Cyrus Shepard gives the inside scoop on Search for 2019
It’s been a busy year in SEO land. With more algorithm updates than you can shake a stick at.
The Search Engine results pages are unrecogniseable, Google My Business gets sexier each and every day and conversational search is on the up, as we’re able to use pretty much every device in the house to browse the interwebs.
So how can us lowly small business owners, bloggers and ecommerce store owners prepare for the year ahead?
Can we peer into oh crystal balls and see what Google has in store?
Well today I’m talking with SEO guru Cyrus Shepard about what we should expect for Search in 2019.
So if you want to get ahead of the competition, this is the episode for you.
Tune in to learn:
- The importance of branded search
- Schema and what you need to know
- Is AMP here to stay
- How can we take advantage of conversational search
- What’s the deal with the ever changing SERPS
- Why site architecture is still important
- Is speed still important?
- Do we need to build links in 2019?
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And big thanks to Claire Gamble | Unhooked Comms for her lovely review.
Cyrus Shepard runs Zyppy, an SEO company that publishes content, does consulting, and works on software. Formerly, he was Head of SEO and Audience Development at Moz. He is a speaker and conference emcee, and strives to make complex SEO equations easy to understand.
Connect with Cyrus
Hello, my name’s Kate Toon and I’m head chef here at the Recipe for SEO Success, an online teaching hub for all things search engine optimization. And I love SEO. And today I’m talking with Cyrus Shepard. Hello Cyrus.
Cyrus Shepard:Hi Kate.
Kate Toon:Hello. Good to see you. So, I’ve got your little-
Cyrus Shepard:Good to see you.
Kate Toon:I’ve got your little bio here, but maybe you can tell us who the hell you are and what you do?
Cyrus Shepard:Gosh. Well, I loved your intro about yourself. I also love SEO. I started learning SEO about eight years ago when I was making websites and I didn’t know how to market them. I didn’t know how to get them in front of people. And so, I started just learning everything. Like, should I pay for ads on Google? Should I do social media? And then I found this thing called SEO and I fell in love, and I found the career for the rest of my life, because I love it when people come to you and want something, and that’s what they’re doing with SEO. They’re typing something into a search and they’re looking for something. So, if you can solve people’s problems through SEO, you can have a great business. And I’m not telling you about myself, but why I love SEO.
Kate Toon:That’s great. I’ve got your bio here, so I’ll read that out. Beautiful man. That touched me right here.
Kate Toon:Okay. I’ll cut there. We can turn our videos off, so the audio quality gets better. And then I’m going to come back in and do your intro. That was beautiful, man. Okay, here we go. Okay, so we’ll start from your bio.
Well, I think that was a beautiful explanation of why you love SEO. I’ve got your bio here for everyone anyway, just to explain why I have you on the show because I’ve been following you for what seems like forever.
So, Cyrus runs Zyppy, an SEO company that punches content, does consulting, and works on software. Formerly, he was head of SEO and audience development at Moz. He is a speaker and conference MC and strives to make complex SEO equations easy to understand, which is perfect because that’s what I try to do too. So, thanks again, Cyrus, for being on the show.
So, let’s get stuck in. We’re going to talk today about what’s happening in 2019. But before we do that, let’s take a little look back. It’s been a big year, 2018. It feels like a lot, doesn’t it?
Cyrus Shepard:Yeah. Every time you think that things have settled in, the internet changes again and there’s always something new to learn.
Kate Toon:It is, and that’s the beautiful thing about it. It’s exciting. Some people find that depressing, but I just think it’s a good old challenge. So, one of the big things that’s been mooted by your old work colleague, Rand Fishkin, is that branded search is going to be huge in 2019. What do you think of that? And what do you think that really means for small business owners?
Cyrus Shepard:Well, I think it’s important, but I also think it’s a particular challenge for small business owners. So, just to be clear what we’re talking about, branded search is when people are specifically looking for your business, whatever it’s name, Moe’s Garage or Safeway Grocery Store, as opposed to just looking for a generic term like car mechanic. Branded search, when we study this, we see that there’s a huge correlation between branded search and organic search traffic. Meaning, if people are actually looking for your business, you’re generally getting a lot of organic search traffic anyway. So, a lot of people, like Rand, like my colleague, Rand, theorise and believe that if you can increase your branded search, you’re going to win organic traffic all the way down the road.
For small businesses, this can be kind of challenging getting your word out, but it also gives you a specific strategy to go after, getting people to look specifically for you and raising your visibility.
Kate Toon:Yeah. I mean, I think what they’re saying is it’s just getting harder and harder to rank for what you do and easier to rank for who you are.
Kate Toon:So it’s about building that whole brand awareness thing and being a bit clever. Like, you’re seeing these days on ads, people are more saying, instead of, “Here’s our URL,” “Hey, try searching brand name in Google to find us,” or, “Try searching product name in Google to find us,” and just encouraging people to put your name into the search engine however you can do that.
Cyrus Shepard:Right. And that goes into another point that’s not specifically related to brand search, but something we’re seeing in 2018 is the rise of reputation in search. So, what Google is … what we think Google is doing is looking at your businesses reputation across all the websites that mention it. And this could be local review sites, this could be Google reviews, this could be other websites that talk about you. So, it’s important for your brand to have a good reputation in today’s search environment.
Kate Toon:And do you think citations matter as well?
So, that whole correlations in, my name’s Kate Toon, and if my name is mentioned enough around the word copywriter or copywriting or SEO course, that correlation is starting to come together as well.
Cyrus Shepard:Absolutely. And we’re also seeing that the words that people use in their reviews matter a lot too. So, it’s not just … sometimes it’s not just enough if people leave you a good Google review or a Facebook review or something like that. The words that they use in the review, “Kate Toon is an awesome copywriter,” they’re looking at that sentiment analysis to see who should rank and who shouldn’t.
Kate Toon:I love that, sentiment analysis. And that’s a great argument for something that I teach on the course, which is if you want a testimonial from someone, send them a little example of how they could write it because most people struggle to write testimonials. So, if you give them a little template to use that maybe has some little phrases in there, you can actually be doing yourself a bit of a Google favour as well. So, that’s a great tip.
Cyrus Shepard:Absolutely, very smart.
Kate Toon:So, branded search, I mean, getting your name out there, that’s a whole episode in itself. But we’re just saying that the more people that are typing in your brand name into Google, the better. Now, another thing that’s talked about a lot, it’s been talked about for ages, but they’re saying the importance of it is going to be bigger in 2019 is schema and structured data. What do you think that has to play in 2019?
Cyrus Shepard:Well, I think we’re going to see some big changes over the next year in schema. Right now, we always tell people, put schema on your website. Markup what you can, especially your business name, your social profiles, things like that. But there’s a lot of confusion right now exactly what should be marked up. There’s so many schemas out there, and I think we’re going to see some more guidance from Google around this issue. For small businesses, I think it’s definitely important to markup your local information, your address, phone number, contact information. But also, events is a big one. If your store is having a sale or anything like that, there’s a special event markup that you can use and look up, because that’s a big one and it’s an easy way to win a bit of real estate in the search results.
Kate Toon:Yeah, and obviously for eCommerce it’s fairly easy these days to markup price and availability.
Kate Toon:I think we have a couple of episodes on the podcast about schema if you want to look back through iTunes and find them. We did one recently with Dido and one a while ago with Tony McCreath. Schema, though, is still something that confuses the heck out of small business owners. And the implementation of it, even with a simple WordPress site can be quite challenging. So, hopefully Google with make that easier as well.
Cyrus Shepard:Yeah, schema is hard for the big businesses. But generally my advice is markup everything you can and let … Google won’t punish you for the most part, as long as everything is truthful. But if you markup fake reviews that don’t actually exist, you can get yourself in a little bit of trouble. But markup everything you can, and Google will take the parts that it can use and ignore everything else.
Kate Toon:That’s really reassuring. I’m so glad that everyone else struggles with it too. The next thing is AMP. Some people love it, some people hate it.
We had a whole episode about how AMP is hateful and we should just focus on having faster sites. What do you think about AMP? Is it here to stay? Is it something that we need to be worrying about?
Cyrus Shepard:I’m going to admit, when AMP first came out, for the first, I think, two years, I hated it, mostly because it felt like Google stealing our content a little bit. But I won’t get into that philosophical debate. The truth is that every study we look at, content on AMP performs better in search results than content that isn’t on AMP on average, on average. It’s not a magic bullet. So, I advise my clients when they can to adopt AMP. That said, I think AMP is finally evolving to the point where it’s not such a Google owned thing, where it’s getting easier to use, it’s getting easier to share URLs. You can have your own URL now. WordPress tools are improving for small businesses to get AMP. Yoast Glue is a great tool. So, I do think it’s here to stay, and I advise it to use when you can. Some sites are just too small and they don’t get enough traffic to justify it, but if you can do it and you can do it easily, I advise people to do it.
Kate Toon:Yeah. And do you think it’s really relevant for your average small business site? Or do you think it’s more for your kind of news and entertainment sites?
Cyrus Shepard:Well, it’s definitely more relevant to news and entertainment. One thing I like to tell people, a good way to tell if you should use AMP is Google the keywords that you are trying to rank for, and look at the results on mobile, and see how many of the top results are already in AMP. If Google is showing three or more results in the top 10 that are AMP, that’s a pretty good idea that you should be thinking about it.
Kate Toon:Yeah, okay. That’s great advice. And I think it’s not to say that AMP is the alternative to having a fast site. I think you want a fast site as well, you know? They’re not mutually exclusive. They can work together.
Kate Toon:Yes, and obviously, as you said, WordPress makes it relatively easy with the Google AMP plugin and other plugins. So, it’s not as hard as it might seem.
Cyrus Shepard:And for the record, on my own site, even though that’s my advice, I still don’t have AMP on my own site.
Kate Toon:Yeah, well I have it on one of my sites, but I have eight. Eight websites.
Kate Toon:I know. What am I thinking? I’m going to kill one of them in 2018, that’s my big exciting news. So, the next thing, everyone’s talking about conversational search. That was a bit of a pun there, but it didn’t work very well. Other than writing in the language of their audience and truly answering customer questions, what else can small business website owners do to take advantage of conversational search?
Cyrus Shepard:That’s a very good question. There’s a lot of debate in my world about where conversational search is going. What I generally advise people to do right now is focus on something slightly different, which would be featured snippets in regular search. And featured snippets are those answers at the top that give you a brief answer because most of the time, if you’re winning those, you’re winning voice search queries and you’re well prepared for conversational search. And the way to win those is, as you said, write in brief sentences, put questions in your headings, make bulleted lists, try to see what’s already ranking for your targeted search queries, and try to do better than that.
Kate Toon:Yeah, and for those who are not 100% sure what conversational search is, we did an episode a couple of weeks ago with Eric Enge where we talked through that. I don’t really think that we need to do anything dramatically different. I think it is about using the language that your customers are using, so reflecting back, using the same terminology as your customers are using, maybe being a little bit less formal.
As a copywriter, I know that lots of businesses come and they want to sound professional. And they think to sound professional, they need to write super long sentences and use really long words, which doesn’t necessarily correlate with what people are typing or speaking into the search engines.
Now, that leads me into the thing that I was going to talk about next, which is the search engine results pages. What is going on? Every time you look at them, they’re different. There’s so many elements to them now. They’re actually a little bit overwhelming, I find now, don’t you?
Cyrus Shepard:They are. And it’s scary sometimes because we think of Google as a search engine, and sometimes some of these pages come back and you’re like, “I don’t see websites listed here, I see answers and I see great products and images and videos, but where is my website in all of this?” So, it can be a little scary.
Kate Toon:Yeah. And I mean, that’s it. Some people are actually sort of saying Google’s becoming less of a search engine and more of an answer engine because you mentioned these featured snippets, we also have featured answers, we’re getting featured videos. And it’s like Google’s trying to deliver us one great result, rather than 10 results that we can choose from. It’s almost making the decision for us, don’t you feel? Like, I don’t know.
Cyrus Shepard:Absolutely. They’re trying to provide answers for us in the easiest way possible. They’re also making a lot of money off the ads they serve. So, you can question their motives all you want. One thing I do advise is there is one feature of search results that’s continually gaining in prominence and has for the last three to five years, and we expect it to do so even more, and that is video.
Kate Toon:I was hoping we were going to get into that. That was my next thing. You’re just segueing beautifully.
Cyrus Shepard:Am I? Oh dear.
Kate Toon:You’re a pro, man. This is-
Cyrus Shepard:If I had to tell … and I would say even small business owners can take advantage of video because I think it’s an investment that you can make for the future, and more and more YouTube. Google is the largest search engine in the world. YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world. So, if you have a presence on YouTube and if you start making that investment, you can win longterm.
Kate Toon:And that’s it, with the blended results now, the videos are coming through into the search engine results pages, and that’s what you said earlier. It’s all the how, when, what, why, where kind of questions. If you can reflect the customer language by answering one of those questions, as we said, have a little short intro that answers it very quickly.
They might get pulled into that position zero featured snippet. But then also, have a beautiful three minute video that’s on YouTube and embed it on your site, and you’ve transcribed it, awesome. You’re kind of really giving yourself absolute ultimate, aren’t you? Do you know what I mean? The absolute choice.
Cyrus Shepard:Yeah. Yeah, attack the problem from all angles. So, do the AMP, do the structure data, do the video, and you’re there.
Kate Toon:And it brings it all back again though that video is one of the ways that really makes that connection between you and the brands. So, back to that branded search. Like, I can watch 17 videos on how to implement structured data, but the one I’m going to remember is the guy that’s kooky or fun. And then I might watch more of his stuff. And I might type his name into Google again. So, it’s kind of all circular, yeah? It’s all building that expertise, authority, and trust that we’re trying to all work on.
Cyrus Shepard:Yeah. And video can make such a strong memorable impression because for branded search, as we were talking about at the top of the show, people are going to remember who they see in a video. They are going to remember the brand name who they see in the video. So, it can strengthen those brand relationships a little bit more.
Kate Toon:It really can. And this is slightly off script, but as I was saying, I’ve been following you for ages, and the main place that I follow you is Twitter. Now, obviously Twitter’s great, but it’s pretty limited. And some people are very good at the little pithy tweets, which I think you’re very good at. But this is the first time I’ve kind of seen you in the flesh making this little … and you’re not at all how I expected you to be. Like, really different.
Cyrus Shepard:Well, that’s why I use a cartoon avatar.
Kate Toon:Yeah, I know. In a good way, in a good way. But it just shows that you think you’ve built this connection, but you can only do so much with words. And I’m a copywriter and I know that. But getting your face out there, getting your voice out there through podcasts, making videos, and also, Facebook lives. Like, we have the technology in our smartphone now to make a pretty decent Facebook live video and then pull that down and pop that on YouTube. There’s just so many opportunities now. I really do think video’s going to be huge next year if you’re brave enough to not use a cartoon avatar and get your face out there.
Cyrus Shepard:No, no. The great thing about the cartoon avatar, I never have to change it, Kate. It’s good for 50 years because I’m bald, it’s just me.
Kate Toon:Well, that’s it. I have a cartoon avatar as well, and for ages, she was way hotter than me because she was like slimmer and whatever. And now I’m hotter than my avatar because I’ve lost a bit of weight. But anyway, there you go.
Kate Toon:Thank you. So, we’ve talked about branded search and schema. But one of the things you mentioned before when we were talking about the show was you mentioned the importance of site architecture. What did you want to touch on there?
Cyrus Shepard:Well, site architecture is one of the specialties of mine. Site architecture just means the way that your website is structured through links. And this is … I see all types of websites make mistakes with this, with choosing what they put in their navigation and how they link their pages together. And generally, they either don’t link the important pages, or they make them hard to find, or they don’t include enough links for the visitor within the pages themselves. So, generally when I work with a client, aside from basic keyword targeting and optimization, site architecture is one of the very first things that we work on. And we usually can find ways to make gains through it. For small businesses, if you only have three, four, or five pages, it’s not a huge challenge because you’re just going to link to them all in your navigation. But once you start getting past 20, 30, 40 pages for your business, it becomes a bigger and bigger issue about what you link to.
Kate Toon:I mean, I see this as a really common problem with eCommerce stores.
Kate Toon:Having really shoddy navigations up, and not having product led navigations, instead having things like, “About,” and, “FAQs” in their main nav, and then having the products somewhere else. Like, not leading with their product categories. So, you come in and you barely get an impression of what they sell. And then trying to reverse that and link the category pages. I think eCommerce stores struggle a lot with it because I think they have so many products and they’re not clear how to group them together. Do you find that as well?
Cyrus Shepard:Absolutely. And product navigation and faceted search navigation are huge problems and challenges. And generally, you try to come up with a structure where people can find virtually anything on your site within three clicks. But determining exactly what those clicks are is a bit of a mixture of art and science.
Kate Toon:It really is. You kind of have to have a feel for it sometimes, don’t you? Are people searching by material or colour or brand? Yeah, it’s very tricky. Now, a couple of things we haven’t talked about, and I think because they’re staples. I mean, I think speed, the need for speed is still going to be a big thing in 2019. We all want to be getting our sites down under the three second area if we can, faster and faster now we’re on mobile first indexing. Any other tips around speed? Do you think [inaudible 00:20:02] to get faster and faster?
Cyrus Shepard:Yeah, well people always ask me about speed. And speed is one of those things that Google will tell you that it only affects the slowest of the slow sites, which I think from a ranking point of view is probably true. But on the other hand, in reality, we always see faster sites always ranking higher. And I think it’s because of user experience. When people come to your site and it’s super fast, they’re less likely to click away. They’re more likely to stay on your site, engage, make a purchase or whatever. And Google can read those signals. So, a faster site, no matter how fast you already are, it always improves things. So, I think it’s one of those great things. I’m sorry. I lost the question, Kate. I love speed so much.
Kate Toon:That’s the whole notion of dwell time that Google almost is aware of how long you spend away from the index before you come straight back and search again. So, yeah, I guess the faster the better. But also, I think, the UX thing is about having an engaging homepage as well, an engaging page when you get there that really quickly affirms what the user was looking for, that the user intent is going to be met, and it’s nice and sticky, maybe a video, maybe a really easy to understand navigation so they get sucked in. And I think UX is so important and maybe underestimated. We’re all focused on getting them to the site, and sometimes we forget about what they’re going to do when they get there.
Cyrus Shepard:So, one of my favourite metrics that I use is time on site. And I love it when I see my visitors spending more time on the site, not because they’re having a hard time finding what they’re needing but because we’re giving them so many options that they didn’t even know they were looking for. I always tell people, it’s not enough today to answer the user’s query. When people search for car repair, it’s not enough just to have a page about car repair. You have to answer their next five questions as well. How much is it going to cost? What can I expect? How can I make an appointment? Who do I call for trouble? You have to answer all the additional questions so they don’t have to go back to Google and search for them. And when you do this right, you increase your engagement and you tell Google that this is the site that people are looking for and it’s answering their query. And so, time on site is one of my favourite metrics.
Kate Toon:I love that. And one little classic trick that SEO copywriters use to do that is type the first question into Google and then see the other questions that Google spawns in the question box below. You usually get five or six. And then click on those and you’ll get more and more and more. And if you can incorporate all of those into your page, you’ve created this mega sticky landing page. Don’t worry too much about bounce rate because if someone goes to that and bounces straight out, but they’ve done what you need them to do, we’re happy, you know? They’ve done everything. That one page was enough for them, like a killer landing page.
Before we finish up, one thing that we haven’t touched on is back links. And I know that with all the students on my Recipe For SEO Success Course, this is the area that they do struggle with the most, the earning, not building back links and finding opportunities. And obviously people are questioning whether back links have the importance that they used to have. What’s your opinion on back links in 2019 and their importance?
Cyrus Shepard:Well, as scary as it is, I think back links are as important or more important today as they always have been. And I know that it’s … even I struggle to build links sometimes. I think the good news is for smaller businesses, especially locally, links aren’t always so important. You can outweigh links with reviews but I think you still have … the sites that win, the work pays off exponentially. Getting those sites, creating content that even big websites want to link to and reference, it’s hard work, but it pays off.
Kate Toon:It really does. Well, I’ve got some good news for you, Cyrus. I’m going to give you a back link for this podcast, okay? So there you go.
Cyrus Shepard:Ranking city, here I come.
Kate Toon:There you go, baby. And I think the other thing is that smaller businesses can actually be more successful sometimes because they can really build relationships with other small businesses.
Kate Toon:Whereas, if a big business came to me and said, “Hey, we’ll give you a link, we’ll pay for a link,” I’d be like, “Oh, go away.” But if a small business is like, “Follow me, and then we have a relationship and we can scratch each other’s backs,” it’s more convincing when we do it than when a big brand does some retched back link outreach campaign, don’t you agree?
Cyrus Shepard:Absolutely. Absolutely. I always think that small businesses, their greatest asset are all the other people in their network, and leveraging that can lead to big gains.
Kate Toon:It really can. Well, look, I think we’ve given some really … I feel quite positive about the year ahead now, don’t you?
Kate Toon:It’s a great time to be in SEO. People area always saying it’s dead, but it’s not dead yet, baby. Maybe 2020 it’ll be dead, who knows? We’ll see.
Kate Toon:We’ll get Cyrus back to tell us what’s going to happen in 2020. Cyrus, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been brilliant.
Cyrus Shepard:Thank you, Kate. So glad I could join.
Kate Toon:Thank you. And guys, if you want to learn more about Cyrus, I’ll include links to his various bits and bobs. You’ll find him most on Twitter. He does some very funny little updates on Twitter. So, definitely check those out. And just to finish up, if you have questions about search in 2019, feel free to head to my I Love SEO group on Facebook. And as you know, I like to finish the show with a shout out to one of my lovely listeners, and this week it’s Claire Gamble.
And she says, “I took Kate Toon’s SEO course and always listen to her podcasts. SEO doesn’t have to be overcomplicated and smokes and mirrors. Kate’s got a great way of explaining even the most technical aspects of SEO in a straightforward way. I recommend it for small business owners.”
Thank you very much, Claire. And thanks to you for listening.
If you like the show, don’t forget to leave a five star rating and review on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you heard this pod. Your review will help others find the show and learn more about the lovely and exciting world of search engine optimization. And don’t forget to check out the show notes for this episode where you can learn more about Cyrus, check out the useful links and leave a comment about the episode.
Finally, don’t forget to tune in to my two other podcasts, the Hot Copy podcast, a podcast for copywriters all about copywriting, and the Confessions Of A Misfit Entrepreneur. That’s a long outro. Until next time, thank you, Cyrus, and happy SEOing.