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Voices of Search Episode 32: RankBrain, Mobile UX and Voice Search

Episode Overview

In this episode, we begin our discussions with leaders in the SEO community to understand what’s next for SEO in 2019. Listen in as Ben and Harrison DeSantis, Associate Director of SEO at 3Q Digital as they discuss the impact of mobile UX speed, RankBrain and what the ceiling will be for voice search in 2019.

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Episode Transcript

Ben:                 Welcome to SEO Predictions Month on the Voices of Search podcast. I’m your host, Benjamin Shapiro. And today, we’re going to continue our monthlong series covering some of the boldest SEO predictions for 2019.

Ben:                 But before we get started, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We are an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise scale businesses monitor their online presence and make data-driven decisions. To support you, our loyal podcast listeners, we’re offering a complimentary digital diagnostic. A member of our digital strategies group will provide with a consultation that reviews how your website content and SEO strategies can be optimized. So, to schedule your free digital diagnostic, go to searchmetrics.com/diagnostic.

Ben:                 Okay. Joining us for SEO Predictions Month is Harrison DeSantis, who is the Associate Director of SEO at 3Q Digital, which is a fully integrated digital marketing agency, that offers a suite of advertising, analytics, and business strategy services, for some of the US’s fastest growing B2B, B2C, e-commerce, and Lead Gen companies.

Ben:                 And today, Harrison is going to share some of his SEO predictions for the current year, 2019. So, here’s our conversation with Harrison DeSantis, where he’s going to give his SEO predictions for 2019.

Ben:                 Harrison, welcome to the Voices of Search podcast.

Harrison:          Ben, thanks for having me.

Ben:                 It’s exciting to have a partner of Searchmetrics on the show. Also a brilliant SEO marketer. So we’re excited to hear a little bit about your predictions for what’s going to happen in SEO land for 2019. But before we get there, just to catch everybody up, tell us a little bit about yourself, your role, and what 3Q Digital does.

Harrison:          Yeah. So, 3Q Digital, as you kind of said at the beginning, is a full-service agency. We offer everything from paid search, to CRO, to analytics, and to SEO. A little bit about myself, I’m an Associate Director here. I manage a team of account managers and people who manage different accounts across e-commerce, tourism, and a bunch of other verticals.

Ben:                 So, you have a pretty wide view of the landscape. It sounds like most of the businesses that you’re working on are really content-centric businesses, mostly e-commerce, lots of product listings. Tourism, lots of travel destinations.

Ben:                 Tell us a little bit about you view what’s going to happen in 2019?

Harrison:          Yeah, so I have three pretty high-level predictions in terms of what’s going to be important in 2019. One of those is, I think that the importance of backlinks and content, the ceiling of those is going to be very much defined by mobile UX speed, and external references to your site, which is a conversation that I believe you’ve had with Jordan recently already. But what I want to talk about is more through the lens of RankBrain, rather than the vacuum that Google Plus created by Google moving beyond that service.

Harrison:          Another is around site security. I believe that much like Google has done in the past, where it’s slowly cracked down on the UX of non-secure sites, I believe that we’re going to move a territory where non-secure sites are just going to start getting moved off of the index, or de-indexed.

Harrison:          And the last thing is less algorithm-related, more search industry-related, or more topical-related, whereas I think that the voice search buzz that’s recently found revitalized life through the units being sold of Google Home and Amazon Echo devices, and all home assistant devices. I think we’re going to start to realize what the ceiling is on our ability to make an impact on those. And I think that we’re going to tone it down a little bit, with how many opportunities are actually really there, with home assistant device searches. Or non-screen searches.

Ben:                 Okay. So there’s a lot of ground to cover there. Let’s pick those up one by one. So, the first prediction you had was related to the ceiling of backlinks, and how your content, and how mobile UX is going to affect all of that, speed. A whole bunch of stuff there. Tell us a little bit more about that first prediction.

Harrison:          Yeah. So, RankBrain’s influence on how rankings are working right now. It’s been really interesting, because it’s been really focused on anticipating where people are looking for, and getting that in front of people. So, in some studies that Searchmetrics has done, it’s well-timed is one thing that we found to have a big impact. The top 10 results usually have a three-plus minute dwell time. CTR is another thing. If sites perform well in CTR, that tends to get them ranked a little bit better, because these are both indications that it’s something that people want.

Harrison:          So, this year I think RankBrain going to use that same method of using other factors to decide what, to re-define how a site gets authority. In the past, it’s been through links. A website gets cited a lot. Those references get rewarded, because Google sees a lot of sites referring to a URL, and that indicates that there’s trust in it, so that people want to see it. But I think that we’re going to start moving away from that. And that, RankBrain and Google is going to look at other factors beyond that, that don’t necessarily have to do with links. That’s going to look at maybe Facebook references, Twitter. News outlets that talk about a brand.

Harrison:          Other publications, they talk about the brand and the industry in a related context. Maybe search volume in general for the brand, maybe even direct traffic, going to the site. But basically, the overall idea is that brand mentions is going to start to serve the same purpose that backlinks were built to serve. And eventually that’s going to be used as a heavier factor than backlinks in general.

Harrison:          Mentions will be a better indicator of how in demand, and how sought after, a certain domain is, and how trusted it is, and how often people want it. And RankBrain will want to give people, again, the resources that are the most popular, and most in demand.

Ben:                 So, for the non-experienced SEO’s, tell us a little bit about what RankBrain is, and why you think there’s going to be this change.

Harrison:          Right. RankBrain is a machine learning algorithm that pretty much gathers a lot of data across the internet, in terms of how users interact with the site. It basically uses this to get away from the old machine indicators of how a site should be ranked. That was just based on content, authority, things like that. It’s actually getting inside of the mind of users, and seeing how users interact at the site. It emulates what users are looking for, and user activity, to better make predictions on what users actually want.

Ben:                 Okay. So, RankBrain is essentially the machine learning platform that Google has built to be able to understand how to evaluate specific pieces of content. And you’re saying that that is going to be looking for factors like dwell time and click-through rate, and basically what the CTA’s are of a specific piece of content? As opposed to just trying to focus specifically about what the content on the page is.

Harrison:          Right. It’s almost as if it’s surveying the internet, and understanding conversationally, right? Because back links are very … there’s an intent by them. People don’t just organically put in backlinks. They are built in a way that should look organic. Because you don’t just want to stuff backlinks and content, right? They’re implemented in a way that appears to be organic, but in reality, they’re a guess a calculated way to send equity to a site. And I think that what RankBrain’s going to do is that it’s going to put less weight on that, because backlinks are very goal-oriented to get a site better ranked.

Harrison:          Instead, I think it’s going to see, okay, this brand has a lot of activity on Facebook. A lot of people talking about it on Facebook. It has a lot of people talking about it in the news. It has a lot of people talking about it … a lot of people visiting this domain directly. And I think that it’s going to aggregate that in some way, and understand that this source is something that people are more interested in. Like, even if they don’t have a crazy backlink strategy, like maybe people didn’t backlink to it a lot, they just didn’t go with that strategy. But, I think that RankBrain will move to the direction of putting more value in terms of, the language surrounding a domain, or language surrounding a brand, rather than, do they have a good backlink profile? What’s their page authority? What’s their domain authority? Et cetera.

Ben:                 Yeah. I think what I’m hearing is, as Google’s machine learning capabilities become more sophisticated, they’re able to interpret multiple different factors outside of just external linking. I’m sure external linking will still have some value. It’s just going to potentially be de-prioritized a little bit as Google is able to take a broader view of some of the other factors that dictate whether a page is really something that’s interesting. And, like you mentioned, how much time onsite. What is somebody doing when they’re on that page. And then also, there’s all these other external factors that you mentioned other than linking, like what’s happening on social media? What are some of the other publications that are talking about a brand?

Harrison:          Right. That’s exactly right. And, backlinks are still going to be a factor, because it is still how Google is able to find and crawl a URL. It’s not going to be able to do that just through mentions. But it will be able to understand the relationship between a domain and a brand name, and not solely depend on backlinks to give that authority. And we’re already seeing this here, that with spammy backlinks … I think John Mueller said something earlier this year about, “Oh, spammy backlinks, we’re already filtering those out. We’re already not paying attention to that.”

Harrison:          So, I think that it’s going to move more to that direction, of just backlinks in general. Like, we’re not going to pay as much attention to the authority that’s coming from those. It’s still going to be used, but I think in terms of where the importance is, and where the future is, and this might not be in 2019 exactly, but I think that, this is the direction that it’s going to go in. That, the weight of backlinks is going to start to decrease, in favor of RankBrain external factors.

Ben:                 So, as the value of your backlinks decrease, what do you suggest SEO’s do to continue to show Google that there is value in their content?

Harrison:          Right. So, I think that this strategy goes outside of SEO. It’s the whole brand. I think it’s … it has to do with how active you are on Facebook and Twitter. How interesting your brand is. Like, what you’re doing and how you can generate interest outside of building content. Like, if you can get conversations going about you through influence, or marketing, or through other channels talking about you, but not necessarily always sending links back to you. I think that, just getting in conversations, and being active with your brand outside of just your own website, and linking to your website, is really going to be the key. Just thinking about your site, outside of SEO. And more of a person, trying to get it as visual and as talked-about as possible.

Ben:                 Yeah, I think that my takeaway from this conversation is that, SEO’s out there, go hang out with your social media manager. And talk to them about the pages that are your top priority page, and get them to start sharing them in social, and starting to have more conversations around your SEO priorities are. Because, those conversations are going to be increasingly important, as backlinks are potentially de-prioritized.

Ben:                 Let’s move on to your second prediction. You mentioned something about site security, and how Google’s going to prioritize, or de-prioritize, non-secure … or de-index, even … non-secure sites. What’s your prediction there?

Harrison:          Yeah. So, Google has an interesting history with https. And I think it’s following a certain trend that we’ve somewhat seen before with mobile. I think in 2014, Google announced that, hey, if you’re on https, you get a rankings boost. And if we look at the timeline since then, things started to get interesting in 2017. In a April 2017 3Q case study showing that 50% of page one results were https … a month later, SEMrush had a different case study, saying that 31% of all domains were on https. So, already right there, 50% of page one real estate is taken up by 31% of domains.

Harrison:          Granted, there’s a little bit of a bias there, because sites like Amazon that have a lot of Real Estate or secure, so it’s not really a one-to-one mapping that way. But it is still somewhat indicative I think. Then in September 2017, Google influenced the not secure warning for sites with form fills. And last year, Google implements that not secure warning for all sites in Chrome. If you’re not secure right now, it’s going to have that ugly “Not Secure” thing that shows up there.

Harrison:          So, Google’s always encouraged sites to adopt encryption. And I think it makes sense for them to continue to continue this trend, just by saying, hey, we want Google to be completely secure, and we no longer want to index non-secure pages.

Harrison:          And then, much like they did with the non-secure warnings, I think they’re going to start out with pages that are probably e-commerce, or have form fills, or something like that. And that, I think, is something that’s possible to happen in 2019. For them to at least say, if you’re an e-commerce or form fill site, that is not secure, we’re going to begin de-indexing these unless you migrate. But then I think by 2020, I think that Google’s going to come in hot with full security, and it just won’t index sites that are no longer in https.

Ben:                 I think to me this more of the same from what Google is doing, trying to protect user the user experience, making sure that the listings that they’re surfacing are going to be secure. And it actually gets into some of the predictions that Jordan and I discussed in our SEO Predictions Week, in that, as there’s more scrutiny on Google in terms of their data collection, their privacy, and how they’re impacting how users data is protected. Prioritizing the sites that are secure seems to fit into that message. The government is potentially going to shine a spotlight on how Google’s user experience, and how they’re protecting data, and so then prioritizing secure sites. And continuing to do so, and taking the next step, makes a lot of sense.

Harrison:          Yeah. And it’s a very timely subject, isn’t it, internet security. Following everything from like the 2016 election, to stories that came out last year in Forbes about government hacking in sites. So I think that it’s also … site security in general is just a timely issue right now, with everything from the 2016 election, to stories that came out last year in Forbes about Google accounts getting hacked, even though those are secure. I think that if nothing else, it could also be a wise PR move for Google to be able to say like, “Hey, everything on Google is encrypted, and everything is secure.”

Harrison:          And then beyond that, too, I also think that this type of trend has a lot in common with what we saw with how Google started treating mobile. So back in April 2015, with the mobile-friendly update, Google came out and said, hey, if you have a mobile-friendly site, you’re going to get a boost. Now, that’s not really the case anymore. Now mobile-friendly site doesn’t give you a boost anymore, it’s prerequisite.

Harrison:          So, I think that https … I can see them moving the direction of, the same type of direction. Where at first, it was https, oh, it’s going to give you a boost, like we want everyone to be secure. Then in the future, it’s going to be no, this is a prerequisite. Everyone needs to be secure in order to be served on this engine.

Ben:                 So I think the takeaway here is pretty clear, is that you need to go make sure that your site is secure. I guess what I’d ask you in terms of advice for SEO’s is, as you’re making the transition, if you haven’t already from http to https, what advice do you have for SEO’s moving their content along to a more secure protocol.

Harrison:          I would just recommend that everyone have their processes in order, first. Here in 3Q we have a very vigilant checklist that we go through for any type of migration that requires URL change. A protocol change counts as that, because an http and https site are technically two different sites. Any little URL change counts as a whole URL change. So, here at 3Q we have that process. We have these processes to make sure that we take full inventory of pages. To make sure that we have every redirect in line. Basically the whole idea is to make sure that you have a checklist going in beforehand, so that you don’t leave pages behind. So you don’t create a lot of internal errors within your site.

Harrison:          You don’t have any type of performance change that happens as a result of the secure migration. Making sure you have a valid certificate. Just all the little things that … I think that there’s a lot of resources out there in terms of like what type of checklist to follow, but basically, following some type of process, making sure you have a game plan ahead of time. And, in addition to that, also having correct expectations around https. Sometimes people migrate to https and expect like, oh, we’re going to get a rankings boost now. Usually you actually see a traffic decline, because all of your URL’s have changed, and they have to re-gain that equity that was in the old version of the URL’s.

Harrison:          So, I would also make sure that you have your processes in order. And make sure you have your expectations in order, in terms of what this is actually going to do. It might end up in a short-term loss of some kind, but in reality, it’s going to be a long-term gain, in terms of what Google’s going to be heading towards.

Ben:                 Yeah. So I think there’s a couple things to consider. One, if you don’t know how to do the site migration, go find somebody like 3Q that does. There’s plenty of checklists available. We’re going to give you some site links to help you get in touch with 3Q if you need them in the outro of this episode.

Ben:                 But there’s a decision to make whether you’re going to move all of your content at once, or whether you’re going to bash some things, and start doing the migration. I think the safe way to do it is to take a little portion of your site, and you move it, and you see what the effect is, and make sure that you get it right.

Ben:                 But, if you move everything all at once, expect a decline in your performance in terms of SEO in the short term, as Google evaluates the changes to your URL. And a long-term spike, and make sure you’re communicating that to your leadership.

Ben:                 Let’s talk about your last SEO prediction, related to voice search. You mentioned that the ceiling is going to be realized. What do you mean by that?

Harrison:          Yeah. So, voice search has always been pretty buzzy, ever since it was introduced, what, about 10 years ago now. So, there’s a renewed buzzy-ness around it right now, because of home assistant products, and the fact that the units of those getting sold is growing. I think that there’s about like 10 million, to 10, 15 million, that are shipped per quarter.

Harrison:          So, there’s a revitalized interest in voice search, because it’s an available function on a lot of these devices. And, we’re always seeing these stories of, oh, voice search is more important than ever, because there are technically more ways to access them for, because there are more devices that offer it.

Harrison:          Before I get into this, one caveat I want to throw in there is that I do think that voice search on mobile is still really valuable, because that actually gives you listed results. It gives you some type of motivation that forces you to choose from options. So, as I talk about this, I don’t want people to walk away just saying like, oh, voice search. Voice search is invaluable. I do think that mobile voice search, or screened voice searches as I call them, are still really valuable.

Harrison:          But, if you look under the hood for non-screen voice searches. So, home assistant voice searches. I think we’re all going to understand how limited the impact of succeeding in voice search is. So, first of all, a lot of these assistants are mostly task-oriented. They’re used to set your alarm. To turn off your lights. To play music. Most commands going into home assistant aren’t really SEO-related to begin with.

Harrison:          But for those searches that are SEO related, and are informational-based, chances are they’re going to be very informational, and very casual. How many movies has Morgan Freeman been in? How many calories are in a chicken thigh versus a chicken wing?

Ben:                 What was the score of the game yesterday?

Harrison:          What was the score of the game? When’s MLK Day this year? Right. And answers to those are going to be read off of snippets. So, say, you achieve that snippet. Say that you are a … I don’t know, a supplement company, and you achieve this snippet for, how long should you take weight loss supplements? And that snippet gets read on Google Home.

Harrison:          On a screen device, when they get that snippet, they have the opportunity to click into the listing, and get more information. On a home assistant, are you really going to ask Google to read the whole article? Or ask Google to send the article to your phone, so you can read it later? Or have the search saved, so you can review your options for later on another device? No, I’ve never seen anyone do that. No one’s really digging under the hood for any of these results on home search devices.

Harrison:          They get an answer, and they move on. So, on top of that, it’s reading a snippet at the end of the day. And reading a snippet doesn’t even count for a click for all we know right now. The benefit of getting a snippet in Google is that the ideas that someone might click into the site might cause some brand awareness, but it’s not like you’re getting equity from having a home assistant read that snippet that it’s scraping from the internet. So, as far as I see it, that’s basically snippet optimization. And that’s a strategy that’s already existed from before home devices, and is basically the same thing.

Ben:                 Yeah, I agree. I think that, in SEO communities, there’s a little bit of voice search mania right now. And if I’m thinking about this from the voice search manufacturers. If I’m Amazon, Google, and Apple … even through Microsoft in there if you want. There’s the idea of walk, jog, run. And, to me, it’s like the voice device manufacturers have already walked. They’ve figured out and validated that there is a market for the voice search device. Now they are jogging. And to me, they are absolutely focused on distributing the devices as widely as they possibly can.

Ben:                 So you’re seeing a proliferation of different types of devices. Google, and Amazon, and a little less for Apple. They’re trying to develop your wall clock, your refrigerator being voice-enabled. All these different placements for these devices to have what you … devices that you can talk to. They’re not necessarily focused on what they user experience is beyond just giving you answers to surface-level questions.

Ben:                 And so, from an SEO perspective, there isn’t a ton of value right now, in my opinion. You’re going to get an awareness, and a branding play, by being in position zero. By having your snippet. By being voice enabled. But there is no actionable conversion metric through voice search yet. I totally believe that that’s going to happen, and maybe that’s a 2020 thing. Or maybe the device manufacturers stay in scale mode for a while. But it just doesn’t seem to be a priority for the device manufacturers, and specifically not for Google right now, of going beyond, we’re going to answer your question, to we’re going to answer your question and allow you to ask supplemental questions. That’s going to be down the road.

Harrison:          Yeah. And, I think that all depends on a product change. If Google reads you a snippet and then says … has an option to like, oh, do you want to read the whole article? Or, do you want me to send this to your device to read later? I think that things could be interesting if there was a product change like that. But, that’s highly speculative. And I don’t imagine that there’s a demand for that, so I don’t see that happening.

Ben:                 These are predictions, so they’re all speculative by nature. But I agree with you. I don’t think that that’s going to be a priority. If I’m Google, my head is, distributing Google Voice, and the Google Assistant, everywhere I possibly can. And that’s something that’s going to take more than a year. And you’re starting to see that. They’re opening the API’s to allow the Google Assistant to be integrated into other places. That’s just something that’s going to take them more than a year, as opposed to, focusing on adding increased utility to the service they already have. Maybe there’s some changes. I just don’t think it’s priority. I totally agree with you.

Harrison:          Yeah. And I think that one area that could be up for debate, and could be interesting, is e-commerce. People sometimes, do they, hey Google, add more toothbrush heads to my shopping list, or something like that. But, even with those types of queries, the user usually has an Amazon account synced. So it’s not just ordering from random websites, with their billing information.

Harrison:          So, I do think that there could be an opportunity with Amazon optimization. And my colleague, Brittany Page, actually just wrote a really good article on Search Engine Land, about Amazon optimizations in 2019 that I encourage people to read. But, I think that that could be interesting. We’re thinking about Amazon optimizations. But, aside from a synced vendor like Amazon, no one’s blindly saying like, hey, Google, order me a red flannel shirt without looking at it, looking at reviews, comparing pricing, and doing all these things that are a visual part of the shopping experience.

Harrison:          So, I do think e-commerce, there is some part of that in there that’s interesting for Amazon searches specifically. But, even that I think is limited.

Ben:                 It’s just not worth focusing on right now. And one of the things we talked about in a couple previous episodes, were the balance of focusing on voice search or mobile. And, to me, optimizing your experience from mobile, and your content for that, kind of kills two birds with one stone, where you’re optimizing to have content that’s read on a smaller device. And generally that leads to shorter formats of content. Which also can help you get into voice search. I would much rather see SEO’s focus their efforts on optimizing their experiences to be mobile-friendly, then focusing on, how do I get into voice search? That’s going to be a problem for basically the next decade. We will get there.

Harrison:          Yeah. I totally agree with that. And like I was saying, whatever strategy you come up with voice search, I think is basically, snippet optimization phrased a different way, so we might as well just focus on snippet optimization. Let’s just call it that. Voice search. It’s fun, it’s shiny, it’s exciting. It’s new technology. But in the end, as far as bottom line goes, its potential to get you conversions, or leads, or brand awareness … I don’t think it has much opportunity to make an impact there, unless there’s a big product change.

Ben:                 Yeah. I totally agree with you. I think that voice search is the future. It’s just not the immediate future.

Harrison:          Yeah.

Ben:                 Absolutely. Okay. So Harrison, before we let you go, any resources that you suggest that the audience of the Voices of Search podcast listen to, anything that you or 3Q have put together that can help provide value in 2019?

Harrison:          Yeah. In relation to the Amazon optimization search, my colleague, Brittany Page, has put together a nice article in Search Engine Land, regarding how to get indexed in Amazon, or how to rank in Amazon research in 2019. I encourage people to check that out. And if what I said about site migration resonates with anyone, or you’re considering getting a site migration done. Or if you’re interested in talking about any of these topics that we talked about today, head over to 3qdigital.com and get a hold of us, and we’re happy to point you in the right direction.

Ben:                 Okay. Well Harrison, I appreciate the time. And that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Harrison DeSantis, the Associate Director of SEO at 3Q Digital.

Ben:                 If you’d like to learn more about Harrison, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can send him a Tweet at h_ DeSantis. Or, you could visit his company’s website, which is 3qdigital.com. That’s the number 3, q, digital.com.

Ben:                 If you have general marketing questions, or if you want to talk about this podcast, you can find my contact information in our show notes, or you can send me a tweet @benjshap.

Ben:                 If you’re interested in learning more about how to use search data to boost your organic traffic, your online visibility, or to gain competitive insights, head over to searchmetrics.com/diagnostic, for your complimentary advisory session with our digital strategies team.

Ben:                 If you like this podcast, and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app. And we’ll be back in your feed next week with more SEO predictions for 2019.

Ben:                 Lastly, if you’ve enjoyed this show, and you’re feeling generous, we’d love for you to leave us your view in the Apple iTunes store wherever you listen to your podcast.

Ben:                 Okay. That’s it for today. But until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.