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With so much change and ambiguity currently prevalent in the world of SEO it's difficult to know what even constitutes best practice anymore.
Lately I've been trying to navigate the murky world of black hat and white SEO and I although I think I grasped the basics, I thought now would be the perfect time to discuss current issues with an industry expert.
Mags Sikora is an SEO Consultant based in London. Over the last seven years she has led a number of SEO projects for brands such as Expedia.co.uk, TripAdvisor, Avis, Mpora.com and currently New Look.
The majority of those projects have consisted of large-scale audits, development, strategy creation and implementation, including all aspects of technical SEO and link building. She also helps smaller websites and startups to set up their own in-house SEO teams.
Hi Mags, thanks for chatting to us today. I’ll begin quite generally before getting to the ‘hot topics’. What does success actually mean from an SEO perspective?
There are many ways of looking at success from an SEO perspective. I have been fortunate enough to work for large international websites and the SEO specialists in such organisations are quite lucky as they usually manage the most efficient channel within the company.
This is automatically seen as a form of achievement in itself, but as we know, that’s not an accomplishment but just the ‘nature’ of the channel.
Success comes when colleagues from different departments, like merchandising, content, social, design or the UX team, acknowledge SEO as an integral part of a strategy when working on their projects. It is usually a long journey to get to that point though.
In the past, online teams collaborated together to attract visitors who convert, whilst SEO specialists pretty much worked in solitude, focusing mainly on that other major visitor known as Google. Recent algorithm updates and amendments of Google guidelines have completely changed the way we work.
The ability to provide SEO training across different teams and influence people to make changes that also bring SEO benefits becomes a crucial skill of an SEO expert. When I see it working within an organisation, I feel accomplished.
What do you think of the current landscape of SEO? What are the most pressing issues you're concerned with?
I’d like to start by saying that SEO is not dead yet and it definitely won’t be for some time. However, because of all the algorithm updates and Google guideline changes, the role of SEO has changed drastically
An all-round SEO expert needs to have solid technical on-page skills as well as strong interest in content creation, collaboration with different departments and most importantly (as mentioned above) willingness to provide SEO training to all relevant teams.
We SEOs used to work in solos. Now, if the entire online team doesn’t work together, there is no way that the SEO channel achieves its maximum potential.
It’s actually a bit of a challenge to recruit a strong technical mind with outstanding marketing skills. This is an absolute must for a successful SEO practitioner.
Another major issue is the overall perception that it’s currently easier for older large ecommerce sites to get higher rankings in Google. I think there are many other aspects, which are not taken into account when the subject is discussed.
The internet has been around for more that 20 years now. The companies that went online relatively early, very often run on old or outdated platforms and upgrading to the latest version or migrating to a new solution are not easy and quick options.
Whilst large, old companies get busy creating replatforming roadmaps or dealing with old bugs and fixes (very often SEO ones), newcomers start appearing on the first Google results page with their flexible websites and agile approach. Ranking high in this situation becomes a real challenge.
From off-page perspective, older websites need to deal with a huge inbound link heritage.
As we all know, off-page activities, which met Google guidelines in the past, might not follow them at all now.
As a result, an SEO specialist has to clean outbound profile for weeks, before they start thinking about anything else. Newcomers don’t have similar problems.
We've recently implemented 'nofollow' on the signatures of our contributors. Although we have a high editorial bar, we don't want Google to assume writers are contributing solely to get a link to boost their own ranking. Is it sensible to take a 'safety first' approach to any recommendations from Google?
Speaking completely openly here, I think we all took SEO value from guest posting for granted and took it a bit too far. As a result, there are way too many articles online that don’t add any value except an SEO link back to the authors’ websites.
I am an owner of a travel blog myself. In the last two years, I have received maybe four to five collaboration requests from real travel bloggers. However I am also getting between five to 10 guest post requests a month!
Almost all of them talk about providing a ‘high quality’ article with a link back to a site in return. It got to the point where I had to set up an automatic rule on my Gmail account that moves any emails mentioning ‘high quality article’ or ‘guest post’ to spam. It’s actually quite sad.
If ranking manipulation is involved, it’s only a matter of time before Google addresses the problem with necessary measures. I don't personally agree with all the actions recently taken (like the penalisation of MyGuestBlog), but it can be understood why Google is announcing all those penalties and guidelines changes.
Having said that, I strongly believe that featuring legitimate, high quality guest posts, that help readers, add value to the entire site and link back to the author’s site, should never by a reason for penalisation in any way. I say ‘shouldn’t’ but it obviously doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
How important is the role of on-page SEO in the current climate?
On-page optimisation is crucial. It is a fundament of SEO. Elements like meta-titles, easy to understand site structure, menu navigation, internal linking, and proper use of alternate, canonical or meta-robots tags as well as the use of sitemaps, are essential for Google to understand the content of the site.
As long as the content adds value and is written with a customer in mind, is also SEO optimised and is backed up by authoritative off-page signals, it has great chance to rank high in Google.
Don't create pages just for Google. If site visitors like the content, Google will too, in theory.
Are there any tools you personally use that you would recommend?
There are a few tools that make my work more efficient, many of them are commonly used in the SEO industry.
getSTAT: this is definitely one of the best ranking checker tools out there. I have been using it for almost two years now.
It’s a real ‘heavy-duty’ tool. It not only allows you to monitor rankings of thousands of terms every day, but also to tag each of the keywords so you can easily segment them the way you want.
Also you can track country-level rankings in any language as well as narrow it to track by city, state or postcode etc.
If you manage enterprise SEO, it is necessary to know the entire landscape of terms that bring or could bring traffic to your site. It gives you a feeling of having all this chaos under some sort of control.
When you see a drop in traffic, not knowing the source of the drop is a situation you wouldn’t want to be in. Having all those terms tagged correctly makes it so much easier to check where the drop is coming from.
Is it happening across specific terms or type of pages? Then you can start analysing what actually harmed that part of the site. When you manage the SEO of a website with thousands of URLs, getSTAT can possibly save you a headache.
For site crawling I use the popular Xenu as well as Screaming Frog, I’ve also heard some good stories about Deep Crawl but haven’t used it yet. For off-page analyses, Majestic SEO and HREF are really handy to have access to. SEMrush is also very useful.
There are also several Excel add-ons written by colleagues from the industry, widely discussed on the other SEO sites.
How do you suspect Google's algorithm will change in the future, or what do you think it will clamp down on next?
I choose to believe that the ultimate goal of Google is to return the most relevant result for a search query.
The problem is that the internet is growing incredibly fast, SEO is a part of the strategy for almost every site and many of those sites are really well optimised. It becomes a genuine challenge for Google to determine which result would be the most relevant.
Let’s take a travel site as an example, for the term ‘hotels in London’ there are tonnes of well-established websites that want to rank just for this term. Which one would be the most authoritative?
All those hotel booking sites are perfectly optimised from an SEO perspective and have a great amount of high quality links pointing to their pages. How should Google determine which result would be the best for that query?
Two years ago, Google started a conversation about authorship and how it can influence rankings in the future. At the moment, the authorship tag is still not being widely used across all the industries (except online marketing and SEO of course).
If I mention a specific tool in a post will it have the same power as when Danny Sullivan does it too? Definitely not.
The authoritativeness of an online profile is certainly more difficult to manipulate and that could be enough reason for Google to gradually increase weighting of authorship related factors in the algorithm. They are already doing it but authorship might become more influential in the future.
To speculate further into the future: what if someone overuses the power of their profile to manipulate rankings? In that case Google could start penalising profiles rather than sites (e.g. devaluing any links coming from those author’s articles).
Would anyone like to risk his or her own online reputation and be in that situation? And going even further, would a website owner want someone to guest post on their site knowing that the author has been penalised by Google?
It is all ‘what if?’ at the moment and only Google (possibly?) knows where all of this is heading.
Finally, are there any other tips or guidance you may have for those wishing to improve their SEO skills?
The most important skill is to stay on the top of changes.
Sign up for RSS feeds of popular SEO and online marketing sites, follow known SEO profiles on Twitter and listen to their conversations. Participate and ask questions too.
You are not able to test everything yourself, learning from the experiences of others is crucial in this industry whilst sharing your own findings is even more important.
Also, if you work for large websites, there is never room for mistakes. Sometimes it takes several months for bug fixes to go into production. It is way too late to change SEO requirements at that point.
So create your own site/blog and test and experiment with it. This will help you to learn how to talk to developers in their own language in your day-job. It can enormously simplify conversations by being on the same page as the tech teams.
Finally don't be afraid to ask for advice on social if you have some concerns. Just start the dialogue.