In this episode of the Rethink Podcast, we interview Mike Arnesen, the CEO of Upbuild, a Portland-based digital agency. Mike is a recognized expert in technical search marketing, and we asked him to share his thoughts about search marketing for 2017.
In the interview, we discuss AMP, responsive design, voice search, and link building. We also discuss how to determine when a project should be done in-house or hired out to an agency, how to find the right agency partner, and the one question you should ask each other.
Enjoy the conversation, and we hope you can get one or two takeaways that you can bring to your business.
I think this is going to be the case for SEO in 2017, content is going to kind of be the name of the game. This is interesting and relevant now as we as an industry are talking a lot about AMP, accelerated mobile pages. Malte [Ubl], who is the lead developer on the AMP project at Google, gave a presentation where he said ‘Content is king, and UX is queen.’ And that’s what AMP is about.
Your customers are finding you through the web, let’s say 90% if not 100%, of their interactions with you are online. They don’t see behind the walls of your office. They never get to meet your team. They might not even speak with someone on the phone. Your website better be a fantastic user experience. That’s all you have.
This transcript has been edited for length. To get the full measure, listen to the podcast.
Mike, can you tell me about yourself.
I’m the founder and CEO of a company called UpBuild. We’re based here in Portland, but the whole team is distributed throughout the country. And yeah, we do what we like to call technical marketing, which is anything along the lines of SEO, analytics and conversion rate optimization. If it’s geeky and it’s related to marketing, we do it.
We both were on the board for the Search Engine Marketers of Portland, SEMpdx. You and I also know Ian Lurie, an advisor to SEMpdx. I remember something he once said at an event a few years ago, he was talking about how there are all these so-called experts in the world, this “marketing expert” or this “SEO expert.” And then you dig deep and they really don’t know anything more than just surface knowledge of a topic. I bring this up because my opinion of you is that your knowledge of SEO is really deep.
With that said, what are the top trends for 2017 in search marketing?
The Top Trend in 2017 For Search Marketing
It’s funny you bring up the surface level versus the deep technical, in-the-weeds stuff. Because you’re right, I’m never going to be the guy that gives a keynote at SearchFest about content is king, everybody write content now. We’ve all heard that a couple times. But I think this is going to be the case for SEO in 2017, content is going to kind of be the name of the game. This is interesting and relevant now as we as an industry are talking a lot about AMP, accelerated mobile pages. Malte [Ubl], who is the lead developer on the AMP project at Google, gave a presentation where he said ‘Content is king, and UX is queen.’ And that’s what AMP is about.
AMP is about trying to serve the content as seamlessly as possible to the user and provide the best possible user experience. But that is by no means relegated to just mobile.
I think the UX (user experience) piece is a really interesting one to me, to see Google say that in really specific terms. The content has always been important, but now the user experience is important. I think that’s something brands really need to start getting a handle on is when you’re doing business online, your customers are finding you through the web, let’s say 90% if not 100% of their interactions with you are online. They don’t see behind the walls of your office. They never get to meet your team. They might not even speak with someone on the phone. Your website better be a fantastic user experience. That’s all you have.
Just a couple years ago, we were telling everybody to have a responsive website. How does responsive website and AMP work together, do they coexist? Does one replace the other? A lot of business owners, they probably just invested a lot of money for an agency to come in and move their website over to a responsive site. Are we asking them to spend X number of dollars again to do this and make it all AMP?
It’s interesting. I think in a lot of ways AMP can be viewed as a response to the shortcomings of responsive web design. And it’s funny because throughout my career, I’ve given presentations on responsive web design and advocated that pretty hard as an SEO thing. And then a couple years later I’m saying, Hey, AMP is the way to go now.
Responsive web design is an awesome idea. And as someone who went into that feet first, I realized there are instances where it’s not the best for performance. It could be very complicated to implement unless you’re enhancing it with server side technology and different adjustments for different device types. Just pure responsive web design doesn’t really work out as you might hope it would theoretically.
One of the cool things about AMP is that your entire site can be in AMP. You don’t need to have this AMP experience relegated to a specific subdirectory or subfolder. The whole thing can be written in AMP so your whole site is kind of a mobile-first approach, which is interesting to ponder as we see Google continue to make announcements that We’re focusing on mobile first. The mobile index is going to become our primary source of information. Desktop is a fallback for us. And that’s like huge news, especially for brands who don’t have dedicated mobile experiences or good responsive websites.
If you’re falling behind and you see your growth stagnating and your mobile experience isn’t up to par, that’s not going to change. It’s probably going to get worse.
It raises one question that maybe a business owner is saying, Well, I look at my analytics and all my traffic’s on my desktop and none of it’s on my mobile. But is that really that they’re just coming to your desktop because your mobile experience is bad? Or is it just the way they consume? Act-On’s audience are a lot of B2B folks, so maybe they’re going to be looking at your website when they’re at work getting ready to hire you, or whatever it might be. Any thoughts about that?
Absolutely. I think it varies based on who you are, what industry you’re in, what your users’ behavior is like online, as to what trends you can expect to see with mobile versus desktop. And like you said, it could be very true that people are just doing their first touch on mobile and then potentially, when they get to the conversion point, they’re always going to prefer going to desktop and doing it from work and being able to fill out the long forms and stuff like that to become a qualified lead. It could look very different.
E-commerce is an interesting one, where we’re not really seeing a one-size-fits-all trend there. We see certain industries where a lot of people are really inclined to check out on mobile. But for some, the user does not make that purchase on mobile. Sometimes it’s a specific price point, sometimes it’s the length of your checkout process that determines whether people will go to desktop. Making it as seamless as possible to get through those conversion points regardless of what device type you’re on is a key factor.
And that’s interesting to an SEO expert like me. It’s no longer enough to just be like, Hey yeah, I know how search engines rank sites. We need to figure out how do we eliminate as much friction as possible through the whole user journey. We can’t just be optimizing page titles and content. What good does that do us if people come to the site and they never convert. We need to make sure the whole process is optimized.
As an in-house marketer, as a CMO or a business owner, how do they evaluate, how can they know whether they need to get things fixed or not?
The best thing for me has been observing people doing the stuff. It’s one thing to ask your own internal team, and even asking a third-party agency to give you recommendations can be limited because everybody brings their own biases. We’re all very biased to be tech savvy.
They’ve observed someone using their site. They see some potential problems. Is there a rationale or a method or a process they can use to decide whether they should be trying to get that done in-house, or whether they should hire an agency to work on that problem?
I have a client. Her catchphrase for us is, I’m optimizing for time. I think that’s a great way to think about it. As marketers, we all have goals that are put in front of us, especially in-house marketers. We usually have some pretty aggressive sales goals or lead goals. We need to think about it as how we can optimize for time.
If you have the resources to be able to do any kind of recommendation or improvement in-house in a reasonable amount of time, then you should do it. If you don’t have the bandwidth, it might behoove you to find a good partner who can move quickly and pick up the slack for you. And not even necessarily pick up the slack, but you can divide and conquer by having an agency that’s going to be your partner.
Do you have any suggestions on how they pick that partner?
What you need to be looking for when you’re bringing on someone who’s going to fill the need for SEO expertise, is someone who is moderately well-versed in all the aspects of marketing, but has that specialized skillset. [Moz founder] Rand Fishkin talks about the concept of the T-shaped Marketer, who kind of knows everything at a high level, and then goes really deep in a certain area. Find someone who’s a T-shaped Marketer that goes deep on SEO, and bring that agency or that person, freelancer, into the mix and use them.
They should understand your marketing goals and what your CMO cares about. And is that keyword actually going to bring qualified visitors to the site? And how are we going to measure that? Are we just looking at rankings, or are we making sure the whole conversion funnel is tracking properly in analytics, and are we collecting data that’s going to allow us to optimize that conversion path from when a person first lands on the site? All that stuff comes into play. I think it’s becoming a much more holistic discipline in terms of what SEO is. And I think that’s the way SEO agencies are going to go.
They’ve gone out there, they recognize that they need to make an update in some capacity, whatever that might be, they found their T-shaped Marketer, and they’re starting conversations with them. Are there any questions you wish clients asked you about that process that they don’t ask?
I think one of the great things for both sides of the table to ask each other is, What does success in this engagement look like, what do you hope to see? Because if one side thinks, I want to double my sales qualified leads for this quarter, and the other one is like, I want to get you the number one ranking in Google for some obscure keyword. Let’s make sure before you start anything that you’re on the same page.
We’ve talked about content is king, that UX is queen. Are there any other SEO topics out there that we should be thinking about as companies? And particularly I’m curious about how we should be responding to voice search.
Voice search is interesting and getting a lot of attention with Google Home and Alexa, and all that awesome stuff that is, hopefully, going to make our lives so much easier.
The key to being successful in voice search is very similar to what it is for getting a featured snippet or an answer box in Google. It’s really being clear and concise about what direct or implied question you’re answering with your webpage. Of course, an old mantra in public speaking is to tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. In the intro to your page you should be answering that implied question fairly quickly. And when you do that, you can get a lot of voice search results, or featured snippet results, where Google is going to be determining this is a page that has good content and they answer the question right away.
Does that play out on pages differently than say on a blog post? In a blog post are you suggesting maybe to have a TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) section as sort of shortcut to asking and answering the question. Is that right?
I think, by and large, blog posts just offer greater level of flexibility in how you can deliver and format the content where you can have that TL;DR section at the top, or you can have an editor’s note to lead in and have a preview of what’s going to be covered in the article. Also, a blog post is great for just targeting long-tailed terms in general, where one of the requisites for featured snippets, and I think this is the same case in voice search, is you must be ranking somewhere on the first page to be eligible for that featured snippet.
A blog post is going to have a greater chance to give you the raw material to be able to get that initial footing, and then by optimizing that post and tweaking things a little bit, you can then take that one step further and get into that top spot.
What does link building look like today?
Link building is still very important. And I can see getting a lot of flak for this. But I would say no company should be outsourcing link building anymore. It must be an internal task. The search engines are getting so much better at being able to flag and discount artificially constructed links or links that are just earned through sheer force of effort. What they’re looking for is a brand that has legitimate attention and is doing notable things.
You need to build a base of your own authority, your naturally occurring attention, so that you can be recognized as something of value. And I just don’t think that it’s sufficient for an outside party to be able to understand your business well enough, to be able to put in the time, and really to care enough to build the right links.
Look at what Act-On is doing. You guys are creating your own content, you’re creating your own podcasts. You’re doing stuff. You’re getting attention by being a great company and actually doing something worth noticing.
We’ve covered a lot. And we’re giving people plenty to do in 2017, even today, from taking a hard look at AMP and bringing AMP on board. If they haven’t done responsive, to think about responsive, voice search, link building, the user experience, in general, and really tapping into resources outside of your own echo chamber to experience what your website’s about. Ask your grandma to figure out can she successfully get through the cart process on your website or download a white paper.
How do you prioritize and how do you understand about the time it takes to do all that?
I think prioritizing is a very interesting question. And I think, by and large, the thing that we can all be cognizant of in 2017 is being as inclusive as possible with our websites. That regardless of device type or age group, make our site usable for everyone. That includes being mobile friendly and desktop friendly, making sure your 70-year old grandparents can get through the checkout process; and making sure your millennial friend can get through the process and have a good time as well. That inclusion is important and can guide a lot of prioritization.
It is also about figuring out what you’re able to do within your resources, within your means, and making sure you’re chipping away at that progressively as time moves forward.
I really appreciate your time today. If people want to learn more about UpBuild, what should they do?
You could head over to UpBuild.io and check out a bit about us and learn what we do.
All right, Mike. Thank you, very much.