SEO and AEO in a world without websites (Jono Alderson with Jason Barnard)

Jono Alderson with Jason Barnard at YoastCon 2019

Jono Alderson talks with Jason Barnard about SEO and AEO in a world without websites.

With the SERP increasingly offering solutions to queries, we are facing world where websites are increasingly less important (as it were). Jono Alderson talks extensively about on-SERP SEO, a great continuation of Rand Fishkin’s approach in this episode – communicating across channels, all along the user journey.

SEO is the puppeteering of all the channels.

Jono Alderson


Not a volume game any more, it’s a right-fit and quality game.

Jono Alderson

Market to everybody and bring them gracefully down the funnel

Jono Alderson

Plus we talk about WordPress, Jono tells me the interview was a Treat (great phrase !)… and right at the end, we discover that SEOisAEO rhymes with Jono !

Jason:
SEO is AEO, welcome to the show, Jono: Anderson.
Jono:
Wow. Amazing, amazing.
Jason:
It’s losing some of its shine.
Jono:
No, no, it was great.
Jason:
Lovely to meet you, Jono:. Thank you for being here.
Jono:
Yeah, thanks.
Jason:
Bit about you, you’re a futurologist.
Jono:
An amateur one I think, but I don’t know if you can be a professional one, so-
Jason:
I don’t even know what one is.
Jono:
I think I have a lot of opinions about what might happen next, and needed a way of describing that, and it was a handy word.
Jason:
Oh, it’s not a thing then?
Jono:
Oh, it is. It has connotations of pretentiousness. I know there are in large organizations…
Jason:
I didn’t say that 🙂
Jono:
No, but everyone else will. I spent a lot of time in agencies and SEO trying to build strategies for clients, and a lot of that depended on understanding where everything was going and what the world might look like in five years from now, if you’re building a big strategy, committing a lot of resources. So I had to build an understanding and some estimated guesses on whether we’d have flying cars and what Amazon were up to and all these things, and yeah, that turned into futurology, so that’s quite fun.
Jason:
Brilliant. You basically say, “Where will we be in 2024,” if it’s five years?
Jono:
Yeah, or maybe even a bit further, but obviously it gets harder the further out you go.
Jason:
Last night, I saw we were gonna be with Global Corporation.
Jono:
Yeah, the evil overlords.
Jason:
That was brilliant by the way, last night. A great piece of acting.
Jono:
Yeah, well maybe, maybe. I spoke to the guys from Google afterwards and they were like, “This feels like a really accurate description,” of where they are and how everything works, so it might not have been theater at all.
Jason:
Oh, right. Oh no. Everybody can be very afraid.
Jono:
Yeah, always.
Jason:
You said … “what the Walking Dead taught me about the future of consumer loyalty”… what the … is that?
Jono:
Oh God, that was a while ago. That was really fun. That was the precursor to a whole bunch of stuff I’ve been thinking about around where digital marketing goes, and the core of the premise was that we are as consumers saturated with choice. Everything is becoming commodified. Products get cheaper to manufacture, they get cheaper to distribute. It’s cheaper to enter most markets. Increasingly everything is service-orientated, and consumer choice becomes the differentiator. In a world where I’m empowered to do my own research and make decisions on what I want, then what makes the difference is quality, and I can choose which brands I do or don’t want to engage with, and the only thing that really sets them apart is the quality of the experience they deliver.
Jono:
As you start to change what it means to be a brand, to focus on that rather than I’m cheaper, I’m faster, I’m closer, because none of those things make sense to compete on, we need to really reinvent how we think about marketing and consumer research and SEO in particular. It’s not about trying to sell things about the bottom of the funnel, it’s about trying to build awareness and preference.
Jason:
Rand was talking about that.
Jono:
Yeah, yeah, very much, the fly wheels and all of that stuff, yeah.
Jason:
Oh, so you and Rand are on incredibly well.
Jono:
Yeah. I think all of SEO is starting to converge on this. It is the same kind of thing-
Jason:
Yeah. It’s becoming digital marketing much more. I mean Rand has brilliantly moved from just SEO in inverted commas to this digital marketing thing, and I … Hats off to him. Hats off to you as well. Brilliant stuff. But I didn’t hear the Walking Dead in there.
Jono:
No, so that was-
Jason:
I mean that was fine and sensible-
Jono:
The rationale was I got bored of the Walking Dead as it kept … I really wanted to like it, and it had promised a lot of really good stuff. I liked the dystopian future stuff. And what I found was there was increasingly more television and more media available to me than I could or would ever consume, and it got to the point where I thought, “You know what? I will sacrifice never watching this. Just tell me the interesting bits. Give the nugget of value and interest.” I’ll never watch Lost, but give me the ending. I’m not losing out on anything. You can give me the spoilers.
Jono:
And then that’s where this whole thinking started, like what if we just applied that to brands? What’s the interesting nugget? And don’t make me all of the commodified noise to get to it.
Jason:
Brilliant, that makes so much sense now, now that you’ve actually put it into context with the Walking Dead. That was brilliant. Now we’re onto the serious subject, if that wasn’t serious enough. SEO and AEO in a world without websites.
Jono:
Yeah, that’s big, isn’t it?
Jason:
Aaron Bradley said don’t invest in websites or don’t put your money in websites. Would you agree?
Jono:
I really sit on the fence with this and I flip flop. I definitely see two possible futures. One is that everything becomes more distributed and fragmented, and Wolfgang yesterday talked a lot about search engines and ecosystems in other countries, and things like WeChat is very popular in China, which we all know. But I don’t think we are really seeing the extent to which people aren’t interacting with websites. If I’m gonna buy a washing machine or a phone or a car or even a pizza, we’re increasingly living in a world where I don’t need to and probably don’t want to visit that vendor’s website as part of that process. That raises some really interesting questions about what is that website for, why does it exist, why isn’t it just an app? Or why aren’t those services available in a marketplace like Amazon? What is the role?
Jono:
I think in that world we very much need to be thinking outward and about how do I engage with the consumers in a very broad distributed marketplace? And that gets very complicated, and the role of websites maybe becomes more about brand storytelling and immersion.
Jono:
That’s certainly one way it could go. The other is the role of the website becomes all the more important. Rand was talking about some of this yesterday, that as a business you need somewhere where your equity lives, and you need something that’s owned. Maybe you need that, maybe you don’t, but his angle was definitely you should have control … Control’s the word. Control of your property and content and your email list, and that has to live somewhere, and it makes sense that that’s your website.
Jason:
So you need to go and find people on all these other platforms …
Jono:
And bring them in.
Jason:
And bring them in. Make sure they’re visiting your website, and then you can start dealing with them through cookies, through remarketing –
Jono:
Absolutely. But I think you could go either way. I don’t know which way we go. Either we have a world where you bring people into this website, or your website becomes a hub where you try and push content out to find the people where they are.
Jason:
Ooh, I like that idea. Well I like the idea of the different … . Andrea Volpini also talks a lot … He’s a big knowledge graph fan, talks a lot about taking control of your own data, and being the go-to source for information about yourself, which implies having some sort of hub, which would be the website. So you’re saying we need to go out and find people, bring them to the website a la Rand as it were, then marketing through email and remarketing to make sure that we are the source of information, so that when we do push the information out it’s being represented in the way we want because we are the source. Would you agree?
Jono:
Yes, absolutely. I think one of the reasons the world isn’t like that at the moment is because that’s quite technically difficult, and if you’ve built a website three, five, 10 years ago, to achieve that world, you have to re-architect entirely, you have to design all of your database structure and your content and your systems to work in that particular mechanism. If you don’t already have that, it’s very hard to create. Only now are people starting to build that kind of structure and system, and conveniently, this is the way that WordPress works.
Jason:
Oh, that’s lucky.
Jono:
Isn’t it just? So you have all of your content in a database, and the architecture is designed to think let’s output this content in this context, so that if I want my website to push content to WeChat that’s just as easy as showing a page on a screen or sending a notification to a smartwatch. Suddenly you go, “Actually, yes, I have a CMS and a website, but my content can be sent out elsewhere,” and the system is designed to work that way. So we’re now seeing businesses start to enable this. “Yes, my website is a hub where my stuff lives, but it’s not tied to it.” It’s pretty cool.
Jason:
I wish I was videoing this, because you’re getting all really excited here.
Jono:
Yeah, this is exciting. This is the next wave of what the internet is.
Jason:
But you’ve got really into WordPress. I mean you’ve been at Yoast for what, six months?
Jono:
A year now. Just over a year.
Jason:
And you’re incredibly excited about WordPress, you’re getting right into it.
Jono:
Oh, I’ve always loved WordPress. Like-
Jason:
So it’s your dream job?
Jono:
Yeah, it’s perfect. And I think 33% is pretty awesome, but I think when you listen to Matt Mullenweg, and various other senior people in the WordPress ecosystem talk, they describe WordPress in two ways. They talk about it as the operating system for the web, which I think is ambitious but wonderful. Like this is who websites should work. I know people have different preferences for and against WordPress and other systems, but if we were to try and collectively say, “How should a content management system behave and how should it be structured and function?” That’s what we’re aiming for.
Jono:
Then the other component is they describe it as we are paving the cow path.
Jason:
Cow path?
Jono:
Yeah. When the cow tramples across the field and it creates the path, that’s what we’re-
Jason:
I thought that was sheep.
Jono:
Presumably many field-based animals do the same thing. I don’t know. Agriculture’s not my thing. But we are paving the way towards what the web becomes, and this idea that WordPress might end up becoming the backbone of a world where you can distribute all of your content to all of the places where your consumers are, but also use it to manage your website and your app and your PWA and your AMP pages and everything else from one system, I think we’re not far away from that.
Jason:
Brilliant. And this podcast, I’m going through Blubrry for that. David Bain suggested that, because you can just publish it to WordPress, directly onto all these platforms and going, “Why would I make more effort than that?”
Jono:
You don’t wanna be maintaining 12 different systems. You want a single piece of … One thing in the middle of it, the beating heart of it all that just manages it.
Jason:
I was just talking to Yoost about it as well. I mean if you keep your WordPress site relatively simple, you don’t put lots of bells and whistles on it, it remains reasonably fast, it’s incredibly easy to manage. It’s when you start messing with the core and putting loads of plugins and bloating the whole thing up that it all kind of loses some of its shine.
Jono:
I think that’s one of the strengths and weaknesses of … There are so many analogies, but it boils down to you have something that’s incredibly powerful and flexible, and if you start bolting on 100 awkwardly shaped bits of Lego onto it, of course that’s going to impact it. There’s no reason why you can’t make it fast and efficient and also do everything you want it to do. You just need to take a bit of care with it.
Jason:
Brilliant. Great. So we’re big fans of WordPress today?
Jono:
Oh yeah.
Jason:
That’s fair enough. We’re actually supposed to be talking not about WordPress, but about on SERP SEO. I mean you’ve got the knowledge planners, you’ve got the feature snippets. You think that’s gonna get worse and worse. I know that’s what Rand was saying.
Jono:
Or better and better. I think depending on your point of view. Rand’s point I really agree with, that in the short-term, the way things are going is really good for users. We end up in a world where when I search for something, the experience I have is in context, it’s aware of who I am and what I’ve done and all of the accounts I’ve got connected to it, and it just solves my problem. It’s not about it returning a URL, it’s not about it giving me a webpage. It’s not even about the content. It’s about Google solving the entirety of my problem in situ, and that is so good in the short-term.
Jono:
In the longer term, as Rand perfectly pointed out, it removes the incentive for businesses and publishers to produce that content in the first place, because there’s no reward for them necessarily. They very rarely now get a link or a visit, and even increasingly they don’t even get cited as the source of the material. It’s challenging.
Jason:
James Brockbank was talking about that, that links are harder and harder to get. His point of view was because they’re harder and harder to get, when you do get them they’re all the more powerful.
Jono:
Yeah, quite possibly. I think this world where we see a diminishing presence of a conventional search result, increasingly see solutions to queries, that’s an increasing trend, and I think voice and all sorts of new mechanisms will just push that further.
Jason:
From my point of view, I’m looking at … Okay, I’m selling a product let’s say. All of this kind of research, I get them on my blog or whatever, I find them on Facebook, I get them on Twitter, it doesn’t really matter, but when they buy the product they still have to come to me, so I’m safe, no?
Jono:
Maybe, and maybe at that point you get an opportunity to collect an email address and you … They have such a good experience with your product that the next time they’re in the market they come back to you, or when they know that their friends are looking for something that you sell they make a recommendation. It still makes it very hard to get that initial sale.
Jason:
What I’m hearing, and you didn’t actually say that, but what I’m starting to hear is it’s harder and harder to actually get the people to come to your website. Dan Saunders was talking about Amazon, he was saying when they find your product, 60% of people then go and search on Amazon to see if they can get a better deal than at yours. So in fact, your website becomes redundant.
Jono:
Quite possibly. Or it targets people at a different stage of the buying cycle. I know that at some point in the next 10 years, I am likely to purchase a new washing machine.
Jason:
You are a futurologist, so you KNOW !
Jono:
There we go, that’s a prediction. Let’s see if it comes true. We’ll check back.
Jason:
Sorry, I couldn’t resist that.
Jono:
It’s very deep and profound, right?
Jono:
I’m not in the market now, I’m not interested in washing machines, at no point will I think, “You know what I should do this evening with my time off? I should go and read up about washing machines.” It’s not gonna happen. But at some point I will enter that buying cycle. Now if between now and then, I dunno, say Dyson produces some content which I stumble into on the web which I think is interesting, relevant. I dunno, say a bit of research into global warming or something fun or a game or an app, it doesn’t matter what it is. If they can build a brand connection with me now, then when I do get to the point where I start to enter that buying cycle and think, “You know what? My washing machine is bit broken I should get a new one,” the first thing that happens is go, “I trust that brand.” As the process of me researching and making decisions unfolds, the familiarity I have with their logo and their messaging and the preferences I’ve built up means they’re more likely to win that.
Jono:
It’s not really SEO at that stage, because all the work’s been done upfront, but it means I’ve gotta produce a very different type of content and have a very different type of conversation. I think that’s what SEO becomes. It’s not about closing deals at the bottom of the funnel and getting clicks from people who want to buy. It’s about building future preference.
Jason:
The fact that things stay on SERP until the person actually buys something doesn’t matter so much as long as your brand’s out there. Sorry, I’m thinking about this [crosstalk 00:14:18]. Is that the idea that the SERP in fact is something you can at least partially control, and you can send your brand message through on the SERP, typically things that people don’t pay enough attention to.
Jason:
Knowledge panels. There’s an awful lot of space on the SERP where you can communicate who you are and what you are offering and why you’re a great-
Jono:
Yeah, you can tell your story.
Jason:
You can tell your story on the SERP?
Jono:
Yes. You’re right, you’re absolutely right.
Jason:
Is that a new specialization in SEO?
Jono:
I so rarely see this. I think so. I think people are starting to take it more seriously as click through rates and clicks and things diminish. You suddenly go, “Okay, all we have is this advert, this tiny advert,” and historically, people have optimized that for rankings and for clicks, and it’s been spammy, it’s been action-orientated. It’s been, “Click this, buy now, special offer, 20% off,” and consumers don’t want that, and Google doesn’t want that. And now we see the rise of storytelling, and you go, “This is a good fit for you because … Isn’t this interesting due to these things? Here’s our story.” It’s a very different type of messaging.
Jason:
You can tell part of the story on the SERP, another part on Facebook, another part on Twitter, another part on Instagram or whatever it may be, and close the sale at the end on your site or on Amazon if you’re Dan Saunders.
Jono:
Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a really interesting component to that, which is that we oversimplify the way we think about SEO and multi-channel marketing, that we assume people search for something, they pick which result they’re gonna click, and then they move to the next stage of the funnel. The reality is they search multiple times with multiple different keywords. They look on multiple platforms. They are influenced by what’s happened in the past. And actually, what happens really nicely is the combination of all those experiences decides what happens next. So the more you craft each of those components to the story the better the whole works. It’s not just about how do I optimize this title tag to get the click here? It’s about how do I connect my brand messaging across all of these experiences?
Jason:
The word holistic, we hear it all the time and it’s so empty, but it is that, and there isn’t another real way … Unless you’ve got another way to express that.
Jono:
No. I think the word holistic has become empty because people have misused it and not understood it. It’s never been holistic. Now it has to be.
Jason:
That overall view, that’s the skill as well. I mean-
Jono:
I think that’s what SEO is, it’s the puppeteering of those channels and those experiences, the management of do we push up all in this environment, do we optimize this bit or that bit, where do we wanna make that nudge? I think that’s what the discipline evolves into.
Jason:
And getting the right balance. I mean I tend to tell my clients, “We’re gonna find the path of least resistance with you with your current situation, your competition and the resources you have available.”
Jono:
Yeah, all those constraints, yeah.
Jason:
And we figure out which is the block that is gonna have the most effect so that you’re happy quickly, and then we’re gonna try and and balance it all out and see which levers we should be pulling.
Jono:
That sounds like strategy, something that’s also been lacking in SEO I think for a long time.
Jason:
You’re a futurologist, and I’m a strategist.
Jono:
Nice. Excellent.
Jason:
Brilliant. Okay, I think we can [crosstalk 00:17:04]. Very end of all this then, I mean we’re looking at yes, keep your website, the traffic you have to your website is gonna become more and more precious and more and more the core people that you’re actually dealing with.
Jono:
I think more on that, that historically the way we’ve approached that is to say, “How do I rank for the biggest keyword? How do I get the highest rankings? How do I get the most people? How do I get the highest click through rate? And then how do I convert some tiny percentage of that?” So can I get a million visitors and convert 1% of them? I think that world no longer works. I think now you should be aiming for 1000 visitors and to convert half of them. It’s not a volume game anymore, it’s a right fit and a quality game.
Jason:
Brilliant. Sorry, I was talking to Kate Toon earlier today, and she has this triangle and she’s saying like, “As they read through my content, I want to get rid of the chaff so that I only keep the little pointed bottom upside down triangle.” And it’s the same kind of thing, except for the fact we’re saying we want the valuable traffic, we want that point, and the big chunk at the beginning is not necessarily on our side.
Jono:
Well yes and no. I think from a commercial perspective yes, but there’s one more challenge, which is that if you consider that recommendation and reputation is gonna play an increasing role, and that systems like Google Home and Alexa will look for those kinds of signals, and because we’re trying to influence people much higher up the buying cycle, you don’t know which of that big start part of the audience will convert. You have to influence all of them positively. Essentially, you have to market to everybody, and then gracefully kind of bring them down the funnel. So it’s not as much about getting rid of the ones you don’t want, but it’s about trying to convince the ones that might convert to take that next step, which is hard. It’s a big brief.
Jason:
I love the word gracefully, that’s a really nice way of saying, “I don’t-“
Jono:
That’s so rare on the web. Like, “Buy now, click here,” [crosstalk 00:18:52]-
Jason:
I said get rid of the chaff, which is actually not graceful at all. So yeah, gracefully bring it down to the people who will actually convert, who are actually interested in what we’ve got.
Jono:
Yes. And that takes time, and it takes multiple visits, and it takes building brand awareness and affinity, and that’s not something you can do overnight, and it’s a very different type of thinking from how do I get people to click my result and then convince them to convert? It’s a much slower burn.
Jason:
Then the idea of reputation becomes increasingly important. I mean Aaron Bradley was saying there was perhaps a second algorithm for the feature SERP based on your trust, on your reputation. We’ve got knowledge-based trust with [inaudible 00:19:28], talking about knowledge-based stuff and he’s saying your reputation is gonna be the only thing that matters. I was talking to Regine Le Roux with my terrible nice French accent. She’s a specialist in reputation, which is brilliant. So reputation?
Jono:
Yeah. Here’s the really scary thing that no one’s thinking about, which is if we consider that more and more stuff is happening in the SERP, if I rank in position one, it doesn’t matter how good my advert and my tags and my description are if the result in position two or the knowledge graph on the side says that I have a two star product. Then, the way you think about SEO and digital marketing needs to expand to encompass the whole user research process, because all I have to do is see that two star, and then I’m not gonna click. Conventional SEO will sit back and say, “Oh, what should I do? Should I tweak my title? Should I improve my content? Should I get more links?” And they’re looking at the wrong things. What they need to be doing is improving their product, their reputation, their pricing, whatever that is, and optimizing for the SERP. Not for the click, not for the page, but for the SERP itself. That’s the next step.
Jason:
I’ve been measuring brand SERPs, where I ping Google with the brand, you get the results, and then I measure the sentiment, the number of stars, the rich features, and then trying to develop a score out of that. I was talking to [crosstalk 00:20:44].
Jono:
I did a big research piece that was similar, and the thing it found was that better pages get more clicks. Shocking.
Jason:
Better pages or better-
Jono:
Results. Better results. So results with good star ratings and great images and better content get better visits, get better reputation and the whole thing feeds itself.
Jason:
So what you’re saying is that if I type a term in and I get lots of two star reviews, I will then type a different term in, because I’m looking at it and saying, “Well the product I’m looking for is rubbish.”
Jono:
This is all pants, yeah.
Jason:
And I then change the search. So if I search for the Zoom X5 and it was getting two stars, then I would search for a competitor brand.
Jono:
Yep. And conventional SEO will just see those as two different keywords, and say which one do we wanna rank for, and how should we optimize it? It’s not. It’s one person on a research journey, and everything that they see and the experience they have influences where they spend their money. That’s what we need to be optimizing for. It’s so hard to think like that, but that’s the reality of it.
Jason:
That’s a brilliant ending. I think that just ends it perfectly, so SEO is AO, thank you Jono:, and it rhymes.
Jono:
Amazing. I planned my name especially for this. Perfect. Well thank you very much.
Jason:
Thank you, that was brilliant.
Jono:
That was a treat.

By Jason BARNARD

Jason Barnard has over 2 decades of experience in digital marketing.

He currently teaches Brand SERP optimisation to students at Kalicube.pro and writes regularly for leading marketing publications such as Search Engine Journal, SEMrush, OnCrawl, Searchmetrics as well as appearing regularly on digital marketing webinars and speaking at major conferences around the world such as BrightonSEO, PubCon, SMX London, YoastCon.