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Optimise This with AJ Kohn of Blind Five Year Old

In this episode of Optimise This we chat with AJ Kohn from Blind Five Year Old about his holistic approach to SEO, what that means and how web design plays a role. We discuss Google time to long click metric and how you can improve it by simply changing your design rather than all your content and how intelligent collaboration between departments and disciplines is becoming more and more crucial to online success.

The video is trimmed to 15 minutes for easy viewing. It’s also available as a downloadable mp3 file.


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Video Transcription

Patrick: Hello and welcome to another episode of Optimize This. And we’re fortunate enough today to be joined by AJ Kohn, who runs the San Francisco digital marketing agency, Blind Five Year Old. So before we get started with the questions, AJ, if you’d just like to introduce yourself and just tell a little bit more about what you’re interested in?

AJ: Sure! I [said] AJ Kohn. I own Blind Five Year Old, which is a digital marketing consultancy that specializes in search. It’s been around since 2007… a large interest in sort of holistic SEO as well as technical points, which are still [inaudible 00:48]

Interviewer: Okay. That’s great. So, obviously you just mentioned that you’re interested in holistic SEO, so I see you posting things about readability and that sort of thing. Can you sort of tell us what you mean by that and how web design can play a role in this sort of thing?

AJ: Yeah. I think readability is one of the things that most SEOs, most sites lose track of. I’m a big fan of studies by Jakob Nielsen, [inaudible 01:19], work of Steve Krug, who wrote the brilliant book, “Don’t Make Me Think” And it’s just a general marketing philosophy that we’re in an attention economy right now, and there’s an attention auction happening every second of every day. We have very little time.

And being able to make sure that your user can, at a glance, know exactly what that page is about, that it’s easy to read, it’s easy to digest, because they’re not reading word-for-word, very few people do on the Internet. And so you need to figure out a way to communicate your message to make it easy for people to read; it’s got cognitive ease.

And I think those things are rewarded. They’re not rewarded in traditional [hay drink] sort of ways, but they’re going to be rewarded because people are going to actually digest your content. They’re going to understand it. They’re going to take your message, your brand, your site to other people, and that’s how you earn links. It’s not link building. It’s earning those links over time because you provided, not just the value, but you made it easier for them to get that value from you.

And I think I’ve said in the past, “It’s not just what you say. It’s how you present it.” And I think that everybody in their life can probably relate to that on some level. Whether or not you’re getting a critical job performance review, of someone saying in a way which is really condescending versus maybe making it much more an opportunity, you’re going to react differently. And I think web marketers haven’t quite figured out that that’s a vital importance online and a vital importance to getting your brand to more people.

Patrick: Okay. That’s great. Well, yeah, I hope we’ll start to see more of that sort of thing coming over in the next few years as, I guess, as the industry starts to mature and become what it’s going to become because it’s not there yet, is it?

So early this year, you wrote a post about Time To Long Click, this internal metric that Google’s using to measure search success. I’ll put the URL beneath the video so that people can go read about it, but if you could just briefly give us and outline of what that is and why it’s important?

AJ: Sure! Sure, so Time To Long Click… so the first point here is the difference between a long click and short click. So long click is Google’s vernacular is: I’ve preformed a query and I go to a website, and I’m there for either a long enough time that I’ve gained some satisfaction, some value out of that, or hopefully, you never return back to that search result, or you never go back and reformulate your search. And so, essentially what a long click is, is it’s telling you that the person doing that query found the answer they were looking for.

So, Google’s obsessed with shortening the distance between that query and a long click, a satisfying answer. And so, if you can help Google to reduce the Time To Long Click, you will benefit. And what this really… the implications that it has… one is the readability thing.

So if you landed on a page and you were overwhelmed with all the options, you didn’t know where to look, and there are all these sort of things, you might just say, “Ugh! I’m out of here. I’m going to go back. I’ll pick another site,” right? So that number one.

Number two is, linking out can be very, very useful. And I know there are a lot of people who like to forward page rank, right? I’ve got all this stuff and now I want to use it and I don’t want to give it away to people. The problem is that if you aren’t really the… you can play a role sort of as the chain.

Right, so, if they never go back to the search result, but you were the click on that search result, you’ll get credit for that. So let’s say they land on your site, and then I pass them off to a couple other sites because I’m referring them, or I say, “Hey, if you want to learn more about structured data, go and read David Amerland’s blog, and go and read’s implementation, and kick in on the Google developers channel, etc.” That’s… they’re going to go to those places, and they probably won’t return to the search and do other queries.

So linking out to the right sources can be very powerful. And in a similar way, I always talk about answering magic questions. And I think I stole “magic questions” from somebody, maybe it was [Pete Herber] over somewhere else, but it’s the idea that if you search, and I think the easiest way is if you’re searching for a vacuum cleaner or a vacuum cleaner manual, in old-school SEO, you’d say, “Great. Let’s have the vacuum cleaner manual. We’ll put it front and center. We’ll put some AdSense ads around it. Yay! We’re done!” Right?

I think the more… when you’re thinking about Time To Long Click, you’d say, “Well, why are they searching for that vacuum cleaner manual?” It’s probably because there’s something wrong with the vacuum. So maybe we should have some tips on how to fix it, guides on how to fix it, maybe user-generated content, maybe links to repair shops, maybe links to new vacuum cleaners, cleaning services, all that sort of stuff.

And suddenly that page become so valuable, people aren’t going to go back and reformulate a search because they’ve got their manual, they’ve got all the links they need to go and do the stuff that they need to do, and that page starts to rank well. That’s how it sort of all dovetails together.

But in the sort of TL;DR version, if you help Google fulfill their mission on answering questions as quickly as possible, then you’re going to start to benefit by seeing increased search rankings.

Patrick: Okay. It’s great. So, I mean, there’s a number of things we could from a content perspective, improving the content on the site, figuring out what users are looking for and serving that content on that.

What things are there that we can do from a design or development perspective to a site, perhaps without necessarily changing the content? So your content stays the same, but you might be able to improve the design or how the website works in order to reduce the Time To Long Click.

AJ: Yeah, absolutely! That’s sort of the “don’t make me think,” the “paradox of choice.” If someone lands on a page and they’re immediately assaulted with, here are all the thousands of things you can do on my site and I know everybody’s going to say, “But it works for Amazon!” Right? But that’s Amazon. They… they’re sort of the outlier.

Most of us… when you land on a site, the design can be really useful to say, “Hey, let’s not put everything streaming in front of them. Let’s satisfy their primary intent, then let’s use really good design.” Maybe it’s a tabbed interface, maybe that’s expanders. Whatever it might be. Maybe it’s a carousel, and [I’m not thrilled] with carousels. Whatever you can do to sort of make it easy for people to get the sense of where those questions can be [inaudible 08:45] without it being overwhelming.

And so there are lots of great UX things out there about gradual engagement, about [sealing] on that. I think easy ones that you could do here is digital hierarchy and thought hierarchy which are infrequently used for some reason. Just sort of one-on-one in my opinion, but you see a lot of sites where everything has the same weight in terms of visual, sort of, density.

And it’s really easy to… I think I have an image that I use quite often which is, on a black background and a white text, “first you look here,” in big bold and then in a smaller font, “in then you look here,” in a smaller font. That, to me, is sort of what you can do.

Images is also huge. I find way too many sites are wicked text heavy. And so you can use images to both break up the flow, but also as a way to identify what parts of the site they should go to, and what they’re interested in. So, whether it’s actual images or iconography, which can be quite useful as well.

There are a lot of different ways that we can work to sort of make people that people stay on that page, and that they understand where they need to go next to get their other questions answered instead of going back to a Google search result.

Patrick: That makes sense, and I guess what’s quite nice is that all the sort of points you were talking about there tie in almost identically with all the advice surrounding conversion optimization, so–

AJ: Absolutely! As you said, I’m a holistic SEO. And we could have great semantic debates about the definition of SEO, but my definition does include user experience and conversion-rate-optimization, because I know that those things count when it comes to SEO. If you can convert somebody and they’re happy and you’ve converted that customer, they’re probably not going back to Google search results, so that means that Google’s looking at that and saying, “Hey, this site fulfilled that query, and they did it in a short amount of time. We’re happy.”

And at the end of the day, the user’s happy, and that’s all that Google’s after, right? I mean, people might get angry with Google when they make these changes, but by and large, Google’s just trying to satisfy us, the user. So if we’re mad at anybody, it should be ourselves.

So, yeah, I think you’re talking about UX conversion-rate-optimization. Absolutely! Take things off the page. Make it easy. Reduce friction throughout the process. All those things matter. And there’s disciplines to be served throughout the entire process.

Patrick: Okay. So, and, just following on from that, we’ve historically had SEOs coming in from the outside and suggesting site changes to developers to implement, whereas this sort of thing we’re talking about here almost requires a more collaborative approach. And I guess we kind of really need to think about how we can get developers caring about the same sort of stuff that SEOs care about and vice versa. So what are your thoughts on that kind of progressing?

AJ: Yeah, I think… It’s funny. I think the way to… At least in my world and what I’ve been able to do is… I’m a pretty technical SEO at the end of the day as well. I like web log analysis and getting into the details of how things work and how it’s going to all come together. And I do SQL, I do a little bit of coding every now and then, and some JavaScript whenever it comes in handy.

What this allows me to do is, I can actually have conversations with the developers. Right? Whether they’re back-end or front-end, I know enough about their world that I can have an intelligent conversation with them, and I might even have an opinion about it.

And that generally tells them that this isn’t just some fly-by-night SEO who’s trying to manipulate and do those sort of things. And that’s sort of what I then built some trust by saying, “Hey, I’ve got a deep level of knowledge, maybe not deep but broad.”

And the next step is reeducating and saying, “SEO isn’t about trying to manipulate. It’s not trying to fool. It’s about trying to really give your site the fair shake that it deserves, and to try to serve about the user and Google bot, who [Mike King] can set it perfectly.” Google bot should always be your last persona. Right? They’re just… If you’re working with a design team say, “Hey, Google bot is your last persona.”

You might have a vacillating Vicki and terrifying Tim and whatever, but you’ve got to think about Google bot as well and their needs and how they’re going to perform and what they’re seeking.

And I think when you start to talk about it that way, when you talk about the fact that Google is trying to emulate user behavior, user, sort of, comprehension of websites, so the SEO that you should be user focused, that all works.

When I talk about key word research, I have… I actually have really tried not to use the words “keyword research,” but I use “syntax and intent.” Right? What is the syntax of your users? And so I think that’s really where… when you start to talk in those terms, things get a lot easier.

Patrick: Okay. Well, that’s great. Thanks, AJ. That’s about all we’ve got time for today. Thanks very much for taking the time out to speak to us. I hope whomever has enjoyed it. So, thanks for watching and we’ll see you again soon for another episode of Optimize This.

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