Interview of Danny Sullivan, Publisher of Search Engine Land Fame

Danny Sullivan has been covering search for over a decade and is known as the leading expert in the field of search. I recently asked Danny for an interview and he said sure. We talked about search, marketing, and doughnuts. What do you attribute your rapid increase in exposure and authority to?

That's a tough question, because I didn't feel I'd gained any massive new increase in authority, I suppose. I mean, I still get calls from reporters at about the same rate as always, and that's one measure of determining how much authority you might be seen as having, I suppose. I probably do have more exposure in the past few months about what I'm doing, and the answer for that is simple. I started a brand new web site, Search Engine Land, as well as an entire new company, Third Door Media. It disrupted a lot of things that I think people were used to, so there's some attention on what we're doing and how things will grow.

I didn't mean a massive new increase, but I didn't want to use the word old either. ;) Back when I was in high school, what did you do that made you the go to guy such that people like Page and Brin referenced your work over just about everyone else in the search engine space? If you were to start today do you think you could still acquire the kind of authority you currently have?

One advantage I had was being one of the first to recognize the importance of search engines and track them closely. Larry and Sergey cited me back then because practically no one was compiling this type of information about search engines. I thought they deserved much more love than they were getting. I always joke I'm glad I decided to write about search rather than "push," which was hot at the the time (though feeds did effectively take over from push, and they're pretty hot now).

Could I do that now? Sure, though I'd probably have to be much more focused. Look at Bill Slawski. He owns the search patents and research space, except when Gary Price grabs a moment and flexes his patent research muscles! Gord Hotchkiss said search behavior isn't getting love, so he dived in there. Those are just two examples where they've become such authorities that if I was asked about a topic in those particular areas, I would (and do) send people their way.

If I were doing this now from scratch, I'd like to think I'd look for that particular area that wasn't being covered -- or be able to spot an entirely new industry that's not getting the attention and tracking it should.

How have you been able to maintain at the top of the game for so long? Did you think you would still be at the top a search over a decade after you started tracking it?

I don't think I ever envisioned when I started that 10 years later, I'd still be doing it. I sort of figured when I announced I was leaving SEW last year that people might be saying, "Thanks, but probably time to see you go!" Maybe some were thinking it but didn't want to say! But instead, I got a lot of reaction from people who seemed to want me to continue doing what I'd been doing. That revitalized me. As for being at the top of the game, well, that's very kind of you to say. I guess it might be a combination of things. I tend to be cynical. I don't write about things just because they are new and shiny -- I write about stuff I think actually has legs. In terms of advice, I try to keep people focused on the long term strategies that will be successful. I really try to be fair in my writing -- that doesn't mean I'm not opinionated, but I'll try to show a variety of sides. I suppose more than anything, I really care about what I'm covering. It's not just a job. I don't start my day of thinking, "darn, have to write about search today." Instead, I still can't wait to see what's going on in an industry I love.

Does your background in journalism play a big role in how you report on search issues?

Sure, in the sense that I apply general interviewing skills, as well as trying to write in a style that explains stuff for both the fast reader and those who want to go more in depth.

You have been popular when much of the web was mostly newsletters, mostly forums, mostly blogs, and through the rise of social media. How do you see the web changing in the next 10 years?

Wow, 10 years is tough. Amazingly, email is still going -- as are email newsletters. I think they'll still be around. I'm sure there will be more audio and video content, and it might be that we have more applet-driving distribution. You content showing up within a smart TV box and so on. But who really knows!

As search companies swallow or influence more of the web, how do you decide if a story is search related or not?

Usually, a search related story is revolving around some type of expressed desire. Google's going to do banner ads? No one expresses a desire to see banners -- you just get them. Google's going to target banners using search history? That's search related! It's hard, because Google especially will do so many things -- and we're really try to focus just on search. But you have to touch on some other things. For example, if Google goes after wireless spectrum, that might not see like search. But when you understand they want to reach mobile searchers more directly, then having a little background can help make that later search story more relevant.

What are the most common things that hold new bloggers back from getting exposure on high authority websites? What separates the experts, and the citation worthy, from the other channels?

That's tough. For me, it's probably that they don't say much. They point at a news story and give me no value add beyond what I can get at the story. Another problem are too many short tips that don't drill down into actual examples. At this point, I want fewer top whatever lists and more closer looks at how single tips actually play out. Mainly, it's expressing a unique and valuable viewpoint. I do see new bloggers doing that, and I love when I find those gems.

You recently moved from Search Engine Watch to Search Engine Land. I don't think I have ever seen a person change sites and have the shift go so smoothly (even when they use 301 redirects). What did you do to make the site shift go so well?

Well, it helped to have my team come with me! Barry's fantastic on the day-to-day blogging, plus we had our correspondents and Chris Sherman and Greg Sterling especially diving into articles. We also had a fresh start. There was no legacy of content to redesign or reposition. We just dived in and went into coverage, always knowing that in the middle of the year, our archives would have built out enough for the new Lands navigation that we launched to make sense.

You are universally known as one of the nicest guys in search. As your exposure increased what have been some of your key tips and tricks to remaining so accessible, keeping ego in check, and balancing work and play with family life?

I have a very narrow door frame that won't allow me to walk into my office with a big head! Seriously, I don't know. I try to treat people the way I would like to be treated, and especially online, constantly try to think how I'd interact with them if we were face to face. Plus, you do have to keep in mind that outside our industry, no one knows who's "big" or not anyway. Even in our industry, you've got so many new people that they don't know that you think you're supposed to be super hot! And if you think that, you're setting yourself up for a big disappointment. As for the balancing, I've been terrible at it this year, a consequence of bringing the new company up. But generally, I've long at least tried not to work on weekends. Get into that habit, and suddenly you realize the world keeps revolving even if you aren't at your computer 24/7.

Many of the most popular channels became so due to their edginess and/or bias. How does one create a Switzerland, and yet be able to build such a large audience?

I'd like to think that when so many people are shouting out, people do like to find a place that's not going for the hype or the edge but rather calmly laying out the facts of what's going on. In the short term, that may mean you grow an audience more slowly than the hype approach. But in the long term, I think you may build an audience that finds you a consistent resource -- and thus tells others to come on over.

Which will have a larger impact on searchers and search marketers: personalization or universal search?

Universal search, if it continues as it has been going. Personalized search only alters a few listings. Universal search brings in new databases much more dramatically.

Why do doughnuts have holes in them? What is the best doughnut in the world?

The holes make it easier to eat certain kinds without having frosting get lost on your fingers. Ken Horton's Boston Cream is the best doughnut I've personally had, followed by Dunkin' Donuts Boston Creme, when they are fresh.

What story do you most regret publishing? What are the biggest stories you wish you had covered earlier that you didn't realize the importance of until much later?

I've written so many stories over the years, and nothing is leaping to mind as something I regret running. There are occasional stories where I regret taking a particular tone or not contacting someone first. David Berlind back in 2005 was pretty upset with a critique I did on his review of Google Alerts, and I later apologized for being too personalize in what I wrote. When the thing about Associated Content came out with Google's Tim Armstrong being connected, I regretted not having waited to ask him about it before writing. It might not have changed what I wrote, but it was fair to ask first. Especially with blogging, there can be a tendency to rush, and I have to resist that. As for the biggest story, probably not seeing the rise of YouTube early on. I heard about it, couldn't believe it was that popular when, of course, it was.

When I ran Threadwatch I deleted a story about a client's site, and saw another editor do the same. Do you get privy to search or search marketing information that you can't share? Have you ever not covered a story because someone asked you to not cover it?

I'm constantly briefed on a variety of things from various companies off-the-record that I can't share until a certain deadline or unless they give the nod. I can't think of someone asking me not to cover a story, but most of the PR people I deal with are far too savvy to ask directly like that. Instead, you might call them about something and they'll spin it as not that big of a deal. And honestly, sometimes it's not -- you think there's some major thing, and it turns out to have a logical explanation. I might then not do a story simply because it would make a small or non-issue into something bigger. But in plenty of cases, I'll still do a story, but at least I have an official explanation to go with it.

Have you ever cloaked a page? What is the shadiest thing you have ever marketed via search? Do you still do much search marketing on the sideline to test current search marketing theories?

Back in like 1998, I think I did a few "poor man's cloaking" pages, where I used a frame to list the same content that my client had in images. I simply couldn't get the site changed, and Excite in particular wanted text. It wasn't misleading in my view and might not have even been against the guidelines back then. Plus, I didn't inhale. As for shady stuff, I never took on any shady clients. And no, I don't do stuff on the side. Ages ago, I had to decide if I was going to run a search marketing service or a search marketing news service. The two are difficult to combine, because search engines and other search marketers don't trust you as much, if they think you are just trying to get inside information for your own purposes. I see search marketing activities through my own sites, of course -- but those can be skewed as can be the sites of anyone with only a small portfolio or "window" into the space. That's why I do a lot of listening and reading and try to ensure with conferences that I'm putting people who are in the trenches forward to share knowledge.

Do you believe in the whole white hat black hat debate? Is there such a thing as spam? Other search engines have done interesting things too, but is it reasonable for Yahoo! to buy links for their lead generation subdomains?

Sure, there are hats, but I did a chart once where I showed how on some issues, white hats and black hats might be a lot closer than the think. And sure, there's spam. Scrape a bunch of pages, get me to your web site when I search for some city name plus pizza, and you don't have what I want but rather a bunch of AdSense -- that's spam to me a searcher. And you've wasted my time. Spam because you cloaked a page that's virtually the same as the text you might render in a Flash file? Technically, yes -- but for me, it's always been about the intention rather than the exact technique. It certainly continues to get grayer, especially when courtesy of Google, anyone can cloak using Google Website Optimizer and not have to worry about it. If Yahoo's buying links, then turning around and penalizing others for doing so is pretty sucky. But it's really Google that's been leading the don't buy links campaign. I think that's a losing battle, but I understand why the keep wanting to fight it.

Search engines tell people to not buy links, and in some verticals individual companies own dozens or hundreds of sites. Do you see the search market consolidating traffic to popular offline businesses, or will there still be room for small players 10 years down the road?

I think small players will still find room, because they're often smarter and more nimble than the big people. Local, for example, still seems wide open for many smaller players.

Given your authority, many people likely pitch stuff to you every day. What do you find to be good proxies for determining intent?

Telling me you're the next Google of anything generally is a bad way to start the conversation. There's a variety of other clues I don't want to list so as to not spoil that filtering. But they aren't hard to guess -- emails that clearly don't indicate any knowledge of my site, my actual name and so on.

How have you avoided becoming jaded by some of the dirtier aspects of Internet marketing? In a world with paid blog comments, and social media manipulation sites like, what made you bold enough to create, catering to marketers?

Part of it is the hopes that marketers aren't going to want to mess up their own nest, so to speak. But also, part of the approach is to say that people should feel free to submit their own stuff. After all, who knows what your best stuff is better than you. Why make you play some tricks or feel bad? In addition, it's kind of fun -- are you really going to want to spam a bunch of marketers, many of whom will spot it and call foul seconds after it appears? Forums have had to deal with this already. For me, Sphinn is in many ways simply an extension of forums with voting.

How long is your current work day? Do you have any tips for minimizing the potential downsides for spending too much time at the computer?

I tend to be up around 11am my time, and work sadly through 1 or 2am, though I'm trying to pull back. My best tip right now is to build a tree house!


Thanks Danny.

You can check out Search Engine Land for the latest search engine news, and track Danny's tree house building adventures at Daggle. If you would like to meet Danny in person he holds many Search Marketing Expo conferences each year.

Published: August 1, 2007 by Aaron Wall in interviews


August 6, 2007 - 5:05am

I can testify that building a tree house (or something similar) does work.

I thought Danny works on weekends, too, though, despite his relatively average, for us, workaholics, working hours.

That being said, I think it's best only to work, when you can do something productive. If not, it's better to spend the time away from the puter.

July 31, 2007 - 10:50pm

Good Job Aaron!

Eric Itzkowitz
July 31, 2007 - 11:15pm

What one question did you want to ask, that regrettably you did not? There's at least one edgy question people want to ask in an interview that they hold off on asking. Put on your Matt Lauer hat. (:

August 1, 2007 - 12:26am

"It wasn't misleading in my view and might not have even been against the guidelines back then. Plus, I didn't inhale."

Heh. Awesome quote!

August 1, 2007 - 4:50pm

Hey, I got the first Weblog XSS Worm based on several new Wordpress 2.2.1 Security Vulnerabilities I found these days.

Check it out
cheers benjamin

August 1, 2007 - 5:53pm

Interesting stuff.

11am to 2am sounds tough!

August 1, 2007 - 6:10pm

Great interview Aaron, I just did a post about it on my weblog. Also this is an off topic question, but for some odd reason I keep getting traffic to my website with the keyword "Aaron wall Married", I'm thinking did aaron get married, but anyways all that traffic from that keyword is going to the the page with the interview I did with you.

Just a little bit of traffic, but here and there I'm getting hits from that keywords Aaron wall married how funny

August 2, 2007 - 3:56am

>> What are the most common things that hold
>> new bloggers back from getting exposure
>> on high authority websites? What separates
>> the experts, and the citation worthy, from
>> the other channels?

> That's tough. For me, it's probably that they
> don't say much. They point at a news story
> and give me no value add beyond what I can
> get at the story.

Amen. Most people have no reason to blog...or if they do, they haven't discovered it yet. Blogging about blogging (outside of a handful of "thought leaders") should be frowned upon and spoken against. Go find something else to talk about. Something you care about. I don't want to know that you made 23 cents today thru AdSense. ;-)

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