Eric is legend in the SEO/search industry, having been involved in it from the beginning. He is a regular SEO columnist with Search Engine Watch and Search Engine Land.
Eric also hosts an awesome SEO expert interview series at his own site, Stone Temple Consulting, where he talks with industry heavies like Google’s spam man, Matt Cutts, and Search Engine Land’s crown jewel, Danny Sullivan.
Here, Eric takes a seat on the other side of the interview table, offering his take on the SEO industry as it is now – and what we can expect it to be in the near future…
(Note: emphasized text is mine)
Q: You’ve been in the SEO industry since its inception. What would you say are the major influences shaping it now?
Google remains the big elephant in the room, of course.
One of the big influences on the industry is the basic revenue growth pressure that Google faces. They need to keep showing revenue growth to support their stock price, which in turn is required to keep/hire top talent.
The best place for Google to get that revenue growth right now is with new types of advertising products and increased use of search result screen space for paid placements. Based on past data, I used to tell people in presentations that 78% of the clicks went to SEO on a given search query, but I doubt that is the case any more.
On a completely different front, the actions of the search quality and webspam teams with Panda and Penguin are throwing many publishers into a tizzy. These are the folks that focused on “SEO” shortcuts to achieve more traffic in the near term.
I put SEO in “quotes” there because I don’t think looking for shortcuts is good or smart SEO.
Q: What would you say that we, as SEOs, should be paying attention to now?
The main thing people should be thinking about is a different approach to link building.
Here is a memorable sequence from my most recent interview with Matt Cutts:
Eric Enge: It dawned on me recently that link building is an interesting phrase that has misled people. It’s a bit of a cart before the horse thing. It has led people to think about links as something they get from the “dark corners of the web”. Places where no one ever goes, so it does not matter what you do there. So by thinking of it this way, as link building, you are off on the wrong foot even before you get started.
Matt Cutts: That’s right. It segments you into a mindset, and people get focused on the wrong things. It leads them to think about links as the end goal. It’s important to think about producing something excellent first. If you have an outstanding product, world class content, or something else that sets you apart, then you can step back and start thinking about how to promote it.
I believe the best SEOs will begin to view link building and brand building as the same thing.
This will make link building very nearly the same thing as PR, or PR with a twist. Meaning, focusing PR efforts and communications on activities that build a brand in a way that brings traffic to the web site (via links and social media mentions).
This will present both users and search engines a clear signal that this is an interesting brand.
Q: There is a plethora of conflicting advice & questionable info regarding Google’s Panda & Penguin updates. From your perspective, what are the important things to know & heed about these algo updates?
The most important thing to realize is that these are new capabilities for Google.
Prior to Panda, Google did not have the ability to do an offline calculation (i.e., run a program outside the main algo) and then plug the results from that calculation into the main algo as a ranking factor. It might look something like this:
This is a huge shift, because they can run very computationally expensive calculations (such as Panda and Penguin) without worrying about the speed of the main index.
What you have seen in terms of impact on webspam is literally the very tip of the iceberg. There is so much more they can do to enhance these algorithms, and they are just getting started.
For example, I don’t think that Penguin has yet addressed sites that derive a lot of their ranking from comment spam. Yet this is a trivially simple thing for them to do, conceptually.
So if you have been using a questionable link building tactic and did not get hit by Penguin, this is no time to celebrate – it is time to get to work cleaning up your link profile before they do implement something that catches you.
Q: You’ve corralled a number of SEO experts to interview via your Stone Temple Consulting site, from Danny Sullivan to Matt Cutts. What are the “pearls” to take away from these interviews, as a whole?
I would say that very early on, I learned and absorbed that SEO and search are ever changing spaces. As a result, in my interviews I always try to obtain insights into where things are going as opposed to trying to learn a new trick.
This has enabled me to predict Panda in a Search Engine Land article called The Rise and Fall of Content Farms, which published three weeks before Panda 1.0 came out, and predict the coming of Penguin in May of last year.
Part of what I do in the interview is work to understand the headset of the people I get to speak with. For example, there are many that want to make out Matt Cutts to be a liar who tries to mislead people to Google’s advantage.
I don’t believe any of that for a second.
Google’s webspam team is genuinely trying the best they can to improve search quality. Any shortcomings they have had in fighting various spam tactics have come from the difficulty of the task, not a shortage of desire. Now those capabilities are rapidly changing, and I bet this is an exciting time to be on that team.
So the most important “pearl” I can share is that the changes are going to keep on coming.
I will offer up a prediction for you: I fully expect another huge link related update in the near future.
The only thing that may hold it up is the Christmas season, which may push it into early next year. But, I would be quite surprised if we don’t get another major change related to fighting link spam.
Q: Of all your interviews with industry experts, which one is your favorite? Why?
The last one with Matt Cutts is my current favorite. First, it was great that it got a lot of attention.
Interestingly, the main focus was on two items:
1. The statements that Google may devalue infographic related links in the future.
2. The discussion about “me too” content, which many people misinterpreted as being about article spinning. Note that it wasn’t about that, it was about the need to focus on differentiation.
But in any event, to me the two most important parts were:
1. The discussion on link building that I excerpted above.
2. The discussion about Panda and Penguin representing new capabilities, because it confirmed much of the beliefs I outlined above.
Together these should signal people about what to expect in the future, and hence the prediction I made above.
Q: Should publishers be increasing their focus on non-search engine sources of traffic?
Yes, it only makes sense to do so.
Note that I don’t say that out of fear of the next Penguin/Panda/some other animal update. If you focus on doing your brand building the right way, you should be at relatively low risk.
Here is what Matt (Cutts) said about this in our interview: “By doing things that help build your own reputation, you are focusing on the right types of activity. Those are the signals we want to find and value the most anyway.”
So I am not naïve enough to think there is no risk from the Google algo side, but if you do things the right way, I see this as very low risk.
But, that said, Google is a commercial business and they are going to continue to seek ways to grow their revenue. This means Google will enter new markets and find ways to improve commercialization for their franchise business.
By having other sources of traffic you protect yourself against those risks.
Can you develop a great social media stream of traffic, one that actually brings you business? This is very viable for some consumer focused businesses. Would a massive guest posting program, one that focuses on high quality content but still does it in volume, work for you? Perhaps.
The best path for you really depends on the nature of your business and market, but looking into alternatives makes a lot of sense. Just be patient, as it will not necessarily be easy.
Q: Where do you see SEO, as a business/occupation, going from here?
You see tons of discussions on the web about SEO being dead, or that it is dying. Yet every SEO I know is busier than ever.
The mechanics of on-page SEO are not going to go away, though they will evolve on a steady basis. In addition, new features like rich snippets and rel=author will continue to provide plenty of work opportunities.
The link building piece will likely morph into a PR-like function, which will in some companies sit in the PR department. But the ever-evolving nature of the web will constantly put new opportunities for promoting brands in front of publishers that will require smart, aggressive people who know how to execute those types of tactics.
In some cases, the traditional PR department will continue to struggle with those types of opportunities, and this will continue to be things that SEO specialists will take the lead on.
On a related note, I do think that this will over time cause us as an industry to more universally start using SEO to refer only to On-Page SEO, and the Off-Page stuff (a.k.a., link building/social media/whatever) will get a new name. Perhaps “inbound marketing’ will stick for that, I don’t know.
Thank you Eric!
You’re more than welcome!
Eric Enge is a veteran of the SEO/Search world, regularly contributing to both Search Engine Watch and Search Engine Land. He is a regular speaker at search industry conferences, such as SES (Search Engine Strategies) and SMX (Search Marketing Expo). Eric is also known as a co-author of the classic SEO book, The Art of SEO. Eric’s own site, Stone Temple Consulting, is where he works his magic with interviewing the thought leaders of the SEO industry. You can find Eric on Twitter via @stonetemple, and on Google+.
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