Well, SearchFest 2015, my third attended in as many years, has somehow already come and gone. I’m soon going to get to that place where I start getting them mixed up in my memory, but the flipside of that same coin is that multiple consecutive years of attending the same conference provides a useful window through which to watch the industry’s trends and Big Ideas as they emerge, mutate, and expire.
Last year, for instance, most speakers took pains to make the (perhaps already rather conspicuous) point that despite the conference’s enduring name, this field isn’t just about search anymore. The 2014 keynotes supported this message by training their lenses far from the traditional SEO/SEM landscape and instead taking terrifically broad, holistic, sometimes philosophical views of digital marketing as an intricate multifaceted discipline united only by a common goal of consumer direction and satisfaction. By contrast, the individual sessions covered a much wider swath of terrain than in the preceding year, and in truth, it would have been fair to say that only eight of the total 16 sessions were specifically search-focused. We can all likely recall rather well what was really going on at that time: social media was redirecting the whole industry’s attention away from search in a major way, owing on the one hand to the explosive growth and continuing balkanization of social into a million tiny networks, each with its own demographic focus, and on the other to the spirit of circumspection that was paralyzing the search discourse (the organic search discourse in particular) given the way Hummingbird and the expanding Knowledge Graph were threatening to cast the whole SEO game into a sea of uncertainty. Even then, it was fair to ask the question of whether there was any real user-focused market research to back up this shift from search to social — were people actually using search any less? — but the forces that dictate marketing budgets were already being swayed.
In the intervening twelve months, Facebook brutalized the organic reach of business pages (significantly increasing the price of admission for SMM), ello came and went in an eye-blink (suggesting strongly that we had finally filled the pond too full to accommodate a new fish), every month seemed to bring another article begging us all to question the existential value of Twitter, and video started taking over every platform there was, each with a particular set of best practices to go along with its particular demographic base. Accordingly, it started to seem as though the social media discourse this year was exactly where the search discourse was last year: temporarily frozen in the face of massive changes and too confused to be able to craft agendas or speak tactically just yet.
Meanwhile, the search world, having had another year to breathe and regain its bearings, had a bit more to say and accordingly was afforded a somewhat larger share of the SearchFest spotlight again this year, with ten of the 16 sessions placing search at their centers. [The keynotes, though, were even more fanciful than last year’s: Jonathan Colman’s closing address describing the Human Interference Task Force and the Voyager Golden Record as the most challenging content strategy tasks in human history was a delightful curveball.]
Accordingly, there was at least one organic-search-focused session per hour (and yes, that means there was one hour in which two SEO sessions were forced to compete against one another, which wasn’t easy for me). Not all of these were colossally well-attended, but each seemed to take pride in having stuck with search throughout the shaky past year, and each also seemed to signal the larger field’s recovery from our paralysis and showed it by having something of substance to say. In most cases, that substance boiled down to one or both prongs of the following two-pronged message:
- The best way to describe what’s been happening in search is: the search experience is rapidly moving away from the old paradigm in which it is purely web documents that are served in results. The current search results page now just as often delivers simple data, sourced from various linked databases (Google’s own Knowledge Vault first and foremost), as it does web documents. This is the “direct answers” phenomenon that has rightly become central to the search discourse in the last two years. [Credit for this insight, worded in this way, mostly goes to avowed “SEO Skeptic” Aaron Bradley.]
- This change devastated organic search click-through in a number of channels and consequently sapped the search traffic of a great many sites, and most digital marketing departments and agencies responded by swiftly divesting from traditional SEO and investing more deeply in other digital channels (principally social of course). This, as the aforementioned “pendulum swing” feeling of the conference as a whole seemed to confirm, was a short-sighted and rashly reactive choice. Per my tease of a few paragraphs ago, no data exist to suggest that people use search any less than they ever have, or less than they use social media; data in fact show the opposite. Search has never been more popular or more vital. [Credit here mostly goes to Marshall Simmonds, who, being a man of his word, showed us this data in his talk entitled “Big Data and SEO”.]
Ultimately, the real question is how a given brand can still earn visibility in search results even if they’re not earning the same kind of traffic from it, and what sorts of “conversions” can be imagined in this strange new world of Visibility Without Traffic. In his brilliant e-book Zero Blue Links: Search After Traffic, the very same Mr. Aaron Bradley endeavors to answer these questions, or at least to paint a picture of a landscape in which we might start to imagine them. The one and only all-encompassing answer is: get your data out there. The tactics available to you will vary by vertical, but nearly anyone will have some opportunity to hook into these answer-generating databases, by using Schema.org, and/or by using JSON-LD, and/or by developing an API, if it suits your project. Claim and annotate everything you have a right to, make it as accurate and complete as you can, and connect it to everything else that you can. That’s how document-independent visibility is to be had.
As to conversions, watch and see how many calls-to-action Google will start enabling directly from results pages. As Mr. Bradley himself joked in reference to a “place an order” button that has recently begun to be tested for restaurant result cards: if your restaurant got a “place an order” button on a Google card and it led to more orders, would you really be mad at the fact that it diminished visits to your website?
All I can say is that it’s a good thing that our field has been granted this moment of peace to regroup (as well as the thinkers we need to lead us), because the pace of change is bound to pick up again at any moment. Enjoy your last few minutes in the eye of the hurricane.