This year, Arianne Donoghue was recognised as UK Search Personality of the Year at the UK Search Awards. The award is given to a talented and inspiring practitioner who has revolutionised the UK search industry and is leading the way, challenging convention and inspiring the future of the industry.

Arianne is a paid search specialist with more than a decade’s worth of experience in the digital marketing industry, with names like Thomas Cook, Mamas & Papas, Stickyeyes, Razorfish and Epiphany Search on her CV. She is also a Volunteer Instructor with Code First: Girls, and currently holds the role of Associate Director of Digital Strategy for Edit, a data-driven marketing agency that is part of Kin + Carta.

I spoke to Arianne to get her take on the state of SEO and paid search now and in the future: the biggest developments, the trends to keep an eye on, and how paid search marketers should tackle challenges like attribution, measurement and data privacy going forward.

Rebecca: I’ll start off with the big question: what do you think has been the most important development in the SEO landscape recently?

Arianne: It’s often really hard to know what the biggest recent thing has been. As much as we in the industry still try and chase Google, I think less of that chasing is happening with each algorithm change – there’s more of a focus on creating genuinely good content and good experiences for users, whether that means focusing on things like site speed, or creating content that genuinely answers a question in the hopes that it might rank for a featured snippet.

Of course, we’ve still seen plenty of ‘How to optimise for BERT’ posts recently – I don’t think that is something that’s ever going to go away, but I think there has been a shift in thinking towards focusing more broadly on users first, knowing that Google now works that way.

I also think there’s more awareness of this from clients – we have a lot of people coming to us wanting support with content and recognising the essential part that it can play not only in helping you rank for Google but also helping things like conversion and improving user experience more broadly. It’s nice that it hasn’t just been us in the industry making that shift, but clients as well, and I hope we’ll continue to see that change over time.

Rebecca: What trends do you think agencies should be keeping a particularly close eye on for 2020 and beyond?

Arianne: I love this question, because there are so many!

They fall into two camps: the trends that are going to affect the industry as a whole, and the ones that are going to affect agencies specifically. For example, we’ve got this push towards automation – whether that’s automation that Google is pushing through with reporting and data visualisation tools, or using machine learning to automate some SEO tasks.

It’s funny to see how the nature of what we have to do as people is changing – I was lucky enough to hear Susan Hallam MBE speak recently, and she spoke about how we’ve gone from an age of being ‘knowledge workers’ to being ‘emotion workers’. That ability to be emotional and creative and to empathise isn’t something that machines can do – at least, yet! And so, these are the areas of marketing where we can continue to add more value.

I believe that as marketers, we’re going to see the nature of our roles change because they have to, and so we need to figure out what we can do to make sure that there’s still a place for us.

I think we’ve also got a lot of changes coming in terms of regulation – things like data privacy regulations that will impact how we manage and use data. We’re not going to be able to carry on doing things like we have in digital – we need to learn from the traditional marketing side when it comes to things like brand building. And we’re going to have to fundamentally re-evaluate every element of how we run campaigns, because the way we’ve been using data isn’t going to fly any more. Consumers certainly aren’t happy with it. I think 2020 will be the year that all of this will start to change in the industry.

One of the final things I think we need to be aware of from an SEO perspective is how our relationship with Google is changing. Rand Fishkin gave a great talk at Brighton SEO last year where he spoke about this: it used to be that the ‘deal’ with Google was that we give Google content, and in return they give us traffic. But they’re now increasingly breaking that deal by hording traffic within their own ecosystem. And we’re seeing Google get involved in more verticals like finance, travel, even recruitment – so something the SEO industry will need to figure out is how they square that relationship with Google and make the most of decreasing amounts of traffic from here on in.

Rebecca: How do you think SEOs are going to approach that?

Arianne: I think things like featured snippets are going to become more important, so anything you can do to gain more prominence on the page and be an answer to the question is going to be important. But it’s really hard, because as long as Google has this monopoly on the web and on search, we almost have no choice but to accede to their requirements.

One of the things I encourage people to do is to look at other search engines, because we know that competition inspires innovation. As much as people laugh when you suggest using Bing for search, there are so many small things we can do that will break the stranglehold and give us more options as marketers, as well as ensure a more diverse future for the internet.

Rebecca: In your career so far, you’ve worked on both the agency and brand sides of marketing; how do you find that these environments differ, especially in their approach to search marketing? Is there much of a difference?

Arianne: For a long time, I thought the biggest difference would be culture – people often say that when they’re done with agencies, they’ll go and find a nice brand-side role to almost ‘retire’ into. I think client-side roles are seen as less demanding, and while that can be true, what I’ve realised from my time doing both is that there are really no absolutes. I’ve worked in some really low-key agencies, and I’ve worked in some very high-pressure, challenging client environments.

If we’re going to generalise when it comes to search, I think there’s actually more of a division to be made between agencies and the brands who behave like agencies – versus everybody else. You see more and more brands bringing in and developing their own in-house teams – in Leeds we have NHS Digital, Sky, and a number of other big employers in the region doing this – so that they can specialise and really get stuck in in a way that an agency would. Whereas many smaller brands will have one or two digital marketing managers who have to handle everything. Because you can’t specialise in the same way, and because you have to spread yourself so thin, it can be hard to have the same impact.

I think that brands are coming along so much in their approach to marketing that the shift is probably more about whether that specialisation exists, and whether someone enters into an agency partnership or builds their own internal team. But there are also, I think, far too many companies out there who don’t recognise the value that things like search can add to their business – and that’s why we’re seeing the differences that we still do between the two.

Rebecca: What do you find that the level of search knowledge is like among marketers as a whole? Do they generally have enough of an understanding of SEO and PPC?

Arianne: It really depends on how you define ‘enough’ – are we saying that ‘enough’ is the ability to get the results you want? Is it being at the cutting edge, or knowing the basics?

I do think that the average level of knowledge about PPC and SEO is much higher even among the person on the street – it’s funny how often I’ll tell people what I do for a living, and they’ll go, “Oh yeah, I know a bit about SEO, because I’ve got this website – maybe you can help me optimise it?” People know enough about it being a “thing”, and it’s been interesting to see that shift from a broader consumer perspective as well.

Rebecca: I know that paid search is your specialist area – when it comes to PPC, what would you say are the main challenges surrounding attribution and measurement?

Arianne: The biggest problem with attribution is that it’s so hard to do. Even Google has delayed the launch of their own attribution product, which just shows how difficult it is to get something like this right. Every attribution product out there on the market at the moment has its problems; none of them have really nailed it.

It may well be that attribution will never be a thing. With the e-privacy regulations coming in that impact how we process things like cookies and trackable data, it might be the end of tracking and attribution as we know it. We won’t know until they get here, because no-one seems to know that much about EPR or is prepared for the potential impact that it could have on campaigns, but it’s going to be quite interesting.

One of the other problems I think we have with measurement in our industry is that quite often, we track the wrong things. One of the things that we’ve always almost pegged the value of digital on is its ability to track everything to the Nth degree. That means that when we run some kinds of campaigns that are a bit different, like campaigns that are display-led or are designed to drive the brand, people go, “Well, that hasn’t delivered an ROI.” But it’s not supposed to! We’ve almost bred this culture where everything has to have an ‘ROI’ or it’s not worth doing.

We almost need to re-evaluate what success looks like, and what those metrics are. Attribution would help hugely with that, if we could get it to work, because being able to attribute the value of every interaction or every impression with a model that could do this fairly would mean that we could run a display campaign and know exactly how much value it drove. But with the changes coming down the pipe, that may never happen.

It’s a really interesting one, because we know what we need to get to, but it may not actually be possible to ever get there.

Rebecca: Do you think that paid search marketers need to counter the ‘selection effect’ where consumers click on ads because they’re predisposed to buy from a brand?

Arianne: This is another example of where I think that attribution of anything you do for a brand is so important. If you think about things like voice assistants, when you say, “Hey, Alexa – buy me some batteries,” the first thing they’re going to do is look at what you’ve purchased before. Amazon will look at whether you’ve bought that product before, and if you haven’t, it will either look for an Amazon Choice version of that product and recommend it to you, or look at the top items available on Prime, if you’re a Prime customer. If there isn’t one of those, then it will recommend the top non-Prime item. But it means that it will become so important to have those relationships with brands.

Our role as marketers is going to evolve so much over time to try and build those brand relationships with customers in the way that we used to – making people feel emotionally connected to a brand of washing powder, so that when you walk into the supermarket and see fifty choices on the shelf, you pick off the brand that you’ve seen on TV. I think we’re almost going to get back to marketing like that, but combined with the power of digital.

This is where the selection effect is so difficult, because we already know that people are more likely to click on an ad in search when they know the brand, but when you’re not even making the choice to click, things are reduced even more to a series of data points, and decisions being made even more without you consciously feeding anything in, which means that those loyalties are going to become even more important.

Can we counter it? No idea! But I think we can find a way to, not exploit it perhaps, but make the most of the opportunities presented.

Rebecca: At the moment, we haven’t seen a lot of traction around voice shopping – there was a leaked report from Amazon that revealed just 2% of people who own an Amazon Alexa have made a voice purchase. Do you think that voice assistants are the future of searching and buying?

Arianne: I think some of it will be generational – the generation that are coming after us, or maybe the one after them, will be so used to being able to talk to things that it will become the norm for them. Right now, some people are much more comfortable talking to them than others. There’s real potential in voice, but in the short term, I don’t think it’s the solution that people have been saying it’s going to be.

Paid Search Best Practice Guide