What I Learned at MozCon 2016

Another year, another MozCon. You get a new theme and color scheme and Roger toy, you get a speaker list refreshed with new faces, and other trivial features of the Northwest premier marketing conference change as well — I’ll have you know the whole shebang moved across the street this year, and also I’m pretty sure it isn’t July right now — but the spirit of the thing endures beautifully and dependably, and that’s what keeps us all keep coming back. If you’re in this line of work, there’s simply no better conference on earth. You’re all but guaranteed to walk away thinking about 1) new big ideas that hadn’t occurred to you before it began, 2) new tactics that you can get cracking on immediately for the benefit of your clients, and 3) how much fun you had. How many other digital marketing events can offer up that trifecta?

Another traditional part of the MozCon experience for me, in each of the years I’ve been fortunate enough to attend, has been to blog about the presentations after the fact, and it’s a tradition that I don’t intend to break now. So come with me on a voyage back in time (one week) and have a look through my eyes at MozCon 2016 in all its glory. Here’s what I learned.


That one IA paradigm that every site unthinkingly uses actually isn’t great for SEO, and there are alternatives.

SEO Consultant Joe Hall delivered a tremendous quick-fire session on Day One that indicted the classic information architecture template — Products, Services, Blog, About — suggesting it’s little more than the default option and that it doesn’t help a site’s SEO one bit to maroon these four content categories on islands of their own. That old model, the thinking goes, leaves you with pages that might have much in common topically but are far apart structurally, making it nearly impossible for search engines to understand the topical interrelationships that would otherwise allow the success of any one page in the group to do the kind of semantic authority sharing that would benefit the others. Tear it down, says he! Group your pages according to the ideas they contain, and let the relationships between the ideas dictate the page proximity and cross-linking schematic. Then, you’ll find a whole new IA emerging on its own, wherein each master idea becomes a master page category, and you can construct funnels that lead a user from a larger idea down through a more focused subtopic and ultimately to a conversion point. I’m going to have to try this a few times in the abstract before I try pitching it to a client — not to mention that if I’m going to pitch a client the idea of, for instance, dismantling their Blog directory and scattering the individual posts all around the site, I’m going to have to put some work into polishing up my speech — but that’s the thing about big ideas, of which this definitely was one: they rupture your old model so significantly that at first you kind of wonder whether they might be madness, and then later on you wonder how you ever managed to get by without them.

Featured snippets aren’t going anywhere.

They’ve only become more prominent in search results over the past two years, but is there any reason to trust that featured snippets — those “Position 0” quick-answer cards that Google scrapes from third-party sites in response to direct questions — are going to stick around? After all, author rich snippets only got more prominent in SERPs until the terrible day that they were dragged behind the woodshed and put down. How do we know our efforts of today to invest in featured snippet strategies won’t end in comparable tragedy? To hear Rob Bucci of STAT Analytics tell it, we can rest easy because of the strong connection between featured snippets and mobile search, which we all know to be rising in frequency with no end in sight, and also voice search, which hasn’t yet had its moment in the sun but which remains on everybody’s lips as one of the next meaningful frontiers in search, as young people who don’t have to unlearn years of “search engine-ese” become new denizens of the web, and the internet of things snakes its way into more and more of our… things. That’s a pretty strong argument. Authorship was an experiment that Google seemed to be conducting in a spirit of curiosity, i.e. “let’s see what this does to the way people think about content credibility”, whereas featured snippets seem to be part and parcel of Google’s larger mission in search, which essentially is to be the Star Trek computer that will receive your every question and provide a suitable answer. Let’s keep those featured snippet strategies coming; Rob’s own deck is a great place to start polishing yours.

The “ideal” keyword phrase is the optimal grounding concept for keyword research in this brave new semantic world.

Dr. Pete opened Day Two as he does every year, but shifted focus this year from his typical area of interest — “how the SERPs have changed since last we spoke” — to discuss instead how we humans have changed as searchers and how a modern keyword research process can account for this. Essentially, we’ve become more informal and conversational in our searching, as we’ve come to feel over the last few years of Google’s evolution that we can finally trust it in most cases to know what we’re talking about regardless of what exact words we use, and as a result, we as SEO practitioners have to be thinking foremost about natural language queries when we conduct keyword research. But of course the trouble is: if a given phrase is no longer any better or worse than any of its synonyms, how do we choose one? We’re going “beyond words” and into ideas, sure, but words are still the only units we’ve got both when searching and when writing content, so how do we pick the right ones anymore? It’s in response to this crisis that Dr. Pete offers up the concept of the “ideal” keyword phrase. The idea is that you first compile a list of all the common keywords most relevant to your site (which you can do in the traditional way, wherein you care about volume), then you group them according to their conceptual focus, and then for each group that you end up with, you write a tightly focused page built it around the one ideal, archetypal query that captures the spirit of that keyword group with the greatest and most precise clarity. Then you give that page a few months and see how it ranks for all the fat-head, high-volume keywords from which you constituted that group in the first place. You then can observe the gaps in your rankings, noting which of those traditional keywords the page performs well for and which it performs poorly for, and then you can go back and tweak the ideal phrase for that page to shift its focus a bit more in the direction of the underperforming ones. It’s so concrete! This is precisely the kind of idea that I was needing in order to get my day-to-day keyword research process caught up with all the lofty philosophical talk I’ve been so fond of sharing with my colleagues about how traditional keyword research processes are obsolete. Thanks, Dr. Pete.

Progressive web apps are extremely cool.

Cindy Krum of Mobile Moxie, whom I’ve heard more than one emcee in recent years introduce as “the world’s foremost expert in mobile SEO”, alerted me in her Day Three talk to the idea of the Progressive Web App (PWA), which I admit I’d never even heard of before but which I now want a good number of my clients to start thinking about. This is essentially a way for a mobile website to repackage itself as an app for the benefit of its frequent visitors, and provide a fast and immersive app-like experience without requiring the user to go to the trouble of downloading an app from a marketplace (which fewer and fewer people are wont to do, apparently). A site running a PWA package can ask with a single prompt whether a user visiting more than once might not like to have direct access to the site with a dedicated home screen button, and upon accepting that request, the user begins to experience the site through the PWA, forfeiting the universal browser navigation, enjoying considerably faster speeds due to pre-caching, and becoming eligible for push notifications. Combine the PWA concept with an investment in the AMP project and your site could blaze well ahead of everyone else in your space on mobile. Just look at what The Washington Post has managed to do.

My boss is really good at Google Tag Manager, you guys.

So yeah, I suppose I already knew this, given that the progressive GTM event tracking method he detailed for the attendees is precisely the one that we at UpBuild have been using for our clients since I came aboard, but more than a few from among his 29 tips were new to me, and although I haven’t asked him, I suspect at least one was something he invented while in the process of compiling the talk. But the point is, UpBuild founder and CEO Mike Arnesen delivered about as compelling an argument as you could make for the flexibility and power of this extraordinary free tool, and from the remarks I was able to distinguish bubbling up from the murmuring crowd in the snack area afterward — including a former co-worker of mine telling me “your boss made my head explode” between bites of coffee cake — I think it’s fair to say people took notice.


It’s actually kind of shocking to consider that it’s been a full week already, so completely was I transported back there by the act of writing this post. I’ve found that each calendar year I’ve spent in this industry has been neatly divisible into “before MozCon” and “after MozCon” phases, and that the latter is always far more productive and more enjoyable, as I invariably feel awakened by ideas like the above and energized by the thought of putting them into practice. I look forward to getting some of this year’s ideas enacted for my clients and having case studies to share with you soon that will prove how they measured up. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you: did you attend MozCon this year? If so, which were your favorite sessions and ideas? If not, which from among the above sounded most interesting, or most plausible, or least practical, or silliest? After all, the other thing MozCon always reminds me of is the importance of having these conversations on an ongoing basis. This isn’t a line of work in which we’re supposed to keep a successful tactic a secret. If it worked, we can trust that it’s because Google thought it made the web a better place, and isn’t that a cause that we can all subscribe to?

Until next year!

Written by
Driven by a deep fascination with the philosophical and cultural implications of search, Will has applied his skills to improve visibility, traffic, and conversions for hundreds of sites in his 10+ years in SEO and analytics.

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