Spotlight On: Tribal Worldwide’s Director of SEO, Steve Liu

Content Takeover Mobile & Local SearchTribal Worldwide’s director of SEO, Steve Liu, established the search practice of the agency when he joined in 2012. He now leads the department, working on anything and everything SEO, including keyword search, content strategy, link strategy, and social media.

Search Engine Watch (SEW): Some say that SEO is dead. What are your thoughts on that?

Steve Liu (SL): I think there are two schools of thought on SEO. One school is you use technical tactics. For example, you use certain keywords, and you try to acquire links. Another school is you try to optimize user experience. Instead of saying we need to start using these keywords in this content, we say that we want to understand our users, and we want to understand what our users want to read. In that process we can use certain types of words.

The best way I can answer this is that if your definition of “SEO” is merely a collection of techniques and tricks meant to reverse-engineer and manipulate Google’s algorithm then yes, SEO died a long time ago.

On the other hand, if your definition of “SEO” is having a deep understanding of your users’ needs, understanding what words they use in searching for answers, understanding what kinds of content they want to consume to find answers, and understanding how this information is shared, then SEO is alive and well.

Put another way, up to a few years ago SEO was typically done in a silo — companies would develop their Web properties and then almost as an afterthought send it to a SEO consultant or agency to “do SEO.” I think today, proper SEO should be approached less as a one-off, specialized task and more so integrated into every part of building digital projects, serving as continual validation of a site’s technical development, UX, content strategy, and outreach strategy.

SEW: In your opinion, which one is more important, keyword ranking or traffic?

SL: Honestly, at the end of the day, neither of these things mean anything if you don’t care about conversion or the engagement on your site. I think keyword rank and traffic are both important, but they are almost secondary to helping users accomplish what they want to accomplish on your site.

I think different clients have different philosophies. From my perspective, both are important.

SEW: It appears that SEO isn’t just about keyword search anymore and has evolved into many things. This is evident in the areas that your team has been working on. What evolutionary changes have you seen in SEO in the past few years?

SL: It’s an interesting question, because I got into SEO almost 10 years ago, even before [people] had a word for it. The industry has evolved so much. When I started, it was mostly about user experience. Over the years, more people are jumping into SEO. Now it’s more about “manipulation,” or finding holes in Google’s algorithms. And that’s where you saw tactics such as keyword stuffing. 

I remember one particular dark day in the mid-2000s. I was working for a major e-commerce company where we were dominating most of our keywords in organic search. Suddenly I noticed one of our competitors outranking us overnight for nearly every term. It didn’t take long to figure out how — they were getting thousands of artificial paid links. I remember I had a chance to talk about it with a Google engineer, who basically told me not to worry as “the algorithm would take care of it.” But soon these tactics were so successful that anyone who did SEO almost had to practice them. I think this is when SEO got a bad name in many people’s minds.

It took about five years, but Google finally introduced Panda, and then Penguin, and then Hummingbird. Yes, there was some collateral damage to certain sites, but overall I think they did a pretty good job at weeding out the worst offenders and promoting sites that did things right. So in a way we’ve come full circle — we’re at a point now where SEO is where it should have been all along — not trying to find holes in Google’s algorithm to exploit, but rather building the best experience for your users.

SEW: Google’s major local algorithm update “Pigeon” hit the U.S. last July. How were your clients affected by that change?

SL: In a very positive way. It’s funny that local search has evolved in a way that organic search has. Three or four years ago, it was very easy to rank in the Google’s local listings by using a couple of simple tactics: claim and optimize your profile, build citations, and so on. What happened was people were exploiting the algorithm, because it was so simple to do so. With “Pigeon,” Google started to get more sophisticated and started to apply to local search some of the signals that made its organic ranking algorithm so successful. In a world where mobile and local search is going to dominate, Google knew they had to get this one right quickly.

SEW: User experience is an indispensable part of mobile SEO and responsive design has since fallen into this. Is responsive design a one-size-fits-all strategy? Are there any other alternatives?

SL: I have been working on responsive design a lot in recent months. Years ago most companies were maintaining a separate mobile site and desktop site, which in most cases didn’t work out too well – most of them would focus on their desktop site and forget about their mobile site. So I see responsive design as a huge positive in terms of helping people manage that process better. They build a site once that can serve both desktop users and mobile users.

But I think lots of agencies stop here, which is a mistake. I think the next evolution is going to be tailoring the mobile experience for mobile users, and tailoring the desktop experience for desktop users. Technologically you can still use responsive technology or adaptive technology, but the most important thing from a user point of view is to understand the needs, the motivations, and the habits of users who are coming from a mobile device versus desktop device. 

The winners in search aren’t going to be the ones who take a desktop experience and serve it up as-is on a mobile device, nor the ones who proclaim “mobile first” but end up serving their desktop users a limited experience. It’s the ones who will be smart enough to serve the right content to the right people in the right place. And since Google and Bing are getting smart enough to identify great mobile experiences, people who do this won’t be able to help but be successful.

SEW: If you were to give marketers advice on mobile and local search, what would it be?

SL: For local search, the biggest advice I can give is that big companies should never take their SEO for granted. While a lot of big companies will focus most of their energy on their corporate site and corporate branding, often they don’t realize that most consumers experience their brand at a local level. So for all the care and feeding they do for their corporate brand as far as content development, PR, and marketing, they need to do the same for their local presences as well.

Of the top 10 public companies in the world, eight of them have a local presence in the form of stores, stations, and dealers. And yet I’m still surprised whenever I see store locators that aren’t optimized or even indexed, or local listings on Google, Yelp, and other local search sites that aren’t properly claimed nor populated with rich content.

For mobile search, getting a responsive site is great to get into the game. But to differentiate yourself, you really need to optimize your user experience for mobile users versus desktop users.

Another piece of advice on mobile search revolves around one of the biggest changes I see coming this year. This is the advent of natural language search. Natural language processing was largely a curiosity in 2011 when IBM’s Watson won Jeopardy. But then Apple released Siri, Google followed with Google Now, and this year we’ll see Amazon Echo and Microsoft Cortana try to stake claims in natural language processing. Why? Because unlike other interfaces such as keyboards, mice, and touchscreens, humans have already mastered how to use their voice by the time they’re three. And these companies know that the more intuitive the interface, the more people will use it.

From an SEO perspective, whether you’re asking Google Now for the movies playing in your area or asking your Apple Watch where the closest burger joint is, that’s a form of search. So mastery of SEO practices – understanding the long-tail of how your audience searches for things, creating authoritative and engaging content to answer those needs, and having content so great your users will want to share it – have been and always will be the keys to success.

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