Interview with Rob Bucci – Keywords to Topics

Schema App News

Schema App’s CEO Martha van Berkel interviews Rob Bucci from Moz on the topic of, “How the Role of the SEO is evolving as the search experience changes”.

Rob Bucci  shared many insights with his key takeaways being:

One of the most significant shifts for SEOs, Google and searchers have been the transition from keyword-based queries to topical based queries. In response to this, search engines have had to think in terms of building up a general authority across an entire topic versus optimizing for specific keywords.

He also positioned some new opportunities for companies to explore.

  • Coming up with creative ways to get in front of ‘search’ so that users come to them directly, as their trusted advisor, versus searching for answers externally. This can be accomplished through “brand imprinting” and education.   
  • Anticipate post-purchase pain points to maximize upsell of their products and potentially cut down on the number of phone calls to their call centers.

For developers, he recommends:

  • Interacting with APIs so you can get comfortable with the idea of working with human language. From there, you’ll get better at your research and understanding of how to map that topography of topics.

Enjoy the conversation!



Martha: Hi and welcome to Schema stories. It’s Martha Martha van Berkel, the CEO of Schema App and I am delighted today to have Rob Bucci, my fellow Canadian, and not just fellow Canadian, but we grew up just 5 km, or less than 5 miles,  from each other..

So Welcome Rob!

Rob: Did you just use ‘miles’?  I thought we are Canadians.

Martha: Well I was trying to translate for our audience.

Rob: Ok, got it. That’s fair.

Martha: So welcome Rob.

Rob: I am Rob Bucci,  now the VP of R&D at Moz

Martha: Excellent

Rob: Sorry, I think we broke up there for a minute.

Martha: No problem. So, Moz is new. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey to where you are today.

Rob: Yeah, ok. It’s a big question, and I don’t know how much time we have. I started GetStat in 2011 and incorporated.  We always focused really heavily on SERP analytics as our core problem. For me, it was an interesting space to fall into. I actually got a Bachelor degree in Fine Arts in sculpture and ended up not knowing how to make money. One day I decided that I needed to learn how to write code, and all of a sudden I found myself scraping Google search results and trying to mine information out of it. So it’s a really random road that led me to where I am. At Stat, focusing on SERP analytics, we managed to rack up some incredible business with enterprises around the world and grew to become a very successful small company. Then, just over the last year, we started to talk with Moz about the opportunity to combine our talents, which led us to an acquisition, only about a month ago, and now we’re working with Moz.

Martha: Very cool. Well, today we are going to talk a little bit about the changing world of SERPs – the area you live and breath in every day. Over the last year, or so, what have you seen as some of the most significant changes in your world of Search Engine Result Pages?

Rob: I think the most significant change that I have seen recently is the really obvious move towards deemphasizing the importance of individual queries. The old SEO paradigm (for an SEO who was concerned with visibility in search queries), was to pick a handful of queries they wanted to optimize and optimize for them. It was kind of myopic. And what we have seen with the advent of people using Ask Boxes – well it really all started with the Knowledge Graph – we’ve seen Google get comfortable with these concepts of topical authority, so it’s no longer about picking a keyword and optimizing for that,  it’s about thinking about a topic and building your general authority across that entire topic. That’s been a really big shift for SEO and for Google and for searchers who have really taken it up as a very natural mode of searching.

Martha: Cool and so this was kind of a change, right? So we have kind of moved from, as you said, keywords to now talking about entities.  So how do you think businesses are having to change to deal with this?

Rob: Well, I mean how businesses have to change is maybe a bit too high level. I do not really see Best Buy having to change their business or Netflix having to change their business. But how SEOs would have to change,  is to start thinking more broadly about tracking themselves within an entire topic and mapping out that query space. So for any individual topic, if we were to pick athletic shoes, you’d have multiple query spaces that fall within it.  And so picking out your query spaces and then actually building out all the queries that are relevant to that query space becomes a really important stage of one’s process of building a strategy, more so than it used to be. Where it used to be 10 keywords and what are my landing pages for these keywords  – It’s not that simple anymore. If we are going to sum all of that up, I would say in a nutshell, it means that keyword research stage of building a strategy is probably more important and deeper than ever.

Martha: Very cool..The way we think about that is also the way you talk about the Knowledge Graph.. It’s not just about key pages, but how you are building out your knowledge around, literally the entity, on your site and then connecting all those pieces across your brand or across your content. So, when you talk about that, my brain kind of goes to this spider web of content and how everything is related so that you understand what those key topics are and then how you are going to tell that story… in a connected way.

Rob: Yeah I think some of the coolest stuff I have seen is where people are thinking beyond just converting the customer, because there are certain topics related to the areas that we do business –  the products that we create and that we want to sell – there is a whole host of topic relevant to that, but there is also a whole host of topics that happens post-conversion, and this is where some really interesting, easy to prove business value type work is being done. So you take, for example, somebody who maybe sells optical lenses (eyewear). They’re going to find those people, who after they buy things, are searching for things because they are unhappy with their purchase and if we can raise our authority for those topics that have a negative sentiment related to post-conversion for our products, we can actually cut down on the number of phone calls to our call centers. So we can actually save money by addressing these broader topics beyond just conversions. So, I think there is a lot of really interesting work that I have been seeing happening there over the past few years. And it’s kind of cool to see SEO prove its value at other stages in the business or in an org rather than just for the sales funnel.

Martha: That’s awesome. So the role of SEO is not only changing from how to think about “search” but also about that customer journey. Is that what I am hearing?

Rob: Yeah you know, it’s maturing. SEO is maturing. We are calling ourselves “web natives” now – you know the generation that is around the website, and more and more touch points and interactions occurring between the consumer and the business are happening around their web presence. It’s only natural that over time the SEO should get more involved in all the aspects of the touchpoints and not just about driving visibility for buyers. It’s much more than that now.

Martha: Awesome. Talk to me about, who (with this big change) – we talked about the SEO’s being impacted, but are there any segments of business that have been more impacted by this evolution of ‘entity-based search’ and that journey also being distracted by voice?

Rob: The voice thing is addictive for me. It’s not a detractor. It does not replace core functions, especially in the e-commerce space. So you can think about voice as providing new channels, but not really killing the amount of signal or inputs going to old channels.

People are just finding new ways to talk to their devices, in ways they would not normally have done so. So let’s put that aside…I think we left with the e-commerce space. The foray into topics around products and around Google getting better at denoting what types of intent they are dealing with, by how somebody is searching, and linking up the chain of searches they have done (perhaps over the last week), to lead to this point..has created a whole new challenge for e-commerce companies to ensure that they are serving up the right content, for the right searchers at the right time asking the right questions ..and that has become more complex.

I think what lagged behind it is the research and the tooling that will help marketers to do that. Some of that is in Google’s hand..they have to provide that, they are trying to do the thing with Google stuff, but also some of it is with the industry.  I think that the current set of tools don’t support understanding ‘intent models’ and ‘topical models’ very well.

Martha: Sentiment on the journey. You started getting me thinking .. .at Schema App we are always thinking about the entity … the actual thing we are talking about, but I love that you are almost layering this deeper human piece onto it- which is ‘why do they connect at that certain point?’ and “how does emotion, as well as content as well as perspective come in?’ Love that, absolutely.

Rob: Yeah that is really important.. I think SEOs..sometimes, in general, as people, are just too happy to hide behind impersonal things ..the rules of the game “If I do this, everything will work”, … but there is this sticky grey matter in between that we really have to understand the psychology of our searches and what they mean when they ask for something. When they use the word ‘blue’, they are talking about the sky or they are talking about their mood? These sorts of deeper level understandings are important for anyone who wants to excel in their job.

Martha: So, if someone wants to try to learn more about that – who are you watching for this stuff or who you are talking to … who are some of the other experts in the industry, or adjacent industries that you are looking at, to get into this more ..kind of sentiment-driven understanding of the characteristics of search?

Rob: You know..since joining the Moz team, I have really been blown away with the stuff coming out from this new team. So, Britney Miller, Dr. Pete and Russ Jones are doing some incredible work in this area, and as I get into their research and see what they are putting out there, it’s very impressive.  There are more… I’d be happy to send you over a few links of the people that I would suggest there, but these are the people I have recently been blown away by.

Martha: Amazing amazing.. is there a baby step that companies can do to take a step in this direction?

Rob: Look at the APIs. The direction that we are talking about, by the way, is the direction of building out like topics… So I would say look at the free APIs around .. like semantic analysis, and text analysis that is available. Amazon actually has a whole host of them – there’s Twinword, there’s IBM Watson, who has a whole host of APIs, and they are relatively plug & plays, so an SEO best development with experience in this area should just get a credit card, get those APIs and start having fun …  like parse Moby Dick … do something that gets you comfortable with the idea of working with human language. From there, you’ll get better at your research and understanding of how to map that topography of topics.

Martha: Very cool.. So, whole other topic. I often talk about how to manage your brand for machines and how the channels of which people are consuming information are changing and today we talked a little about voice search (we see that through the voice assistance) but you know the ‘ordering’ channel also comes with that .. so  if you are ordering through Alexa, they sort of own that whole channel. But then there are also these IoT devices – like your car, Tesla has always been connected from the get-go. How do you see that whole changing landscape impacting search?

Rob: That’s a very interesting question… I mean in relation to do I see that landscape of connected devices changing search? I like to use the car. Many of those interactions take place during a moment in time when somebody wouldn’t be searching anyway.  So let’s just say that one of the integrations for somebody is a certain towing assistance company that is very well known, strikes a deal with Tesla, has their button up on the dashboard – effectively a ‘dash’ button for towing, that would take the place of a search being done, but I am not sure a search would be done there anyway. So, I don’t see it as a cannibalizing effect..I see it as growing the overall reliance that humans have on their devices to find solutions to be paired with the problems they have, and I don’t see it as a ceiling we hit, I think it’s just growing. I see search expanding, I see the way people are accessing knowledge through special purpose devices expanding.. and all kind of expanding at the same time.

Martha: Okay, so there is still a future for search engine results with blue links?

Rob: Of course, absolutely. You know I have been accused of being an optimist before, but I really believe that we should not be afraid of these things. These are not threats to the core business of SEO or the search engines. They are entirely additive..they are new opportunities, and as such we must be excited about them. There is rather a defensive mentality especially around voice search, like ‘Oh it’s going to eat up Google searches’. I don’t think so. That’s not the case.

Martha: I use it in very different ways, I often use examples of checking the weather as I am putting the dishes in the dishwasher, as I’m about to leave the kitchen to go get dressed for work… and so part of it is providing a different way to get information in a mode – and solving a problem at the same time ( you were talking to). I am interested to see how it evolves for business. I read an interesting article today about, ‘what does monetization in voice looks like and how do you introduce consent in voice?, and one of the examples was with Rebecca Sentence , and she was actually quite funny. She’s like … “this is your answer… Can I now tell you an ad?” – the voice asking for permission there. Quite obtrusive.  I am an optimist with you. I actually see a lot of these things changing. I am interested… I think it will actually impact different verticals in different ways at different times, and we are still so in that early curve. You know, as someone who has worked with early adopters for a long time … you know ‘Main Street’, even in voice and Google Land’s, Tesla’s adoption and IoT adoption …  and we’re are still so early in that journey, right? So the next 5 years is going to be fun just to see what it’s disrupting and what is playing well.

Rob: Yes and I agree with you..that it’s very early days. There have been some promising stuff that we have seen around..very special purpose integrations for a search that work really, really well for very narrow products, which is great. Apple moving towards Apple’s AirPods are great examples of how they can eventually integrate voice search really seamlessly with a phone but the key thing that voice search is missing is interaction. The worst experience that I have in my voice search devices is trying to pick a song.

Martha: Totally! Like the artist. They always play the wrong artist too!

Rob: So it needs a little bit of visual cue and interaction in order to be a fully satisfactory experience and that loop, that continuum is missing, but it will get better..and I think once it gets better then we’ll start to see a lot more of ‘voice search’ to ‘regular search’ to ‘conversion action’.

Martha: Absolutely, how they are connected.

Rob: And, then all of a sudden it becomes a really interesting topic to talk about .. how ‘voice search’ feeds into ‘search’ which feeds into ‘conversion’ better, and it is not a very narrow purpose … like I use this voice search recipe just to buy Tide Pods.

Martha: Absolutely, it’s almost like that exchange module… I think I saw Dr. Pete present something at ‘State of Search’ talking about that interaction through modalities as being a key.

One last hot question and then we will wrap up. We have seen a ton of change in the features showing up in ‘search’, where Google is owning the customer experience directly in the search results. So whether it be providing answers or giving charts that sort of help you to get the answer, or defining things in the search results… can you talk a little about specifically where you see those… I’ll say’ features’ going, although, to me, it’s like that experience you talked a little bit about – ‘sentiment’, but anything specific around how you see that visual state changing in Google?

Rob: You know…so, Google has been doing a land grab for more and more of the interactions, because what they see is, they see the queries, they see how people satisfy the queries.. So they think if they can satisfy the queries themselves on the SERP, it’s better for their ad business, that’s what it comes down to. So there is a super incentive there for them to do that and there is always a certain percentage of humans, who will, no matter what kind of loyalties they have, just want the fastest, cheapest, easiest  – it doesn’t matter, so, in the sense you will never beat Google with the immediacy of their solution (should they try to solve the problem that you are also trying to solve) accept the fact that is no longer going to be your best performing area. It’s an unfortunate truth. I don’t how you get in front of Google. You don’t. They are the front page to people asking these questions.

So, I would then focus on the ‘earlier in the funnel’ type stuff –  the brand imprinting, the… How, before people get to the point where they are actually trying to solve a problem, how do we help them educate themselves on the problem? How do we become a trusted resource for everything they need to know about that problem? So when the time comes for them to actually solve that problem, they think of us and even though Google may have gotten in our faces or in front of us, with their widget that solves the problem, hopefully, these people will still want to come work with us. That’s one way of indicating that.

Martha: That actually plays back to the customer journey… Like if you fully understand the journey, you can build the content around so they have awareness and interaction with you before that purchase time. Love it

Rob: You got it. That is absolutely right… So I think that is one of the bigger plays that people have to think about. I think Rand [Fishkin] has done a lot of interesting talking on this …the  SERPs is a brand play. So there is some great content that he has put out there which I think is more and more important. Frankly, it’s shitty. It bothers me to no end to see them just grab more and more and more, but there’s no way around it.

Martha: Yeah, especially for some aggregator sites, say like travel, like booking flights …you’re first doing that comparison in Google first. In some industries, it is going to be very disruptive and play a key role there. Cool, so we are out of time.. A couple of quick questions.. Who do you follow and watch… You may name a couple of Moz..they are kind of key players in the SEO space are some of your favourites?

Rob: Yeah I follow  JR Oakes – I really like his stuff. I follow Paul Shapiro – great stuff there… I follow a lot of folks at Distilled who are doing really cool work and are really cool people as well.

Martha: Excellent and how can people learn more about the work that you do and stay connected to you?

Rob: You can follow me on Twitter @STATrob –  it’s mostly jokes. You can then follow the company at GETSTAT. Of course, also follow Moz, if you aren’t already.  Those are the best places.

Martha: Thank you, Rob, for taking the time out and always fun to share insights from another brilliant Canadian and really happy to have you and congratulations on the recent acquisition.

Rob: Thank you very much.

At Schema App, one of our core values is to always be learning and teaching. That’s why we love talking with other structured data experts!

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Martha van Berkel is the co-founder and CEO of Schema App, an end-to-end Semantic Schema Markup solution provider based in Ontario, Canada. She focuses on helping SEO teams globally understand the value of Schema Markup and how they can leverage Schema Markup to grow search performance and develop a reusable content knowledge graph that drives innovation. Before starting Schema App, Martha was a Senior Manager responsible for online support tools at Cisco. She is a Mom of two energetic kids, loves to row, and drinks bulletproof coffee.