Interview with SEO Specialist Sergey Alakov

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Sergey Alakov is a very well known face within the SEO industry – especially to those who read SearchEngineLand and enjoy keeping up to date on the latest Google UI updates! He’s based in Toronto where he works for GroupM as an SEO Account Director, whilst also carrying out his own SEO consultancy services.

He’s been responsible for noticing and tweeting about the latest Google search updates – particularly for hotels (a sector which Google loves to meddle with constantly) so I thought he’d make a good candidate to talk to about many of these updates, plus about local SEO in general.

Sergey Alakov SEO specialist

#1 – As undoubtedly the king of noticing Google’s SERP updates within the hotel sector, what’s your secret?! Is it as simple as regularly reviewing the search results for accommodation-type queries? Do you keep back-ups of the old SERP results – to clarify when/if something has changed?

Google said that they run almost 10,000 live experiments every year, I only spot a small fraction of them. Almost every day I spend a few minutes googling things and looking for UI changes. Because I’ve been doing it for a couple of years now, I have found verticals that change more often than others. Hotel search results, for example, are by far the most volatile as far as UI changes are concerned.

I always take a screenshot if I see something that seems new, so, I have a lot of screenshots of old SERPs, but quite often it’s easier to find an old screenshot online than trying to dig something out from my Google Photos account. The typical queries I run are basically always the same, so, I usually know right away if something is new.

 

#2 – Why do you feel that Google changes the search landscape for hotels so often, out of all the industries available? Can you imagine that other non travel sectors may also be subject to this level of interest from Google in the near future? We’re seeing it with “bookable” services, so my own hunch would be yes, what about you?

it’s pretty obvious that it has to do with monetization. Hotel bookings are expensive and have a good volume, so, it should not be surprising that Google has been looking for ways to become an even bigger player in the hospitality space.

While hotel SERP UI often seems to be updated separately from most other verticals, changes that are made in one place are often later replicated across the board. So, yes, Google is using their learnings from updates specific to one or few industries to inform changes in others.

I think a big reason why Google is so interested in “bookable” services and has been expanding its Reserve With Google program pretty aggressively into new categories and locations is voice search. Google does not have voice ads, which means that every time someone uses a voice assistant to search for something Google loses money. On top of that, Google sells many of their Home devices at a loss to capture a bigger market share. Google is still looking for ways to monetize voice search, and local bookings and reservations seem to be one of the main areas they are planning to make money. I believe the Google Duplex project is also a proof of that.

The changing Google hotel SERPS

#3 – Based on all of the changes that have been made by Google in recent months, can you predict where they might be going in the future – now that desktop and mobile are pretty much aligned. It’s clear that they’re trying to “own” the entire travel/booking journey (from the search phase through to the actual purchase itself within Google, with flights as well as accommodation included), do you think there’s anything more to it/anyway they can go further?

Google always finds ways to surprise us with their changes, so, it’s hard to predict what they are going to do next, but I we probably can think of some areas where changes could be made in the near future.

For example, local knowledge panels for hotels that are triggered when users search for a specific hotel do not have all of the same features as knowledge panels expanded from local 3-packs. So, I would expect the two recently introduced features – Price Insights and Location Score, to eventually make their way into branded knowledge panels.

I also believe Google is pretty consistent with recommendations they make via their Think With Google blog. Meaning, things they talk about there are often later reflected in their SERP changes. For instance, Google had been talking about the importance of reviews, location, and price for travellers for some time before introducing search features that help users better research the 3 factors right inside hotels’ listings. Another big factor that Google has been talking about lately is loyalty. Google already has a benefits program for Google One users giving them discounts on certain hotel bookings, and I think we may see more changes in this area.

Personalization is another important factor Google talks about on their site. Given how much data Google already has on users, I would not be surprised to see changes to the way Google returns results to frequent travellers. They may take into account all of the features and amenities a user historically looked for and show results that they would consider a better match higher. So, we may see some form of Google’s Your Match score affecting hotel results.

The last prediction I could try to make here would be related to a new feature that would integrate Google’s hotel and flight searches deeper. It may be as simple as showing airfares within hotels’ listings for selected stay dates, or as complicated as offering some sort of package deals.

As I said, it’s really hard to predict what Google is going to do next, and my guesses are very likely to be completely incorrect. Probably, even Google does not know what changes they are going to make to search results in 2019. Only time will tell.

 

#4 – You’ve received a huge amount of coverage from the likes of Barry Schwartz (aka Rustybrick) over at Search Engine Land. Has being featured here with your SERP updates lead to many ongoing relationships with other businesses?

Barry Schwartz, Mike Blumenthal and some other people in the industry have been very kind to help me amplify my little discoveries over the years. Being featured on Search Engine Land has helped me build a brand of a guy who knows SERPs. This has lead to me being featured on other search, hotel, and general marketing resources which is nice, and helps me in building my professional brand further.

As far as business relationships are concerned, these mentions have brought me a couple of interesting clients over the years, but nothing major. But even these engagements are a nice and often unexpected benefit, as I’ve never considered spotting UI changes a tactic to market my SEO services.

 

#5 – Focusing on Local SEO as we head into 2019 – what’s on your list for those businesses that rely heavily on their local search rankings (hotels in particular); what does everyone need to be mindful of outside of the usual – content, on-site fixes and online reviews?

First and foremost, businesses need to focus on getting the basics right. When it comes to local search, there are only 3 things that matter – Proximity, Prominence, and Relevance. Unless a business wants to open more locations, proximity is not something it can impact, so, Prominence and Relevance are all that’s left. While there are obviously a lot of ways you can improve your prominence and relevance, content, backlinks, on-site fixes, and reviews can move the needle for a lot of businesses.

I often see that agencies, consultants, and businesses get too excited about new tactics when they still have a lot of fundamental issues they need to take care of.

 

#6 – Based on the work you’ve carried out – either as an SEO consultant or as SEO Account Director at GroupM, typically what recommendations or changes have you made which have been most impactful in terms of search traffic? Any changes made that surprised you in terms of their high impact/low investment?

There is no silver bullet in SEO. Every site is different, with different competition, and a unique approach required to solve their unique issues. Because of that, I always spend a lot of time researching, analysing, and auditing clients’ performance and industries before coming up with an action plan. Having said that, there are issues and opportunities that are more common than others.

At GroupM Canada I work with some of the largest brands in the country. Because a lot of the businesses we I with have global presence, international targeting is often an issue, and our clients’ sites in other countries (typically U.S.) outrank their Canadian properties. This leads to UX issues, missed remarketing opportunities, inaccurate analytics, etc. So, for many of my clients, identifying these issues, and fixing them is often a big focus for us.

A good content strategy and proper execution can often lead to incredible results. I like looking for content gaps, as well as digging into clients’ paid search data to identify topic opportunities. Despite the fact that everyone understands the importance of content, so many businesses still do not know how to do it properly investing time and efforts into aimless blog posts and calling it their content strategy.   

One of the areas of SEO that surprised me a lot in terms of impact when I started working with large brands with hundreds of locations was Local SEO. Because it can be very challenging to do something as simple as managing local listings across multiple directories for hundreds locations, many enterprises simply do not do it. Which means that if you do even the most basic, foundational local SEO optimizations for your enterprise-level clients you can see amazing results. For example, with many of our enterprise-level clients we have been seeing over 100% YoY improvements in generic local visibility, and 20-50% YoY improvement in local clicks over the past couple of years.

Technical fixes, page speed and website architecture improvements, backlink building, and many other SEO tactics are always amongst things I work on with all of my clients. All of them can have a great impact depending on the situation.

 

#7 – Building links to client sites and helping to generate local citations is obviously still a key component of SEO. Typically is this something you will help your clients achieve, or do you prefer to focus on the “great content” in the hope that it will lead to links and references on the web?

Local citations are a foundational ranking factor in Local SEO, so, their review, clean up, push are always part of a Local Search engagement. While for most small to medium businesses in competitive niches citations on their own are not going to move the needle, as mentioned I mentioned before, they may give a big edge to large enterprises.

Depending on the client’s site and niche, link building may be an extremely important area of focus. So, it’s often something I consult on, especially smaller clients.

 

#8 – From my perspective I’ve seen the amount of traffic arriving to hotel websites through their Google My Business listing really rocket in the past year or so – in many cases 60% of their organic traffic comes through the GMB website button, with plenty of associated revenue too. Has the GMB profile for businesses given them an additional channel to focus on optimising (outside of their website)? Or do you think it’s better to just focus on optimising their own website?

Mike Blumenthal has been calling GMB listings “the home page a local business” for quite awhile now. And I agree with him. Google adds more and more information to local knowledge panels all the time, making them more interactive and informational. You can now see products, services, menu items, ask questions, read reviews, book appointments, etc, all without clicking through to a website.

Businesses can and should take care of their GMB listings, ensuring accuracy of their offerings, amenities, and features, controlling the message in the Q&A section by asking and answering the most frequent questions, ensuring that pictures that they upload are what Google is looking for in images in their vertical, regularly uploading Google Posts, etc.

 

#9 – Google rolled out and embedded the Q and A feature quite heavily now on mobile and desktop. Do businesses need to monitor these questions and answers more closely now, for risk of reputation damage or misleading information being shared? Do you have any advice on how businesses can keep tabs on the Q and A feature outside of manually checking them?

I always recommend posting your own questions and answering them for reputation management purposes. Businesses already know what questions clients typically ask, and often have a Q&A section on their site, and some sort of an internal Q&A document, so, it’s usually pretty easy to publish them to their GMB listings.

Businesses can actually check the Q&A box in GMB settings and request email notification for their questions. So, I’d recommend everyone to do that. It may be difficult for businesses with many locations to sort through their email for every question they get (especially if they get a lot of them). For such businesses, some companies have developed monitoring tools. For example, I know Mike Blumenthal’s GatherUp has a monitoring tool. I’m sure there are others too. I personally haven’t used any of them.

Questions and Answers for Hotels in Google

#10 – I spoke with local search guru Tim Capper a while back about providing SEO services for hotels, and he was suggesting that they might want to start paying more attention to voice search optimisation in the near future (that was a few months back now, maybe the time is here already!) What are your thought on voice SEO – and on the slight issue that voice queries aren’t yet distinguished within Search Console data (and John Muller of Google says he’s not been convinced of the benefit of doing so). Any benefits to giving voice more attention or is it still early days?

To rank in voice search results, businesses either need to be in the local 3-pack, or target specific questions users asks, and try to optimize for featured snippets.

In my opinion, both of these things businesses should be trying to do anyway, regardless of the way users ask ask their questions (voice or keyboard). That’s why they do SEO – to rank higher for queries that will eventually help them achieve their business objectives.

 

#11 – Outside of monitoring the Google SERP changes like a hawk…. What do you like to get up to? Any favourite places you’ve travelled to in the past / favourite hotels?

I like playing soccer, poker, and chess, spending time with my friends, and playing with my cat who I name after a lake near my hometown – Baikal.

I love Europe because of how close everything is. I’ve done a couple of eurotrips where I’d visit 4-5 countries in under 2 weeks with a backpack. In Europe, I typically stay at AirBnBs. During one of these trips I had a 17 hour stopover in Iceland on my way back from Paris to Toronto, rented a car, and drove around Southern Peninsula. I fell in love with the nature! It’s stunning. Almost like another planet. I’ll be back to explore more.

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