San Jose skateboarder
PHOTO: Jack Gisel

I joined hundreds of search marketing professionals this week at SMX West 2019 in San Jose, Calif. Produced by Third Door Media and hosted by Search Engine Land and MarketingLand, Search Marketing Expo (SMX) is an event whose stated purpose is to help “thousands of search marketers from across the world boost conversions, increase sales, maximize awareness, and achieve their goals.”

Talking to attendees while I roamed the halls and during meals, I learned that most of them worked on search engine optimization (SEO) or paid search. Some work in-house at companies, while others are employees of digital agencies. In my previous roles at B2B technology companies, SEO was a part of my job; we used agencies to help with both SEO and paid search.

The conference kicked off yesterday. Here are my three takeaways from day 1.

1. Voice Search Is Here, So Embrace It

To get a feel for any business conference, I look to the opening keynote of the opening day. For SMX West 2019, Marco Lenoci, head of North American business development and global partnerships at Google, gave the opening keynote. It was titled “Assistance: The New Frontier.”

Lenoci took the audience on a short journey through the evolution of computing, from desktop computers to the internet to mobile devices and now to voice-enabled digital assistants. For Lenoci, voice is not a destination; rather, it’s a new modality for how we interact with technology.

In other words, in this age of assistance, voice is our gateway to the intelligent devices we’ll bring into our lives. Those devices will bring utility, convenience and more.

Later in the day, I attended a session titled “Optimizing Content for Voice Search and Virtual Assistants,” where search marketing experts discussed SEO strategies tailored to the world of voice search.

To close that session, author and SEO guru Stephan Spencer provided an interesting quote: “We’re moving from GUI to LUI.” In other words, the graphical user interface (GUI) is now the linguistic user interface (LUI) said Spencer, who is founder of The Science of SEO.

Related Article: How Voice Search Speaks to Your Customer Needs

2. AI Heavily Influences the Behavior of Search Algorithms

No search marketing conference is complete without a discussion of Google’s algorithm updates. In years past, Google updates had cute names (e.g., Penguin, Panda, Hummingbird), but the 2018 updates were simply referred to by month. Two of the notable updates took place in March and August.

Artificial intelligence (AI) plays a significant role in the algorithms.

In a session titled “Machine vs. Man: What Really Matters for SEO Success,” session moderator Barry Schwartz, who is news editor at Search Engine Land, speculated that, of the core Google search results (e.g., the top 10 organic hits on the first page of results), 20 percent are influenced by AI.

One of the panelists, Nagu Rangan, senior program manager for the Bing search engine at Microsoft, told Schwartz that 90 percent of Bing organic results are influenced by AI. He added that Bing’s algorithm has implemented neural networks (an AI methodology) since 2006.

Microsoft has published details about the Bing algorithm, the latest version of which is called LambdaMart.

Given that AI systems work by ingesting large sets of training data and then applying machine learning techniques to fine-tune themselves, we’re now in a world where algorithm changes are embedded in AI. That means that Google or Bing engineers may not be able to directly explain why certain algorithmic changes happened.

Related Article: What Should an AI-Driven Search Engine Be Able to Do?

3. Google Takes an Intentional Approach With Mobile-First Indexing

In a March 26, 2018, post on its Webmaster Central Blog, Google announced that it had started migrating to mobile-first indexing. As the company explained in the post, “Mobile-first indexing means that we’ll use the mobile version of the page for indexing and ranking, to better help our — primarily mobile — users find what they’re looking for.”

Prior to the conference, my impression was that on some date, perhaps coming soon, Google would convert all sites to mobile-first indexing. Turns out that that is not the case.

In a session titled “Mobile-First Indexing and Mobile-Friendly SEO,” Eric Enge, general manager at Stone Temple Consulting, noted that Google has migrated sites that are ready but is holding off on sites with significant issues.

This is not simply a case of Google being nice to site owners, said Enge, but rather a move that takes the end-user search experience into consideration.

Enge analyzed the website of a major retail brand. Its mobile site has a total of three pages — the home page, an “About” page and one other page. If that site was moved to mobile-first indexing, 100 percent of its product listings would disappear from Google.

While Google hasn’t provided explicit information on when it will move remaining sites to mobile-first indexing, you should act quickly on sites that you manage. If you run Google Analytics, you should be seeing mobile-friendly warnings in Google Search Console.

Related Article: What's Inside the Google Search Console Update

Looking Ahead

The takeaways I have listed here relate to technological changes that emerged in the past few years: voice search, AI in search algorithms and mobile-first indexing. There are sure to be more changes in the coming years.

During one panel discussion, an attendee asked this question: “How do you see SEO 10 years from now?” One of the panelists, a well-known SEO expert, responded, “I hope to see it from a beach in the Caribbean.”