Working at Wellspring Digital with an SEO OG, Karl Hindle, has given me access to some of the smartest people in SEO. I’ve been able to interview a few of them already, namely Lily Ray, Duane Forrester, Jim Hedger, and Tim Capper. And more are on their way.
2020 was a year of upheaval, to put it mildly. Marketing your business has become even more challenging in these turbulent times, and SEO is not any different.
So, I thought I would ask some of my favorite SEOs, including many friends of Wellspring Digital, their thoughts on SEO in 2020 and what’s in store for SEO in 2021. I asked these SEOs only two questions…
- In what significant ways has the global pandemic changed SEO?
- What should be the top SEO priorities for marketers in 2021?
The SEO Experts
So, who did I ask?
- Lily Ray, Director of SEO for Path Interactive
- Duane Forrester, VP of Industry Insights at Yext
- David Harry, Owner, and Sifu at SEO Training Dojo
- Doc Sheldon, Founder/Owner at Intrinsic Value SEO
- Omi Sido, Senior Technical SEO at Canon Europe
- Jim Hedger, Owner of Digital Always Media and Co-Host of Webcology
- Dave Davies, Owner of Beanstalk Internet Marketing and Co-Host of Webcology
- Barry Schwartz, President of RustyBrick, Inc., and Editor at Search Engine Roundtable
- Tim Capper, SEO Director at Online Ownership and GMB Expert
These SEOs gave me quite a bit of information to work with, so I will be doing this in segments as a three-part series. Next up we have the three-letter name power trio of Jim Hedger, Doc Sheldon, and Omi Sido.
The COVID-19 Pandemic’s Impact on SEO
The first question I asked these three was “In what significant ways has the global pandemic changed SEO?” We’ll start with Jim…
Jim Hedger on the Pandemic’s SEO Impact
We are at one of the most challenging crossroads in human history and there are several real-world forces that will affect how the digital environment evolves over the coming year, along with extraordinary breakthroughs in one extraordinary technology.
Let’s deal with the largest of the real-world influences first as we can only note them because they’re very difficult to predict and our society does not have a consensus on how to handle them.
COVID19’s Impact on “Normal”
First came the plague. COVID19 has changed pretty much everything about our society except our assumption there is a normal we can go back to. There isn’t. Normal was swept away in March of 2020 when the world went into varying degrees of shut-down to try to prevent the spread of COVID19.
What will emerge in 2022 is anybody’s guess but it will be a long time before a generation of entrepreneurs recovers the capital lost during the shutdowns. Think of all the storefront businesses, the restaurants and bakeries and bars and retail stores that used to be your Main Street.
So many of them have been forced out of business we won’t realize what we’ve lost until the world slowly starts to reopen and we try to rediscover our personal normal, only to find many of our normal things simply aren’t there anymore.
COVID19’s Impact on Small Business
Small business will always be the primary driver of our economy but how small business gets conducted is changing. For a short period in May 2020, eCommerce platform Shopify Inc displaced the Royal Bank as Canada’s most valuable business.
As small businesses around the world raced to place their wares online where people could see them, the Montreal-based software company best known for its in-store point of sales products became a global giant.
Even though small businesses are competing with an even larger e-tail giant in Amazon, many local merchants left standing are there because they were able to find ways to use the Web to sell their products and services.
They’re also there because many real-world communities are actively looking for ways to support the small businesses that help make up their neighbourhoods.
COVID19’s Impact on SEO and Google My Business
For SEOs, this marks an excellent opportunity to push local businesses. Google My Business is the best way to get a local business noticed for being local.
Google and other search engines are going to continue to discover the vast majority of content on their own but increasingly they need help to identify and extract information from our client’s web properties. Google My Business gives a dozen or more ways of expressing important information about local businesses.
Even though people aren’t venturing out to shop like they did in previous years, they still want to purchase from local merchants. This goes double for local restaurants.
While most take-out operations use a consolidated delivery service like Uber Eats or Skip-the-Dishes, web-users often discover local food options via Google or other search tools before moving their purchase actions to the third-party order/delivery service. Be sure your clients are as visible as possible and providing as much data as possible.
Doc Sheldon on the Pandemic’s SEO Impact
Setting aside some of the obvious short-term effects, both negative and positive, I think there are some differences that are likely to be of a more lasting nature.
Impact on SEOs Natural Habitat
One would be the new “normal” of remote work, for those SEOs who are accustomed to working in a shared office, or who previously depended upon face-to-face meetings with clients and prospects, that change alone has been a catalyst for a great deal of adjustment, for practitioners, clients (both their representatives and the companies, as a whole), and agencies.
As recently as a year ago, many companies still resisted the idea of a remote workforce. The general attitude among many C-levels was that they couldn’t be assured they were getting the same level of effort and throughput from unseen/unsupervised workers. For some, that was rooted in a need to feel “in control”, while many simply felt that managing remote workers would be made more difficult.
As a business management consultant in a previous life, I encountered this resistance quite a bit, even to the point of some preferring to hire in-house, rather than using contractors.
As a result of the pandemic, I think that many businesses – clients and agencies alike – have seen that not only is a remote workforce a viable option, it offers some significant advantages. Greatly reduced requirements in terms of office space and furnishings, utility consumption, insurance premiums, and more have translated to greatly reduced day-to-day overhead. That boost to a company’s cash-flow can be a game-changer.
COVID19 Impacting Collaboration
Another impact is that many of us have had to adjust to the loss of interaction with our coworkers. The psychological effect of this can be tangibly frustrating for some, but it also diminishes our ability to collaborate quickly and easily.
“Hey, Marie… have you ever seen something like this before?” or “Bob, am I out in left field when I think this drop could be due to XXX?”
Of course, we’ve been able to compensate somewhat for that reduced collaboration by greatly increasing our use of various chat platforms. But is that really the same? One could also argue that because so many of us are hungry for the “company” of others, we’re spending a lot more time in those chats than is really necessary.
And of course, the pandemic has led to the failure – or at least scaling back – of many businesses’ headcount and growth plans. For our own companies, that may have a negative impact.
But some competitors will also be impacted, which could be of benefit to us. What the overall long-term effects of those shifts will be remains to be seen. But it seems reasonable to assume that solopreneurs will be affected less, so may take on a larger role in their niche.
Omi Sido on the Pandemic’s SEO Impact
SEO Is on The Rise
The simple answer to this question is: SEO is on the rise. The current restrictions around the world mean that noticeably more people are doing their entire shopping online and searching for every imaginable product or service.
It’s fair to say that digital marketers are seeing a paradigm shift in consumer behaviour which I honestly believe will be a permanent one.
Many folks who had never ordered a store delivery online before the pandemic are now doing so on a daily basis. And they are happy.
This new-found trust in buying products and services online has literally expanded into every area of e-commerce and it’s difficult to believe that the public will go back to their old preferences once the restrictions are eventually lifted.
Optimizing Is More Crucial than Ever
More people online means more potential buyers searching for our products and services. On the other side, this also means that competition is becoming increasingly fierce. To stay competitive a company must stay ahead of the curve. At all times.
The SEO of yesterday – bringing a lot of random people to the website – is slowly becoming the new SEO of providing useful information (it’s more important than ever!), always optimising (due to the constantly changing marketing conditions), data-driven (you have to know your customers and you have to know them well) and working closely with other digital marketing disciplines (from now on optimising for Amazon, YouTube and even Instagram is a must-do practice).
There’s a lot of uncertainty right now around us but I can tell you for sure that if your online business is driven by SEO, then SEO is capable of maximising your sales and increasing conversions.
Top SEO Priorities for Marketers in 2021
OK, same three SEOs, different question…
What should be the top SEO priorities for marketers in 2021? Again, we’ll start with Jim Hedger…
Jim Hedger’s Top SEO Priorities for Marketers in 2021
Section 230 and Its Impact Today
The Web was originally designed to simply express information. The Web2.0 was designed to allow for interaction. Web2.0 was a fundamental shift in what we could do with the Internet environment, allowing for the rise of social media.
Its growth relied on a section of an early piece of Internet legislation, 1996’s Communications Decency Act, known as Section 230. This is the reason online publishers don’t get arrested every time people write crazy and often vile things in reaction to their websites.
Section 230 indemnifies Facebook, Twitter, and anyone with a blog saying, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
This means that former President Trump was able to write whatever he wanted to on Twitter until Twitter decided he wasn’t able to anymore, without Twitter itself fearing prosecution. Section 230 also protects the owners of Parler from being held responsible for content that might have led to the events of January 6th.
Nobody seriously expects Congress to repeal section 230 because that would effectively end the Internet as we know it. We will however see Congress try to tackle the thorny questions about what constitutes responsibility and authority when it comes to publishing or printing information, especially in a technological world that pushes information to users based on their personal interests.
January 6th taught us how dangerous the echo chambers of social media can be when only one opinion, ideology, or point of view is expressed and all others algorithmically rejected before the live-user has a chance to even consider them. As the year goes on we’re going to find out the conspiracy-laden echo chamber is still a present danger and someone’s going to want to do something about it.
Doing “Social” The Right Way
Watch the social space very closely but, in the meantime, take advantage of what it can do. Targeted advertising and remarketing will be important tools in marketer’s hands.
Social can be a brutal environment but if marketers remember what it is consumers really want right now, community and communication, finding the right messaging shouldn’t be too difficult.
You’re helping tell what is always going to be the greatest story on Earth, one of survival and resilience. If your clients are still in business, their story is one of strength in hard times. Think about Mr. Rogers and always be a helper because that’s who people are looking for right now.
While we’re thinking about Web2.0 and being a helper, think about the myriad of ways providing extra data points can help your clients be more visible in search than their competition. Rich results and schema mark-up are critical to providing search engines the information they need to properly represent businesses.
Web2.0 was the adolescence of the web but we’re entering a new era, one that will make Web2.0 look as backward and foolish as the user-generated-content it allowed.
Alan Turing and AI
In 1950, British computer scientist and cryptanalyst, Alan Turing, devised a test called the “Imitation Game” as a way to judge if artificial intelligence is truly intelligent. The test puts three entities in conversation. Two of the entities are human and the other is a machine.
One of the humans is the judge and their job is to determine which of the other two is the machine and which is the human. If the judge is unable to determine the machine from the human-based on normal conversational language, the AI would be considered truly intelligent by Turing.
Turing didn’t live to see a machine pass his test. In fact, none of us have as yet but we have come very close. Artificial intelligence might not have the human qualities it would take to pass the Turing Test but AI is doing intellectual work at scales humans simply can’t.
AI Today and Tomorrow
Google uses at least one artificial intelligence application known by the acronym BERT in the creation of search result sets. Other search engines are also using artificial intelligence to sort information and parse language in order to better understand the intent of the search-user.
Other digitally driven environments use artificial intelligence to do hundreds of unique tasks including legal research, medical diagnosis, logistics planning, and long-term forecasting. News publishers are using artificial intelligence to find information and write articles.
Website content is increasingly written by artificial intelligence. This is a trend that is naturally going to accelerate. It is currently affecting SEO and digital marketing by how effective Google and other search engines are at understanding natural language and figuring out what unique search users were really trying to understand when choosing the words that make up their search queries.
There are currently two SEO tools designed to understand language and entities and find matches that can be incorporated into the body content. These two tools are the leading edge of a new wave of tools that will use AI to comb their own Google-sized databases for ways to match user-language with the entities a website represents.
2020 was one of the most intense live-action history lessons ever lived. It marked a break from a previous era and the start of a new and as yet still undefined one. We have moved through the last quarter-century at a velocity rivaling the speed of light.
The growth of artificial intelligence pushes us beyond light into the realm of the quantum. 2021 will be a period of continued change, the stasis period a caterpillar goes through before emerging as a moth or a butterfly. How we will emerge remains to be seen but one certainty is inevitable. When we do, everything will have changed.
Doc Sheldon’s Top SEO Priorities for Marketers in 2021
Keep Focusing on the Users and Buyer Behavior
I don’t really think the top priorities for SEOs will change dramatically in 2021. We’ve always known we need to focus on the needs and wants of users, while providing search engines with a clear picture of what we offer – that won’t change, other than to perhaps become even more important.
However, buyer behavior has changed a LOT! And I don’t think things will ever go back to “business as usual.” Consumers have gotten used to the idea of placing online orders for delivery to their home.
There are several facets to that type of consumerism – greater convenience, reduced time, less cost in gas, vehicle wear & tear, reduced insurance costs – generally, a lot less hassle. While that may return slightly to previous methods, I suspect it will continue to be a large portion of household consumerism.
More Investment in Digital Marketing
That, of course, may have a secondary effect – causing more merchants that have traditionally been walk-in brick and mortars, which, because of the pandemic, added delivery to their offering, to shift to entirely delivery business models, further reducing their negative cashflow by eliminating their walk-in presence altogether.
The trickle-down effects of such shifts can be many… reduced rentals of storefront properties, fewer public-facing employees, reduced costs for liability insurance, utilities, aesthetics, parking requirements… the effects go on and on.
The effects to the SEO industry would be mostly felt in increased marketing budgets and a shift in the presentation of such businesses’ offerings.
Omi Sido’s Top SEO Priorities for Marketers in 2021
Embrace Data-Driven SEO
The short answer to this question is whether you like it or not there is no one-size-fits-all approach to SEO. Not now. Not in 2021 or beyond. The only constant in SEO is high quality, well-written content that is unique, relevant to the intent of the keyword search, and provides a great user experience.
Once you understand that my advice for 2021 is to embrace data-driven SEO. As the landscape continues to shift, SEOs (and businesses) who adopt a data analyst’s mentality of doing SEO (and online business in general) will be much better equipped and will stay more competitive than those who rely too much on gut feeling and other non-data-driven tactics.
Nowadays there are endless amounts of data and resources available to help us improve our SEO. Every single SEO campaign we deliver should come from a data-driven strategy, tailored with knowledge of the business’s goals, intricacies, and target markets.
SEO Should Be an Integral Part of Every Business
Talking about business goals, SEO should never be treated as a separate entity. SEO has become an integral part of every business – especially after how 2020 treated us – so as such SEO should be treated as part of the marketing funnel.
Your SEO goals should be tied directly to the company’s business goals, so every single member of your company is going in the same direction.
SEO is not just the process of improving your site to increase its online visibility. This description was valid in 2015. Today SEO is the process of boosting your online presence for relevant online search results so your business can earn more leads, sales, and revenue.
And if SEO doesn’t bring anything to the revenue table in 2021, your business either needs a new SEO or a new analysis that knows how to measure SEO performance and results.