The day began just as the agenda promised: with bacon.
SEO-minded content management system company Pixelsilk provided the salty, smoky centerpiece of our tasty breakfast, which found me sharing a table and a pitcher of ice water with my SwellPath colleagues, as well as a number of the Northwest digital marketing landscape’s heavy hitters, including content marketing consultant Kane Jamison, social media maven Hannah Meuser, and two members of REI’s fabled in-house SEO team: Jonathan Colman—who later that day gave a talk on “UX and Audience” (that I was very sorry to have missed)—and Justin Schoen. The next half-hour passed in a flurry of warm introductions and caffeinated small talk, and suddenly Mike Rosenberg of Rosenberg Marketing was taking the stage to welcome us all.
Let me divert from my yarn at this point to admit a perhaps unique perspective on this event. This was my first SearchFest. It was, in fact, my first SEO/digital marketing conference. It was—in full and complete fact—my first conference. I realized, as the morning got underway, that the last time I had spent a day sitting in a bunch of different rooms for an hour at a time listening to people smarter than me share their important thoughts, taking furious notes and pausing only to eat food that someone else was paying for, I had been in college. And college was so long ago that when I graduated I was still pretty sure that Radiohead would eventually make a return-to-form rock album and that George W. Bush would be a one-term president. The image that might best represent what I was expecting to experience, heading into all this absent any frame of reference, is of a guy trying to drink from a firehose. Between two keynotes and four presentations—each of them shared between two speakers—I knew I was in for full-scale inundation, and feared my brain wouldn’t be able to keep up. But I was also delighted to be a part of it, and not just because I felt like I was putting on a major league baseball uniform for the first time. I was delighted because I knew that even if I couldn’t truly absorb it all, I’d definitely be able to absorb a fraction of what was about to come flying at me, and that at least a fraction of that fraction would be stuff I could immediately turn around and use to the benefit of my clients. And who was to say that there wouldn’t be some truly world-shaking stuff in there, too: ideas that served to challenge my most deeply held beliefs about the work I did, and its many possible futures? Plus I was already there, and, also, bacon. So there was pretty much nothing for me to do but open up the valve on my coffee IV drip and fire up the ol’ MacBook Pro and sit tight, intent on making that fraction of a fraction as big as it could be.
Writing this three days later, I can reassure my past self that I got exactly what I wanted. I hereby present that fraction of a fraction, in all its glory.
Schema, Open Graph, and Semantic Markup
This was the first talk I attended, presented by two in-house SEO powerhouses: Aaron Bradley of mining information clearinghouse InfoMine, and Jeff Preston of Disney Interactive, which you may have heard of. This was billed as an advanced SEO event, part of the Bonus Track of discussions being hosted in the intimate Card Room (even by hotel standards, the event rooms at the Governor had especially Clue-y names). Despite knowing nothing of either speaker’s reputation, the agenda’s description promised a trenchant investigation of one of the great emerging tools in SEO—one particularly close both to my heart and SwellPath’s—and I felt such a thing was just too good to pass up. And apparently I wasn’t the only attendee who felt this way; the room was pretty well packed at T-minus ten minutes when I sat down and got situated, and had achieved standing-room-only status before introductions had even been made, making the Card Room feel even more—ahem—intimate than it was intended to.
Beyond Rich Snippets
Employing Semantic Web Technologies for Improved Search Visibility
Mr. Bradley began by giving an overview of the whole structured data concept and the related schema/semantic markup project. [Note: as structured data/semantic markup is a.) one of several Next Big Things in SEO, demanding nothing less than the industry's full attention, and b.) a matter of personal interest to me for its being both fascinating and genuinely noble, I intend to honor the subject with a blog post all its own in the near future, which is why I feel OK about glossing over it now and leaping to the speakers' key points.] He argued quite persuasively that Google loves structured data because it assists in their mission of returning search results packed with as much detail and relevancy as possible, apparently aiming at a terrifically ambitious end result of a searcher—perhaps someday—knowing via rich snippets effectively everything about the content of every page in a given results display before performing any click-through. To support his contention that Google wants ever-richer SERPs, he adduced not just their instrumental involvement in the Schema.org endeavor that continues to consolidate, codify, and expand the web’s immense store of recognized semantic microdata, but also the Knowledge Graph phenomenon (much of whose content comes from Wikipedia), and the appearance of rich snippets for eCommerce giants like Amazon and iTunes: proven instances of Google bestowing primo SERP real estate and rich snippets upon sites that didn’t even bother to implement semantic markup, purely based on their size and value to the web. This constitutes—I’m convinced—pretty conclusive proof that Google’s vision of the future really does feature structured data in an ever-larger role. They love it so much that they’ll generate it themselves if they have to.
He finished by exploring a few other, more marginal avenues of structured data, such as the Google Data Highlighter—which has begun allowing site owners to embed structured data on event pages without having to use semantic markup (read: without having to do any coding at all)—XML product feeds and approved merchant accounts for eCom sites, structured data for Google Custom Search, and means of “entity extraction” to help consolidate divergent names for a single organization that might otherwise compete for search visibility (citing OpenCalais and Zemanta as prominent resources). He then spoke briefly about the process of adding to the Schema.org vocabulary—a point essential for reminding the audience of the continually evolving, peer-reviewed, hive-mind nature of schemas—and ultimately concluded by restating an old canard of SEO with a new semantic twist: the more stuff you’re linked to, the more refined an idea search engines will have of what your site is about.
Key Takeaways from Aaron Bradley’s Presentation
- Structured data can only help searchers understand your site better and faster
- Google loves structured data and its future will include a lot more of it
- No matter what kind of site you’ve got, there are already one or more avenues for loading it with structured data, and new ones emerging every day
Open Graph and Schema.org
As head SEO for Disney Interactive, Mr. Preston unsurprisingly had a great deal to say on the expanding possibilities of structured data for videos. He touched both on Schema.org’s range of video markup tools, and on those of the Facebook protocol known as Open Graph, which nominally exists to allow a site to be recognized and represented as a Facebook “object”, but which in the process allows for the novelty of embedding granular, relevant information about a given image or video right in its “object” meta data. Open Graph’s markup generates structured data much as schema.org’s does, and consequently this data shows up on search engine results pages just as schema.org’s does. [He also went on briefly to discuss "Twitter cards," a service available on request from Twitter that does very nearly exactly for Twitter what Open Graph does for Facebook.] SwellPath has a number of clients who host rich video content, as well as many that lean heavily on their Facebook and Twitter pages, so I hoped to come away from this talk with some action items. I got them. And here they are!
Key Takeaways from Jeff Preston’s Presentation
- Schema.org video markup is more likely to show in search results than Open Graph markup, and either one is more likely to show in search results than descriptions entered in an XML video sitemap
- That having been said, the best practices beginning to coalesce for video markup suggest pursuing all three avenues and using the same language in each description
- There is no reason for clients who use Facebook as a marketing channel not to embed Open Graph markup on their every page, and no reason for clients who use Twitter not to pursue Twitter cards with the same alacrity
The Applicable Side of Technical SEO
After lunch came the most surprising talk of the day, as Justin Briggs, Director of Inbound Marketing at Big Fish Games, and John Doherty of Distilled‘s New York office, took to the stage in sequence to present what was billed as a discussion of technical SEO practices. I entered SEO as a copy editor, so the content side of the work has therefore always been more intuitively graspable for me than the technical side; consequently, I was expecting this talk to be a crash course on best practices for source code and markup, and valuable as such. Surprise #1 was the discovery that neither of the two presentations under this banner fit that description even in the slightest. Surprise #2 was the realization that what both presentations did teach me was almost certainly more gratifying than a simple seminar on coding would have been. These two guys approached the word “technical” from as broad an angle as a person could get away with and ended up delivering two very different but equally compelling answers to the hugely compelling philosophical question of what an SEO professional’s role looks like in this day and age. This was the world-shaking stuff I was hoping for. Sometimes it comes from where you least expect it.
Being a Technical SEO Is About More Than Technical SEO
Technical Hacks for Content Marketing
Yep, that’s right. Mr. Briggs did nominally speak about coding, but in the wildly disarming context of content marketing. What could “Technical Hacks for Content Marketing” possibly mean—I asked myself—unless it was just a fancy way of saying “Infographics 101?” Well, that half-dismissive presupposition was simultaneously completely correct and completely wrong. Mr. Briggs’s talk was largely about learning how to code infographics, except that 1. we’re talking the coolest interactive infographics you have ever seen, and 2. encouraging his audience to learn how to code infographics was meant to serve as a practical, exemplary solution to what he perceived and brilliantly adduced as a rapidly growing SEO identity crisis, which I’ll lay out below.
Key Takeaways from Justin Briggs’s Presentation
- As the tasks under the SEO umbrella have expanded, and content marketing has come more into focus as a requisite talent, a skill gap has emerged in the field between the technical experts and the content experts
- The way to close this skill gap is for the content experts to learn a little coding, not the other way around
- Simple, cheaply sourced content can be rendered captivating with a little technical polish, and learning how to do it in your office sure beats spending thousands to outsource it
Right on, I say. This presentation satisfied both the part of me that wanted to hear broad, abstract wisdom about the world I worked in, and the part that wanted pragmatic advice available for immediate implementation. I truly came away feeling refreshed, empowered, and optimistic. SearchFest didn’t get much better for me than this.
The Price of Technical SEO Debt
“You’re Leaving Money on the Table. Let’s Stop That.” OR “Quit Building Links and Fix Your Freakin’ Site.”
From its title, this one really seemed like it was promising to be that crash course that I was still at least half-expecting to hear before the end of the day. Certainly Justin Briggs’s hadn’t been, but in fairness, its title revealed as much from the beginning. But a subtitle like “Quit Building Links and Fix Your Freakin’ Site” had to be about technical SEO best practices, right?
Not exactly. This one had a surprise up its sleeve. Mr. Doherty spent the first ten minutes or so convincingly showcasing the high cost of leaving technical flaws in place on a page, demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that no sum of links can make up for on-site optimization deficiencies, showing how properly addressing and minimizing technical flaws will redound to your search traffic’s benefit, etc. etc., everything thoughtfully explained and supported by concrete evidence from Mr. Doherty’s personal experience. It was nothing I didn’t already know, but I commended Mr. Doherty on his clarity and flair for narrative. And then just when I thought the talk was about to shift into the nuts-and-bolts minutiae of actually identifying and remedying technical flaws—a subject about which I know a thing or two already but was looking forward to learning more—it shifted instead into a discussion of how to persuade your clients’ (or, if you’re in-house, your company’s) C-level executives to spend money on identifying and remedying technical flaws—a subject about which I know next to nothing. In other words, that first subtitle—”You’re Leaving Money on the Table. Let’s Stop That.”—wasn’t wisdom for the SEO guy; it was a line for the SEO guy to use on his boss. Awesome!
The thrust of his advice, all arranged anecdotally and delivered with the utmost casual charm, was as follows: first, the “identifying” part of the job is the work you should be doing on your own. You should be forever scouring your site for issues, leveraging as much data as you can to build a case for repair where such a case jumps out at you. Then, in order to secure the budget to go about doing the “remedying” part, you have to translate your account of these flaws into business’s universal language of dollars and cents. You isolate a problem on the site, prove that a particular KPI is suffering as a result of the problem, and then project from that KPI the company’s attendant loss, or potential loss, in traffic/conversions/revenue (that last one is what we’re really talking about, after all). Only when you can explain the issue in terms of money do you take your case to the person who wields the checkbook. If this sounds obvious, you may not realize how obsessively SEO guys geek out over analytics data for its own sake and consequently how completely we can lose sight of the fact that a company’s bottom line is what’s really at stake in our every engagement. This was an utterly essential lesson for me. We SEO practitioners owe it to ourselves not to live in a discursive bubble, myopically acting like optimizing a site is a “good,” i.e. an end in itself. Sometimes, as Justin taught me, we have to be artists; at other times, as John taught me, we have to be salesmen.
Key Takeaways from John Doherty’s Presentation
- No amount of backlinks can compensate for a site hampered by technical flaws
- Technical flaws invariably lead to traffic lost and revenue lost
- An executive’s willingness to spend money fixing technical flaws is ultimately a function of your ability to explain the flaws in terms of the traffic and revenue lost
The Final Analysis
So what was this all about? I already knew that there were a lot of people in the search/digital marketing community who knew a lot more than I did, and I was right in my rather simplistic assumption that I’d come out a little smarter than I was when I walked in. I think what made SearchFest uniquely special was the discovery that a speaking event held annually could drive and inspire so much new thought in an industry where it seems like beliefs and practices are revolutionized every few months, if not more often than that. I understand that these speakers were booked more than six months ago, but their presentations were, without fail, positively up-to-the-minute, indicating that they really had earned their right to be up there telling the rest of us what we should be thinking about.
And there was something else to the day, too: a quality shared among the speakers that served at first to make me question their expertise, but that upon further reflection only confirmed my faith in them. Despite their authority, these speakers all showed true shrugging humility when speaking of the future. Nobody spoke with any phony certitude about what the search landscape was going to look like in another five years/one year/six months/one month, proving that more time spent in the business serves only to further confirm the futility of such efforts. This business changes whenever and however dramatically it wants to; predicting the nature, timing, and consequences of the next algorithm change or next emerging toolkit based on where we are now is about as easy as predicting, on a sunny day, where the first drop will fall the next time it rains. These speakers knew that and were humble enough to admit it, so accordingly there was an unspoken element of “I can’t wait to know what we’ll be talking about a year from now; your guess is as good as mine” that was common to every speech. What a comfort to know that people who have been at this ten times as long as I have still feel that way.