A virtual lifeline for business and searchers alike, SEO is in a constant state of transition. How do the latest changes in search engine optimization affect your business and your ability to find the best answers to your search queries?
We queried Seattle’s Wizard of Moz, Rand Fishkin, and Moz CEO, Sarah Bird, about Google’s dominance, Apple’s emergence, and life in the SEO ecosystem.
Is online search engine visibility a right, a privilege, the sweat equity of diligent content creation, coding and marketing, or is gaining Web traffic from Google (which dominates the Web with close to 70% of all searches) a product of who pays the most money to be seen?
That very question came into sharp focus at a recent search marketing conference held in in Seattle when it was announced that Google was changing the layout of its search engine results page once again, this time moving more paid ads to the top of the page (which pushed organic listings further down “below the fold” where users need to scroll).
[Update: Google formally reduced the number of organic search results from 10 to an average of 7.5 as reported the week of 10.3.16.]
Yet another change was to the “three-pack” of local businesses in Google Maps. The local maps section would now make one-of-three free local listings a paid advertisement.
The reason the “paid vs. organic” search debate is troubling is that over 80% of searchers traditionally click on organic results, not paid ad listings. On that basis, one would presume that Google’s concern for the optimal user experience of searchers would make organic results more prominent than paid.
At the same time, the cost-per-click of keyword advertising on Google is subject to ongoing inflation as bidders compete in a back-and-forth bidding war for position. It appears that Google has cornered the market not only in deciding what is visible in terms of free search vs. paid sponsorship but when and where it will be seen.
The recent FCC ruling that found the Internet to be similar to a public utility is germane. For navigating the vast World Wide Web, search engines like Google have become the gateways, the “way finders,” to the millions of businesses who flourish or perish based on the ability to be seen. Even when web surfers know the URL of their destination, the tendency is to ricochet through Google’s revolving door to verify a location or link deeper to a particular department within a Web site.
Industries like financial services, energy, health care, the airlines, and even fishing, are regulated to provide fairness in pricing, access, and safety. (Safety on search engines? Think of Google’s $500 million settlement for allowing Canadian pharmacies to advertise drugs for distribution in the United States, or ISIS recruiting terrorists online.)
A great many interviews are conducted on the subject of SEO tactics, or how to rank ahead of your competitors for the keywords people use to find your category of business. This interview explores the question of search engine policies. In complete disclosure, this reporter once asked Google chairman, Dr. Eric Schmidt, whether Google ought to appoint an ombudsman to field consumer questions and manage issues of public interest like other major media outlets. “That’s a very good idea,” replied Dr. Schmidt in the press conference. The idea has yet to be implemented.
In the SEO field, one Seattle firm stands tallest as an arbiter of equitable SEO best practices. Formerly SEOMoz, the company know today as simply Moz has over 35,000 subscribers who tap into the firm’s analytics tools that measure the authority of different Web domains along with dozens of other metrics, including audience insights and analysis of social media. Seattle24x7 invited Moz founder Rand Fishkin and Moz CEO Sarah Bird, to share their perspectives.
Seattle24x7: Is Google’s expansion of paid results on the search engine results page an effort to maximize profit-per-pixel? Given that 80% of users traditionally click on organic results, why would Google want to reduce their number for advertising?
Rand: The last numbers we’ve seen were actually that ~82% of clicks go to organic and ~18% to paid. I believe that over the course of a few years, searchers become *used to* the ad layouts and thus less likely to click on ads. PPC ads are, naturally, commercially focused, and thus generally perceived as less relevant and trustworthy (even though many do serve searchers quite well). Google shifts up the format, the colors, the labeling, etc. every few years to help keep those ad click-through-rates high. These recent changes fit squarely into that historic pattern, and I suspect in a couple years, we’ll see more changes to ad layouts again.
Seattle24x7: Is this a trend that is in the best interest of the average end-user looking for the best search experience?
Rand: In that it keeps Google incredibly profitable and able to take risks in other parts of their business, yes. From a raw searcher experience perspective, I think it’s a bit manipulative and clearly profit-motivated at the expense of the *best* user experience. But, honestly, on the scale of things companies do to maximize profits and harm users, it’s pretty small scale. Even for Google, this isn’t among the worst examples of their behavior (the way they treat AdSense and YouTube publishers, for example, feels like a far worse violation of “don’t be evil”).
Seattle24x7: Wait, can manipulation and profit-motivation be justified by a company putting more dollars into innovation? The resulting innovation could be equally exploitive.
Rand: It totally depends on your view of ethics. I certainly wish Google wouldn’t do it, but I also recognize that we live in a world where it’s fully legal and where they’re driven by and rewarded by their shareholders and the public markets for doing so. Once you go public, it’s very difficult to resist those pressures and Google’s no exception.
Seattle24x7: Apple Computer recently announced that its App Store would now be accepting search advertising. One key difference mentioned by Apple is that the company will rotate paid search result pages to increase coverage so that the “little guys” have a chance to complete with the big guys. Without this rotation, only the richer brands and ad budgets would dominate while the smaller budgets all but disappear. Should Google or Bing offer different data views for folks looking for “alternate” search options?”
Rand: I think it’s mostly a marketing move by Apple to get adoption. Given that Bing and Google already have plethoras of advertisers bidding and a rich ad ecosystem, I don’t think they need the kickstart in the way Apple’s App Store does.
Seattle24x7: Isn’t increasing the exposure of those smaller advertisers also a question of fairness?
Rand: I’m sure Apple would love to frame it that way, but I don’t think that’s the underlying motivation. It’s a marketing tactic and one that will probably disappear if/when the platform is saturated with advertisers. I’d also say that while I might wish there was a concept of fairness at play in the advertising world, it’s not something ad platforms have any obligation to provide and certainly not in their financial interests (which is why it almost never lasts).
Seattle24x7: What about other ways or means to make search results more diverse? Should the FCC ruling describing the Net as a neutral “utility” have impact on search engines since they are, after all, the “table of contents” for what’s on the Web?
Rand: I would love a more diverse set of search results, but unfortunately, the way SEO and Google work is that the rich get richer and those who have the time, money, and passion to invest tend to achieve the strongest coverage of rankings.
Seattle24x7: Do you feel Google appreciates SEOs or harbors some disdain for the industry?
Rand: Google, the corporate entity, tends to be very hands-off with SEO. Some particular Googlers are very friendly and positive to the SEO field. And then there’s a few folks who’ve worked at Google over the years who are notoriously anti-SEO in at least their messaging and occasionally their actions. IMO, Google has been best served by publishers paying attention to their guidelines and opportunities and taking advantage of those in white hat sorts of ways. Google obviously doesn’t love manipulation, but also recognizes it’s inevitable. When Google’s representatives conflate good SEO practices with black hat manipulation is when things get unnecessarily ugly. I think that’s rare, it’s a human flaw (not an intentional corporate bias), and it usually doesn’t last long.
Seattle24x7: Should search engines have public ombudsmen to field consumer questions on fairness and policy? Google’s Matt Cutts played that role well but his efforts were largely informal and unstructured, not a company program or office, per say.
Rand: I think that’s a very tough and stressful role to ask someone to step into, but I also think it can, if done well, have significant positive effects across the web, for the search engine, and for marketers, too. I’d love to see Google embrace it with the right sort of person heading it up. I might nominate Danny Sullivan – he’s fair-minded, level-headed, and truly ethical.
Seattle24x7: Since Moz represents a large user base of SEO practitioners, do you advocate for SEO issues and/or SEO’ers rights on certain topics at an industry or governmental level? Is there an organization beyond Moz or SEMPO, which advocates on behalf of legitimate SEO issues in a collective manner?
Rand: To my knowledge, there is no such organization in the United States today, and Moz does not fill this role in any formal way. I’m somewhat thankful that, to date, the need hasn’t been great enough to create that organization. Part of that is Google not overplaying their hand too much, and I credit their political savvy. I think they learned real lessons from the telecommunications monopolies and the Microsoft anti-trust suits.
Seattle24x7: Moz produces an annual conference here in Seattle known as MozCon that attracts a large number of attendees. You also publish the proceedings on video. Have you considered live streaming the MozCon sessions on a pay-per-view basis?
Rand: Mozcon is a really special event. I’m proud of the fact that so many events in the digital marketing world have copied so much of its format and features, and now tout themselves as “Mozcon-like.” That said, I think it means we need to innovate again with the conference in order to make it stand out more in the future.
Regarding the videos – yes, we make those available a few months after the event so those who paid to attend get the advantage of a headstart on the materials presented. In our view, that’s a good balance, and we likely would not do a pay-to-livestream in the future (though anything’s possible!).
I think I’m proudest of Mozcon’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Many of my best friends in the SEO world told me that a conference aiming for diversity would have to sacrifice quality, and it’s been one of the proudest moments in my career to have those same folks write to me saying “I was wrong. Mozcon was the best show I’ve ever been to, and the most diverse.”
Seattle24x7: Moz makes available a wide range of tools to the Internet community free of charge. You have also come out with new tools recently. What can you tell us about those resources?
Rand: We have maintained Open Site Explorer (which provides access to link data) and our SEO Toolbar (Mozbar), which provides some of that same functionality as freely available tools. Some features are limited and require paying membership to access, but we have hundreds of thousands of folks use them each month for free. Our belief is that a considerable portion of this data should be free and available to all. And yes, Open Site Explorer still uses our Mozscape index to provide data, much like Majestic (a competitor of ours that we really like and respect a lot).
As for other Moz tools I’m proudest of… I have to say it’s our new Keyword Research Tool (Keyword Explorer). I worked on this one personally with a small team of folks, and I think the result’s something quite special. If you’re doing keyword research, the metrics, the keyword suggestions, the list building functionality, and the analysis of search results are all unmatched. It feels good to have a product that even a super-picky guy like me can call “the best in its field.”
Seattle24x7: What is your overall assessment of the state of SEO today? Do you feel that the initials S-E-O have become too broad and should evolve to other triplets, like CRO, KPI, or CAU (“Content Active Users”)? Are there new metrics that you are tracking? Is MozTrust still a classic metric?
Rand: I think SEO today is stronger than its ever been. The field is in higher demand than ever (as evidenced by LinkedIn’s report showing it moved up even further – to #4 – on the list of skills that will get you hired in 2016). There are more searchers, more searches/searcher, and more search traffic today that at any time in the past, and thanks mostly to growth in mobile search, search continues to be a massive growth activity (which is why Google’s stock remains so strong).
I’d actually posit that, while SEO underwent something of an identity crisis a few years back, with many professionals talking about what the practice should be called and what it should encompass, those debates have largely died down. The “SEO is dead” or “SEO is dying” memes that have cropped up every few months for the last 15 years also seem to be subsiding as SEO becomes more of a standard marketing practice. That’s not to say it’s not evolving all the time – it’s one of the fastest moving fields out there. But, assuming you can keep up, it’s a growth industry with a huge amount of demand, growing salaries, and increasing respect.
As for metrics – MozTrust can be useful in showing relative connectedness of a site or page to trustworthy sites/pages. We’ve seen value overall from metrics like Page Authority and Domain Authority, which use machine learning to model against Google’s rankings and produce metrics highly correlated with higher Google rankings. If you had to pick one way to value the relative importance of a site, that’d be it (at least from a link perspective).
Seattle24x7: Sarah, many SEO’ers regularly use Google AdWords as a test to gauge SEO “findability” and converting keywords. Would MOZ ever consider offering sponsored search support services, training or tools for Bing/ AdWords PPC campaigns? If not in bid management then in the other services in your product portfolio such as keyword discovery, top pages, and more!
Sarah Bird: We’ve thrown the idea around of partnering with companies that offer paid advertising services. Great digital marketing campaigns use a combination of SEO and paid tactics. We have no desire to build bid management services ourselves since our passion is around organic marketing like SEO, Content and Social Media marketing. Regardless, I would not rule out a partnership on the paid side at some point in the future. That could be a beautiful match!
Seattle24x7: Moz has been recognized as one of the best places to work in Seattle. What can you tell us about how your HR program is designed where employee retention and professional development are concerned?
Sarah Bird: Everyone at Moz is invested in making this a great place to work. It doesn’t just come from me or HR. After all, culture is made up of thousands of interactions we have together each day.
Everyone is committed to our core values (Transparent, Authentic, Generous, Fun, Empathetic, and Exceptional) and works on developing skills to enact them. We have an award-winning coaching program that allows every Mozzer the chance to partner with an external coach to grow their professional skills. Internal training on leadership, productive conflict, performance management, and our products is also a big focus area.
Lastly, we design benefits and policies that honor Mozzers as humans with rich lives in and outside of work. For example, in addition to generous paid leave, healthcare, and wellness benefits, we give every Mozzer $3,000/year to spend on vacation. We genuinely want people to grow, be well, and recharge. If you take care of people and their families, it shows in the quality of products and services they create. Happy teams are better at making customers happy.
Seattle24x7: Do you seek to hire people who have a lot of prior SEO experience, and/or do you have an internal training program?
Sarah Bird: It’s a wonderful bonus to have experience in marketing, but it’s not required. We offer many opportunities for Mozzers to learn about marketing, our products, and our customers through our blog, internal classes, and generous conference budgets. We also encourage every Mozzer to spend time doing customer support; It helps build empathy and connection with the community we serve. [24×7]