Jono Alderson interviewed leading upto SearchElite

Jono Alderson

In May 2017, SearchElite will be running their first event in London with a handful of leading figures speaking on topics near and dear to their hearts. The first speaker interviewed was Gerry White, followed by Sam Nobel and now I’m lucky enough to interview the passionate and respected technical minded Jono Alderson who is the principal consultant¬†at Distilled.

Q) Please tell us a bit about yourself?

A) I’m a techie and a geek. I started out as a web developer in the early 2000’s, and became obsessed with the idea that the way in which I wrote my HTML code could affect performance, accessibility, etc. I fell in love with technical SEO before I knew that was what I was doing.

Since then I’ve applied the same kind of focus to understanding the mechanics of business, of other channels, and of strategy. Nowadays, I’m a much broader digital strategist and consultant – but still a hardcore technical SEO!

Q) Please tell us a bit about your role at Distilled?

A) I’ve wanted to work with the guys at Distilled for as long as I can remember. They’re the people I learned from, whose blogs I read, who I admired and was inspired by at conferences. I’m incredibly excited to be part of such an amazing team and to be involved in the mission.

I’m mostly making the role up as I go along if I’m completely honest! I’m lucky enough to have a remit which is fairly flexible, so I’m dipping my neck into various projects (internal, and client work), consulting, pitching, all sorts. I’m speaking at a lot of events this year, too, so there’s a lot of travel and writing involved!

Q) Tell us a bit about your session “Unlocking Performance – Beyond AMP!”

A) It’s great to be seeing such a focus on performance from the industry. AMP has shone a spotlight on not just mobile performance, but on building faster, better pages.

It’s been frustrating, though, that we’ve come through the best part of a decade with very little thought given to speed, performance, and technical optimisation beyond basic housekeeping. Now that page performance is much more closely tied to commercial performance, people are paying attention, and realising how much of an impact this sort of stuff can have.

But this is just the beginning, and the tip of the iceberg. There are *so many* opportunities, tweaks, fixes and improvements which can push performance even further. I’m hoping to open people’s eyes to how much more there is that they can do, and to arm them to go home and implement those changes.

Q) Can you tell us a bit more about ODN and why it’s important for the future of SEO?

A) We’ve already entered into a world where there’s no such thing as ‘ranking factors’. Results are evaluated and ordered by processes which we can’t (hope to) understand, That means that all conventional wisdom on what good SEO looks like, and the kind of tactics which might have a positive impact, is guesswork. It also means that the rules are different for every industry, every website, every page, every user.

Beyond aiming to generally ‘improve’ your website, content, brand, UX, etc., it’s hard to pinpoint and understand exactly what you should be doing, and what’s working vs what isn’t. If your rankings and performance improve or decline, it’s challenging to understand whether that was as a result of your actions, or the natural ebb and flow of the web.

If you have a big enough site (i.e., enough pages, and enough traffic), you can use something like ODN to split-test the changes you’re making across sets of pages, and measure the impact on rankings, traffic, and behavioral signals. You still don’t necessarily understand why the changes you made had the effect they did, but you can at least understand the impact, then take action appropriately.

Q) Where do you see the future of SEO? Software or People?

A) There’s a lot of manual work which we do at the moment, which could be automated. Your developer accidentally adds a disallow directive to your robots.txt file, and blocks your whole site? Automatically detect that, and automatically fix it; once, forever. Whole swathes of our day-jobs are catching and reacting to things which are simple, binary, and repeatable. A lot of that will diminish as platforms, software and systems improve to remove the manual work.

But that’s not enough to win markets; you need more than technical optimisation and damage mitigation.

The rest of SEO is very much a ‘people’ game. As we continue to broaden our skills and remit (we’re now PRs, brand managers, developers, community managers and more…), success will depend on effectively managing, juggling and prioritising activity across multiple channels, resources and verticals.

We’ll be the puppeteers of organisations, understanding the best tactical opportunities to apply specific budgets or resource, and how best to create synergies across activities.

Whilst we’ll need tools, platforms, machine learning systems and more to help us to research, quantify and evaluate opportunities, the future of SEO is all about people-wrangling, juggling, and hustle.

Q) What is the importance of AI to the future of SEO?

A) It’s easy to forget that the ‘Search box’ (and resultant ‘ten blue links’) is a temporary solution. Google’s ambition is to remove it, and replace it with a system which understands what you want or need – and they’re not far off.

As they continue to get smarter, to have access to more data points, we’ll see an increasing number of scenarios where Google skips the search-and-choose mechanism entirely and just solves the problem for you.

If I want to hire a plumber, for example, Google knows where I live, knows when I’ll be at home, and can evaluate the availability and reputation of all local plumbers through the rich data on their websites/apps/listings. It knows which services I’ve used before, and how I rated them. If I say to my phone “Get me a plumber”, Google can make it happen. There’s no SERP. There are no rankings. There’s no research. At most, I might be asked to state a preference for cost or quality, and then to select from a matched subset of suppliers.

Local and commodity services are an easy example because of the availability of data, but this kind of experience will disrupt a huge variety of industries and search types – from mortgages and car insurance, to birthday presents and fashion.

Now, SEO becomes about ensuring that your brand deserves to be the one which is selected; that means optimising the product/service itself, rather than just layering on advertising and marketing. It means being local, being optimal, being available. These kinds of thins are much harder things for SEOs to influence, but that’s how we need to be thinking now unless we want to not being visible in this new ecosystem.

Q) Do you think Google Interstitial Impact will expand?

A) Absolutely. It’s in Google’s best interest to provide good experiences to users, and nobody wants interstitial ads.

In many cases, they’re being used by companies and websites which don’t have a sophisticated monetisation strategy, who’re trying to find opportunities to shove adverts or registration prompts into the user journey.

I’d be looking to fix the underlying commercial model in cases like this – before it’s too late – rather than worrying about the mechanics of getting away with interrupting and annoying users.

Q) Where can people find you online if they want to engage, follow or connect?

A) I’m probably easier to get hold of online than in person, but if you’re ever in the vicinity of London Bridge and fancy breakfast, I’m always keen to chat about industry stuff! I’m online at @jonoalderson (or on LinkedIn), and I blog at (and all the usual places).

Looking forward to seeing everybody (and all the excellent speakers) at the conference!