In this edition of Inside the Search Studio, Grant Simmons sits down with Danny Sullivan  of Marketing Land  and Search Engine Land  to learn more about his professional take on the past and current SEO landscape. As one of the principal thought leaders in the search marketing industry, Danny provides valuable insight on Hummingbird, mobile optimization, and more. He certainly is one smart bloke.
Thanks for joining us Danny. I thought a great first question should be a blast from the past! I looked up issue one of Search Engine Report that you launched back in May, 1997. What has surprised you in terms of the way search has evolved?
I did some of that reminiscing when Alta Vista officially closed earlier this year. That one was especially hard because Alta Vista was one of those things that people actually liked and didn’t want to stop using, but it just wasn’t developed enough. Google wasn’t a player back then; it just turned into something better and people were forced to stop using Alta Vista because it [Google] was just a superior product.
You’ve been requesting panel suggestions for SMX West. What are some of the industry’s biggest themes you’ve noticed or plan to cover?
This year we are going to continue to look at what’s happening in the semantics space. Also Hummingbird is a buzz for a lot of people right now, who are wondering how and if to diversify their SEO efforts. Everyone seems to be concerned about Google and how much it dominates the SEO landscape.
Mobile continues to be a huge topic this year, as well as discussions around how to convert a user once you’ve brought them to your page, on mobile or desktop. Lastly, we’re planning a decent amount of coverage on ad extensions. It’s important to keep paid search people up to speed.
Speaking of Hummingbird, now that you’ve seen it in action for a couple months, has your opinion changed since your first analysis?
Not really. Although, what surprised me the most was that people didn’t understand Hummingbird was a change to the whole engine, not just one part. Other algorithm updates like Panda and Penguin were add-ons to the engine but, with Hummingbird, Google took it all apart like rebuilding a car. They updated equipment and parts and then put it all back together.
It’s as if they took a car engine that used to solely run on gasoline, and made it so that it can also run on diesel and electric. The car still runs like a car, but when it makes sense for the hybrid part to kick in, it does.
For the most part, the newer algorithm pays attention to structured data and provides a better understanding of language, which perhaps has more impact on long tail keywords.
How should SEO folks change what they are doing to help succeed?
The fundamentals are the exactly the same. If you’ve been doing them right from the beginning, you’re fine. The biggest shift is to make more use of the structured data, schema and authorship. The fundamentals of having great content is the same.
You talked about mobile importance; our Mobile Experience Scorecard Report spurred on a lot of discussion on Responsive Web Design. How do you think it’s affecting the search industry?
I think there are people who would be better off with a dedicated mobile site; most reasonable people would agree. It’s not that responsive design is always right or wrong; it’s different for every case.
But sometimes you get these two camps that divide against each other. Those who like it, and do it well, believe that it’s not responsive design that is the issue with site speed; it’s improper coding. The report only surveyed 100 websites and showed 60 slow sites, but maybe a larger sample would show a better response. Ultimately if you choose responsive, it needs to be coded well; it’s not enough to just have it in place.
You mention speed, how important do you think speed is to the mobile experience?
It’s very important. We want speed on both desktop and mobile, but it’s been my own personal experience that if I land on a website with friction, or it’s difficult for me to transact, it’s a negative experience. If I have to keep pinching and zooming the page just to submit and enter my credit card info, that’s an issue. So yes, site load time is crucial, but it’s much more important for me to have a mobile experience that understands the nuances of transacting and browsing on a mobile device, and knows how to anticipate those actions.
So do you think user experience is factored into Google’s algorithm?
Google doesn’t know if a site is user friendly, but they can definitely make some guesses. If a spider arrives at a site and finds a bunch of ads, it can safely determine that it is not user friendly. Google is looking at dwell time, or the time people spend on websites, which is a pretty strong indicator that the site fulfills user search needs. Google says they don’t use click through as a measurement, so engagement time is important.
The industry appears to be moving towards a cookie-less approach to tracking, how do you think Google is going to play in that scenario?
It makes sense that Google would go that route, seeing as we’re always logged in seamlessly across devices, but I think you’re going to see push back because of privacy issues. Also, advertisers aren’t going to be on board with a completely Google-driven platform. It’s definitely interesting, but it won’t be fully realized for a while.
What are some content strategy recommendations and predictions for brands or individuals for 2014?
People might be finding that they are more wary of using infographics because they’ve been overused, and even not used well. When done right, they are effective.
There will be more discussion on what content actually is; it’s such a broad strategy. Some people’s strategy is to write an article and submit to all the places that accept articles for the sake of increasing links. However, next year it’ll be all about building audience not building links. I’d recommend people try to create great content with the intention of attracting and building an audience, who will then build links, interactions and mentions for you organically.
Great stuff. Thanks Danny!