Along with my Perficient Digital colleagues, I had the privilege of attending SMX Advanced in Seattle from June 3-5, 2019. I’m still applying everything I learned from the engaging talks by great speakers from all sorts of backgrounds.
Rather than offer a full blow-by-blow of every presentation, I’ll focus my takeaways from three key areas of search that reflected the strongest technical themes throughout the conference. These clusters seemed to be where the technical SEO eye of Sauron was focused for the week.
1. Structured Data and Semantic HTML
Providing good website structure isn’t a new idea. In fact, it’s probably one of the oldest themes in web development—but it has been approached with renewed interest at the last few conferences I’ve attended or watched presentations from (Next10x, Google I/O, and SMX). Structured data and semantic HTML are two different major elements that have been brought up increasingly in 2019.
Cata Milos of Bing talked about structured data and schema at length during the “What’s New With Schema and Structured Data” talk. Milos explained how Bing sees a web page, highlighting that Bing has evolved to become more visual, just as the web has. Bing has to “visually understand complex documents,” breaking them down into primary content (which is the content the user wants to see on the page), secondary content, and invisible content.
This came up again in the “Periodic Table of SEO Success” panel (with Ginny Marvin, Detlef Johnson, Barry Schwartz, and Jessica Bowman), where we were advised to “start looking at using html5 semantic elements to define different parts of a web page.” Barry Schwartz noted that you should “make a website that Google is embarrassed not to rank.”
Milos also noted in the structured data session that you should use semantic HTML elements, and they should cascade in the correct order. One note I found particularly enlightening is that heading tags (h1, h2, h3, etc) in descending order should visually match what they look like on the page. Bing compares the HTML tag with what it visually looks like. So, the most important heading on your page should be an h1, and it should be the largest heading tag on the page (don’t use CSS to resize it!).
Another takeaway is about how Bing decides what structured data surfaces rich snippets—FAQ Schema currently has low adoption, and Q&A data is used by the top 1-2% of docs. Which is more likely to be well used, and useful to be surfaced?
Similarly, Max Prin discussed the utility of structured data. He presented data showing that rich results generally end in a higher CTR—and that the rich result’s message can impact CTR heavily:
What a lot of this comes down to is the idea of “technical quality”—we as SEOs talk a lot about quality as a content metric, but focusing on having a good technical experience is really important too. The message is to align the syntax of your code with the semantics of your page.
When Frédéric Dubut, lead of the spam team at Bing, and Fili Wiese, a former Googler who worked on spam and manual actions, spoke together on stage about algorithms and penalties, their focus continued in this way. Avoid serving manipulative or misinformed information in search. Wiese and Dubut mentioned recent experiments from SEOs showing different favicons in mobile search results and said that penalizing that made sense. When SEOs use incorrect favicons it’s a similar problem of misinformative structured data markup.
- Use semantic HTML in concert with your content
- Use structured data
- Pay attention to technical quality in line with your content quality
Another major theme of this conference was the importance of talking to developers and understanding development. From the opening talk by Jessica Bowman, Detlef Johnson, and Alexis Sanders, SEOs were encouraged to interact with and understand their developer partners. Detlef Johnson focused on this specifically during the keynote, encouraging SEOs to get into code and understand the new paradigm of the web. SEO also needs to involve privacy and security.
Perficient’s own Eric Enge touched on the more technical side of this in his discussion of mobile-first indexing and the issues that can come up when optimizing for mobile-first SEO. Types of problems found in our crawls of mobile subdomains include missing product pages, broken sitelinks between sites and ridiculous crawl depth levels. Enge also surfaced notes from I/O, where Martin Splitt heavily suggested using responsive designs rather than mdot URLs.
- Figure out ways to work with your developers
- Monitor your pages for technical issues
- Build responsive sites rather than separate desktop and mdot sites
Max Prin noted that Amazon Alexa uses structured data for local search, so that’s a factor worth regarding when implementing markup. The main meat of the discussion on voice came from the fantastic “Optimizing for Voice Search and Virtual Assistants” session, hosted by John Lincoln and Olga Andrienko.
John Lincoln presented on how to optimize for voice search and voice apps, which was interesting to our team since we’ve been building voice apps for clients. His key insights involved focusing on the assistant and the device that will have the biggest return. Try to integrate that focus with your existing digital eco system. Lincoln outlined four steps to a voice strategy; determine a business goal, choose the assistant with the greatest return, select a system to integrate with it, and do that through data integration or an approved app.
Olga Andrienko presented on the SEMRush study of Google assistant ranking factors. She emphasized that 80% of the answers delivered by the Google Assistant came from the three top results in search engine results pages. They found that backlinks were also factor in deciding what snippet would be chosen for the Google Assistant. Most interesting to me was the correlation between page speed and the likelihood that a snippet will be chosen as a voice answer.
- Speed is important for your site and for voice responses
- Optimizing for Google Search is the key to optimizing for the Google Assistant
- Strategize and align your voice efforts with other digital marketing goals
Alexis Sanders surfaced the quote that “if the last 10 years was digital, the next 10 years will be data.” (Craig Dempster). SMX Advanced was focused around great content, building a strong technical foundation, the use of future search techniques, and clear reporting.
The key is aligning a multifaceted, integrated technical experience with great original content. This can be done by working with developers, structuring your sites clearly, and taking advantage of new opportunities with voice. Other sessions outlined other pressing issues, like reporting and local search, all of which sit on a foundation of good technical grounding and great content.