Learning from the Digital Marketing Experts at SMX West

Last month, I took a solo trip to San Jose, CA, to attend SMX (Search Marketing Expo) West, one of the biggest and best digital marketing conferences out there. For two full days, the San Jose Convention Center was packed with SEO specialists, pay-per-click ad managers, in-house brand managers, and general digital marketers looking for insight into the current and future state of search. 

SMX is renowned for offering a huge selection of topics and training sessions across multiple channels. While I was focused on the search engine optimization track, I had the opportunity to sit in on sessions dedicated to paid ads, email marketing, and brand development, where I picked up some valuable new ideas.

With so many excellent topics available to attendees, and so many interesting ideas shared by digital marketing experts, it’s downright difficult to fully share just how much I learned at SMX West. However, there were several very important and impactful concepts shared in multiple sessions which should be taken into consideration, no matter your industry or target market. 

If Content is King, then Site Speed is Queen

Way back in 1996, Bill Gates coined the expression, “content is king” in an essay he wrote for Microsoft’s website. He correctly predicted that the Internet’s value and expansion would be based on the content webmasters provided to visitors and searchers, but he didn’t realize that he’d accidentally coined the catchphrase marketers would wield for the next 25 years. 

Google has long championed the “content is king” idea in its search algorithms – if your site has well-written, relevant content that matches the searchers’ intent, then you’ll have a better chance of achieving high rankings for valuable keywords. However, there are many caveats and rules built into Google’s understanding of quality content, which is why it’s so important to craft page content that you know will be useful to users and search engines. 

Today, content is still king, but site speed has been crowned as the queen. With the rise of mobile devices and Google’s switch to a mobile-first database, site speed has become absolutely critical to achieving and maintaining organic value. Searchers expect fast and fully responsive websites, and will quickly abandon any domain or app that’s too slow or takes too long to load. Google will do the same thing – if your competitor’s site is faster and has similar-quality content, then it’ll likely be ranked above you. 

Tools like Google Lighthouse, CrUX (Chrome User Experience), and webpagetest.org are instrumental to understanding your site’s issues and finding solutions. By minifying and streamlining code, improving image loading, and focusing on mobile value, brands can gradually speed up their sites and find new value opportunities. 

It should be noted that Google Lighthouse provides simulation data while CrUX and webpagetest.org use live data. Many marketers use both tools to understand and improve their domain, as they provide solid viewpoints for data review.

We aren’t saying that you need to focus solely on speed improvements and ignore your site’s content. You can have the fastest site out there, but if you don’t have quality content to match your speed, then it’s off with your head.

Image and Video Optimization is Bigger than Ever

The constant increase in mobile activity over the past decade has led to some interesting changes in the digital marketing world. While we were once focused on metadata, links, and content, we’re now dealing with the rise of voice search, an increase in image-based ecommerce searches, and the explosion in available video content. 

There’s a problem with this change in search tactics: search engines are essentially blind. They can read text, review page structure, and understand a page’s intent, but they can’t “see” images or videos. This relative gap in search engine abilities can be countered by providing useful and descriptive image alt text and files, and by surrounding video content with descriptive headlines, internal links, and transcriptions of the video. This also helps improve your chances of showing up in Google’s video carousel, which appears with certain searches. 

Marketers have relied on video content forever but this new push toward fully optimizing video and image content will be huge in the coming years. This is especially true for sites looking to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Major websites are already facing lawsuits based on ADA compliance issues with on-site imagery and videos, so now’s the time to start fully optimizing your image- and video-based content. 

Changes to Google’s NoFollow Rule and New Options

In the early days of the Internet, one of the best methods for indexing URLs and expanding a search engine’s understanding of the internet was by following links added to domains. Domains with thousands of incoming and outgoing links were seen as valuable to searchers because they must be popular. This allowed groups like Google to provide better search results to users, but it was an inherently flawed system that allowed webmasters to take advantage of the system by trading links, creating link farms, or “hiding” content. 

Since then, search engines have improved exponentially, and that includes changes to how links are handled. Internal and external links are still highly valuable, but many larger websites (like Wikipedia or the New York Times) used NoFollow tags on their outgoing links. This not only discouraged crawlers from leaving the domain, but also negates potential value sharing between the two domains. 

While there have been many changes since then, Google has recently decided that it will now see NoFollow tags as a hint. This really just means it’s going to crawl your NoFollow tags to see where they go but likely won’t attach actual value. They’ve also provided two new tags – rel=”sponsored” and rel=”ugc” – to help users better understand the differences between sponsored links and user-generated content, such as links in blog comments. This change won’t be massively impactful but it could lead to some future updates to how links are labeled. 

Changes to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools

Google and Bing are the two titans in the search industry. While Google has always been the innovator and leader in search development, Bing has made huge strides to improve its offerings and capabilities. Instead of working as competitors, both search engines are moving toward a more unified structure and layout, which will make it easier for webmasters to use both tools. 

Google Search Console is always going through changes and tests, but its new Remove URLs tool allows webmasters to temporarily remove URLs, images, and other files from Google’s index. This is very useful for companies that are forced to take down content, those that are suddenly no longer offering a product or service, or for those that are doing major work on a site while it’s live. It should be noted that the Remove URLs tool won’t permanently remove a URL from the index (though that’s still possible with further steps). 

Bing Webmaster Tools provides far more control than Google Search Console (probably too much), but it was always a little clunky. Key aspects have been updated to match Google Search Console’s abilities, and with Microsoft Edge now using Chromium as its base, we’ll start to see better data and interaction from Bing searchers.

The Future of Search is Always Changing

SMX West was an excellent learning opportunity and easily one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended. Having the chance to hear interesting ideas and develop useful marketing skills is not only great for CQL’s clients, but for CQL as a whole. These new marketing aspects and methods will help our website development and design teams build powerful and valuable sites for our clients, while our internal marketing team will rely on these new angles to further boost our capabilities. 

If you’d like to know more about what I learned at SMX West, or would just like to better understand your site and how to improve it, then contact CQL. We’ll find the best-possible solutions for your products and services, pair a reliable content management system with an enticing design, and work closely with your team to drive new levels of success.