Brett TabkeInternet marketing legend and conference organizer extraordinaire Brett Tabke took time from his busy schedule recently to discuss a number of issues with me, from the impact of Google search updates and upcoming trends in online marketing to the future of his popular Pubcon conference series. Read on for his fascinating insights into Google’s changing business model, the secret of content marketing and more. Thanks for talking with me, Brett!

Referral Data Losses a Game Changer

LK: Back in November, you and Joe Laratro spoke at SLC/SEM about the Year in Search Marketing. What do you think were the biggest game changers in search in 2013?

BT: The Snowden revelations gave search engines cover to implement SSL connections on all searches. That has led to the loss of referral data. Not having any data to work with has been the biggest hit SEO has taken since the Florida update 10 years ago last month.

We had a long discussion about this in 2002 on WebmasterWorld.

I thought the consequences of lost referral data would be more dire at that time. The difference between then and now is that we have slowly been forced to rely less and less on ranking metrics. The advent of hyper-local and personalized search means SEOs have been slowly trained away from rankings data – and consequently referral data.

Tabke: Stop Thinking of Google as a Search Engine; They’re a Content Competitor

LK: Do you have any predictions about big changes, or even a wish list, we might see in search in 2014?

BT: The biggest change is the slow metamorphosis of the SERPs from web site listing results to Google provided content. Google’s ongoing devaluation of website listings has resulted in a decrease in Google referred traffic. I would think that the average per-SERP click rate Google sends out offsite has to be down 30-40% over the last 5 years. That is to say, Google is sending out 40% less traffic to websites than it did in 2008.

Ultimately, we need to stop thinking of Google primarily as a search engine and more as a content competitor… umm, the biggest content competitor on the web.

The Impact of Google and Niche Social Networks

LK: You have Danny Bernstein from Google Plus closing out Pubcon New Orleans this March; do you think Google’s social network should be an area of focus for marketers this year any more or less than before?

Pubcon Speakers

BT: The only thing bigger than Google’s boundless ambition is it its persistence. Google+ has enough traction that its growth is going to continue. That growth is not necessarily based on the merit of its services, but on the fact Google+ is bolted into so many other Google services. All Android phones come with Google+ baked into the OS. Then, there is the link back via Gmail and the Google account services.

All those little tie-ins mean that Google+ has a ready-made audience. That audience is growing little by little. SEOs and marketers should be approaching it is as another touch point on the social media checklist. A Gmail link here, a HangOut link there, and Google+ slowly locks in users for no other reason than “that’s where it’s at.”

LK: What other social networks are on your radar right now as potentially impactful but underutilized by marketers?

BT: We continue to see niche social sites pop up. Instagram, Flickr, Pinterest, SnapChat, and Google+ are all serving specific niches. There will continue to be growth in this area. As Facebook has matured with many in its audience, they are looking for new “wow factor” sites.

This last year, we saw story after story of the decline of teenage Facebook usage. I do think that Facebook was all fun-n-games for the teens until Mom and Dad showed up to dampen the Facebook party. However, at the same time, we saw explosive growth with upstart SnapChat. I think that type of social site movement is going to continue, with other niche sites popping up to serve audience segments suffering from Facebook burnout.

LK: Back in December, you tweeted that you’d won a bet with an SEO: that he couldn’t show you an example of a content marketing plan that wasn’t link building in disguise. Tell us more about your thoughts on that!

Brett Tabke Interview

BT: The majority of the SEOs pitching “content services” all mention it as a way to get links. I think that replaces traditional link building.

Between Panda and Penguin, Google has made everyone so paranoid about the kind, quality, and location of their links that everyone has looked to organic methods to make up the loss.

Tabke: Marketers Must Prepare for ‘Splinternet’ & the Decline of the Web

LK: What emerging technologies do you think search and social marketers should be keeping an eye on right now?

BT: We are entering the age of “Splinternet.” A couple years ago, I gave a presentation on Apps vs The Web. I think that is still so accurate that we have to go one step further and go Operating Systems vs The Web. We now have Android vs Apple vs Microsoft. People are spending so much time in those apps; this year there might be such slow web growth that we may actually see a historically significant decrease in the total time spent on the web by users.

Look, I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer here, but the fact is that the Web is in decline (at least, the web available to SMB websites is in decline). People have a limited amount of time to spend on the web. Our slice of that time is in decline. Why?

  • Google is retaining more of the traffic; our slices of the organic traffic will continue to decrease.
    Apps are stealing people’s attention. Phone usage is skyrocketing. Most of that usage is not on the web – it is in apps.
  • Apps lock in usage to specific services (what we used to call “websites”).
  • Social networks are also retaining all the traffic they can. Facebook sends you to a warning page: “Warning, visiting this link may contain malware.” I also believe their algorithm devalues linked content in favor of in-house traffic like Photos and Groups activity. People don’t see linked statuses show up in their feed like they used too. It has to be a viral, “Liked” story before it makes much of an appearance in your Facebook feed.
  • Services are getting locked in usage. Amazon, eBay and Netflix all have “locked in” users that no longer need search. Users’ available “web time” is being used by those services.

So the natural question is, “what should site owners do?” I think website owners should give thought to producing an app. They are not that difficult to produce via many of the services out there. Ultimately, we need to stop thinking of Google as primarily a search engine.

Watch for Pubcon Announcements

PubconLK: The last year seems to have been one of big changes for you, with the sale of Webmaster World and a more local focus coming to Pubcon. Now that the dust has settled, any regrets about giving up the forum you founded?

BT: I’d been in the forum business since my first BBS forum in 1984 – it was time for a change. The joy is that I get to focus full time on Pubcon. The last year has been the most enjoyable year of my life.

LK: What should we expect from Pubcon in the future, will there be smaller or more regional shows?

BT: Last year’s Vegas show was widely regarded as one of the best search conferences ever. All the feedback on the show was as positive as we have ever had. We feel strongly that we are on the right track. For this year, we have 4 shows scheduled; we may have some more announcements in that regard soon.

Upcoming Pubcon Events: The Place for Internet Marketers To Be

Pubcon promises to hold its position as the most impactful and valuable internet marketing conference under Tabke’s continued leadership. If you’ve never been, you’re missing out. The 2014 lineups are packed with expert industry speakers and tons of sessions in tracks spanning search, social, online advertising and internet marketing.

Secure your tickets for upcoming Pubcon events including SFIMA Summit 2014, Pubcon Spring New Orleans 2014 and Pubcon Regional Austin Day Conference by registering now on the Pubcon website. We’ll see you there!