Episode
28

Brian Dean

Google’s Ranking Factors, SGE, and Marketing Strategy for 2024

December 13, 2023

Join Nate Matherson as he sits down with Brian Dean for the twenty-eighth episode of the Optimize podcast. Brian Dean is a renowned expert in digital marketing and SEO, best known as the founder of Backlinko, a leading platform for SEO training and resources. He is also the co-founder of Exploding Topics, a tool that identifies rapidly growing topics before they become mainstream.

Dean's work provides in-depth, actionable insights in SEO and content marketing. Brian and Nate explore various topics in this episode, from ranking factors and ‘broetry’ to trend spotting and branded newsletters. The pair discuss the pivotal role user experience plays in impacting website metrics and business conversions, the current cost of writers, and the importance of human-generated content in an AI content world. As a bonus for our listeners,

Brian reflects on his journey with Backlinko and Exploding Topics. Closing out the episode is our popular lightning round of questions! For more information, please visit www.positional.com or email us at podcast@positional.com.

What to Listen For

02:50 Brian’s background and intro

43:10 Lightning question round

Episode Transcript

Brian Dean (Speaking)

00:00

The people are going to bounce. Even if you have the meaning of life on that page, you're going to bounce. So the UX, UI is super important for keeping people on your page and having them actually read your content and get something out of it. I've always been, like, obsessive about that sort of thing. I call it content UX, which is a little bit different than — most UX and UI is centered around the interface, menus, bubble, you know … whatever. But when it comes to content UX, it's really about readability and skimability. And if you can do that, then you have a huge advantage over your competitors, who usually don't pay a lot of attention to that stuff, even if their content is good.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

Hi, and welcome to the Optimize podcast. My name is Nate Matherson, and I am your host. On this weekly podcast, we sit down with some of the smartest minds in content marketing and SEO. Our goal is to give you perspective and insights on what's moving the needle in organic search. Today I'm thrilled to sit down with Brian Dean. Brian likely needs no introduction for most of our listeners, but know that Brian is one of the best in digital marketing and SEO. Brian is best known as the founder of Backlinko, a leading platform for SEO training and resources. He is also the co-founder of Exploding Topics, a tool that identifies rapidly growing topics before they become mainstream. Brian's work focuses on providing in-depth and actionable insights in SEO and content marketing. In our episode today, Brian and I chat about a few of my favorite topics, including the recent algorithm updates, Google's ranking factors, SGE, and the changing search landscape. We also chat about Backlinko and what led to the acquisition by Semrush, as well as the work Brian is doing at Exploding Topics. And towards the end of this episode, Brian reveals his number one marketing strategy for 2024.

Ad Spot

01:41

And this episode of the Optimize podcast is brought to you by Positional. If you don't know by now, my name's Nate, and I'm one of the co-founders of Positional. And I'm really excited to announce that we just launched our Content Analytics toolset. This has very quickly become my favorite feature. It's one that I've wanted for the last 10 years. And it's really effective in identifying which pages on your site users might be having a low-quality experience on. What we do is we track metrics like scroll depth, bounce rate, and time on page to score your pages, and then allow you to go deeper to see where within a piece of content — for example, which paragraph — is causing people to leave, or where, for example, you might want to add a call to action within that page. This toolset is called Content Analytics. It's our newest feature. I'm stoked about it, and you should be too.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

Brian, thank you so much for coming on the Optimize podcast.

Brian Dean (Speaking)

Good to be here, Nate.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

The first question I ask all of our guests is, how did you get into the world of content
marketing and SEO?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

02:50

Well, I got into it out of necessity. I started my first business about 15 years ago and I quickly realized that you need traffic. And at the time, I didn't have two pennies to rub together. So when I researched different ways to get traffic, having no idea how this whole thing worked, there was basically paid traffic, pay-per-click, and there was quote-unquote free traffic, which was SEO. And I was like, “That sounds perfect.” And through that, it led me into this whole rabbit hole of SEO and content marketing, and at the time, black hat link building, which was all the rage and working really well. And through the years, I kind of discovered from getting hit by multiple updates that, you know, white hat SEO was the way to go long term. So I built this site for the first time using white hat SEO in the personal finance space and grew that super quickly. And I was like, “Oh, this white hat SEO stuff is awesome. Like, let me learn more about it, see how to do PR, how to do content that people really like, and produce a site that people reference without having to do anything shady.” And I couldn't find anything. Like, all the advice out there about SEO was super vague. It was like, you know, “build relationships with people, create great content,” but didn't tell you actually what to do. And I realized there was probably other people like me out there struggling with the same problem, so I created Backlinko as sort of the blog that I wanted to read and the resource I wish existed. And that took off and sort of became … it went from a side project, or as a side hustle as the kids would say today, into a real business, which I eventually sold. And then, yeah, that was pretty much how I got into SEO.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

I’ve loved the content that you've created at Backlinko, including your many posts on Google's ranking factors. I found them so interesting, and I've found myself still referring to them very often here today in 2023. And we are gonna chat about Backlinko and the eventual acquisition by Semrush a little bit later on this episode. But first I have to ask, there's been something like nine or 10 algorithm updates in 2023; it's been a pretty volatile year in search. What do you make of the recent algorithm updates, including the helpful content update, the product reviews update? Are you doing anything differently? Or … is there anything that has changed in your opinion?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

04:56

I don't pay any attention to updates. I think it's, yeah, it's just — if you're doing, I wouldn't say shady things, but if you're living on the edge, then updates are something to worry about. If you're affected by an update, even if you're not doing anything wrong, which does happen, then I would worry about an update. But for me, I'm basically running SEO for Exploring Topics right now as my CEO, but also acting head of SEO right now … until we find somebody. And the whole team just — we don't worry about updates. There's nothing you can do to control it. And the only time, really, you can do something is after the fact, if you've been affected and try to figure out, by reverse engineering, what happened with the update. The only way to stay ahead of updates and not be hit by them really is to create the best result that Google wants to show their users. And it's not easy, but that's really what every update is ultimately about, is to give users the best result. As corny as it sounds, that's really what these updates are ultimately trying to do.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

I love that. I think that search has gotten a lot simpler for me over the last 10 years. I think back when I first started in this industry in 2014, 2015, there were a lot of, like, hacks or tactics that I found actually worked quite well. But in today's day of age, it feels like search is really doing one thing right. And that's creating fantastic content. Would you agree that, like, search fundamentally maybe has gotten simpler since you first started in the space?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

06:20

Definitely. For the same reason that it used to be that a tactic would work really well. And if you weren’t using that tactic, you were going to be left behind. So you needed to stay on top of all this stuff. I feel like today, the best thing you can do for your SEO is to not worry that much about SEO and have SEO as a byproduct of the stuff you're doing — for the most part. Like, I'm not saying just ignore the whole thing, because we focus on SEO quite a bit, but not in the “we need to have our keyword here, and LSI keywords, and our click-through rate needs to be this if we rank number two, or we need to get backlinks with this anchor text” or anything. It's more, we're trying to create the best blog about what we talk about, which is our case, largely trends and market research. It's a very similar playbook as what I used with Backlinko. I was never that much of an update guy when I ran Backlinko because I was obsessed with them before because I would get nailed by them over and over again. And … you had to be paranoid. You had to sleep with one eye open. But when you're doing everything by the book, you're kind of in — you don't have to worry as much. It's possible you could be caught as collateral damage with one of these updates, which does happen and sucks. But again, even then, the best course of action is to reverse engineer. Why was I affected? It could be that you did, you know, you did something legit, you were doing everything by the book, but for whatever reason, you weren't providing people with exactly what they wanted.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

Yeah, as I've gotten older, I've found myself sounding more and more like Google: just create good content and do what's best for the searcher. Would you say that the bar is the highest it's ever been for content marketers and SEOs? Or in other words, would you say that SEO is maybe the most competitive it's ever been as a channel?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

Oh, for sure. It's the most competitive…. I don't think the content bar is as high because that whole ecosystem of the blog and everyone following different blogs — like, you remember, Nate, when you got into this whole world, like, you would follow a blog like Backlinko, and you may have your RSS reader like, you know, read the stuff, and everyone was trying to one-up each other with, like, this and that and create the best thing, create the best thing to stand out, to stand out. And now it's not so much about that because people don't really follow blogs anymore. And it's very rare you have a singular piece of content go viral like it used to. So it's all about creating the best stuff consistently. It's more about putting in the reps than having that one mega piece that helps you stand out anymore. That's basically what I focus on, but that's making it more competitive because there's more pieces out there, and being able to beat what's out there, it's a lot more nuanced than just creating, like, a 5,000-word guide.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

I've had some startups, and we work with a lot of startups at Positional, and I know you spent time in the consumer finance space early in your career. And for companies in those, like, very competitive verticals — like, let's say, like, an early-stage startup — is it even worth starting a content and SEO channel today, given how competitive it is and also this unknown risk of SGE? I guess, what would you say to that early-stage startup that's thinking about starting an SEO channel?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

9:20

I would definitely consider it. I don't think it's a slam dunk. It would depend on the startup's resources, too. If they just raised $10 million, and they're profitable or, you know, break even, and they have money to spend, well, I think it's worth it to try. Because if you're going, if you're in the personal finance space, and you're trying to say, “Okay, I want to rank against NerdWallet and Bankrate” — and you're toast, you have no chance whatsoever. But if you say, “What are some emerging topics within personal finance that I can target that are still sort of a blue ocean?” Like, maybe AI will open up opportunities? Are people searching for, like, AI personal finance advisors, AI wealth managers — that can be your thing, and just crush that and do … those pieces are probably not competitive, and you have a chance to get out there. There is a chance that, you know, AI and SGE could change the game in a couple years, but you don't know that. And what are the alternatives if you're in a personal finance space? Like, you probably can — maybe you could do some creative stuff with, like, TikTok and short-form video and get in front of people. Other than that, it’s ads. So the number of channels you have at your disposal are pretty limited. So I would definitely consider SEO, but I wouldn't do it in the old fashioned, “Okay, here are my, you know, 100 keywords that people search for. And this one has a keyword difficulty of 58. And I'm going…” No, you need to go, like, the absolute least competitive stuff you can even think of and just target that, or go super bottom of the funnel, depending on what you're selling. So if you're selling some specific solution in personal finance, target everything around those, even if only, like, five people search for them a month, you're getting in front of those five perfect customers. So I think there's a place for it, but yeah, I agree with you Nate, you don't want to go all in if those are your competitors.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

Okay. I want to unpack a lot of that in 30 seconds. But first I just want to say that, like, also the SERPs have changed quite dramatically in certain verticals over the last five to 10 years. I know when I spent time in the personal finance space, we competed in keywords like “personal loans” and “car insurance.” Like, back eight or nine years ago, it was just like us and NerdWallet and Bankrate. But today you've got sites like Forbes and CNBC and US News and all of these, like —

Brian Dean (Speaking)

Parasite sites.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

Yeah, all these legacy publishers now competing in these very high-value, competitive keyword spaces, which makes things a lot more difficult. But you mentioned SGE, and I do want to ask, at least get your opinion. What do you make of SGE? And as a follow-up to that, is SEO going to be an effective channel in, let's say, five or 10 years from now?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

11:58

I'll answer the second one first. I have no idea about five to 10 years. It's way too long of a horizon to predict what's going to happen in five to 10 years, especially with AI as this wild card that could speed everything up change-wise. I don't think SGE is a huge threat to SEO as we know it. And in fact, it could be beneficial for SEO. It could lead to more clicks, in fact. And I've seen this game a million times where SEO is dead because of mobile. That was a big scare back in the day because of the alignment of the screen. It pushed the organic search results even lower down below the fold of this mobile screen. And that was the death of SEO because you were going to be even lower than you were before. But what people didn't take into account is people will be searching more because they'd have their phones with them all the time. So it more than made up for that. And then voice search was going to be this huge threat because it would only read back the results to you, and you didn't get to actually see the results. And if you're at number three, it wouldn't read your result. As it turned out, people only use voice search for certain very niche things. What's the weather today? Blah, blah, blah, things like that. I kind of see SGE as a similar opportunity, in that it will summarize the results for the most part and provide them at the top, almost like a feature snippet. And right now, according to how it looks currently, it's more or less a featured snippet at the top of the results. And if they expand it, which they've shown, Google has shown a few times in mockups, it looks like those references are pretty high up, actually above the fold for the first time in a long time, next to the SGE-generated result. Now there's fewer of them, so they only show three references or four references, let's say. So it's gonna be a winner-takes-all thing, where if you're not in the top three of whatever we would call those rankings, you'd be invisible. But it shows that there's still maybe an opportunity there. Maybe you get more clicks at the end of the day. So I'm not a big doom and gloom “this thing's coming, this is going to change everything.” And I don't know…. The other huge, huge question is, if — do people want SGE? Do people want large language models producing search
results? Because ChatGPT came out a year ago. Let's put it this way. It was the fastest-growing app in history, more than Instagram, Netflix, YouTube, anything. And the number of Google searches are exactly the same. The reason for that is because people find Google Search valuable for certain things: for finding information, for researching stuff. If you want to accomplish things and do things and have something do tasks, ChatGPT is perfect for that. I don't know if people will be willing to sort of wait for this SGE to generate for keywords that haven't been searched for before, or if people want SGE. And that remains to be seen, which is a big factor, because at the end of the day, Google wants to give users what they want. And if people are more or less happy with the top 10 ten good links, old school, like it's been, I don't know if they're gonna be pushing SGE, besides the other fact that it threatens their business model and blah, blah, blah, all that stuff. So for me, I'm just going business as usual for the most part. I'm not really taking SGE into account. It could be — I could be totally wrong. It could be a huge game changer. But my take is like, at least for now, we don't know. So it's not really time to, you know, make any strategic changes and try to anticipate something that's not even here yet.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

15:09

Yeah. I agree with you. It definitely seems like Google is still prioritizing placing publishers in those featured or expanded snippets, the SGE placements. And Danny Sullivan from Google’s Search team has reiterated this a couple of times, saying that they know that searchers want to be able to access those links directly. And so I do believe there will always be a UX/UI that supports that, or at least short term there will be. That's my personal opinion. I'm kind of of the perspective that Google doesn't want to release SGE everywhere. And I'm, like, skeptical that that actually happens in 2024. A lot of SEOs will disagree with me on this. Do you think that, like, SGE is actually rolled out everywhere in 2024?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

No, I agree with you. I don't know if anyone wants SGE. I don't know if consumers want SGE. I don't know if Google wants SGE. I think they feel obligated to do it because they didn't want to — they're a tech company, the leading tech company, right? Them and Apple. And they saw this ChatGPT come out, completely light the world on fire, and they didn't want to be left behind. And that's why they did, like, this huge keynote presentation after that with AI, AI as the focus. But I just don't think their heart’s in it. I agree with you, Nate. I think they're doing it out of an obligation, not because they want to.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

16:23

Let's assume for a second, SGE does roll out everywhere. Would you say that long-tail keywords become more important in that situation?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

I would say it's hard to say because I think what Google will be able to do is, for long-tail keywords, find that snippet inside of a piece, even if it's not dedicated to that long-tail keyword, and pull it out and summarize it — or five of them. There's five articles that are all about a larger topic, but they cover this sort of very niche thing inside of there, they'll be able to just pull that and summarize it. So I think it's more about authority. You wanna be one of those references at the top. So that's the real game if you're trying to optimize for SGE. And if you're trying to optimize for SGE, it's basically the same as optimizing for SEO. You want to be the authority. And Google, if they're wondering who to reference for SGE, they're gonna rely on the 25-year-old model that they have, that's proven to work, to determine who's an authority or not. And that's largely links and some other signals too. But for me, I'm not changing anything personally.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

Speaking of ranking factors and signals, I know that you sold Backlinko to Semrush. And I loved, like I mentioned, the content that you'd published on Backlinko. In particular, I always found your ranking factors content pieces super interesting and helpful. How have the most important ranking factors changed, if at all, in the last couple of years? And I know that you've mentioned content quality is the most important ranking factor in the past. Is that still the case?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

17:53

Yeah, I think it's difficult because quality is a tough thing to define. There's a whole book, “The Zen Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” about quality. But essentially, when we're talking about quality in terms of rankings and SEO, it's about giving searchers what they want. So you could have the best article in the world — like, say a definitive guide to something. But if people just want, like, a quick answer, or if they want a case study, or if they want a video, or if they want something that's a little bit less formal, then — or they want something that's very actionable — then a guide's not gonna fit. Even if it's amazing, it won't rank. So it's less about creating something that's, like, quality in the objective sense. If you just showed someone five articles about the keto diet — and this guide is amazing, it's designed, it's written by the keto expert, they're gonna all choose that one in a vacuum. But when they're searching, they're looking for a solution to their problem. So that's really the game. But the challenge there is, like I mentioned before, Nate, is the nuance of knowing, like, looking at the top 10 results and being able to really break them down and say, “What's missing here, what's missing here, what's missing here?” And usually it's not they're lacking that wow factor. A lot of times it's a little bit more subtle.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

Yeah, I remember back in like 2014, 2015, when I first started in this space, we used to write, like, 6,000-word mega guides and try to rank, like, a single massive piece of content for, like, every keyword in that category. And it seems like Google has gotten a lot better at being able to match, like, more specific pieces of content to more specific keywords and search intents, and that's truly what's ranking the best in 2023, 2024. But speaking of, like, content quality again, I loved at Backlinko how personal a lot of your content was. Even last week, I was reading a blog post that you wrote about guest posting and it was incredibly personal. Like, you talk about your experiences guest posting, you go into, like, different examples that you've created and sites you've guest posted on. And I felt like I was talking to Brian when I was reading that blog post. And as SEOs, there's sometimes a stigma that we publish cookie-cutter or bland content. How important is story and narrative when it comes to creating and publishing content?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

20:04

It's a super important way to stand out in a competitive space, because especially with AI generated content, like, almost by definition, it's regurgitating what's out there. It won't use the word, but, like, it's essentially taking the corpus of what's out there on the topic and spitting it out in a way that you asked it to with your prompt. And unfortunately, most human writers have been doing the same thing for years, like, with their brains, and just been opening eight tabs, regurgitating what's in there, and just, like, doing a remix of the stuff that's out there. But if you're bringing your unique perspective, you instantly stand out because no one has done that before. Even AI couldn't touch it because they don't actually go into the world and do anything. So if you have experience, you know, gardening tomatoes, and you can include some personal anecdotes about things you learned and things you struggled with and common misconceptions you had when you started — even if that's not the whole piece, just sprinkling it in there, like, using the structure that people want that matches search intent, like, how to garden tomatoes, and you still use the same stuff, like, the same structure you use for a generic article. But the difference is the meat, the art of the content itself, which could be some high-level stuff about, you know, best months to grow tomatoes, but also your perspective: like “Once I grew tomatoes two weeks later than I should have, and it turned out fine,” or “it turned out horrible.” So it makes a big difference. Like, that perspective is what people want, and that's why people are searching Google and appending Reddit to their searches, because they want that human perspective. They don't want regurgitated SEO crap. They want to hear from someone's personal perspective, and they're not getting that in the search results for the most part, so they're pinning Reddit to their search. But you can do that, you can appear on Google and give people what they want by including some of that.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

Would you say as a result of the AI writing tools growing in popularity, there's more regurgitated SEO crap on the internet than ever before?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

21:54

Yeah, I think for sure, it's probably increased by like 100x or something, but whether it's ranking, I don't think any more regurgitated content is ranking now than it was before, because there's only 10 slots. Most of it was regurgitated, to begin with. So it doesn't really change that, right? Like if you have 10 results, and 9.5 on average are regurgitated, and now with AI, they're still going to have 9.5 results on average regurgitated out of 10. It's just written by an AI instead of a person. So I would say in general, content was regurgitated anyway. This doesn't really change anything except for the scale, like you mentioned Nate. So on the internet, there's probably crazy, way more regurgitated content. But in terms of the SERPs, I don't think it's really changed that much because, unfortunately, there was a lot of regurgitated stuff to begin with. So it's not like we had this utopia of amazing content and then it's been polluted by AI regurgitating stuff. It's not really how it was. It was already regurgitated. It was just regurgitated by a human instead of regurgitated with AI.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

I actually think that the AI writing tools are, like, the worst thing to happen to startups and early-stage marketing teams in a long time because I find these teams are now just spending a lot of time publishing more and more of this regurgitated crap that actually doesn't index and doesn't rank, and they're ultimately just like spinning the wheels and wasting time and not driving traffic. Do you think that, like, in two or three years from now, like, the AI writing tools will be, like, more or less popular than they are today?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

Well, I could definitely see them, the bottom falling out for the same reason you said. It's like that old marketing expression, “When everyone zigs you zag, right?” If everyone can push a button and create an article that's more or less the same, because they're all using similar models, then what's your competitive advantage? Because I know everyone that uses AI content, they say the same thing. “We edit it after, we don't just pop —” you know, but everyone's doing that. So, like, what is your advantage? What do you bring to the table? Well, I'm going the complete opposite end. I'm paying out the butt for writers right now. I'm paying more than I've ever paid for writers. And I've found that those top-of-the-line writers are charging more and more. And the market's telling you, there's those people that'll just publish generic stuff, then they'll learn, okay, now I need someone that actually knows what they're talking about to write this thing. And they're all seeking the same sort of small pool of 1% of writers, and they're busy, and they're getting requests. So, I don’t … I agree with you. I don't think they're going to be a game-changer. And a good example of this is Jarvis. When they raised their latest round, which was back in the economy was a lot better, but they raised a huge round. One of the first things they did was post a bunch of job posts for freelance writers. And that just showed me, if you thought … if the tool could do everything, just push a button and create content that could rank, then you wouldn't need to hire all these freelance writers. So even they know that you need humans in the loop at least. And for me, I'm just using 100% writers, humans, from start to finish, from the keyword research to the outline, to the writing, to the editing, and it's working. We're getting, like, 550,000 visitors a month, and it's all from human writing.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

24:56

I agree. We are not using AI-generated content on our site, and we also don't have an AI writing tool. And the reason we don't have an AI writing tool is I just don't think it's a winning strategy for our customers long-term, or at least it's going to waste a lot of their time that could be otherwise spent somewhere else. And I also agree with you: the cost of content seems like it's the highest it's ever been. Like, we've seen people joke on, like, Twitter and LinkedIn that, like, with the advent of AI writing tools, like, the cost of content will go down. That has just not been the case in my experience. And it sounds like that's been the case for you as well. As far as other ranking factors and signals go, how important are backlinks in 2023, 2024? Are they still a really important ranking factor?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

Super important. I mean, Google would want nothing more than to move away from them, because, you know, you can buy them, you can fake them, you can spam them, you can hack sites and put your links. It’s like … it's so messy to use links as a ranking signal, because everyone knows their ranking signal, everyone knows how they work. And there are entire marketplaces dedicated to buying links. Or there's this whole guest posting world of just, like buying, you know, links from these huge authority sites. And it's a nightmare in a way. But it's the best system for determining whether a site's authoritative. Because if you take away links, what else would you even go on? It's really difficult. Like, here are other signals they use to determine authority, like brand searches and sentiment of, you know, the brand online. If you look at the quality-rater guidelines that they put out, a lot of those are trying to kind of double-check if their systems are working as planned. Now, they don't work the same way as a human rater would do, but it shows you what they're emphasizing. And they want reputable brands with a good reputation. And there, you know, how do you do that at scale? It's links, it's a great signal. Like, I think like I said, they would love to get away from it. And they've probably been chipping away at it. Like, maybe when you started, Nate, in 2014, 2015, let's say it was, like, 60% of the algorithm or something. Maybe now it's, like, 50% or 45% or something. But it's hard to go below that because there aren't any, like, new signals coming out that you can use that are like “Oh, now we can use this instead.” It's still there. It's still a good signal. And it's reliable as hell. Like, I don't see them trying to move away from it because it works.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

I agree with you. I think backlinks are still very important. One of the things that I have observed with our websites is that backlinks at a page level haven't moved the needle as much as they used to back in the day. But I still do believe that at a domain level they're very important. Would you say that, like, in your experience, from your view, backlinks at a page level: are they maybe not as important as they used to be?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

27:42

That's the kind of thing I'm trying to get away from: paying attention to what's true with SEO. I'm just hoping to get good links from reputable sites that cite us, and wherever the chips fall where they may. If they go to this page, great. If they go to this page — because I kind of agree with you that it's more about your, like, link profile, your link ecosystem than, you know, passing page rank from page A to page B. I think there's probably still some of that in the algorithm, like, you know, like a very modified version of page rank flow going from page A to page B, but I don't think it's a big deal. And also, it's difficult to always say the impact of a link on the page level because usually for most pages, if you just isolate that as a factor, on the front page, most of the pages will have, like, hundreds of links. So if you get five, it doesn't really push you that much closer, right? So if you're going for a keyword where everyone has, like, eight links, and then you get nine, zero to nine, and you're still not ranking, that is a little curious, but in most cases, it's due to the fact that there's, like, hundreds of links that you need to get. So if you get 10 or 12, which is kind of a lot, actually, you're not getting a whole lot closer in Google's eyes.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

Well, you've built at least one backlink today.

Brian Dean (Speaking)

Great!

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

You'll get a backlink in the show notes. How important is UX/UI when it comes to performing well in search?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

Super important. I mean, that is the almost more — I would say almost as important as backlinks because Google will determine whether your result is making them happy. And content is a big part of that. Like, if you just have blah, blah, blah, fluff content, it's not going to do well. But if you have great content, but you're using 11-pixel size font that is gray on white background, and it’s … your page is stuttering as you scroll down, and your links are black colored on black font, like, then … or paragraphs are gigantic, the people are going to bounce. Even if you have the meaning of life in that page, they're going to bounce. So the UX/UI is super important for keeping people on your page and having them actually read your content and get something out of it. So I've always been, like, obsessive about that sort of thing. I call it content UX, which is a little bit different than — most UX and UI is centered around the interface, menus, bubble, you know, whatever. But when it comes to content UX, it's really about readability and skimmability. And if you can do that, then you have a huge advantage over your competitors who usually don't pay a lot of attention to that stuff, even if their content is good.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

So to preface this next question, there's been some talk lately about user experience signals like bounce rate and engagement rate and time on page being important ranking factors. And some of this has come out in, like, the recent Google, like, antitrust hearings, and people have kind of latched onto now, like, user experience signals are an important ranking factor. I always kind of thought they were, but now there's kind of definitive evidence that they are. Are you tracking metrics like bounce rate, time on page, scroll depth? Do you see those as important factors that we should be trying to optimize for or improve?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

30:41

Well, before I answer, can I do a little victory lap? Because seven or eight years ago, I was going on and on about user experience signals and how important they were. And all these SEO experts who have never actually worked on a site in their life — they work in, like, you know, in-house agency, they're one of like 50 people on a team, but they don't actually know how to do anything — were telling me that Google would never use user experience signals because it's too noisy, and it's too easily gamed, and bounce rate is just something in Google Analytics. It's not something they would ever use. Well, as it turns out, they do use it. And like you mentioned, Nate, they will, basically said, they literally said, “We don't know, we don't understand content.” Well, I think it was a direct quote from some of the slides that were shared from this antitrust issue they're dealing with. So that aside, I do think they use it because why wouldn't — it just made logical sense that they would use it. I don't know, I don't think they use it in the sense of “Oh, you know, this result has a bounce rate of 73%, your bounce rate is 65%, we're going to push you up.” Like, it's obviously not as simple as that. And that's why I don't look at those metrics because they don't really take into account the whole experience that they're looking at. What they're trying to do, and this is how I look at it: they're trying to judge all the SERPs as a whole. Because it's easy to look at your result and say, “Oh, I'm like the king, I should be number one in this search result because I have the best content and mine really …” Like, when most people look at the search results, they're not looking at your result and being like, “Oh, this looks really good. They're looking at the ads, they're looking at the featured snippet, they're looking at the map pack, whatever it is, and the top 10 results, and whatever other crazy stuff Google puts on there when it comes to SERP features. And Google is mixing and matching just to find the best result, all using AI. And they've been using AI way before large language models to do this. So it's not just about your result; it’s that people, are they happy with their search in general? And you're one piece of that. And you can stand out if you create something that people stick to, and then they don't go back to search results. That's basically the long and short of it.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

Yeah, and, you know, regardless of if Google's using a metric like bounce rate to move your page up and down, by improving a metric like bounce rate, by improving the UX and UI of your site, you might actually have a positive impact on your business or conversion and the reason that you're driving that traffic. So I think it's just an important set of metrics to keep tabs on and think about. And I'll let you take the victory lap.

Brian Dean (Speaking)

33:04

Yeah, thank you.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

33:05

It's well deserved. Backlinko, I know the site's still live. It still gets a lot of traffic. Are you still involved with Backlinko at all, day to day?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

No, not day to day. Just in a very occasional advisory role, I guess is how I would put it.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

And you sold the site a little over a year ago, maybe a year and a half ago. What led to the sale of Backlinko? And as a follow-up, do you miss it at all?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

I kind of miss it sometimes, but I think I miss more of the earlier days. Part of it's probably, like, nostalgia, but I miss the early days of, you know, putting out a post and then emailing it out and getting like 300 comments in a day. But I could already see the writing was on the wall that that whole world was changing, that the whole blogging world was changing. So I was even seeing towards the end before I sold that, like, this whole thing is going to be different. Like, it's not like it used to be. And so I don't really miss it because I know that if I was, like, to start, you know, say I bought it back or something crazy like that, you know, it wouldn't be like it was before, anyway. It would be more of just, like, scaling up content, really good content. But how do we scale this up? Basically, that's the goal. And Semrush is, they're doing a great job with that. In terms of what led me to sell, I mean, they just reached out to me and offered to buy it. I had Exploding Topics just starting out sort of at the time, but I already saw that had a lot of potential. I felt like I had a tiger by the tail with Exploding Topics, and I wasn't sure what to do with Backlinko. I was sort of just keeping it on autopilot at the time. So for me, it was a no-brainer to sell it. Also to who it is, I knew they were, like, the best in the space and they would take good care of it as opposed to selling it to, like, private equity or something where God knows what they would do with it.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

34:46

There'd probably be a lot more affiliate links.

Brian Dean (Speaking)

34:49

Yeah, probably.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

34:50

You know, separate from Backlinko, I've noticed that you've been doing a lot more on LinkedIn lately, especially with video content, or at least I've noticed it. What's working the best on LinkedIn right now?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

I mean, video is okay. The reason I like video on LinkedIn is just because nobody's doing it. When LinkedIn first got bought by Microsoft, there was a stat that came out that was crazy. But when you think about it, it makes sense. It was that 99% of LinkedIn members have never posted anything on LinkedIn. And it makes sense because most LinkedIn profiles are just people's resumes that they put up there statically, and then they might change jobs, so then they change the digital resume more or less. But in terms of posting, it was very rare that someone would post. It's the same thing with video now, I think. A lot more people are posting, but very few people are using video as a format. So I'm just more experimenting with it to see how it does on there, but in terms of performance, the best stuff is definitely that, like, one short sentence per line. It's called broetry. It's like poetry for bros, tech bros. So it's like broetry. That works best, where you have one, you know, line with simple ideas, and then it's just, like, a summary at the end. Usually a story tends to work well. You know, I hired someone today, I fired someone today, that sort of thing, if it's work-related. So video is more something experimenting with to see if it stands out, but the best stuff is definitely the old school, you know, broetry posts.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

On LinkedIn, you recently wrote that branded newsletters are your number one marketing strategy for 2024. What is a branded newsletter and why is this your number one marketing strategy?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

36:21

So a branded newsletter is basically a newsletter that you have for your business that's not your core business. I mean, it could be your core business, like Morning Brew is a branded newsletter and that was their entire business or is. But in most cases for people that are marketers, it's a way of creating this channel that you own, having your own channel that you own and control, which most marketers don't. Most marketers, if they have an email list, it's leads. And if the leads don't convert, they just sit and collect dust on their, on a Mailchimp server or a HubSpot server, whatever. So a branded newsletter is basically where you create a newsletter. It's your own media and it's a brand that's separate from your company. The same way, Nate, you have Optimize, right? The Optimize podcast. That's smart because it creates this independent thing that people follow that is not — it’s related to what you do, obviously, but it's not the same brand. So it's the same thing with the newsletter. For example, Exploding Topics, we have this newsletter called Exploding Topics Tuesday that goes out every Tuesday, and we share four trends in that newsletter. And we have, like, a 50% open rate on the newsletter because it's a branded newsletter. People subscribe to that. And of course, some people convert on that, but the goal isn't to really, like, push people for a conversion or send them sales-y stuff. It's just to have this channel that you own. The same way that you’d advertise on another newsletter, you'd buy an ad placement on a paid newsletter, but you own it this time. So you advertise every week, however you want, for free. So it's an awesome channel that you own, and I consider it a little bit like free retargeting, where you have these people that visit your site, you get them on an email list, and then every week you're just reminding them you exist, you're reminding them you exist, pushing them a little bit, pushing them a little bit. Not too hard, just a little bit of ad, a little ad at the end, a little ad in the beginning. And then some people will convert. Or when they're ready to go buy whatever it is you sell — like, in your case, Nate, “Oh, I want SEO services, like, who should I go with? Am I gonna go into the wild and start Googling? Or am I gonna say, ‘Oh, I listened to Nate's podcast, he seemed to really know what he was talking about, I'm gonna hire him.’” Like that's really the goal of this branded newsletter is to keep top of mind for your target audience. And the branded part is just a separate brand from your actual company.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

Yeah, makes a ton of sense. And I do think we are trying to accomplish something in that direction with our Optimize podcast. We ourselves are not an agency. We are in the software business. We still do content marketers and SEOs.

Brian Dean (Speaking)

Oh, okay, my bad.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

No, it's totally fine. If I ever become an agency, like —

Brian Dean (Speaking)

Oh, it's a tough model, man.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

Why do you feel that way?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

38:50

You're selling labor, right? So your margins are always going to be trash at the end. Like, what someone told me — ran an agency many years ago, ran a nine-figure agency — told me, “Since when I started to now, my margins have always been 10%.” But the downside is like, “Oh, 10% is horrible margins, especially compared to SaaS. But 10% of nine figures is a lot. It's like 10% of a watermelon instead of 10% of a grape.” So it's a huge — like, with an agency, you can build a huge empire, but the margins are always going to be pretty slim. So for me, and I ran one back in the day before I started Backlinko, a small agency: I hated it. So for me, I'm all about scalable stuff. So yeah, that's kind of how I feel about agencies. It has some good and bad things. Let's just put it that way. We could do a whole podcast on that. But yeah, basically the bad part is the margins. The good part is it's easy to sell because you're giving someone what … you're taking something off their hands, off their plate, and doing it for them.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

The other thing is it's really hard to sell an agency, or there won't be, like, a good exit outcome.

Brian Dean (Speaking)

39:45

Oh yeah.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

Whereas if you can build, like, a durable SaaS with decent margins, there's a lot more paths to sell it. But I want to talk about your SaaS. So tell me about the work you're doing at Exploding Topics. What is Exploding Topics?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

So Exploding Topics is our SaaS platform where we find trends before they take off. We analyze millions of signals on search, social media, online forums, e-commerce, to find trends early, and then we share them inside our platform. That's basically what we do. And right now, our focus is on some of the underlying technology and trying to be even earlier with trends. Our usual sort of average is we can find trends about six to 12 months before they go mainstream. And we're trying to get a little bit earlier with that and making our indicators more sensitive. But yeah, we have a good hit rate. Like we found, like, air fryer, Substack, OpenAI, tons of stuff way before you probably heard of it.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

So who are the customers for your SaaS? Are they, like, investment research professionals or people building their own niche sites? Who are the customers, and what are the use cases for Exploding Topics?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

Yeah, our two best customer bases are, one, like you mentioned, people in the investing world, which is pretty wide. Like, we have hedge funds, we have VCs, we have people that are sort of like traders, I guess you'd call them. And then we have e-commerce, people that are in e-commerce in some form or fashion. They run an e-commerce site, they do marketing for e-commerce sites, they buy e-commerce sites, they're acquirers, like roll-ups and stuff like that, because one of our specialties is finding trending products early on. So our two specialties are finding products and finding startups early. So that's why those two groups tend to be the best. You know, we have some media brands, we have people in SEO actually, we have people that are in tech, but for the most part, the two best groups are investors and people that are in the e-commerce world in some way.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

So it sounds a little bit like Google Trends, but is the idea that you're picking up on these trends before it might be seen on a platform like Google Trends?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

41:44

Exactly. So Google Trends is great for if you know about a trend and you want to research it and learn more, Google Trends is actually really good for that. What we specialize in is showing you the unknown unknowns, those trends you didn't even know existed because when you go to Google Trends, you get a blank search field that you have to know what to enter. So if you haven't heard of it, you don't even know what to put in. So our specialty is finding these trends early using signals outside of Google's trends and bubbling those up so you discover them before they go mainstream.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

I'm sure there are a lot of examples, but what is, like, one trend that you guys spotted before anyone else?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

I mean, the biggest consumer trend was definitely the air fryer. Like, if you look at the chart of when we discovered it and when it took off, it was, like, a year and a half before it took off. Another good one was a lot of AI stuff. Like, we found OpenAI way before they became big, way before ChatGPT, way before they — when they were still a nonprofit, full nonprofit. Substack was another one and Beehiiv, those two newsletter platforms that we found really early. So yeah, we have a few notches in the belt we brag about on the site as, like, these are some things that are mainstream now, but you could have heard of them, like, a year, you know, or at least a year before they took off, if you were with us then. That's sort of our selling point.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

Heck yeah, well, in the show notes, there will be a link to Exploding Topics. So all of our listeners should go check it out after you finish listening to this episode.

Lightning Question Round

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

Brian, this has been so much fun. I have a few rapid fire questions
Does that sound good?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

43:10

Sure, go for it.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

So I know you mentioned that you might be hiring a head of SEO for Exploding Topics. What are the characteristics that you'd look for in this hire?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

I'd want someone that's obsessed with good writing and layout of writing, bullets, subheadings, skimmability, and really can understand and diagnose search intent like a surgeon.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

What does it cost to hire a head of SEO in 2023, 2024?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

I'd be looking at at least $100k a year, maybe like $120.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

We had a pretty intense debate last week internally on E-E-A-T, including authors, and if Google can understand who is an author of a particular blog post, and if that matters. Two-part question, like I tend to do: One, do you think Google can identify, like, a particular author? And then two, do you think that author could be a positive ranking factor if that author is, like, a well-known brand or an established person in the space?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

I think they could identify an author if you just had a byline. It's pretty easy for them, low tech for them, to figure that out. Whether it matters, I don't think so because anyone can put that someone wrote a piece. Like, I could write a publish something today on Exploding Topics that Elon Musk wrote this article. Thanks, Elon, even though he had nothing to do with it. So I don't think they rely on that on-site authorship at all.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

Internal linking, is that important?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

Yeah, I think it's important. Maybe a bit overblown at this point because people are going goo-goo-ga-ga for it. I think it's like a five to 10% max boost. If you went from really bad to little internal linking to maxing it out, I think you're looking at a 10% boost.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

If you could be on the SEO team of any company for one day, which company would it be?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

For one day? Google, obviously.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

Are people still buying air fryers?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

I think so. Though, connected air fryers are one we found recently that has some Bluetooth stuff for whatever reason. But no, I think because it's one of those things like the InstantPot, once you have one, you don't really need a second one. So I think they may have peaked.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

Brian, thank you so much for coming on the Optimize podcast. We will include a link back to exploding topics in the show notes, as well as to a couple of the LinkedIn posts that I referenced on this podcast. Is there anything else you'd like to say to our listeners?

Brian Dean (Speaking)

Nope. Thanks for having me.

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45:33

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More Ways to Listen

Optimize Episode 028: Brian Dean on Google’s Ranking Factors, SGE, and Marketing Strategy for 2024

Dec 13, 2023

Join Nate Matherson as he sits down with Brian Dean for the twenty-eighth episode of the Optimize podcast. Brian Dean is a renowned expert in digital marketing and SEO, best known as the founder of Backlinko, a leading platform for SEO training and resources. He is also the co-founder of Exploding Topics, a tool that identifies rapidly growing topics before they become mainstream.

Dean's work provides in-depth, actionable insights in SEO and content marketing. Brian and Nate explore various topics in this episode, from ranking factors and ‘broetry’ to trend spotting and branded newsletters. The pair discuss the pivotal role user experience plays in impacting website metrics and business conversions, the current cost of writers, and the importance of human-generated content in an AI content world. As a bonus for our listeners,

Brian reflects on his journey with Backlinko and Exploding Topics. Closing out the episode is our popular lightning round of questions! For more information, please visit www.positional.com or email us at podcast@positional.com.

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The first time we used Positional's toolset was to revamp an older but important piece of content. We used Optimize for optimization, and Internals for internal linking suggestions. We went from position #6 to #1 with the changes and increased our organic search traffic to the page by 400%. Today, Positional is an integral part of our blogging strategy, from topic generation to blog renovation.

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