EP - 051

What Really Matters For SEO In 2024

With Guest Cyrus Shepard

Successful SEO emphasizes the creation of high-quality branded content that resonates with users.

The How To Sell More Podcast


January 31, 2024

In this episode of “How to Sell More,” host Mark Drager is joined by the mastermind behind Zyppy SEO, Cyrus Shepard. With over ten years in the game, he knows a thing or two about what makes search engines tick. Cyrus challenges our long-held beliefs about SEO and walks us through some of the key insights he uncovered while working as a Google Quality Rater.

Quality raters and the algorithm: Google employs quality raters to train their machine learning algorithms, indicating a shift towards human-like evaluations of content quality. User interaction signals, such as clicks and time spent on a page, are significant factors in determining search rankings.

Good isn’t good enough: With AI's growing role in content generation, the bar for content quality has risen, and merely 'good' content is no longer sufficient. Creating unique and engaging content that offers value beyond what AI can produce is crucial.

User experience and branding: Providing a user-friendly experience, including easy navigation and quick access to information, positively impacts SEO.

“If people are looking for your brand, they are almost always at the top of search results in every category.” -- Cyrus Shepard

Links to This Episode

Key Takeaways

  • SEO has evolved - The emphasis has moved away from traditional SEO metrics towards creating content that genuinely resonates with users and meets their needs efficiently.
  • AI’s role in content creation - Businesses should focus on creating memorable, high-quality experiences that cannot be easily replicated by AI.
  • Branding and user experience - Brand recognition and searches are vital for SEO success, suggesting that building a strong brand is more important than ever.

Top 3 Reasons to Listen

Improve your content: You’re not the only one using AI to create content for your website, blogs and social media. “Good” content is everywhere. If you want to rank higher, your content has to be exceptional and reflect the needs of your customers.

Focus on improving user experience: Keep your brand top of mind -- and at the top of the search page -- by creating a memorable online experience that inspires customers to seek out your brand.

Clarify your site’s navigation: Make it easy for your clients to find exactly what they need on your site. Lose the “About” and “Learn More” navigation tabs and get specific with your navigation links to demonstrate you’re the authority in your space.

Follow Cyrus Shepard on Social

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/cyrusshepard/

His company website - https://zyppy.com/

Check out his Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/cyrusshepard/

More About Today's Guest, Cyrus Shepard

Founder and Head of Strategy at Zyppy SEO. Helping businesses grow Google traffic to their site with SEO consulting services, software, and content

Cyrus is an SEO consultant, online marketer, content publisher, speaker, and writer with several years of experience in building highly qualified traffic through SEO services and content marketing. He has a passion for building successful consumer websites, online commerce, search engine marketing (SEM), content marketing, product development, and growth. Cyrus's experience in leading SEO at Moz and teaching others has allowed him to connect with thousands of top online marketers across the globe.

As an SEO consultant, Cyrus has worked with dozens of startups and Fortune 500 companies, crafting online growth and optimization strategies to increase the qualified audience share across inbound channels. This role has also given him experience in product development and product marketing.

He is a recognized speaker and marketing evangelist, having presented at MozCon, SMX - Search Marketing Expo, Marketing Festival, Marketing Nation Summit, MnSearch Summit, and more.

As an author and blogger, Cyrus has contributed to The Moz Blog, Above the Fold, Marketing Pilgrim, and has written books like "Inbound Marketing and SEO" (published by Wiley), "How to Rank," and has been a contributor to "The Beginners Guide to SEO," among others.

A Transcription of The Talk

Mark Drager: Cyrus Shepard, we connected because you are a guest speaker at an event of Rand Fishkin called Spark Together, which by now our audience knows about because I've been talking about it kind of nonstop for a month. But the presentation you gave, and your background specifically on SEO was so fascinating to me because I'm not really super deep into Search Engine Optimization. I respect it. I understand it. When I started my agency in 2006, kind of 2007 through 2010, we built a million-dollar business off of SEO and then we got swept up in like, I think the Penguin 2 update or something and lost 40,000 backlinks and basically destroyed my business. So I've been afraid of SEO since then. But you gave a presentation that basically broke down the fact that the way we as marketers, as salespeople, as business leaders think of Google, and the way it operates and the way it works and the way it ranks certain pieces of content, the way we think about it is probably all wrong.

Cyrus Shepard: Yes. I've been mistaken about it too, Ted.

Mark Drager: That's more embarrassing for you, because you've been in SEO for 10 years, and you've been mistaken about it. But I watched the reaction of people as you were presenting and it blew everyone's minds. So, what well, first of all, how do we think about it? And why is that wrong?

Cyrus Shepard: I've learned more about SEO in the last 12 months than I have in my entire career, in part helped by this experience, and partly helped by, you know, the documents coming out of Google's antitrust trial, the Department of Justice is releasing all these internal memos. So how we think about Google is they are very smart. They invented this patent PageRank years ago, they were able to blow everybody's mind away. We think that they crawl our website, they understand the pages, they can judge quality content and magically rank that first result in search results when you look at it because their algorithms are so good. And that isn't what's actually happening. We

Mark Drager: Hold on to the whole mystique, the whole like, you know, the signals that they use and the mysterious algorithm and all of the stuff people have been spending the last decade constantly trying to stay one step ahead of to make sure that frankly, as marketers, we're outranking our competition and earning the lead. That's not true. And how do you, why is that true?

Cyrus Shepard: It's true to an extent. But there's Google has other signals that are much more powerful, that sort of take precedence over everything else. And that's one of the reasons I wanted to become a, a, I got a job working as a Google quality rater. And I should explain that to everybody. Google employs 16,000 workers around the world, you know, in every language and all they do all day long is evaluate search results. And websites. Is this a good quality website, and they, you know, they scored on different things? The idea in SEO when my world was that was a joke job. For years, you know, it was low quality, they don't really actually use those evaluations in search rankings, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

Mark Drager: So there are people there 16,000 people around the world whose full-time job it is, is just to say whether something that's ranking on Google is quote-unquote, quality or not. And inside the industry, everyone just thought that they didn't do anything. Yeah. That led you to get this job.

Cyrus Shepard: Yeah, because I realized, with machine learning that Google has been using for the last 10 years. They finally admitted in a document buried somewhere that they're using these quality raters to train their machine learning algorithms to mimic the quality raters because, you know, there's, there's something like 400 billion documents in Google's index, and 15,000 quality raters can't look at 400 billion documents. So they're training the algorithms to mimic the quality raters using the quality raters. They're creating virtual quality rater algorithms that go out and look at your website, my website, everybody's website, the algorithms are mimicking the quality raters. And so that's what the job I wanted to do was to learn exactly how they're doing that to see if I could get any insight into looking at it through those new lenses. But that's only half the story. And I know I didn't talk about this at Spark together. But there's the other half of the story coming out of the Department of Justice trial, that you and I are training Google's algorithms every time we use it. Every site that we click on, every time we scroll past a result, every time we enter a new result. It turns out, those are the biggest ranking factors that Google is using. It's the world's giant mechanical Turk engine. It's not a search engine, we're just training it with billions of searches a day, what should rank what's good content, and what's bad content?

Mark Drager: So but here's here's, I guess, maybe where I'm confused. So two things. Let's take a step back. So first of all, this isn't something that only Google does, you know, back when Amazon wanted to have recommendations for like, you know, people who bought this also bought that they used to have people like click a button to make sure that it was the right photo with the right thing. And so And even today, I read an article about the fact that most AI startups are not AI. It's actually AI assisting humans in this black hole of trying to assume it's AI. And so Google is not the only one to do this. But what you just described in terms of we are training the algorithm because what we click on and like, I always thought that that's what rankings were like, yeah, it looked at what came up. How often do people click on it? When do they hit the page? Do they? Do they take further action? What is their average time on site? Or do they bounce back right away? Like, I just naturally assumed that that's what SEO was?

Cyrus Shepard: Yeah. And that's because you're smart. I, oh, thank you. Because in the, in the industry, Google has been pushing against that narrative, since its inception, because they don't want people to manipulate, you know, put an army of media bots on the internet and start clicking stuff virtually, and, and screw up with their signals. So they've been telling us for years now, no, don't we don't use these metrics, without actually lying, but stretching the truth as far as they can. So they've been they've been this last few months, they've been pretty silent on the issue because I think some of these documents coming out are pretty embarrassing.

Mark Drager: Okay, so you go out and you get this job, which, because you're like, I'm gonna get this job that I thought was a joke, but maybe isn't, and what did you learn? This punch? Spoiler alert, you got the job. Yeah. But when—

Cyrus Shepard: I was a little arrogant. I thought because I had been doing SEO for so long, I knew the quality rater guidelines, that I would just pass. It'd be like taking a driver's license test, but I failed the first try. And I had to go back and study and documents, and because what they say publicly is not what they say, you know, in the training, and certain things become much more important in the training. So, yes, I got the job. I signed an NDA. So there are certain things I can't talk about. But to be honest, they're all boring. So, the first thing that surprised me was I had to stop thinking like an SEO. I just had to wipe everything away: keywords, topical relevance. I just had to start thinking like a user, because I'm evaluating 10 results really fast against the query. And I'm like, 'This one works. This one doesn’t. This one looks kind of spammy.'

Mark Drager: Hold on. So, it will give you kind of—it would say, like, I don't know, 'mountain bike shops, Cleveland,' it would give you this and then it would show you kind of what's coming up. And then you just kind of like, rate it—style plus-minus thumbs up thumbs down good or bad, or what do you do?

Cyrus Shepard: Well, yeah, it's pretty robust what you have to actually do to each site. And there's an entire Scoring Matrix. Ultimately, you're ranking how well it matches the query—that's what needs to be met. And what's the quality of the site? You know, things like, how spammy is it? Does it look trustworthy? Would I give this site my credit card? Very human evaluations and all scored on a matrix and submitted, and the final, you give it a final quality score. But those judgments are happening really quickly. And you're—I'm not looking at it like an SEO, like, 'Oh, how do I optimize my URL on the site?' No, I'm just like, 'Is this useful to me?' And that's what it's come down to, and against these guidelines that are very strict. And that's what Google is looking at because they can't tell if a site is, you know, their algorithms are smart, but they're not that smart to say, 'Hey, this looks like a site I'll give my credit card to.' But the humans are very good at that. And that's what their algorithms are doing.

Mark Drager: And so this is what I find so interesting because obviously, I come from a marketing and brand background. Sales loop brand, we help B2B companies sell more. And so I have always found that for a certain type of business owner, or a certain type of head of sales, not so much marketing, but business owners or sales, the very data-driven if they're very results-driven, or financially motivated, that sometimes it can be hard to justify quality photography, or layout or brand or design. Because they're like, 'Well, it doesn't affect the bottom line.' But you're telling me that in some cases, either the general population, the users who are out on the internet, who are landing on these pages, they see something, they feel something, they need to understand something, we have to have a connection. And that matters, which in my world falls into brand and design. But you're also saying that the quality scores are wanting to make sure that this just isn't a pile of dog shit, right?

Cyrus Shepard: Right, exactly. And the funny thing is, Google has been telling us for years, 'Don't chase the algorithm, chase the user,' because that's what we're chasing. But now we sort of have more insight that Google is actually just chasing—they're using the user as an input for the ranking. So we're starting to see people in my world, in the SEO world, start to do things that we wouldn't have done in the last five like—

Mark Drager: What? Throwing little flags on the top corner to show the countries you're in and make it more some more trustworthy? Like, what are we talking about?

Cyrus Shepard: Yeah, well, so much of the internet is ad-driven. And so a big thing, you’ll put, make sure very long-form content. We want to get those ad impressions. Google, if Google sees more content and rank is higher. But oftentimes, we're starting to see people now put the answer at the very top of the page, just giving people the answer as quickly as possible. Have you—and you might see your engagement go down, you might see bounce rate rise and time on site go down. But over time, rankings rise, which is not something we're used to when we see lower engagement. So just giving people what they want as I want to work with a recipe site that puts the recipe at the top of the page.

Mark Drager: Oh, my goodness, that is so annoying, where it's just like, 'Hey, let me tell you about the history. Like you know, I have this site I always go to for simple, you know, Alfredo sauce. I don't know why I haven't memorized it, because it's only Alfredo. But the fact that it's like, I don't need the history of Alfredo. I don't need white sauces versus red sauces. I don't, I don't need all of this stuff. Just give me how much butter am I supposed to put.'

Cyrus Shepard: I get it. People are generating ad revenue. When you spend a—

Mark Drager: A lot of time on me. I won't click on any of those ads.

Cyrus Shepard: But I want to work with a site that puts the answer at the very top and maybe their ad revenue will slightly go down. But hopefully, their Google impressions and visits will go up. We'll see. Yeah, things like that.

Mark Drager: So, how is it that? And I don't mean this, this might sound insulting. Sorry, if I insult you, you know, you figured this out? And are talking about it? Or are other people talking about this? And other people figured this out, too?

Cyrus Shepard: Yeah. I think some people have. We, in the industry, have suspected this or worked on these angles for years. But now it's becoming more mainstream. It's almost like a within my world. It's almost like a red-state-blue-state debate, people get into angry fights about Google's use of user interaction signals. But I think we're getting more acceptance into it. And we'll see what happens if Google wants to protect their secrets. Hopefully, people won't take advantage of this. But we'll see.

Mark Drager: So, I know for my own agency, and 24 Actually, SEO is a key part. It's a key strategy that we are planning on investing in and leveraging. And if you're listening to this, and SEO might be a key part of your business, what should we be doing differently? What should we be looking for? What should we be pushing our vendors or our specialists to be focusing on?

Cyrus Shepard: So, that's an excellent question. And I think part of the answer has less to do with what I just talked about, and more to do with the rise of AI-assisted content. The cost of producing good content has dropped significantly.

Mark Drager: Oh, hold on. No, no, the cost of producing content has dropped. Would you suggest it's good?

Cyrus Shepard: It's good by the standards of the last 10 years. It's because but going forward, it has to be better than good. It has to be excellent content because Google can make good content, you know, with their, you know, with Gemini and Bard, chat GPT can make good content. But that's not going to. It used to be you could create a viable strategy with good enough content. But I don't think going forward, you still can, but there's no justification for it because anybody else can too. So your position is not defensible.

Mark Drager: So are we like, I mean, I got a post the other day where it's like, we'll show you how to release 100 pieces of content per day. Yeah. Oh, my goodness. Like, yeah, like, is volume the answer? Like right now, that's, that's the game.

Cyrus Shepard: That's what some people are doing. They're juicing the system until they crash and burn. But if you're creating a long-term business, I am I think you invest in things like this, like video, you know, custom imagery, great user experiences, data that, you know, can't be found anywhere else, you know, the same things we've been preaching forever. But I think it's more important than ever to do that. You just can't put out a page, an instruction manual, that anybody can copy that AI can copy in seconds, and get away with it anymore.

Mark Drager: And so, if we're to do what we have always known we should be doing. How do we know? Like, like, Help me. Help me get more specific.

Mark Drager: What like, where should we be focusing? What should we be doing? Because video content's great. And blog content's great. And transcription is great, and spinning out content across socials. Great. And I guess, doing all that stuff with backlinks and wheels. And again, I'm not an SEO. So I don't really know what it is that you guys are doing all the time. But I have to imagine if my job is to either maintain our position so that way we can continue to generate inbound leads from search, or, that's really the way I'm thinking and more as opposed to a publishing perspective where you're looking for ad revenue. But if we want to be able to continue to maintain our position to generate leads, or we want to use this shift right now as an opportunity to be able to take out some of the people who are maybe holding those positions. What should we be focusing on? Give me the recipe here.

Cyrus Shepard: So that's an excellent question.

Mark Drager: I mean, at the top right at the top of the page.

Cyrus Shepard: So, going back to your question about doing the things we're always supposed to do. You know, I used to run a lot of correlation studies. In my past career, I worked with Rand Fishkin. One of the biggest predictors of SEO success has always been branded searches. So if people are looking for your brand, they are almost always at the top of search results in every category. So, it's hard to always formulate a strategy knowing, 'Hey, make this kind of content, do this kind of thing.' But creating experiences where people are looking for you is a business moat, that is always going to be strong. So branded content is really important. Yeah. Or yeah, branded content, or any brand searches, where people are, you know, typing your name into Google, or any search engine of the future, whether it's Chat GPT or Bing, that's a moat that you can always defend. And then beyond that, how do you create those great user experiences? Giving people what they want quickly without the fluff? I still think volume is working right now. And I think it's going to continue to work into the future, just as long as it's a little better than what can be mass-produced in a weekend. So I'm still bullish on SEO, I think some of the easy traffic is going to be gone in the next two years, maybe a 30-40% haircut. But what remains, I think you can still build a business on it, and use that content in various channels, you know, your social media, your TikTok. I think it's going to work.

Mark Drager: I often have these little moments. These little not, I wouldn't say that they are little moments of panic. But there are little moments of like the world, I know that the world is changing very, very quickly that we can recognize that we're living through what will be a very significant change in terms of how we market how we generate leads, how we sell how people interact with our content, interact with our businesses. And over the next few years, that's going to change because I've already seen even in myself, being so comfortable using chat GPT. Anyway, being so comfortable with chat, I go back to Google Now. And I don't even know how to use Google. Like, when I ask questions it does not know how to answer. And it's frustrating. It's frustrating to me that over the course of seven months, eight months now, Google has just like, gotten worse, because I've changed my habits. I want to have a conversation with chat and get answers to questions. I don't know how to ask. Yeah, I don't know how to ask the question. I don't know what to look for. But I want to find an answer. And so part of what worries me a little bit is I know that we're on the edge of dramatic change. I know that it will literally like to flip the tables, and everyone will be kind of set back to zero in this new world. But I'm confident that smart marketers and strategists and people will figure this out and I just need to kind of stay towards the leading edge of it and, and just kind of change as things change. So I'm worried but I'm also not worried. Are you worried at all?

Cyrus Shepard: Yeah, it's scary. It's, things are gonna change. You know what I hate about SEO right now in my own profession, we've become so formulaic because we create content, we follow these guidelines, we push it out, and it's supposed to work. But I think back to remember, infographics when infographics were hot,

Mark Drager: There when the voice was hot. I mean, I sat through a whole SEO thing where everyone's voice is the answer. You need to do this to be able to rank in voice but—

Cyrus Shepard: Yeah, but we see an infographic today we're like, 'Oh, cheesy, infographic.' But back in the day, when they first started coming out, they were cool, like, 'Oh my god, I gotta share this with my friends. This was a graphic showing all this information.' It was a time of invention. And then people realized that worked for SEO, they'd be being spammed. And so now we're in the, I don't know what the next iteration of infographics is, but this is a time of invention. For people like you and I, we can create things that are great for their own reason for existence, not because they serve an SEO search engine, but because they delight people. And we—I don't know what's going to come out in the next few years, but let's invent some shit. Sorry.

Mark Drager: That's okay. You can swear coming from someone in your world. I mean, you're sounding like a creative director at an agency right now. Yeah,

Cyrus Shepard: I'd like to announce the launch of my next venture: Infographics 2.0.

Mark Drager: Your whole like, like, this is an amazing opportunity to create stuff just for the sake of creating it. I mean, I've heard that from far too many creative directors in my life, where I'm like, 'Uh huh. I agree. Now, how are we gonna get the client to pay for this? What's the ROI on it?' Yeah. Fair point.

Mark Drager: Okay, so we should be bullish on volume. We should focus on user experience. Yeah. And we should work, which I love, to earn more branded searches. And the reason I love this is because at the end of the day that falls on to falls on the brand. I mean, you have to give a good enough, you have to say things worthy of listening to, you have to have a perspective and a point of view. You have to create content worth paying attention to and earn a place in your prospect, your user, and your viewer's mind, in order for them to even want to seek you out and remember who you are. I mean, how many great ads are great companies or great products? Have you seen where you're like, 'What was that? What was that thing? What was that company that name?' and then like if you don't know it, you can't find them. And so we should get bullish on volume. But I hear you saying we should get bullish on branding. Is that in on—

Cyrus Shepard: Brand, I think we have a—we have a donut place in Portland called Voodoo Doughnuts.

Mark Drager: Everybody's heard of it. I've heard of it, which is weird because I'm Canadian.

Cyrus Shepard: Yeah, everybody knows Voodoo Doughnuts. And a lot of people don't know their backstory, they were theatre guys who just wanted to open a donut shop. And they thought, you know, let's combine theatre with donuts. And, that works. Because you walk into the store, everything's pink, and it's an experience. And the donut is kind of the last thing on the plate. That's kind of how I think of SEO and my content creation. When you come to my website, it's theatre. If you're looking for bike parts, or you're looking for insurance, I want to bring you a new experience into that fold so that you have a great experience. And you remember me next time you're thinking about buying parts or insurance or whatever. It's not just about the content on the page.

Mark Drager: This is such a great conversation. My goodness, I've been speaking with Cyrus Shepard, who is the CEO and founder of Zippy SEO. Zippy with a Y, right? Yeah,

Cyrus Shepard: That's right. I paid a lot of money for that domain. I don't know if it was my best decision.

Mark Drager: So every time you say you have to spell it out, that's zypy.com You can check out his theatre and Voodoo Doughnuts experience, but more related to SEO on his website. The final question I have for you. With everything that you've done and everything that you know, what is your number one tip or strategy to help us sell more?

Cyrus Shepard: Oh, to help you sell more? Here, I'm going to dive deep and give you a really weird specific SEO tip. Something I do with all my clients. And that is when I look at your website for just a few seconds. Your navigation better tells me you're an authority in your space. I don't want to see any links that say 'about' or 'learn more.' I want to see 'legal resources' or 'bike part buying guide' or something like that. Those links better be good, and when I work with my clients to improve those navigation links, we usually see a good bump in traffic.

Resources & Go Deeper

"12 Biggest SEO Trends to Watch in 2024"

This article provides insights into the major SEO trends for 2024, highlighting the importance of targeting question keywords, sharing first-hand experiences, and building topical authority. It emphasizes the need for quality content and the increasing relevance of AI in content creation.

12 Biggest SEO Trends to Watch in 2024 | WordStream

"SEO Trends in 2024 and How to Adapt"

The Backlinko article discusses the evolving role of first-hand experiences in content creation and the growing importance of author entities in SEO. It also touches on the impact of Google's search generative experience (SGE) on user search behavior and the significance of optimizing for user signals directly.

SEO Trends in 2024 and How to Adapt (backlinko.com)

"2024 SEO and Content Trends: Top Predictions from 27 Industry Experts"

Moz's article compiles predictions from industry experts on SEO and content trends for 2024. It covers topics like the potential limited impact of Google's SGE, the shift from Google-dominated search to alternative platforms, and the importance of first-hand experiences and thought leadership in SEO.

2024 SEO and Content Trends: Top Predictions from 27 Industry Experts - Moz