5 Brilliant Search Marketing Insights from SMX West 2018

September 7, 2018

WordStream has arrived at SMX West 2018! It’s looking like rain through the end of the week here in San Jose, but that hasn’t dampened the energy—because inside the McEnry Convention Center, it’s downright pouring brilliant insights.

If you noticed an influx of #SMXinsights in your Twitter feed, it’s because this year’s speakers have been pumping attendees with session after session of unmitigated informational heat. And while WordStream’s primary purpose in attending this week is to host SMX After Dark, an open bar disguised as a networking event, we’d be remiss not to share some of the brilliant marketing insights we’ve heard on stages across the venue.

SMX West 2018

From changes in local search, to mobile-first indexing, to lessons in competitive intelligence—the convention has thus far been a wealth of SEM predictions, know-how, and guys in zip-up vests. Here are five search marketing gems from some of the best minds around.

1. Shelby Reed: Chatbots are coming to the SERP.

SMX West 2018 Chatbots

This year’s keynote address, “The Future of AI & Intelligent Search,” offered a provoking look into the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning in search marketing—both as it stands, and where it’s heading in the near future. In this writer’s mind, no tidbit was juicier than this one, delivered by Microsoft’s Shelby Reed: chatbots are coming to the SERP.

Bing started partnering with local businesses last year in an effort to integrate chatbots into its organic search results. For reference, AdWords supports message extensions, but they’re not intelligent, and Google has yet to announce plans to introduce intelligent customer interaction in its organic search results.

Meanwhile, Microsoft’s chatbot development continues to surge ahead. Microsoft-powered bots have the ability to moderate content, make smart recommendations, translate languages, and interact with customers and prospects in all kinds of meaningful ways. Ms. Reed specifically applauded the ability of Progressive’s “Flo” chatbot to push consumers toward the sales funnel via Facebook Messenger. I was curious to know more about how Flo worked, so I asked her.

SMX West 2018 Flo

Played it cool. Still, Microsoft bots have the ability to live on multiple platforms and accrue massive amounts of user data. And a better understanding of the ways users interact with chatbots in organic search means more widespread application down the line—namely, in paid search and paid social.

In the same session, Ryan Weiss of HomeAdvisor—a Bing partner that matches home improvement professionals with customers in need of home improvement—discussed the potential of bolstering HomeAdvisor’s current customer chatbot experience with Caption Bot. Caption Bot, as the name suggests, has the ability to ascribe captions to images. I wanted to really test it, so I uploaded this picture of Robert Redford holding a lightsaber:

SMX West 2018 Chatbot Redford

Pretty close! Weiss imagines a future in which a HomeAdvisor customer would merely need to send an image of their home improvement issue—say, a busted cabinet—to be quickly matched with a professional.

The future of artificial intelligence in SEM is titillating indeed.

2. Olga Andrienko: Page speed has major implications.

SMX West 2018 semrush

For her segment of “SEO Ranking Factors in 2018,” SEMrush’s Olga Andrienko focused on a massive rankings study undertaken by SEMrush last year. The study measured traffic data, referring domains, and on-page factors of the top 100 SERP positions for 600 keywords. Olga discussed some previously unreleased findings in the data, the most vital of which (to me) was the fact that load speed seems to have a definitive impact on rankings. 

While load speed has always affected mobile usability, Google only recently announced mobile page speed as a ranking factor. Turns out, that’s made quite the impact on the SERP. The study’s most interesting stat for me was this one:

SMX West 2018 PS Insights

Pages in the top 10 for all keyword groups—the study grouped keywords by volume, i.e. low (1-100), medium (101-1,000), high (1,001-10,000), and very high (10,001 and up)—had PageSpeed Insights scores of 50 and up. This statistic is particularly actionable, because it means that regardless of the keyword you’re writing for, you’re going to need to hit that speed threshold to experience page one visibility. PageSpeed Insights is also particularly easy to use, so there’s no excuse not to make it a regular part of your page optimization efforts.

The study also delved deeper into what specifically constituted “page speed”—breaking the loading process down to First Paint (FP), First Contentful Paint (FCP), First Meaningful Paint (FMP), and Time to Interactive (TTI), as seen in this slide: 

SMX West 2018 Load Speed

Significantly, SEMrush found that pages ranking in the top 10 for high-volume keywords loaded to FP in less than 4 seconds. They loaded to TTI in less than 7 seconds.

Here are some other informative tidbits from Olga’s presentation:

  • Keyword existence in anchor text doesn’t have a significant impact on rankings. In the high-volume keyword group, only 8% of link anchors included the target keyword. Other keyword groups showed even lower percentages.
  • Utilize lists in content creation. Over 70% of pages ranking in the top 10 had unordered lists in the content structure.
  • Make the switch to HTTPS. 65% of domains ranking in the top 3 for high volume keywords have already done so.
  • Building a diverse, high-quality backlink portfolio is still important. Pages in the first position had almost twice as many referring domains as pages in the 10th position.

3. Eli Schwartz: Influence pays the bills.

SMX West 2018 Enterprise SEO

My favorite talk of the conference was a little less technical than the first four on this list. SurveyMonkey’s Eli Schwartz spoke at length about managing working relationships, building trust with clients, and establishing influence in your place of work—really, about succeeding as a search marketing professional.

To demonstrate value, he said, you need to demonstrate expertise—whether you’re talking with a coworker, or a client. He told a story about a meeting in which an agency executive in China tried to sell him on the fact that China was the place to be, because Baidu (China’s largest search engine) was expanding into Brazil. The exec then proceeded to unknowingly list off several points that Schwartz himself had just written up in a blog post. Moral of the story? The bar for demonstrating expertise is a lot lower than you think it is. You have the creative power to craft the story you want told.

There were other stories, such as listening to an engineer’s subpar DJ mixes to earn his friendship, but the gist remained the same—to win, you need to earn a reputation. Use dollars-saved for ROI whenever possible, give credit to your coworkers and clients, and demonstrate value without seeking the spotlight.

4. Marcus Tober: Ranking factors should be verticalized into niches.

SMX West 2018 Marcus Tober

In some ways, though it worked toward the same goal—better organic rankings—Marcus Tober’s presentation played foil to Andrienko’s. At the very least, it offered a different way of looking at the complex world of ranking factors. The Searchmetrics founder was adamant, throughout his speech and into the Q&A, that attempts at creating universal, one-size-fits-all lists of ranking factors were futile. Even segmenting by industry paints too broad of a picture. Pulling data by niche, he argued, is the best way to determine ranking factors.

To make his point, Tober pitted data from several niches against one another to demonstrate that what helps some content rank may very well work against other content. The highest ranking recipe content, for instance…

SMX West 2018 Niches

Has way more microdata then the highest ranking dating and divorce content. Car tuning pages that rank in the top 10…

SMX West 2018 Internal Links

Have 50% more backlinks than pages about divorce that rank in the top 10. Nor are high ranking pages about divorce going to need a lot of social shares, because…

SMX West 2018 Social Signals

Divorcees aren’t looking for likes! Or rather, they’re not looking to publicize the fact that they’re looking at divorce content. You should probably still like that Cancun pic with the new beaux. 

It’s really that simple. Or rather, it’s really that complex. Taking a granular approach and thinking about individual user intent is the best way to determine which ranking factors matter for your niche. Such an approach can help you when your client in the Divorce space says they just read The Last Guide to Ranking Factors You’ll Ever Need and asks you why you haven’t devoted more time to increasing social signals. Understand your niche, and understand your customer journey, and you can spend your time optimizing in ways that will truly have an impact.

5. Leslie To: Enable contextual keyboards on mobile


SMX West 2018 Keyboards

3Q Digital’s Leslie To put on more or less a master class in mobile-first optimization. “Optimize for mobile” is easy enough to say, but it’s hard to really conceptualize a pleasant user experience on mobile until you understand all the ways your site can fail a mobile user. Leslie’s presentation lent some nice perspective in this vein.

One of the things that stuck with me was Leslie’s recommendation to implement contextual keyboards—keyboards that change or stay the same based on required input types. If a user is entering credit card numbers in one field block, for example…

SMX West 2018 Keyboards 2

His keyboard shouldn’t revert back to letters in the next field block. Or, if we’re using the example above, it shouldn’t remain a numbers keyboard if the next field block asks for his name.

It seems small—and forgetting to implement contextual keyboards isn’t much of an oversight in itself. Still, small inconveniences in usability can compound quickly, and result in a frustrating and bounce-worthy user experience—especially on mobile. You want to make sure, for instance, that a lack of contextual keyboards isn’t a microcosm of larger mobile usability issues on your site.

Here are some other dos and don’ts Leslie laid out regarding mobile optimization:

  • Ditch interstitials if you can afford to. Opt instead for banners to promote your app, tool, offer, etc.
  • Ditch overwhelming menus and navigational options. While navigational options are useful, too many of them can quickly become a burden on mobile. Mine your internal site search data to see where you can cut down.
  • Make sure all content and media scales properly—text, images, buttons, etc.
  • Make buttons and other tap targets at least 48 px wide, and space them 32 px apart. This will prevent users from tapping the wrong target, or having to zoom to tap the right one.
  • Don’t require more than 3 touches before a user can convert.
  • Reduce the complexity of your writing as much as possible.

Mobile is an uphill battle. These small adjustments can add up to a much more positive user experience.

Closing Thoughts

It’s been a blast! If you attended SMX After Dark, we appreciate you taking us up on the free booze. If you weren’t able to make it out this year, we hope we’ve given you a satisfactory taste of some of the dynamic ideas that were floating around the conference all week. Check out the conference slide decks here if you want to dive deeper. 

Until next year!

Gordon Donnelly

Gordon Donnelly is a college hockey washout turned SEO & content marketer. He's a sucker for fly fishing, mudslides, and Jim Morrison.

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