Our 2016 Big Interview series draws to a close in style. Rob Bucci is the founder and CEO of STAT Search Analytics, a Vancouver-based company that provides location-based search data for companies and SEO agencies.
With Bucci becoming an increasingly influential voice in the industry, STAT's reputation and profile is growing. His talk on local SEO analysis at Brighton SEO in April went down an absolute storm with a clearly impressed audience; his revealing insights into the power and potential of featured snippets could be a significant game changer in the world of search and data.
A man with an entertaining story to tell and an intriguing vision of the future, Bucci gives a fascinating interview. Shortly before wrapping for Christmas, he spoke with Zazzle Media to reflect on a breakthrough year, the rise and development of STAT since its conception in 2009, and tackled a selection of burning questions on data, ranking, tracking, answer boxes and more.
First up Rob, can you give us a quick tour of your career to date? What's your background prior to STAT?
"It's a weird story. My background is in fine arts and sculpture, with a focus on sculpture and industrial design. So I graduated in 2005 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and then realised I could make art but I couldn't make money! Then I started working in marketing, and worked hard to get my marketing chops.
I was involved in marketing a property company and what I found was that the company would come to me and ask: 'I want us to rank No.1 for Vancouver condo.' I didn't know how to do that. I had a desire to be independent and to go into business for myself so I learnt to write my own code. It was around the time that iPhone apps were first taking off, and I'd read about these kids who earned millions, it seemed, after writing code and I thought 'Wow - that's what I want to do.'
At first, I was scraping websites for NBA, baseball stats and other data and selling them on. Then a client said, 'you need to track rankings - people will be more willing to pay for that.' So I built a tool to track search rankings. That was really how it all started, although we started out as 'SEOtistics', which is a title that now makes he cringe, looking back! STAT was born, really, in 2009."
You're the founder and CEO. What can you tell us about the challenges of a start-up? What were those early days/months like?
"I won't say challenges as such. I recall it being a lot of hard work and very exciting. We had a lot of traction with people who had told us they wanted the product. For me, the big issues I had were trying to combine it all - developing the product as well as managing funding and finance and support, and marketing. But once I had sold a few customers and was seeing growth, I was able to start hiring people. The first person I recruited was Anish (Anish Kumar) and he's still here today (as Director of Technology)."
As CEO, your responsibilities must extend further than simply what STAT does. What other aspects do you control/influence - the culture of the company, the people?
"I'd say I've done basically every job here! That's all part of being a CEO - you're constantly firing yourself from positions. You then have to learn how to step back, be a bit ZEN and let others do the job. For me, I focus on a lot of process, workflow and product - what we're building and how we're building it.
"As for culture it's a term that is overused and can be trite. For me, it shouldn't be about extras like ping pong tables and games rooms; it's not about forcing ideals on people. It's about a shared set of goals and beliefs. I'd like to think at STAT people aren't showing up just up for the money - they can get that anywhere else. What we asked people to do here was to write down their own values - they did this as an exercise at home. Then they brought it all in, on post-it notes, and we created a matrix and put it on the wall. We saw we all shared a lot of similar values - and these underpin our culture. These were emergent values that already existing in our group. All we had to do was codify them.
Every hire you make, every decision you take, is your culture. So, our culture already existed, and we just had to tap into it."
What was your first significant breakthrough (e.g. securing a first key client, perhaps?)
"Yes, there was a moment when I realised that what we had was a lot bigger than I had first thought. We were in discussions with a very big business - I can't tell you who they are but they are one of the biggest companies in the world - and the client took to me to one side after a meeting. He privately told me that there was a danger that nobody would take me seriously because I was charging so little, and recommended I charge ten times more. He said: 'Look, people believe in you but they're worried you might not be around in a year because you're charging so little.' They could see I had fire in my belly for this. So I increased my prices and they signed up. And that was a magical moment, knowing that we were solving a problem for a huge business."
Your presentation at Brighton SEO went down a storm - it certainly impressed the Zazzle Media guys who were there. Did you get a sense of it being that well received at the time?
"I do think it was something new. When it comes to content there is too much of an echo chamber - people want content and they're willing to spill out rehashed material to get a new headline. We had a goal to spin out something new. The featured snippet talk at Brighton was really led by my team - I was just the guy who delivered it. It was remarkable to see how well it went down. I find that people speaking at these events want to do a TED talk; they want to inspire. Instead, we said, 'let's go data!' We went with hard numbers and recommendations and it worked.
"I reprised the talk at MozCon and also SearchLove London, and now I've retired it. I don't want to see that talk again!"
What's your schedule like for 2017? Where else are you speaking? I'm guessing you're in high demand?
"Well, it's not like people are banging down my door - I'm not The Beatles! But I do have a few scheduled in - SearchLove San Diego, Napa Summit, Brighton SEO again. That's probably about it at this stage. I usually do about four speaking engagements a year."
What's your five year, ten-year plan for STAT? Do you have one?
"I do, but I'm not giving it away! The whole thing is how the company evolves without outside investment. It's a private company and we’d like to keep it that way. All I know is that I'm having a lot of fun, and I know everyone here is having a lot of fun too. I don't want that to end anytime soon, that's for sure. I can say that we’re busying gearing up our technology to be able to do things with SEO data that no one else is doing. It’s hard to say when some of those innovations will reach the public, though. Soon, I hope!"
Is data in danger of becoming exciting?
"I think so! It's been an epiphany moment for us - we've been saying to people, 'here's a fire hydrant of data, and we're going to soak you in that data!' Some people love it, some are anxious. Data is exciting when it gives people insight. By providing insight, that's when it really gets exciting. So, is data exciting? Maybe. But really, I think it’s the insight that is most exciting."
Outside of work, how do you like to spend your time?
"I get a bit embarrassed when I get asked this question as I work a bit too much, even if that's just thinking about work. But when I'm not, I'm usually snowboarding or hiking through a forest. So yeah, you can usually find me falling down a mountain or walking through a forest."
Answer boxes are great for conversational question search phrases, but we're beginning to see them crop up on commercial phrases. Do you think this is part of a bigger play by Google?
"I'm not prepared to say it's part of a bigger play by Google but I think they have been interested in testing how users interact with them on commercials queries. Google is in the middle of large scale testing of different answers boxes for different query types. I think they would naturally be interested in learning how they can monetize the space in the future, but for now, I don’t think there is a specific play we’re seeing executed. They’re still gathering data.”
What realistic traffic increase do you see from capturing an answer box?
"What I can tell you is that I think it's the equal of a No.1 ranking. It's hard to put an exact figure on this but you should get around at least a 10% lift from appearing in an answers box versus appearing in No.1 position. Of course, the caveat here is that the gain is dependent on a variety of factors, including the query itself, the format of the answers box, the content in that answer box, and the rest of the characteristics of the SERP. It’s impossible to make any definitive claim of how much traffic increase you should expect."
Do you have to be in the top 3, 5, 10, 12, 15, 20 positions to capture an answer box?
"There's certainly a bias for securing an answer box by having a higher position. Definitely, being in No.1, 2, 3 or 4 are more prevalent, though we do see those in 12-20 sometimes capturing the box. Obviously, these are in decreasing frequency though. The higher the ranking position, the higher the frequency of capturing the box."
Are answer boxes making SEO more difficult/easier?
"SEO has never been easy and won't get easier! If it was a binary choice between difficult and easier, I'll go for difficult. What other industry do you know which is like SEO in that it is constantly changing? When it comes down to it, answer boxes provide another strategy or tool for SEOs to use to achieve their goals for organic traffic and conversions."
How does an answer box CTR differ from a P.1 result in a non-answer box results page? Do you think answer boxes are more valuable than P.1 non-answer box results?
"If I rank No.1 organically is that better than being the answer box, do you mean? I think it depends on the content. Don't give it all away in the answer box, or you may find that users won't then need to click through to the website to read the rest of the content, and then the overall reason is lost.
"I'd say it's better to capture the answer box as it showcases the content better, and certainly visually. It's the perception to the user - it's like Google is wrapping a big bow around it and saying, 'This is the best content in the world'."
We've seen a lot of answer boxes appear then disappear for commercial terms - were they proving unsuccessful? Does Google prefer ad revenue over answer boxes?
"I do think that Google is willing to take a short term loss for a long term gain so I'm not sure it worries much about losing a little ad revenue if it improves the longer term picture.
There is a ton of volatility in answer boxes, that's true. We do see them getting more stable over time. Yes - answer boxes appear and disappear all the time as Google tests but they usually settle down eventually."
Have you seen examples of poor answer boxes? If so, which?
"Yes, I've seen poor answer boxes and if I wasn't only on my first coffee of the day I could probably recall some! But I've seen some bad ones, both in terms of incorrect answers and also boxes 'won' by spammy sites. You look at them and think, 'Why? Why are they getting these things?' It's often about topic authority and the structure of the content on the page. If Google believes you to be an authority on this particular topic then that counts for a lot."
Have you seen examples of P1 results that don't capture the answer box, but should?
"All the time. But again, it takes some time to monitor these things. You might see P1, P2, P3 all flipping in and out of the answer box. If I had the time - and I recommend someone should do this - I'd chart the volatility in how often the owner of an answers box changes over time and see if it levels out or gets flat."
How do you see answer boxes developing over time?
"I can make some future bold predictions, which is risky, but I don't mind looking stupid, so here goes! Answer boxes are really a response to mobile search and voice search. The thing is, there is a relatively small set of query types for which the best experience is a purely spoken answer. For many queries, you need to see an answer displayed, whether it’s a cooking recipe, or advice on which tennis shoes to buy. The screen is the missing piece in the equation. I think we'll see a future where we speak queries in our home, or cars, and when necessary, the response will appear on some manner of screen. Your cell phone screen is the most obvious one to target first, but imagine screens set up all around the home, and answers delivered to those screens exactly when we need it.
Say I'm making a pie and my hands are covered in flour, and I need to know what to do next - I need the next specific answer not a full set of instructions, and I need it in front of me. Imagine a small device that can sit on any surface and project information on it with a very narrow angle. I can imagine us putting these things on windows, mirrors, the front of our fridge, etc. They will be everywhere in the home and my digital assistant device will know where I am speaking from and the nearest surface on which to display the answer."
What's the evolution of answer boxes look like with the increase in voice search?
"The big change will be the way we speak. We're training the way we speak to machines; we'll be talking in full sentences and more naturally than we have done in the past. I think this shift in how we query means that we will eventually need to reconsider how we do keyword research and how we optimize our content."
Do you think Google will continue to find new ways of bringing information from sites into search results? First we had answer boxes, then people also ask, will we see more of this?
"Yes. AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages Project) is another example of this - you'll see more of this tension between content owners and Google. Google is trying to find ways of getting content served straight to users, because that’s simply good user experience for searchers, And yes, this isn't great for content owners who refuse to adapt, as there's obviously a concern that users won't even need to visit their site to read the content. I just want people to stop fighting and realise that this change is a good thing; this is business. Every change yields new possibilities. You have to adapt."
Finally, is Google showing this information in search results a good or bad thing for site owners?
"Neither good nor bad. It will be good for those in No.1, bad for those who are not. But this is the same as rankings. It's just change."
Thanks to Rob Bucci for his time.
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