We had the opportunity to interview Bill Slawski, Director of SEO Research at Go Fish Digital, Creator and Author of SEO by the Sea. Bill Slawski is among the most authoritative people in the SEO community, a hybrid between an academic researcher and a practitioner. He has been looking at how search engines work since 1996. With Andrea Volpini we took the chance to ask Bill a few questions to understand how SEO is evolving and why you should understand the current picture, to keep implementing a successful SEO strategy!
When did you start with SEO?
Bill Slawski: I started doing SEO in 1996. I also made my first site in 1996. The brother of one of the people I worked on that site, she was selling computers for a digital equipment corp at that time., she sent us an email saying, “Hey, we just started this new website. You guys might like it.” It was the time in which AltaVista was a primary search engine. This was my first chance to see a search engine in action. My client said, “We need to be in this.” I tried to figure out how, and that was my first attempt at doing SEO!
After the launch of Google Discover, it seems that we live in a query-less world? How has SEO changed?
Bill Slawski: It has changed, but it hasn’t changed that much. I remember in 2007 giving a presentation in an SEO meetup on named entities. Things have been in the atmosphere. We just haven’t really brought them to the forefront and talked about them too much. Query-less searches example? You’re driving down the road 50 miles an hour, you wave your phone around in the air and it’s a signal to your phone asking you where you’re going. “Give me navigation, what’s ahead of us? What’s the traffic like? Are there detours?” And your phone can tell you that. It can say there’s a five-minute delay up ahead. You really don’t need a query for that.
What do you then, If you don’t need a query?
Bill Slawski: Well, for the Google Now, for it to show you search suggestions, it needs to have some idea of what your search history is like, what you’re interested in. In Google Now, you can feed it information about your interests, but it can also look at what you’ve searched for in the past, what you look like you have an interest in. If you want to see certain information about a certain sports team or a movie or a TV series, you search for those things and it knows you have an interest in them.
Andrea Volpini: It’s a context that gets built around the user. In one analysis that we run from one of our VIP customers, by looking at the data from the Google search console I found extremely interesting how it had reached 42%! You can see actually this big bump is due to the fact that Google started to account this data. This fact might be scaring a lot of people in the SEO industry. As, if we live in a query-less world, how do you optimize for it?
Can we do SEO in a query-less world?
Bill Slawski: They (SEO practitioners) should be happy about it. They should be excited about it.
Andrea Volpini: I was super excited. When I saw it, for me, it was like a revelation, because I have always put a lot of effort into creating data and metadata. Before we arrived to structure data, it’s always been a very important aspect of the website that we build. I used to build CMS, so I was really into creating data. But I underestimated the impact of a content recommendation through Google Discover when it comes to the traffic of a new website. Did you expect something like this?
Bill Slawski: If you watch how Google is tracking trends, entity search, and you can identify which things are entities by them having an entity type associated with them, something other than just search term, so you search for a baseball team or a football team and you see search term is one category associated with it, and the other category might be professional Chicago baseball team. The professional Chicago baseball team is the entity. Google’s tracking entities. What this means is when they identify interests that you may have, they may do that somewhat broadly, and they may show you as a searcher in Google Now in Discover things related to that. If you write about some things with some level of generalization that might fit some of the broader categories that match a lot, you’re gonna show up in some of those discovery things.
It’s like when Google used to show headers in search results, “Search news now,” or “Top news now,” and identify your site or something you wrote as a blog post as something fits top news now category, you didn’t apply to have that. You were a beneficiary of Google’s recommendation.
Andrea Volpini: Yes. When I saw this, I started to look a little bit at the data in the Google search console of this client and then another client and then another client again. What I found out by comparing these first sites is that Google is tending not to make an overlap with Google search and Discover, meaning that if it’s bringing traffic on Google search, the page might not be featured on Discover. The pages that are featured on Discover that are also on Google search as high ranking. But I found extremely interesting the fact that pages that didn’t receive any organic traffic had been discovered by Google Discover as if Google is trying to differentiate these channels.
Is this two-level search effect widening?
Bill Slawski: I think they’re trying to broaden, we might say, broaden our experience. Give us things that we’re not necessarily searching for, but are related. There’s at least one AI program I’ve worked with where it looks at my Twitter stream and recommends storage for me based upon where I’ve been tweeting. I see Google taking a role like that: “These are some other things they might be interested in that they haven’t been searching for. Let me show them to them.”
There’s a brilliant Google contributor video about the Semantic Search Engine. The first few minutes, he starts off saying, “Okay, I had trouble deciding what to name this video. I thought about The Discover Search Engine. Then I thought about A Decision Search Engine and realized Bing had already taken that. A Smart Search Engine. Well, that’s obvious.”
But capturing what we’re interested in is something Google’s seeming to try to do more of with the related questions that people also ask. We’re seeing Google trying to keep us on search results pages, clicking through, question after question, seeing things that are related that we’re interested in. Probably tracking every click that we make as to what we might have some interest in. With one box results, the same type of thing. They’ll keep on showing us one box results if we keep on clicking on them. If we stop clicking on them, they’ll change those.
Andrea Volpini: Where are we going with all of these? How do you see the role of SEO is changing? What would you recommend to an SEO that starts today, what should he become? You told us how you started in ’96 with someone asking you to be on AltaVista, and I remember AltaVista quite well. I also worked with AltaVista myself, and we started to use AltaVista for intranet.
What would you recommend to someone that starts SEO today?
Bill Slawski: I’m gonna go back to 2005 to a project I worked on then. It was for Baltimore.org. It was a visitor’s center of Baltimore, the conference center. They wanted people to visit the city and see it and see everything they had to offer. They were trying to rank well for terms like Baltimore bars and Baltimore sports. They got in their heads that they wanted to rank well for Baltimore black history. We tried to optimize a page for Baltimore black history. We put the words “Baltimore Black History” on the page a few times. There were too many other good sites which were talking about Baltimore’s black history. We were failing miserably to rank well for that phrase. I turned to a copywriter and I said, “There are great places in Baltimore to see they have something to do with this history. Let’s write about those. Let’s create a walking tour of the city. Let’s show people the famous black churches and black colleges and the nine-foot-tall statue of Billie Holiday, the six townhomes that Frederick Douglas bought in his 60s.
“He was an escaped slave at one point in time, came back to Baltimore as he got older and a lot richer and started buying properties and became a businessman. Let’s show people those places. Let’s tell them how to get there.”
We created a page that was walking tour of Baltimore. After three months, it was the sixth most visited page on that site, a site of about 300 pages or so. That was really good. That was successful. It got people to actually visit the city of Baltimore. They wanted to see those things.
Aaron Bradley ran this series of tweets the other day where one of the things he said was, “Don’t get worried about the switch in search engines to entities. Entities are all around us. They surround us. They’re everywhere. They’re everything you can write about. They’re web pages. They’re people. They’re places.”
It’s true. If we switch from a search based on words, on matching words, on documents to words and queries, we’re missing the opportunity to write about things, to identify attributes, properties associated with those things to tell people about what’s in the world around us, and they’re gonna search for those things. That’s a movement that search engine makes you, being able to understand what you’re talking about something in particular and return information about that thing.
Andrea Volpini: The new SEO should become basically a contextual writer, someone that intercepts the intents and can create good content around it.
Is there something else in the profession of SEO in 2020?
Bill Slawski: One of the things I read about recently was something called entity extraction. Search engine being able to read a page, identify all the things that are on that page that are being written about, and all the contexts that surround those things, all the classes, all the … you see the example on the post I wrote about was a baseball player, Bryce Harper. Bryce Harper was a Washington National. Bryce Harper hits home runs. That’s the context. He’s hit so many home runs over his career. Having search engine being able to take facts on a page, understand them, and make a collection of those facts, compare them to what’s said on other pages about the same entities, so they can fact check. It can do the fact check-in itself. It doesn’t need some news organizations to do that.
Andrea Volpini: Well, this is the reason when we started our project, my initial idea was to create a semantic editor to let people create link data. I didn’t look at SEO as a potential market, but then I realized that immediately, all the interest was coming from, indeed, the SEO community. For instance, we created your entity on the WordLift website. This means that when we annotate the content with our tool, we have this permanent linked data ID. In the beginning, I thought it was natural to have permanent linked data IDs, because this was the way that the semantic web worked. But then I suddenly realized there is a very strong SEO effect in doing that because Google is also crawling this RDF that I’m publishing.
I saw a few months back that it’s actually a different class of IP that Google uses for crawling this data.
Do you think that it still makes sense to publish your own linked data ID, or it’s okay to use other IDs? Do you see value in publishing data with your own systems?
Bill Slawski: Something I haven’t really thought about too much. But it’s worth considering. I’ve seen people publishing those. I’ve tried to put one of those together, and I asked myself, “Why am I doing this? Is there gonna be value to it? Is it gonna be worthwhile?” But when I put together my homepage, a page about me, I wanted to try it, see what it was capable of, to see what it might show in search engines for doing that. Some of it showed some of it didn’t. It was interesting to experiment with and try and see what the rest of the world is catching onto when you do create that stuff.
Andrea Volpini: But this is actually how the entity of Gennaro Cuofano was born in the Knowledge Graph. We started to add a lot of reference in telling Google, “Here is Gennaro, is also authors of these books.” As soon as we injected this information into our Knowledge Graph and into the pages, for Google it was easier to collect the data and fact-check and say, “Okay, this is the guy that wrote the book and now works for this company,” and so on and so forth.
Gennaro Cuofano: and Google provided a Knowledge Panel with a complete description. It was something that before, it was not showing up in search, or at least it was just partial information. It felt like, by providing this kind of information, we allowed the search engine, actually Google, to have a better context and fact-check the information which gave it authority to the information that I provided.
Bill Slawski: Have you looked at Microsoft’s Concept Graph?
Andrea Volpini: Yes! It’s even more advanced. I found it more advanced in away. It’s also very quick in getting the information in. We have a lot more easy experience when we are someone that wants to be in Bing because as soon as we put such data it gets it into the panel.
Bill Slawski: It surprised me because, for a while, stuff that Microsoft Research in Asia was doing was disappearing. They put together probates and it stopped. Nothing happened for a couple of years. It’s been revived into the Microsoft Concept Graph, which is good to see. It’s good to see they did something with all that work.
Gennaro Cuofano: Plus, we don’t know how much integration is also Bink and LinkedIn APIs
Andrea Volpini: It’s pretty strong! Probably the quickest entry in the Satori, the Knowledge Graph of Microsoft, is now for a person to be on LinkedIn, because it is like they’re using this information.
What other ways can we use the structure data currently for SEO?
Bill Slawski: One of the things I would say to that is augmentation queries. I mentioned those in the presentation. Google will not only look at queries associated with pages about a particular person, place or thing, but it will also query the log information and will look at structured data associated with the page, and it will run queries based upon those. It’s doing some machine learning to try to understand what else might be interesting about pages of yours. If these augmentation queries, the test queries that it runs about your page, tend to do as well as the original queries for your page in terms of people selecting things, people clicking on things. It might combine the augmentation query results with the original query results when it shows people them for your page.
New schemas from the latest version of Schema 3.5 is the “knows about” attribute. I mentioned with the knows about attribute, you could be a plumber, you could know about drain repair. Some searches will send you plumbers, and they expect to see information just about Los Angeles plumbers, they may see a result from a Los Angeles plumber that talks about drain repair. That may be exactly what they’re looking for. That may expand search results, expand something relevant to your site that you’ve identified as an area of expertise, which I think is interesting. I like that structured data is capable of a result like that.
What is your favorite new addition to Schema 3.5?
Bill Slawski: FAQ page!
On Schema.org there’s such a wide range. They’re gonna update that every month now. But just having things like bed type is good.
What do you think is the right balance when I add structured data to my pages between an over-complicated data structuring and simplicity?
Bill Slawski: I Did SEO for a site a few years ago that was an apartment complex. It was having trouble renting units. There was a four-page apartment complex, and it showed up its dog park really well. It didn’t show off things like the fact that if you took the elevator to the basement, you got let out to the DC metro where you could travel all throughout Washington DC, northern Virginia, and southern Maryland and visit all 31 Smithsonian, and a lot of other things that are underground, underneath that part of Virginia. It was right next to what’s called Pentagon City, which is the largest shopping mall in Virginia. It’s four stories tall, all underground. You can’t see it from the street. Adding structured data to your page to identify those is something you can do. It’s probably something you should include on the page itself.
Maybe you want to include information, more information, on your pages about entities and include them in structured data, too, in a way that is really precise. You’re using that language identified and Schema that subject matter experts describe as something people might want to know. It defines it well. It defines it easily.
What you’re saying is do what you do with your content with your data. If you put emphasis on an aspect content-wise, then you should also do the proper markup for it?
Bill Slawski: Right! With the apartment complex I was talking about, location sells. It gets people to decide, “This is where I want to live.” Tell them about the area around them. Put that on your page and put that in your data. Don’t show pictures of the dog park if you want to tell them what the area schools are like and what the community’s like, what business is around, what opportunities there are. You can go to the basement, this apartment complex, and ride to the local baseball stadium or the local football stadium. You’re blocks away. DC traffic is a nightmare. If you ride the metro line everywhere, you’re much better off…
Andrea Volpini: That’s big. Also metro in real estate, we say it, it’s always increased 30% the value of the real estate if you have a metro station close by. Definitely is relevant. Something that is relevant for the business should be put into consideration also when structuring the page.
Is it worth also exploring Schema which is not yet officially used by Google?
Bill Slawski: You can anticipate things that never happen. That’s possible. But sometimes, maybe anticipating things correctly can be a competitive advantage if it comes into fruition that it’s come about. You mentioned real estate. Have you seen things like walkability scores being used on realty sites? The idea that somebody can give you a metric to tell you where you can compare easily one location to another based on what you can do without a car, it’s a nice feature. Being able to find out data about a location could be really useful.
Andrea Volpini: This is why, getting back to the linked data ID, this is why having a linked data ID for the articles and the entities that describe the article become relevant because then you can query the data yourself, and then you can make an analysis of what neighborhood that the least amount of traffic, and see, “Okay, did I write about this neighborhood or not?” This is also one of the experiments that we do these days is that we bring the entity data from the page into Google Analytics to help the editorial team think about what traffic entities are generating across multiple pages. Entities in a way can also be used internally for organizing things and for saying, “Yes, in this neighborhood, for instance, we have the least amount of criminality” or things like that. You can start cross-checking data, not only waiting for Google to use the data. You can also use the data yourself.
Is there any other aspect worth mentioning about how to use structured data for SEO?
Bill Slawski: Mike Blumenthal wrote an article based upon something I wrote about, the thing about entity extraction. He said, “Hotels are entities, and if you put information about hotels, about bookings, about locations, about amenities onto your pages so that people can find them, so people can identify those things, you’re making their experience searching for things richer and more …”
Andrea Volpini: We had a case where we had done especially this for lodging business. We have seen that as soon as we have started to add amenities as structured data, and most importantly, as soon as we had started to actually add geographic references to the places that this location we’re in, we saw an increase, not in pure traffic terms. The traffic went up. But we also saw an interesting phenomenon of queries becoming broader. The site, before having structured data to the hotels and to the lodging business, received traffic from very few keywords. As soon as we started to add the structured data and typing amenities and services, we also added the Schema action for booking, we saw that Google was bringing a lot more traffic on long tail keywords for a lot of different location that this business had hotels in, but it was not being visible on Google.
Bill Slawski: It wasn’t just matching names of locations on your pages to names of locations and queries, it was Google understanding where you were located-
What do you think Schema Actions are useful for?
Bill Slawski: There was a patent that came out a couple of years ago where Google said, “You can circle an entity on a mobile device and you can register actions associated with those entities.” Somebody got the idea right and the concept wrong. They were thinking about touchscreens instead of voice. They never really rewrote that so that it was voice activated, so you could register actions with spoken queries instead of these touch queries. But I like the idea. Alexa has the programs, being able to register actions with your entities is not too different from what existed in Google before. Think about how you would optimize a local search page where you would make sure your address was in a postal format so that it was more likely to be found and used. Of course, you wanted people to drive to a location, you’d want to give them driving directions, and that’s something you can register in action for now, but it’s already in there. It feels like you’re helping Google implement things that it should be implementing anyway, or you’re likely to be.
Andrea Volpini: Of course. I think that’s a very beautiful point, that we’re doing something that we should do. We’re now doing it for Google, but that’s the way it should be done. I like it. I like it a lot.
How much do you think structured data’s gonna help for voice search?
Bill Slawski: I can see Schema not being necessary because of other things going on, like the entity extraction, where Google is trying to identify. But Google tends to do things in a redundant way. They tend to have two different channels to get the same thing done. If one gets something correct and the other doesn’t, it fails to, they still have it covered. I think Schema gives them that chance. It gives site owners a chance to include things that maybe Google might have missed. If Google captures stuff and they have an organization like Schema behind them, which isn’t the search engine, it’s a bunch of volunteers who are subject matter experts in a lot of places or play those on TV, some are really good at that. Some of them miss some things. If you are a member of the Schema community mailing list, the conversations that take place where people call people on things, like, “Wouldn’t you do this for this? Wouldn’t you do that? Why aren’t you doing this?” It’s interesting to read those conversations.
Andrea Volpini: Absolutely. I always enjoy the mailing list of Schema, because as you said, you have a different perspective and different subject matter expert that of course are in the need of declaring what their content is about. Yeah, I think that Schema, I see it as a site map for data. Even though Google can crawl the information, it always values the fact that there is someone behind that it’s curating the data and that might add something that they might have missed, as you say, but also give them a chance to come to check and say, “Okay, this is true or not?”
Bill Slawski: You want a scalable web. It does make sense to have editors curating what gets listed. That potentially is an issue with Wikipedia at some point in the future. There’s only so much human edited knowledge it’s gonna handle. When some event changes the world overnight and some facts about some important things change, you don’t want human editors trying to catch up as quickly as they can to get it correct. You want some automated way of having that information updated. Will we see that? We have organizations like DeepMind mining sites like the DailyMail and CNN. They chose those not necessarily because they’re the best sources of news, but because they’re structured in a way that makes it easy to find that.
What SEOs should be looking at as of now? What do they need be very careful about?
Bill Slawski: It would be not to be intimidated by the search engine grabbing content from web pages and publishing it in knowledge panels. Look for the opportunities when they’re there. Google is business, and as a business, they base what they do on advertising. But they’re not trying to steal your business. They may take advantage of business models that maybe need to be a little more sophisticated than “how tall is Abraham Lincoln? “You could probably build something a little bit more robust than that as a business model. But if Google‘s stealing your business model from you in what they publish on knowledge panels, you should work around its business model and not be intimidated by it. Consider how much of an opportunity it is potentially to have a channel where you’re being focused upon, located easily, by people who might value your services.