The State of SEO According to Barry Schwartz | JP
The In Search SEO Podcast
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Summary of Episode 38: The In Search SEO Podcast
This week the brilliant, the magnificent, the noble, Barry Schwartz will talk SEO shop with us as we get into:
- The state of the SEO industry according to Barry
- The state of Google and its approach to search and the SEOs who optimize for search
- The state of the man himself, we get into what it’s like to be Barry Schwartz!
Plus, is your SEO strategy playing right into Google’s hands?
Why There’s No Gaming Google and Why You Shouldn’t Even Try
We all know that the hottest SERP feature on the planet is Featured Snippets. The funny thing is that we see Featured Snippets in a way as a hack. Google’s walled garden is upon us and we see Featured Snippets as the chink in the armor.
There’s some amazing data out there from Rand Fiskin over at SparkToro and Jumpshot showing that nearly half… half of all Google searches don’t result in a click. So for many, the Featured Snippet seems to be the last ray of hope.
Before we continue, a few quick points on this. One, Mordy thinks the data on the no-click searches is great but doesn’t fully illuminate the extent of the problem. The issue is not Google and its plan for world domination per se… it’s how Google’s plans to change user perception. Meaning, we’d really like to know how many users are starting their search without any intention to click on anything.
Mordy would love to see the growth in the number of users who never expect to make a click once they get to a SERP. The Jumpshot data on the number of clickless searches is super telling, super informative, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the issue nor does it tell us the extent of the issue in the long run. For that, Mordy would love to see someone put out data on the number of searches where no click is expected at the onset. That would tell us where users really stand with clicks and how much trouble we might be in going forward. It’s one thing for Google to design it so that there are fewer clicks. It’s another thing for user expectations vis-a-vis clicks to change.
Also, on the idea that Featured Snippets are a way to combat click hardships, Mordy did a study showing that paragraph Featured Snippets are shorter, more concise, and less click-worthy while list Featured Snippets have more content and come off like complete lists which also makes them less click-worthy. At the same time, it is true… going after Featured Snippet wins can drive in more traffic. But this notion that somehow we’re beating Google at its own game by winning snippet after snippet is nonsense.
To quote a great thinker and SEO expert (the one and only Mordy Oberstein), “Has it ever occurred to anyone that “trying to win more Featured Snippets” is exactly what Google wants you to do and that we’re playing right into their hands?”
Mordy’s point is, don’t think you’re fooling anyone or getting one over on Google. Google has specifically designed things as they are as part of a master plan because they need us to create content for Featured Snippets. We’re just sheep being herded who have a false sense of freedom. This is all by design.
Google needs answers for voice search and until it has developed enough of its own content, i.e., Direct Answers, it needs us to create the content for them. So Google made targeting the Featured Snippet spot very attractive… so when you create content in specific hopes of winning that spot you’re doing exactly what Google wants. And that’s fine, that’s what you should be doing, but it’s not you who are gaming the system. You are the system.
So what’s the practical lesson from all of this? For starters, this whole narrative that you need to find ways to get around what Google is doing is all out of whack. Firstly, because you can’t, or at least not in the long term. Secondly, it’s counterproductive. It’s much more efficient to skid into the turn. You have to feed the beast, do what you can, do what you have to do, but as the old saying goes, you can’t fight city hall. Looking for opportunities is a better way to spend your time than looking to game Google. Because in the end, as we’ve shown here, you may think you’re gaming them, but they’re really “gaming you.”
The same for black hat tactics. In Mordy’s opinion, Google knows what’s going on and allows it to go because Google has to serve something on the SERP. But if Google had other options it will choose those instead. According to Mordy, you’re not gaming Google with these tactics, you just think you are.
To conclude, be efficient with your time/strategy, don’t pick a fight you can’t win, and focus on what you do have and maximize it.
The State of SEO, The State of Google, and the State of Barry: A Conversation with Barry Schwartz
[This is a general summary of the interview and not a word for word transcript. You can listen to the podcast for the full interview.]
Mordy: Welcome to a very special In Search SEO Podcast interview session. He is a man who needs no introduction, but we’ll give him one anyway. He is a news editor at Search Engine Land, the founder of my favorite SEO site, SERoundtable.com, and the CEO of RustyBrick, a web consulting firm. He is a US Search Personality of the Year Award recipient and the winner of Search Engine Land’s Outstanding Community Service Award. If there were an SEO superhero it would be him… he is Barry Schwartz!
With your last name being Schwartz, how many Spaceball jokes do you get?
Barry: Here or there, once or twice a year. Nothing crazy.
The State of SEO
M: How would you characterize the SEO community/the SEO industry now versus when you first arrived on the scene back in the day?
B: It’s a lot bigger. Back in the old days, there may have been one conference. And they were family-centered where you would meet people that you were talking to online. It wasn’t like now where you would go to an event and not know anyone there. It was a real tight-knit community.
M: Do you miss that?
B: Yes and no. I’m not the most social person. I can just sit down and document what’s happening in the industry without needing to talk to others, but at the same time, it’s nice to meet people that I haven’t met in five years or only met online.
M: There’s so much hoopla about the changes Google makes, whether it be an update or a change to the SERP or one of its policies… Do you think there is a bit of an overreaction to these changes and does it hamper the industry’s growth and health? Is there a good reason to be concerned?
B: Yeah, in general, I can say that SEOs overreact. Of course, it’s important because back in the old days, when any small little change happened it could seriously impact your business and even destroy your business to bankruptcy which is always concerning. On the other hand, it’s interesting to see what I think is a big deal is not always the case with the rest of the SEO community.
M: Could you give me an example where you thought everyone would go crazy, but you didn’t get a big response?
B: I thought the news with Google having tons of pages dropping out of the index would make mainstream news, but it got nothing. There were SEOs who thought this is proof that Google hates us, but that’s not true. This just proves that Google doesn’t want bugs in their software.
M: Do you think the SEO industry/community is too disjointed? For example, you once asked me why we at JP call the People Also Ask feature “Related Questions?” I can give dozens of examples where the different tools refer to features differently, categorize features differently, etc.
Or better yet, on this podcast, I like to ask about the importance of a domain’s authority and most everyone thinks I’m talking about a Moz metric, not Google’s use of domain-level metrics (as confirmed by John Mueller in an interview with Distilled.)
Do we need to set a universal set of standards of reference?
B: Yeah, this definitely happens, and a lot of vocabulary has to be defined. We can define things one way, but the problem is Google is constantly changing and testing things all the time. It makes it hard for SEOs to talk about the same thing sometimes, which is why we have to ask questions. Why do you call it this? Why is Google calling it that? It would be useful if Google made an SEO glossary of terms. People have done it They do have documentation for some things that labels what certain things are in the search results, but it’s more generic.
M: Yeah, I don’t expect Google to do it. I believe we need to get SEOs together to create this glossary.
B: All right. Let’s get it done.
M: So you’re in?
M: Great, so there it is.
If you had magical powers, what would you change about the SEO industry?
B: The problem that I want to fix is how people interact with each other, in general. This isn’t just a problem in the SEO industry, it’s everywhere online. It makes me upset to see people say nasty things about each other. People will say things that they wouldn’t say to each other in person. I just wish before people would say something they would just give others the benefit of the doubt. Personally, if somebody lashes out at me, instead of jumping ahead and getting angry, I try first to ask myself some questions. What is going on? Why is this person saying this? What could be the reason? It’s a hard thing to do, and I don’t always do it, I’m, of course, human as well. But I think we should. I wish we could kind of do that in general in life.
I wish we could do that in general in life, and I think about it a little bit harder for the SEO community. There’s like three different ecosystems because you have advertisers, you have the search engine, and you have the publishers and they’re all kind of fighting for the destination. So it’s kind of hard.
M: Do you think it’s gotten worse recently?
B: No, it’s always been bad.
The State of Google
M: Do you think Google’s approach to how it deals with the search industry is appropriate? In other words, forget effective, I think there’s a good case to say it’s not effective on many levels, but is Google “doing the right thing” in how it approaches its relationship with the search community?
B: You know, they’ve tried so many different things over the years. It was easier back in the old days, when it was a small community and you had Matt Cutts who used to go under the name of Google Guy, and it was basically one voice communicating from Google to the search industry, and he was consistent because it was one person. Now you have around ten different people with the most visible out there right now is John Mueller, Gary Ilyes, and Martin Splitt.
Google’s trying to be more transparent and sometimes the more transparent you are the more people could be like, “Well, you said X in 2015, but now you’re saying Y.” It happens because things change or people even people inside Google interpret certain things differently.
People make mistakes, everybody’s human. I make mistakes all the time. But if Google says something wrong, it’s not going to kill somebody like botching a surgery. I think people just need to relax a little bit and just think of what is the intent behind why is Google saying this or that.
M: Do you think Google has an “optics” or a “perception” problem that it is either unaware of or does not care about? I’ll give you an example: Tacking the change to top-of-the-SERP diversity onto the June 2019 Core Update, to me, created a very poor optic. It came off as if Google was being a bit “tricky” at most and apathetic to how hard it would make it for SEOs to understand their ranking changes at a minimum. I’m not saying that Google did this on purpose, I’m merely asking from a “political” or “optics” point of view if Google is aware of itself.
B: I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, but I think it has to do with a lot of moving pieces in Google. So in your example, it’s possible the diversity update team didn’t communicate properly with the core update team on when to release the updates. These were two overlapping things and I’m sure there are probably other things that overlap and that’s what happens. It’s a big company with a lot of things happening at once. So it’s nothing new. It’s just I don’t think they do it on purpose. I think it just happens.
M: I know this is a controversial question, but since it’s out there I thought I would ask you about it: Is Google too big for our own good? Should it be regulated as some US Presidential candidates are now advocating?
B: First off, I hate politics. Living in New York, where it doesn’t make a difference what I vote because it will always be the Democrats, I’d rather spend the two hours working to make my company better than standing in line.
In my opinion, Google doesn’t need to be regulated. Two decades ago, Google came out of nowhere and beat Alta Vista and Yahoo. People laughed at Google and now they’re the biggest search engine. Anybody can build a search engine, and compete with them. There’s nothing stopping anybody. Google doesn’t own the Internet and as of five years ago, they didn’t own an operating system. I think you can beat them, but I don’t think it needs regulation or splitting up because of that. It’s not like where you have Microsoft, which owned the operating system way back when and Internet Explorer was the only option on the browser when they killed Mozilla and Netscape.
So if somebody wants to come in and beat them at that game, I think they should try. I honestly thought when Microsoft launched Bing that they would have 50% market share within a few years and I was completely wrong and that was before Google owned Chrome OS, before Android was big, and yet they still didn’t have a problem dominating Microsoft on the operation.
M: Whether you advocate for regulating Google or not… the notion to do so (at least in the US) has grown exponentially. I think that’s why you now have the Wall Street Journal talking about fake map listings that have been a problem for years. There is a shift in the culture happening… How does that impact Google, how does that impact SEO, and what does Google ultimately do about it?
B: If you look back to 2011 when Panda came out, the reason it was pushed was because The Wall Street Journal wrote a big article about how sites are literally creating content just to rank in Google just to go ahead and serve AdSense ads. And it was this circular thing where people will create low-quality content, they will have very little information where people would then see Google ads and when they click on those ads they’ll find more low-quality pages, and then the cycle will continue. And that’s what happened with the ecosystem of Google as they built a search engine that was ranking content and long-tail keywords. Google thought, “You know what? This is an issue. We got to do something about it,” and they improved their algorithm and fixed it.
I’m hoping the same thing happens with Google Maps spam and stuff like that, based on this article. The reason I believe WSJ wrote this article is that it was such a bad problem that it really caught the attention of some writer there and the rest of the writers dug into it, found some local SEOs, and got some really good examples of issues.
M: Where do you think Google is heading? There have been so many deep changes from anything from Search as a Journey to Google becoming what I call a resource center vs. a pure search engine. Where is Google going with all of this and what’s driving it?
B: When I spoke to Amit Singhal about five years ago, we spoke about this topic. Google is looking specifically to figure out how to find the best answer and respond with the best answer. Some of that is licensing data from lyric websites or weather channels and stuff like that, some of that is just knowing facts like how old is President Trump, some of it is about indexing the web using machine learning and AI to figure out what the best answers are across the web and then serving up that answer as a Featured Snippet, and some is responding using voice.
I think that’s the journey where Google’s going. Of course, when we look at it from an SEO perspective, we notice no one is clicking on these, we’re not getting traffic. Google is just answering people so what are we supposed to do? When I brought this up with Amit Singhal, he said, “Forget about thinking about it from your perspective. We have a responsibility to the searcher, and we have to service a searcher’s query. If we don’t do that, Google is not going to be around five years from now. We have to figure out what we could do to make sure we have the proper answer while supporting the ecosystem.”
I think as SEOs, you have to take yourself out of that perspective and look at the bigger, broader picture. Say to yourself, “This is what searchers want. How could Google go ahead and satisfy the searcher while giving us a little bit of a carrot?”
M: I want to ask you about voice search/voice devices. A lot of the studies I’ve seen show that people use voice devices for either surface-like information (i.e., the weather) or as a novelty. Neither usage in my mind bodes well for the future of voice devices as a dominant format that is an integral part of a person’s “digital life.” In fact, a recent Search Engine Land article points to some of the adoption numbers being “over-hyped.”
What’s your take on voice search these days?
B: People are not using voice search at this point in time like we thought they would be. There was a study a couple of years ago that compared three types of voice searches: day weekend, weekday mornings, and nights. In the morning people asked about the weather or traffic. When people were coming home they asked what movies are playing. People are not using voice search for long-tail queries for the most part, except SEOs to see if they rank in the Featured Snippet.
Yet I do think that’s going to change. I think we’re still very early, but I think people will become much more comfortable with it. Just look at the beginning days of desktop search. People were at first were doing one, two, or three-word phrases and that grew and grew and grew over the years to three, four, and five. People became more sophisticated when it came to searching, even on desktop.
I think things are going to change a lot over the next couple of years. I think people are just getting comfortable with it. When I got my first car, it had a Car Play with Siri. It was about four years ago, and there were very few cars back then that had Siri support while almost every car supported Android Auto. I remember when I first started talking to Siri it was very all over the place. I was not comfortable talking to it. But now I literally don’t even think twice. I just go ahead and press that Siri button and talk to it, and I talk to my Google Home on my desk. I don’t even think about it, I just do it.
I think people like you people like you or me, we’re kind of a little bit ahead of the curve and others will come along in time.
M: If you could advise Google, what would you recommend Google to do in order to build bridges and repair the relationship they have with the SEO industry?
B: I don’t know. I mean, I think they’ve been trying so many different things. It’s like the saying, you can’t make everybody happy.
I think what John Mueller and Gary Ilyes are doing now is pretty good. They keep producing more ideas. They do the hangouts, they do the video series, they’re constantly active on Twitter, posting in other forms, or doing conferences. They’re trying to be very transparent and I don’t know what else they can do.
The State of Barry
M: Does it ever get to you… You are so calm and so patient and good-natured… but underneath it all does “it” get to you? What I mean is you have 100s of people, like this yutz right here, who send you all sorts of SERP feature updates (most of which are old), you have people critiquing you for nonsense, you have all sorts of misconceptions and so forth… does it get to you?
B: Yeah, I do try to moderate them, more now these days. I don’t run when people attack me, but when people attack other personalities and other people by saying childish things, calling people names and making fun of people, that’s just childish, right? But in general, it really doesn’t get to me. I’ve been doing this for so long that I’ve become numb to it all. None of this stuff bothers me at all. In fact, so much so that I kind of enjoy trolling the trolls.
In regards to people asking me about SERP feature updates, it doesn’t take me much time. I just do a search in Search Engine Round Table to see if it was covered before. And people can do the same in the search box, but I understand it can be hard as a lot of changes don’t have names.
I do enjoy receiving tips and promoting their finds. I always love citing people. I really like helping SEOs become better at what they do, make more money, or find new jobs. A few years ago, someone came to me and said because I cited him once in a story it helped his career. Now that I kind of realize it might help some people, even if just a small percentage of people, I could use this format of highlighting people’s careers to get them in front of other people that might not have heard of them and hopefully help promote their career so they could find new jobs that might help their families or themselves grow better.
M: A lot of what you do, and I don’t think people realize, is not for pay… you volunteer your time and efforts. You have your own company that you run which has very little if anything to do with search marketing. I mean you literally wake up and start working at a time in the morning I didn’t even know existed. Do you ever feel like you want to give it up? Do you ever feel like hanging up your hat and just leaving SEO behind?
B: Yeah, so Search Engine Round Table does have some ads and I make a little money on there, but my main income is obviously with Rusty Brick. Thankfully, I’m in a position where I don’t necessarily need the money anymore. Thankfully, I’m doing pretty well financially so I’m in a position to do what I love. Some people in their spare time see movies, read books, play sports, and for me, I enjoy writing about SEO. That’s my hobby. Obviously, hobbies cost money and for that, I am able to drive to the city, park my car for five minutes and pay $75 for parking. Obviously, getting a sponsor for that would help. I don’t like to lose money on things so hopefully, I’ll get sponsors or get subsidized. But my ultimate goal is to help the SEO community because I’ve been very, very fortunate in my career.
And I’m not planning on stopping. There was one April Fools where I jokingly said I was leaving, but no. I enjoy what I do and I’m happy doing it.
M: What would you say the impact of Danny Sullivan going over to the “dark side” has been on the industry? How has it impacted you personally?
B: These are two different things. One is that Danny obviously told us privately that this is what he’s doing. We knew for several months beforehand that he was leaving Search Engine Land and Third World Media because he was burnt out about writing about title tags, meta tags, and SEO. It was super sad and I still highly respect him. I still don’t think anybody could come close to the way he wrote about SEO and changes in search. He is a trained journalist. The way he wrote and understood search and his perspectives and writing about it over 20 years… nobody could touch it. I think there is a big gap to the community without him here.
So I knew he was leaving Search Engine Land, but I only learned that he was moving to Google when everyone else heard. It was a big shock, I don’t think anyone was expecting it. I don’t even think he expected it. He was offered to work at different SEO companies which he turned down and then Google approached him and said, “We’re going to give you access to Google Search on the engineering team. You could work within Google and communicate what you’re doing and help the community at large.” And Danny thought that’s a great idea and he jumped right in. From what I hear he’s absolutely loving it and I think he’s happier.
But with him gone, I’m glad that he’s working at Google. He is always writing about search when communicating about it from within Google which I think helps the community tremendously. It is obvious there are things that he probably cannot say to the community, but I think him being there is an asset.
Optimize It or Disavow It
M: If you could only go to one Googler for information… Meaning, you could never go to the other… who would be your go-to Googler… John Mueller or Gary Illyes?
B: Will they both answer my questions?
M: Yes, they will answer your questions in a serious manner without any joke answers.
B: Wow, this is tough as they are both great people. I don’t know why I’m saying this, but my gut feeling says Gary has a little more access than John. I could be completely making this up
M: Yeah, but no one will know except for Gary and John.
B: But if I could interview anyone in Google it would be Matt Cutts.
M: Obviously, it would be Matt. I knew if I threw in Matt you would choose him.
Thank you so much, Barry, for coming on. I really appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule.
B: It was fun. Thank you so much for having me.
Keyword Planner Upgrade!: Google’s Keyword Planner got an upgrade. Now Google’s tool will take a root keyword and offer you broader suggestions (among other trends).
Nice and Fresh Featured Snippets: Since February, Google has been using a “Freshness Algorithm” to make sure that the content you see in a Featured Snippet is as current as it possibly can be!
Google Offers SEO Advice: Google finally handed out some advice on dealing with core updates. The search engine has released a series of questions to ask yourself if your site was hit by a core update. Questions include:
- Is this content written by an expert or enthusiast who demonstrably knows the topic well?
- Was the content produced well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
Google Confirms It Does Not Confirm Non-Core Updates: Google also confirmed that its core updates impact Discovery Feed rankings and that they do not confirm non-core updates because, to quote, “they’re generally not widely noticeable.”
Fun SEO Sendoff Question
What Netflix Original is Google?
Sapir chose one of her favorite Netflix shows, The Haunting of Hill House because Google can be compared to a ghost. It never leaves us alone, it knows everything we’re doing, and it’s sometimes so creepy it gives you goosebumps.
For Mordy, he chose Mindhunter because Google targets intent. It’s trying to read our minds… Get it? Mind hunter!
Tune in next Tuesday for a new episode of The In Search SEO Podcast.