Interview of Bob Massa

Bob Massa is one of the most eloquent people in the search marketing industry. I have wanted to interview him for a long time, and finally got around to it.

He was probably one of my favorite interviewees.

What is bathroom spamming? How does it apply to SEO?

It is difficult for me to answer that because I'm the guy who doesn't believe there is really such a thing as spamming. To me, it is just marketing.

I'm pretty sure you are referring to a thread at Threadwatch where I made a couple of comments about an article Jacob Nielsen had written referring to the effects search engines have on the web. In one of those comments I mentioned that I had been involved in a project where a webmaster had a new site and no budget for promotion. I had half jokingly suggested the only option available to a webmaster with no budget was to advertise his website in public restrooms by placing well-worded post-it notes. The webmaster wrote BEWARE and was able to avoid what is referred to by many SEO's, (whatever that is), as the sandbox and start generating traffic very quickly.

In this context, bathroom spamming could also be taxi spamming or side of the bus spamming or running across a football field during a televised game with a url painted on your backside spamming or anything else that creates an interest in a specific website in a way that tells search engines that people are looking for a specific thing. The point of this particular discussion was that many SEO's, (whatever that is), tend to become so focused on following search engines that they forget search engines real job is to follow people. That by creating a demand by people, that causes search engines to "look" to satisfy that demand before their competitors do.

Did anyone see the Pontiac TV ads telling the public to search at Google?

TV spamming ?????

What is the current primary driver of search relevancy algorithms?

The same driver it has always been. Money.

Sorry I'm being a bit obtuse. I realize you mean programmatically. Not that it changes my answer but on to the other parts of your question.

Do you think usage data is already it, or will soon replace it? Why or why not? How do you see search relevancy algorithms changing in the next 5 to 10 years?

Usage data is not already IT and will not soon be IT. Why? Because, as it relates to relevancy, usage data is good and is and will be used to help but it alone is no better than keyword density or page rank. It will not make searches more relevant anymore so than the other factors.

As to the last part, I personally don't believe there is any such thing as relevancy algorithms. There is direct matches but to me, that is not relevancy. That is simply a matter of searching through large data sets for exact matches. For researching quotes, phone numbers, parts numbers and dates, exact match is all that matters and every database of any size has been doing that on the web since the early 90's. But for anything the least subjective, it is only perception. I believe relevancy is completely and totally subjective and what matters to algorithms is the PERCEPTION of relevancy. The marketing of algorithms as relevant is what puts engineers into Italian sports cars, not relevancy. So, as you can see, I do believe in ADVERTISING algorithms and I see usage data being used on a personal level a lot more as the data gathering gets faster, cheaper and hopefully better. But the better part is far less important than the faster and cheaper parts.

Do you believe it is cheaper for most marketers to try to influence search engines directly, or to aim to influence groups of people and individual topical authorities?

(Boy, I bet I catch hell for this one, you may get a little residual hell yourself just for letting me say it, but here it goes.)

I believe it is incredibly cheaper, faster, easier, more profitable, more stable and more reliable to try to influence people than search engines. Plus, influence people and the search engines follow, (see bathroom spamming above), but if you aim the other direction, the only chance you have of influencing people is IF they search the right way, IF the search engine puts it in front of them and IF the search engine doesn't move it.

That said, I do understand why many SEO's, (whatever that is), would disagree. To influence search engines, it is possible, to develop systems, procedures and programs that capitalize on the weaknesses of search engines enabling the industrious SEO, (whatever that is), who is in control of those systems, procedures and programs to virtually avoid any contact with people whatsoever. No sales, no customer service, no complaints. I can certainly see the appeal.

Are the business models of most large publishing companies screwed? Google seems to be making partnerships with a few of them? How can those not receiving kickbacks from Google compete with those that are?

Large publishing companies' business models are no more screwed than large oil companies, large grocery stores or large SEO firms, (whatever that is). In my opinion, all business models are screwed if the company, large or small, is not prepared to adapt to changes in the market and to take advantage of new technology as it becomes available. Keep in mind that would include Google too.

I don't see partnerships being made today as being much different than 100 years ago. What about those companies in the steel industry that did not partner with Andrew Carnegie or in the railroad business that did not partner with Vanderbilt? The companies that did not partner with those Googles of the day and survived,( granted there weren't many), did so by defining their purpose, implementing effective planning and providing a value rich service better than their competitors. I believe large publishing companies will do the same, with or without Google, by simply not clinging to tradition and assuming their power from the success of yesterday entitles them to success today.

The thing I feel is important is the question "WHY is Google partnering with large publishing companies?" Maybe because it is the publishing companies that actually have the content?

Google may have the technology to inventory and deliver, but inventory and deliver what? It's the publishing companies that actually have the writers that actually create the content that people want delivered. That is the asset the publishing companies have at least at this point. Of course Google has the money to create their own. They can hire writers as easily as the New Yorker, but that doesn't immediately give Google the clout, the respectability and the subscriber base that the New Yorker has spent many, many years building up. It just makes sense to me that Google would want to partner with some of the publishing companies to get the assets that simply hiring writers would not give without a lot of time and a lot of doing everything right.

That alone indicates an opportunity and a survivability with large publishing companies if they simply look to new ways of content inventory and delivery.

Are all humans biased?

Absolutely! It is at the very core of being a human.

Do all algorithms made by humans have biases to them?

Yes. One of the reasons I was able to succeed in the search engine placement game was because I could see beyond the programs and realize that the programs only did what a human told them to.

If you were a search engineer how would you ensure you minimized negative algorithmic biases while keeping the results relevant and maintaining your business model?

This is basically a three part question so I'll answer it in three parts.

First, I believe there is no such thing as negative biases, therefore there can be no algorithmic negative biases, at least not to the engineer. The only people who see a bias as negative is OTHER people. As humans we all justify what we do and feel. Even when we tell ourselves we are being fair and not allowing our own opinions to influence our decisions, we do. A search engineer is going to develop a mathematic algorithm the way he thinks is "right" according to the objectives he has set either by himself or by his employer. If you don't believe you have a negative bias, you can't minimize it.

Secondly, outside of exact textual or graphical matches, I believe relevancy is completely subjective. If you believe it is relevant, you are right. If you believe it is not, you are right. So, to an engineer, your algorithm is as relevant as you think it is.

Thirdly, maintaining your business model is relevant. You can not have relevancy without keeping your business model. I realize this is a little abstract, but if the business model becomes threatened at anytime, we simply alter our definition of relevancy and find other ways to measure it.

I was in a meeting once where everyone was discussing leading indicators. After about a half an hour of every leading indicator discussed pointing downward, the CEO literally looked across the table and told everyone we needed to find some leading indicators that worked.

So, the moral of the story is, if all our indicators are bad, obviously, we need some new indicators. I believe that philosophy is just as true with engineers. Maybe more so.

When is bias a bad thing?

When your bias conflicts with mine.

When is bias a good thing?

When your bias agrees with mine.

Is relevancy based on anything more than perception?

To marketing people, it is based on size, speed, number of occurrences of matching characters, proximity to the start of a document, bolded characters and on and on ad nauseam, but the real answer is ----- No.

If search algorithms get to know who we are on a personal level how do you prevent them from exploiting your psychological faults as highly commercial opportunities?

The thing you're missing here is, exploiting your psychological faults could be the very definition of highly commercial opportunities. You don't prevent it. That is the point.

We all have needs that we acquire things for. Protection from the cold, sustenance when we're hungry and water when we're thirsty, BUT, no one is wanting to track your email, search history and IM's to find out when you want a drink of water. They want to track that stuff to discover your desires, not needs. Desires are driven by what could be termed by some as psychological faults. You know, the wanting to keep up with the Joneses, the "do these pants make me look fat", the, "I bet I could get women talking to me if I was driving THAT car", that kind of stuff. What are those things? Psychological virtues?

If search engines act as oracles and have some self reinforcing element to them how would one see around their own personal biases when they are frequently reinforced by the ways they use language, the biases of others who use the same language, and machines that reinforce their world views?

Well, I'm not sure what language we're speaking here. I think this question somehow relates to the last question about algorithms getting to know who we are personally, so I'll answer it from that perspective.

First of all, I think seeing search engines as oracles is WAAAYYYYY over the top. A search engine is just a machine. An ad delivery machine. The only way it reinforces itself is by tracking what ads it shows compared to which gets clicked on more and through that process "learns" to show ads more likely to get clicked on more often. Is that a self reinforcing oracle or an emotionless money machine with no conscience whatsoever?

The biases presented by a search engine that tracks personal info on you is going be dictated by ads. It will tell you what it thinks you will think is relevant IF it sees you clicking on more of what it wants you to click on.

Secondly, we don't try to "see around" our biases. Our biases are what makes us right. Biases are what forms our own ideas of ethics, morals and right from wrong. An extreme example would be religious fanatics. They don't see themselves as terrorists, they see themselves as defenders of the truth, crusaders for God and warrior in a holy war.

Our biases are formed by our environment and language is a part of that. But, regardless of the language, what alters our perception is what we agree with and what we don't. That is why, with any language a search engine speaks, it is going to try to deliver to me what it thinks I will agree with and to you it will try to deliver what it thinks you will agree with.

That is the beauty of personalization in regards to search engines. It will help improve the perception of relevancy on an individual basis according to our own personal biases, which it has learned by watching, recording, analyzing and delivering based on what it thinks it finds.

You frequently highlight conversion and sales as being more important than traffic.

To me, traffic without conversion is the epitome of futility.

What are the best ways to publish information such that it converts?

To be honest. Tell what it is, what it does for you and how to get it.
Feature - Benefit - Call to action

What are the biggest things that hold back most webmasters?

I would have to say, smoking, junk food and lack of a satisfying social calendar.

Can Yahoo! or MSN compete with Google?

Absolutely! In my opinion public relations is really the only place where Google has them beat. Yahoo and MSN both have a LOT of features that could be argued are as good as many of Googles. But no one Yahoos their prospective girlfriend. No one MSN's their boyfriend, they Google them. I don't believe Y and M are getting their ass kicked by Page Rank, I think they are getting their ass kicked by the other PR. Public Relations and image enhancement. But of course, I'm the guy who doesn't believe there is such a thing as spam.

Will any new engine be able to beat Google the way Google beat AltaVista?

I believe Alta Vista beat themselves, but yes, Google can be beat just like any other business on any other day.

How do you see the search space changing in the next 5 to 10 years?

Personalization, community based and authority based trust rank, rich media and this typing thing has GOT to go!

I just spent a week in Amsterdam. What should I have done that I did not?

I don't know what you DID do but I would guess I should probably tell you the things that you should not have done that you did.

I hope you did catch the Van Gogh museum. Isn't it weird for a place that has so many coffee shops to not have better coffee? I wish I could be more help here. I've been to Amsterdam twice for several days at a time and while I'm sure I loved the experience, I can't really remember a whole lot about it.

The Van Gogh museum did rock. Some of his paintings were so amazing. I could see more emotion in the faces in his paintings than in most faces right after tragedy strikes. What will you be doing in 5 years?

I'm sure we will still be in the brokering and link/ad business. In fact, we have just hired two more customer service reps and start training them this coming Monday. We've been doing content hosting and link acquisition now for several years and have an exclusive clientele that I don't see disappearing. We like that business and offsite
optimization is certainly viable for the foreseeable future. I enjoy it.

It is profitable and doesn't take much effort on my part. Why would I retire from something like that? That is my business.

My passion is still topic specific search or more precisely, topic specific community building. There is such potential in that on so many levels I don't see me getting out of it in 5 years.

What are the biggest errors you have made on the web thusfar?

The biggest error I have made has been in falling into that trap that so many of my colleagues have. Thinking the program was more important than the people. I have hired more programmers than marketing people. I have put more into developing scripts that didn't work than I have in building an effective sales and customer support team. I have falsely thought I could handle all the advertising, marketing and sales myself when I should have been hiring people better qualified and let them do what they were good at it.

It is the people that matter not the programs, nothing sells itself and no man is an island. Those are things I've learned from my mistakes.

What will I be doing in 5 years?

If you don't stop spending all your money on the virtues of Amsterdam, sitting on a busy corner holding a "Will Spam for Food" sign would be my guess.

Seriously, you have displayed talent in communicating with the written word. You seem to have a flair for the dramatic which is a big help in link baiting of which you may hold the crown. I think maybe another book from you might be in the near future. Maybe Confessions of a Filthy Spammer or Death of a Guru, or even something as light as Quotes, Quips and Toons from the Dark Continent of SEO.

What are the biggest errors you have seen me make on the web thusfar?

While I admire and appreciate the hell out of you for not running adsense on TW, the thing that comes to mind is failing to effectively monetize TW and not doing more offsite content placement than link baiting.


Thanks for the interview Bob.

Published: September 7, 2006 by Aaron Wall in interviews


Gus Farrah
September 7, 2006 - 7:53pm

Heyyyyyy Aaron, that is pure SEO philosophy... Great interview man, it gives us a good perspective of the SEO world.

I agree with Bob Massa: this thing is going "Personalization, community based and authority based trust rank, rich media..."

Thank you.

September 8, 2006 - 3:43am

That was probably the best interview I've read in a long time. Thanks to both of you.

September 8, 2006 - 6:36am

I really enjoyed this interview....

thank you,,, there is no such thing as spam..

September 8, 2006 - 9:34am

The best thing in this interview is: Is it easier to influence people then algorithms? And yes it is!!

People are so easy to influence that i no longer call myself an SEO, but a SUO (Search Usage Optimizer).

Maybe you SEO influencers can introduce this term so it becomes commonly used! :)

September 8, 2006 - 1:37pm

Nice interview Aaron. I have read your book and been reading your blog for the last 3 months. I would certainly buy a book by you for affiliate marketing. I have read a few thousand pages and they were not half as informative as your SEOBook. Pls consider the offer :)

September 8, 2006 - 3:50pm

EXCELLENT interview! You can write a mini-book on "how to conduct interviews". I'll buy it.

September 8, 2006 - 7:42pm

enjoyed the interview greatly - thanks aaron!

Maybe you shoudl re-title the posting to be 'SPAM = MARKETING' :-)

September 8, 2006 - 8:37pm

It is nice to see someone who thinks a little more outside the box and also doesn't put Google on a pedestal like much of the search industry

September 8, 2006 - 8:50pm

Best damn interview I've read in a long time. Excellent.

September 9, 2006 - 5:50am

Excellent interview, very insightful, spot-on statements and completely "with it" - congrats on this one. All incoming links well deserved! :-)

September 9, 2006 - 10:17pm

I agree, very insightful and some very good things were said. Thanks for taking the time Bob.

September 12, 2006 - 12:00am

Great interview.

Yeah, do the book on affiliate marketing! I need a copy. BAD!

September 12, 2006 - 11:01am

Even if I knew a ton about affiliate marketing (which, as a topic, is not something I realistically could call myself an expert at) I do not have the topical authority to market a book on that subject well enough to have it pay for my time unless I charged a rediculous price for the book or could move an amazing volume of it, and am already doing far too much in far too many markets to be able to build another brand like that.

Some of my sites outside of this one are competing in ignorantly competitive markets... like forex, education, etc.

I would be far more likely to write a book on blogging than a book on affiliate marketing, but I just do not have enough time to do either.

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