SMX Advanced Seattle 2016

Day 1 Recap – All Things Organic Search

By Sean Bucher, Account Manager

What an exciting few days at SMX Advanced in Seattle. With multiple tracks and disciplines converging on the Bell Harbor Event Center, there is a ton to share. One very apparent theme is that while Google is still the king of search – other search engines, native search, e-commerce search, and social channels are still highly relevant players in the search space.

Through a litany of testing and data gathering, it has been confirmed that content and links are still the major driving factors for most search engine rankings. That being said, RankBrain and its machine learning will be a key driving force for Google’s search functionality moving forward. Google was not the only engine that is embracing machine learning. Many of the top search algorithms are moving towards bot communication with hopes of finding the best ways to deliver search results based on intent, query, structure, and relevance.

My major takeaways from the SEO sessions during the conference were:

Mark Up

  • Good Content Quality and user experience (UX) = Good SEO
  • HTTPS (Secure Server or SSL) – analyzing over 2 years of data, only 6% of sites are HTTPS
    • Today roughly 30% of page 1 URLs are secure
    • Once this hits critical mass at 60%+, a full shift will likely occur where SSL may become a requirement to attain high rankings

Title Tags

  • Rankings relying heavily on Keywords in Title tag have dropped 20% YoY as a result of Google’s RankBrain ranking signal and Hummingbird algorithm
  • There is more space for Title Tags now with a 17% increase in Title Tag container
    • Pete Meyers tested this across 90k URLs, revealing the average length was approximately 64 characters
    • Google is also rewriting Brand Tags and appending based on brand recognition
    • Title Tags actually appear longer in mobile, because of card-based visualization

On Page Mark-up

  • H1 Tags (on page structure) have increased 7% YoY as a ranking factor, however the value of using Keywords in H1 Tags has dropped in ranking value


  • Word Count, Counts – Pages with higher rankings trend to have more content (YoY increase of 20%)
    • There is no magic number – Ideal word count on page is dependent upon the vertical, there are no minimum or maximum guidelines to follow
  • On-page elements and signals, including structure for intent of the search are major factors thanks to algorithm updates
  • Keep it in Context – based on the context of the content on the page, RankBrain allows Google to further understand the intent behind searches and whether the search is transactional or informational
    • It also understands explicit versus implicit meaning, optimizes based on subject and not just keywords, and tests queries with various (synonyms)
  • Use Silos – Begin organizing your content into three silos or themes, this creates better methods for content ideation and creation:
    • Hero: large-scale, long-pole-in-the-tent type content
    • Hub: regularly scheduled content
    • Hygiene: this is your pull content
  • Quality Content comes from Quality Writers – Focus on great writing by hiring writers who are passionate about your industry and product
    • This type of content tends to be better, more engaging, and more inclined to rank
  • Use a Content Checklist – be sure it includes which mark-up necessities are required out of the gate
    • Ensure that content that can’t rank does not go live
  • Leverage Loyalty – Brand ambassadors and evangelists can be your best content creators and syndication channels
  • Don’t spread yourself thin – if you have two or three social networks you engage well on, stick to those
    • You don’t have to spray your content across all platforms, just the ones your customers frequent


  • Make sure your site accounts for experience
  • As the user experience evolves, provide tailored experiences and CTAs based on the audience – KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE!


  • Backlink quality continues to produce higher rankings, relevance of the backlink is key
    • More is not better, better is better
  • Social signals absolutely provide value and paid promotion of organic posts still increases social signals to the site

Search Result Pages

  • About 11% of SERPs feature a featured snippet
    • Google is actively testing for featured snippets
    • Featured snippets can increase click-through rates by up to 40%
    • You don’t have to rank #1 to be a featured snippet, nor do you need to over-optimize your page, you just need to answer a question in a clear way through deep content
    • The sweet spot for most featured snippets tends to be position 2-5, where 2/3 of featured snippets are pulled from
  • Site Usability plays a huge factor in success
    • If you don’t have a strong foundation in which your site is built, nothing else will have success
  • Schema doesn’t necessarily dictate the featured snippet result
  • Google is also testing a card-based format for desktop similar to their mobile experience
    • This is based on attention span and tests they’re currently running
    • Knowledge panel could also move over to single column, as soon as Q3 of this year

All presenters were emphatic that while core optimization strategies are still best practice, search engines are evolving to understand the most relevant content, not the most optimized.

Many speakers also hypothesized that there is a link between Click-Through Rate, Bounce Rate, and rankings. Engagement signals appear to be a contributing factor for results the engine provides.

A common theme that was revealed for the e-commerce vertical was that a majority of Top 10 organic search results for e-commerce sites often present the “Add to Cart” button above the fold, or in an easily-identifiable place.

Don’t forget that there are other engines too! Amazon, eBay, and shopping feeds are crucial to expanding your business and often have a higher intent for purchase. Optimizing for e-commerce means understanding ranking factors for each engine; a general optimization strategy won’t be as effective.

In Day 2 we will review paid strategies – including ways to layer social data and how Google and Bing see the paid search landscape evolving over the next few years.

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