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Spotlight On: Tribal Worldwide’s Director of SEO, Steve Liu

Tribal Worldwide’s director of SEO, Steve Liu, established the search practice of the agency when he joined in 2012. He now leads the department, working on anything and everything SEO, including keyword search, content strategy, link strategy, and social media.

Search Engine Watch (SEW): Some say that SEO is dead. What are your thoughts on that?

Steve Liu (SL): I think there are two schools of thought on SEO. One school is you use technical tactics. For example, you use certain keywords, and you try to acquire links. Another school is you try to optimize user experience. Instead of saying we need to start using these keywords in this content, we say that we want to understand our users, and we want to understand what our users want to read. In that process we can use certain types of words.

To answer your question, as long as SEO is approached with the mindset of putting user experience over non-user experience, it’s critical for a company. In a way, it’s almost like a full spin for making sure that you are technical, and for making sure that your user experience is correct, and your content strategy is correct.

SEW: In your opinion, which one is more important, keyword ranking or traffic?

SL: Honestly, at the end of the day, neither of these things mean anything if you don’t care about conversion or the engagement on your site. I think keyword rank and traffic are both important, but they are almost secondary to helping users accomplish what they want to accomplish on your site.

I think different clients have different philosophies. From my perspective, both are important.

SEW: It appears that SEO isn’t just about keyword search anymore and has evolved into many things. This is evident in the areas that your team has been working on. What evolutionary changes have you seen in SEO in the past few years?

SL: It’s an interesting question, because I got into SEO almost 10 years ago, even before [people] had a word for it. The industry has evolved so much. When I started, it was mostly about user experience. Over the years, more people are jumping into SEO. Now it’s more about “manipulation,” or finding holes in Google’s algorithms. And that’s where you saw tactics such as keyword stuffing. I think that’s when SEO got its bad name.

One thing that I was very happy to see with Google over the last two or three years is that they are introducing algorithm changes like Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird. Because for years, I was working for a big e-commerce company and I was watching our competitors add everything in an inappropriate way. I was seeing our competitors buy paid links and put spam on their sites. So in a sense, I was very happy to see when Google Panda came, a lot of these competitors formulated down their rankings; when Google Penguin came, a lot of sites that had paid links lost rankings. So Google has done a great job in the last couple of years.

Now SEO is less of finding these holes in Google’s algorithms. It’s expected to really focus on the best user experience.

SEW: Google’s major local algorithm update “Pigeon” hit the U.S. last July. How were your clients affected by that change?

SL: In a very positive way. It’s funny that local search has evolved in a way that organic search has. Three or four years ago, it was very easy to rank in the Google local section by using a couple of simple tactics such as getting critical citations (getting other sites on the Web to connect to your name, address, and phone number). What happened was people were exploiting the algorithm, because it was so simple to do so. With “Pigeon,” Google made SEO a little harder to manipulate. This meant a lot of learnings from organic search algorithms were transferred into local search, driving better and more refined results. It was a game changer for local search, as the update altered local results and changed the way that the search engine interpreted location tools.

SEW: User experience is an indispensable part of mobile SEO and responsive design has since fallen into this. Is responsive design a one-size-fits-all strategy? Are there any other alternatives?

SL: I have been working on responsive design a lot in recent months. In the old days, it used to be companies linking to a separate website. But that became a nightmare for the company to maintain, because most of the time they would focus on their [main] site. So I think responsive [design] is good in terms of helping people manage that process better. They build it once, and they can serve both desktop users and mobile users.

But I think lots of agencies stop here, which is a mistake. I think the next evolution is going to be tailoring the mobile experience for mobile users, and tailoring the desktop experience for desktop users. Technologically you can still use responsive technology or adaptive technology, but the most important thing from a user point of view is to understand the needs, the motivations, and the habits of users who are coming from a mobile device versus desktop device. Then you can really tailor the user experience accordingly.

SEW: If you were to give marketers advice on mobile and local search, what would it be?

SL: For local search, the biggest advice I can give is that big companies should never take their SEO for granted. PR departments probably focus on the branding level, while customers are experiencing at a local level. One of the ways to solve this is by making sure that they are always “located.” I’m still shocked when I see how many locators out there are not indexable by Google.

So spending time on locators and Google, putting out different types of messages like videos can all help to really cultivate and curate. The more of that a company can do, the more they can help their organic and local pages. Indirectly, that helps the brand and the PR.

Meanwhile, it’s also important to look beyond Google because a lot of sites like Yelp have their own ranking algorithm.

For mobile search, getting a responsive site is great to get into the game. But to differentiate yourself, you really need to optimize your user experience for mobile users versus desktop users.

Another piece of advice on mobile search revolves around one of the biggest changes I see coming this year. This is the advent of natural language search. For example, it started with IBM Watson, moved onto Apple with Siri, and a year later, Google released Google Vowel. All of a sudden, every big tech company is trying get into natural language: Amazon released Amazon Echo and Microsoft released Cortana. What all these companies are doing after is trying to get leadership in natural language, because that’s kind of the next stage. For SEO’s part, there’s a huge importance of being able to optimize natural language search. I think that will be the future.

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