that you do and hopefully integrated into your organisation. What about some of the strategies that are working well now, but are unlikely to work as well in a few years’ time? Can you think of some things that people should start thinking about seriously stopping doing now?
MIKE KING: From what I’ve seen lately, it doesn’t seem like much of that has changed. It’s still around how people are approaching link building and the reality of it is like despite what you hear in the SEO media, pretty much everything still works. You can still do terrible forum spam, blog comments, yah di, yah di, yah dah – I see link profiles with mostly just that working just fine. So the reality of it is that what’s Google goes after. They are going to continue to go after this stuff and it’s going to continue to be your problem if that’s the way that you build your links. So aside from that, I think it’s really interesting where we are right now, because of the fact that Google allows a lot of different things based on technology. And what I mean by that, what is cloaking in 2016 when they allow you to do a responsive or adaptive site which can show different things based on different user context? Or also because Google adheres to the 304 response code, which means not modified, which means if you return this 304 that they think they already downloaded this page so they won’t download it again. So again, this is a situation where you could be doing cloaking and they allow this because they’re following web specifications. So I wonder if at some point they’re going to be like, ‘Hey. We asked for your file on this specification, a lot of people were abusing it, so what don’t we reel this back?’ So I wonder a lot about that sort of stuff and I think the main thing is just link building stuff. Because people will continue to abuse whatever works at scale, guess-posting is still running rampant, there’s a lot of services offering links from Fortune.com and Forbes and all that right now and at some point Google is going to have to be like, ‘Look – you guys are just running rampant with this.’ And it’s kind of funny, because to some degree I look at those sites and they’re like respectable magazines in the real world, but like Forbes to me is a tabloid online, because I know how this content is coming about. I know the sources that they’re getting it from, I know that these people just hang whatever to get it up there and get their links, get the traffic and so on. So I think at some point Google’s going to have to make a decision on how they want to approach that stuff and then also those publications need to figure out what really matters to them? So I think it’s a bigger picture thing that we need to think about here, not just like, ‘How does this stuff impact SEO? How does this stuff impact these brands and how does this stuff impact…
DAVID BAIN: Absolutely. It’s a challenge for these kind of brands, because, I’ve done SEO in the UK for a few years and I am aware that quite a few big newspaper brands online have sold links or sold articles in certain sections of a newspaper and these sections don’t get any traffic at all, hardly. But because they’re associated with the domain, then they are able to sell space for quite a significant premium there. And perhaps with the quantity of print copies that the publications are selling going down significantly, maybe they’re trying quickly to build another source of income and that’s a business model challenge for them, certainly.
MIKE KING: I think it’s also interesting because you can do sponsored content as well –Marty Weintraub did a whole talk about this – where you can do sponsored content and the SEC rules say that if content is sponsored, then the links need to also be no-follow and things like that and all types of publications are not adhering to that and Google is still allowing that stuff to impact rankings and such. So when does that fix come about as well? And, again, they have a really hard problem to solve because how do you solve that at web scale? It’s got be incredibly difficult because what markers are there to say that this is sponsored content and this is not. So perhaps they may need to think about some sort of mark-up, whether it’s Schema.org or JSON-LD or whatever and say this is a sponsored piece of content and their just not going to cut those links entirely. So there’s a lot of specific problems that need to be solved around link building and that’s a problem that’s never going to be solved
DAVID BAIN: I’d like to get a few thoughts from you about the future of web design as well. Because we’ve seen a big change, obviously, in the last few years – people are much more likely to use mobile devices now. Does that mean that the most important aspect of the foreseeable future of web design has to be mobile-led? Or are there other areas of web design that people need to have an eye on as well?
MIKE KING: I think we do definitely need to be thinking mobile first. But I think bigger than that we need to be thinking about all these other devices that are going to come out. This whole internet of things situation is going to make the screens smaller, screens bigger, is it going to make the browsers less capable? So Google has always said go after progressive design, progressive enhancement, and I think that’s going to become even more important, irrespective of mobile. Obviously mobile is where everybody’s at, but in the future there’s going to be so many more devices and we really just need to account for that now because there is no telling what these new devices are going to be and how adaptive they become. So the sooner you think about, ‘How do I make this as fast as possible? How do make it responsive? How do I make it progressive?’ Then the more future-proof whatever…
DAVID BAIN: So basically what you’re saying is you need to drill down and determine exactly the user experience that you’re trying to create at that particular moment to that kind of person and then create your web design based upon that, rather than your website as a whole?
MIKE KING: Right, right. So the bottom line is that there is more or less an infinite amount of contexts that you can’t account for unless you’re thinking about it from the beginning. So with progressive enhancement, you have to have a version of your page that works for the lowest common denominator. But if you’re on a desktop, then sure, you need an Angular.JS version. And it’s difficult because a lot of these technologies aren’t built with progressive enhancement in mind. So you need to make the right decision from the planning phase if you want to be valid for all these different contexts.
DAVID BAIN: So what about social media and the way that that impacts SEO at the moment, the way that that might impact SEO in the future and also Google’s involvement with it, given that Google+ isn’t used by many, do you think that there’s a future for that and might Google do something else in social media?
MIKE KING: Yeah. I think what you have to think about with social media is that social media is far more reflective of the democracy of the web than links are at this point. It used to be if you wanted to share something you had your resources page on your website and you just linked to the things that were interesting to you. But far more people have a social profile than have a website or blog at this point. So the more relevant signal for something that’s popular at this point is a like, a share, a tweet or something to that effect. So I think that Google needs to figure out the best way to solve that problem, because right now they are looking at links and they’re not indicative of the true democracy of the web. So I think that in and of itself tells me that they need to think more about how to use these social signals. And I think that them having the Twitter Firehose is a great step in that direction. I think really what they need to do is figure out how do they get a hold on these bigger social networks, e.g. Facebook, and get their signals in the mix, because there is just such a wealth of information on people, what they care about, what they’re sharing, what they believe is important, that Google is missing out on. So I think that like they always say, they may not actually be using these signals directly right now, but at some point they are going to need to, because otherwise it’s just not reflective of what people are actually…
DAVID BAIN: So do you think to stay as relevant in the future, Google will have to display more social results within its SERP?
MIKE KING: I don’t know that they have to display more social results, I think they need to take more social signals into account when computing the results.
DAVID BAIN: We’re recording this live on Blab, we’ve got Thomas in the chat saying now Google can’t see a lot of what’s happening inside Facebook. Do you think that Google would have to do some kind of deal with Facebook in order to understand everything that’s going on or is there enough information there for it to be able to incorporate what’s happening there in its algorithm?
MIKE KING: I think the way forward has already been shown by Bing, because they have that, or they had that direct integration with Facebook. I don’t really know where that stands right now, because who uses Bing? But they had a direct integration that was being filtered into the search results, and also based on whether or not you were signed in, that would influence your results. So that’s what I’m saying, just taking more of those signals, not just the volume of how thing are being used, but also using those signals to further personalise results. So again, because there’s so much data in Facebook, while maybe they may find that certain results work better for certain demographics and psychographics, so that can make the results even more relevant to me, as they were trying to do with Google+, but because there’s so much more data available in Facebook from a social perspective, using those different vectors can make the Google results even more relevant to…
DAVID BAIN: So do you think the future of trying to make your piece of content relevant and authoritative and ranked highly, is associated with trying to get influencers and authoritative relevant groups on social networks discussing that piece of content?
MIKE KING: I think that’s the future, but irrespective of what we just talked about, because other than the fact that getting relevant, popular people to share things is just fundamental to how promotion works, period. You know like people in different groups share things, other people find them, it’s interesting, they share it even more, so on and so forth, but I don’t think that matters with regard to specifically social media. I just think that’s like a bigger picture thing that you should always do anyway.
DAVID BAIN: I’m wondering if you also think that user experience is going to be a more significant part of Google’s algorithm in the future and if so are there specific elements within user experience that you think are likely to be specific signals within Google’s algorithm?
MIKE KING: Yes, I do think user experience is going to be even more important, but I mean where are we drawing the line for user experience? Are we saying page speed is part of user experience? Are we saying the heuristic for how things are laid out? Where’s that line drawn as far as we were talking about? But either way I think that user experience is going to continue to be important. It’s going to be something that Google is going to look to measure to determine whether or not a result is the right result. So if we’re measuring user experience by metrics like time on site, bounce rate and things like that, then yes, of course, they’re going to continue to use some form of those metrics to determine whether or not somebody is landing on the right page and they’re finding what they’re looking for. If we’re talking about user experience as far as ad placement and things like that, again, absolutely, because Google is more about how do we get you to the right answer to your question rather than how do we drive you to a paid site so somebody can monetise them. So, absolutely, I completely expect that Google is going to add more UX features into their determinations of what makes…
DAVID BAIN: And you talked earlier on about the importance of an SEO being comfortable with all aspects of the job. Do you also think that an organic marketer needs to understand what’s happening in paid search and other forms of marketing as well to get the best bang for their buck out of what they’re trying to do and really track the effectiveness of what they’re doing?
MIKE KING: Yeah, absolutely. So I think the reality of it is a lot of users don’t make a distinction between paid and organic search. And at this point where we have four paid results at the top, there’s a lot of people that don’t know the difference. They’re just like, ‘Oh, yes, this is the stuff on the top. It must be organic.’ And then the other thing is that when there so much stuff above the fold and you’re number one organic result is like 1,000 pixels down, what does it matter if you rank number one? So I really think that we need to rethink how we’re reporting things because if I tell you that you’re number one in organic, but again it’s 1,000 pixels down on the page. Well that’s just a vanity metric, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get anything. Also, with the featured snippet, which we’re calling position zero now. If we’re not tracking that, then again, we don’t have a good understanding of the SERP and it’s difficult for us to make the right decisions. So, yes, I absolutely believe that we all need to understand paid and organic channels better and how they work together and then also just from a perspective of paid social and display and things like that, how can we use those channels to promote content to again help our organic search? And then also how can we use things like retargeting to ultimately help us hit those goals. Because a lot of the traffic that you’re going to get from organic search is going to be top of the funnel traffic. Of course you can get lower funnel traffic too, but a lot of traffic will be top of the funnel, so how do we use that to get more of our goals completed and when you’re just doing organic and you don’t understand how things like retargeting work, then you may not suggest to your client that they should be doing that. So I think that at the end of the day we’re doing internet marketing. Whether or not it’s SEO or you’re doing paid or whatever, we’re all trying to meet some goal through this combination of channels and the better you understand those different channels, the more value you can get out of whatever channel you are working with
DAVID BAIN: Great thoughts. Okay. Well you’ve shared a lot of interesting thoughts with us today, but just to conclude, what would you say, just to summarise, businesses need to be thinking about doing now that will still be valid in the year 2020?
MIKE KING: Good marketing. It really boils down to the basics of marketing. Figure out who your audience is? What is it that they want? How do you create it at scale and make sure that it’s, again, something that people will continue to want? How do you promote it and how do make it accessible to all the context, whether that context is a search engine or to some phone that only has a screen that’s like this big, I guess people at home won’t really see me, a screen that’s pretty small. So the bottom line is that I don’t think things are going to change too much as far as what we do, it’s just going to be the mediums in which we do them and the channels…
DAVID BAIN: I love that word context that you’re using, understanding the context of your user.
MIKE KING: Yeah, I do context marketing.
DAVID BAIN: Well, Mike, thank you so much for joining us. Where can our listeners get hold of you?
MIKE KING: I’m @iPullRank on Twitter and pretty much every social network in the world, so www.ipullrank.com. I’ve got a blog, we’re happy to work with awesome people that want to do great things.
DAVID BAIN: Thanks again.
MIKE KING: Thanks for having me.