Conference Review: SEA / SEO World Conference in Hamburg
February 10th, 2020
8 min read
Write content for people, not machines!
First of all, I’d like to point out that this conference was entirely in German, just so no one is intrigued by this recap and then realizes they can’t go after all (and you shall be intrigued).
What an intense two days those were in Hamburg! Hosted by INTERNET WORLD BUSINESS in the Empire Riverside Hotel, located beautifully just by the port, this conference offered so much practical advice, hacks, tricks, ideas and corrections of misbeliefs, it’s crazy no heads started smoking in the process.
I was a little skeptical at first, I remember thinking: how can this conference be beneficial for both SEAs and SEOs and how do they handle the challenge of different levels of knowledge in the room? I have to say: they aced it. The level of most of the talks was highly professional, but they still managed to involve audience members with less experience.
Also, one of the first talks started off by saying that we stop thinking in silos, he even suggested tearing down the silos and start thinking cooperatively and act transparently.
This talk also was one of my highlights, as it really shook things up. It was held by Rockit Internet CEO Ralf Zmölnig, who, in deep Bavarian dialect showed us embarrassing SEO text on websites of well-established companies. He basically proclaimed the end of the keyword-based SEO and strongly urged everyone in the room to write content for users, for people, not for Google crawlers. He started off with the old SEO joke: A group of students enters a bar… pub, restaurant, to drink a beer, beers, wine, drink. This is the type of SEO that he wanted people to forget.
Incidentally, he was not the only one advocating this shift in SEO strategy. All the other speakers with keynotes on SEO-related topics said the same thing: Google’s NLP (Natural Language Processing) skills get better and better and as they do, they stark recognizing text that’s hard to read and text that has a syntax a human would expect. But more importantly, the message should be: if you are embarrassed of your SEO-text and try to hide it at the bottom of a page, you’re doing something wrong. Because essentially, you’re luring people to your website on false promised and offer them next to nothing of value. It’s a no-brainer that under these circumstances, customers tend not to come back.
There are exceptions, however. What this type of SEO mostly consists of is answering questions users in the www may have. Some pages are not really there for answering questions though. A classic eCommerce store, where an organic keyword like “long dress” takes the user to a page where long dresses are sold is not necessarily doing anything wrong. The SEO text underneath the store section does not have to fulfill the same criteria as a blog article on how to do heavy weightlifting, where users actually expect input and not primarily merchandise. Still, for eCommerce stores as well, the importance of pronounce, conjunctions, prepositions will increase, as Google learns to think like we think.
BERT and Natural Language Processing
Another related topic was briefly mentioned: BERT, Google biggest update since RankBrain. BERT stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers and set out to understand the human language better than the previous algorithm. In a time where younger generations no longer search by keywords like we used to but rather ask Google their actual questions, the need to understand the relationship between every single words of a chain rises. One speaker gave the example that most people 30+ when wondering how old the Queen was would google “queen Elizabeth age” whereas younger generations would rather google “how old is the queen?”. So far, BERT is only available in the English-speaking Google and will take a while to be applied to other language fields. This means of course, that for me as a German with a company solely acting in Germany, BERT is not yet an issue. Nevertheless, it shows where the ship intends to take us, and we should be prepared.
The age of voice
Another very interesting SEO-related topic was the rapidly growing market and cosmos of voice search. A whooping 33% of all people worldwide are now using voice assistants regularly, that is a 3.25 billion voice assistants. This trend is projected to grow to 8 billion voice assistants by 2023. Gero Wenderholm held a keynote on the differences between classic and voice SEO. For example, it may become more and more relevant to make your text “readable” by voice assistants, so e.g. taking it out of tables and turning it into actual text. Also, in the field of voice search, the natural way of asking questions is the standard way of information retrieval. You don’t ask Alexa “Queen Age”, but you ask, “how old is the queen”. Gero strongly advised to consider developing good FAQ structures and readable content as well as the so-called skills for voice assistants, basically apps for Alexa. He left off by saying that voice is just at its beginning: wearables, cars, suits, luggage: it may all talk to us very soon if they are not already doing it.
Featured Snippets, Rich Snippets… how to become more visible in the SERPs
Many of the talks had small overlaps, which generally for me is a good sign, as people are agreeing on topics and the importance of certain phenomena, which is not always the case in a SEO that often seems like a crystal ball, mysterious and not telling much. Several speakers wanted the room to grasp the opportunities that lies in the new SERP layouts. One rather new phenomenon is the featured snippet, a highlighted part of a website’s text directly in google that perfectly answers the question asked. This, often in combination with further questions users have asked, takes up all above-fold space of the SERP and can therefore increase your visibility by a lot. It also enables double listing, as you can be in the featured snippet and again in the top-ranking organic search results. I won’t go into detail on how to be featured in a featured snippet, but there are lots of blog articles dedicated to that. Another related topic was rich snippets, pieces of code that you can use to indicate to google what certain parts of your page are to be classified as (e.g. a video, a recipe, a critique) and they can then be shown properly on the SERPs.
SEO, SEO, but what about SEA?
SEA was a little more basic and a little more sales-y both days, which may correlate with the fact that you pay for that. There were three talks of 2 Google representatives each which all presented new features in the Google Ads interface. On the second day, there way even an introduction to the basics of Google Ads, how to set up an account, campaigns, ad groups, ads and so on. The talks were on formats like Discovery Ads, Multi-Channel Campaign types, Smart Bidding, Fullistic Automation and the new Google Shopping. While this was all very interesting, it didn’t offer as many “hacks” or actual actionable advice as the SEO talks which is logical as every Google Ads account is different, with different goals, settings and conversions, so it would be quite hard to cover all aspects that may be relevant to attendees. SEO on the other hand is much more universal and therefore the talks could go into greater detail.
Other topics that were discussed where GDPR and ePrivacy, keyword analysis and psychological performance optimization. Psychological performance optimization, you may ask? Yes, I had the same reaction when I read the keynote title in the program. What these two guys covered was something completely different: while all other SEO speakers also stressed the importance of page speed as one of the main ranking factors of Google, the two speakers of Team23 didn’t disagree with that, but also said that you can do a lot by altering the user’s mindset while he or she is waiting for your page or parts of it to load. Mainly, they said that while waiting, we get into a passive state and in that state, time becomes relative and tends to feel longer. What companies can do is activate their users within the waiting time, by for example pre-loading a skeleton of the page which already shows its structure, pre-loading images in lower res to intrigue the user or by pretending that something worked when the server actually didn’t respond yet (called optimistic ux).
All in all, as I said in the beginning, these were very insightful two days in Hamburg, especially transformative in the field of SEO but also very informative in the field of SEA. The next of these conferences will be in Munich in March and I can recommend it very much.