Does SEO Still Matter?

Sure, getting traffic from search engines is important. But is it worth investing time in SEO to get that traffic?

When you ask most digital entrepreneurs about SEO, you generally receive a mixed response.

Some will say that traditional SEO no longer matters; too many changes from search engines, too much competition, and too little return.

But savvy online marketers will say that SEO not only matters, it is at the heart of their content marketing strategy.

In this episode we interview Eric Enge, CEO of Stone Temple Consulting and co-author of The Art of SEO. Eric addresses some of the common criticism against SEO with hard data showing how modern SEO can create substantial traffic.

In this 32-minute episode, Sean Jackson and Jessica Frick deep dive into the current state of SEO, including…

  • Does SEO still matter, given all the options for traffic?
  • Why Google wants relevant results and appreciates SEO
  • Why making your content more reader-friendly is hugely important, versus just keyword stuffing content
  • Why links still matter and how to get the right ones
  • The emerging role of video in search and why you should be using it now
  • And of course, our question for the week – Is email marketing still relevant?

The Show Notes

Does SEO Still Matter?

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You’re listening to The Digital Entrepreneur, the show for folks who want to discover smarter ways to create and sell profitable digital goods and services. This podcast is a production of Digital Commerce Institute, the place to be for digital entrepreneurs. For more information, go to Rainmaker.FM/DigitalCommerce. That’s Rainmaker.FM/DigitalCommerce.

Jessica Frick: Hi. You’re listening to the Digital Entrepreneur. I am Jessica Frick.

Sean Jackson: I’m Sean Jackson. Last week, Jess, we had a question that you posed: does SEO still matter? I was sitting there going, “Does she not remember that I actually know a lot about SEO?” I am going to push back and ask you why do you think it may or may not matter, from your perspective?

Jessica Frick: Search engine optimization, obviously, is about distribution and discovery. The main reason you would want to optimize for search engines is to be discovered. I think there are a lot of advancements that have come along that make search engines less relevant.

Sean Jackson: Ooh, like what?

Jessica Frick: Social.

Sean Jackson: What else?

Jessica Frick: Email.

Sean Jackson: What else? Maybe

Jessica Frick: That’s a big one. No doubt.

Sean Jackson: Yeah, I understand your point. For people who’ve been digital entrepreneurs for a while, SEO has certainly been something that we’ve all talked about, primarily because it’s been and continues to be … A large source of referral traffic to one’s site is coming from search engines, with Google being the predominant one in there. Certainly it used to be this preconceived notion of a black box.

There was a dark magic to it, and only certain practitioners knew how to do it. Obviously, over the years that’s thoroughly not only been debunked, but it’s also something that it’s become a science, if you will. There’s certain things that we know work. There’s certain processes that you have to do, which have changed over the years as search engines like Google have gotten a lot smarter.

I think it’s tough to push back and say, “Does it still matter?” in so far as it really is a fundamental part of the content marketing process. I think that’s the broader context of it, that it’s not just SEO only — as you pointed out. There’s other platforms. There’s other vehicles. It is this idea, like you said, of really thinking about how this content is going to be discovered out there. To that, though, this is where I say SEO still matters, because some of the root principles of SEO still are applicable even though the world has completely changed.

Number one: headlines still matter. Keywords in headlines still matter. Your description — even though it has no ranking value — still matters in drawing attention, especially when you look at all of the different Tweet cards and Facebook things and the Open Graph system. Even the basics still matter in that discovery process, with search engines certainly still leading the way. I would say, yeah, SEO still matters. I think if you’re looking at putting content out there, you’re still going to want to know, “Is this going to be easy to be found? Does this have relevancy to be linked to?” However, Jess, you would say …

Jessica Frick: I would say that you can’t consider SEO to be what it used to be. You can’t just say, “awesome bike shop” for 26 towns nearby.

Sean Jackson: Right.

Jessica Frick: And put it in purple ink for your purple background, so that you can only see it when you hover over it. Those sorts of tricks are gone. Google has wisened up to that. Yeah, as you said, it’s part of the content marketing strategy. With Google being predictive now, you just write good content and make sure that you’ve got your data structured in a way that Google can read it, and I think you’ll be fine — so long as you’re good.

Sean Jackson: I think so, but I think you also have to pay attention to the nuances. This is where I would say that the typical tactics of SEO that many people had done in the past still are relevant, in so far as this. You still need to think about images. Certainly, with all the social media out there, how you put those images on a page and the text that you put around them, that does matter, because it helps people understand — when I say “people,” I mean the people using those discovery engines — to understand the context of it. Anyone who’s been a food blogger probably knows exactly what I’m talking about with Pinterest and Instagram and all those.

Jessica Frick: Oh, gosh. Yeah.

Sean Jackson: I do think that you still have the mechanical components that you’ve had since the very beginning that you still have to do. But I agree that it definitely has evolved to a much more elegant way of helping other systems understand what you have. Again, if you look at video, for instance, there’s whole ways of optimizing video, and I think this still blows people away.

YouTube is the second-most searched on system on the web, outside of Google. Think about that. You got Amazon, YouTube, and Google where searches are conducting. Each of which have their own things that require you to optimize that content for discovery, which still rely on your basic SEO-esque type of tactics, though less spammy than they’ve been in the past.

Jessica Frick: You know what’s awesome, is I don’t even have to be the best. I just have to throw a couple of bucks, and Google will put me first anyway.

Sean Jackson: You know, Jess, I’m going to leave it at that by saying that not only are you wrong, but on this show today, we actually bringing in a expert that’s going to debunk that and many more myths. Stay tuned after the break, because we have an awesome interview with Eric Enge from Stone Temple Consulting who is going to show Jess how she’s wrong this time in our little debate. Stay tuned after this break.

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Sean Jackson: Welcome back from the break, everyone. Jess and I have a very special guest today, Eric Enge, CEO of Stone Temple Consulting and co-author of The Art of SEO. Highly recommend that book. It’s been around for awhile, and it’s still the definitive source. More importantly, you can learn so much about Eric and his whole thinking about SEO by visiting his site with all those fun videos. Eric, welcome to the show.

Eric Enge: Thanks for having me. I’m looking forward to it.

Jessica Frick: Eric, we are so excited to have you. I need to ask you a question. Does Google hate SEO?

Eric Enge: Oh, my. Not in such a generic way or not in a simplistic way. There are people that do a lot of really great SEO work. It’s really, in its ideal world, about helping websites be better understood by search engines. Google doesn’t hate that. But they do hate people who go out of their way to dream up schemes to manipulate Google search results based on things that probably shouldn’t matter that much. Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of that history in the SEO industry. But Google doesn’t hate all SEO.

Does SEO Still Matter, Given All the Options for Traffic?

Sean Jackson: It’s funny, because obviously with Matt Cutts leaving Google — who was definitely a big part of the webmaster community and a very much of a definitive source out there of information … Over the years, Google has, in using the terms of somebody being much more predatory in their data aggregation, how they pull things. I want to talk about the fact that I think there’s some people who feel like, “Look, SEO was all about link building way back when. Now Google has figured that out, there’s really no value other than just putting a title and some content on a page and calling it a day.” All the old black hat SEO — all of the magic mystery of SEO is gone now, and really it’s not as important in the discovery process where you have an active role in manipulating it, if you will. You’re just going to have to sit back and take it as it is. What do you say to that?

Eric Enge: That just leaves more traffic for me and the people that our agency helps, because it’s a very inaccurate view of today’s SEO world, to be fair.

Sean Jackson: Well, correct me then.

Eric Enge: Not to offend anybody who has that point of view. Look, SEO today is becoming very centered on things like the quality of the content you can produce, how that’s received by the world at large, and how users engage with it. This is something that most websites do poorly.

Sean Jackson: Really?

Eric Enge: Oh, yeah. It’s easy for an agency like ours to go in — we do this for a lot of major global brands, as well as some smaller companies — you just go in and you help them improve their content quality dramatically. And guess what? They’re suddenly getting a lot more traffic from Google. It’s not an accident. The link building side of things isn’t dead either, it’s just the way people thought of it is dead. If you’re doing the right things to promote your brand and get a great deal of visibility, and as a result, more people are linking to you, yeah. That still moves your ranking.

Sean Jackson: Let’s go through that. You bring up a point that we make all the time on when it ever comes to topic of search optimization, or what I like to call content optimization, the ability to create a content that enhances its discovery online. Is it really still the focus by the search engines on surfacing great content? Does content on the page really matter versus just trying to get as many links as you can to that damn page?

Because I know there’s a lot of people out there that are saying, “I’m writing great content and nothing is happening, but I see Bob over there. Bob went to that link farm over in the Philippines, and man, his rankings have skyrocketed.” Talk about that contrast between that quality content that you mentioned that does improve it and the way that link building — I wanted you to dive into those two topics.

Why Making Your Content More Reader-Friendly (Versus Keyword Stuffing) Is Hugely Important

Eric Enge: Sure. Let’s take the first one first. Content quality. We had a situation last year with a client where we modified 300 pages that they had on their e-commerce site. A very large, well-known brand. There were some texts that had been put on those pages previously by another SEO agency. That text fit the classic definition of what people might call “SEO text.” It wasn’t written for users. It was about 250 words. It was using a lot of related keywords, but it didn’t flow well, etc.
Across 300 articles, we replaced their text with our text, which was the same length — in rough terms — but was designed for users, is what I mean to say. It was definitely designed for users.

The pages we worked on were up 168 percent in traffic. The pages we didn’t work on — just so that you understand there was a control group — were also up, but they were only up 17 percent. The difference of 151 percent. By the way, I’ve got multiple versions of those case studies I can tell you. Another one where it was 149 versus 32. Another one where it was 68 versus -11.

Sean Jackson: Wow.

Eric Enge: It makes a difference. The whole key is we design the content for users. In the process of doing that, we did still write semantically-rich copy, but we created something that people would actually engage in. So that’s the content side of things.

Sean Jackson: Let me add to that, because here’s another aspect. There’s a commonly held belief out there that, “Okay, you rewrote the copy and you made it better. Obviously your studies showed that you got a big lift — not doubting that. But maybe it’s because people are spending more time on the page or people are clicking on that revised heading that you did, and because of that time they’re spending on there, that’s a ranking factor now. Forget links, because now it’s all about time on the page versus trying to keyword stuff the page.” What say you?

Eric Enge: First of all — I’m actually going to disagree with what you just said in a moment, but before I disagree with it — do you care?

Sean Jackson: That’s a great point.

Eric Enge: I mean we just talked about how you could get 150 percent lift of the underlying technical thing that Google looked at. Does the reason really matter? It doesn’t. I think everybody listening will agree that we don’t. Now, let me get over to the user signal side of things. I have no doubt that Google is finding some specific scenarios where they can use user engagement data as a ranking factor.

But I will tell you that Google’s Jeff Dean — who’s a Google Fellow, which is a very senior technical title, and the head of their machine learning or artificial intelligence program — when interviewed … I don’t remember the magazine it was in, but it was a while back. He was asked about user engagement signals, and, “You should just use user interaction with your pages and use that as a ranking signal.” His response — and Jeff Dean is not this guy who is giving you four layers of obfuscation. It was immediate. He just basically said, “Yeah, it’s kind of a poor ranking signal. It’s really hard to get a clean ranking view of how you should rank things based on things like how people are interacting with the page, how long on site, bounce rate, or things like that.” He was really quite clear about it.

I’ll give you an example to help illustrate it. Imagine that I want to know some particular fact about Copyblogger. Let’s say I want to know the zip code of where you are. Let’s say I type “Copyblogger zip code,” and Google doesn’t give me the answer directly, which it might not. I go to a page on your site. I see what I want, and then I’m out of there. How long did I spend on the site?

Sean Jackson: Right.

Eric Enge: Was that a bad experience?

Sean Jackson: Right.

Eric Enge: No, I got exactly what I wanted. In fact, the fact that it was short was a measure of it being an awesome experience.

Sean Jackson: Right. That’s a good point.

Eric Enge: Because I got the answer I wanted right away. I spent seconds on it and I was done. That’s the thing. There’s a lot of user interactions where short experiences … By the way, I also defined a single page view, which would be a bounce, so there are things where higher bounce rates and shorter time on page is a positive. Another correlation I’ll give you, or another data point. A study done awhile back, I can’t remember exactly who did it … Actually, it was the good folks at BloomReach. They showed that increasing conversions on a page, increasing conversion rate and bounce rate go up together.

Sean Jackson: Really?

Eric Enge: Yes.

Sean Jackson: That is fascinating. Holy cow.

Eric Enge: Look, like I said in the very beginning, I’m sure there’s some specific scenarios where Google has found a way to use user signals. But as a broad-based ranking signal, I’d say probably not.

Sean Jackson: Got you. Eric, now I’m going to be the antagonist again. By the way, that’s my role in this. I agree with everything that you’re saying. I’m being the antagonist.

Eric Enge: You’re usually an antagonist. That’s just the way you are.

Why Links Still Matter and How to Get the Right Ones

Sean Jackson: Yeah, you should ask my wife, she agrees with that. Let’s go through this. All right, Eric. I get quality content. I hear that all the time. But let’s face it, nothing beats link building for SEO. I’m telling you now, I know a firm that I can hire that will send out all sorts of emails to all of the juicy blog sites with their nice page ranks and get me some links out there and build up my status so I can go from #7 to #3 or #2 or #1. Heck, they’ll even guarantee me that I will get in the top five. What say you about the role of link building today?

Eric Enge: That’s a two-part answer you’re going to get. Part one is that we published a study in the middle of last year — it might’ve been in August — where we did a comprehensive analysis of the roles of links in ranking. We showed that it had an extremely strong correlation in that study. More links will lead to better rankings. I could tell you from countless client examples that we’ve helped clients with content marketing campaigns and driven very good results –taking people from position 15 on a highly competitive search term and drove them all the way up to #1. We’ve done that sort of stuff.

The way we do it, is we focus very much on viewing our client’s place in the marketplace. I might be able to spew out 1,000 emails to everybody in their marketplace and get a bunch of links and get good SEO, but if I made 500 of my peers in the marketplace angry with me, is that a good idea? Is it really what Google wants? The answer is probably not. I don’t want to use an approach where the marketplace sees me as a villain.

Great, I got 50 links. I got great ranking. But there’s 500 people angry at me and 400 others are lifting their eyebrow, and 50 … That’s not the way you want to think. Your marketplace, you should treat it a little bit like your home, in a sense. You want it to be a place where you have a harmonious presence in it. Except for you. You’re antagonistic, so you probably don’t want that in your home

Sean Jackson: Right. What’s harmony?

Eric Enge: I think you get what I mean. You got to think about yourself as a long-term player. For us, when we help people with content marketing, we focus on building real relationships. Not only with the people who say, “Yes,” but also with the people who say, “No.” They may say, “No,” or they don’t respond. Maybe a year from now they’ll be ready to have that relationship with you. But if you piss them off today, then that’s gone. That opportunity’s gone.

Sean Jackson: Right.

Eric Enge: We’re able to get people visibility on lots of sites, but we do it through real relationship building. In some cases, we’re giving them content — call it a guest post, if you want, or some other kind of content. It’s always written by a real expert, always targeted to their audience, a good match for their overall editorial calendar, strong content for them to publish. It’s more about the relationship than the length. The length is a desirable byproduct.

Why Google Wants Relevant Results and Appreciates SEO

Sean Jackson: I think part of this — for those who’ve been in the SEO space for a long time, there were some ways that, back then, could be used to easily manipulate rankings. Then Google got better, and they continue to get better. They introduced all these super-secret code names like penguins, pandas, and teddy bears, or whatever else they’re coming up with. But it goes to a point about how Google is evolving, which I think also goes to some of the ways that you’re looking at tactics and strategies now. Talk a little bit about how you see Google evolving, very shortly, because I want to talk about the last thing, which is video, but I want to give an overview first of where you see how Google’s evolving, why that is mattering to the tactics you’re putting together.

Eric Enge: The first thing to realize is that I’m sure there’s a good percentage of the listeners who think that Google’s a monopoly and they dominate. If you were to talk about a conversation where you’re going to a particular website, having a search box, typing something in there, and that’s a search — then yeah, Google is a monopoly. But that isn’t the ball game. It’s just not the ball game today. 44 percent — according to one study — of all products searches start on Amazon.

Sean Jackson: Wow.

Eric Enge: Google’s getting their ass kicked in that space, according to that data. Now, that data might be overstated, I don’t know, but it was at least a reputable source. Then you’ve got messenger products. Facebook messenger. WhatsApp. You’ve got SMX texting. Well, shoot, I can get an answer from my friend. “What’s a good movie to go see?” Am I going to ask Google, or am I going to ask my friend, “What’s a good Italian restaurant nearby?” That’s search too, by the way. Those apps are growing more and more.

I could go on and on. I won’t. Just to capture the basic point though, is that Google has a lot of serious competition. This puts a great deal of pressure then on them to keep making sure that the search results that they deliver represent a superior experience to those alternatives. They are constantly pushing to find out more and more ways to improve the quality of their search results, which means delivering more pages that users are happy with. Measuring and monitoring that, and working very hard, making sure that continuously goes up over time.

Just one last thing I’ll mention very briefly. They’re also deploying some serious technology in this direction. Artificial intelligence and machine learning — these are examples of tools that they apply to drive this. When you read about search engines doing this stuff and you wonder about what they’re doing with it, honestly, they’re trying to improve the quality of the search result, because they’re in a massive fight for their long-term market share right now.

Sean Jackson: I want to end our conversation together by something that I’m going to encourage everyone listening to this to go and do, which is to go to Stone Temple’s site and watch the crazy videos that you and Mark Traphagen put together. I actually find them more through my Twitter feed constantly. It goes to the fact that you have, over the past — I’m going to say two years — been very aggressive and entertaining in how you’ve been using video to promote not only search engine concepts in general, but about Stone Temple. Talk a little bit, to end our conversation, about how you see video. What is the role of video in not only the content suite, but in the search suite as well.

The Emerging Role of Video

Eric Enge: Yeah, for us, first of all, we think video is going to be just getting bigger and bigger all the time, as you get more and more devices or people spending more and more time on their smartphones. Which, by the way — another stat here, this is from comScore — 44 percent of all digital media time is spent in a smartphone app.

Sean Jackson: Wow.

Eric Enge: 44 percent.

Sean Jackson: Wow.

Eric Enge: Now, that includes things like YouTube and Netflix where you get sucked in for a long period of time. But still, that’s a huge number. Those are video experiences I just spoke to. It’s definitely a bit harder to read on a smartphone. Doesn’t matter how young you are, that’s just true. It’s a smaller screen. Video’s a little easier to consume. That’s a driving force in the continuing rise of video. One more stat. We did a survey of a couple thousand terms on how-to related queries. For nearly 9 percent of the queries, it was a YouTube video that ranked #1.

Sean Jackson: Wow.

Eric Enge: For more than 30 percent there was a YouTube video in the top five. If you think about that, if that’s what Google is doing with those queries and you have a webpage and you’re trying to get into those slots, your webpage can’t get into that slot because Google has decided it belongs to a video experience. Do you want to play in those territories or not? If you do, what you ought to be doing is video. There’s a lot of reasons to do it. I’ll tell you, It’s been fantastic for us. It’s done really good in terms of building our reputation and visibility. We’ve done over 100 episodes that we’ve published now, and we’re going strong, so great stuff.

Sean Jackson: Eric, I cannot thank you enough for your time today. Folks, if you’re listening to this, please go follow Eric or his better counterpart, Mark Traphagen. Because they really are on the forefront of putting out great qualitative, quantitative information about the search space, what works and what doesn’t. The one thing that I hope you got from this interview, folks, is that Eric is very scientifically-minded when it comes to this. It is not the black box and the super secret mojo that he and his team do. It is based in real science, real research, real data, and I cannot say enough about the quality of work from Stone Temple. I always enjoy having and being with Eric. Eric, thank you for your time today.

Eric Enge: All right. Thank you, Sean. Thank you, Jess.

Jessica Frick: Thanks, Eric.

Sean Jackson: Hey, everyone. This is Sean Jackson. The host of The Digital Entrepreneur. I want to ask you a simple question. What is your business framework for selling digital goods online? If the question perplexes you, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Most people don’t realize that most successful digital entrepreneurs have a framework or a general process for creating and selling their digital goods in the online space.

One of the best free resources is Digital Commerce Academy. Digital Commerce Academy combines online learning with case studies and webinars created by people who make a living selling digital goods online. The best part is that this material is free when you register. Are you interested in joining? Well, I’ll make it easy for you. If you’re listening to this show on your phone and are in the Continental United States, I want you to send a text message to 313131 with the keyword “DIGITS.” When you send that text message, we will send you a link to the registration form, right to your phone.

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Sean Jackson: Welcome back from the break, everyone. This is Sean Jackson. Jessica, what is the question of the week that we want everyone to ponder so that when we get back we can answer it for them?

Jessica Frick: Sean, this one came to me after you were so snarky a few weeks ago.

Sean Jackson: Me?

Jessica Frick: You. I know, hard to believe. About email being a waste of time, which I still disagree with you about. The question is: is email marketing still relevant?

Sean Jackson: Ah, probably not. No.

Jessica Frick: What? Really?

Sean Jackson: Yeah.

Jessica Frick: Okay, Sean. Once again, you’re wrong, and I will explain all of the reasons why you are wrong next week on The Digital Entrepreneur. Thanks for listening.

Sean Jackson: Have a great week, everyone.