Interview with Nick Wilsdon – Data Portability & Google/Amazon Friend or Foe [Podcast & Transcript]

Schema App’s CEO Martha van Berkel interviews Nick Wilsdon, search product owner from Vodafone on the topic of, “Data Portability and its role in Search”.

Nick shares how he is seeing the search landscape change and how data will be the foundation for companies moving forward as the customer experience becomes fractured. Finally, they have a conversation about Amazon and how they are disrupting the ecosystem.

Some of my favourite moments in the conversation with Nick include:

“There’s so many different places we are finding now to interact with the web, and I think that’s the big change that we are having to deal with. It’s not so voice itself, isn’t the biggest change. It’s the fact that internet has lept out to being something contained on your laptop or your phone to be something that just surrounds us, and it will be on every billboard, every bus stop, every screen.”

“[In the EU],  there are pretty stringent controls on Google in terms of how much news, how much of a snippet, how much is fair use, how much is just taking advantage of the publisher and then taking their information. I think this is, again this is going to be the fight. It’s going to be the fight that the affiliates have had for years. They have been dealing with this for a very long time, they have been producing the content, they have been doing the work and they have a pull/push, good/bad relationship with Google where they kind of, cede some control to get more visibility. Now brands, they are kind of engaged in that same kind of you know, fight with Google, you know, how much can we give Google, how much can we still retain control? This will be something that we will have to think about a lot, and this will feed into the whole data issue if you lose control of your content, you also lose control of the data surrounding your content.”

If you’d like to listen to this interview in Podcast form, check out Connecting the Digital Dots, Interview with Nick Wilsdon on Spreaker or search for it on Google Podcasts. Enjoy the conversation!

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Martha: Hi and welcome to Schema Stories. It’s Martha Van Berkel, the CEO here at Schema app and I am delighted today to be joined by my friend Nick Wilsdon. Welcome Nick.

Nick: Hello Martha, I am glad to be here as well. Thank you.

Martha: Nick and I had the pleasure of speaking at Tech Retail in London, U.K in September and had many fun conversations out of where we thought this world of structured data was changing and how it played a role in data architecture and thought we’d share some of that conversation with everyone today. So, Nick, to start off, why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us a little about what you do in this area of SEO?

Nick: Yeah, absolutely Martha. My background is primarily SEO. It’s been about 20 years nearly in this field. My current role is cross Vodafone Group. So, I work across all markets globally, 27+ markets. In terms of search products any kind of project or innovation project around search and SEO.

Martha: Excellent. So, today we’re going to talk a little bit about the changing landscape and specifically the roles that the structured data is going to play and maybe a little bit of background on sort of Nick, your journey with structured data sort of when did you first learn about it, and start using it.

Nick: Oh, that’s a very long time ago. Yeah, it’s hard to put my finger on when it all started.

Martha: I know it was like 2012-2013 when we were starting to deal with it. So, I imagine you were in the same boat.

Nick: Yeah, must been around then. It was very interesting idea the fact that we could then markup certain bits of information, to give that information away in a way Google understood and I remember back then, Yandex back then was looking at it in Russia . So, it makes sense, but I don’t think we looked at it initially for locations, for addresses I think if I had to guess, my first usage of Schema would be for addresses and business names. It seemed to make a lot of sense and I think we saw initially really though something where you get clear advantage in SEO over your competitors because your information was marked up in that clearly understood way by the search engine. So, it’s very much search engine optimization in the very traditional sense.

Martha: And do you think about it differently now? Was 2018 an interesting year? In fact, I was talking to someone who would reach out to us his past year you know 2019 is going to be the year of Schema Markup and structured data and I sort of chuckled, I said “I was thinking 2018 was going to be the year of structured data and Schema Markup!”. How did you see things change from when you first started using it and as it accelerated like this past year ? Could you talk a little about your perception of that and its relevance to the business?

Nick: Absolutely. It has certainly changed. It’s gone from being something where you are sort of marking something for advantage in Google, to where organizing data and organizing your information. Now that’s sort of a dramatic change. I think we’ve seen that especially really with things of voice coming into the picture where we are starting to see how to mark up specific information for voice. Schema is going to take a much wider usage really, I think across websites, across all information – it is now information management technique, categorization technique. Now Linking between those different entities and make sure they make sense to search engines. So, taking on a much wider appeal. And it’s certainly crossing many more fields from just location pages and store pages to something that you use across entire site for products, for any kind of information you can think of really the way that it’s expanding.

Martha: So, it kind of brings me to a question I often have which is like, is structured data really just an SEO strategy now, right? Like with in Vodafone like who else is involved in these discussions because of the changes it has started to make?

Nick: Yes, not just an SEO thing at all, it is sort of becoming a proxy CMS really for data isn’t it. It involves many many different teams now in terms of getting that Schema implemented and these are requests I’m seeing coming from the development side as well because they want to write semantically and the ones right in a way that makes sense. So, it’s not questions that are only coming from SEO teams. I think SEO is still primarily the driver of Schema because you need to have sort of value proposition behind schema and certainly, we will understand that it’s making website information more understandable to Google. That’s great, you need to have a kind of business aspect to this as well and I think SEO kind of gives you that in a sense we have added this to our websites we will get kind of more visibility and more traffic. Actually, not just more traffic, but the better kind of traffic, because we define our information in a better way.

Martha: Yes, quality traffic!

Nick: Exactly it’s quality. I think SEO still kind of drives schema adoption, but certainly, it has a wider appeal now than it used to.

Martha: One of the topics you and I spoke about at tech retail that was a little disruptive to the people who attended was I made the blank statement, “You’ve lost control of the customer experience.” Let me clarify. What we are talking about was how people are finding answers in search right or going through other channels like voice. As a result, people are getting some of the information they are looking for without ever getting to your website.  This makes me think of schema as a data strategy, right? I think about sort of the change in search, sort of almost like supporting that it is a data strategy which then leads to the next big question of like, are websites relevant? Or people are just going to consume the data with context and understanding,  through those different channels or through the channels they choose?

Nick: Yeah, now you are right. I think this is kind underlines the dilemma that publishers have really with Schema. How much do I mark up my information and just give it away to other services, give it away to Google?  Because once I have marked up everything in a way that Google can understand, they can simply take those snippets and put them into the SERPs and then no longer need to send traffic to my website. This is the dilemma that all people have if I  categorize too much have I given everything away to third-party platforms. This is a dilemma for a lot of publishers. But I am in a similar boat to you Martha, I think you can’t really think in that way because SEO is about being discovered in lots of different mediums and ways and not only search results. Speakable markup, it very much in line with that. You need your information data to be found in many other places. It needs to be portable and this portability provides the value so you can’t hold on to, too tightly to the fact that people aren’t going to come to your website. You need to be focused entirely on am I getting the sales, am I getting the conversions that matter. If I am getting these conversions through partnerships with third parties, who are taking part of my data, somehow the sale is still coming through to the business and that’s what really matters.

Martha: Revenue becomes the ultimate measure, right? And a lot of these other things really truly becomes vanity metrics, right?

Nick: Absolutely, it has to be revenue, has to be about being discovered in all these different platforms and mediums, you know from voice to all forms of search. Yes, it has to be revenue and not simply traffic.

Martha: It comes back to SEO kind of getting tough on those ROI numbers, right? Because the actual endgame is key. We mention voice and you know, Amazon has kind of, come in like a ten-ton truck, right, into the voice base. They are also owning the distribution channel from a retail space which I think is also interesting. When we started thinking about how you are ordering through your Alexa that revenue is going through that one channel. How do you think about Amazon? Amazon doesn’t necessarily have a search engine, although have been partnering with Bing. How do you see Amazon disrupting the search landscape?

Nick: They are certainly leading in terms of product discovery and I think when we’re seeing surveys from Jumpshot (survey last year), the majority of product searches actually carried out on Amazon, they are not carried out on Google. And that doesn’t really come as a surprise when you look at Google’s products’ offering is clearly inferior to Amazon’s. So, I think product discovery happens on Amazon, and I think that is the way they can really disrupt this with voice. They dominate at the moment for a voice tech, they clearly have the most distributed devices. Even though, you know, Google has technically more, because they have the phones thrown into those numbers.  Amazon is way ahead. So, I think Amazon is going to disrupt search a lot because they are going to be focused on the product and if they focus on the product, that’s where the money is. If anyone knows how the web develops, you follow the money. So, that’s the threat really that Amazon has. But I can see that they’re incredibly interested in Schema, they are incredibly interested in owning a knowledge graph around products and they can probably do that in a better way than Google can. At the moment they have got far more data to work with, far more historical data to work with.

Martha: Yeah that’s interesting, we’ve seen them hiring, semantic intelligence and knowledge engineer. Since we play in that world. So, it’s interesting starting to see more people who are knowledge engineers coming from the Amazon side. I think it will be really interesting, right now we don’t see them necessarily publishing a lot in how do I adopt structured data more around skills. Can you see those worlds, merging or do you see Amazon starting to publish more about how they are using it?

Nick: They are using a lot of data in different places. Amazon is an incredibly exciting company at the moment,  they fascinate me. I think they are looking at the crossovers between these. I mean, I saw something literally the other day something that I thought was brilliant. Amazon was releasing advertising for relaxing sounds and relaxing sleep albums that they have now released because they can sense there is a demand for them. I find it absolutely fascinating that it coincides with the demand that you can clearly see in terms of the top skills for relaxing sounds and for sleep-related skills that are available in the ecosystem. You are kind of left wondering whether one is informing data on the other.

Martha: Is that circle.

Nick: Yeah, it’s that circle. It like what they are doing with the skills. They have done this before in terms of sales. When something sells particularly well on Amazon, Amazon then releases it as an Amazon product so you can find the Amazon USB cables and all these things available because Amazon can clearly see as a need. And then they are very commercial company and they step in to fill that need. So, I think they will do that in a much better way, and it comes back to the point about the kind of following the money. Amazon is very good at following the money. That’s kind of where they are quite a big threat to Google, who would probably do this more for a sort of wider, more educational kind of piece or…

Martha: … or to make money in ads

Nick: I shouldn’t give them that much credit…yes money in ads, exactly, Martha.

Martha: I believe they follow the money too. It will just be really interesting how that business model gets disrupted with these new channels consuming information. So, the question I like to ask is you know, will websites be relevant in three to five years?

Nick: Yes, I think they will. They’ll still be there but there will just be one place you update your data to. But I think websites themselves will more likely to follow a kind of methodology, being more database driven. So, all of your data is held in central CMS (ie. headless CMS). You will concentrate more on the data and the website will just be one place,  one container, that you port your data to. But you will have your data in a fluid way that can really be ported around every other screen that will be there – from our voice tech to your screen that will be around different rooms or in the back of your car. There are so many different places we are finding now to interact with the web, and I think that’s the big change that we are having to deal with. It’s not that voice itself, is the biggest change. It’s the fact that internet has lept out to being something contained on your laptop or your phone to be something that just surrounds us, and it will be on every billboard, every bus stop, every screen. It’s just going to surround us now the internet. I think when you have an environment like that, your data has to be portable to survive in that environment.

Martha: … and control how it’s understood, right? I think that’s a lot how we look at it. How do you actually build in those control points to add context, especially as it becomes globally relevan?. And the portability is also really interesting from the standpoint of licensing. So, that’s something else we’ve been looking at is, when it stops becoming just like the primary place, people are consuming and if Google is then reusing that data in different ways, how do you also put control points in sort of understanding who can license it and who can use it.

Nick: Yeah that’s the issue that the EU is having, particularly only. So, there are pretty stringent controls on Google in terms of how much news, how much of a snippet, how much is fair use, how much is just taking advantage of the publisher and then taking their information. I think this is, again this is going to be the fight. It’s going to be the fight that the affiliates have had for years. They have been dealing with this for a very long time, they have been producing the content, they have been doing the work and they have a pull/push, good/bad relationship with Google where they kind of, seed some control to get more visibility. Now brands, they are kind of engaged in that same kind of you know, fight with Google, you know, how much can we give Google, how much can we still retain control? This will be something that we will have to think about a lot, and this will feed into the whole data issue if you lose control of your content, you also lose control of the data surrounding your content. You are not collecting that data on the users who are engaging with your content and often that’s the biggest value that publishers have.

Martha: Understanding that audience.

Nick: Reselling that data.

Martha: Absolutely. Nick, this has been awesome. Thank you. We will leave it at that sort of scary thought of the future and Google or Amazon friend or foe and how do you take control of your data. Nick if people want to follow you or find you online, where do they look?

Nick: Yeah, absolutely. I am on Twitter a lot. So, feel free to follow me on Nick Wilsdon on Twitter or you can find me fairly easy on LinkedIn or NickWilsdon.com.

Martha: Excellent. Thanks, so much Nick. Hope you have way less snow inthe U.K. than we do here in Canada today and look forward to continuing the conversation.

Nick: Brilliant, thanks Martha. Take care. Cheers.

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