Today we get the opportunity to chat with one of the well-versed, real-world-experienced and insightful SEO experts, Andrew Bossola, from Oasis Creative (North Carolina, US). Andrew has led hundreds of US company websites to online success and has provided cutting-edge SEO consulting for over a decade.
The Overall Approach
Ralph – Search Engine Optimisation surely has come a long way from the days of keyword-shoving, link farms and dodgy tactics. Google’s algorithms have evolved, and SEO experts have to as well. What is your overall approach to SEO in the increasingly competitive and highly volatile world of search engine positioning? What mindset is needed to avoid being tossed around by the next Google update that seems to be constantly looming?
Andrew – I don’t think there are any SEO experts out there that don’t miss the old days of SEO, ha! Honestly, those dodgy tactics and Link Farms are alive and well. SEOs have just gotten a whole lot better at hiding them and making them more effective in terms of Google not figuring out what’s going on. We refer to link farms now as PBNs (Private Blog Networks). There are some competitive niches where PBNs have gotten so good, that it’s really difficult to compete in that niche because these SEOs have spent so much money and time building and cloaking them. For example, if you were to do a deep dive into some of these backlink profiles, you would see about 50% of the actual backlinks they have. That’s because most of the tools we use (except for one really expensive one that few folks know about) can’t index the actual PBN link. They have figured out a way to prevent tools like SEMrush or Ahrefs from even indexing those links. The only ones allowed to index the page are search engines like Google and Bing.
Anyhow, I tend to avoid any kind of tactic that will be frowned upon by Google. Hiding markup and breadcrumbs or hiding headers… while those shady tactics may still work, the chance that they’ll backfire is too great in my opinion, and the result is my client being damaged for the foreseeable future. And once that damage is done it’s really difficult to repair it. So most of those tactics are used for churn and burn sites or temporary ranking of a site and some sort of niche where they’re just trying to get a quick rank.
My overall approach to SEO is a focus on quality content. If the content is really good, you’ll naturally build links to that content. And those kinds of links are hands-down the most powerful. I think something we’ve seen in recent updates and the Google algorithm in general, is that those low authority links people buy actually hurt more than they help. The point is, the days of buying cheap links and building more than the other guy to beat everybody else are long gone. That said, I don’t really focus on link building as much as I used to. I still think citations are important, especially for local businesses. But one of the most debatable things I see in some of the SEO groups I’m in is the value of backlinks. I see report after report or test after test, where an SEO has ranked a page with no links built and I see that a lot lately. I actually stopped building links for a particular client and indeed we saw a performance bump.
Aside from content, I feel like quality UX/UI is critical as well. Just read over some of the content guidelines from Google and you can see how important it is for SEO experts. Good design and content can keep users engaged and that engagement leads to more traffic and more leads or sales.
Core Web Vitals – How vital are they really?
Ralph – Core Web Vitals – Everyone talks about it lately. It is, however, something that has been around for a long time – the technical optimisation of websites and their delivery. With Google allocating more ranking factor weight to these metrics recently, creating fast and technically sound websites is now on many SEO experts’ minds. In this regard, where would you spend your time and money? Web Hosting, Content Delivery Networks, Premium DNS, On-Site Optimisation or all of the above?
Andrew – That’s a great question. I think the whole page experience update or the new core web vitals introduction in the algorithm was a pretty big disappointment to a lot of folks. I think a lot of people thought that if their score was high they would see a big increase in rank but it’s more complex than that. Yes, it’s probably a variable now in terms of ranking to some extent but it’s one of the thousands of variables so you can’t really say” if my site scores better in core web vitals in yours, I’m going to beat this guy.” It just doesn’t work like that. Granted, the desktop version is still rolling out now, last I checked at least, so things may change there. *Never say never in SEO.
Because I have a development background I tend to gravitate towards making sure each site’s technical SEO is top-notch. If it’s one of many variables why not make sure everything in terms of the tech audit is tidy? Not to mention the faster the page loads the less likely a customer is to be frustrated and leave and in general you’ll see higher revenue (certainly in the e-com world). There are all kinds of reports and data out there that look at how site performance directly affects the revenue of a site. So I do spend a lot of time on it.
I also make sure that every medium to high traffic site is cached and get a decent score on something like GTmetrix. I would also say that Cloudflare is a really good product and if there is budget to add that on I would highly suggest it.
In regards to hosting, I may be a bit biased because I own and operate a hosting company, but quality hosting is an absolute requirement in my opinion. We have migrated hundreds of websites off of hosts like GoDaddy or Siteground and every single time you see a bump in performance which almost always results in an increase in revenue or increasing traffic to some extent. It goes back to the Google guidelines... customers do not want to be on a slow site, it’s annoying and annoyed customers result in a high bounce rate. Which is another variable…
I implore any inspiring SEO to read the quality guidelines. It’s a long document long but anything you need to know about how to rank a site is right there.
In terms of the future, hands down it’s all about voice search. Look at some of the data for how folks are searching these days… Speech is the future. Along the same lines, I’m a big schema nerd. I think with all the AI these days, the more comprehensive the schema the better off you’ll be.
Content Strategy – Were are we headed?
Ralph – So, let’s talk content strategy. We are putting a lot of effort into producing quality content for our clients that establishes them as authorities in their niches. Our approach focuses on relevance, uniqueness and abundance. We promote content via social channels and email campaigns. Recent Google updates seem to be pointing towards more extensive articles (skyscrapers) that attract attention. What is your take on this, and what are things we as SEO experts can effectively do to make Google happy in terms of content?
Andrew – Content is King. I agree with most of what you’re saying, we run really in-depth content/quality audits that lead to a ton of insights to help us find a good keyword to write content around. I’m a total data nerd and love my sheets. We’ve had a lot of luck ranking content in saturated markets and driving leads for increasing revenue for the desired keyword too.
So, while uniqueness is important I think it’s more important for the topic to be engaging, interesting and a good read in general.
In regards to abundance, that can be a slippery slope. For example, I had a client that sells two main categories of products. Product category 1 we had 50 posts for product category 2 we had about 50 posts for. Now the first category was their main product and they sold a lot of it. Product category 2 they didn’t sell much of. What happened is that I believe there was an imbalance on the site in terms of authority and product category 1’s rank dipped. In simple terms, it kind of looked like we weren’t an authority in our main product category anymore. And since there is an e-Commerce site and there were more posts than products, in the eyes of Google we started to look more informational and ended up ranking less for terms related to shopping.
In fact, I read a report the other day where a company lost their rank and ended up removing their entire blog and all their posts (with redirects of course) and their rank came back. So if the content is indeed king – it goes both ways – it can help and hurt. I’m about to tear out all of those product category two posts and run some tests. I believe it will turn things around. So ‘yes’ abundance, but keep a close watch on relevance and balance.
Well-written SEO copywriting is critical. You have to think you’re not just writing for a human you’re also writing for a search engine as well. So good competitive research and analytics is critical for that content as well. And I can’t stress this enough but the internal linking strategy is absolutely imperative. Check out some of Bruce Clay’s writing about silo structure. It’s pretty fascinating stuff.
kicking Media Optimisation up a notch
Ralph – Let’s look at media optimisation, images in particular. There are the technical aspects of choosing the right size, file type and compression to achieve lightweight files at the desired quality. For SEO, we add tags and a favourable naming convention. Is there anything you would like to point out in this regard? You mentioned making use of EXIF and geo-tagging in a previous conversation. Can you tell us a bit more about it and where this could be used effectively?
Andrew – The less the server and code has to optimize the images the better. So I do tend to resize images that we post or in some cases where there’s a ton of images use something that will resize them on the fly (those can take up a lot of resources though). There are some companies out there, CBDmd for example, if you look at some of their images they’re gigantic. They use png’s and there’s transparency. But, you know what? It seems to work for them just fine – obviously their ranking really well and killing it.
And long gone are the days of dial-up connection and really bad cell service.
But back to the variables and the algo update – I feel like if there’s a way to make the page load faster and you can get in leverage in that aspect then why not resize images? Especially on budget hosting (which I do not recommend if that’s not obvious already) haha
I think it’s important to use keywords in the file name. But just like everything else, it is very easy to overdo it. We like to look at the top 10 sites and see how many times they have an instance of that keyword on their page and do a deep dive into their code. You have to think if there are 5 images, you can’t name them all that keyword right? Plus there’s the OG data on the featured image, there are titles and alt tags.
We did a deep dive for one of our clients in a very competitive market and it was really eye-opening to see how many times certain keywords would be in the source code that you may not see (wait until you start looking at images metadata now lol). Next thing you know it’s overstuffed and Google thinks you’re being spammy.
The bottom line is I tend to be somewhat conservative and always make sure that the keyword density is natural. I tend to name the featured image the title of the article and the other images I use the closest header for the title. It feels more natural to me.
As far as the EXIF or image metadata, I mentioned a little bit about AI earlier and machine learning. Long gone are the days of Google just indexing the source code. Now there’s metadata in an image and in those images, there’s location data, there’s keyword data – there is a lot going on.
EXIF data helps Google to understand your pictures which also help determine relevance (albeit maybe a small signal, a signal nonetheless). I wouldn’t suggest running out and stuffing your images full of keywords but when doing a deep dive on the comp, be sure to take a look at the images. On that note, ranking images is just as important as ranking content sometimes. We’ve ranked images to get leverage and indeed it can work to increase traffic to a page. All by image title, alt tags, metadata and schema.
In my opinion, geocoding images is up there on the priority list, especially for Google Business Places account optimization. I read something the other day that 80% of all leads in Google are from the map pack.
SEO Experts’ Future Trends Prognosis
Ralph – What is your understanding of what Google ‘looks’ at when examining the content of our website images? Our SEO experts try to use unique photos if the project allows, rather than widely used stock images. As we see the effects of bio-metric analysis and landmark recognition making their way into our everyday lives, which factors do you see as impacting today’s search engine optimisation efforts? What should we prepare for to be ready for future developments?
Andrew – Schema and metadata for sure. Even copyright info is in there.
Custom photos are the way to go. I know it’s not always in the budget but you would be very surprised by the difference it makes. And the iPhone these days can take some pretty nice photos. Ask the client to take a few shots or if you are close to them geographically, take an hour and shoot some photos. Clients think photos will cost thousands but in reality, it’s a lot cheaper than it used to be.
The future of SEO is in Schema, Voice Search and thinking more in terms of AI searching your site than the traditional bot. Machine learning is the future whether SEO experts like it or not. Of course, mobile design is still a huge thing, too. I think last I checked it’s 70% mobile and 30% desktop for a few clients. It’s easy to focus on desktop because we work on them. We didn’t cover it here but pay close attention to Google EAT. Long-form content is king as long as it’s compressive and stays on topic. Pay close attention to the featured snippets. Intent and relevance are critical.
Lastly, data, data and data. We have access to some of the most robust data science in history. If you aren’t geeking on data, you are missing out. I’m always up for a good audit and geeking on some data with anyone.
Ralph – Thanks, Andrew, this was truly some next level input! These are all topics that mean so much to our SEO experts and it was great to get some new ideas and insights. Much appreciated and thanks for your time.