Recently, we sat down with Kevin Indig, the Director of SEO at Shopify to talk about his insights about SEO and how it’s deeply entangled with content marketing.
Shopify is a commerce platform that allows anyone to easily sell online, at a retail location, and everywhere in between
Before joining Shopify, Kevin Indig held positions at G2 Crowd, Atlassian, and Dailymotion. With more than a decade of experience in SEO, Kevin has become one of the leaders in SEO for tech companies.
In our interview, we talked about:
- How Kevin got into SEO
- The balancing act between SEO tactics and strategy
- How SEO will evolve with voice and machine learning
- How to stand out with your content marketing
- The importance of upgrading your existing content
“I think that SEO has changed from this discipline where you have a blueprint of how things should be, and where you try to come as close to the blueprint as possible, to a discipline where everything is on the line and you have to test basically everything.” - Kevin Indig
Watch or listen to the full interview:
When did you know that you were going to become this expert in SEO? Was this something that grew to you as a child or something that you grew into during your career?
Kevin Indig: ‘That is a very good question. I did a lot of reflection on that, and I realized that it is in part rooted in my personality. I like to go deep on things: follow my curiosity and research a lot, learn a lot, write down a lot,... Like really go deep on things.’
‘On the other hand, I am very ambitious. Goals and hitting goals is very important to me and certainly part of my personality. But the actual craft came to light when I was playing lots of computer games. That was kind of my entry point. And it was because at some point I played some tournaments with some friends online at Counterstrike, Starcraft, Diablo, Warcraft, and you needed to have a website to register for a tournament. And I was the guy to figure out how to build a website. I taught myself HTML, CSS, and Photoshop and then build websites.’
‘At some point, I asked myself where all these people coming from. I remember I installed some web analytics tool. I wasn't sure if it's Google Analytics or something else, but I saw there something that is called organic traffic. And I was like, wow, that's interesting. And then I followed the rabbit hole and then one thing led to another.’
When it comes to SEO, there's this balance between tactics and strategy that you always have to maintain. What is your take on that?
Kevin Indig: ‘I am very bullish on strategy. The reason is that I've been in this for over 10 years now and I've seen the tactics come and go, but the strategies always stay the same.’
‘The fact is that we face a very complex, very in-depth, and fluid algorithm. SEO is not the cookie-cutter thing that it used to be maybe five, six years ago. Nowadays, we have an idea of what levers exist in SEO but they vary from side to side, from vertical to vertical, and from keyword to keyword. Because Google has just gotten that good at understanding the nuances that people want when using a site in the finance space compared to a recipe site. It’s a very different space with very different things you have to pay attention to.’
‘That's where strategy is absolutely crucial because otherwise you just fire tactics at random and hope that something sticks. And that's just not a very sustainable way to go about it.’
Have you ever experienced that you were working on a project and that you implemented a tactic and it stopped working or it didn't work as expected?
Kevin Indig: ‘All the time! The approach to SEO that I used at Dailymotion or even Atlassian is very different compared to the approach I use today. Not only because these sites play in different verticals to have different topical focus, but also because the tactics change.’
‘I think that SEO has changed from this discipline where you have a blueprint of how things should be, and where you try to come as close to the blueprint as possible, to a discipline where everything is on the line and you have to test basically everything. There are certain things that still work pretty well. Backlinks, content and, title optimization... Those things will definitely have some sort of impact.’
‘But then again, content is a vast field. We have a rough map of what works, but we still need to adopt or embrace a bottoms-up mindset where we basically have to test everything. And that means that SEO has become a growth discipline. In growth or growth marketing, you test, and then you iterate and you learn in your scale and SEO is exactly that.’
The Google algorithm has become very complex these days. Does that have an impact on organic traffic?
Kevin Indig: ‘The algorithm has indeed become so complex and powerful. For many years, Google decided against using machine learning. They were scared that they would create a monster that they cannot control, meaning that the algorithm would make decisions that they cannot understand themselves.’
‘However, Google has started to use a lot more machine learning. According to material from Google and to their statements, what we can piece together is that they are at a point where they can describe the outcome that they want and the algorithm will tweak the input signals or its understanding and the weighting of these signals so that this outcome occurs. That's why we see a lot of fluctuation of organic traffic and rankings of sites over the years because the algorithm is constantly tweaking back and forth.’
‘What that means for us as content marketers or SEO's or even webmasters, is that there is an uncertainty in organic traffic. We have to add we have to embrace that anything could be a ranking signal. The idea of EAT (i.e. Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness) that Google has put out there is a very meta concept. There's no such thing as an EAT algorithm and that's something that Google has repeatedly said and stated publicly. But instead, it's this meta concept of it's basically a summary of all the things that Google wants to see in the search results, and that makes it so that that's why it is so complex these days.’
How do you think that SEO will evolve with new technologies like voice or machine learning?
Kevin Indig: ‘I am very bearish on voice. I don't think we're close to a point at which people use a Google Home or an Amazon Alexa like they use Google today. I think it's very, very specific requests and queries that people try to convey to these smart devices. There will be a place for voice. I think that it will get better, but it's just not there yet.’
‘Google's use of machine learning is very interesting. They are the number one driving force in natural language understanding and processing so I feel very confident to project that Google will get much better at understanding the quality of content.’
‘The other side of machine learning is the usage of technologies like GPT-3 or machine learning to create new content. We saw a lot of progress, especially last year when GPT-3 was kind of published and we saw a couple of showcases. There are some really good tools out there that already write a little bit of copy based on very minimal input out there. We're not yet at the point where technology can completely replace a writer, but we are at the point where technology can save writers time, which is a win-win for all.’
Is there saturation in terms of content marketing or do you still see a lot of opportunities?
Kevin Indig: ‘I think there is a certain degree of saturation. First of all, the bar of high quality for content is steadily increasing. That means that you have to invest more money and/or more people and resources into creating better content. So that means that keywords get harder to compete with, meaning it gets more expensive, and that more companies will ask themselves if that is the right way to go.’
‘At the same time, you have new and more emerging platforms. YouTube is very established and especially in the B2B space, I think there's still a lot of opportunities. YouTube is very interesting because it is a hybrid between a social network and a search engine, meaning it is escorted by engagements by watch time, click-through rate, and there is a search results page. But there are also these rabbit holes that people go down to where they watch one video and they click through to watch the next video. That is the opportunity for great content.’
‘There’s also a lot of movement in the podcast space where it gets easier to create podcasts, easier to edit podcasts. And there are some interesting formats. So I think there are more opportunities and formats like videos and podcasts. But at the same time, you can combine these different channels and platforms and still bring people back to your site, which I strongly recommend.’
‘If you build your audience on another platform, that's fine. But if you don't diversify, you are too much at the mercy of these platforms. And that's where I think a combined approach, at least as good as possible, has a lot of benefits and can bring a lot of competitive advantages.’
How do you get started on omnichannel marketing and how do you define the right channels?
Kevin Indig: ‘That's such a good question because we throw that buzzword omnichannel marketing out there a lot. But what does it actually mean? A simple definition is to simply run your marketing campaign across different channels.’
‘However, there are two fundamental distinctions that we have to keep in mind. The first one is that it does not mean to copy-paste your strategy from one channel to every other channel. And number two, you still want to tie these channels together.’
‘So, what you want to do is you want to choose one platform, I strongly suggest recommend your own website, where all of your strategies come together, and then you want to run a zero-based strategy on all the other marketing channels that you're on. This means you start from scratch and think about what the best way is to go to market on Twitter, to market on YouTube, to market to podcasts, and so on.’
‘The strategies that I have seen working is asking yourself: “Where is our audience right now? Where do what do they consume? What do they watch? What do they talk about? Where do they meet and what do they have in common?”. And then start with the one channel that fulfills all these criteria and think about what could be a complementary channel to that.’
Could you give an example of this approach?
Kevin Indig: ‘Let’s say that there's a subreddit that is super active that a lot of people use and where I can find a lot of information. So the first step for me is to become part of the community, not even to promote my product much, but to really become part of the conversation and truly understand who the drivers of the conversation are what they talk about.’
‘Then from there, as I become more part of the conversation, inevitably I will draw some attention to me. But it has to be very passive instead of active. If you're too active on platforms like Quora or Reddit, you just lose your credibility and trustworthiness. And people will understand that you trust the market and they will just ignore and will fail. But if you are part of the conversation and people check out your profile this you work for this company to discover you passively, that works pretty well.’
‘Now you're part of the conversation. You understand what people are talking about. Then you have to think, “OK, I think about what is a complementary format to that” and that is very much driven by the conversation itself. If people keep referencing other people that they look up to or maybe certain companies or a shared interest, then you can think about “How do I address that on a different channel?”. It can be a podcast where you interview people and discuss the exact problems that people discuss on Reddit. It can be a YouTube channel. It can be blog articles you write where you cover that conversation.’
‘So that's how you develop into omnichannel marketing. You start with one platform that captures the attention of your audience. And so the closer you are to your audience, that should be your first channel. Then you look for complementary channels and then you expand from there.’
One of your predictions for 2021, is that a lot of companies will hire massive content teams. How did you come to that prediction?
Kevin Indig: ‘The place I was coming from there is that we saw this collapse of the publishing industry in 2008. Many journalists lost their job. It was pretty devastating. And at the same time, SEO and content marketing picked up in the 2010s, where more journalists saw an out. They saw a way to make money again to pursue part of the craft.’
‘ That led to a couple of interesting trends. And one of them is that content became more viable, more important for SEO, and for companies in general. On the other hand, a lot more companies invested in content, obviously, and that drove the price further up. Now we're at a point where you pay a lot for a really good article or guide. Especially if you want it to be properly designed. So the idea of outsourcing is becoming less attractive and the idea of just hiring really good writers is becoming more attractive.
‘It makes more sense to hire people than to outsource it. That's why I came to the prediction that companies will hire larger content marketing teams. At G2, I had a staff of over 20 content marketing writers, and at Shopify we also have several huge teams of writers, international and English-speaking writers, and so on. So it does make a lot more sense to hire writers, at least at this point, and to really develop them: to get them familiar with the process, teach them SEO all these good things, they adopt the tone of voice, the brand, and all that kind of stuff. So it's almost like that over the last 10 years, we saw this shift from editorial teams at publishers to editorial teams at companies.’
What's the right percentage of creating content and curating content and upgrading content?
Kevin Indig: ‘Content freshness exists on a spectrum. There are certain topics and types of content that are very short-lived and they have a very high demand for freshness, like news articles. Breaking news is at the very end of that spectrum and on the other end is what we call evergreen content. Those are much closer to history than to news. But even history changes, right? Like we have historians, we have people who deal with that and start digging up new revelations about history. So not even evergreen content is something you can just park and forget forever.’
‘Every piece of content needs a certain amount of grooming and updates. And so this is something that I have seen work really well. If you keep your content fresh, Google rewards it in algorithm updates as well. And it's also nice for your audience, of course. Let's not forget that at the end of the day, Google is just a means to an end.’
‘So we as marketers have to develop systems and processes to groom our content and make sure that it stays fresh. And that is something that nobody really talks about, or at least it's not talked about enough. That's something where there's a lot more potential for us to do a better job, also for better tools to be out there. It's not even as straightforward to say to develop criteria for when content has to be updated, right?’
‘There are lagging indicators like “Oh, traffic of a piece of content is going down, let me investigate, I figure out is outdated.” But what are the leading indicators? That’s very, very tricky. I have my systems and they work well. But I don't think there's this one gold standard out there of how to do it. It's still done very manually where you rely on a writer or the editorial content strategist to figure out what a piece of content is outdated. But I think that has become way more important, especially as we have so much more content out there.’
If you have one piece of advice for content marketers in 2021, what's the number one thing that you say that people should double down on?
Kevin Indig: ‘Be exceptional. Tools like the skyscraper method still work decently well but we also often forget to stand out. The number one thing is to be unique and to be exceptional. That means to ask yourself whether a piece of content could be a tool or could be a video or could be something else that's easier to consume and to digest.’
‘Your content needs to be fresh in the sense of something new and exciting. That’s becoming so much more important because there is so much more competition out there. So I would constantly think “How can I make this something that is memorable and that stands out?”.’