Pandas and Penguins and Hummingbirds – oh my! The world of SEO is ever changing and evolving. We are a world that searches in question form, not just with simple keywords.
Google is constantly upgrading their algorithms to determine a website’s relevance. As a result, you need to stay up to date so that you, like Google, can anticipate a searcher’s needs. Mobile accessibility is also key in separating the big dogs from the rest of the pack.
Monica Wright, Director of Audience Engagement for SearchEngineLand.com and MarketingLand.com, two of the leading trade publications for the digital marketing industry, talks to us about content marketing, SEO and giving your business some real online visibility.
Rich Brooks: Hey everybody, we’ve got a great interview in store for you today. I have Monica Wright on the line. Monica serves as Director of Audience Engagement for SearchEngineLand.com and MarketingLand.com, two of the leading trade publications for the digital marketing industry. WIth over 15 years of experience in online publishing, content marketing and audience development for media companies, Monica is focused on content consumption and measuring user engagement on both sides across multiple platforms – including desktop, mobile, social and email. Also, she serves as program coordinator for the SMS conference series, which is a search engine conference series, produced by parent company Third Door Media, publisher of Marketing Land and Search Engine Land. Monica is a New England native and a graduate of Boston College, she now resides in Maine with her husband and two sons, right around the corner from me. Monica, welcome to the show.
Monica Wright: Hi, thanks for having me, Rich.
Rich: I’m glad that we finally got you on the show. I’m looking forward to talking about some search engine optimization stuff here today. Now, Search Engine Land and Marketing Land are two very highly respected publications and resources, what was your path to getting involved with these organizations?
Monica: Funny you should ask, it happened really organically and I started blogging, although I don’t blog as much as I used to back in the day, it feels like ancient history now back in 2007/2008. I had my site set up on Blogger in ‘99 or something like that, and after I left the newspaper industry I started working for Search – an agency here in Portland, Maine exclusively – and I started pitching to speak at different conferences and networked and made some great friends and colleagues and somehow found myself asked to help out at Search Engine Land and Marketing Land. At first as an ad-hoc community editor part-time and it just grew into something a lot more involved, as our sites and brands have grown, online and on other platforms. So, I’ve been really lucky, I’ve been able to work with a lot of people that I would have never have met otherwise and been able to attend a lot of events and really sponge off of the massive amount of knowledge – marketing knowledge – that exists not just from agencies and consultants but from brands and technologists and other media, in fact. So, it’s been really, really lucky.
Rich: That’s great, that’s very cool. Now it seems, these days, that all the focus and buzz is all about social media, not on search. Many businesses actually believe that SEO is dead, I keep on seeing those articles pop up online. What do you say to people that think that SEO is dead?
Monica: Well, I tell them to pull out their phone and show me it’s dead. I mean, how many times do we search for videos on how to do something, or look for directions, or make a purchase over Christmas on Amazon? I mean, all of these things play into that concept of search, and sure, SEO has been known before – which was very mysterious and what they call “black cat”- where we’re trying to play the game of structuring a site so that you could get better results. That game is over. It’s really about integrated marketing effort, but the focus really is getting people to discover your content.
Rich: Ok, alright. So today I asked you on the show because I wanted to get some information about Google Hummingbird and how it affects all of our websites. But this is not the first change to Google’s algorithm. There was Panda, there was Penguin and there were a lot of both major and minor changes. Can you just give us a brief history that brings us up to date with Google Hummingbird?
Monica: Sure, I mean there are dozens of updates since, it seems like the beginning of time, or at least in the past dozen years or so. But the big ones, you mentioned Panda and Penguin, they really started out with – I’ll start with Penguin, actually – which was about 2011, beginning of 2011, that winter. And it was targeting those sites that were really turning out poor quality content. For example, there were eHow was one, there was anything from Demand Media really was being targeted. There were articles like, “How to Pour A Glass Of Water”, and they were really churning out this – what they call “sim content” – so all of a sudden those sites that were building up those content farms – that’s what they were called – really just got nailed. They were really building those out for advertising purposes, so they would just get that ton of traffic. About a year later, which was the Penguin update – and there have been iterations since then of Penguin and Panda – so there have been updates to Panda, there have been updates to Penguin, so it wasn’t just in 2011 Panda happened and that was it. There have been many updates since then. So about a year after, which was Penguin – was maybe in 2012 of that spring – that was really focused on links. So if you have a lot of spammy links or you are dropping links in different places in order to gain that SEO factor for your site, you were penalized for that. So no more putting links on comments and such. If you’re guest blogging on a million sites just to point links back to your site, that was always a bad idea. So that was a couple years ago now. Fast forward to 2013 – which was Hummingbird – unlike Panda and Penguin which are really more updates to the core algorithm. Hummingbird was an actual engine upgrade. They actually went in to the infrastructure of the Google power and really changed things up in order to deliver and anticipate what searchers are looking for. So for example, the biggest change you can see of Hummingbird coming into play is when you search for something like a person, a place or a thing. Over on the right hand side on Google is what they call it the “knowledge graph” or the “knowledge box”, where you will see a profile of the celebrity that you might be searching for, along with wikipedia links usually, or links to their branded site and other sources – related searches for example – so it all of a sudden becomes a very robust type of experience. And Google is really trying to anticipate, based on your behavior, what you’re looking for.
Rich: Alright, that was great. Let me just see if I can recap that and wrap my head around it. So first we had Panda – and just to take a step back for those people that don’t know much about search engine optimization, so these algorithms that we keep talking about, these are basically Google’s way of determining how relevant a given website is for the search you just did – correct?
Monica: Correct, yes.
Rich: So basically, Google was doing great, and then they said “Hey, we want to provide better results.”. And so the first thing they do is they bring out this thing – an update they call Panda – and this attacks these thin sites that are basically putting up crap content so they can sell more advertising. Then we get Penguin, and Penguin was set up basically to attack bad links. So people realized that getting inbound links helped them, and they got over aggressive and maybe used some spammy techniques and so Penguin was there to punish them, again, to improve results. And finally we have this major overhaul called Hummingbird, and the main goal of this is to anticipate searcher’s intent, to really give us relevant results – contextual results – along with this thing you call the “knowledge graph” or the “knowledge box” over on the right hand side that gives us even some additional information and some real personalized results. Is that correct?
Monica: Yes, correct. That’s right. Good overview.
Rich: Awesome, ok, so I’m getting this now. Alright, so now, that’s all well and good, it’s all academic on some level. I like search engine optimization, I find the science of it pretty interesting. But I know for a lot of small business owners they’re like, “That’s great, just tell me how I rank higher.”. So with this background, with this context we have now, what can I do as a small business owner or as a marketer to improve my search engine visibility and get in front of more of my ideal customers when they’re going to Google to find out how to do something?
Monica: Yeah, that’s a good question. I guess it really depends on your business, right? It really does. Because if you’re selling insurance versus a restaurant, your tactics are going to be completely different. There are some fundamentals, of course. One big fundamental, actually, is your mobile accessibility. Google will not favor you if you’re mobile presence is crappy, that’s a fact. They will actually sometimes redirect to your homepage if you have pages that deliver flash, like real estate sites, that sort of thing. They will actually say guess what, if you’re accessing it on an ipad or a phone and it doesn’t support flash, Google will – this is relatively new – they will actually put up a warning , “You will not be able to access this site.”. So being mobile-friendly is a priority. If you’re going to do anything, do that. Be extremely mobile-friendly, make it easy. A site with problems for smartphone searches is just not going to rank as well, because they’re thinking about the user first. And also it tracks what kind of content you’re going to put up. If you’re a restaurant, for example, there are certain things that you want to keep in mind, like your presence on Google maps – I’m just thinking in terms of Google, but anything you do for Google will translate well for Bing – your mapping features, your reviews. Actually, the technical markup of your site – you’d actually have to talk to a developer about what this is – this is called “schema markup”, and basically it’s marking up the code so search engines can better glean what kind of information that is. So for example, if you mark up the code where people are putting reviews, those reviews will actually show up in a search result. So if you’re getting awesome reviews as a business, capitalize on that. Also, your address should be marked up, your phone number for example. Think, “Ok, if a potential customer is not going to go to my site, but they’re going to search for me, can I provide as much information to them as possible to make it as easy as possible.” People don’t want to click through, they really don’t.
Rich: So when you’re talking about the “schema”, are we talking about things that are actually in the HTML code, so that instead of me just writing out my phone number, I need to use special tags around that phone number or around that address?
Monica: Ideally, yes. There’s a schema for everything. There’s a schema for type of business, for different areas – for example your phone number, your address, your zip code – and these things all help search engines, and all the search engines have collaborated in terms of schema markup, so they all will work this way. This is not just Google specific, it will help show the search engine what it is that is on your site, so they’re not trying to decipher, “Ok, is this zip code 04230, is that part of a phone number?”, they’re pretty smart, but anyway, that’s really what it’s for.
Rich: I feel like we might want to dig a little bit deeper on the schema side of things, but it also sounds fairly technical, so this might be something where if you’re not updating your own website that you need to be talking to your developers about it, so that they know that they need to be using certain types of schema if search engine optimization is important to you. Now one question I did have on the schema, you mentioned that if you’re getting good reviews to use it. So are you talking about – like in my own company – if somebody says “Hey Rich, I really like working with your crew, you got it up and live faster than I expected.”, I might say, “Hey, can I use that unsolicited review and post it to my website?”, and they say, “Sure.”. So is there a schema for even doing something like that that’s going to help me?
Monica: Usually, yes. I’m not as familiar with a small business, like a service, but there should be, there really should be. I know there is, for example, for plumbers and more of that kind of work. It’s more of a B2B type of service, like insurance companies, banks, that sort of thing, but I’m pretty sure there is, there is for hospitality. So if you go to schema.org you can actually look for the type of business you’re in or industry you’re in , and it will prvide what kind of schema markup is available for that industry.
Rich: That’s awesome. that sounds like a great resource and I’m definitely going to be checking that out. Alright, so one of the things you mentioned is that there’s kind of no “one size fits all”. Insurance companies can have different content needs than a pizza parlor, for example. So one of the things I noticed from one of your presentations, you talked about “think questions, not keywords”. For years, those of us in the SEO business were all about the need to optimize around specific keywords. Now, what I’m hearing is “No, people don’t think in keywords, only machines do, we need to be thinking about creating valuable content.” So what do you mean when you say as website owners we should be thinking about questions and not keywords?
Monica: Right. It’s really about, again, the ultimate user experience or providing some kind of value. So when searchers are looking for something, it’s usually because they have a question that needs to be answered or they want to learn more about a topic. So the way to think about SEO and how it really times into content marketing, is thinking of it in terms of questions. How do I…(fill in the blank)? What is…where can I find…what’s the best…who is… – those types of questions. And it really can amplify and sort of flesh out this keyword kind of anomaly that SEO has sort of dragged along in the past 10 years or so. People aren’t necessarily searching for just their regular “pizza, portland maine” for example, they’re like “what is the best pizza in maine?”. Just to give you some context.
Rich: Sure. And I found that the word “best” is a magical word when it comes to SEO. I always try and create some content around what is the best.
Monica: And you can always do an auto complete in Google, especially, which is a great tool for SEO. If Google does try to anticipate what you’re going to ask, so if you start entering “how do I….”, and whatever topic it is you’re going to write about or that you want to optimize for, you’ll start seeing variations of that same kind of theme.
Rich: Yeah, I’ve seen that definitely on Google, and for those of you who don’t know what we’re talking about, you’ve experienced this yourself, you’re on Google, you start typing out something like, “How do I..?”, and all of a sudden the most popular questions come up. And I also like doing that on YouTube because for whatever reason, YouTube gives you about 3 times the number of results for those suggested searches. But those are great ways of trying to get inside your customers heads for specific types of questions.
Monica: That’s such a great example. Sorry to interrupt.
Rich: No, that’s ok. So for your example, we might go into Google or YouTube and post these questions and then these questions become basically the acorns of our content. We take those questions and we develop content around them and that’s ultimately going to be more value to both the search engines and out potential customers, assuming that we’re putting together valuable content for them.
Monica: Correct. And also,not to diminish this point, but we talked about links a little bit. If you really provide something of value, people are more likely to link to that. So that is also another factor. You want that outreach, you want people to source you. We talk about list building in SEO which has, again, another connotation – dropping links places – it’s really not about that. It’s really about outreach and developing that reputation in that relationship. And if you are providing something of value, people will want to have that online relationship with you.
Rich: Right. And so getting people to link to you. Here’s the thing, here’s the question I have – So we’re talking about getting links, and we do know that that is part of the algorithm and the more quality links we have coming to us, all things being equal the better off we are as far as visibility goes. One of the things that I know has been popular for years is having people go out and ask for you to get links, as opposed to just having people say “Oh, that’s great content”, and then link to you. Do you find that this is a tactic that’s still effective? LIke if I create some content and then I go or I have an agency go and reach out to hundreds of different bloggers and social media people and other business people and say, “Hey, I’ve got this great, new blog post, you should be linking to it.”. Does that work anymore or does Google see that as sort of an unnatural linking tactic?
Monica: Well, I guess it really depends on what you’re doing, you know. if you’re asking for links that have nothing to do with who you’re asking – first of all it’s awkward – it’s awkward and poor use of your time and people will really be turned off by that in general. Asking for links, I think that’s just really one of those gray areas that depends – I’ve known Rich, you know me, we talk about the same digital marketing stuff – where I’d say, “hey, do you mind putting a link to this?”, you’d probably say “sure!”, because my site talks about the same stuff and we’ve known each other and I know that the people you link to aren’t sketchy either. So I think it really, really depends. And I also think that you’d have to have a relationship established already without a doubt, and you need to also understand that Google still sees all this. For example, I’ve seen an email incident recently where a very respectable source’s email was getting flagged as a potential phishing mechanism. And is it because that email was linking to an unsavory place, or was it because of some other kind of malicious activity and they don’t know about it? Google is really getting really, really smart about that stuff, so it’s even impacting my email – and these are links, these are all links. It’s just something to be very careful about and very deliberate. People who definitely really talk about link building – the professionals I know who are really, really good about it – they are really PR people.
Rich: It’s funny that you say that because as your talking it sounded more and more like the best PR people developed relationships with journalists rather than just send out giant blasts to every journalist they get their hands on. And it sounds like it’s the same thing going on right now with link building. It’s like, yes, there’s still a place for doing some outreach for link building, but not with random people, but with very targeted selections either because you’ve got a friendship with them or really because there’s an obvious and honest connection between the content you’re creating and the content that they create as well.
Monica: Right. And I think it’s just really a networking opportunity, that’s really what it’s about. You’re going to have to be able to give and take, too. I mean, there are some really great examples – I don’t want to get into too much here – people really using Google+, especially when identifying these type of “influencers”, as I’m sure you’ve talked about that concept a lot already. I’m using Twitter the same way as identifying these influencers. That is probably the best way to go about it.
Rich: Ok, sounds good. Just to wrap things up, do you have any kind of advanced tactics for those of us who may be already doing a lot of the things the right way? I saw rich snippets, Google+ brand pages, social media sharing. Is there anything that you really feel that for an advanced user we should start to be making sure that we’re doing as far as search engine visibility goes?
Monica: Like I said, it depends on the sites. I think the most value you’re going to get out of your site for search is really your site structure and making sure that Google is indexing your pages as they should be. And you can do that via Google webmaster tool. Now I don’t know if that’s really the advanced suggestion that you were looking for, but also, the other advanced suggestion is really to think about outside your site. Again, I don’t know how advanced it is, but there are search results like Yelp and these other places where you’re always going to be struggling to compete with those places as a small business and focus on your house – make sure your house, your site is well equipped – and not having a leaky roof or flooding basement – think of your presence elsewhere and how you can take advantage of that as well, and that’s really social and these other sites like Yelp.Angie’s List…
Rich: Cool. Oh, and Trip Advisor, another big one because we do a lot of business with inns around here as well. So, I know there’s a lot of more information and things keep on changing, and I’m sure people got a lot out of today’s conversation, but how can they stay on top of it all and where are you online so we can continue to learn more from you?
Monica: Oh sure. I’m online – best place really is Twitter, I’m @MonicaWright – or my website, MonicaWright.com. And you can find me there, and all my contact information is there. You can find me probably on my social contacts there, that would work probably easiest.. Where to find and stay up to date on search – Search Engine Land – and we actually publish a great newsletter every day called SearchCap, which rounds out the daily news for search, as well as other sources around the web. What we do is we actually curate other content that’s been published elsewhere, or from some of our contributors or anywhere, and that’s probably one of the best ways to keep posted without overwhelming your brain with details.
Rich: Excellent. Monica, thank you very much for today. I really appreciate the time and all the information.
Monica: Anytime. Thanks for having me.
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