Why Effective, Modern SEO Requires Technical, Creative, and Strategic Thinking – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

There’s no doubt that quite a bit has changed about SEO, and that the field is far more integrated with other aspects of online marketing than it once was. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand pushes back against the idea that effective modern SEO doesn’t require any technical expertise, outlining a fantastic list of technical elements that today’s SEOs need to know about in order to be truly effective.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard. Click on it to open a high resolution image in a new tab!

Video transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week I’m going to do something unusual. I don’t usually point out these inconsistencies or sort of take issue with other folks’ content on the web, because I generally find that that’s not all that valuable and useful. But I’m going to make an exception here.

There is an article by Jayson DeMers, who I think might actually be here in Seattle — maybe he and I can hang out at some point — called “Why Modern SEO Requires Almost No Technical Expertise.” It was an article that got a shocking amount of traction and attention. On Facebook, it has thousands of shares. On LinkedIn, it did really well. On Twitter, it got a bunch of attention.

Some folks in the SEO world have already pointed out some issues around this. But because of the increasing popularity of this article, and because I think there’s, like, this hopefulness from worlds outside of kind of the hardcore SEO world that are looking to this piece and going, “Look, this is great. We don’t have to be technical. We don’t have to worry about technical things in order to do SEO.”

Look, I completely get the appeal of that. I did want to point out some of the reasons why this is not so accurate. At the same time, I don’t want to rain on Jayson, because I think that it’s very possible he’s writing an article for Entrepreneur, maybe he has sort of a commitment to them. Maybe he had no idea that this article was going to spark so much attention and investment. He does make some good points. I think it’s just really the title and then some of the messages inside there that I take strong issue with, and so I wanted to bring those up.

First off, some of the good points he did bring up.

One, he wisely says, “You don’t need to know how to code or to write and read algorithms in order to do SEO.” I totally agree with that. If today you’re looking at SEO and you’re thinking, “Well, am I going to get more into this subject? Am I going to try investing in SEO? But I don’t even know HTML and CSS yet.”

Those are good skills to have, and they will help you in SEO, but you don’t need them. Jayson’s totally right. You don’t have to have them, and you can learn and pick up some of these things, and do searches, watch some Whiteboard Fridays, check out some guides, and pick up a lot of that stuff later on as you need it in your career. SEO doesn’t have that hard requirement.

And secondly, he makes an intelligent point that we’ve made many times here at Moz, which is that, broadly speaking, a better user experience is well correlated with better rankings.

You make a great website that delivers great user experience, that provides the answers to searchers’ questions and gives them extraordinarily good content, way better than what’s out there already in the search results, generally speaking you’re going to see happy searchers, and that’s going to lead to higher rankings.

But not entirely. There are a lot of other elements that go in here. So I’ll bring up some frustrating points around the piece as well.

First off, there’s no acknowledgment — and I find this a little disturbing — that the ability to read and write code, or even HTML and CSS, which I think are the basic place to start, is helpful or can take your SEO efforts to the next level. I think both of those things are true.

So being able to look at a web page, view source on it, or pull up Firebug in Firefox or something and diagnose what’s going on and then go, “Oh, that’s why Google is not able to see this content. That’s why we’re not ranking for this keyword or term, or why even when I enter this exact sentence in quotes into Google, which is on our page, this is why it’s not bringing it up. It’s because it’s loading it after the page from a remote file that Google can’t access.” These are technical things, and being able to see how that code is built, how it’s structured, and what’s going on there, very, very helpful.

Some coding knowledge also can take your SEO efforts even further. I mean, so many times, SEOs are stymied by the conversations that we have with our programmers and our developers and the technical staff on our teams. When we can have those conversations intelligently, because at least we understand the principles of how an if-then statement works, or what software engineering best practices are being used, or they can upload something into a GitHub repository, and we can take a look at it there, that kind of stuff is really helpful.

Secondly, I don’t like that the article overly reduces all of this information that we have about what we’ve learned about Google. So he mentions two sources. One is things that Google tells us, and others are SEO experiments. I think both of those are true. Although I’d add that there’s sort of a sixth sense of knowledge that we gain over time from looking at many, many search results and kind of having this feel for why things rank, and what might be wrong with a site, and getting really good at that using tools and data as well. There are people who can look at Open Site Explorer and then go, “Aha, I bet this is going to happen.” They can look, and 90% of the time they’re right.

So he boils this down to, one, write quality content, and two, reduce your bounce rate. Neither of those things are wrong. You should write quality content, although I’d argue there are lots of other forms of quality content that aren’t necessarily written — video, images and graphics, podcasts, lots of other stuff.

And secondly, that just doing those two things is not always enough. So you can see, like many, many folks look and go, “I have quality content. It has a low bounce rate. How come I don’t rank better?” Well, your competitors, they’re also going to have quality content with a low bounce rate. That’s not a very high bar.

Also, frustratingly, this really gets in my craw. I don’t think “write quality content” means anything. You tell me. When you hear that, to me that is a totally non-actionable, non-useful phrase that’s a piece of advice that is so generic as to be discardable. So I really wish that there was more substance behind that.

The article also makes, in my opinion, the totally inaccurate claim that modern SEO really is reduced to “the happier your users are when they visit your site, the higher you’re going to rank.”

Wow. Okay. Again, I think broadly these things are correlated. User happiness and rank is broadly correlated, but it’s not a one to one. This is not like a, “Oh, well, that’s a 1.0 correlation.”

I would guess that the correlation is probably closer to like the page authority range. I bet it’s like 0.35 or something correlation. If you were to actually measure this broadly across the web and say like, “Hey, were you happier with result one, two, three, four, or five,” the ordering would not be perfect at all. It probably wouldn’t even be close.

There’s a ton of reasons why sometimes someone who ranks on Page 2 or Page 3 or doesn’t rank at all for a query is doing a better piece of content than the person who does rank well or ranks on Page 1, Position 1.

Then the article suggests five and sort of a half steps to successful modern SEO, which I think is a really incomplete list. So Jayson gives us;

  • Good on-site experience
  • Writing good content
  • Getting others to acknowledge you as an authority
  • Rising in social popularity
  • Earning local relevance
  • Dealing with modern CMS systems (which he notes most modern CMS systems are SEO-friendly)

The thing is there’s nothing actually wrong with any of these. They’re all, generally speaking, correct, either directly or indirectly related to SEO. The one about local relevance, I have some issue with, because he doesn’t note that there’s a separate algorithm for sort of how local SEO is done and how Google ranks local sites in maps and in their local search results. Also not noted is that rising in social popularity won’t necessarily directly help your SEO, although it can have indirect and positive benefits.

I feel like this list is super incomplete. Okay, I brainstormed just off the top of my head in the 10 minutes before we filmed this video a list. The list was so long that, as you can see, I filled up the whole whiteboard and then didn’t have any more room. I’m not going to bother to erase and go try and be absolutely complete.

But there’s a huge, huge number of things that are important, critically important for technical SEO. If you don’t know how to do these things, you are sunk in many cases. You can’t be an effective SEO analyst, or consultant, or in-house team member, because you simply can’t diagnose the potential problems, rectify those potential problems, identify strategies that your competitors are using, be able to diagnose a traffic gain or loss. You have to have these skills in order to do that.

I’ll run through these quickly, but really the idea is just that this list is so huge and so long that I think it’s very, very, very wrong to say technical SEO is behind us. I almost feel like the opposite is true.

We have to be able to understand things like;

  • Content rendering and indexability
  • Crawl structure, internal links, JavaScript, Ajax. If something’s post-loading after the page and Google’s not able to index it, or there are links that are accessible via JavaScript or Ajax, maybe Google can’t necessarily see those or isn’t crawling them as effectively, or is crawling them, but isn’t assigning them as much link weight as they might be assigning other stuff, and you’ve made it tough to link to them externally, and so they can’t crawl it.
  • Disabling crawling and/or indexing of thin or incomplete or non-search-targeted content. We have a bunch of search results pages. Should we use rel=prev/next? Should we robots.txt those out? Should we disallow from crawling with meta robots? Should we rel=canonical them to other pages? Should we exclude them via the protocols inside Google Webmaster Tools, which is now Google Search Console?
  • Managing redirects, domain migrations, content updates. A new piece of content comes out, replacing an old piece of content, what do we do with that old piece of content? What’s the best practice? It varies by different things. We have a whole Whiteboard Friday about the different things that you could do with that. What about a big redirect or a domain migration? You buy another company and you’re redirecting their site to your site. You have to understand things about subdomain structures versus subfolders, which, again, we’ve done another Whiteboard Friday about that.
  • Proper error codes, downtime procedures, and not found pages. If your 404 pages turn out to all be 200 pages, well, now you’ve made a big error there, and Google could be crawling tons of 404 pages that they think are real pages, because you’ve made it a status code 200, or you’ve used a 404 code when you should have used a 410, which is a permanently removed, to be able to get it completely out of the indexes, as opposed to having Google revisit it and keep it in the index.

Downtime procedures. So there’s specifically a… I can’t even remember. It’s a 5xx code that you can use. Maybe it was a 503 or something that you can use that’s like, “Revisit later. We’re having some downtime right now.” Google urges you to use that specific code rather than using a 404, which tells them, “This page is now an error.”

Disney had that problem a while ago, if you guys remember, where they 404ed all their pages during an hour of downtime, and then their homepage, when you searched for Disney World, was, like, “Not found.” Oh, jeez, Disney World, not so good.

  • International and multi-language targeting issues. I won’t go into that. But you have to know the protocols there. Duplicate content, syndication, scrapers. How do we handle all that? Somebody else wants to take our content, put it on their site, what should we do? Someone’s scraping our content. What can we do? We have duplicate content on our own site. What should we do?
  • Diagnosing traffic drops via analytics and metrics. Being able to look at a rankings report, being able to look at analytics connecting those up and trying to see: Why did we go up or down? Did we have less pages being indexed, more pages being indexed, more pages getting traffic less, more keywords less?
  • Understanding advanced search parameters. Today, just today, I was checking out the related parameter in Google, which is fascinating for most sites. Well, for Moz, weirdly, related:oursite.com shows nothing. But for virtually every other sit, well, most other sites on the web, it does show some really interesting data, and you can see how Google is connecting up, essentially, intentions and topics from different sites and pages, which can be fascinating, could expose opportunities for links, could expose understanding of how they view your site versus your competition or who they think your competition is.

Then there are tons of parameters, like in URL and in anchor, and da, da, da, da. In anchor doesn’t work anymore, never mind about that one.

I have to go faster, because we’re just going to run out of these. Like, come on. Interpreting and leveraging data in Google Search Console. If you don’t know how to use that, Google could be telling you, you have all sorts of errors, and you don’t know what they are.

  • Leveraging topic modeling and extraction. Using all these cool tools that are coming out for better keyword research and better on-page targeting. I talked about a couple of those at MozCon, like MonkeyLearn. There’s the new Moz Context API, which will be coming out soon, around that. There’s the Alchemy API, which a lot of folks really like and use.
  • Identifying and extracting opportunities based on site crawls. You run a Screaming Frog crawl on your site and you’re going, “Oh, here’s all these problems and issues.” If you don’t have these technical skills, you can’t diagnose that. You can’t figure out what’s wrong. You can’t figure out what needs fixing, what needs addressing.
  • Using rich snippet format to stand out in the SERPs. This is just getting a better click-through rate, which can seriously help your site and obviously your traffic.
  • Applying Google-supported protocols like rel=canonical, meta description, rel=prev/next, hreflang, robots.txt, meta robots, x robots, NOODP, XML sitemaps, rel=nofollow. The list goes on and on and on. If you’re not technical, you don’t know what those are, you think you just need to write good content and lower your bounce rate, it’s not going to work.
  • Using APIs from services like AdWords or MozScape, or hrefs from Majestic, or SEM refs from SearchScape or Alchemy API. Those APIs can have powerful things that they can do for your site. There are some powerful problems they could help you solve if you know how to use them. It’s actually not that hard to write something, even inside a Google Doc or Excel, to pull from an API and get some data in there. There’s a bunch of good tutorials out there. Richard Baxter has one, Annie Cushing has one, I think Distilled has some. So really cool stuff there.
  • Diagnosing page load speed issues, which goes right to what Jayson was talking about. You need that fast-loading page. Well, if you don’t have any technical skills, you can’t figure out why your page might not be loading quickly.
  • Diagnosing mobile friendliness issues
  • Advising app developers on the new protocols around App deep linking, so that you can get the content from your mobile apps into the web search results on mobile devices. Awesome. Super powerful. Potentially crazy powerful, as mobile search is becoming bigger than desktop.

Okay, I’m going to take a deep breath and relax. I don’t know Jayson’s intention, and in fact, if he were in this room, he’d be like, “No, I totally agree with all those things. I wrote the article in a rush. I had no idea it was going to be big. I was just trying to make the broader points around you don’t have to be a coder in order to do SEO.” That’s completely fine.

So I’m not going to try and rain criticism down on him. But I think if you’re reading that article, or you’re seeing it in your feed, or your clients are, or your boss is, or other folks are in your world, maybe you can point them to this Whiteboard Friday and let them know, no, that’s not quite right. There’s a ton of technical SEO that is required in 2015 and will be for years to come, I think, that SEOs have to have in order to be effective at their jobs.

All right, everyone. Look forward to some great comments, and we’ll see you again next time for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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I See Content Everywhere – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by MarkTraphagen

Most of us who work in content marketing have felt the strain that scaling puts on our efforts. How on Earth are we supposed to keep coming up with great ideas for new pieces of content? The answer is, in some sense, all around us. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, MozCon community speaker Mark Traphagen shows us how to see the world in a different way—a way that’s chock full of content ideas.

Heads-up! We’re publishing a one-two punch of Whiteboard Fridays from our friends at Stone Temple Consulting today. Be sure to check out “Content Syndication” by Eric Enge, as well!

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard!

Video transcription

Hey, hello. I’m Mark Traphagen from Stone Temple Consulting, and welcome to this week’s Whiteboard Friday. I want to talk to you today, starting out, about a movie that I hope you’ve all seen by now, because this should not be a spoiler alert. I’m not even going to spoil the movie, but it’s “The Sixth Sense.”

Most of you know that movie. You’ve seen it and remember it. The little kid who says that creepy thing: “I see dead people.”

What I want to give to you today, what I want to try to teach you to do and bring to you is that you see, not dead people, but content and see it everywhere. Most of us realize that these days we’ve got to be producing content to be effective on the Web, not only for SEO, but to be effective in our marketing, in our branding and building the reputation and trust authority that we need around our brand. That’s going to be happening by content.

We’re all topically challenged

But if you’re the one tasked with coming up with that content and you’ve got to create it, it’s a tough job. Why? Most of us are topically challenged. We come to that moment, “What do I write about? What do I do that video about? What do I make that podcast about? What’s the next thing I’m going to write about?” That’s going to be the hardest thing.

When I talk to people about this, people who do this, like I do every day for a living, producing, inventing content, they’re almost invariably going to put that in the top three and usually number one. What do I do? Where do I get this from?

It’s more important now than ever before. It used to be just most companies that did content at all, websites, would hire an SEO copywriter. They’d actually use that term. We need an SEO copywriter. That usually meant that we’re looking for somebody who’s going to know where to put the keywords in enough times, and we don’t really care what else goes on with the content, what they write or how they say it or how good a writer they are as long as they can know the ways to manipulate the search engines.

Well, I think most of us now, if you watch these Whiteboard Friday videos, you know it, that that just doesn’t work anymore. That’s not going to cut it. Not only does that not really work with the search engines so well anymore, but it’s not really using your content effectively. It’s not using it to build, again, that reputation, that trust, that authority that you need around your brand and that content can be so powerful to do.

Get yourself some cyborg content eyes

So what I’m going to challenge you to do today is to get content eyes. You’ve got to get content eyes. You’ve got to get eyes that see content everywhere. This is what I train myself to do. It’s why I’m never out of ideas for that next blog post or that next video. You start to see it everywhere. You’ve got to get those eyes for it.

You’ve got to be like that professional photographer. Professional photographers are like this. This is what they have. Some of them, maybe they are born with it, but I think a lot of them have just developed it. They train themselves that everywhere they walk, when they’re going down the city street, when they’re out in the country, or wherever they are, they see photographs. The rest of us will walk right by it and say, “That’s just stuff happening.” But they see that old man on the street that has a face that tells a story of long ages. They see the way that shadow falls across the street at that moment, that right time of day. They see that’s a photograph. That’s a photograph. That’s a photograph.

You’ve got to start looking for that with content. You’ve got to be like Michelangelo. According to legend anyway, he said that he could look at a block of granite and see the sculpture that was inside it, waiting for him to chisel it out. That’s what you’ve got to train yourself to do.

So what I want to do today with the rest of this time is to give you some ways of doing that, some ways that you can look at the other content that you’re reading online, or videos you’re watching, conversations that you get into, listening to a conference speaker, wherever you are to start to look for that and get those content eyes. So let’s break into what those are.

Like the bumper sticker says, question everything

By questioning everything here, I mean develop a questioning mind. This is a good thing to do anyway when you’re reading, especially when you’re reading non-fiction content or you’re looking at and evaluating things. But for the content producer, this is a great tool.

When I’m looking at a piece of content, when I’m watching one of Rand’s Whiteboard Friday videos, I don’t just say, “Oh, it’s Rand Fishkin. I’ve got to take everything that he says.” I formulate questions in my mind. Why is that true? He just went past that fact there, but how does he know that?

Wait, I’d like to know this, but I’m looking at a Whiteboard video. I could yell at it all day, and Rand’s not going to answer me. But maybe instead of just putting that question in the comments, maybe that becomes my next piece of content.

Install a question antenna

So question everything. Get those questions. Related to that — get a question antenna up. Now what I mean by that is look for questions that are already there, but aren’t getting answered. You see a great blog post on something, and then you look in the comments and see somebody has asked this great question, and neither the author of the blog post nor anybody else is really answering it adequately. Chances are, if that’s a really great question, that person doesn’t have it alone. There are a lot of other people out there with that same question.

So that’s an opportunity for you to take that and make a piece of content out of it. We’re talking here about something that’s relevant to the audience that you’re after, obviously. So that’s another thing is looking for those questions, and not just on other pieces of content, but obviously you should be listening to your customers. What are the questions they’re asking? If you don’t have direct access to that, talk to your sales staff. Talk to your customer service people. Whoever interfaces with the customers, collect their questions. Those are great sources of content.

Finally, here, not finally. Second to finally, penultimate, do the mash-up. I love mash-ups. I’m totally obsessed with them. It’s where somebody, an artist goes and takes two or three or sometimes more pieces of pop music —

they could be from different eras — and puts them together in a very creative way. It’s not just playing one after the other, but finds ways that they sonically match up and they can blend over each other. It might be a Beatles song over Gangster’s Paradise. A whole new thing happens when they do that.

Juxtapose this! By which I mean do a mash-up.

Well, you can do mash-ups. When you’re reading content or watching videos or wherever you’re getting your stimulation, look for things that juxtapose in some way, that you could bring that in, in some way that nobody’s done before.

Quickly, there are four kinds of things you should be looking for to do your mash-up. Sometimes you could be writing about things that intersect in some way. You might see two different pieces of content and, because you’ve got your content eyes out there, you say, “Ah, there’s an overlap here that nobody is talking about.” So you talk about it. You write about that.

It might be a total contrast. It might be like over here people are saying this, and over here people are saying that. Why is there such a difference?

Maybe you can either resolve that or even just talk about why that difference is there.

It can be just an actual contradiction. There’s contradiction in this thing. Why is that contradiction there? Or maybe just where they complement each other. That’s supposed to be a bridge between there. Not a very good bridge. The two things, how do they complement each other? The mash-up idea is taking two or more ideas that are out there floating around, that you’ve been thinking about, and bringing them together in a way that nobody else has.

Before I go on to the last one here, I just want to say “Do you see what we’re doing?” We’re synthesizing out of other stimulus that’s out there to produce something that is unique, but birthed out of other ideas. That’s where the best ideas come from. That’s a way that you can be getting those ideas.

Let’s brand-name-acne-treatment this topic up

Let’s go to the last one here. I call it Clearasil because it’s clearing things up. This is one I use a lot. Maybe it’s because I have a background as a teacher years ago. I’ve got to make this clear. I’ve got to explain this. When you see something out there that is interesting or new, somebody presents some new facts, a test result, whatever it is, but they just kind of presented the facts, you could go, if you understand it, and say, “I think I know what that’s happening. I think I know the implications of that.” You could go and explain that. Now you have cleared that up, and you’ve created a great new piece of useful content.

A quick example of that kind of thing is I had a chat with Jay Baer recently, of Convince & Convert. Something he said just pinged in my mind and I said, “Yes, that’s why some of my content works.” He has this thing that he calls “and therefore” content. He says that he’s trained his staff and himself that when they go out and they see something where somebody has said like, “This happened out there,” kind of reporting of the news, they say, “Let’s write about or do a video about or an audio or whatever, and therefore what this means to you, and therefore the next steps you need to take because of that, and therefore what might happen in the future.” You see the power of that?

So the whole thing here is getting content eyes. Learning to see content everywhere. Train yourself. Begin to ask those questions. Begin to look at the stimulus that comes in around you. Listen, look, and find out what you can put together in a way that nobody else has before, and you’ll never run out of those content ideas. Thanks a lot for joining me today.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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