Here’s Why is a series dedicated to bringing you the most current and relevant developments in the world of digital marketing. For 52 episodes, Mark and Eric have lent their expertise to make these videos both fun and informative. For the very first time, they welcome a guest; but not any old guest, a very, special, guest.
You might have heard of a Seattle-based company called Moz. Well, we got their CEO, none-other-than Mr. Rand Fishkin himself to join Mark and Eric for an extended episode of Here’s Why. Rand discusses three major trends in 2016 that every marketer should be aware of. Enjoy!
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Mark: Hi, I’m Mark Traphagen.
Eric: And I’m Eric Enge. We’re chatting today with Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz, and currently known as the Wizard of Moz.
Mark: Most of you watching this probably have heard of Rand, but just in case you haven’t, not only is Rand the founder of one of the largest and most respected software and tools provider for the digital marketing industry, he’s also one of the most sought after keynote speakers at conferences all over the world.
Eric: And he’s one heck of a nice guy to boot!
Mark: Let’s dive right in and see what insights Rand Fishkin has for us as we come into 2016.
Eric: Rand, what are the major things that you see coming on the horizon that are going to impact SEO, search, and digital marketing?
Rand: I’ve got a theory that there’s three big trends that we’re going to see kind of dominating the trends in digital marketing. The first one is the rise of artificial intelligence and of machine learning based filtration systems. And that applies to search right, where I think Google’s using things like Rankbrain, it applies to social media, where Twitter and Facebook and probably Instagram and Pinterest and LinkedIn and all the rest are going to start learning based on user activity, and then filtering what we see; Facebook’s, already obviously doing this.
And then the second one that I see is really around devices, and user interaction with devices. I think that how people interact with their mobile devices, how the new rise of hybrids, right, the phablets, that are basically tablets or larger mobile devices, and the tablets that are a cross between a laptop and a tablet, like the Surface Pro, and some of the cross overs between iPads and MacAirs.
And then I think that we’re going to see some changes in the Internet, in the Internet of things, and you know everything from connected refrigerators, to, you know, connected temperature systems, connected radios, you know all this kind of stuff. So, that can shift digital marketing as well.
And then the last one is this rise of ad blocking, which I think it’s been fascinating to see how Ad Blocking has been so incredibly picked up over the last two years, especially the last six months as the iOS store allowed people to download Ad blockers onto their iOS devices. It’s pretty crazy right? We’re talking about, you know, a couple hundred million using very serious Ad blocking technology on a daily basis, that’s going to change web marketing as well. So those are my big three.
Mark: You mentioned machine learning and artificial intelligence. Let’s start there. How do you see those incorporated into Google search now, and what more might they do in those areas in the future?
Rand: Google’s been, a little bit cagey, about how exactly they’re using machine learning and artificial intelligence and deep learning. They’ve been a little more public recently. But if you’ll recall you know SEO’s, myself included, had been theorizing that they were using machine-learning data sets inside parts of, if not the full algorithm and that they were growing in importance. And then Google came out with this Rankbrain announcement and sort of said yeah it’s the, whatever this means, the third most important ranking signal now is this Rankbrain-based thing, and we’re using it on, we’re using it heavily or using it mostly on 15% of the long-tail queries.
And look, I think we can all have our theories about what’s going on, I would say this: what we are, I believe we absolutely will see a world where Google takes user and usage data as a training set, learns from it in some fashion or way, and the produces better results and better algorithms, based on that. And when I say better I mean the ones that produce the kinds of results, that say to Google, this produced a successful query for the user, they were satisfied by it, they were happy with it, it made them go to a website, choose one of the top few results, stay on that site, solve their query, not come back to us, not need to click on a bunch of other stuff, not need to refine their query, that’s a successful search query, and you know whatever happens in the middle is almost a technicality that marketers don’t need to worry about.
What happens with the user, and with your search queries, and with your results, that matters a tremendous amount to us, and that’s new, right, we only ever had to worry about the back end of signals, we just had to worry about, hey, am I getting the links, and the keywords, and you know the ranking signals I need to perform well, and then what happens once someone clicks on my site? Eh, you know, that’s for the user experience people to worry about, that’s for the product people to worry about, that’s for the designer to worry about, the conversion rate optimizers, not anymore! Now it’s our job.
Eric: Yeah, when I think about Rankbrain, I think it’s almost a misnomer to call it the third most important ranking factor. In search, traditionally you have this notion of three main things: discoverability, relevance, and importance. Whereas I think Rankbrain is really about better understanding the user’s query. So, ranking factor is almost the wrong term for RankBrain; it’s more about getting the query into the right class, so that the ranking factors can be applied properly, and I think a lot of people are confused about that, at least, if I’m right in my thinking about how it works.
Rand: I, yes, I would agree that there is some element of saying, hey this query fits these types of parameters, and therefore we should apply these types of ranking signals, and what that really means for us as marketers is, thinking about can I produce the ranking signals that these types of queries will care about, which might be different than the ranking signals that those types of queries care about.
One of the best examples of this that I saw recently, was when NPR did their excellent coverage of Google using trusted data and truthfulness of facts in some types of rankings, so basically Google is saying, hey in medical types of queries, in some types of geopolitical types of queries, scientific kinds of queries, we want to make sure that we are not putting the article with the most links, which maybe comes from you know Donald Trump’s website, today, right or something, we want to put the one that is correct, the one that is accurate.
And we are going to use some, measure, not just of relevance and popularity and importance, but we’re going to use some measure of accuracy in looking at these sets of facts, and saying, we’re going to show someone the right data, not the most popular interpretation of that data.
Mark: One more question about artificial intelligence and machine learning before we move on. Besides Rankbrain, what other ways do you see Google possibly using artificial intelligence in the years to come?
Rand: I actually think Google’s using artificial intelligence in a bunch of ways already, and weirdly enough, search is one of the places where they’ve been more hesitant to use it than other places, so you saw, um, I’m going to butcher her last name, but I think it’s Susan Wojcicki, who rand their ad division for a long time. You know, she talked about machine learning in the advertising ecosystem, in the AdWords system long before we heard about it making its way to the organic rankings.
Google certainly has used it and talked about it in their language, interpretation and translation systems. They’ve talked about it in their image recognition right, Google Photos is a beautiful example of the machine learning in action. You go into Google Photos, if you’ve ever taken a picture of a giraffe or a zebra or a boulder or a canyon you can search for those words and Google will find all your photos that have picture of boulders or canyons or giraffes or zebras: very very impressive.
Once you tag a person, right, once I tag Eric in my Google Photos, Google will pull up all the images that contain Eric. Right, they can recognize his face and that’s all through machine learning, deep learning. You know Jeff Dean has a slide deck that he put out, actually it was just refreshed, that talks about deep learning and artificial intelligence and all these different places where Google has and might use it. So I can see this being a huge part of Google’s ecosystem overall. I think that’s why they’ve been investing so heavily into hardware of late.
And you saw, if you caught on Google+, Dan Petrovik, from Dejan SEO right, was talking about this crazy computing system that they built, quantum computing system that they built to try and handle the processing of these crazy artificial intelligence demands. So, look, I think this is the underpinning of where Google’s headed in a bunch of directions. We’re going to see it all over the place. It would be pretty cool to see how it might apply not just to search, but to social media and to content and to advertising. Hopefully Google’s going to do that in a smart and empathetic way.
Eric: Yeah, a few years ago I actually interviewed Google’s Peter Norvig, and even then he said they had already used machine learning for Google translate. That’s how they developed their massive language translation capability, which is obviously extremely impressive.
Mark: Before we move on I’ll mention one more area, because it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t mention it, and that’s Google+. Eric and I took note back in the beginning of 2015 of an interview with the head of the Deep Mind Project at Google. Buried deep down in the article was a statement that before the end of the year one of the first places they were planning to incorporate some of their Deep Mind artificial intelligence was in Google+.
Since then we’ve had the rollout of the new Google+ Collections, and the new the shift of Google+ from people to interests. In the announcement about that change, Google+ said they are beginning to apply some kind of intelligence to determine what people are interested in, to be able to show them more of that content in their stream. So there’s another area where they appear to be making use of some kind of artificial intelligence engine already.
Eric: Ok, let’s move on to the next topic. Rand, you’ve also been talking a lot about the rise of new types of devices. Chartbeat put out a graphic that showed by the year 2020 only 25% of the internet-connected installed device space, will be made up of a PC, a tablet, or a smartphone. So the remaining 75% will be new types of devices. Wearable’s, embedded devices, who knows, maybe even implanted devices.
In that environment, the entire advertising infrastructure that has driven digital marketing up to the present isn’t available. You’re not going to have a block of ads up top on search and more along the right sidebar. You can’t have that on a watch, or a refrigerator that you’re talking to. So things in the ad space for these types of devices are going to have to change significantly, right?
Rand: I am pretty skeptical about this. So I, I actually agree, I agree with the assessment that, you know, five to ten years from now, 75%, 80%, even 90% of connected devices will not be the types of devices we think of today. You know a laptop, a tablet, a mobile device, um, you know, a mobile phone. But, I have real questions about whether those are going to be the devices that we interact with, or if they are merely, um, devices that are designed to send and receive information from the devices we actually interact with.
And one of the problems I see, I think Google Glass is, is you know the most salient of the examples here, is that it’s really hard to get a better experience than the thing that goes in my pocket, does everything with me, can make uh everything from my phone calls to my text messages to my photos to, uh, how I interact with everything digitally. It’s tough to get a better experience than that. I’ve seen people try the watches, I don’t know anyone with a watch who doesn’t also carry around their mobile phone.
And the watch is sort of like well this is fun and interesting for now and maybe, maybe a little useful, it can do a couple tasks here and there, and I don’t see a big difference between a large wearable and a phone, it’s, it’s just not different. Right, so I think that there’s going to be a surprising amount of less difference, uh in how we continue to do digital marketing around devices. I think it’s going to incrementally change, but I don’t think it’s going to be a sea change, like all of the sudden no one’s buying ads, no one’s clicking on search results, and no one’s reading content on the Web anymore. We’re all us ESP-connected via our implanted tooth, like, it’s a little sci-fi for me, at least in the next 5 to 10 years, you know maybe 20 years out, hey, who knows.
Eric: But even, even if that’s true, the smartphone by itself is already a large departure from traditional environments, because the advertising environment is pretty different, right?
Rand: Yeah, it’s a little, I fight back against this a little bit and it’s just, it does not feel to me tremendously different, to, do digital marketing, um, for a mobile device than what we did for PC, desktop or laptop. I grant you that the interfaces change, you have to think about some UX concerns, uh, you’re definitely dealing with a few different ecosystems that now have some influence like the App stores themselves, uh, you’re now doing advertising in-app and maybe you’re buying from a few different providers, but the fundamentals haven’t changed, right, go where your audience is online, uh, target them well, create uh content and advertising that speaks to their needs.
Make sure to serve them with a good user experience when they get to the place that you drive them to. Work on optimizing that conversion rate, recognize that the journey is long and that you’re going to create content in many different places to drive them through this funnel. The only thing that keeps evolving and changing is a little on the UX side, a little on the options of where we can go and be in front of them. But to me the fundamentals are, are shockingly similar.
Mark: What about the rise of digital personal assistants? At this point they’re still fairly primitive, although they certainly do a lot more than they used to. How do you see that affecting the world of search in particular? When will people become more accustomed to just asking their device straight out, rather than going to Google or going to Bing, and once they do, how does that fundamentally affect the way that we market?
Rand: I am a big believer that Google and platforms like them are going to try and dis-intermediate as many simple, basic, queries and needs for information or needs for tasks as they possibly can. Right, so that instead of going from, hey you have to perform a search, find the right place, you know we list a bunch of places for you to do that thing, and then you try and find one that works for you. If it’s simple enough, easy enough, non-complex, you know what, we’re just going to take you right to the thing that you wanted to get done, no need to sort through a list of things that would do it, and so yeah I think digital personal assistants are part of that, I think some of this filtration stuff, I think instant answers, and some knowledge graph stuff, I think these you know enhanced snippets and results try and do that a little bit.
The integration with maps on our mobile device tries to do it so, lots and lots of those kinds of things. And that’s not particularly different than what we saw, you know, 15 years ago with AOL right, where you type in AOL keyword and they try and just give you the answer right away to what’s going on. So, I think Google’s trying to get there through artificial intelligence; they’re doing a pretty good job.
They’re also building a bunch of layers on top of that that are more manual. But, I think one of the things we expect as digital marketers is, if you have built your business, um, you know and a lot of ad-based businesses and affiliate based businesses are built on what I’d call, one time visit traffic, that is solving a simple problem and essentially your ads are more in the way than helping be the solution, well, you should expect Google’s working hard to dis-intermediate you and so are a lot of other companies so I’d be pretty worried if that’s your model. Um, I think we’ve seen that coming for a long time now so if the message hasn’t been clear yet, it should be now.
Eric: Earlier you mentioned the idea that some people have that the PC might go away altogether. I agree with you, as I don’t see that happening. For example, if you just learned that you have diabetes or cancer, you going to want a lot of information. You’ll want to do in-depth research. You’re not looking for a sound bite; you want a very comprehensive story. You’ll need a larger screen to do that kind of research and reading, and that’s why I don’t see PC’s entirely disappearing any time soon.
Rand: No, no, and if you’re, look, if you’re designing a new website, or a mobile app, if you are creating a piece of software, if you are building a marketing plan, it’s not happening on a mobile device, it’s just not, that’s not the center of work, I, I can’t work on those devices. I’ve seen very few people ever who can do those kinds of work on those kinds of devices, I don’t think they’re built for it; I don’t think they should be built for it right? There’s a time and a place and it’s called the room where your big monitor is. Right?
And to me it’s totally fine I can totally imagine a future where I plug my mobile device into my monitor, and my mobile device is more powerful than any desktop or laptop I’ve got today, but there’s still a room with a monitor and a keyboard right and it acts more like a desktop laptop experience today than, than a mobile device experience. So all that being said, I think there is some more fundamental change that happens with new types of opportunities from new types of devices. And those are the things that are hard to conceive of before they happen right. I don’t think any of us could have really conceived of what would happen when you had a mobile device that takes amazing photos and can upload them to the Internet or any platform immediately.
That was sort of a hard to imagine the piece that was put in there and then it created hundreds if not thousands of new businesses new types of models and new types of platforms for digital marketers. I suspect we’ll see other kinds of those things right that wear-ables or that mobile devices or whatever it is that we keep on our body that interacts with the digital world we’ll have additional features that create new ecosystems like what photos have done, probably like geo-location has done, like maps.
Mark: Finally, let’s talk about ad blocking. Many people out there think ad blocking is one of the greatest things ever to happen on the Internet, others are not so happy with it. Where do you think that’s going? It’s still a very controversial issue, but we’re seeing some major expansions of it recently. For example, Apple started to allow ad blocking software on the iPhone.
Rand: I’m of the opinion that ad blocking is a fundamental danger and rest to the Digital advertising industry in particular. And it’s not just because the technology is now easy to get, and I look I think you know advertisers and platforms are going to be working hard to stop it and to end around it. I think the problem is the psychology of it. The problem is that as hundreds or millions or billions of people around the world get into this idea of, I don’t want to see those ads, those ads aren’t what I’m looking for, they detract from my experience, if I can do something together round them my will.
And then you get into a cat and mouse game where ad blockers are creating more and more sophisticated software in platforms have to work harder and harder to get around it. What it says to me is that fundamentally advertising is not serving users needs and interests. That is the real danger, the real problem. I think if you get into a World of that, even if the advertisers when this eventual cat and mouse game and get ads in there, you’ve lost something, you’ve lost this connection between you and your audience. That’s a little scary and concerning.
I think the ad world actually thought that greater personalization, better technology, some of this artificial intelligence stuff, things like remarketing and retargeting and the higher conversion rates that come with it would make it such that people didn’t hate ads so much on the Web, and it’s weird to see that the opposite happens. That as ads are more effective on us, we get more allergic to them. That’s going to be hard you know, it speaks to me that the strength of organic marketing through the long term, but I’ve seen the power of ads tot, MOZ is about, gets about 20% of our customers from advertising of some form or another. It would be a real hit to take so, that will be a battle to watch.
Eric: Yeah, from my perspective, I’ll make a polarizing statement for fun: I think ad blocking should be illegal because people who create content of value need to have the opportunity to earn a living. I do think it’s incumbent on them to incorporate the advertising in a way that their audiences will actually welcome it, and not see it as an intrusion. You see what folks in the auto insurance industry, for example, try to do with their commercials on TV; they try to make them entertaining, worth watching, worth participating in. The advertising world has to go that way regardless of what you think of my inflammatory statement.
Rand: Yeah, couldn’t agree more that advertisers have to find ways to connect with their customers better. Regarding your inflammatory statement around making ad blocking illegal, I think it would be a tremendously hard world to regulate. I think it could easily slip into nasty and ugly places that none of us want on the Web, so I would probably be against a bill or a law, I am not a huge fan of having government step into regulatory areas where they’re really not good at these things.
But, that being said it wouldn’t surprise me to see that happen in places like the EU where they’re a little more forceful about those kinds of things. I do you think if ad blocking became illegal online; it’s a weird slope to, am I not allowed to ignore the billboards on the highways? Like, am I forced when I open the newspaper like, well you did not glance at the classified section and people paid for those so you don’t get to read the paper anymore. It gets into a weird world. Let me put it this way, if you created the regulation and Congress passed exactly what Eric proposed, it would probably be good, but that’s not what’s will happen.
Mark: Let’s bring this to a close and make it practical. Now we’ve stated the problems, challenges, and controversies surrounding ads, what can online advertisers do to address these challenges, to try to head off the anxiety or even the anger and animosity that people feel toward online advertising?
Rand: I think it’s incumbent upon the platforms as much or more so than the individual advertisers to build great connections between their audiences and the ads they serve them. So I think it’s a little scary because it’s a bit out of the advertisers’ control at this point right it’s not I as MOZ can go to Phu who runs our paid ads and say hey Phu I want you to be more empathetic with our advertising.
What I really want to do is go to Facebook and say, hey can you not show these terrible ads of late semi-clothed women doing this stuff, because people really hate those and that’s when they start looking for ad blockers, and that’s when they’re going to block my stuff and I’m not even the one doing that, so please treat your audience better with your ad platform. That’s a tough pitch to make but, thankfully the platforms rely on those ad dollars, and so I think they’re going to be forced by economics to make their case and to improve their user experience there.
Eric: Well that sounds like a good place to bring this to a close. Thanks so much for joining us and sharing your insights.
Rand: It was my pleasure joining you guys, looking forward to doing it again, maybe lives sometime, in person.
Eric: You’re welcome here any time, Rand! Thanks again.
Mark: Yes, thanks Rand, always great to talk with you!
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Eric Enge leads the Digital Marketing practice for Perficient Digital. He designs studies and produces industry-related research to help prove, debunk, or evolve assumptions about digital marketing practices and their value. Eric is a writer, blogger, researcher, teacher, and keynote speaker and panelist at major industry conferences. Partnering with several other experts, Eric served as the lead author of The Art of SEO. Learn More About Eric Enge