3 Biggest SEO Takeaways from the 2016 MnSearch Summit

by Ovative Group
July 19, 2016

The annual MnSearch Summit in Minneapolis, Minn., produced another year of fantastic speakers, engaging conversations and a raucous after-party that went well past bedtime.

As I shuffled through my notes the following Monday, I pulled out several themes that were pervasive in this year’s presentations.

I recapped these themes in this post — pulling from the various speakers and their decks to summarize some of the most important challenges facing SEOs today.

1. SEOs need to do a better job of building effective business cases

As Mike King put it, “SEO comes out of a really boring developer sub-niche” and our pitch decks continue to reflect those roots.

Building an effective business case means that you need to be measuring the right things. Traffic and rankings have long been the standards for reporting on the value of SEO.

But, as digital marketing continues to become more trackable and the strategies more complex, these metrics are no longer speaking to the C-suite.

organic search should be measured based on its ability to meet business objectives

Mike shared some of the ways his company, NYC-based iPullRank, tracks ROI to SEO efforts:

  • Align content types and their metrics to need states along the customer journey
  • Quantify the opportunity cost (in dollars) of not implementing SEO recommendations
  • Tie SEO efforts to outcomes, like leads and conversions, and not opportunity, like keyword rankings

Wil Reynolds, founder of Philadelphia-based Seer Interactive, echoed Mike’s advice later in the day. While recently reviewing a client’s SEM and SEO reports side-by-side, Wil noted that the former had eighteen metrics with dollar signs while the latter had just two.

mnsearch keynote speach by wil reynolds

We not only have to improve the content of pitch decks, but also the presentation of the pitches themselves. What does that mean?

  • Present your pitch in-person
  • Don’t leave out key stakeholders
  • Communicate how you’re going to measure
  • Tell a story, don’t just show data

When Dennis Goedegebuure pitched his former employer, Airbnb, on a brand campaign marking the 25th anniversary of the demolition of the Berlin Wall, he knew that it would have massive SEO benefits.

But, the CMO wasn’t going to give him the budget based on projected backlink growth. Dennis used his framework, called the Content Brand Pyramid, to communicate how producing culturally relevant content would create an opportunity to reach millions of people.

the content brand pyramid

It’s easy to export keyword data or take a screenshot of a SERP to justify an SEO recommendation. But, if your goal is to retain and grow clients, you’ll find it more effective to present your strategy in terms of their business objectives.

2. Machine-learning is going to make SEO more of a winner-take-all proposition

News of Google’s RankBrain broke late in 2015, and since then, SEOs have been wondering how exactly to respond to this change in the way search results are ranked.

Thankfully, we have Larry Kim to help us. In his presentation, Larry — a self-purported operative from the future sent back in time to save SEO from an AI doomsday — broke down the implications of machine-learning for our organic rankings.

To put machine-learning into context, Google has been using similar technology across many of its products, including Adwords, for years. So this isn’t an entirely new evolution to SERPs. But, Larry posits that in the not-too-distant future, Google’s core algorithm will be entirely based on machine-learning.

RankBrain, at present, primarily affects long-tail searches and analyzes them as such:

larry kim's simplified diagram of how rankbrain works

So what factors are at play when RankBrain determines whether or not your web page satisfied the user? And, what can we do to positively influence those factors?

RankBrain Factor: Organic CTR

Larry’s Reasoning: Long-tail searches exhibit higher CTRs at the top ranking positions than head terms

What SEOs Should Be Doing About It

  • Construct an organic click curve using your own data. Identify the attributes of high-CTR pages that can be used to improve low-CTR pages
  • Add emotional triggers to page titles and meta descriptions to attract more clicks
  • Test at least 10 different headlines using 10 Adwords ads for each piece of content

RankBrain Factor: ‘Task Completion Rate’

Larry’s Reasoning: We know that Google’s measures dwell time. By using bounce rate and time on site as proxies for a page’s conversion rate, we can see that high organic rankings correlate with low bounce rates and high time on site.

impact of bounce rate on organic positiontime on site correlates with high organic rankings

What SEOs Should Be Doing About It

  • Improve page layouts and readability
  • Test changing your CTAs and offers completely
  • Promote content via paid social advertising. Advertising has been shown to increase conversion rates, not to mention organic clicks

The machine-learning theme wasn’t limited to Larry’s presentation. It arose several more times throughout the day:

  • Mike King asked, who in the crowd has an entity strategy? As he put it, Google is moving from “strings to things.” If you’re content doesn’t convey authority for the target entity, you may lose to the machines.

do you have an entity strategy?

  • Jon Henshaw, founder of Raven Tools, covered some technical optimizations that Google doesn’t directly measure … yet. Something as simple as improving form “input types” could improve conversions and send positive signals to the machine-learning algorithm.

technical optimizations might help you win the machine learning SEO battle

3. SEO is a ‘high-friction’ channel, which means we have to make the juice worth the squeeze

It’s common for an SEO strategy to range in tactics from the technical to the creative. Across this spectrum, it’s likely that multiple departments within an organization are required to mobilize in order to execute on SEO recommendations.

From IT, sales, marketing, product development, customer service, public relations, and up to the executive leadership, an SEO strategy may rope in one or all of these branches of a company.

Contributors in each of these departments report to different people, are held to different budgets & goals, and have a queue of existing priorities. Because of this, SEO creates friction.

SEO is a high friction channel

Realistically, most organizations aren’t even structured to move quickly and efficiently in response to cross-departmental needs. Wil Reynolds pointed out that your IT contact probably has IT responsibilities across all of their company’s product or service lines.

Why is this a problem? Because if that company has five product lines, then your IT contact is managing five separate project queues with varying priority and is going to have a tough time finding bandwidth to work in your SEO requirements.

One of Wil’s favorite clients is structured vertically under product lines so that each department has one representative assigned to one product managed by a single product manager. No longer is your one IT contact stretched across five product lines, but rather your five IT contacts are each responsible for one product line.

Rand Fishkin, founder of Seattle-based Moz, commented that he’d love to see his company move to this vertical structure so individuals aren’t bogged down by the competing needs of their various product lines.

But while the reality of SEO as a high-friction channel remains for most of us, how can we make it as easy as possible for our clients or companies to push forward?

  1. Don’t just hand over a to-do list. Give it context: Prioritize SEO recommendations based on their benefit, ease and readiness for implementation.
  2. Re-read the first section. Build more effective business cases that tie your strategy to their objectives and pitch clients on the dollar value of SEO tactics.

Many companies consider SEO a “nice-to-have” and rarely take a big swing on technical improvements or content marketing efforts. This, in part, signals a failure on the part of SEOs in communicating the value that SEO can bring to the company.


In an industry where I often feel that I’m operating at the whim of Google, it’s refreshing to hear from my most-talented peers that two of the biggest challenges facing SEO are within my control. That’s not to say they’re easy solves.

There are plenty of excuses to turn to — increased monetization of SERPs, lack of keyword data, etc. — but if I can’t justify to a client the value of investing in SEO as a means of achieving their business objectives, then why should they?

As far as Google goes, there’s nothing we can do but continue to adapt to their new technologies and the optimization opportunities that they present.

If you’re craving more SEO insights, head over to the MnSearch blog to find the presentations for all of the Summit speakers.

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