Last Friday we attended BrightonSEO at the Dome. There was a marked change from the previous event and I don't mean the 27 algorithm updates in the past year, or the extra 500 people attending.
There has been a shift in attitude. The talks were varied and focused on the bigger picture of SEO as a marketing tool, not an elite club where we sneer at Google and keep everything close to our chest.
My personal favourite talk was from Dave Trott, who didn't even know what SEO was before he spoke (read our Predatory Thinking write up).
People who were there just to find out what small trick they can do rank better would have gone home disappointed. Those who want to improve their businesses, make better websites, keep up good relationships with clients and evolve an industry would have gone home with big smiles on their faces.
There was a lot to learn about the psychology of marketing, the importance of language, the benefits of teamwork and overall the need to grow up as an industry, to stop being seen as snake oil salesmen and seen as a viable marketing channel for global businesses. Congratulations to Kelvin for putting on such a diverse selection of speakers.
Of course, amongst all the seriousness there was still time to be a bit silly:
There was a lot less Google bashing than the last BrightonSEO - other than the penguin and panda carcasses hung from a coat rack on stage of course. When panda and penguin were mentioned, it was as a warning of what happens when you relentlessly go after the algorithm and try to con the results.
In this round up, I'm going to run through each talk and explain what we can learn to become better at what we do. How SEO can evolve from the common misconceptions in the media and many boardrooms to a recognised and trusted industry.
Dave Trott - Predatory Thinking
Predatory Thinking is all about being clever and beating the competition, something every SEO industry needs to do! It's not about who has the most links any more it's about doing something big and getting noticed. You can't just do what your competitors do and expect to do well; you have to do better than your competitors. This means using SERPs to your advantage.
Can't get above 3rd? Use rich snippets (author, ratings, products, events) to stand out from the rest. Make sure you connect with local to show up in local results. Do whatever you can to get in all of Google's channels - YouTube, Image Search, Local Search, Product Search. The more you show up, the more business you'll get. It's not just about 10 blue links anymore!
90% of marketing is ignored - the number of websites is probably a lot higher. What can you do to make sure yours isn't?
Anthony Mayfield - Do You Speak Brand?
He said that everyone in SEO keeps calling each other into camps - blackhat, whitehat, data, PR, social - and asks if clients or stakeholders really know the difference? If they don't know the difference then why do we do it? It's not helping them and it's not helping us. Instead, Anthony believes we should start working together and merge together the different forms of marketing under one 'inbound marketing' umbrella that includes search, social, content, PR, technical, data, UX, everything!
Using The Argus as a good example, Anthony explained why it is important to speak brand and make sure that everything fits together to please clients and consumers. Once SEO starts working with other departments, and moves out of its own silo, the internet will be a better place and results will start improving.
Anthony used McDonalds as an example of the industry moving forward, as last year they shifted 20% of their marketing budget to 'earned media'. Large companies are starting to take search seriously and are investing more - it's time for SEOs to start taking it seriously too.
Stephanie Troeth - Speaking Your User's Language
Midway through the morning and still no traditional SEO talks. Multi-accented Stephanie Troeth was here to talk about User Experience - which she believes many people wrongly associate with just UI or site design. Like SEO, UX is also interested in data and insights. Stephanie believes that websites will become better when people start speaking like real people.
Applying this to SEO, it's time to really think about users and about clients - both of which are real people. A great way to re-evaluate the way you do things is through open ended listening methods when testing. Talk to real users and find out is they are grasping the concept of your brand. "To speak is to listen."
Martin Belam - How to Win Friends and Influence Robots
This was the first 'proper' SEO talk, but as it was from Martin Belam who has been in the search industry since before it was called SEO it was one worth listening to.
Martin's first point links back to a post I wrote two weeks ago called 'Google Doesn't Owe You Anything'. Search engines actually spell out everything they want you to do, in really clear terms. The problem is that it's tempting to go after what the search engines don't want you to do if it's a bit easier.
Making your site better for people has the result of making it better for search engines. Martin used Link Sculpting on internal links as an example of something SEOs have done that's likely to have minimal effect on rankings. A much better idea would be to look at which links you were about to nofollow and work out what they're there for. If you don't want search engines to see certain internal links then you probably don't want people to see them either. Usually these are links to 73 pages of copyright notices etc. In this case, Martin recommends just chucking it all out. Don't put anything on the site that doesn't make friends or influence robots. "Stop thinking about gaining 1 place in rankings and start thinking about people."
Other things that both users and robots like are fast loading pages, good titles, navigation that makes sense and brand messages. There's no point going off brand just for some search traffic if that traffic is the wrong kind, and search engines begin to associate you with the wrong things. Are your SEO changes/ranking changes are affecting your users?
Beccy Weeks - Chasing the Algorithm - Smart SEO or Hopeless Effort?
Beccy Weeks of MGOMD gave a very rare talk that explained how things went wrong when running a trial SEO campaign for a client. Both the fact that the talk happened and the ways they fixed their problems show that the SEO industry is becoming smarter and more open about its mistakes.
The challenge of the campaign was to produce higher rankings with entirely off-page optimisation - that means links.
To begin with they went for the standard link building tactic of many years - building mass links from PageRank 2-4 sites combined with blog roll and footer links with exact match anchor text. This worked for a while, until Google started updating its algorithm and the sites started to bomb. They looked at the updates and changed strategy to try and beat the algorithm. For example, to try and beat Venice they built links with exact match + location anchor text. This didn't work and those keywords bombed. When Penguin was released, those earlier links had a real effect and they saw keywords dropping 2-8.
With an old style link building strategy (mass links, exact match anchor text) being decimated by Panda, Penguin and Venice, it was time to come up with a strategy. This involved fewer links, higher quality sites, higher quality text, varied anchor text that combined brand + exact match + location in different ways. They also went back and changed old anchor text to meet the new strategy. As a result, rankings improved and the client was happy enough to continue with the campaign. Beccy said that the agency actually pulled out because they felt that they couldn't do as much with just links without having access to on-page content.
When some agencies are still clinging on to individual services like link building, it's great to see an agency that has said no to a contract because they want to do more than just build links.
I believe it's okay to chase the algorithm, but you should be working with it, not trying to exploit it.
Will Critchlow - API? WTF?
Will's talk wasn't really about APIs, or about SEO. But it did look forward to the challenges that SEOs and anybody with an online presence will face in the next few years. For one, he doesn't see a bright future for websites:
That's quite a bold statement, especially when the main aim of an SEO is to get a website ranking in search. Will points out that search engines are starting to serve up as much content as websites - think Google's Knowledge Graph and Apple's Siri. Both of these give you answers to common questions like 'what is the weather?' that don't require you to visit a website. So how do they work? APIs are computers talking to computers - you ask a computer a question and it gets the result from another question.
Will ended his talk by saying he has no idea how to do SEO for APIs but while not really in the field of SEO, it shows how important it is to pay attention to technology before they're left behind.
While not really an API, I really recommend opening up your website to Google using Schema mark up. This will explain different elements to Google to show in SERPs such as events, author, reviews. That's the most basic thing you can do.
At an advanced level, create an API - like APIs apparently - and you never know what they'll start displaying! If you're a travel company and Google has started displaying flight information above your results, why not make sure your information is included in that flight information?
Businesses need to adapt to new technologies or risk being left behind. As Dave says below, it's all about Things and Attributes now:
Dave is thinking like a searcher, you need to as well, because you can bet that Google is. Read their mission statement: "Google’s mission is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful." Search isn't just about websites anymore. Maybe we should be more worried about APIs than black and white animals.
Read Tom Anthony's API post on SEOmoz for more info, it covers the same content as the talk.
That concludes our round up of the morning sessions of BrightonSEO September 2012, has SEO grown up? Is it time to stop being gurus and start working as a team? Should we be spending more time looking at the bigger picture rather than fiddling around with nofollow links? Is SEO becoming more sustainable as a service even though the web is changing?
Stay tuned for the afternoon sessions in part 2 of our BrightonSEO round up.