SEO Conference Takeaways: SMX East & C3

Posted by Jacques Bouchard on October 30, 2014

SMX East 2014 Conference

SMX East in NYC. Photo credit: SMX

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of being Paladin’s eyes and ears at two fantastic, back-to-back Search and Digital Marketing conferences in downtown NYC – SMX East and C3.

As a veteran of SMX and a newcomer to C3, I found the conferences to show an interesting contrast. While SMX tended towards statistics, hard facts, technical details, and cutting-edge news about the industry, C3 had a much more philosophical approach. I heard a lot more about marketing as a business philosophy, more conversation about long-term best practices, and a far heavier focus on the human side of online marketing. The two conferences paired up quite well; I’d recommend them to anyone who can afford the luxury of professional investment.

Missed them? We thought we’d share the wealth we brought home from the conferences by documenting the most valuable takeaways I brought back to the team – organized by topic for your convenience. Enjoy!

Want to skim? Jump to your favorite topic:

Technical SEO & Algorithm Updates

“As Google has grown, they’ve gotten away from a lot of the things that made them a great company” – Rand Fishkin (Moz), @C3

There was a lot of criticism of Google on the technical side, both in C3 and SMX. Along with Penguin frustrations, SEO’s are finding recent updates like Pigeon, the HTTPS update, and others to be messy, confusing, and not aligned with the searchers’ best interests.

This year, more than any other year, the speakers’ data was in direct conflict with each other. There were a lot of frustrated questions sent to Google representatives, and there was an overall sense of uncertainty in just what the best practices are. And with the launch of Google’s new image search, the removal of Google’s highly-promoted authorship snippets, and other updates, the spirit of cooperation between Google and white-hat SEO’s seemed lagging.

What’s Hot:

Structured Data: SEO’s are finding great spikes in web traffic after successfully adding structured data. However, don’t implement this without testing; Derrick Hicks (Marketo) shared a case where removing structured data doubled organic traffic! Test the success of structured data to find out if it’s working for you.

White-Hat Link Building: Building links and building relationships have never had so much in common. Jason White (DragonSearch) reminds us “It’s not about the link you just built; it’s about the five other links you could build with that same prospect.” Get in those niche markets and “weird social networks,” and be where they are. How many links are enough? Paxton Gray (97th Floor) says there’s no magic number, but that 15-30 links per month are often safe for a client to build on.

Speed: Google expects above-the-fold content to load in a second or less. Gary Illyes (Google) challenged the industry to adopt HTTPS without reducing load speed, and confirmed that speed was a ranking signal. Speed is vital to mobile performance; how’s your site shaping up?

What’s Not:

HTTPS: The power of the HTTPS algorithm update was severely downplayed during the SMX conference. Gary Illyes said that it accounts for less than 1% of rankings. A study by Eric Enge (Stone Temple Consulting) of 630 sites that switched to HTTPS found no significant improvements in ranking placement – with some drastic drops, some drastic rises, and most sites not changing rankings at all.

HTTPS migrations can cause several complications as well. For example, Enge warns that several errors will crop up, such as some third-party ads breaking, and users will need to re-subscribe to your RSS feed.

Google Pigeon: At SMX, Adam Dorfman (SIM Partners) and Andrew Shotland (Local SEO Guide) were especially critical of the Pigeon Update. Pigeon is doing a lot of things wrong right now by giving spammy listings top-tier rankings, and lowering usability for small towns (the Knowledge Graph favors large metro areas heavily). Shotland predicted that we’d see a lot of new local spam crop up in the coming months.

On the local search front, Ellen White (Ford Motor Co.) shared an insight on closed offices: “If a location closes, make a ‘location closed’ page and return a 200 – don’t just let it 404.”

First-Position SERP Rankings: With the personalization and enrichment of Google search these days, a #1 ranking is becoming less relevant. Rand Fishkin reported at C3 that the clickthrough rate on page one is beginning to flatten out, and the “true” rankings are becoming the exception to the rule. Think of it this way: who searches with no IP, not logged in to Google, with no search history, etc?

Image Traffic: Google’s updated image search format is stopping users from clicking through to the actual page. Marshall Simmonds (Define Media Group) says watermarking will help, but ultimately “It looks like image traffic is dead.”

Google Gossip From Gary Illyes @SMX

  • Google is “in talks” about giving back keyword data to sites that use HTTPS.
  • Google may begin to “treat negatively” sites with broken certificates. Possibly even “demote” them.
  • About 10% of the URLs discovered by Google are HTTPS.
  • 404 errors don’t impact search rankings. You don’t have to do anything about them if you don’t want.
  • The new Penguin Update will make webmasters’ lives a bit easier.
  • Google is getting better at understanding the rendering of your pages. Please allow it to see your CSS and Javascript files.

Of course, he also strongly hinted that the next Penguin Update would be released the week of October 6th. And we know how that turned out!

Tidbits:

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SEO Business & Strategy

SEO is an evolving business where you’re not going to succeed unless you’re one step ahead of the trends. This means being more than reactionary, and looking beyond your current data to predict where it’s heading. Remember: analytics only show where you are today – not where the opportunities lie.

What’s Hot:

Context: When it comes to SEO targeting, a generic approach isn’t good enough anymore. Think: where are they coming from? Intent from mobile is entirely different than desktop. A branded search represents an entirely different stage of the funnel than unbranded.

Personas: As SEO and content continue to harmonize, the challenge of finding a common ground between persona marketing and keyword research is heating up. Finding out how your keyword research can reflect a specific demographic will be a major challenge in the coming years.

Testing: I remember a time when a CEO I worked with delayed the release of a website by a week because he couldn’t decide which font he liked best. Totally the wrong line of thinking. How the heck do we know which font is the “magic” one without testing it? Hypothetically speaking, if you saw the design pre-launch, would you have guessed that Craigslist would become one of the nation’s most visited websites? In the words of Joanna Lord (Porch) at SMX, “We’re finally beginning to test things. Now it’s time to test faster. And more often.”

What’s Not:

Automation: Web users are getting savvier every day, and their choices are expanding. And, frankly, they’re offended when they’re treated like they’re part of a system. In the words of Kevin Ryan (Motivity Marketing), “Data isn’t people. Automation isn’t strategy. Tech doesn’t replace strategy.” It’s time to make it personal.

Isolation: Get to know the competition, and stop being afraid to adopt their best strategies. At SMX, Casie Gillette (KoMarketing) suggested doing regular competitive research, including analyzing the site’s source code for signs of SEO work, checking out their content and social activity to reverse engineer their targeted personas, stalking their PR team. She also had the brilliant idea of making “frenemies” (my word, not hers) with competitors’ employees on social media, so when they announce big changes at their company, or provide behind-the-scenes insights, you’re among the first to know.

Two Challenges Inspired By The Best:

  • Build a strong understanding of your business into your SEO strategy, and integrate your efforts with your CEO’s interests. Do this, and you’ll get more budgeting for your efforts. – Lisa Williams (Sustainable Digital Marketing) @SMX
  • Get integrated in more of the process. As Mei He (NetSuite) said at C3, SEO’s should be brought in at the wireframe stage. I’d push that even farther back; they should be doing market opportunity keyword research before the content strategy and IA are in place.

Tidbits:

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Mobile

The key themes for mobile at both C3 and SMX East this year were speed and UX. Gary Illyes said that UX is going to become “incredibly important” in mobile, and to “expect Google to highlight mobile results in a mobile interface.” There was a lot talk about mobile at both conferences, but John Shehata (ABC News) stole the show at C3. Check out his SlideShare deck here.

The Mobile Situation:

  • 78% of all US users are mobile. (Johh Shehata)
  • 40-50% of search is mobile. (Michael Martin, Covario)
  • 62% of keywords have different rankings between smartphone and desktop. (Jim Yu, BrightEdge)
  • 77% of mobile users have researched a product on their phone. (Gary Illyes)
  • 61% of mobile users are unlikely to return to a site they had trouble with. 40% that do not return said they’d use a competitor’s site instead. (Gary Illyes)
  • Mobile growth is outpacing desktop growth by ten times. (Jim Yu)

What’s Hot:

Optimized Loading: Boost your load speed by taking a careful look at how things are happening on a technical level. John Shehata recommends starting with server response, then navigation, and then the rest of the page. Consolidate your DNS requests – especially above the fold – you won’t believe how many there are!

User Behavior Research: Don’t assume your users are enjoying your mobile site – there’s a lot of data to help you find that out. John Shehata recommends tracking queries in the mobile site search to see what they’re not easily finding, and make improvements based on that feedback. Not sure if your site is working for the users? Add a link at the top of your mobile site to your desktop version. If there are lots of clicks, it’s time to reevaluate.

Compliance: Jim Yu reported that non-compliant sites result in a lower rank by almost two positions, and cause you to lose 68% of your Smartphone traffic. Cindy Crum (Mobile Moxie) warns designers to avoid flash, side-to-side scrolling, broken content, and small “tap targets.” Keep font sizes large and readable for mobile, implement efficient CSS, and incorporate meaningful redirects (and not infinite redirect loops) in your design. John Shehata recommends having transcriptions for videos on your mobile pages, and allowing search engines to crawl all assets, especially CSS.

Context: Mobile changes context while searching. Michael Martin reports a 58.3% variance in desktop vs. mobile search for generic search terms, and a 73.5% variance for localized search. John Shehata recommends research and common sense over global best practices. Think: If you own a pizza restaurant, in what ways does a mobile search guide a searcher’s intent?

What’s Not:

Web Fonts: Web fonts may be pretty, but they add a layer that slows things down. John Shehata recommends using web fonts over encoding text with images to streamline your load time.

Responsive Design: Responsive sites are great, but they’re not a be-all-end-all best practice. As Johh Shehata explained in C3, if a dedicated mobile site is working for you, and your normal site is extremely heavy, responsive might not be the answer. In general, responsive loads four times slower than a dedicated mobile site.

Legacy Code: Mobile compatibility means speed, and unnecessary code can drag the site down tremendously. If your site has become “eccentric” over the years, John Shehata recommends trimming out as much useless legacy code as possible.

Tidbits:

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Brand & Marketing

“Harley Davidson doesn’t sell transportation; don’t sell products to people. Sell stories to a tribe.” – Seth Godin (Squidoo) @C3

Brands – and the stories and mission behind them – are growing in importance as the Internet constructs communities around them. And brands are ridiculously, unbelievably powerful and valued by the companies that own them. Annie Cushing (Annielytics) at SMX shared how Symantec spent 1.3 BILLION dollars to redo their logo. Really.

What’s Hot:

Having A Mission: At C3, Rand Fishkin reminds us that it’s hard to promote yourself or your company, but you CAN promote a mission. Nike doesn’t promote itself – it promotes working hard, living life to its fullest, and being the best you can be. Who can’t get on that boat? In the words of Joanna Lord: “Share your mission with the world, not just your product.”

Communities: In the words of Wil Reynolds: “What’s the ROI of building a loyal army?” I’d add to this, “What’s the cost of ignoring them?” Whether you’re Wendy’s or Ikea, there is a community around your brand online, and if you ignore it, you risk letting it take on a life of its own. Joanna Lord advises, “Brand should become an ongoing conversation from the company – and everyone in the company should be involved.”

Personas: As Rand Fishkin said at C3, “If you can get in someone’s head, you can be in their path BEFORE they need your product.” Know what your customer wants and where they’re going to be, and deliver something they’ll love. Don’t wait until a customer has made their buying decision before trying to sell it to them cheaper.

Permission: Don’t force your users to view ads – ask permission (and do it right), or risk losing them. Seth Godin defines permission marketing as “anticipated, relevant, and quality messages that go to people who want them.” Does your phone book go straight from your mailbox to the recycle bin without being opened? That’s money and waste, right there. How much are you wasting on marketing to people who don’t want you?

What’s Not:

Low-Hanging Fruit: When it comes to community building, these are days of investing in the big picture. Phil Fernandez (Marketo) suggests that instead of building marketing campaigns episodically, we plan our marketing on a lifetime of engagements. Mack Fogelson (Mack Web) and Rand Fishkin advise us to do the right thing with content promotion, even if it’s not working yet. Bear in mind that your site will grow, but it’s going to take an inordinate amount of effort – YEARS of effort – with not a whole lot going on before you succeed.

Display Ads: Rand Fishkin painted a sordid tale of display advertising: it currently has a 1 in 20,000 clickthrough rate. And even then, that one click is often by accident. To put that in perspective, the NOAA reports that the chances of being struck by lightning in a lifetime is 1 in 6,250.

Complacency: At C3, Robert Rose (Content Marketing Institute) challenged us, as marketers, to overcome the idea of equating the revolutionizing our marketing and company culture with just more work. Young people are native to being marketed to, and have the best BS detectors – it’s time to find a new approach!

Words Of Power:

  • “Facts don’t change beliefs. Just because they understand doesn’t mean they care.” Robert Rose @C3
  • “429 of the original Fortune 500 companies from 1955 are no longer in business today.” (Adapt or die!) – Joanna Lord @SMX
  • “Marketing can be the barrier to entry — or the competitive advantage for a company.” – Rand Fishkin @C3

Tidbits:

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Content Marketing & Strategy

The future of content is in creating the best content possible. It’s no longer enough to find a content gap online and fill it. Marketers today have to understand their audience and its needs, create the most value to fill that need as they possibly can, and deliver this quality to the users in an engaging, accessible way. If you’re not the first in the conversation, quality only becomes more crucial. In the words of Rand Fishkin, “Don’t just one-up someone’s content. Do it ten times better, or don’t expect a lot of results.”

What’s Hot:

Big Content: Content marketers often forget that people are entirely willing to read long content if they trust its quality. Remember: people will read an entire 900-page Stephen King book! And books are stronger than ever. Karianne Stinson (IPG Mediabrands) reported at SMX that reading magazines is up 100%, and books are up 66%.

Better Content: At SMX, Casie Gillette practically begged the audience, “Give them more than something to read. Give them something to do.” Scott Brinker (Chief Marketing Technologist) reported that interactive content converts 40% more than passive content, and that once a user starts to be engaged in content, the likelihood that they’ll keep going rises. Arnie Kuenn (Vertical Measures) recommends making your white papers 15-20 pages each, on average, but cautions that the longer it is, the more scannable it should be. If you make it, and it’s quality, your users will reciprocate the effort.

Listening: Go where people are talking, and listen to what they’re saying. At SMX, Arnie Kuenn suggested researching Yahoo Answers for content ideas, or even just connecting with your sales department and asking “What are people asking all the time?” Use those questions to guide future content. Evan Auerbach warns, “Don’t create the content your company wants. Create what your audience wants. Pay attention!” If possible, open up with your audience directly, and see how ideas impact them. As Rand Fishkin said, “The content that has performed best for me across the web is always content that resonated offline with people.”

What’s Not:

Churn: Everyone loses the churn race. Scott Brinker pointed out at SMX that for years, marketers have been trying to produce more content to compete with more content. As it happens, the odds of any individual piece breaking through get progressively smaller. Are you creating content because you have something fantastic to contribute, or because you need to fill a content quota?

Assumptions: Louis Cohen (Citibank) shared a cautionary tale at C3 that boiled down to this question: When building content, consider this: What happens if it ranks? The prospect sounds great – unless it isn’t. When building a page on your site, always ask yourself “Will they know what to do?” Don’t assume that the user understands the nuances of your brand, or that they can find their own way around your site.

Cautionary Quotes On Content Creation

  • “Nobody walks around with a hammer thinking, ‘I’m going to hammer some stuff today.” – Rand Fishkin @C3
  • “Creating content without first considering the users is like building an engine but not knowing what car it’s for.” – Erin Everhart @SMX
  • “Don’t let your content be a byproduct of what your business does.” – Robert Rose @C3

Tidbits:

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Attendees of the C3 Conference in NYC, 2014.

C3 in NYC. Photo credit: Conductor

Final Thoughts

Despite the different approaches, these two conferences took there are definitely a few points they both agreed on:

  • Content creation is wasted time unless you invest in it.
  • A generalist approach to content is no longer sufficient; it’s time to integrate context and persona into what we do.
  • If we don’t create a community around our business, the community will create itself without us.
  • The future is mobile.
  • Automation is taboo, but speed is vital.
  • Digital is moving faster than we can create best practices for it; we need to understand the market beyond adhering to a rule book.

… and finally, a few parting thoughts from the masters:

  • “Let’s don’t lose our childlike wonder of how fantastic this is.” – Lisa Williams
  • “If you are doing something that someone else can do, they will find someone who can do it cheaper than you can.” – Robert Rose
  • “Is my mustache bushy today?” – Rand Fishkin

Did you make any sessions we missed? Have any great takeaways to add? Leave your gems for us in the comments!

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