Episode 98: iOS14, ATT and Google passage ranking

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What's in this episode?

In this episode, you will hear Mark Williams-Cook joined by Rob Lewis who will be discussing the iOS14 update which now covers user privacy and what impact this might have, how ATT may affect website publishers and advertisers and Google's new passage ranking going live and what to expect.

Show notes

Google Search Liaison tweet

Search with Candour - Episode 83: New Google features, suggest ads and passage indexing

Transcription MC: Welcome to episode 98 of the Search with Candour podcast recorded on Friday, the 12th of February 2021. My name is Mark Williams-Cook, and today I'm joined by Rob Lewis.

RL: Hello.

MC: And, today we are going to be talking about the iOS 14 update, and all of the ramifications that may well be having. If you don't know about the iOS 14 update and the impact it's going to have on tracking, you need to listen to this episode because it's a big deal. And, I'm also briefly going to talk about Google passage ranking or passage indexing as it used to be called because that is now live.

Before we get going, I am going to tell you about Sitebulb. Sitebulb is a desktop-based SEO auditing tool, and they very kindly sponsored this podcast. If you're a regular listener you'll know, I talk about them every week. Talk about features that they offer, all the cool things that they're updating. You can run it on Windows or Mac, and it's an essential part of our toolkit for doing technical and actually even on-page audits.

So, what I want to talk to you about Sitebulb today is, actually, this is based on a discussion that I saw on Twitter about SEO tools and audit tools. Kind of referring to almost as checklist tools that give you kind of just a list of things which on their own aren't much good/ aren't much use. And, I've always agreed with that, and I've always told people that you can't do an audit of your site just by sticking it in a tool and then expect to get kind of good results at the other end. That's not going to change.

But, I think what is worth mentioning with Sitebulb, and I think they're by far the leader in this in terms of SEO audit tools, is the analysis they do on the data that they're collecting when they're crawling your site. So, there are lots of tools out there that’ll crawl your site and you'll get a report, which will say, "Okay, you've got these broken links, you've got some internal redirects and this isn't working." And, that's fine because it's very easy, and very actionable, and super basic checks like you don't have a head of one tag or you've got 20 header one tags, they're very easy.

What Sitebulb does in spades is actually a lot more in-depth analysis, and trickier things like when it sees you are internally linking to non-canonical pages, it will detect things like that. So, these trickier things that often get missed, or maybe where you are linking to pages in your site map, that aren't linked internally, so that's probably a mistake. And, we've mentioned before as well, even the basic checks they're doing as soon as you actually put the URL in checking what platform it's on; if it's dot net, and letting you know the foibles of those systems. Or, if you're using CloudFlare, you might need to change your user agent when you crawl.

So, I've said it before in terms of the feedback as well on top of this it gives, it becomes a really good training tool because it identifies a lot of these more complex issues. And, it gives you actually kind of a knowledge hub link to why this is an issue and what it might be causing. So, especially if you've got a team that's maybe a bit new to SEO, it's a really great place for them to start.

For the more advanced SEOs, you'll save a lot of time because it's detecting issues that normally you'd get clues for from the data, but then you'd have to go off and confirm yourself. So, if you haven't tried it, there's a free trial at If you go to forward slash SWC, so, you actually get a 60-day trial. You don't need a credit card, so you can give it a go and I highly suggest you do.

Oh, here we are again, Rob.

RL: I know, it's been a while.

MC: I think this is only our second one during a kind of lockdown, isn't it?

RL: I think so, yeah.

MC: But, as of a couple of episodes ago now, we're doing a video when we've got people on. So, it's kind of nice to see you again, and as opposed to just having your voice. So, today before... So, Rob's going to talk to us in a bit about iOS 14, what that is, and some of the research has been doing in that area. Before we kick off on that, I want to talk to you about Google passage ranking.

So, Google passage ranking is something we actually talked about in episode 83. So, it was a while ago and it was actually referred to then, or Google referred to it as passage indexing, which pretty much is something they announced in October last year. And, it's essentially a way for Google to get better at ranking very specific searches, so those really specific searches, Google has always said, "These could be the hardest to get right." Because, sometimes it might be a single sentence that answers your question, and that could be buried within a webpage, and Google's approach to this has changed. They referred to it as a breakthrough in terms of not just indexing web pages but looking very closely at individual passages within them.

And, initially, it was called passage indexing, and I think that caused a lot of confusion as SEOs were thinking the entire kind of indexing model had changed. And, Google wasn't indexing webpages, it was breaking it down into fragments of passages. Google clarified that and refers to it now as passage ranking, meaning they're still taking this same page approach, but I guess the way there may be storing the data or accessing it internally means they can be a lot more specific about what's going on-page.

So, the big news about this is that the SearchLiaison Twitter account yesterday gave us an update. So, yesterday being the 11th of February saying update passage ranking launched yesterday afternoon, Pacific Time for queries in the US in English. It will come to more countries in English in the near future, then to other countries and languages after that. And, they said they will update the threat as that happens. So as usual, we'll put the link to that tweet and to our previous episode about passage indexing slash passage ranking in the show notes, which you can find at

What's interesting is Google did go on to say, "Once passage-based ranking or indexing has been fully rolled out, they predict it's going to affect 7% of search queries across all languages," which is a huge amount. So, my expectation then is that we will start seeing some ranking changes or some... I would actually say you're probably going to notice this in terms of traffic changes rather than ranking changes. And, the reason I'm saying that is because, remember this update, this breakthrough is specifically targeting these really specific queries.

Now, your software that tracks rankings is likely set up, and by default, they work this way to track more of these kinds of head terms, which are the more general terms as big search volume. And it's unlikely, in my opinion, we're going to see these change. What's going to change is this whole raft of long-tail stuff, so you may be getting more long-tail traffic less. So, where I think you'll actually see the impact is organic traffic rather than individual big rankings.

So, that's rolling out as is usual with a lot of these updates in English first, because that's how a lot of these models are kind of trained first time round and testers. So, I'd expect it to go to US, other English speaking countries like UK, and then basically the rest of the world. So, wouldn't surprise me if we start seeing some data come through now about people saying how their traffic's being affected.

As usual with this kind of update, I would say that it's good to be aware of it, but I wouldn't say there's particularly anything specific you need to do or can to optimize for it. So, it's almost the other way round in Google's making it easier for those who don't specifically optimise to rank for these queries. So, that kind of archetype SEO for trying to rank for maybe these long-tail queries is okay, well, we identify the questions and we use head of tags to make it very obvious that we're answering those questions.

So, this is going a step further maybe by saying that Google can still find those answers if they're buried within the passage. And, as we know Google can highlight strings of texts now, or Chrome can, and they do that directly from search. So, when you've got that specific answer, they can actually take you to that part of the page and highlight where the answer is for you. So, my expectation is we'll see a more diverse set of domains in the search results, as well as we're not relying maybe as heavily on other things like links for instance.

Well, that's the easy bit out of the way. I guess we can talk about iOS 14 now, Rob.

RL: If we have to.

MC: So, yeah I'll caveat, I guess, this section by. So, the iOS 14 updates, as Rob will go into slightly muddy waters in that, there are lots of announcements, there are lots of technology changes. And, there are lots of different parties, and quite powerful parties involved that all have an interest in the outcome in this. So the result of that is, firstly, we'll share with you what we've learned so far and our opinions on that.

This situation is rapidly developing, and because it potentially has big ramifications on basically the money that some big companies make. So, that means that things are going to change quickly as they try and protect that. And, the other thing is that there are some of these issues for some of these potential problems, there aren’t solutions yet, and people don't know the answers. I think that's fair to say, right?

RL: Yeah, absolutely. And, we're still learning, every day something new comes up. Something new comes up from Facebook, something new is announced on Google and it's all just had a massive effect, I guess, across every single channel.

MC: So, do you want to start and just give us an overview of, from the basic, what is iOS 14, and what the fundamental changes that are coming?

RL: Well, iOS 14 was released in September and it comes with a number of features. But, the main feature that we're going to talk about today over its privacy enhancements, which were delayed until this year. The rolling out of those enhancements were delayed due to concerns and confusion amongst advertisers. And, the main change that they've rolled out that's putting everyone into a bit of a tiss, is over something called App Tracking Transparency or ATT for short.

And what this is, it's a framework that Apple are enforcing all app developers to introduce if they want their app to show on the app store. And, I'll read out the spill. "All apps are required to get user permission before tracking them across websites." And, what this means is that iOS 14 users will be shown a prompt when they use an app for the first time since iOS 14 was installed or since installed in the app for the first time.

And the prompt will say, "Do you wish to allow this app to track your activity across other companies, apps and websites? Your data will be used to provide you with a better and personalised ad experience." The first option is to ask the app not to track, the second option is allow. So, it's expected that the vast majority of users will not want to be tracked. They do not understand why they need to be tracked, they don't understand the ramifications and they're not going to opt-in to that.

MC: Sure, I mean that makes sense. I think it's working as we've seen, I think the cookie notices are a really good example. So, we've seen lots of people just reject all and opt-out of cookies, even though if you stop people on the street and ask them maybe what cookies are, what they used for, they won't know.

And, they get annoyed maybe when they see ads that they've seen before, or a website hasn't remembered maybe something about them they're expected to, and it's because cookies are used for that. So, I think that's a fair expectation, right, that a lot of people would just come like, "Well yeah, no tracking, that sounds quite nefarious. No, thank you."

RL: They think it's a form of surveillance essentially, don't they? And, I can understand why they would think that, because they don't understand how that technology is working and what it is about them that's being tracked. They worry about its personally identifiable tracking that's sharing their deepest, darkest secrets, for example, but that's obviously not the case. So I think, yeah the majority of people will choose not to opt into having this data tracked.

And, the long and short of all of this, and how it's going to affect people is that apps will not be able to run targeted marketing activities to their users across other apps and across the web if the user opts out. I mean, they can still track visitor information to their app. They can still track events that have taken place on that app, but they won't be able to... I guess if you will follow those users across the web, across other apps remarket to them, for example.

Now, when I first started reading up about this I thought, well if I'm not advertising an app, if I'm not promoting an app itself, it's not really going to have a huge amount of impact. And, so I think a lot of advertisers think, well, we don't have an app to promote. It's not really a big deal if we can track cross app activity, but actually, you need to consider that a lot of marketing platforms themselves rely on their app to track users and obtain data about their interests, or their user's interests and activities.

So, if you take Facebook and Instagram, for example, so many of us have Facebook or Instagram, their apps installed on our phone. And, Facebook itself gets its advertising data from the app usage that their users create, the data that they create. As well as desktop data, a lot of that information is tracked on a cross-device perspective via the app. And, not just Facebook or Instagram, Google too. I've got various Google apps installed on my phone. Installed because they provide me with a better browsing experience and they speed up my workflow. But, also it allows Google to collate data and cross-reference my activity across the various devices that I use, and the various browsing activities that I create.

So, for a standard app developer, I'm not talking about Facebook or Google, or just as a standard app developer. It may be an e-commerce app, it may be a lifestyle app. Let's assume that a user opts out of their data being tracked via the app. I think the major thing is those apps, those developers, won't be able to remark it to them across the web. So, they won't be able to show targeted ads that are tailored to them.

Another issue could be attributes leads or sales that take place outside of the app. So, if it's an e-commerce app, and people explore, discover new products via that app, they may then go across the web. Historically, they may be shown remarketing adverts that prompt them to go to the website to purchase, for example. Or, to cross so other products or related partners.

MC: So, a lot of this is actually then about this quite common behaviour now of an individual user switching devices, right, between a mobile, between desktop. If we've got this tracker has been taken away from the app, we've lost that connection. So, we can't tell it's the same user, right, that's been on the app and then gone to the website and purchased.

RL: Yeah, there's going to be a huge black hole of information where app developers that have a huge number of iOS users moving from the app to the site to other locations, there's going to be this huge void of unknown data, a lack of attribution of leads and sales. If those multiple steps are important in the journey, the life cycle of their product or service.

But, for advertisers that don't rely on an app, or they don't market their own app, they don't have their own app, the issue will be felt more in terms of a mark dropping conversion data in Google Ads, for example. I've already seen this quite heavily on some of the accounts I manage actually for Facebook, so some of my clients where I run marketing campaigns on Facebook.

I'm losing a lot of conversion data because the conversion itself takes place on my client's website. But, the users that we're marketing to, I'm marketing to them via the Facebook app, if that makes sense. So, they may have discovered my client's product or service on Facebook, gone to their website and purchased. But, as far as Facebook's reporting, there are no sales being generated by iOS users, because those users are opting out of being tracked by Facebook.

MC: So, I mean this is, I guess, the biggest issue for most people then is actually how this update affects Facebook, right. Because we rely on things that Facebook does when it does things like it generates look alike audiences. And, I guess their ability to do things like that will be diminished if they can't track me as an individual what I do, my activity across device. So, they can't tag me, can't match up what I'm doing on my mobile necessarily, what I'm looking at to the web, right?

RL: Absolutely, and Google has always been the king of search, hasn't it? Really, for intent-based prospecting, it's fantastic. Facebook has always been the king of interest in behavioural targeting, in my opinion. It's targeting and lookalike audience building has been second to none. So, yeah from an advertising perspective, this may very well have ramifications over the accuracy of the targeting settings that we have in the campaign, so yeah that's a good thing to raise.

Facebook has been quite vocal about this update because as you mentioned at the start of this, it's going to shake up big players who generate a lot of advertising revenue as a result of the data they collect. The angle actually that Facebook has been pushing on is that it's going to impact their publishers because a lot of publishers rely on ad revenue. They're part of the Facebook audience network, and they feel like they're going to lose out. But, really Facebook is probably worried that it's going to lose a lot of attribution.

And, as we've discussed this before, Facebook can be a bit over heavy-handed with its attribution when it comes to conversion tracking. It's made a few changes actually in light of this recent iOS update. It's changed the default click window down from 30 days to seven days. Presumably, it's unable to guarantee a conversion window any higher than seven days now as a result of that update, and it's kept the view through window to one day which was standard.

And, I logged into Facebook the other day and was greeted with a message to say that my domains have automatically been configured with eight new events. And, these new events will provide an aggregate estimate conversion report based on the historic data of my account. Now, I tried looking into this in more detail and I tried to set it up, but there's some... I need to have a look and see what type of conversion data it's reporting, but I'm a bit concerned because Facebook has a propensity, as I say, to over attribute sales where they're not do conversions of any form. And, if it's now telling me it's going to estimate conversions in aggregate, that fills me with a bit of cynicism, to be honest.

So, I'm looking forward to seeing what it attributes conversion wise that moving forward, but it hasn't made it easy for agencies to set up, because it requires that the client verify their domain. So, it's not something that the agency can do on behalf of the client. Facebook's business manager isn't really set out very well for agency use, and I think all of this scrambling from Facebook just highlights how behind the times they've been with their interface and future-proofing it. And, they're scrambling about it's going to be full of bugs, no doubt as it usually is in Facebook, but yeah.

So, time will tell what happens over the next few weeks, but I'm curious to know how it's aggregated event management is going to work, and I can report on that in a future podcast, perhaps give more detail about that. Google on the other hand actually has kept its cards pretty close to its chest. Well, for starters, it's not getting into tears like Facebook. It's not saying anything negative about it. It's just shared information with app developers about how best to prepare in terms of getting that ATT framework in place.

The only thing it's done is caution advertisers that we may see a significant impact on Google Ad revenue on the iOS after Apple's ATT policies take effects. So, Google don't seem too worried, but I suspect they have foreseen all of this anyway. They've, for the last few years, have been making preparations for cookie blocking and adblocking. And, I know they're working on a cookieless tracking solution. So, I'm sure that introduced that at some point.

MC: Yeah, that was something we'd spoke about if our listeners haven't heard about it, we have an episode about Google Analytics Four with Krista Seiden and Simo Ahava about basically what they're doing with GA4 and the advantages. And, one of the things that came up was the modelling they're using for kind of a cookieless future, and that was something we spoke about in terms of we're only going to get less cookie-like data in the future. And, Google is aware of that, so they're trying to position their analytics platforms to be able to work around that, basically.

RL: I think we're in for a very potentially dangerous time for clients, in particular, that rely on these advertising platforms. Particularly, if we're moving away from cookieless tracking, and I'm referring here to Google primarily. Google's made a lot of changes over the last 12 months when it's removed a lot of data from the user, from the advertiser. And, it's hiding a lot of data and it's not telling you where conversions or sales are coming from.

And, I've played around a bit with GA4, and it looks to me like it's trying very hard to not hide the true source of traffic. But, it's removing that granular ability that you had with universal analytics where everything was session-based and you could analyze it in a granular approach and say, "well, this visitor arrived via organic. I can track this user through multiple channels."

GA4 seems to be a bit more restrictive, and it seems to be following suit to how the Google Ads platform has been changed recently. I mean, just a few examples, shopping, smart shopping campaigns on Google, they hide all search query data, they hide the network that it has shown. A smart shopping campaign isn't just on the shopping search results. It can be a display advert, it can be a YouTube advert. Google hides all of this, and one of the things that you used to be able to do is look at the search term data in Google Analytics.

And, I know I've spoken about this before, one of the things is that you'd quite often see brand traffic come through on the smart shopping campaigns, and you can't exclude that. Smart shopping campaigns are fully automated. So, there seems to be this movement of Google to go for the easy conversion. Now, just because it's reporting loads of low cost, high volume conversions, it doesn't mean they're genuine conversions that you would get from an outreach exercise. So, what would you rather spend 10 pounds on, a brand new customer that had never heard of you before? Or, someone who was going to purchase via organic or direct anyway?

It seems to be this movement away from that transparent reporting where you can see for yourself, and instead, we're relying on Google to say, "Oh, no that's a new customer. That came from shopping, yeah." And, it's the same with Facebook, Facebook says, "Oh, yeah Facebook remade this conversion." But, actually, when you analyse the user's behaviour in Analytics on a granular level, you can see that actually the user discovered viral organically, and just so happened to be shown a Facebook ad on or before purchasing. So, I've probably gone off on a bit of a tangent as I tend to do.

MC: I think that's value, I mean we've spoken around this kind of area before, and I think this is the value. And, sometimes what maybe clients that want to use these platforms don't appreciate, which is that do Google, and Facebook, and whoever at this world their motivation, their way to generate revenue is not necessarily aligned with your best interests. So, is in Facebook's interest, of course, to attribute as many valuable actions to their advertising platform as possible, and obviously the same for Google.

So, I think part of the value thereof whether it's freelancers, whether it's agencies or whether it's you hiring experts in-house to do it, isn't just managing these campaigns to their best ability. It's doing what you said, which is doing almost like an independent analysis on, well, this is what they're reporting, is it correct? Because, something I learned over the years, and especially since I've worked with you, Rob, is that it's very easy to underestimate the complexity of these user journeys.

It's very, very rare that it's, "Oh yeah, I did a search and I clicked, and then I bought something." They're normally repeat visits over multiple timeframes, over multiple devices from multiple channels. So, getting wading through that quagmire of attribution is important. So, yeah I think it's a worthy diversion we took.

RL: Yeah, and I think iOS 14 is the precursor to some major shifts this year. And, people will expect if Apple users get used to being able to opt-out of being tracked across the web, other mobile users for one to follow suit. It's worth noting, actually, I forgot to mention that despite all of these privacy changes that Apple was enforcing, if you want to use Apple's own advertising platform to promote your app, it's fine. You can still promote cross apps.

And, I think this has prompted a few people to make some complaints to the EU fair competition department if you will. And, so I think that's going to be investigated, because I think Facebook and Google have rightly so said, "Well, it's okay. It's all well and good for you to stop our users from us from being able to track across apps and websites, but why is it okay for Apple to be able to do that?" It just seemed a bit unfair, so we'll wait and see what happens there.

MC: Well, I think that's to be expected in some ways like I was saying about these companies acting in their own interests. What I do like, I guess though, is that finally, they're kind of doing it to each other rather than sort of to us as the consumer. Because, normally we get these sweeping changes that detrimental to a lot of the time to the end-user or to people like us, but it'd be interesting.

And, this is what I was saying right at the beginning, right, which is that these changes affect some big companies and potentially a lot of money. So, Apple changing something, Apple is obviously a big company, hugely wealthy doing something that's going to put a dent in Facebook and Google's main revenue drivers. That's going to be a kind of Clash of the Titans moment and then resolve that. So I mean, I guess to wrap it up because we've got half an hour now, is how do you see this all affecting, fitting into this puzzle of paid management going forward?

RL: Well, my thing has always been I want my clients to enjoy long-term growth. And, long-term growth can only be achieved through investing in activities that produce true acquisition as opposed to just basic brand protection. So, I see paid management being less hands-on in the Google Ads platform because there's no point in lying about it. Google is wanting to eventually automate everything.

So, I see a lot of paid managers moving more into providing attribution analysis, looking really in-depth on to the true source and giving factual answers as to where their customers are coming from. And, allowing clients to better manage the media spend that they're throwing towards these ad platforms, and actually measuring whether there is true acquisition and longterm growth.

I mean, I'm guessing the same can be said for organic, really, you want to carry out activities that increase traffic output from generic terms. The effort is harder than just reaping the rewards of instant brand wins, but it secures long-term growth. If you're not investing time and effort into growing a business's outreach activities, they're just going to stagnate and reach a bottleneck. And, that's exactly how it is with paid at the moment, and so it's more going to be consultancy. I see us paid managers just becoming consultants of the truth, I guess, using hard data.

MC: Oh, yeah it's a really good way to put it. I think that's true because we've seen the kind of manual management of nuance within Google Ads, as an example, definitely decline over the last 10 years. More are becoming automated, more data being removed. Exactly right, same with SEO. So, yeah I think that's a really good take or where the kind of value and role of, again, whether it's in-house freelance agencies, whoever it is, these experts, what value they're going to provide. It's more about managing the engagement of these platforms and making sure people, companies, businesses are getting what they need from them, rather than the granular management.

Cool, well I hope that's given to everyone, especially those... Because some people still haven't looked into this at all about iOS 14. So, I hope it's given you food for thought. I guess we'll come back probably in a few months, and revisit this and see where we are. And next week, time permitting, hopefully Rob's going to join me again to talk about some updates that have been happening to Google Ads.

So, again there's been some fairly significant updates, funnily enough, going along these lines of kind of granular control that I think are worth talking about. We haven't given Google Ads much of a hearing recently, I've mainly been doing sort of the kind of SEO episode. So, we'll talk about that next week, Rob.

RL: Yep.

MC: And, apart from that, I hope you all have a lovely week. We're going to be back, of course, in one week's time, so that's going to be Monday the 22nd of February. Of course, if you like the podcast, share it with a friend, subscribe. And otherwise, we both hope you have a lovely week. Goodbye.

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