Ask The SEOs at SMX Advanced
Unable to attend SMX Advanced this year? Columnist Andrew Shotland recaps the "Ask The SEOs" session for those who missed it.
Covering the “Ask The SEOs” session at SMX Advanced is like covering a geek version of a late night talk show with your host, Danny Sullivan. I’ll try to keep up.
On the panel we have:
- Greg Boser, Foundation Digital
- Todd Friesen, Director of Digital Strategy & SEO, Salesforce
- Laura Lippay, Organic Search & Technical Optimization Lead, Netflix
- Adria Kyne, SEO Manager North America & AU/NZ, Vistaprint
As Sullivan put it, “This is the session where we answer all of the questions that Google wouldn’t answer yesterday [at the AMA With Google Search session].”
I’m going to present this in Q&A style to trigger some Google Instant Answer Boxes:
Q: Best advice for consolidating unneeded pages?
Friesen: We do a lot of mapping to find better places for content and do a lot of 301s. If it’s unneeded content and not getting any traffic, we’ll take them down. Those are truly unneeded pages and wasting crawl resources. Often content is killed for corporate reasons (off-brand messaging and so forth).
Q: Best CMS?
Kyne: Every CMS claims to be SEO-friendly. We recommend limited feature sets to avoid people hanging themselves with too many options.
Friesen: It all depends what you do with it. You can screw up WordPress if you don’t know what you doing.
Boser: If it hits all the things ScreamingFrog tracks, that’s a good list.
Lippay: I like Pixelsilk.
Q: Yesterday, Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Gary Illyes (@methode) said going to https is easy. Thoughts?
Friesen: If you are running a big ecommerce site with load balancers and Akamai caching, etc., I dare you to go to your network devs to ask for this, telling them that “Google said we just had to update a certificate or something” and see how they respond.
Boser: Understand that once you go, you can never go back. If you request a secure link and it redirects to http, the browser will give an “insecure” message, which is not good.
Kyne: I still think people should do it. We’re inevitably moving in this direction. It’s just not as easy as Google says it is.
Boser: And everything needs to go secure, like third-party scripts. It’s not the SEO bump thing everyone expects.
Lippay: We did it. Our rankings fluctuated, but nothing major, and we’re slightly worse a year later.
Q: How does Google treat changing links on your page?
Boser: It’s your site. Don’t get too stressed about changing links. If you are obsessing about it at this level, it can be absurd. If you are using data on a large scale like eBay did, you can switch out links and see huge benefits. Hearst is doing something similar now.
Q: When using affiliate programs like SkimLinks, links get redirected. Google says when done right, these links don’t work for SEO. Is this true?
(Lots of laughter.)
Boser: If you are doing affiliate marketing, you want to do everything you can to make sure Google has no idea what you are doing.
Kyne: If your affiliates’ pages are offering real value to your customers, then you probably don’t need to worry about how they link to you. If they are sketchy, then you should probably re-evaluate them.
Boser: I create a subdirectory that I exclude in /robots.txt so Google can’t even find my affiliate links.
Q: What about hidden content?
Lippay: If you have hidden content, Google will index it, but they claim it will not be as helpful to ranking. (Author’s note: I have seen little evidence of this.)
Q: If you have an XML sitemap, do you need an HTML sitemap?
Boser: Good architecture should be your HTML sitemap. If you need an HTML sitemap, you’ve built your site wrong.
Lippay: Netflix.com’s home page doesn’t do a good job of linking to our shows, so HTML sitemaps are good fallback until I convince people about crosslinks. But these HTML sitemaps are not the greatest pages, and Google will likely devalue them because they don’t have a lot of content. But sometimes it’s the best you can do.
Boser: The problem with HTML sitemaps is they start becoming a crutch because that’s the way new pages get linked in the architecture instead of the better way in the main UI.
Q: Is technical SEO just makeup?
Sullivan: We had a post on technical SEO last week that caused a lot of tweets.
Boser: I’m a little split on that article, actually. Big huge brands rank despite their SEO prowess or lack thereof. We see that all the time. So I can see where some might say there’s no big tech SEO wins there. Google likes “Brands.com.” But the lower you are down in the food chain, the more important it is to get the tech things right, because Google doesn’t care about getting your site right.
Lippay: When you work with different sites all the time, you get to know what works for different situations. And you can see that the same thing doesn’t always work on different sites.
Friesen: You may have a big brand that is doing well, but then a VP comes in and says, “We’re going to replatform,” and suddenly, you need an advanced technical SEO to stop the organization from destroying itself.
Boser: Did you read Dennis’s rebuttal? He talks about using data to build out tools that automated a lot of SEO to get the big wins. That’s what I call technical SEO. The days of making everything an H1 are over. One genius thing Dennis did is when eBay would have a big item like Jesus on toast, which would get a lot of links, after the event was over, he would create an historical overview of the content which created more SEO value. That’s technical SEO — thinking creatively.
Q: We are going to collapse our navigation for our mobile site. Will that affect rankings?
Friesen: It’s all about the implementation.
Kyne: Please don’t do it if you don’t think it’s a big win for your users.
Boser: It’s not about whether or not you can crawl it. The mistake people make is having too many links on the home page. Google still likes a hierarchy of links. Why pass equity to all those long-tail pages that are better linked to lower down the path?
Friesen: The hamburger menu can cause increased bounce rates. Why would you want that?
Lippay: Netflix is really into testing. If we are going to put a link in the footer, we test it to see how it affects conversion rate. User experience is always first.
Boser: The hamburger thing always starts with some designer thinking it’s cool, or they see it on a competitor’s site and instead of testing it with users, they roll it out.
Q: Thoughts on RankBrain?
Friesen: RankBrain could be substituting “did you mean” results without you knowing. Basically, they are thinking they know better than you what you are looking for.
Boser: At the end of the day, it’s just re-sorting stuff, and you have to get into the consideration set to be sorted. That’s links and content. So stop worrying about RankBrain.
Kyne: Ninety percent of the time, when someone asks me about what they can do to affect RankBrain, their site shows they are not doing the basics right.
Boser: Mining [Google] Suggest is a much better way to spend your time.
Sullivan: I was trying to get Gary [Illyes] to clarify whether this was a query refinement thing or a ranking signal thing. Gary suggested it was a ranking signal thing, but every other Googler has said it was a query refinement thing, so I think it’s a refinement thing. My theory is RankBrain is mapping queries to more popular queries, i.e., “Super Synonyms.” This doesn’t mean you have to put every synonym on every page, as Google should understand that a page about “shoes” should rank for “footwear” queries.
Friesen: Nobody has seen any changes since RankBrain supposedly rolled out. It’s not like Thesaurus.com started ranking for everything. (Line of the day!)
Q: How are you approaching voice search?
Boser: More conversational-based posts and looking at “How-To” based research for content ideas is the best we can do?
Q: Do you foresee an AMPageddon?
(Huge groans from audience.)
Boser: They are making a lot of thinly veiled threats to pushing media brands to get on AMP.
Friesen: You’re going to see it mostly for real-time info. Sites like Salesforce don’t have that kind of content, and AMP is not right for the kind of queries we target.
Boser: Our clients just spent millions on going responsive because Google pushed it, and now they are saying you have to go AMP, which will always rank ahead of their responsive site, so at some point you have to just throw your hands up because publishers cannot keep up.
Lippay: I think the idea of speeding up the web is a good one in general.
Q: Secure search. Should people do it in the near future? Should they do AMP?
Boser: Yeah, secure especially on new stuff. AMP, probably, but we should wait to see results.
Friesen: We’re not going to look at it until we’re forced to.
Q: Is Google going to be explicit that if you don’t do AMP, you’ll be sorry?
Boser: If you are in the news space, you’re already there. I hate to say it, but it’s a great experience. I don’t like how they are forcing it on us, though.
Kyne: If you have a speedy website, you shouldn’t be penalized by AMP because you are delivering on what AMP wants to do.
Boser: Google is going to bring carousel-style results to the desktop.
Sullivan: All results are going to be like Tinder.
Q: Do social signals matter?
Kyne: Yes, but it’s indirect.
Friesen: It’s a corroborating signal.
Lippay: Remember there used to be a social vertical? So there’s an algo out there, and it could still be around.
Friesen: And Google and Twitter are friends now.
Kyne: The way you are interacting with social media is not always the best way to determine relevance.
Friesen: The days of gaming social are pretty much done… or it’s at least way harder.
Q: Subdomain vs. subdirectory?
Friesen & Kyne: Subdirectory.
Boser: Depends. Subdomains can be great for head terms, not so much for tail.
Lippay: Yahoo and Microsoft put entire sites on subdomains. If the content is super different, go subdomain.
Friesen: If it can be its own website, it can be on a subdomain. If it’s part of the “content pyramid,” it should be on a subdirectory.
Kyne: If you have a small site, you don’t need to put stuff on subdomains.
Q: Why is Boser so jaded?
Boser: I’ve got 20 years in this business and half of what Google says is a load of crap. We would discover things Google’s algo did that they didn’t know it did themselves. We’re at a point where there’s a lot of misinformation coming out of Google. Take everything Google says with a grain of salt. It’s your business. It’s your site. You know what’s right for your business.
Q: What’s in your toolbox?
Lippay: I’m digging Stat and Ahrefs.
Friesen: Standard stuff. SEMRush & Screaming Frog. We use BrightEdge. We’re not using anything cool and tricky.
Sullivan: I like the one that allows you to view how a page looks on Chrome with different devices
Friesen: The Web Developer Toolbar is still the best
Lippay: I’ve been getting into accessibility tools to experience what someone [sees] who has visual impairment experiences on your site. Chromebox is a fun one.
Q: SEO strategies you want to share?
Boser: If you are hosting duplicate pages on partner site subdomains, cloak for Google and 301 to the main site. That may not still work. ;-)
Friesen: One of the biggest things we did was educate our copywriters to use the words we want to rank for in our copy. Moving our blog from a subdomain to a subdirectory, traffic doubled overnight.
Lippay: I enjoy breaking things lately. They took most/all of the content off their key pages and Laura prepared the org for a tanking, but nothing happened. TL;DR — It’s nice to be Netflix.
Kyne: I like looking at the information architecture and asking if the most important products/categories/pages, etc. are high in the architecture vs. a huge tree of stuff that is less important.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.