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2020 Predictions Month: SEO Predictions for the Media Industry – John Shehata // Conde Nast

Episode Overview: Google’s efforts to own more of its search ecosystem is forcing media companies to re-examine their own branding efforts and how they use the platform to achieve their marketing goals. Join host Ben as he interviews Conde Nast’s Vice President of Audience Development John Shehata about what content optimization strategies no longer work for brands and how SEO is slowly becoming a business function.

Summary

  • Content that is easily answered by Google is not quality content; thoughtful, purposeful content is the future of high-quality content.
  • Instead of creating new content, a best practice moving forward is to find the best piece of content you own, refresh it into a comprehensive guide and eliminate up to 10 pieces of content from your site.
  • Using this method, Shehata saw a 200 – 600% increase in traffic for refreshed content on his site.
  • Media companies are adding more internal technical SEO roles, which is inspired by the need for JavaScript rendering in Google.

GUESTS & RESOURCES

Ben:                 Welcome the 2020 predictions month on the Voices of Search podcast. I’m your host, Benjamin Shapiro, and this month we’re looking into the crystal ball to tell you SEO and content marketers what you can expect in 2020. And joining us today is John Shehata who is the vice president of audience development and SEO at Conde Nast. John oversees a team of experts across 18 brands spanning multiple departments including SEO, social media, email strategy and operations, and builds cross-brand initiatives and organic partnerships. And today, John and I are going to talk about his predictions for 2020. Okay, on with the show, here’s my conversation with John Shehata, VP of audience development at Conde Nast.

Ben:                 John, welcome back to the Voices of Search podcast.

John:                Hey, what’s up, Benjamin? How are you? I missed you guys.

Ben:                 I missed you too. We’re in the end of January, so I feel like I shouldn’t say, “Happy New Year,” but I’m going to do it anyway. Happy New Year. Welcome back.

John:                Let’s do it. Happy New Year.

Ben:                 So, I know we’re getting towards the end of the first month of the year, we’re probably a little late to the game in terms of hitting the ground running. But you know what, you’ve got some great predictions for the media industry and we want to make sure that we get them out to our audience. Tell us a little bit about your thoughts for what’s going to happen in 2020 from a media brand perspective.

John:                Sure, absolutely. So I was thinking about this yesterday and I put some thoughts together and it feels like, in general, media and the whole industry is impacted a lot with what’s going on. So I got a few thoughts about stuff that are I think going to become more and more important in 2020, so why don’t we start with content, right?

John:                So, we have been hearing content has gained and it’s very important and so on, but I think the emphasis this year is more like high-quality optimized content. It’s not just quality content. I think it’s high-quality optimized content. And it still remains the core of SEO, but it’s not just about the content being relevant, it being valuable as well. Right? So I think looking at content right now is even higher standards than what they used to look before. So we need to write in-depth content that takes user intent into the equation, that talks about entities. I think, I remember 10 years ago when we had a headline like “What Time is the Super Bowl?” I don’t know if you remember the headline. I’m not going to say to the publisher, but nowadays content that can easily be answered by Google is not the way to go. You need to write a really thoughtful high-quality optimized content.

Ben:                 It’s interesting, as I think about content and how it’s changing this year, one of the things that we saw at the end of last year and already in January was obviously a lot of Google algorithm updates, and some of those are around Google’s ability to continue to get better at natural language processing. It seems like Google has gone from domain authority, down to page authority, and now we’re seeing Google understanding essentially paragraph authority and sentence authority, where small pieces of content that are in answer format are seeming to be more valuable, showing up in position zero, things that are obviously you can submit your content with the right format. When you talk about the value of content, do you see that the format of it is changing? Is there a length component that you think about as well? Or is it just you need to do a better job writing your content and it needs to be something that Google can’t answer on their own?

John:                I think yes, something that Google cannot answer on their own. I think Google got smarter and smarter. I think the core of their most recent advancement is the entities, right? So when you look at birth and when you look at national language processing and so on, Google now understand the order of words within a sentence. I think Google give an example of how to get a visa from U.S. to Brazil, or from Brazil to U.S., something like that, and Google always assumed it’s from one country to the next country. And now they understand coming from Brazilian citizens to U.S.-

Ben:                 Is different than U.S. to Brazil.

John:                Exactly right. Because I think it was a passive tense or something like that. Now Google also understand better their relationship between the different entities. Right? So when we talk about entities, we talk about people, we talk about organizations, we talk about concepts, we talk about events and so on, right?

John:                So now we Google understand what is the relationship between these entities, which also in a way powers E-A-T as well, or the Medic Update. But I think it’s in-depth content, to answer your question, it’s in-depth, thoughtful, answer user’s questions, formatted in the way that the user is looking for. And let me give you an example, one of the terms out there was celebrity homes. And when you look at celebrity homes, back then that was a year ago, I don’t know if it changed or not. Most of the results were coming back were … What do you call it? … Galleries. And didn’t have much content. It was just a lot of images, right? So if you had an article that is, I don’t know, 10,000 words, it will not compete. I didn’t rank. Right? So you had to change, you have to adapt to the format for the users that’s working for the users that Google identified and displaying in the search.

John:                One of the big projects we did for publishers when around the content, I spoke a lot the past two years about a project we did here, it’s called Pinetree, which is the concept of refreshing evergreen content. So with publishers, there’s this mentality of file and lock. I call it file and lock mentality, which is I’m writing a piece of content right now, I do my best, I call sources, optimize it and so on, file it and lock it. I completely forget about it and move to the next one.

John:                So, if you talk about a beauty editor at any publication that is writing about, let’s say, five or six core topics between nails and skin and so on, right? After two or three years, you have written about the same exact thing, maybe over 200, 300, 400 times. And every piece of content is not much. It’s not that much, right? And you keep writing about the same thing over and over and over. So the idea, or the project we submitted here to the company, was instead of writing about the same thing over and over, let’s go, with the help of the SEO team, I can find the best piece of content that we have on the site and go and refresh it, to make it the best guide on this topic. And for every piece of content that we optimize, we eliminate 10 pieces of content from the site and redirect them to this refreshed content.

John:                We have seen amazing results. We have seen anywhere from 200 to 600% increase in traffic for that pieces of content. And then you start working on the culture instead of you have five articles to write this week, it’s you have three new articles to write this week and two are refreshed pieces of prominence. Right? So a slow shift in how we write content, not just keep producing new content, but going back. It’s the same concept when we [inaudible] did ranking factors for this year and next year, they refresh it. And a lot of blogs do that as well, it just publishers need to adapt this and it works very well.

Ben:                 So, content is going to continue to evolve and obviously it’s going to be important for media companies. Your product is your content. It makes sense that thinking about how to make sure that that is relevant into how Google views the content today. Talk to me about some of your other predictions for 2020. Outside of content, what else is on your radar?

John:                It’s going to get harder and harder with E-A-T algorithm, or as many of us call it, Medic, and your money, your life content. I think over the past year or so, we have seen with every update that it’s getting more restrictive. And so Google is looking for authority and the authority is not just of the topic or the content, but the authority of the writer, right? Anything that comes to YMYL, Google is really focused on what’s the authority, and does it match the common consensus about this topic?

John:                So, when everyone’s saying vaccines are good for you and then you have a blog and saying, “No, it’s not,” or, “You shouldn’t,” even if you’re the best author out there and respected in your field, it doesn’t match the common consensus. So I think it’s going to get harder. I think publishers should start thinking about, because a lot of the media outlets out there is like, “Hey, 10 amazing things you will get from meditation or from yoga or from even some medical advice.” Right? And the authors have no medical experience whatsoever, it’s just some opinion out there put together by someone freelancer or something. So I think Google is going to get harder and harder for these wellness, especially health content to rank well unless it’s really great content and authority or a good author on the content.

Ben:                 So, there’s a common thread here between your first two predictions and it’s that Google is getting smarter. They’re understanding the natural language, they’re understanding what content is actually the most valuable, down, not only to the page level, but more of a tokenized paragraph or sentence level. And they’re also understanding who has credibility and authority at a more sophisticated level. It’s not just that you’ve written an interesting piece of content, but who you are is something that Google understands as well.

John:                Absolutely. Yes. They are getting smarter about both the entities, including the people who are writing the content, and the content itself.

Ben:                 So, outside of the content and Google’s understanding, from a technical perspective what do you see coming down the road? How should SEOs think about optimizing their websites in 2020?

John:                Sure. I think it’s an amazing year for technical SEO. I think last year we saw the rise of technical SEO was JavaScript rendering in Google that initiated the whole thing. And right now the good thing about our industry is now we see a lot of companies asking or posting jobs for technical SEOs. This is something that was not there five or 10 years ago. So technical SEO becoming a really much-needed specialty reality within SEO that a lot of companies are hiring for.

John:                I think there is a common knowledge that every SEO should know, like the JavaScript framework, what are they on their sites and so on. I mean, yes, redirects and server headers and all that other stuff that we have been checking for, but now it’s like another level of technical SEO. I have seen even not just on the hiring site, but I see now agencies are focused mainly on technical SEO. So I’m working on the agency side for a while, and in the old days agencies used to use content as their Trojan horse to clients, “Hey, we can do amazing stuff with your,” and so on. Now I see a lot of agencies are using the technical angle, “Hey, we can fix your site. You have a lot of technical issues.” And then they use this as the Trojan horse and then they start selling their other products.

John:                What else? I think there is a ton of new crawler tools out there to do amazing job that they can combine the logs, the keywords, data and rankings and so on from Google Search Console or other resources, and also the daily crawls or weekly crawls of their site, and then the give SEOs a holistic approach. I think it’s getting easier to collect all the data in one place, but it’s getting harder at the technical level. I have to say it’s becoming tougher for SEOs in the sense that an SEO should be a great content marketer, a great data scientist, a great analyst, and on top of that technical as well, and maybe if they know some Python as well. Right? So there are so many skills now that that’s why we start to see a very specific functions within SEO, like technical SEO analysts who knows, R and Python and so on.

Ben:                 So, it seems like the technical components of SEO are not only getting more complex but are also in higher demand and potentially more valuable to organizations. As you think broadly across organizations and specifically media companies, how do you envision SEO as a whole being viewed by the organization and what changes are coming this year?

John:                Yeah, thanks for asking this question. So I have been thinking about this for a while. So most of SEOs specifically working on the media or publishers side of business are very focused on traffic, right? “Hey, we drove 20% increase in traffic this year,” or whatever. Right? But I think SEO is slowly becoming a business function, not just an audience function.

Ben:                 So, what do you mean by a business function?

John:                Sure. Let me elaborate a little bit. A business function mainly is it’s not really about the traffic, not just about the traffic. So as you know, display revenue is getting down and down day after day, right? So it’s not that much of a revenue. And most of the publishers out there are looking for different streams of revenue outside of display. Right? So you talk about events or experiences, you talk about subscriptions and so on, you talk about new products, the launching. So SEO needs to become a business function in the sense that they have to drive revenue for these kind of initiatives within their organization. Commerce SEOs or SEOs who work on commercial sites, they have been doing this forever. Media SEOs are start to evolve to support these initiatives. So it’s not about just driving scale, but driving scale where it matters, to drive revenue.

Ben:                 It’s interesting to me as you talk about the business function of SEO. As we’ve seen more zero-click and Google essentially keeping more of the content on their platforms, the evaluation of SEO seems like it’s changing this year and it’s moving less from a direct response channel where you can drive a click and understand whether that converts, to in some places more of a brand channel where you’re just getting a brand impression by being in position zero. Do you see this having a business impact and how is that evaluating how SEO sits in the broader organization?

John:                I think from a brand awareness it’s always amazing when the sales teams go out there and say, “Hey, look at us. We are very visible on Google. We’re number one or number zero.” Right? So there is absolutely a brand awareness piece to SEO and always sales teams ask us for information and how are we doing on different verticals and so on. From that perspective, I think it’s important, it’s another brand awareness or another channel for visibility.

John:                But as you mentioned, with more zero-clicks and more changes, just was it a week ago when feature snippets de-dupes happened in Google, right? It was like you had two listings and now you have only one. And there is few studies that are coming right now to study the impact on the CTR and the clicks and so on. So I think we’re going to get less traffic. I think Google going to keep more and more of their traffic, the going to send hits to their second pages, so now they have destination guides. Right? And when you search for things to do, it takes you to a Google page for more stuff to do, and so on. So yeah, I think the service is going to continue to change and we’re going to continue to get less traffic.

Ben:                 So John, last question for you, as you think about something that’s interesting or on your mind that’s from a media perspective company going to be impactful, something that’s a little out of the box, talk to me about what’s your last prediction for the year that’s something that’s just exciting to you personally.

John:                Oh sure. I think Google Discover is up and becoming. If you look at media publishers within the U.S., on average they get anywhere from 10 to 15% traffic from Discover, compared to search referrals if you look at the Google Search Console. But the amazing part is when you look at the international media sites, you can see numbers up to like 20%, 30% and 40% coming from Google Discover. And the difference, if someone may ask, is like there are more adaption for Android phones over Europe and overseas versus here in US. Most of us use iPhones and stuff and that’s why Android and Google Discover is driving such an amazing traffic to publishers and sites overseas. So I will pay attention to the prerequisite to get into Google Discover and pay attention to what type of topics that gets you traffic from Google Discover and start focusing more on those.

Ben:                 Interesting thoughts, John. I appreciate your context and your forward-looking vision on the media space and what’s going to happen in 2020. Thanks for being our guest.

John:                Thanks for having me.

Ben:                 Okay, and that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with John Shehata, VP of audience development at Conde Nast. We’d love to continue this conversation with you, so if you’re interested in contacting John, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can contact him on Twitter, his handle is JShehata, J-S-H-E-H-A-T-A, or you can visit John’s company’s website, which is condenast.com.

Ben:                 Just one more link in our show notes that I’d like to tell you about. If you didn’t have a chance to take notes while you were listening, head over to voicesofsearch.com where we have summaries of all of our episodes and the contact information for our guests. You can even send us your topic suggestions or your SEO questions and you can even apply to be a guest speaker on the Voices of Search podcast. Of course, you can also reach out on social media. Our handle is voicesofsearch on Twitter and my personal handle is BenJShap, B-E-N-J-S-H-A-P.

Ben:                 And if you haven’t subscribed yet and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, we’re going to publish episodes four to five times a week. So hit that subscribe button in your podcast app and we’ll be back in your feed soon. All right, that’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.