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Digital Journeys 2017: Simon Heseltine, ForRent.com

Blog | 02 Aug, 2017

The Changing Face or Search and Personalization

Simon Heseltine, VP of Search at ForRent.com talks about how they get their web traffic whilst well and truly debunking some search myths.

Transcript

So I'm Simon Heseltine, VP of Search over at forrent.com. As you can tell from the accent, I've flown over here from Norfolk, Virginia, which is where I'm based. But in the U.S. 25 years now, so it's been awhile. Forrent.com, I'm sure you've not heard of us. We are an apartment search site. We manage communities and we basically try and get users onto our site to find flats, to find apartments and rent them. That's basically the goal of what we're trying to do. Our goals are really for one, to attract people, just to get people to our site. You know, they don't necessarily know our brand. We got some competitors who have some really deep pockets, spending a lot of money, they've got B list stars advertising their particular brands. We haven't got that, so we've got to find other ways to get found, and the primary one of those is, you know, we want to be found when people are searching in Google. We want to have people engage with us. We want to basically get them to actually search on our site, to actually click on an apartment, to call the apartment, just fill out a guest card. And that's what we're trying to do, that's our whole goal is to get people on our site and get them to actually do the whole lead gen part of it. 
 
So how do we do that? Well, unfortunately as we all know SEO is dead. And we know SEO is dead because everybody keeps writing about how SEO is dead. I think the first SEO is dead I saw was from 2005, 2006. "SEO is dead, SEO is dead." We know it's dead, that's the grim reaper. It's dead, it's over, it's done. I mean, even Bing has come out and said that SEO is dead. You'll note, that was actually three years ago now. Is there anybody in here who's getting traffic to their site from SEO still? We are, it's our biggest driver. So how is SEO is dead? Well, okay, let's just assume that SEO's dead. Let's go to PPC, let's go to paid search. Everything's good there, right? Oh, paid is apparently dead as well. This isn't going well. 
 
Yeah. So if paid is dead and SEO's dead, I guess let's just close the conference and open the bar, yeah? We can get rid, gone with that. No, I mean, obviously these aren't dead. They just evolved, they've changed, they've moved. That's what happens over time. I mean, you look at search engines in 2000, this is everybody who had at least a 1% market share in the U.S. in 2000. You look at that now, there appears to be one company that's doing a little better than others. I actually used to work for AOL back until a few years ago, they're not even on there now. Publishers Clearing House is on there. When you've only got Bing, Yahoo and Google, who are over 1% these days. That's all there is and Yahoo doesn't really even exist anymore. I mean, they're part of the Verizon with AOL. What does Google think about SEO? If you actually do a search on Google for SEO, this is what they say. 
 
So, yes. We're killing America and we thought that was just the elections doing that. But this is just how people are searching for SEO, this is how this shows up. This is based on user queries, user searches. What is SEO actually? I mean, SEO is still a powerful traffic driver. It still brings leads in, but it is constantly, constantly evolving. What you did in 2005 is not the same thing you did in 2009, is not the same thing you did last week. Google is continually moving. 
 
Gary Illyes is a guy over in Geneva, he's one of the voices of Google Search, the organic side of Google. It's him and John Mueller, they're both based out of Geneva and they talk about what's going on. And he points out in March, they do three updates a day, they do a thousand updates a year. We don't see most of those, we don't know about most of those. Some of those are just tiny little things, they're moving something around. They're doing something in a particular niche, they're doing something just for a particular types of content. We don't see those, but then they do the big ones. You know, we're talking about AI and machine learning. RankBrain was one they launched a couple years ago. RankBrain is Google's machine learning algorithm. It's already the third largest signal in Google Search. So that is a huge thing that they are doing. They're pushing that forward, the machine learning part. 
 
I mean, the algorithm is so large these days. There isn't anybody that really knows the whole algorithm. There are teams that work on little parts of it. So they need that. Here's the obligatory Bill Gates' slide that everybody has to have in a presentation at least once. And then the reason I put this in here, you know, content is king. We've all heard that, we all know that. Yeah, okay. Google said this last year, "Content isn't a top two ranking factor." That was the actual quote, it's number one. Because if you've not got content, how are you going to rank? There's nothing for people to do on the site if you have no content there. So content is still number one, number two is links and then RankBrain is number three. 
 
So what have we done about quality? You know, we want to make sure that we have quality content. I mean, this is one of our pages here. It's just a regular listing page, it's just a search page, you know. It's nothing exciting and it's just going to be found for, you know, the different types of properties that are on there, the location, whatever we're sticking in the title tag, in the description tag. That's what's going to be there. But the questions that people were asking are things like, you know, "What's the cost of living? Who are the sports team in the area?" You know, if you're moving to a new city, but you don't know that city... I mean, I moved down to Norfolk. Before I moved down there I had no idea, the different neighbourhoods there. I thought Ghent was in Belgium, I thought Chelsea was in London, but they are regions in Norfolk in Virginia. I had no clue. 
 
So, we see that it's about 40% of people are moving from a location to another location, to another city. So this is valuable information. So what we did was we built these pages about when you're moving to and living in an area. So that we could get that content out there, so we could use that to funnel people through the rest of the process. We get this information on the cost of living, we get this information on, you know, of the sports teams, what to see, what to do. So we're just building up that quality profile because that's what Google is looking for these days. They want to see that you have that content, they want to see that you have a nice chunk of quality out there. And we do other things as well, I mean, we do things for three reasons. We put content out there, you know, links, links and engagement. When I say links and links, we want to get internal links because having internal links helps the search engine flow through the site and crawl the site. External links because external links are still a big factor as far as SEO is concerned, no matter how much they're changing it. Google's tried to remove links. It didn't go well, they put links back in very quickly. Yandex in Russia took all links out. They've gone back to having links again because they are a very good indicator when you have good quality links coming into a site, that that is a good quality site. And of course, engagement, we want to make sure we keep people engaged with our site.  
 
The search themselves, they change over time. Google does a lot of different things. We saw on Peter's presentation this morning. You know, you have that long list of, "Here's the things that we've done." And 2007 was when you had universal search launched. They are always doing different things. I mean, it used to be about four or five years ago, if you wanted to know anything about your flight you would go to your, you go to British Airways, you'd look for the "check my flight." Now, all you do, you just put the flight number into Google and you get this box. In some cases, I've had it where I have seen more updated information on my flight in Google than I've seen in United's app. So this information is all coming up there and Google's taken this information through things like scheme mark up. And it's just how things are evolving, you know. Some of these easy queries, I mean, things like lyrics, these just went up last year and if you're searching for lyrics, the lyrics sites got destroyed last year when Google put this out there. It's now directly in the Google Search page. It's now directly in the SERP.  
 
You know, when you're doing a search, you'll see these one boxes, these, you know, the maps, you see the local places, you see all this information out there that people don't necessarily even have to go to your site anymore. They're getting that directly from Google. And why does Google do this? They want to keep you on that page because they want you to click on their ads. That's how they make their money, that's how they pay for the free cereal that they get at Googleplex. But Google doesn't always get it right. I like showing this because this is one of our competitors. People are trying to figure out what the heck is this. It's three days from the calendar, it's a Sunday, Monday and Saturday. This is garbage, it shows nothing. This was showing up for about 300 different searches for a long while. They've actually now started to pull these down and actually start showing real information in this one box at the top of the page. But Google doesn't always get it right. 
 
Let's talk about PPC again or SEM, however you want to prefer to term it. You know, we do see that mobile is growing, you know, and everyone sees that mobile is growing. And, you know, and we see the average spend is going up on Google, we see spend still going up on Facebook. Spend is still going up on there. So it's not dead. PPC is not dead just like SEO is not dead. They evolve, they move, they change. And some people get upset about it and say, you know, stamp their little fingers on the floor and just...get upset. It's not in there. So let's talk about PPC, what we did. We went with a company...don't know if you've heard of this company called Jellyfish. Anybody heard of them? So, you know, they came in a couple years ago and, you know, they started working with us, they started going through, you know, what are some of the issues that we have optimizing our paid search. Really trying, you know, moving forward with things and it's got to the point where there's a lot of automated strategies now that we're doing with them. You know, they've helped us in a lot of things. You know, we're doing remarketing with some search ads that's led to some good cost savings, more leads, the dynamic search ads. We've done more, you know, the age and gender bidding, all this stuff. And this is stuff that wasn't there in the past. You know, I mean when I started doing PPC back in 2005, I mean, it was just basically, you've got your three lines, you've got your URL, put it in there, that's it. And optimize by just doing the keywords. That was all you could really do, negative keywords and so forth. It's a lot more sophisticated these days, a lot more sophisticated. 
 
So mobile itself. I mean, we talk about mobile phones. At least somebody found it funny. We talk about mobile phones. And the reason we talk about mobile, I mean, mobile is a big thing. Gary Illyes again, you know, he put this on his Facebook page. In 2011 Google started talking about mobile. It's a big thing, you know, getting mobile, start moving to mobile, start thinking about mobile. It's getting bigger, you need to go mobile, start pushing the mobile, it's growing fast, go mobile, keep getting mobile, 2014, you must go mobile. Anybody doing SEO in 2014 knows what happened in December of 2014. Google said, "We are going to change mobile in April. April 19th, 2015, we're going to do a mobile update that will penalize you if your site is not mobile friendly. You've got four months to prepare for this and get your site mobile friendly." 
 
And SEOs being a very calmed measured bunch of people called this Mobilegeddon. And when we actually got to it on April 19th, it was a blip. Nothing really changed, nothing really happened and the reason for that was because we had those four months. Google had given us that forewarning. We were able to go, we were able to change, we're able to get our sites ready to make sure they were mobile friendly. And you know, if your site is not mobile friendly you really need to be because they came back and the reason they said this was January 2015, over 50% of searches to google.com were mobile, and that's never gone back. I mean, more and more searches are happening on the mobile site. 2016, you know, you really should be doing mobile. In October of 2016, Gary was at a conference, Pubcon in Vegas and he announced, "We are going mobile first. Mobile first will be happening." What that means is that rather than the index being based on desktop factors it's going to be based on your mobile factors of your site. So you need to make sure that your site is mobile friendly, that it's responsive, which is their preferred method of having the pages surfed. He announced that this would be happening towards the end of that year, then they announced it would be happening in Q1 of 2017, then they announced towards the end of Sept 2017 it would be happening. 
 
Now, they've announced this is happening sometime in Q1 or Q2, 2018. So you've still got time to get ready for mobile, for the new mobile first. So you need to make sure again that your sites are as prepared as you can be for that. And, you know, we know that there are more and more people on mobile, we know that mobile is where it's growing. More and more people are using their mobile devices, they're spending more and more time on their mobile devices. Your desktop devices, you are not getting that there, that growth is not there. Desktop is stagnant or dropping. This is from a year... well, close to a year ago now. Sixty percent of search is happening from mobile devices. We know that number has increased and what everybody is seeing is that there is no growth on desktop anymore. The growth is all on mobile. So you need to make sure that your site is mobile ready. We get about almost two-thirds of our traffic from mobile now. And we did go responsive, we didn't actually go responsive until March of this year, but we went there. 
 
So now, no matter how you view our site, whatever device you're using, you see the same page, you see the same content. It's all there. And of course, the great thing about that was we went down to one code base as well. So our developers are only developing with that one code base. Of course, then AMP came out and of course, now we have AMP pages so we have two code bases again. But as people were saying, you know, AMP is a very good thing. It's lightning fast pages. We were the first ones to actually go and I believe we're still the only ones that have gone to actually putting our profile pages on AMP in the apartment space, and they just load like that. It's there and we've seen a really nice increase in conversion rates. So we're really happy with what we've done with these. 
 
So let's talk about bringing it all together, you know, I mean, you've got your website. When you start pulling your SEO and your PPC, your SEM together it starts to look a little bit better, but it's when you pull everything else together. I mean, you bring it all together in one place. That's when things really start to look good and start to move forward. And what does a marketing team do, a digital marketing team? We do a crap ton of stuff. I mean, there's just so much that's going on out there. It's not just working on SEO, working on PPC. It's the advantage meets everything that we have on there. 
 
So talk a little quickly about the future of SEO, I mean the chat box. If you're in Seattle at the moment and you do search for a restaurant on Bing, you're going to start seeing chat box pop up to ask you how you'd like to search for a restaurant and give you information about the restaurants in Seattle. You've got the virtual assistants. I mean, who here has one of these devices, a Siri, a Cortana, an Alexa? A lot of people. And you're aware what the default search engine is on those three, it's Bing. So if we're just thinking about Google, there's still Bing out there because Google home is Google. They're not there yet, they're not getting a lot of the right answers. I mean, we saw with Watson earlier, you know, you don't always get the right answers. You don't always get what you're expecting. But these are only going to improve as they go forward, as they learn from you and they're getting this information from you as you're asking for things, as you're buying things, as you're just talking in general. They're hearing this information through your personal devices and they are personalizing things for you. You know, even when they do answer them, you know, they do give you some correct answers for the most part, but not always. You got the wearables. 
 
And then the other thing I wanted to talk about quickly is the interest graph and personalization. You know, you have the interest graph, these interest graphs are out there. Facebook has an interest graph on you. They know what you've done, they know when you're messaging people, what you're talking about. That's how they power your newsfeed when you're on Facebook. They know who you're talking to. So that's again, how all that's showing up in there. There are many sites that have done different things with the interest graph, they're looking at what you've done, how you've searched, and they're pulling information in for you based on that. 
 
One thing that Peter didn't have in his presentation this morning, Google announced last night, they've killed Google and they've gone to Google Feed, which is again, another personalization thing. So they're looking up how you've searched, what you've done when you've been logged in to your Google account. And they're pulling that information in for you, similar to how they were doing with Google Now, but apparently it's better with this feed. So when you go onto your Android device, your Apple device, you're going start seeing when you go to the Google app, links showing up underneath of things that it thinks you might be interested in based on how you've searched in the past. And this personalization, it's going to change how people search. It's going to  make a lot of difference. So search is going to continue to evolve on the organic side, on the paid side. It just is, it's going to keep moving, it's going to keep changing. 
 
Quality content is where you need to be. You need to make sure that everything you've done is quality that you're moving forward and trying to deliver what your audience is actually looking for, answering those questions that they are asking. Because that's how you're going to get that traffic. And think about tomorrow today, because what's going to happen down the road is what's going to be where you can go in the future. I mean, Google's doing lots of different things. They do those 1% tests almost everyday. Read the interview sites, find out what's happening, what they're changing, how they're changing search, and think about how you can play in with that, how your company can work with that. And that is exactly 20 minutes. Yeah. Thank you. 

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