The Top 5 SEO Trends to Watch in 2019

The Top 5 SEO Trends to Watch in 2019

Conversational AI at the center of your content strategy!

2019 will be the year of voice search. This article explores how conversational AI and voice queries are driving the top SEO trends for this year.

What are the top trends for SEO in 2019?

The trends for SEO in 2019, one way or another, are linked with the growth of conversational AI, voice queries and the emergence of knowledge graphs. Here are the top 5 trends you need to watch in 2019:

👉 1. Conversational user intents and long-tail keywords
👉 2. Featured snippets and answer boxes
👉 3. Structured data and knowledge graphs
👉 4. Google News Optimization and Content Discovery
👉 5. Technical SEO for less complicated and faster websites

We’re already living in a world where 13% of Google searches are voice queries (here is a good article to read by Rebecca Sentance on what the future of voice search holds for us). The very enthusiastic supporters of the voice search bandwagon might even say that by 2020 one every two searches will come from voice but predictions, as we know, are very hard to make especially in the marketing world.

What we have seen for sure in 2018 is that voice search is shaping the entire SEO industry. As SEO Expert Aleyda Solis pointed out recently, voice search is driving “a bigger shift”, from specific “results” to “answers” that become part of a continuous “conversational search journey”.

Artificial Intelligence, though, is the real enabler behind this transition. It was back in December 2016 when, Andrew NG Chief Scientist at Baidu at the time, predicted that speech-recognition accuracy going from 95% to 99%, would have moved the needle in terms of mass adoption of voice interfaces.

As of today machine learning and semantic networks are being constantly used to provide a personalised user experience across a multitude of channels, to guide the user across different tasks (from driving directions, to cooking, from podcast discovery to news reading and “listening”) and to help us find what matters the most.

In 2018 we witnessed knowledge graphs entering the Gartner hype cycle as emergent technology forming the bridge between humans, knowledge and conversational AI. In 2018 not only researchers and universities, but also industry companies have been heavily investing in knowledge graphs and not only Amazon with its product graph, Facebook with the Graph API, IBM with Watson, Microsoft with Satori and Google with its own Knowledge Graph but also Internet startups like Airbnb, Zalando and many others have committed resources for the creation of functional knowledge graphs meant to support general-purpose reasoning, inference and above all an improved search experience.

In conclusion, we don’t expect the entire world to shift to voice but we can predict that conversational AI and a combination of voice and touch interactions will drive SEO in 2019.

In 2019 SEOs and marketers have to prepare for a more human-driven and conversational web. Voice search will not disrupt every business but it is a driving force in the entire content marketing sector. The 2019 trends for SEO, one way or another, are linked with the growth of conversational AI and the emergence of knowledge graphs.

1. Conversational user intents and long-tail keywords

Focusing on the user intent is going to be strategic. We expect that the user search intents will be likely expressed in a more advanced range of sophisticated conversational queries. Focusing on long-tail keywords that target a specific user (in a specific context) will be simpler (and wiser in most cases) than going after a broad keyword.

When and if, we decide to go broad and to target a more general intent (ie. “business model“) we shall provide enough structure (and data) to help users (and machines) find the winning answer by further refining the initial request as if they were having a dialogue with the website (“Are you interested in the business model of Apple or of a startup?“).

Imagine preparing content as if the user would be always asking their questions to a Google Home or another voice-first device. We need to prepare all the possible answers that a conversation around that topic might trigger. We need to guide the user from the initial request to a deeper discovery of the available content and we need to match the format the user is looking for (some might like to activate a video, while others might prefer a long-format article).   

2. Featured snippets and answer boxes

As a result of the information overload, and due to the growth of queries carried out via smart speakers (statistics talk about 26.4 million daily voice queries) machines will constantly need to sum up a vast amount of information, find what is really relevant for us and provide a decent speakable version of our content. While parsing language remains one of the grand challenges of artificial intelligence good results are today being achieved by Google Featured Snippets, Bing Expanded Answer and the alike. Visibility across the SERP and throughout the AI-first user experience is very much dependent on answer boxes and featured snippets. Once again, this is currently an aspect of SEO that involves mobile as well as the desktop but it is fueled by the growth of conversational AI. We shall prepare content that can be easily summarised and read aloud; we also need to leverage on structured data to help machines disambiguate the context and to support the meaningful summarization of it.

3. Structured data and knowledge graphs

Linked data, knowledge graphs and schema markup helps us connect content with a specific search intent using usage patterns that are now embedded in the search experience. A vast variety of Google SERP features are already dependent on structured data and more will come in 2019. Here below a quick overview highlighting in blue the SERP features that are linked with the use of structured data.

Google Search Features powered by Structured Data

Google Search Features (the original list is from BrightEdge) in blue items that have some connection with schema markup.

Structured data is foundational in the conversational era as it provides well-defined information for a wide range of encoded user intents. Machine learning needs to be trained across a vast amount of semantically relevant datasets. This is true for commercial search engines, for smart assistants and for our own internal user experience – once again our website needs to become capable of answering to specific intents by guiding the user where it matters the most.

When was Andrea Volpini born?

Knowledge Graph Entities are being used by the Google Assistant for answering simple questions.

4. Google News optimization and content discovery

Pre-emptive knowledge delivery and content discovery have been a trend for a few years now. This basically means helping users discover content in a serendipitous way and without searching for. In September 2018 Google introduced the Google feedto surface relevant content […], even when you’re not searching for”.

Being able to predict the information need in a queryless way is a major focus in Google’s future of Search and it will be strategic for all major consumer brands (Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple). If we focus on Google alone we can see that, content being proposed in Google Discover is made of three types: youtube videos and fresh visual content, evergreen content like recipes and news articles. As we have seen in the checklist to optimize for Google Top Stories being present in Google News has become an important asset since the explosion of the fake news scandal (Google News content represent a selection of somehow validated and authoritative content that Google – and other players – can trust). While not all websites are eligible for Google News, if you are producing fresh content for your industry this is definitely a time to consider Google News as a new distribution channel. This becomes even more strategic these days since Google announced an upcoming voice-driven version of Google News for the Google Assistant.

5. Technical SEO for less complicated and faster websites

In 20 years we failed in building a simpler Web. Websites are becoming more and more complicated with an endless number of (sometimes useless) routines that run every time a browser hits the first page. I am not going to get into the topic but there is a brilliant article that you should read to learn about the importance of simplicity and why (the article is titled The Bullshit Web and is by Nick Heer a front-end developer from Canada) we now have to invest on technical SEO. Once again the key aspect in technical SEO – in relation with the conversation AI – is speed.

As highlighted in a study done this year by Backlinko – content that is brought into the Google Assistant is only the content that renders super fast.      

A Voice Search study by Backlinko

A Voice Search study by Backlinko on the importance of page speed.

Page Speed has effectively become a mobile ranking factor as announced by Google this last July and will continue to impact on SERP features (featured snippets, top stories etc.)  and voice search in 2019. Another major aspect that we expect to keep on driving organic growth is the support for Accelerated Mobile Pages.

Search in 2019, besides these key 5 trends, will be once again about building relationships, providing valuable answers to people needs and keeping the audience at the very center of the content strategy.

By creating exceptional content and using artificial intelligence tools for SEO you will keep your website ahead of the curve!

Still have a question? Want to go in-depth with more insights and tips? Book a call with us and get ready to dominate SEO in 2019!

A Few Lessons Learned On A Year Revamping A Dead Blog

A Few Lessons Learned On A Year Revamping A Dead Blog

When I started Four-Week MBA back in 2015, I had in mind a portal where people could find practical business insights they could readily apply. Opposite to the concept of traditional business school where you invest two years of your life with a full-time commitment, massive financial resources and get out of the job market.

I wanted to create a place where people could find easily executable and practical advice from other practitioners. I wanted it to be the farthest thing I could imagine from the purely academic world. Yet, even though I had managed to bring traffic and some awareness to the site, it didn’t generate enough organic reach. And in December 2017 the situation was quite depressing:

traffic-fourweekmba-2017

I made up my mind and as a New Year’s resolution. I decided I needed to create some traction for the blog. Yet as often happens with New Year’s resolutions I didn’t do anything about it for three months.

Until on March-April 2018, I started to experiment a bit to try to figure out how to make an amateurish blog, a professional one. In the last six months I accelerated the experimentation, and after many trials and errors this is where I got:

traffic-fourweekmba-2018

What lessons did I learn along the way? I want to show you a framework I used to get where I am.

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Niche down like a Ph.D.

In a Ph.D. program, you need to focus on a single area of expertise for years. At that stage you won’t be satisfied anymore with a superficial knowledge of a subject; you’ll look for understanding. The step from knowledge to understanding is not an easy one. It requires years of research, study and thinking about that subject.

The reason why my blog hadn’t been successful was lack of focus. Thus, I asked myself a simple question, which would have massive implications on my editorial strategy “what topic would I be so passionate about to be worth my time for at least five-ten years of research?”

In short, I thought in terms of completing a Ph.D. program. When you decide to go for it, it isn’t a simple choice; you need to love it at the point of knowing you’ll be spending the next years researching into the topic. In my case, after a few weeks thinking about it, it came up, and it was “business modeling.” I knew I wanted to know everything about the topic and that I’d be willing to devote hours of research on the subject to master it at the point to be as good as a Ph.D.

The reason for narrowing down so much is to allow your blog to gain traction quicker. Indeed, you have to think of a blog just like you would with a startup or small business. For instance, when PayPal started out, it didn’t go for the whole market right away, but it identified a niche, a thousand power users that could help it gain traction, quickly.

From that focus, I started moving toward an editorial strategy.  

Branding vs. traction

Early 2018, I was looking for potential keywords that could be part of my editorial strategy, and I fell into the “search volume trap.” In short, this consists of going after large volume keywords that though look hot in reality are not worth the effort in terms of real traction. Those are keywords that have a search intent that is purely informational. While this distinction is clear in theory, it’s often hard to catch in practice.

In short, when it comes to informational keywords, people look for how, what, when, where and why of things. And if you’re building a publishing business, but also a blog around your company’s products, many of the keywords might be informational.

Yet not all the informational keywords are born equal. Indeed, as we’re moving to the voice search world, many of those traffic opportunities that existed in the past are getting lost. A trivial example is about asking Google “today’s weather:”

today's-weather-google

In the past, weather websites gained millions of visits a day from Google. Those days are long gone. Thus, if you want to target an informational keyword that has a real value for the business you need to think in terms of what can and what can’t be answered fully via Google search results pages.

Therefore, your content will need to:

  • Give a short answer accessible via Google as a branding strategy
  • Elicit users to click through via a long, in-depth content

For instance, when I created a guide about business models, I targeted several keywords and a particular keyword “types of business models.” I did that for a simple reason. If I could trigger Google’s featured snippet on that query with a list, this was also a significant traffic opportunity. This is what happened:

types-of-business-models-fourweekmba

Can you notice anything particular on this snippet? One critical aspect is that it does offer a list, but it is limited. In fact, in the guide, I offer 30 business models, while Google only shows seven of them. For those that wanted to learn more about the topic, it means clicking through the snippet. Not surprisingly this query has a 5.6% click-through rate (CTR) so far, which is more than double of the overall average CTR of my site, at 2.6%.

Yet even for those that are not landing on the page, this is still a critical keyword for branding my site in that topical area. Therefore, it is like Google is removing the noise for me. Only those most interested in the topic and more in line as my target audience will land on the site. The rest will see my website and have a touch point which helps build my brand.

Understanding the difference between branding and traction is critical as it allows you to structure the content so that you can use Google as your tool for leveraging the brand and bringing qualified opportunities to your site. That connects to the next point.

A barbell based editorial strategy

Back in the late 1990s, when Google started out, it was an overnight success as it was 10x better than most existing search engines in the space. What made Google business model successful was not just its ability to give better results, it was its distribution strategy. On the one hand, Google relied on a free tool used by a growing number of people. On the other hand, Google made money via businesses that wanted to get more visibility for their brand, by bidding on specific keywords.

This is what I call a barbell strategy. You have two opposite targets – that might seem unrelated in the short-run – but are tied together from an overall long-term strategy. Indeed, the more free users joined Google, the more the search engine acquired valuable data that could sell back to businesses. Those massive network effects made Google become the tech giant we know today, which as of 2017 still generated 86% of its revenue from advertising.  

Going back to a barbell editorial strategy it would work in this way:

  • Target established keywords with a large volume and low click-through rate only if they matter to your brand. In this case, success will be measured in terms of impressions
  • Win those keywords without established volume or medium volume, but high click-through rate as those will allow your blog to gain momentum. In this case, success will be measured primarily via how many clicks you get  

You need to identify established keywords with a large volume and low click-through rate which identified with the brand you want to build.

For instance, in my case “business model” identified with the brand I wanted to build. Therefore, I ranked what a few months before was a dead blog, right after Wikipedia, Investopedia, and Harvard Business Review on that keyword:

keyword-business-model

Ranking my blog there required a certain amount of effort, way higher than ranking on other long tail keywords. However, as of now, it has a meager click-through rate of 0.9%, well below the average for my blog.

Yet, I don’t judge this keyword on the amount of traffic it brings, but rather on how many times people see my blog on that page, associated with Investopedia and HBR. In short, according to my barbell editorial strategy, this keyword is not meant to bring much traffic, but to generate awareness about my brand. To give you a bit of context in the last three months almost eighteen thousand people saw my blog related to the keyword “business model” right after Investopedia and HBR!

Instead, other keywords are meant to do the opposite. Even though they might not have any search volume yet. Those will allow you to gain momentum. For instance, when I covered the “DuckDuckGo business model,” I knew I wouldn’t create much buzz, but I knew I was going to create qualified traffic from people highly interested in the topic.

The keyword “duckduckgo business model” – that as of now doesn’t have yet established volume on Google – is among the ones that brought most traction to the blog with an astonishing 52.7% click through rate!

ctr-keyword

If you were to ask an average SEO, he would tell you to avoid targeting this kind of keywords as they don’t have volume and might not be necessary for your editorial strategy. However, a smart SEO expert would ask you first “what’s your gut feeling about this keyword?” “do you think people will want to search for it in the next years?” and if so he’ll suggest going after it.

Indeed, you will be the first in the space to be there. Second, you will avoid competition and gain traction. Third, people coming to your blog via those keywords might be your real audience base.

Voice search is here to stay

A morning back in March 2017, It seemed a regular day, if not for a scene that has changed forever the way I thought about the web. Crossing the door of the office, I saw Andrea Volpini, founder of WordLift, talking to a Google Home device we had at the office.

He was talking to it just like a man speaks to a kid, slowly to have it understand and process the information. After a few trials, finally at the question “what is WordLift” Google Home answered with a nice and clear voice “WordLift is a start-up founded in 2017 and based in Rome, Italy. The company has developed the homonymous WordPress plugin which, through the use of semantic technologies…

At that point, I asked him – just like you would with a magician – to show me the trick. How did he do that? Andrea’s answer puzzled me; he said: “it’s the snippet!”

In short, a so-called featured snippet showing on the Google search results got also used by Google to reproduce an answer in the search device. While I was already familiar with featured snippets, I didn’t realize how powerful they were, especially going toward voice search. That day I got obsessed with them. I wanted to understand what made them possible, why Google triggered them and most importantly how they could help to make the jump from traditional search to voice!

Going back to the example of “duckduckgo business model” when I ask the Google assistant “how does DuckDuckGo make money?” this is what I get:

After over a year and a half of studying, implementing and gaining featured snippets I realized a few key lessons, which I summarized below:

  • Use an entity-based content model, where primary pages become entities
  • Identify long-tail keywords opportunities that can trigger featured snippets
  • Use structured data as the foundation for your featured snippet strategy
  • Use visuals and infographics to make your content more appealing and steal featured snippets opportunities
  • Set up redirections from those images toward the blog post to which they belong
  • Brand those infographics to generate search volume around your branded keyword

These guides we put together will help you through the process:

The search experience in the coming years might look completely different. Rather than a person going on the Google blank page looking for something. It might probably be skewed toward a device which pushes that information to you even before you type it. Where algorithms will become better and better at predicting what we want, those same algorithms might give us an answer before we ask it.

In that scenario, voice search will play a vital role in the transition from search to discovery!

Bet on the future with a Moonshot thinking approach

If you look under the hood of Google (now Alphabet), you’ll find out the company isn’t just a massive advertising machine. The company has been widely investing in other bets. Those comprise companies that span from life science to self-driving. In short, Google isn’t just waiting for the future to happen; it is shaping it.

This is what they call a Moonshot thinking approach matured by the Google X factory, which tries to “create radical new technologies to solve some of the world’s hardest problems.” Going back to your business and editorial strategy, if you just follow what Google tells you is relevant right now you’ll end up in a competitive space where everyone is trying to run for the same piece of land.

Instead, to be successful on the long-run, you want to be creative and get out from looking at just metrics and Google data and trust also your gut instinct and your understanding of an industry. Also, you might want to go for those key results that might give you a 10X advantage rather than an incremental one.

Thus, the question you need to ask over and over is not “how do I get a 10% increase” but rather “how do I gain that featured snippet?” or “how do I go from position 100+ to page one in four weeks on a competitive keyword?” (which is what I did, but we’ll leave this story for a later article).

When you change the mindset, you’ll also change the way you tackle the issue.

Key takeaway

When I did a New Year’s resolution back in 2017, I thought that revamping my dead blog would have been an easy win. It took me three months to understand that if I really wanted to make it though I needed to be on top of the game in the area I picked, and I needed to commit and focus.

As pointed out by a post from Rand Fishkin on SparkToro blogging is still worthwhile if you are:

  • In the top 5% of content producers who blog in your field / to your audience
  • Able to work for months or years to become in the top 5% of those producers
  • In a field with very few decent, online content producers
  • In possession of a large, loyal fanbase that will consume what you produce even if it’s not particularly good

Overall I think the effort is worth it for a simple reason: a blog is still the place on the web where you have total control. Social media and other distribution channels are good to integrate into your digital strategy, but you don’t’ control any of them. Also, a blog is the place where you’ll be able to transition toward voice search!

The Ultimate Checklist to Rank in the Google Top Stories Carousel

The Ultimate Checklist to Rank in the Google Top Stories Carousel

Google Top Stories is a powerful way to boost mobile SEO and CTR of news content. In this article, we describe a real-world implementation, what it takes to be picked up by Google and how to measure the traffic impact.    

When Google first introduced the top stories carousel it had an immediate impact on the news and media industry that started to embrace the support for AMP pages. Top Stories are a modern, ultra-performing card-style design to present searchers with featured news stories in Google SERP.

Top Stories Carousel

Top Stories Carousel in Google Search

Getting featured is far from being a straightforward process as there are several requirements that need to be fulfilled and these requirements belong to different aspects of modern SEO: from AMP support, to Google News support (not required, while highly recommended), from structured data, to content editing, image preparation and page speed optimisation.

We take on a small handful of clients projects each year to help them boost their qualified traffic via our SEO Management Service

Do you want to be part of it?

Yes, send me a quote!

Let’s dive in and look at very basic by analyzing what we have done to bring this ultra-performing search feature to one of our SEO managed service clients. Before doing that, as usual, I like to show you the results of this work.

The effect of the top stories as seen from the Google Search Console.

The top stories news carousel is an ultra-performing SERP feature that strictly depends from your organic rankings.

Here is the checklist you need to follow to grab this mobile SEO opportunity.

1. Enable AMP

A top stories carousel is presented in the Google Developers Guide as a Search Feature that requires the implementation of AMP. So you need to support AMP on your website either as native or paired mode. Unless you are starting to develop a new project from scratch you are going to use AMP in paired mode. This basically means that you are reusing the active theme’s templates to display AMP responses. With this configuration, AMP uses a separate URLs, whether the canonical URLs for your site will not have AMP. You can use the AMP Test Tool to make sure that your pages comply with Google Search requirements for AMP.

1a. Comply with AMP logo guidelines

You need to make sure that the logo used to represent the publisher that is used in the structured data from AMP fits in a 60x600px rectangle, and either be exactly 60px high (preferred), or exactly 600px wide. A logo 450x45px would not be acceptable, even though it fits within the 600x60px rectangle.

Remember also when you have a logo with a solid background to include 6px minimum padding around it. Wanna see an example? Here is WordLift Publisher’s logo.

2. Use structured data to markup your articles

Google describes the news carousel as “a container that includes articles, live blogs, and videos” and what helps Google understand the content on the page is the required structured data. So the second step is to make sure that you are supporting one of the following schema types:

Article

2a. When in paired mode, make sure to have the same structured data on both canonical and AMP pages

Depending on how you are generating your AMP you might end-up, as it happened to several of our clients, with a different structured data markup on your canonical and AMP pages. This shall be prevented, it is inconsistent and can’t prevent Google from showing your articles in the top stories carousel (we learned the lesson the hard way). The indication about using the same markup is provided in the Google AMP guide.

WordLift is fully compatible with the AMP Plugin (developed by Google, Automattic, and XWP) and AMP pages can inherit the schema.org markup of the canonical page and share the same JSON-LD. Read all about how to add structured data markup to AMP here.

3. Use multiple large images in your markup

Google in the article schema guide for AMP articles requires to provide, in the structured data markup, images that are at least 1.200 pixels wide and that have 800.000 pixels in total. This is not all – the guides also specifies that for best results publishers shall provide multiple high-resolution images with the following aspect ratios: 16×9, 4×3, and 1×1.

image requirements for AMP

This was first spotted by Aaron Bradley and it is indeed extremely important!

4. Remember that being part of Google News is not required but…it helps a lot!

Google can feature any article matching the above criteria in the top stories carousel based on its organic algorithmic selection but…the reality is slightly different. Let’s see why:

  1. The Top Stories Carousel is indeed a SERP feature that evolved from the Google News box and serves the same goal,
  2. While the main difference of the top stories carousel is that content is NOT restricted to outlets Google News approved in reality, as a result of the “fake news” scandal that exploded in November 2016, less-than-reliable sources (and smaller sites that are not in Google News) have been removed from the top stories carousel (NewsDashboard published data showing more than 99% of desktop news box results and 97% of mobile news box results are from Google News sites).    

So unless you have the authority of Reddit, Yoast and alike there are much more chances for you to land in the news box if you are Google News approved. If you want to dig deeper on the relationship between Top Stories and Google News go follow this thread on the Google News Help Forum.

4a. Follow the editorial guidelines of Google News

Google provides news publishers with a set of content policies to ensure a positive experience for the readers. It is not only about being newsworthy and keep on writing fresh new content but it also about limiting advertising, preventing sponsored content, malicious links or anything that can be considered hateful, offensive or dangerous.

Here you can find all the editorial criteria to follow.  

4b. Avoid article content errors

In order to be featured in Google News there are few technical aspects to be considered:

  1. Prevent article fragmentation. If you have isolated sentences that are not grouped together into paragraphs you might get an error and your article will be rejected from Google News.
  2. Write articles that are not too short and not too long. This basically means to write more than 80 words and prevent your pages from being too long to read. We usually see that between 600-800 words is a good match for a Google News article.
  3. Make sure to write headlines of maximum 110 characters.

Review all the article content errors that you need to avoid to be eligible for Google News.

5. Speed, Speed and again Speed

News readers want to be able to find fresh updates as fast as possible — and, especially on mobile people care a lot about the speed of a page. A top story is a mobile SERP feature that is purely organic-driven. If you get to the top 5 results of Google you can get it and it will be an extra boost for your traffic, if you are not top ranking you will not get your spot in the news carousel (in most cases at least).  Starting in July 2018, page speed has become a ranking factor for all mobile searches and this means that your website needs to be blazing fast.

How to track when you have been featured in the Top Stories

Tracking traffic generated from the Top Stories is not immediate and can only be done by looking at specific queries from the Google Search Console, using third-party tools like Semrush or RankRanger or look for specific patterns in Google Analytics.

The simplest way I found is to start from the Google Search Console by filtering results for Rich Results and AMP Articles.

Google Search Console configuration

Google Search Console configuration

When you see a spike, you can look from a mobile device the related keyword and hopefully found the matching article. Remember also that a given result might only occur in a specific country. This article here, for example, was only visible from Google in the US so we could only detect it by changing the territory in the Google Search preferences and using the incognito mode.

From Google Analytics we are also able to spot a top story by looking for a peak like the one below. As you can see that traffic, in most cases is only there for a 48-72 hours maximum.  

Google Analytics for the article that entered the carousel.

Given the relationship between Google News and Top Stories you might want to analyze these patterns by filtering top articles in Google News. This can be easily done in Google Analytics by knowing that  Incoming readers with referrers of ‘news.google.com’ or ‘news.url.google.com’ are from Google News.

Once again there are plenty of SERP feature optimization chances that we can leverage on when combining structured data with more traditional SEO factors and, they do create an enormous difference for your audience reach.

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