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Gary Illyes has become a regular fixture in our industry, working with SEOs to get better performance in Google’s search results. He travels the world speaking at conferences and is involved in launching many of Google’s search products, like AMP and HTTPS rank boost. And finally, Gary’s also a great guy who was the first of all the Chicago speakers to answer my interview questions. 🙂

Want to see Gary and other speakers from The Home Depot, Grainger, The Daily Dot, and more? Chicago Early Bird tickets are on sale now!

You are a “Webmaster Trends Analyst” at Google. Can you explain what that means and talk a little bit about what you do?

I work on the webmaster trends team together with Zineb Ait Bahajji, Mariya Moeva, and John Mueller, but in my day-to-day, actually support more than 40 different teams in search, sometimes coding, sometimes setting up policies, and sometimes giving interviews.

In short, we are trying to make users’ and webmasters’ lives better, both behind the scenes and in more visible ways. To give you some additional context, we were involved in launches like the HTTPS ranking boost, App Indexing, AMP, and Mobile Friendly update.

Let’s talk about Google AMP (accelerated mobile pages for our readers who might not know). What types of sites will benefit the most from this feature?

The project is open to all players in the ecosystem – publishers, consumer platforms, and creators. In this early stage of the project, a group of publishers and platforms have come together to demonstrate how Accelerated Mobile Pages can transform the mobile web experience, but as I said, it is open to everyone.

Google is continuing to make mobile friendly search a priority. Which makes sense, as we all use our phones more and more. What is the point most SEOs or website owners miss when it comes to optimizing for mobile search?

Fortunately, the ecosystem is in a much better shape than a year ago on that front. I use my phone a lot for browsing the web, more than desktop, and I find that most of the sites I visit on my phone are actually mobile friendly. Sometimes it takes a long time to get the actual content even on wifi or on a 4g connection, that’s driving me insane. If I could ask one thing from the SEOs, it would be to decrease page load times on the sites they manage. It makes a huge difference for the users!

Your background is in journalism – how do you think that experience informs what you do now at Google?

That’s an interesting question. I’m very comfortable with giving interviews, both written and Q&As on stage, because of my background. It’s also an interesting twist: I used to do interviews, ask pointed questions, sometimes the same questions differently with the hope I’d get more information, but now I’m on the other side, and I get to answer those pointed questions. It’s an interesting challenge, and it’s also amazing to meet so many people from all around the world!

I saw that you travel a lot, so I have to ask: What destination is next on your travel wish list?

I don’t have a wish list, I just want to explore new cultures. If I had to pick a place, then it would probably be the Amazon rainforests, mainly to try to meet the indigenous people. It is quite fascinating how some of the tribes managed to isolate themselves from technology, it would be interesting to experience how they live, what are their interests, and why are they, in general, not interested in the world.

Thanks for answering my questions, Gary. See you in Chicago!

Don’t forget, you can buy your ticket for our SEJ Summit Chicago conference, taking place June 23 at the Navy Pier. Or, come see us in NYC Nov. 2nd!

SEJ Summit images via Paulo Bobita. 

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How Google’s New Mobile Ad Units Will Increase Your Mobile Conversions

Just check out the graph below from a WordStream study proving that mobile conversions fall far behind conversions occurring on desktops and tablets:


Think about it. When you’re cooking pasta while browsing your phone for new sandals and you notice the water boiling over, are you going to ignore it and proceed with your shopping? Absolutely not. Advertisers need to realize mobile searchers are not different people, but people in a different state of mind.

So, what has Google done to address this?

“When session lengths are compressed as they are on mobile, we need to drive people to answers more quickly,” Dischler said. “On mobile, people also expect more rich content. So we’re going to build products that work well on mobile first. For each vertical, we’d like to create a template that will lead to an answer.” So take a breather, Google has not forgotten about you!

Now let’s take a look into some of the most innovative features these new ad formats have to offer.

#1: Mobile Ads are Becoming More Visually Interactive

#2: Easily Compare & Read Product Reviews on the SERPs

Do you remember the last time you bought a car? You hopped online, did a search including the ‘must-have’ terms to find an affordable and practical vehicle, and hit “Buy now”, right?

Not exactly. You likely spent months comparing models, conducting research, reading reviews, etc.

Google understands how people shop. Searchers want to make informed decisions before purchasing. Whether it be booking a hotel room or signing up for a new credit card, a searcher is never going to choose the first thing they see. They also understand that, on mobile, the chances of visiting a bunch of websites to get additional information on various brands are pretty much nonexistent. Mobile searchers don’t have the patience, time, or attention span for this kind of investigation.

This is why Google introduced Google Compare in March to help shoppers compare car insurance directly through the SERPs. “Whether you’re a national insurance provider or one local to California, people searching  for car insurance on their phone or computer can find you along with an apples-to-apples comparison of other providers – all in as little as 5 minutes,” says the Google AdWords blog. “You can highlight what makes your business unique, whether that’s an ‘A’ rating in customer service or better discounts for safe drivers.”

#3: Revamp of Dynamic Search Ads to Make Your Life Easier

The problem with targeting searchers with keywords is that 15% of Google searches are completely unique and have never been searched for before, therefore chasing mobile specific keywords is a fool’s game. Luckily, Google has made huge strides with a complete revamp of Dynamic Search Ads providing a much higher level of transparency and lower level of keyword management.

Also, you don’t need to break a sweat about Google running the show because you will still have the ability to make adjustments on categories, targeted searches, ad text, etc.

#4: The Ability to Buy, Book, & Act Directly Through the SERPs

Mobile searchers are far too busy to visit a bunch of websites. They want to hop on Google, get an answer or complete an action, without having to go through a site full of hurdles and pages to get the end result. With additional hurdles on mobile comes a lack of motivation from searchers. “Eh, I guess I don’t really need that,” or “I’ll do it later,” the searcher thinks, and then sayonara to that on-the-brink conversion.

What are your thoughts on these new mobile ad formats?

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Google’s John Mueller On Bert And Rankings

In a Google hangout, Google’s John Mueller answered a question about getting hit by the Google BERT update. Mueller discussed what BERT does and how that fits into ranking.

Hit by Google BERT Update

A publisher or SEO described a situation where they saw a number of sites get hit by an update. They said that it seemed like about more than intent.

This is the question that was asked:

“We’ve seen some websites that were hit by Google BERT update and they still have not recovered. Was that update only about intent? Because it seems like it was about more.”

John Mueller responded that BERT is not an update that suddenly changes rankings.

“So, BERT is essentially a web of better understanding text. It’s not a ranking change in that sense.

It’s not an update… kind of an algorithm update that suddenly we rank things differently.”

What Mueller appears to be communicating is that BERT is not a part of ranking.

Then he explains what BERT really is:

“But it’s really about understanding text.

So it means that we work hard to understand when people enter queries in the the search results. In particular when these are long queries where we need to understand what is the context here, what is something that people are actually searching for within this query.”

Mueller explained that BERT is particularly about making sense out of long search queries. People are increasingly speaking search queries and in some cases those are longer questions.

The role of BERT, which Mueller explained, is to help make sense out of those search queries.

Mueller continues, now explaining how BERT helps Google understand web pages:

“And when it comes to pages themselves we try to figure out what are those pages actually about and how do those pages map to those specific queries that we’ve got.”

Related: Google BERT Update – What it Means

How to Understand Google BERT

A way to think about what’s happening with BERT is that it’s a way to better understand web pages and search queries.

Maybe a way to understand BERT is by an analogy.

I wear glasses because I can’t see objects that are far away. Without my glasses I am unable to read the freeway road signs. With my glasses I can read the signs and understand when I need to slow down and prepare to exit.

So, BERT can be thought of as playing the role of making search queries and web pages more understandable.

Being able to see does not play a role in my decision to take one exit over the other. I know which exit I’m looking for. My glasses only help me to see the exit.

Similarly, BERT doesn’t play a role in the ranking process. It’s just interpreting web pages and queries, like my glasses enable me to interpret the road signs.

This is what John Mueller said:

“So it’s not a ranking change per se. It’s really about understanding the text on the page and the text that people enter in the queries.

And from that point of view, it’s not that websites get hit by this update. It’s really that we’re trying to understand what these pages are about.

And if these pages are such that it’s really hard to understand what they’re about, then users will have trouble with them and our search engine will also have trouble with them.”

Related: BERT Explained: What You Need to Know About Google’s New Algorithm

Suspect You Are “Hit” By Google BERT Update?

Now Mueller explains that what publishers think of as being “hit” by a BERT update, it’s usually something else.

What John Mueller said:

“Usually in the cases I’ve looked at where people say they were hit by this kind of update, it’s more that there were just general changes in search over time that also took place, and we make changes in search all the time.

So it’s not necessarily the case that because Google understands the pages better we suddenly decided to kind of penalize a set of individual pages.

Because we’re trying to understand these pages better, not try to understand what things people are doing wrong.”


According to Google’s John Mueller, BERT shouldn’t be thought of as a ranking algorithm. He encourages publishers to think of it as a way to better understand search queries and web pages.

According to the official BERT announcement in October 2023, BERT affected 10% of search queries, particularly conversational queries, as I mentioned above.

Here’s what the announcement said:

“Particularly for longer, more conversational queries, or searches where prepositions like “for” and “to” matter a lot to the meaning, Search will be able to understand the context of the words in your query. You can search in a way that feels natural for you.”

Mueller’s answer is helpful because it clarifies that BERT is something apart from the ranking part of the algorithm and that it doesn’t target web pages for things that they’re doing wrong.

His answer also encourages publishers to look to other reasons why a page might have lost rankings, reasons beyond BERT.

Watch John Mueller answer the question:


How Content Marketing And Seo Work Together #Sejsummit

Mark Traphagen of Stone Temple Consulting is a pillar of the speaking circuit and regularly does videos and blog posts about SEO. He always has helpful insights and actionable steps for marketers to better their content and make it appealing to both the search engines and the users.

I had a chance to interview Mark before our last SEJ Summit SEO conference of 2024, happening November 2nd in New York City. Check out his answers below:

Your SEJ Summit Presentation is about creating content that is also SEO and brand friendly. This is an area many brands seem to struggle in. Why do you think that is?

Brand content tends to be created with either SEO or reputation/brand-enhancement in mind, but rarely with both, as if they were mutually exclusive. It’s difficult to say why that happens in all cases, but in our experience with larger brands, it’s often a result of who has ownership of the content, and what their goals are.

It is possible, though, and we believe most desirable, to create content that both helps build SEO while at the same time creating real value for actual users of the site.

SEO and content marketing seem to be pitted against each other. What are the benefits of the two disciplines working together?

As I said in the previous answer, which of those is emphasized seems to depend upon who within the company (or which department) has ownership of the content. The sad irony is that there’s increasing evidence that high-quality content that does a good job of fully serving user needs actually enhances SEO, so there’s obviously benefit in bringing the disciplines (SEO and content creation) together.

For that reason, at Stone Temple we work hard to raise the vision of our clients for what content can do, and to support them in “selling” to their companies that higher vision.

I love the story of your start in digital marketing. You worked at an indie bookstore who was losing money due to Amazon and your boss pretty much said “Figure this out.” Over the years, what changes in our field surprised you the most?

My biggest surprise over the years has actually also been my biggest delight. When I was “inventing online marketing” (or so I thought!) for that small store, I thought at first that it was all a matter of learning a set of tricks. But I discovered that doing real marketing, the best stuff that always worked even before digital, actually enhanced and strengthened my SEO and e-commerce efforts. To my surprise and delight, because of the increasing sophistication of Google, those practices actually scale up to the huge brands that Stone Temple works with today.

Let me provide a couple of concrete examples from my bookstore marketing days:

Our store served a pretty geeky culture, people who were really into the kind of books we specialized in. In those pre-social-media days, bloggers ruled as far as influence, and we came to realize that a lot of our potential customers discovered new books via popular book review bloggers. So we reached out to those bloggers, building great relationships with many of them, resulting in them recommending and even linking to our store in their reviews. They came to love us because they realized we truly loved the books they and their readers loved, and that love fest resulted in a big jump in traffic and sales for our store.

The next step was nurturing a sense of community amongst our customers by creating a way for them to become qualified reviewers on our site, which led to many of them becoming mini-celebrities in our niche. We made heroes of our customers, and gained a lot of valuable user-generated content along the way.

Those early lessons have never left me. It’s why Eric Enge and I constantly preach that SEO and content are never stand-alones; to be successful they must be part of a complete marketing ecosystem.

It seems like content marketing is now starting to mature as a field, where do you think the future of content marketing is heading? What can we expect in the next 5 or 10 years?

I don’t think the emphasis on the importance of content will ever go away now. From the SEO perspective, it’s become obvious that search engines place increasing importance on the quality and usefulness of a site’s content. My hope, though, as I stated above, is that more and more companies will adopt a more holistic view of content, and realize that not only are SEO and traditional marketing goals for content not at odds, but they are most successful when they are in cooperation.

In your opinion, what is the number one under appreciated skill a digital marketer needs to succeed in 2024?

Without a doubt, it’s learning the fundamentals of traditional marketing. I’ll be the first to admit that I have big gaps in my own background in that area. The good news is that you can self-educate in marketing these days, if you’re diligent in uncovering the best information sources and dedicated to putting in the effort. I’m investing significant time into my own marketing education these days.

I still am thankful for my “thrown into the deep end of the pool” introduction to digital marketing. I learned a lot because I had to, and I honed those skills in the real battlefield of high-competition marketing. Now it’s time to “grow up” and dig deep into the accumulated wisdom of marketing that goes beyond technical SEO skills or the ability to create great content.

Great insight, Mark. It is always a learning game. Thanks for answering my questions. See you in NYC!

Don’t forget; you can still buy tickets and come see us in NYC Nov. 2nd at the TimesCenter in Manhattan.

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Google’s John Mueller On Why Some Sites Rank

In a Google Webmaster Hangout Google’s John Mueller was asked why content published on an established site tended to rank higher. The publisher asked why articles on this site consistently received “top Google rankings.”

There is no simple way to answer this question. Google’s John Mueller offered a nuanced explanation of why Google trusted some sites enough to consistently rank them at the top.

The question was asked if the success was due to a lack of competition or “is it somehow even though each individual site is a sub site of the main site, any blogging gets you ranked because” of the website itself.

John Mueller responded that it’s not directly related to the domain.

“It’s more a matter of your putting out new content… that’s relevant for people who are searching at the moment and that we’re ranking them based more on that.

That’s something that we often see from various sites like, should I be blogging, should I write… ten articles articles a day or five articles a day?

…from our point of view it’s not a matter of going out and blogging and creating so many articles a day… but more a matter of… you have some really fresh content here, some of this content is really relevant for some searchers at the moment so we’ll show that.

…it’s not that blogging itself is something that makes the site rank higher or makes the content rank higher. It’s just you happen to have some new content here that happens to be relevant so we’ll show that.”

There’s an approach to content that seems to focus on quantity and quality but leaves out the part about relevance. A common mistake I see in site audits is chatty and conversational content, like you might hear at the water cooler.

For certain situations, content that is focused on relevance to a person’s situation, their goals or aspirations are more appropriate.  I believe that’s what John Mueller was getting at when he encouraged the publisher to create content that is relevant to the searchers at the moment they were searching.

I think it’s worth pointing out that he didn’t say to be relevant to the keywords. He encouraged the publisher to create content that is relevant to the searcher. 

John Mueller went on to focus on the blogging part of the question, whether blogging was the secret behind the site’s top ranking.

But that answer might not have been what the questioner was hoping for. She appeared to be focused on whether the domain itself, perhaps some kind of authority, was powering the rankings.

Thus, the publisher asked again in an attempt to get John Mueller to focus on whether or not the domain itself was powering the rankings.

She asked:

“…so it’s completely independent of the domain that I’m blogging on? There’s a lot going on on that website other that has no effect if I… start my own dot com it was blogging it would have the same effect?”

John Mueller responded,

“Pretty much… there are always some kind of supplemental effects with regard to us able to find the content quickly, us being able to understand that this website is generally creating high quality content. So there is some amount of… additional information that we collect for the website on a whole.”

This is interesting because it expands on his previous statement that you just can’t create content and expect it to rank. Here he adds that there is a process whereby Google gains an understanding that the site is a good resource to rank. He alludes to “additional information” that Google collects in order to make the determination that a site is creating high quality content.

What might he be referring to? Google’s algorithm has so many moving parts to it that it could be any number of things.

Just as an example of the complexity involved, there’s a patent filed in 2012 called, “Classifying Sites as Low Quality Sites”  that discusses a number of factors that Google could use to create a “link quality score” that could be used to classify an entire site as low quality.

The patent classifies inbound links to a site as Vital, Good, and Bad.

According to the patent, Google could then use this link rating system to lower a website’s chance of ranking:

“The system decreases ranking scores of candidate search results identifying sites classified as low quality sites.”

The above is an example of a patent that may or may not be in use at Google. The point is that there are so many ways that a site can be ranked, from links to the content itself. The reference to “additional information” can be a reference to so many things including the plethora of ranking factors themselves.

Google’s John Mueller goes on to say,

“So it’s not that you could just create random URLs on the web and put your blog post up there and we would find them magically and rank them number one.

It kind of does require some amount of structure within that so that we can understand that over time actually this is pretty good content and we should check it regularly to make sure that we don’t miss any of the updates. “

At this point the publisher tried a third time to get Google’s Mueller to say that there is something about the domain that is helping posts published on that domain to rank better.

“Okay, so there is something to the domain itself and that it’s got your attention.”

He then suggested that it was her option to choose to build her own site but that it would take time for the site to get established. He positioned it as a choice between taking the time to establish something of her own for the long run or taking the easy route and using the established website to rank her articles on.


It’s not enough to just create content.

Content must be relevant to a user at the moment they are searching

Top rankings do not come right away

Watch the Webmaster Hangout here.

More Resources

Google’s John Mueller On Links From News Sites

Links from Viral PR Campaigns

He tweeted:

“I looked at dozens of examples of sites going viral, award winners, case studies, etc.

I thought for sure all those links from major news sites would help the sites rank better for other terms.

Spoiler alert: I was wrong.”

Patrick wrote that many SEOs contacted him privately to share case studies of their success PR news campaigns and how they worked for SEO.

But Patrick said that none of them showed clear evidence that the PR link campaign was responsible for any ranking improvements, stating that in some cases the ranking lifts intersected with a Google update.

He tweeted this observation:

“A lot of the studies are falling into similar patterns like they happen during core updates, major site changes like redesigns, they happen during seasonal adjustments, or there are other link building and content campaigns (usually unrelated) that they seem to take credit for.”

Patrick affirmed the value of PR news campaigns but said that indicated he had doubts about the impact on SEO.

Viral PR Campaigns and SEO

I have noted for almost fifteen years that many liked to crow about all the links their campaigns created but consistently failed to mention any lift in keyword rankings.

It’s as if the link builders are focused exclusively on obtaining the promised amount of links and are completely disconnected from tracking the SEO effects of the links.

There are many problems with some viral campaigns, particularly the ones that are about something like a stunt or a contest.

The main problem is that they’ll rank for the stunt but all the links are about the stunt, not anything to do with their important keywords.

It’s just like pointing all links to the home page isn’t going to trickle down link joy to all the inner pages. If that were the case then the top ten for all keyword phrases would be dominated by pages with high home page PageRank scores. And that’s not the case.

So, what happens with viral PR News link campaigns is that there are lots of links but no keyword rankings lift.

I’ve had people at search conferences stand up during my presentation and relate how their campaigns resulted in hundreds of links but no uplift in sales.

Twitter Discussion About Value of News Links

A lively discussion ensued with a lot of granular theorizing about how Google might handle links that come from a news site.

One person expressed that it would be nice if Google clarified how it handled links from news sites.

He tweeted:

“But yes… it would be nice for some confirmation even along the lines of ‘we have systems that evaluate the context of links beyond PageRank, and some of that is applicable to links from news sites’ may help to clear things up! “

John Mueller Comments on News Site Links

That’s when Google’s Mueller tweeted a response.

He tweeted:

“Why would links from news sites be treated differently? The web is the web.”

John Mueller followed up with:

“Focusing on the type of site is a bit of a broad generalization though.

Certainly links are treated differently, but it’s more a matter of the type of the current page, and how it’s within the page.

It’s like saying ‘All Germans are …’ — that’s too broad.”

Mueller continued his thought with one more tweet:

“The other thing to keep in mind is that different kinds of sites have vastly different internal architectures.

A site constantly publishing new content is extremely different from a stable reference site.

Think about how pagerank works, if you want to be technical.”

Are News Websites Authority Sites?

There tends to be a way of thinking that some sites are “authority sites” and that links from those sites provide more ranking power.

There was a time twenty years ago where that may have been true.

But that definitively ended many years ago, when high PageRank sites stopped correlating with high rankings.

John Mueller’s observation that the site architecture and rate of publishing are important things to consider with regard to PageRank.

The other interesting insight he shared is that sites are just sites and not treated differently.

This is, in my opinion, something to really think about.

Check out the Twitter discussion here:

— Patrick Stox (@patrickstox) April 10, 2023

Featured image by Shutterstock/Rudie Strummer

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